Crossing the Atlantic

The Line Extends: Crossing the Atlantic
One in a series of stories about Jeffrey Smith’s circumnavigation aboard Today!

It’s blowing 24 knots true out of the southeast, and has been raining off and on all night. Scott is driving in his swim trunks and foul weather jacket, as its too wet to sit out uncovered, but its 89 degrees, so full foulies would cause heat stroke!

We are 166 miles northeast of St. Lucia, and have traveled 2700 miles from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers. We started in the “cruising” fleet with 180+ other mono and multihulls, 20 minutes after the racing class started.

The starting line was close to one mile long, but 180 cruising boats, ranging from a 26 footer to a 100 foot giant took up all the room and more! Any boat with an anchor suspended at the stem head was required to either remove it or put a fender over it in case they rammed another boat at the start. My catamaran is 24 feet wide, so negotiating the start and getting through the slower boats was quite a chore.

The wind was gusting to 30 knots at the start, so some boats set their spinnakers, whereas many did not. The racing boats seemed to do pretty well, carrying their spinnakers and rocketing over the horizon, whereas there was carnage in the cruising fleet almost immediately – boats rounding up, spinnakers flagging, shredded spinnakers, etc. Pretty tragic to ruin your only downwind sail five minutes into an 18 day passage!

We were the first multihull over the line, but were quickly passed by Sir Henri, an Outremer 45 with a set of rock stars onboard, and Double Trouble, a Catana 582. We beat our arch enemy Cakrawalla over the line, the only other Catana 431 in the event. But our lead was short lived – Tom Reese and his hand picked Seattle crew set their chute in 30 knots of wind and hurtled across the ocean.

We had been having problems with our single sideband radio – it would not transmit. A couple of hours before the start a representative from Kiel Radio stopped by, as we had volunteered to help out as Net Controller and collect position information to keep the ARC website updated. Martin hit the transmit button, and our bilge pumps activated! We were stunned. He climbed down into the starboard engine compartment, muttered various German swear words, and started ripping wires apart. The antenna lead was routed next to the wires controlling the bilge pumps, and the pumps would activate when we attempted to broadcast. He also found that there was terrible feedback through the VHF, so we have to turn that off in order to transmit. A few wire ties later, and we were in business.

After the start a Catana 582, The Saint, attempted to set their spinnaker, and promptly lost the sock retrieval line up the mast. They were able to get the spinnaker down without tearing it, but we heard later that they lost their halyard and ran over the same spinnaker, completely destroying it. Fortunately they had a fractional spinnaker which they were able to set. After the halyard wore through on that sail, they gave up on spinnakers and went wing and wing for the remainder of the passage.
The other 582 in the race, Double Trouble, with a team of Texas-based Formula 40 racers onboard, went through three spinnakers. One, a spectacular version of the Texas flag, was completely destroyed, as was one of the others that their onboard sailmaker had attempted to recreate – it lasted one hour after the repair job.

Scott was complaining that Tom and I had seen all the squall action – sitting outside steering the boat getting drenched as squall’s passed overhead. He has made up for it in the last couple of days. He was covering for me for a few minutes while I sent an email with all the yacht positions in our group to ARC headquarters. By the time I got back on deck, a squall had come through, drenched him and the sun was out. The seat was hardly wet! But Scott looked half drowned!

During the race briefing, the organizers warned the skippers that there are compression zones at the base of Gran Canaria and Teneriffe that can generate 20-30 knots of extra wind. Boats hugging the shoreline are most likely to experience this, so we decided to keep heading south before we gybed over to starboard and headed for St Lucia.

There are five major route, differentiated by the degree you head south searching for the tradewinds. Two years ago, the tradewinds did not fill in, and the participants battled headwinds for the entire race. The tradewinds started to fill in on Sunday November 25, the day our race started, and have been steady and strong ever since. This ended up being a high-wind race, and the winner of the race division set a course record, shaving 20 hours off the previous passage record.

A northeast tradewind flows down the west coast of Africa over the Canaries, and that eventually intersects the easterly tradewinds from Africa. Typically boats will head south, towards the Cape Verde Islands, looking for the easterly tradewinds. We took a middle course, dodged the compression zones, and then gybed and sailed deep to try and get below 25 north latitude.

The first night, we had to dodge several race boats, and a huge oil tanker. The fleet dispersed quickly, but we were following one boat for 30 hours before gibing away. We crossed gybes with Nahema II, a Catana 471, and tried to talk them into coming south with us. They were committed to taking the northern route, which we thought would turn light and slow. For awhile they were leading the Catana fleet, as they were sailing the shortest course. They hit 27 knots during one surf, and were leading Sir Henri by six miles when their spinnaker exploded. Sir Henri got by them and was first multihull to finish.

Another Catana 471, Escape Cay, hit a whale the first night. The skipper described the experience as “going from 10 knots to zero instantly, with no blood, but blubber everywhere”. The boat was lightly damaged, and they could not tell how severely injured was the whale.

Several boats lost their rudders, and one crewmember had to be evacuated to a container ship in mid-ocean due to kidney stones brought on by severe dehydration. The skipper had no way to administer fluids, and the crewmember had started getting seasick at the start of the race, and went downhill from there.

All three of us aboard Today! had flying fish encounters. The flying fish in the Atlantic have beautiful blue wings, and are quite active. We would see individuals or groups zooming across the water, some landing gracefully, and others looking like they did a big belly flop.

One night, a flying fish hit the coaming immediately in front of the port steering station where Tom was sitting, and scared him to death. The fish impacted, bounced around and eventually fell overboard. Scales on the coaming testified to the impact. Scott had a similar experience, and I actually had a flying fish hit me while we were reefing the mainsail. The fish hit me and then landed at my feet and wiggled around. Scott brushed it off the stern and we went about our business.

