"There are three major influences on an ocean passage; boat health, crew health and the weather."
White Dot Sailing assisted in a successful Atlantic crossing in the latter part of 2016, on a Beneteau Oceanis 58 participating in the world famous Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC). This race/rally begins in Las Palmas, Gran Canaries in November each year. Yachts then sail a minimum distance of 2700nm across the Atlantic Ocean, arriving in Rodney Bay, St Lucia to a warm and rum fuelled welcome, sometime in early December. Here's a look at some of the important factors in making the trip a success.
This Atlantic crossing was the culmination of a project spanning two years, involving a test trip to Spain from Southampton and subsequent additions, redesigns and preparations of various areas on board before the final delivery trip down to the Gran Canaries in the summer of 2016. Planning needed to happen in advance, if you arrive into Las Palmas thinking the preparation starts there, you're heading for failure.
Two years sounds a long time, but when you start making a list of additions or changes to a 58ft boat it will run into multiple pages very quickly. Not all jobs are large, some of the smallest additions are the most important - fruit storage racks in the saloon take 10 minutes to fit but mean you have fresh fruit the entire voyage. Fitting a new hydro-vane to an open transom however, can take a bit of thoughtful planning and plenty of time to fit and get right. Most ARC participants start dreaming of an Atlantic crossing many years before they manage it, so taking the time to get things right doesn't feel like a drag and will pay dividends in the long run.
"You can spend so much time preparing the boat, you forget whose actually got to sail it there."
Most owners will spend all their time getting their boat ready for the crossing, but the boat won't sail itself. Crew selection is extremely important and shouldn't be a casual invitation to a friend a month before the start, a hasty advert on a crewing website or, as frequently seen in Las Palmas - passage given to a friendly person walking the dock. The ARC requires participants to complete a Sea Survival course, that's a great start but not the only prerequisite before taking a crew across an ocean. Selecting a crew with a complementary set of skills and personalities is a major factor in a successful crossing. Take some time to watch the arrivals in Rodney Bay, St Lucia and you'll be able to guess which crossings have been a positive experience for the crew and which haven't - by how quickly they get off the boat.
We sailed into St Lucia with a close knit crew, having had a great crossing. Unfortunately, we arrived with 4 crew having started in the Las Palmas with 6. One crew member, with little offshore sailing experience had struggled with ocean going life and after three days it was decided the boat should divert to the Cape Verde Islands. This had a compounding effect whereby a second crew member had to leave too, as our arrival date had been pushed back by a number of days, which conflicted with their future plans.
What were the lessons learned here? Make sure the crew have some experience of offshore sailing so their decision to participate is based on a sound understanding of what it takes to live on board a yacht at sea. Taking a chance on someone is unfair not just on that crew member, but the rest of the crew too. Plan "qualifying" passages and take out potential candidates on offshore trips to test yourself, the boat and the people who are going to get you across the Atlantic. Be flexible with the arrival time at your destination, you've spent years in the preparation - push that flight back a few days to be sure. Good communication during a long trip is essential, not all crew will be vocal about their emotions. With the average time at sea being 2-3 weeks for most ARC participants, keeping the crew together is as important as keeping the boat together.
""Put one foot in a bucket of boiling water, the other in a bucket of freezing water and the average temperature is lukewarm. It's still highly uncomfortable though."
Thankfully, the Atlantic Crossing in November has proved so popular because on average the conditions create great cruising for extended periods of time. But for these averages to be true there must be periods of light winds and periods of stronger winds, take a boat to sea for over 2 weeks and you will see a range of weather. As was the case this year, with a fairly unstable trade wind we had our fair share of heavy squalls and variable weather. This one aspect of the trip is uncontrollable, but good planning will mitigate the effects. Crossing the Atlantic further south is widely seen as a way of increasing the chances of stable trade winds (but no guarantee). Practicing your heavy weather routines, drilling the crew in reefing and setting storm sails, preparing some easy to cook/reheat meals ahead of time all help in making it a more comfortable experience. But don't forget to mentally prepare yourself and the crew, dreams of sunbathing for 2 weeks on a flat ocean will mean a rude awakening when the rough weather hits.
If you're interested in the ARC, an Atlantic Crossing or extended passage, or just have a question about this article then please get in touch here. We'd be happy to discuss your requirements and help you reach your goals with as much or as little help as you need.
White Dot Sailing.