Crossing the Atlantic is a huge endeavour, requiring careful preparation. Elaine Bunting gets some advice from skippers who between them have logged more than 45 crossings
Take plenty of crew
Ross Applebey has also made numerous crossings as a charter skipper with a full boat and is invariably racing, almost always coming away with a class win in the ARC. So his focus is slightly different. But his point is a good one: it depends on how hard you’re expecting to work your yacht.
‘It depends on boat and experience. Six experienced crew can easily push a boat 24/7 on a well set-up yacht, but with less experienced sailors a few more may be wise, especially to facilitate spinnaker trimming,’ he advises. ‘Being understaffed will lead to fatigue.’
Allan Dobson, sailing a smaller yacht than Lillywhite’s (Dobson’s yacht Carrick is a Rustler 42), believes that four is the ideal number at this size and jokes he needs ‘an engineer, an electrician, a doctor and a sailor!’
Actually, his point is worth deeper consideration. It is perhaps not the number of people you choose, but rather who they are and what they can do on board. Certainly someone with good electrical and mechanical knowledge is a godsend on any yacht and if choosing crew myself, I’d look foremost for the right attitude (positive, cheerful) and useful skills. The rest will fall into place.
‘Commonsense, fun, enthusiastic, considerate, positive, team player, mucker-in: these are all words that describe the attributes you want,’ says Stephen Kingsman. ‘Superhero, idle, selfish, grumpy, know-it-all, self-important, slapdash and alcoholic are all attributes you really do not want.’
How do I get the necessary skills?
Going back to that ideal engineer, doctor and electrician crew combination, how do you ensure you’ve got the skills on board for a long trip?
‘Maintenance skills should definitely include engine maintenance, whether you are relying on the main engine to make power or whether you also have a generator,’ says Em Bower. ‘Most engine problems can be fixed at sea as long as you have spare filters, impellers, etc and the knowledge of how to change them and bleed the engine. If you only have a main engine and it fails, this also takes out all your power and although people have crossed the Atlantic without, it would not be a particularly pleasant crossing!’
She also highly recommends taking a sea survival course. ‘It can be a chilling reminder that disasters can happen, but also gives useful tips for worse case scenarios. We realised that we had no way of making water if we ended up in our liferaft and have since purchased a handheld watermaker for the grab bag.’
Take a sea survival course
I completely agree with this – one of the most positive outcomes of these courses is the ideas they give you and how you think about the equipment you have.
So too does Allan Dobson. ‘Most skippers spend many sleepless hours thinking about everything that can, and sometimes does, go wrong and good courses can trigger a thought process of not just how to deal with a problem arising, but to help to put in place procedures to stop the problem arising in the first place.’
Stephen Kingsman says such courses fulfil another useful purpose: ‘It is definitely worth getting all the crew together well before the trip, and prior to the last crossing on Sumore, we all did a sea survival course, which was extremely informative and proved a really good team builder.’
For Kurt Lillywhite ‘the most important thing is to remember you can never stop learning. I still gain huge amounts of useful tips from talking to other skippers and seeing how they rig the yacht or overcome issues that have popped up at sea. For first-timers on a long crossing I would strongly recommend completing offshore training with one of the RYA schools. Spending five days offshore with an experienced skipper will teach you things you never knew you needed to learn.
‘Ideally fit or be involved in all of the systems being installed on the yacht. This is the perfect time to get to know systems, where piping and wiring is run, where fuses might be hidden. I have had to help numerous people out who didn’t understand how their watermaker worked, but they are simple bits of kit once you understand them and being involved in the installation is always the best way to learn.’
Food and provisions
As a general rule, the greater the number of crew on board, the more organised you need to be with provisioning and stowage, both to ensure you have enough food on board and so that key ingredients don’t get used up too profligately by enthusiastic crew. Whereas many family crews make up menus as they go along, charter yachts with larger numbers may organise provisions strictly into daily food bags.
As it takes three days on average for crews to get their sea legs and fully settle down, some pre-cooked meals for the first days out are an excellent idea.
‘We pre-cook a lot of meals and freeze them down in zip-lock bags,’ says Ross Applebey. ‘Vacuum packing pre-cooked meals could potentially keep the food fresh even if the freezer failed. If you have a watermaker a few freeze- dried meals can save weight and free up storage. I would not recommend basing a whole crossing’s food on this, though, as decent food can be a real highlight.’
Em Bower, also running a boat with charter guests, says: ‘We plan all our menus in advance and work out exactly what is required for every meal. Then we have either tinned or packaged emergency food for at least five days. A vacuum packing machine works wonders for saving space and makes everything last much longer in case of a fridge or freezer failure. We cut up a lot of vegetables in advance, vacuum pack and then freeze them. They take up a lot less space this way and last longer.’
‘My longest crossing to Saint Lucia was 19 days, and we had fresh meat and vegetables up until the last three days of our trip,’ says Paul Redman. ‘I would say buy for 20 days and add ten per cent. Night nibbles are important and I don’t think you can carry too much, either sweet or savoury. Pelican has a night galley so the rest of the crew aren’t disturbed when making much-needed hot drinks.’
Skippers’ tips – Keep organised
‘Keep yourself organised by having scans of every document on an iPad. It can save hours in check in sometimes.’ Kurt Lillywhite. ‘Take copies of boat Insurance, holiday insurance, passport, ship’s registration, photographs of crew, boat cards or stamp with telephone numbers, etc.’ Paul Redman
With charter guests on board, Kurt Lillywhite has learned to be highly organised. ‘Over the years I have built a spreadsheet from experience, so now I can put in number of days on number of people aboard and everything from toilet roll, washing up liquid to snacks and chocolate quantities are printed out as a shopping list.
‘When it comes to basics, though, always take a minimum of 30 per cent more days’ food than you think you need. Buy food to a menu and stick to it, then pack the food by day in bags. That means everything you need is there, nothing has been used by someone being over-creative on a previous meal and, most importantly, every day the chocolate and snacks are refreshed.
‘Oh and you can never have too many boiled sweets and mints aboard.’