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Sail Across the Atlantic – Everything You Need to Know

Whether you’re a serious sailor, sailing enthusiast or even a family with a shared love of the ocean, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean is an unforgettable offshore adventure.

Sailing across the Atlantic Ocean is a dream that has captivated the hearts and minds of adventurers, explorers, and sailors for centuries. The vast expanse of water stretching between the continents of Europe and the Americas offers a unique and exhilarating challenge that beckons those with a spirit of adventure.

Whether you’re a serious sailor, sailing enthusiast or even a family with a shared love of the ocean, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean is an unforgettable offshore adventure.

How Long Does It Take To Sail Across the Atlantic

Embarking on a transatlantic voyage is a dance with time itself. The duration of the journey hinges on several factors, especially the route you choose to take.

The northern passage typically takes between 15 to 30 days, depending on the specific route taken and prevailing conditions, while the southern passage route usually takes around 20 to 40 days to complete, depending on factors such as wind strength and sailing speed.

Transatlantic Routes

The Atlantic Ocean offers several routes, each with its own unique character and challenges. 

Sailing West to East with the North Atlantic Route

The North Atlantic route is known for its challenging conditions, including strong winds, rough seas, and rapidly changing weather. Sailors must be prepared to handle adverse conditions and make strategic decisions to ensure the safety of the crew and the vessel.

The voyage typically begins on the east coast of the United States or Canada and follows a northeasterly course toward Europe from Bermuda. 

One of the most popular routes is from Bermuda to Portugal and covers just over 2,706 nautical miles and takes 20 to 25 days to complete. Another popular route is Bermuda to the United Kingdom via the Azores covering 3,129 nautical miles and taking 25 to 31 days to complete. 

The best time to complete this route is from 1 July to 30 September. 

Sailing East to West with the Southern Passage

The southern passage route from Europe to the Caribbean is guided by steady trade winds and a gentler rhythm of the ocean. It offers a more predictable and comfortable sailing experience, as sailors can harness the consistent trade winds that blow from east to west across the Atlantic. This route is popular among sailors seeking a smoother and more leisurely crossing. 

The voyage typically begins in Europe, often from ports in Portugal or Spain, and heads southwest toward the Caribbean. While the southern passage is generally more favourable in terms of weather and sea conditions, sailors must still remain vigilant and prepared for changes in wind strength and direction.

The most popular routes east to west are from Portugal to Barbados which covers 4,100 nautical miles and takes 21 to 31 days to complete, and from Gran Canaria to Saint Lucia which covers 2,700 nautical miles and takes 20 to 25 days to complete. 

The best time to complete this route is from 30 November to 28 February. 

Weather on an Atlantic Crossing

The weather during a sailing trip across the Atlantic is influenced by a complex interplay of factors. Prevailing wind patterns, such as the Trade Winds and the Westerlies, shape the direction and speed of the vessel’s journey. 

Ocean currents, like the Gulf Stream, can accelerate or impede progress, affecting navigation decisions. Atmospheric pressure systems, such as high atmospheric pressure and low-pressure areas, dictate wind strength and weather conditions. 

Seasonal variations and geographical features, like the Azores High and the Intertropical Convergence Zone, introduce variability in wind and rain patterns. Additionally, the Atlantic’s vast size and varied geography contribute to regional differences in climate, with the potential for sudden weather changes and the formation of storms.

Weather information and forecasts play a critical role in helping skippers make informed decisions to navigate challenging conditions and avoid potential dangers.

The Right Sailboat to Sail Across the Atlantic

Selecting the appropriate vessel for a transatlantic voyage is a decision that shapes the entire experience. 

Monohulls: Monohull sailboats are known for their stability in rough seas and their ability to handle a variety of weather conditions. However, it’s essential to choose a well-built, ocean-worthy vessel designed for long-distance cruising. The right one can provide a level of comfort and convenience that can be especially appealing for those seeking a more leisurely transatlantic crossing.

Multihulls: Crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a multihull sailboat, which includes catamarans and trimarans, is becoming increasingly popular due to their unique advantages and capabilities. Multihulls have multiple hulls, which offer benefits in terms of stability, speed, and comfort, as well as much mroe deck space. 

Tall Ship: Steeped in history and romance, tall ships evoke the nostalgia of a bygone era. Their majestic masts and billowing sails harken back to the golden age of exploration and offer a unique and authentic seafaring experience. However, despite their size, crossing the ocean with a tall ship has its challenges and demands a skilled crew familiar with traditional sailing techniques.

Unconventional Boats: Many unconventional boats have crossed the Atlantic. British adventurer Roz Savage completed two solo Atlantic Ocean crossings in a rowboat. While others have tried but not yet succeeded in unconventional vessels like Andrew Bedwell who tried to cross in a 3.5 metre vessel. 

