How to sail an Atlantic circuit
Yachting Monthly|March 2021
Confined to quarters during the pandemic, many sailors are itching to slip their lines and sail for the sun. Elaine Bunting explains exactly how to break free and sail an Atlantic circuit
Elaine Bunting

Just as the island of Hiddensee drew across the wake of the boat, Malin Andersson took up her camera and shot a video. When she looks at it now, a late summer scene from the Baltic coast of Germany, she remembers it as the instant she knew for certain she was right to think of leaving work to go cruising.

Malin and her partner Kaj Maass, both from Sweden and aged in their late twenties, met as students and formed a plan to take a year off before starting a family. After years of scrimping, they bought a Bavaria 38 and renamed her Cross Ocean. With the last tiny island of a summer cruise behind them, they began to prepare a transatlantic voyage and a year of adventure.

‘From then, we have never had a moment of regret about setting off,’ she says.

Each year, hundreds of yachtsmen of all ages set out across the Atlantic. Some have only a few months of freedom, others plan to cruise indefinitely. Their ambitions shape diverse choices in terms of boat design and preparations. Here, we look at some of the biggest considerations if that is your goal, too.

WHAT’S THE RIGHT BOAT?

A good place to start might be with the question: can I do an Atlantic circuit in the yacht I have now? In most cases, the answer is yes. Almost any well-prepared yacht of 30ft and upwards can tackle the downwind crossing, and indeed there is no reason why an even smaller boat can’t do it successfully. People have crossed in Folkboats; the legendary American sailor Webb Chiles sailed across the Pacific in a converted 24ft dayboat, and some masochistic adventurers have crossed oceans in micro yachts not even long enough for them to stretch out in.

Two sailors I have repeatedly met over the years are Swedes Pekka and Barbro Karlsson. They first crossed the Atlantic in 1986 in their 32ft Arvid Lauren-designed double-ender, Corona AQ. Over the last 30 years, they have made multiple crossings back and forth, observing boats getting ever larger, even of the same LOA as theirs. By comparison, theirs is dwarfed in every dimension, including beam and freeboard, yet it has everything this experienced couple needs for living onboard for six or more months every year. So, really, it is a matter of cost, preference, and expectation.

The big question is whether your current yacht is the best tool for the job given your budget. Is it large enough for the crew you intend for longer passages, for the provisions, fuel, and water? A 35-footer might take 25-28 days to cross the Atlantic from the Canaries to the West Indies. Obviously, the longer and faster your boat is, the more storage and water tankage you will have for less time at sea.

You might also ask yourself which parts of the adventure are the most valuable to you. If you don’t intend to do the more arduous return home to Europe, maybe you don’t need a bigger, more expensive, more complex long-legged bluewater cruiser; you could consider shipping back – more on that option later.

If you intend to live on board for longer, then perhaps you will want more space, including for guests, greater comforts, and faster passage times. In that case, one solution might be to buy for the duration of the project a second-hand bluewater cruiser already well kitted out with the right gear, then sell her right afterwards.

‘I think that makes total sense,’ says Sue Grant, managing director of Berthon International, the well-known brokers specialising in bluewater cruisers. ‘The best thing you can do for a North Atlantic circuit is to buy from the guy who had the dream, had the money, and didn’t go. A refit will always cost you more than you think.’

For a two- to three-season transocean cruise, Grant advocates stretching up to your next level, especially to a yacht that doesn’t need a big refit and brands with a strong residual value. ‘If you buy a high-quality Hallberg-Rassy or an Oyster then sell it you’d lose 10% of value but have three years for it.’

BUY A BOAT YOU WILL ENJOY

While in the Azores in 2012 I met Stuart and Anne Letton, who were sailing their Island Packet 45, Time Bandit, back to the UK. Their boat was brimming with sensible ideas for living aboard and I have kept in touch with them over the years as they are a wonderful source of thoughtful advice.

Since then they have sold the Island Packet, bought an Outremer 51 catamaran, crossed the Atlantic again, and are presently in Indonesia having sailed across the Pacific. In total, they have now logged a very impressive 60,000 miles.

‘Before we went cruising, I spent a lot of time looking at what would be the best, safest mode of transport. I wanted a proven, tough, sturdy, bombproof ocean cruiser, hence Time Bandit [the Island Packet], the “Beige Battleship”,’ says Stuart.

‘Having spent my sailing career racing performance dinghies and keelboats, this was something of a departure for me. It was safe. And a bit boring. However, the reality is you all end up in the same place, give or take a few days. With reflection, though, I’d say, buy a boat that will make you happy, one that reflects your sailing style and capabilities. We opted for slow but safe and used the safe features a handful of days in 10 years. Those were years we could have been enjoying more rewarding sailing.

‘Buy what you will enjoy, can afford, and are able to keep running. Do the maths on running costs, rig, insurance and repairs, and work that into the budget.’

Asked about their ideas of the ideal size for a couple, the Lessons comment: ‘Generally, I’d say bigger is better, but the costs are exponential. Personally, for two up, I think around 40-45ft feet is a good size: big enough to be safe and comfortable, small enough to manage.

STUART & ANNE LETTON OUTREMER 51 TIME BANDIT Four Atlantic crossings and 60,000 miles

‘Being very well set up for dead downwind sailing is important, especially well-thought-out preventers, fore and aft on the spinnaker pole and main boom. An asymmetric or spinnaker will keep you moving in lighter air.

‘Save on gas with a Thermal Cookpot and get as much free power from water and sun as you can. Trade in your trusty CQR or Bruce anchor for a spade or similar “new technology” anchor.’

Is bigger better?

Like the Lettons, I think 40-45ft is something of a sweet spot, offering the volume and tankage required for longer cruising, yet still manageable by a small crew. Bigger has its advantages, even up to 55ft (above that the loads become too large to handle manually and maintenance is a massive chore for a family crew, requiring significant time and budget). The waterline length and extra speed will be your friend, most of the time.

Speed is your ally in evading bad weather, and if you are sailing to a schedule. Karsten Witt and his wife, Sheila, circumnavigated in the World ARC in their X-55 Gunvør XL, and he says: ‘It was hardest work for the smaller or slower boats. They are at sea longer, therefore experience more and sometimes harder weather, arrive later in port, get more tired and have less time to make repairs and bank downtime.

‘I would always go for a modern boat that’s faster,’ he adds. ‘If you had a heavy 40ft cruiser you would miss weather windows. Other boats spend days battling headwinds because they were doing 6-7 knots upwind and they couldn’t point. We averaged 200 miles a day every day, so in five days were a long way away and in completely different weather.’

But you certainly don’t need a large or expensive yacht, just a well-prepared one. Starting with the basics: safety gear, fire and gas installations, good sails with deep reefs, in date and inspected rig, winches and all machinery serviced, and power and battery systems upgraded if necessary, plus full inspection of keel fastenings and rudder, skeg and bearings.

After that, you really need to know how everything onboard works, how you’d repair or service it, and, if you can’t, how you would manage without it.

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