sailing boat

Atlantic crossing – the right strategy for sailing boats

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Between 2018 and 2019 I organized nine transatlantic rallies. These started either from the Canary Islands Lanzarote, Tenerife and La Palma or the Cape Verde island of Sao Vicente. The destinations were the Caribbean islands of Martinique, Grenada and Barbados. The start was either in November or in January.

A nice side effect of the organization of these nine rallies is that I now have a good overview of the weather situations to be expected in the winter months during an Atlantic crossing.

Two findings are particularly important to me: Firstly, each crossing had different weather conditions. These ranged from stable trade winds to phases of weak winds and even greater slacks. Second, climate change can no longer be ignored. The days when you could reliably plan such a crossing with constant trade winds are unfortunately a thing of the past.

Due to these changes, I have decided to share my findings with other sailors at this point and to show what possibilities exist today to cross the Atlantic Ocean as comfortably as possible.

First of all, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between starting in November or January – the decision here is more personal than the weather.

Atlantic crossing
Atlantic crossing

Strategy for the Atlantic crossing

If you start from the Canaries, you basically have two options: Either you sail on a direct course to the Caribbean or you take a small detour and thus follow a widespread strategy. It reads: Leave the Canary Islands with a course in a south-westerly direction and sail so far south that the Cape Verde Islands are passed at a distance of around 200-300 nautical miles. Then it goes on a direct course towards the Caribbean. Usually this results in more stable and constant winds from the aft sector.

This strategy still seems to be and remains the best option. Even more: I would like to expressly recommend this strategy, as it allows you to make a stop on Cape Verde if necessary – which is often necessary.

At every rally so far there have been ships that have unexpectedly made a stop on the Cape Verde island of Sao Vicente in the marina of Mindelo. The reasons for this were quite varied. In most cases, however, it was a technical problem with the autopilot, the engine, the steering gear, the diesel generator or the sails. Again and again there were personal problems on board, such as health or interpersonal relationships. And last but not least, some rally participants had significantly underestimated the diesel consumption between the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde Islands. They made a stopover to replenish their diesel supplies.

I would like to deliberately draw the attention of all crews who are planning to sail the Atlantic crossing non-stop to the topic of “diesel stock”. It is not uncommon for the engine to be required much more than expected, since nowadays – as already mentioned – zones with weak winds or even calm have to be crossed more often than before. Sufficient diesel should therefore always be carried on board.

If there is a stopover in Cape Verde, the marina in Mindelo is an excellent place to do so. There are good repair options and service facilities. There are also direct flights from Mindelo to Portugal (Lisbon) with connections to many European cities.

In addition, the islands are a wonderful sailing area that is still very undeveloped and offers a variety of attractions.

Atlantic crossing 2

Prevailing winds

It is important to note that the prevailing winds between the Canary Islands and Cape Verde blow from the northeast. However, these are not trade winds. They only blow in more southern climes. Conversely, this means that the first part of an Atlantic crossing is not necessarily characterized by constant diapers.

Nowadays, constant trade winds can only be expected once you have reached Cape Verde. I would therefore like to emphasize once again that from a strategic point of view it is advisable to choose a course that passes close to Cape Verde. There are always crews who choose the direct course to the Caribbean from the Canaries. Of course, this variant is 100 to 200 nautical miles shorter, but as I said, I think it is questionable.

In October and November 2019 we had 33 crews in our Rally Barbados 50 Odyssey, who made a planned stop on Cape Verde during the Atlantic crossing. Half of them headed for different islands, while the other half only stopped in Mindelo. While most of the transatlantic rallies in the past led from the Canary Islands directly to the Caribbean, more and more organizers are now including Cape Verde on their program.

We are also taking this trend into account and are again offering two options for 2020 participants in our Islands Odyssey: Crews can either sail non-stop from the Canaries to Barbados or make a stop on Cape Verde. We recommend heading to several islands for those planning a longer stay in Cape Verde. All other sailors will find in Mindelo a good opportunity to check the various systems on board again, to replenish supplies and to relax before heading over the ocean to Barbados – on the comparatively shorter distance of 2000 nautical miles.

In addition, the feeder trip from the Canary Islands to Cape Verde offers a good opportunity to find out what works and what does not work on board for long journeys. As already mentioned, we have had ships on every crossing so far that have made an unplanned stop on Cape Verde to carry out repairs.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Barbados is the first island to be reached when heading for the Caribbean. The service facilities and repair facilities in Barbados are getting better every day, and the international airport allows regular flights to Europe and North America as well as other Caribbean islands. Barbados is therefore a good place to change crew or meet up with family.

For the sake of form, it should be noted that it is not advisable to book flights that put the sailing crew under time pressure to arrive in the Caribbean. There should always be the opportunity to face difficulties at sea with time. Therefore, I generally advise booking all flight tickets in a tariff that allows inexpensive cancellation or rebooking.

Last but not least, it should be mentioned that Barbados has an American embassy. Visas can be easily applied for here if the USA is on the itinerary.

Atlantic crossing 3

Duration of the Atlantic crossing

With regard to the duration of the crossing, I once took the trouble and compared non-stop Atlantic passages with those that include a stop on Cape Verde. As a basis for this, I took the various transatlantic rallies that we have organized in recent years.

Without stopover

The average non-stop Atlantic passage with a length of 2700 nautical miles took 22 days – 19 days the fastest and 25 days the slowest. The average speed was 4.9 knots.

With stopover

The Atlantic passage with a stop in Cape Verde had the following average times:

From the Canary Islands to Cape Verde to Mindelo (830 nautical miles) 7 days – 5 days the fastest and 9 days the slowest. The average speed was 4.9 knots.

From Mindelo to Barbados (2020 nautical miles) an average of 15 days – 11 days the fastest and 17 days the slowest. The average speed was 5.3 knots (exception: it took a ship 23 days to get from Cape Verde to Barbados because there was an engine failure and the entire distance was covered exclusively under sail in light winds).

As a rule, crews who went to Mindelo spent three days there. This results in a total travel time of an average of 25 days. That’s three days more than on the non-stop Atlantic crossing. The difference corresponds to the average length of stay in Cape Verde.

Conclusion

With regard to the points mentioned above, I believe that a stop on Cape Verde as part of an Atlantic crossing is justified, regardless of whether it is dictated by external factors such as technical problems or is voluntarily planned by the crew to make the crossing in to divide the Caribbean into two shorter and subsequently mostly easier sections. In any case, I would not choose the direct route, but always sail past Cape Verde, leaving all options open to me. Safety first!

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