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

Building breeze

“We started getting increasing wind because of a frontal system coming in. By Friday 27 it was blowing quite hard. And over Saturday, Sunday and Monday it was building all the time.”

The ARC Europe fleet receive weather forecasts from the World Cruising Club organisers, with the Atlantic divided into ‘zones’, each allocated a letter code. “On Saturday we were told that the weather in ‘KK’ and ‘MM’ would be good so we started to come south, and then we got a forecast the next day saying where we were was likely to be the least intense place. So we turned and went straight up onto 071°.

Reduced sail mid-Atlantic on board Slipper 1. The crew later ran with bare poles under engine as the sea state increased.

Reduced sail mid-Atlantic on board Slipper 1. The crew later ran with bare poles under engine as the sea state increased

“We started off with 4-5m of main and a storm jib, but when we found that we were slewing round and getting taken off track, we wound the main in and took the storm jib down and just motored. It was evident as soon as we started that once we got the engine speed right it was the safest thing to do.

“The seas were so big that if you had any sail up, it would cause you to more or less broach. Looking behind you – which is always a mistake – the seas were towering 25-30ft waves. Fortunately the sea length was quite reasonable, but some of the crests were breaking and the remnants of the crest would break over the back of the boat.”

By the early hours of Tuesday morning, wind speeds had built to 50 knots. “I’ve been sailing for 35 years and I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was screaming. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.”

Joanna Shaw recalls: “It felt like a row of terraced houses made of water coming towards you.” With both her father and her brother on board, she says they were keenly aware of the potential devastation to the rest of their family if the worst happened.

Nobody panicked

However, the crew stayed calm. “We talked through all the options and how to keep safe, and nobody panicked,” says William Shaw. “There were a lot of people quietly looking at one another though. We had the washboards in, the top closed, so we were as ready as we could be if we did get hit and rolled. We didn’t take any risks. Coming on deck you’d be on your harness points, moving around very carefully.”

Shaw felt that they were on the edge of their boat’s capabilities. “This is a fairly lightweight cruiser and it’s really pushing it for what we did. I know people have done it in this sort of boat before, but if it had been any worse I’m not sure what would have happened.” However, Slipper acquitted herself well, tracking down the waves and with no gear failures under pressure.

The yacht is fitted with a Whitlock autopilot drive, in which Shaw has complete faith. “We’ve had it since the boat was new in 2003 and it’s brilliant, just unbelievable. It has a 12V motor, but it’s got really big windings so it’s a big proper chunky bit of kit. I’d never have anything else.” The yacht also has a 55hp engine and they had 150lt of diesel in tanks, and another 200 in cans, giving them plenty of fuel to motor when needed.

Shaw adds: “If the engine note changes I wake up, you’re in tune with it, you have to be.”

For other crews, it was gear failure that characterised their crossing.

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