Technology Onboard

When undertaking an Atlantic crossing, a boat should be equipped with essential technology for safety and navigation. This includes GPS, electronic charts, radar, AIS, communication tools like VHF radio and satellite phone, emergency equipment such as EPIRB and life rafts, navigation and weather software, power generation sources like solar panels and wind generators, and backup systems for redundancy. 

Having backup tools, spare parts, and navigational charts ensures preparedness for emergency repairs. Proper familiarity with and maintenance of these technologies are crucial for a successful and secure voyage.

Is Bigger Better?

Ultimately, the “right” boat size for crossing the Atlantic depends on your personal preferences, the type of vessel you’re comfortable with, your sailing experience, and your intended voyage. Smaller boats, including monohulls and multihulls, have successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean, often with solo sailors or small crews. 

It’s essential to match the boat’s size with your skill level, comfort, and the goals you have for your voyage. Proper planning, preparation, and understanding your boat’s capabilities are key to a safe and enjoyable transatlantic crossing.

Who Can Sail Across the Atlantic

The allure of transatlantic sailing transcends skill levels, beckoning both seasoned sailors and those new to the world of seafaring.

Skill Level

Novices can sail in guided group expeditions. Many sailing schools and organisations offer transatlantic training programs designed to prepare novice sailors for the challenges of open-ocean voyages. These programs cover topics such as navigation, seamanship, weather forecasting, and emergency procedures, ensuring that participants are well-equipped to handle the demands of a transatlantic crossing.

To start gaining more knowledge consider a course like your RYA Day Skipper. 

Solo and Groups

Experienced sailors can opt for solo endeavours, navigating the challenges of the open water alone. Solo transatlantic crossings require a high level of skill, self-sufficiency, and mental resilience. Solo sailors must be prepared to handle all aspects of the voyage, from navigation and sail trim to maintenance and emergency repairs. It is not an easy task but a rewarding one. 

Group transatlantic voyages offer the opportunity to share the challenges and triumphs of the journey with like-minded individuals. Crew members can provide support, share knowledge, and contribute their unique skills to the overall success of the voyage.

When Is The Best Time To Sail Across The Atlantic?

Navigating the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean demands strategic timing to ensure a safe and rewarding transatlantic crossing. Sailors must carefully consider multiple factors when determining the best time to embark on this epic journey. 

Avoid Hurricane Season

To mitigate risks, it’s crucial to avoid the peak of the hurricane season, which spans from early June to late November, by planning departures before or after this period. 

Trade Winds

The trade wind seasons play a pivotal role. Departing between November and January is ideal for east-to-west crossings (Europe to the Americas), taking advantage of strong easterly winds, while west-to-east voyages (Americas to Europe) are best undertaken from April to June. 

Transitional Seasons

The transitional seasons of spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) offer milder conditions, reducing the likelihood of encountering severe weather. Additionally, the Northern Hemisphere summer (June to August) may provide calmer conditions near specific regions like the Azores and Bermuda due to seasonal temperature gradients. 

Monitoring and Flexibility

Even with careful planning, weather conditions can vary. Modern technology, including advanced weather forecasting and satellite communication, allows sailors to monitor changing weather patterns closely. This flexibility enables them to adjust departure dates to align with the most favourable conditions.

What To Expect When You Sail Across The Atlantic

Embarking on a transatlantic voyage is a transformative experience that unveils a variety of emotions and encounters.

guests sailing across the atlantic

Isolation and Self-Discovery

The vastness of the open ocean fosters introspection, offering moments of solitude and self-contemplation. Sailing farther from land, the ocean becomes a place for self-discovery. Away from distractions, sailors connect with their thoughts, gaining profound insights and a deeper understanding of themselves.

Adapting to Dynamic Conditions

Navigating the Atlantic demands adaptability, as calm waters can swiftly turn tempestuous. Sailors encounter a range of weather patterns, from tranquillity to storms. Success hinges on quick decision-making, adjusting sails, altering course, and ensuring safety in rapidly changing wind and wave conditions.

Marine Life and Celestial Wonders

The Atlantic unveils captivating marine life and celestial spectacles. Sailors witness dolphins, whales, and seabirds in their natural habitat. Nights offer starry skies and bioluminescent wonders, like meteor showers, illuminating the transatlantic journey with awe-inspiring beauty.

Camaraderie

The challenges and triumphs of crossing an ocean create a deep bond among crew members. Everyone is on the same journey, facing the same conditions, and working together towards a common goal.

Preparing for Sailing Across The Atlantic

Preparing for a transatlantic crossing demands meticulous planning and a comprehensive understanding of the necessities.

