It’s a much more challenging proposition to sail the Atlantic west to east than it is the traditional tradewind route the other way. Helen Fretter went to Horta to meet crews taking part in ARC Europe

Mention to a cruiser that you are doing a transatlantic and they will probably picture the traditional tradewind route, Canaries to Caribbean, with the wind on your back and the weather improving with each watch.

It’s true that this is the most popular route – 260 yachts made the westward crossing on last year’s ARC – but it is not the only one. An eastward crossing, sailing from the Caribbean to Europe, offers a very different experience, which can be either highly enjoyable or almost overwhelmingly challenging.

For this year’s ARC Europe the fleet first headed north, from the BVI to Bermuda (or south, from Portsmouth, Virginia), then east to the Azores, before choosing the final stage of their crossing – an island hop through the Azores and a 850-mile trip to Portugal with the rest of the rally, or splitting away to elsewhere in Europe.

Some had sailed across on a previous ARC and wanted a sociable return trip, others completing a circumnavigation, or returning home after a World ARC. There were also crews from the US and Canada taking on their first transatlantic and seeking the reassurance of crossing in company.

Relief in Horta

In late May the fleet convened in Horta, capital of the Azorean island of Faial, and a traditional meeting point for Atlantic voyagers. Faial is a curiously intense place, a speck in the ocean just 13 miles long, separated by 900 miles of water from Europe and 1,800 from the Caribbean. It’s also famous for the accumulated art work on its breakwater, as the video below shows.

There is very much a sense that forces bigger than you are in charge here – from the volcano that looms out of the mist, marking the island’s perch on the collision zone of three tectonic plates, to the squall clouds that roll in over the mountain ridge, bringing torrential downpours.

Horta is a sailors’ town, but the crews gathering at Peter’s Café Sport are not those found in mainland yachtie pubs. To have arrived here under sail is to have earned your stripes, and while there are celebrations, there is also a sense of relief at having made landfall.

William Shaw, owner and skipper of Slipper 1, freely admitted that he was emotional and tearful on his first day on land. The family crew experienced 59-knot gusts and 7m swells on the crossing in their Bavaria 41, and were humbled by the experience.

Read Skip Novak’s storm sailing techniques

The Shaws own Slipper 1 in a partnership, and after many years cruising in Europe took the yacht to the Caribbean with last year’s ARC. Following a winter touring the islands, they joined the ARC fleet in Tortola, and began the eastward crossing with five on board – William Shaw, his son Robert and daughter Joanna, and two friends.

ARC Europe: Joanna Shaw at the helm of Slipper 1, which recorded gusts of over 59 knots on the Atlantic crossing

ARC Europe: Joanna Shaw at the helm of Slipper 1, which recorded gusts of over 59 knots on the Atlantic crossing

The first stage, an 850-mile trip from the BVI to Bermuda, which started on 7 May, was relatively uneventful, the only surprise being an acceleration zone in the narrow passage between Tortola and St John islands.

The Bermuda to Azores leg, the longest passage at 1,800 miles, started on 17 May. From the outset the fleet had a real mix of wind speeds. They tacked out from Bermuda in a 15-knot north-easterly. After a moderate start, the wind faded and Slipper motored through the night before picking up a gentle westerly.

Most of the fleet experienced a lull and spent several days motoring in the middle of the crossing, and Shaw reports that by 25 May they were alternating between motoring and sailing in reasonable conditions, and were treated to the sight of a sperm whale surfacing 20ft away.

The following day, however, the pressure began to build.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Building breeze
  3. 3. Help at hand
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