Elaine Bunting asks a delivery skipper, charter pros and some first-time transatlantic skippers for their best advice on planning and preparing for the big adventure
On the afternoon before we left the Canary Islands for the Caribbean for a transatlantic with the ARC, I struck a line through the final item on our jobs list. It had been taped to our saloon bulkhead for weeks. As one task got ticked off, another one or two had been added. Now it was complete, and we were ready to go.
For most people planning to sail across the Atlantic, complete an Atlantic circuit, take a year out or longer, the planning begins on average two to three years in advance. The to-do lists get longer as you plan and prepare. But so do the concerns. Have you thought of everything? What might you have missed?
For this feature we’ve gone back to first-time Atlantic skippers and asked them the same questions. What did they learn from the experience they’d planned for so long? What were the most valuable preparations? We also asked an experienced charter skipper and a delivery skipper for their best advice.
In this article, we cut through the textbook advice and find out where other skippers believe you should focus, from gear and spares to crew choice. Their answers will, we hope, help you create your own top priority list if you’re preparing for, or dreaming about, a long-distance or long term adventure.
The perfect boat
We all know there’s no such thing as the perfect boat. What you choose is determined by your budget, your preferences, expectations and availability. Take a look at any rally entry list and you’ll see a real miscellany, all fit for purpose in one way or another.
“Generally if you know your yacht and she can sail comfortably to windward in offshore sailing conditions, you don’t need to change boat for an Atlantic crossing,” observes delivery skipper Mark Matthews.
His excellent advice is first to consider the timing and route of your Atlantic crossing. “If you are to just complete a one-way crossing or an Atlantic circuit your requirements could be considerably less than for an extended bluewater cruise.”
One thing I see myself (and agree with Mark) is that often yachts intended primarily for a transatlantic crossing or circuit are perhaps overly complex and over-equipped, with all the maintenance demands that come with that. It’s possible to scale back for this, and simplify things by going without a watermaker, generator etc.
That’s not the case if you’re planning to cruise for longer, or further afield. “Extended bluewater cruising may be a different decision as generally people require more independence from shoreside support and more home comforts,” observes Matthews, though adding: “Having said that, many people sail around the world on relatively small, lightly equipped yachts and they benefit from the simplicity of the adventure without becoming slaves to their mechanical and electrical systems.”
And he adds: “Whatever yacht you have, you need to be able to manage it without legions of crew to assist you. Everyone loves the idea of a bluewater adventure but most temporary crew have other fixed commitments that can make fitting in with your changeable schedule problematic. Aim to avoid planning your cruising around fixed deadlines of temporary crew.”
One of the most important decisions you’ll face is how to spend the budget you have on equipment you’ll need. First and foremost is safety. As skipper, you are responsible not only for the safety of family and friends, but being seen to be taking every precaution.
Keeping water out topped the list of Bones Black, a marine engineer, round the world sailor and skipper of charter yacht Emily Morgan. “On Emily Morgan we have a red light in the cockpit between the instruments that is connected to the automatic bilge pump so when it is on the crew know about it and can check the bilge immediately.
“If you have a deep bilge you can also fit a float switch a few inches above the bilge pump wired to another light and an alarm – this will give you an indication the bilge pump is either not working or not coping with the water ingress and gives you valuable early warning to save your ship.”
Black is among those who think that compiling a safety manual specifically for your boat is a good idea. “You will learn a huge amount about your equipment and boat while you write it and it is available for the crew.”
AIS is nowadays a must (thought it shouldn’t be used to allow crews’ watchkeeping and horizon scanning skills to erode), and radar is more useful than many people anticipate. “We use ours a huge amount at night and when the visibility is poor,” says Black. “The main use is spotting squalls.”
- Buy first-class safety equipment for all crew on board
- Ensure it is in service for the likely duration of the passage
- Fit excellent fire detection and suppression equipment
- Have the gas supply serviced
- Fit gas and smoke alarms
- Ensure you have adequate communications for the passage. Handheld satellite phone are relatively inexpensive
- Take adequate paper charts for the passage and ensure your navigation is not solely reliant on electronics.
- Have a spare, inexpensive handheld GPS device in case you lose power supply
Equipped and ready
Obvious though it may be, the point everyone emphasised was starting with the basics. Mark Matthews cautions that a complex equipment list can sometimes be a distraction away from the top priorities.
“For an Atlantic circuit you don’t have to fit a watermaker, generator, air-conditioning or an expensive new sailplan. The offshore passages involved are relatively short and you will be able to manage perfectly well without loading up your yacht with equipment that you may only use for a matter of weeks.
“Most people crossing the Atlantic for the first time have enough to think about and can manage the crossing perfectly well with equipment they have and understand,” he says, “So start with the basics and if you then still have the time, space on board, budget and desire to fit additional equipment, then do it after you have checked and invested in the following:
“Conduct a full up mast rig check, preferably by an experience rigger. If the standing rigging is getting towards the end of its recommended life replace it before you leave your home port.