Route and Preparation

Craft a detailed route plan, communication strategies, and contingency plans for a successful transatlantic journey. Thorough preparation is key, covering route selection, departure dates, emergency procedures, and communication protocols. 

Consider wind patterns, currents, and potential hazards during route planning. Prepare provisions like food, water, and supplies. Develop contingency plans for adverse weather, medical emergencies, and navigation challenges.

Apparel for All Conditions

Pack layered clothing, foul-weather gear, and safety equipment to adapt to changing weather. Proper clothing ensures comfort and safety. Layering helps regulate temperature, and specialised gear like waterproof jackets, pants, and boots protects against the elements. Safety items like life jackets and harnesses are crucial on deck. Include hats, gloves, and sunglasses for sun protection.

Essential Gear and Tools

Equip with navigation tools, communication devices, safety gear, and spare parts. Success relies on proper gear. Navigation tools (GPS, charts, compasses) aid in plotting courses. Communication devices (satellite phones, radios) keep sailors connected. Safety gear like life rafts, EPIRBs, and flares are vital in emergencies. Carrying spare parts and tools prevents breakdowns.

Provisions

Stock up on non-perishable food, fresh water, and cooking facilities. Consider food diversity and nutritional balance. Fresh water should be rationed, and watermakers or desalination systems help generate freshwater. Cooking facilities enable meal preparation, accounting for dietary preferences and nutritional needs.

Navigating Legally

Secure necessary permits and documentation for international waters. Crossing boundaries requires permits, visas, and paperwork for foreign ports. Research entry requirements and apply for permits early. Maintain organised vessel documentation for customs and immigration inspections.

Risks of Sailing Across the Atlantic

While Atlantic crossings offer an unparalleled sense of accomplishment, ocean sailing carries some inherent risks.

Weather Challenges

The Atlantic’s unpredictable weather presents dangers from storms to hurricane-force winds. Vigilant weather monitoring and advanced prediction tools help sailors adapt routes and sail plans. A defined storm plan, including course adjustments and reducing sail, is vital for safety in the face of approaching storms.

Health Considerations

Seasickness, fatigue, and medical emergencies require self-sufficiency at sea. Coping with seasickness involves staying hydrated and using medications. Combatting fatigue demands a well-structured watch schedule for adequate rest. Basic first-aid training and well-equipped medical kits are crucial for addressing health issues in remote settings.

Equipment Reliability

Vessel malfunctions demand resourcefulness and preparation. Mechanical, electronic, and communication systems can fail due to the ocean’s rigours. Pre-departure checks and onboard tools aid in identifying and addressing potential issues. Crew members should possess repair skills and improvisational abilities to tackle unexpected breakdowns and ensure vessel safety.

The ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers)

Participating in organized events like the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) is one way to cross the ocean. The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) is a renowned annual sailing event organised by the World Cruising Club and a favourite in the yachting world. It brings together sailors worldwide and provides an opportunity for sailors to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the company of a group, enhancing safety and camaraderie. 

ARC yachts sailing

There are three different ARC events, which present three different ways to cross the Atlantic. 

ARC

The original and most well-known event is the ARC. It typically takes place in November and involves a west-to-east crossing of the Atlantic Ocean from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands to Rodney Bay in Saint Lucia, in the Caribbean. 

The ARC covers a distance of approximately 2,700 nautical miles and is open to a wide range of sailing vessels, from small cruisers to larger yachts. It offers a combination of bluewater sailing, challenges, and social activities, making it a popular choice for sailors seeking both adventure and community.

ARC Europe

ARC Europe is a variation of the ARC that offers a more flexible route for sailors who prefer a northern European departure. It typically starts from a European port (such as Portsmouth, UK) and finishes in the same location as the main ARC event, Rodney Bay in Saint Lucia. ARC Europe provides participants with the opportunity to experience a mix of coastal and offshore sailing as they make their way south to the Caribbean.

ARC+ Route

The ARC+ is designed for sailors who want to extend their voyage and explore more destinations before reaching the Caribbean. The ARC+ event offers two routes: one starting from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, as in the main ARC event, and another starting from Mindelo in Cape Verde. Both routes converge in Saint Lucia, giving participants a chance to experience different cultures and sailing challenges along the way.

Each of these ARC events emphasises safety, camaraderie, and adventure. The World Cruising Club provides extensive support, including safety seminars, social events, weather routing, and radio nets to ensure participants have a smooth and enjoyable crossing. 

Sailing across the Atlantic Ocean is a remarkable journey that demands a blend of skill, preparation, and a spirit of adventure. While it may seem like a daunting experience, it’s not just for seasoned sailors. With the right boat, people, equipment and preparation it is an accessible, life-changing adventure that almost anyone can enjoy. 

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