Crossing the Atlantic in a 43 foot catamaran

Leaving Grand Canary Island with 200 other boats on our trip across the Atlantic

Leaving Grand Canary Island with 200 other boats on our trip across the Atlantic

After sailing in the Mediterranean for a year, I entered my Catana 431 in the 2001 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers. Formerly known as the Atlantic Race for Cruisers, the annual event was rebranded to enable participants to get insurance for the crossing. Rather than an all-out race, the ARC is a flotilla of boats leaving Grand Canary Island, following a similar course to St Lucia in the Caribbean. The enormous benefit is other boats in proximity if you have an accident or failure in a key system on the boat.

Originally planned for a crew of four, we had an injury onboard on the way from Gibraltar to Grand Canary Island and were crossing with a crew of three. The autopilot failed on the way to Grand Canary Island, and we could not arrange a repair prior to the start, so we had to hand steer the entire distance – 3050 miles. Someone had to be on the helm 100% of the time, which was doable but exhausting. We did three-hour rotations, so each person was off watch for six hours and then steering for three hours.


Counting down to the start of the 2001 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers

We had gotten to Grand Canary Island a week early, as we wanted to make certain we had time to make any final arrangements and to provision the boat for the crossing. Lisa had helped us with meal planning so we knew exactly what we needed to purchase for the trip. We brought food for 24 days in case we had a breakdown at sea that would slow our crossing. We also brought fresh water in 5 liter jugs that fit perfectly under the floorboards in each hull.

Even though I had a watermaker onboard, it consumes enormous amounts of electricity, and I did not want to run out part way across if the watermaker failed. We used the watermaker for showers and washing clothes during the passage, but cooked with fresh water and washed dishes with salt water and a watermaker rinse. I had installed a footpump in the galley so I could bring saltwater up to the sink – perfect for rinsing dishes prior to washing them.

The first week at sea was phenomenal – no clouds at night and reasonable wind and waves. We had a full moon for the first week, and could see the boat’s shadow on the water at night. Amazing sailing and a tremendous experience.

The second week, the moon was waning and we started getting clouds at night. Sailing became more challenging as the wind built, seas grew to 15 feet, and it was almost impossible to distinguish where the water and air met. Once a day we would cross paths with a freighter, which was exciting. Sometimes we would have to gybe away and other times we would slow down a little so we would cross their stern, as we had a favorable angle and did not want to throw two gybes to get away from the freighter and then get back on course.

I had made a couple of mistakes on the sailplan for the boat. My race boat was a trimaran that I would reach up to generate apparent wind, and virtually never sailed dead downwind. I assumed the Catana would sail similarly, so I got an asymmetric spinnaker. I expected to reach up, get apparent wind, and then ride the wind and waves downhill.

I found that the Catana really liked to sail dead downwind and did not like to reach up, particularly when the waves started getting over 10 feet. The asymmetric set from the end of the bow pole, and would be partially blanketed by the main when we were sailing dead downwind. The spinnaker would start to invert, we would trim like mad and then as the boat slowed, the spinnaker would fill with a massive “BANG”. We knew this would not last long, and considered setting the spinnaker tack to one bow and pretending it was a symmetric spinnaker. We were concerned about gybing with the spinnaker tacked to the bow instead of the pole, and gave up on that option.

In lighter air, we would unroll the screatcher, which set from a drum part way out on the pole, and had enormous sail area compared to the jib. We set a block off a padeye on the rail to tweak the sheet down so the clew would not bounce too badly.

We would catch a wave and then rocket forward, surfing down the face of the wave with the dagger boards partially retracted. The boat would shoot out in front of the wave onto perfectly flat water. We were routinely hitting 15-17 knots, and our best day was over 200 miles, which was excellent.

From the Canary Islands to St Lucia

Heading west from the Canary Islands to St Lucia

As we made progress across the Atlantic, the wind and waves built. The final week saw winds consistently above 30 knots, so we reefed the main and used the jib. I did not have a reaching strut for the jib, which was extremely unfortunate, as we had to reach up slightly to keep the jib filled and drawing. This caused us to sail extra distance and slowed our overall progress. With four crew racing hard, I had planned for a thirteen day passage. There was another Seattle-based crew in a similar boat, and we wanted to race them boat-for-boat for line honors in our class. Down a crew and with no autopilot, it took us 17 days to get across.

We crossed the Atlantic

After getting to St Lucia and docking the boat in the marina, we shared stories with other boats in the ARC. The boat we had intended to race had great stories about eating breakfast, reading a book, with the boat under autopilot, and hitting 15 knots. Quite an experience – I recommend crossing the Atlantic in a sailboat if you ever get the chance. I would do it again in a second.

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