“Have all sails serviced by a sail loft and consider double stitching all panels. With slab reefing mainsails, ensure you have a deep third reef. Check all running rigging and ensure you have adequate spare halyards set up before you depart. Think about chafe prevention for sheets and halyards. Consider how you could get someone up the mast safely when offshore.
“Service all winches and check all rope clutches for damage and wear. Set up and test a good boom preventer for downwind sailing on both tacks. Expensive equipment is not required, just lines and blocks set up for both tacks and you should be able to gybe your yacht and switch preventers without leaving the cockpit.
“Service your windlass and know how to maintain and fix it. Ensure safe anchor stowage for ocean sailing conditions and consider upgrading ground tackle. You can expect to be anchoring much of the time when you’re cruising in the West Indies. Invest in a good supply of sailing spares.
“Have your yacht lifted, antifouled, stern gear serviced, anodes replaced (and take spares), check and service the bow thruster and service or consider fitting a rope cutter. Also check your steering systems and, if in any doubt, replace rudder bearings (and, again, take spares).”
Another point you need to think about is the chance of contaminated fuel. Before you go, drain and clean your tanks, he advises. “Any accumulated debris will be shaken up in the ocean swell and may block the fuel supply. Use a biocide in your diesel such as Biobore.”
You also need to have plenty of filter spares and have a good set of tools to service and maintain your engine. Matthews says he often finds that production yachts have underspecified autopilots that are not up to the task of ocean sailing.
We can second this, as it is something we have seen on numerous ARC rallies and in our annual Atlantic surveys going back 15 years. It is much better to over-spec autopilot drives, and many skippers recommend investing in a complete set of spares for it, or even two interchangeable drives.
“Chafe-proof as much as possible,” recommends transatlantic and charter skipper Charles Chambers, owner of Grand Soleil 50 Betelgeuse. “Garden hose is a cheap and effective protector for your guard rails. I used bright yellow hose as it was easier to see in the dark. Pipe insulation on the spreaders is cheap and very effective as long downwind days can destroy sails.”
Go looking for problems ripe to happen in an organised way – things, according to Bones Black, “like a worn shackle, chafing lines, a dirty fuel tank, an oil leak from the engine or a small tear in a sail. All these can be fixed easily before you leave but could be the start of a catalogue of problems that could cause a dangerous situation very quickly if it all happens in the middle of the night or in freshening winds. Don’t think ‘it will be fine’ and forget about it.”
Mark Matthews’s ‘stuff that will happen’
Once you leave Europe it is best to plan that you will:
- Encounter contaminated fuel on passage
- Have equipment failures
- Be charged for all repairs based on the size and quality of your yacht and how quickly you need the work doing
- Be frustrated by the hours wasted obtaining spare parts, dealing with customs and local taxes
- Be frustrated with crewing arrangements that go wrong
Plan for these setbacks and you will have a much better experience!
Choosing your sails
What sails do you need for an Atlantic crossing? First, whatever you may have read, I’d say from my own experience and observation that you don’t absolutely need anything special. The number one thing you require are a good suit of sails in decent repair that are not going to break on the crossing.
“Have your sails professionally serviced or if you are buying new, talk to the sailmaker and tell him/her what you plan to do and get a cloth and cut as appropriate,” says Charles Chambers. “Avoid deck sweepers and go for high cut clew instead, which is better for rough conditions. Have a deep third reef if you have slab reefing and, if you have in-mast furling, make sure it is professionally serviced.”
Whether or not you choose a spinnaker, gennaker or Parasailor to improve your boatspeed is really just personal preference, and dependent on how many crew you will have.
Bones Black hits the nail on the head when he advises (for most boat types) to discount the idea of gybing the angles downwind. “The deeper you sail downwind the quicker you will arrive. Reaching back and forth across the Atlantic can put a huge number of miles onto your trip and not get you there any sooner,” he says.
“On Emily Morgan our usual downwind set up is a poled out genoa, or spinnaker with a prevented main and mizzen at about 160° to 170° from the wind. The maximum angle downwind you sail will depend on your boat, the rig, if the main is fully battened or how much your boat rolls.
“A little trick if you have a cutter rig is to roll out the staysail on the leeward side and sheet it hard while you have the genoa poled out. It will direct some wind into the genoa and will also stop some roll.
“We used to have several spinnakers but have changed our view as the more spinnakers you have the more the feeling is that you always have the wrong one up! We now just have one asymmetric for the main mast and the only decision is do we reach with it tacked down to the bow or go downwind with the tack on the pole.”
But don’t succumb to the notion that you have to use a spinnaker at all. Many crews start out intending to use it and change their plan. John Hardy was one, on his first ARC last year. “We tried the cruising chute, but in the end we kept it simple and sailed for over 90% of the time with two reefs in the main and a polled out jib letting the boat go at its own comfortable pace and still averaged just over 7 knots for the 3,000 miles.”
If you do choose to run with a spinnaker across the Atlantic, Mike Reece counsels that you should “make sure that you have a heavy duty bluewater downwind spinnaker. The Atlantic is renowned for squalls and the wind often varies by 20 knots over a relatively short time period. If you don’t want to be panicking when a squall of 35 knots comes from nowhere, get a sail that has the wind range.”
Mark Harrison’s sail checklist
Whatever downwind configuration you go for, make sure:
- It is tried and test in similar conditions before you set off
- It allows for 30 knots through the night
- The crew is well brief so everyone knows when sail changes are required
- You have a specially set up preventer and use it for the whole crossing
- You carry plenty of sail repair tape!
Spare halyards are also extremely useful.
Charles Chambers’ top tip
“I found doing a rig check with binoculars difficult in a rough sea. My preferred method was to use my digital SLR camera and a telephoto zoom lens. Take several pictures every day and download to your laptop, enlarge and review at the chart table. Keep the pictures for comparison to see if a problem is developing.”
Charging and power management is a huge topic, and one of the first things that skippers planning for a long period on board rightly think about. It’s something we have previously covered in much more detail in our annual Atlantic gear surveys.
The skippers we asked recommended checking power systems and replacing or upgrading batteries. But also to “discuss with your crew power conservation on board for the crossing,” says Charles Chambers. “A good power management routine for a few weeks may save you from upgrading batteries.”
Bones Black says: “Each day going east to west it gets warmer so your fridge and freezer will be working harder, your crew will want showers and all the normal washing up and cleaning chores will still need to be done so if you have a watermaker it will be on more often. The chartplotter, radar, instruments and nav gear will be on. You will need to make sure you have good batteries, so change sooner rather than later for good quality heavy duty ones.
“If you have a generator then make sure it is well serviced and you have spare service parts. The main engine can be used to charge and produce hot water but we much prefer to use wind, solar and hydro to charge our batteries.
“Don’t forget the wind generator is pretty much useless downwind and the solar is useless at night, so it’s all down to the hydro! We have never looked back after fitting a Watt & Sea hydrogenerator. In fact, if we are sailing at six knots and above it gives us all we need and more 24/7.”
John Hardy’s comms tips
My Garmin inReach was brilliant, reliable and perfectly adequate, but I also purchased an Iridium Go! which just about does emails, small attachments and good weather maps, plus voice. I cancelled the subscription once arriving in the Caribbean as it is expensive and not needed for coastal passages, plus the cheaper Inreach works brilliantly when we don’t have mobile phone coverage. Whatever you decide on, test it for a few months before you set off.
Crew for the crossing
Sailing across the Atlantic is an experience you’ll probably want to share. But how do you choose the crew to make it all safe and fun, and how will you as skipper keep them happy for the duration?
Let’s take some advice from the pros here. Bones and Anna Black run charters in their yacht, and have done this all the way round the world. “A happy crew is most important to us, so we like good food and lots of fun, music in the cockpit (only during the day) and good conversation,” says Bones.
“To achieve this a good sleep pattern is needed. We run a three hours on, six hours off watch system with two people on watch at a time, staggered by one hour. We found in our early transatlantics, if there was a problem it was usually within 20 minutes of a watch change, so by staggering the crew changes there is always crew who knows what’s going on while the new crewmember wakes up and finds their feet. The crew then spends one hour with one person and two with the next.”
‘The three-on six-off runs 24/7 so the crew get at least five to five-and-a-half hours sleep at a time and the watches move back each day so everyone gets their fair share of sunsets, sunrises and starry skies. The afternoon watch cooks the evening meal for the whole crew and we sit together in the cockpit for this.”
John Hardy did his first Atlantic crossing last year and agrees that “the secret to long distance sailing is regular watches and moving the ship’s clock to local time. We used standard sea watches, that is four on, eight off, ate at normal times and went to bed properly and slept well. Live as normally as possible in a routine and the days fly past.”
He adds: “We had five on board, and I think with any less than three it would be hard work if something went wrong, yet any with more than six you may end up feeling you are running a cruise ship and there wouldn’t be enough for everyone to do.”
If you are selecting extra crew though a website or acquaintances you know less well, take care, says Charles Chambers, who also runs skippered charters on his yacht.
“Make sure you set expectations upfront as not many crew have done long offshore passages. Discuss financial expectations as well to avoid nasty surprises and disagreements later. Beware of high mileage crew from websites, and check if all the miles were done on a race yacht as their approach won’t match the cruiser passage.
“Try and sail with people you already know and also try and have a longish test sail to see how they manage the watch routines and lack of sleep. Don’t be afraid to deselect someone if they don’t fit as you will have a long time to regret it. Once you have selected and agreed your crew check if they have any pre-existing medical conditions that require managing.
“Plan treats and celebrate the halfway point. Get the crew together at least once a day over a meal; we used to do this at dinner just before starting night watches.”
Anna Black’s provisioning tips
- Have a good mix of provisions: fresh, frozen, tins and dried food with some sauces and spices to liven things up
- Think about what you would eat if the freezer broke down or you had a problem with the gas supply to the cooker
- Fresh fruit and veggies are best from the local markets. If you can, buy things with different ripening times.
- Washing everything with a dilute solution of Milton then drying it well will remove surface bacteria and help prolong its life.
- Use storage nets to keep things in the shade and dry, without bruising
- Check every day to see what needs eating next