Tom tried to kick one flying fish overboard, and the fish got really agitated! It apparently did not like being kicked, so Tom brushed it overboard instead!

For the first week, we had a full moon every night, and it was phenomenal sailing. I felt like I was getting a tan while sailing at night, the moon was so bright. The second week, as we got further west, the moon would rise later each night. It came up about 7 am UTC Wednesday morning.

We had a series of wagers regarding the first sighting of land and our finish time. The bets involve t-shirts, dinner and alcohol, as we were all tired of cooking on the boat and seriously needed some fresh clothes. During the afternoon roll call, it was clear that the other boats were ready to get to St. Lucia also. The night sailing has been strenuous – generally big winds and either big or confused seas. Surfing down a big wave when the pitch black sky does not show a horizon, feeling the boat attempting to round up, and its gusting to 36, is terrifying. Several times I had to throw the helm completely over to keep the boat tracking straight down the face of a wave. We kept the daggerboards 2/3rd of the way down, and this helped our helm dramatically. If we retracted the daggerboards, we only had the rudders, and the boat would swing wildly from side to side.

Some of the things I learned during this adventure:
1. Boat preparation is critical. We had problems with our electronics on the way down from Gibraltar, thought we had them fixed, and found out our autopilot was not working. End result, we hand steered every mile across the Atlantic. Fortunately we love to sail, but it was definitely a hardship, and caused extra fatigue. We definitely slowed down the second week, due to the ongoing demands of hand steering in 20-30 knots of true wind.
2. Boat handling skills are critical. You have to be able to reef instantly. The squalls develop that quickly – you are sailing along in blue sky conditions with perfect breeze, and then the winds go up 8-10 knots and it starts to pour rain. The seas increase, and it is suddenly very serious. Getting a reef in, or even two, goes a long way towards reducing wear and tear on the boat and crew. Plus having that confidence means you are willing to carry more sail area, reducing your overall passage time.
3. Having good, reliable, smart crew, and the correct number, is critical. We were down one crew member due to injury on the Gibraltar leg, so we had to completely change our approach. We originally were planning on racing hard, with two people on deck 100 percent of the time. Having three people instead of four meant that we had one person on deck, and sail changes required getting everyone up. Again, this created ongoing fatigue problems that caused us to slow down dramatically as the race progressed.
4. Meal planning helps the provisioning process tremendously. We only had to feed three people, compared to 10-12 on other boats. But we were amazed when we met other people provisioning, and they said they were just buying a lot of different things and would make it up as they went. We had every meal planned out, and only started deviating towards the end of the trip, when we wanted to minimize heat in the galley, and focus on simpler meals (rice, pasta, risotto, etc.).

Sailing across the Atlantic was an incredible experience. It is hard to describe how incredibly beautiful it is at sea. The Atlantic has many different colors, including a spectacular cobalt blue. During one squall, the water became steel grey with white spumes of foam. The waves stacked up to the point they looked like haystacks – definitely intimidating, as they contained a lot of energy and would really throw the boat around.

As one of the five Net Controllers for Group B, I spent an hour each day talking with the 50 yachts in our group, helping them report their positions accurately to the ARC team in Cowes. Many times several of the net controllers had to help out with relays, particularly the second week as the boats spread out. Jabberwock was extremely helpful, as they had a very powerful radio with enhanced filters that could contact many boats I could not with my SSB.

Talking with all these boats for 17 days was really fun – hearing the fishing stories, issues with the last ice cream bar onboard and who should/would get it, recipes for meringue tarts, and all kinds of other interesting issues. Getting to St Lucia was outstanding, as we have been wandering the docks and putting faces with the voices we have heard over the last several weeks. The reception has been outstanding – a real sense of community and accomplishment. Most of the boats had never done a trans-Atlantic passage before, so the sense of accomplishment is high.

I heartily recommend the ARC as a way of getting your boat from Europe to the Caribbean. We experienced the best sailing I have ever had, and it is great to have that type of passage under my belt. My confidence and understanding of my boat has increased dramatically – we had no failures other than the issues we started the race with. We had a fast, safe passage, experienced challenging conditions with some terror, and made it to St Lucia in time for the rum punch and welcome party!

We are heading for Martinique in a couple of days, and then on to Guadeloupe for Christmas and New Years. More stories to come – the racing is over for awhile, and now we are boat tourists enjoying the 85 degrees and clear water! Have a great winter in Seattle, and get down to the Caribbean for some outstanding sailing as soon as you can!

Technical Summary:
Catana 431 catamaran constructed in Canet, France in 2000.
43 feet LOA plus 4 foot bowsprit
24 feet BOA
65 feet air draft
Draft – boards up – 42 inches
Boards down – 8 feet

Max observed speed during the Atlantic crossing: 17 knots
Min observed speed during the Atlantic crossing: .67 knots while attempting to get the main down during a squall
Passage duration: 17 days, 1 hour.

Fuel consumed (for charging the batteries via the engine alternators)
Engine Hours during passage:

Port Starboard Total
Starting 167.7 171.5
Finishing 203.7 218.6
Total Hours 36 47.1 83.1
Fuel per hour
Estimated Amp Hours consumed 3650

Passage Record:
Date Miles Comments
25 Nov Start at 1300 UTC Huge crowd – first multihull across the line. Pitching the boat around to create holes and get passed slower boats.
26 Nov 194
27 Nov 200.6
28 Nov 199.7
29 Nov 189.6
30 Nov 191.7
1 Dec 171.5
2 Dec 190.7
3 Dec 185.8
4 Dec 188.2
5 Dec 172.4
6 Dec 169.5
7 Dec 136.1
8 Dec 166
9 Dec 177.9
10 Dec 181.9
11 Dec 148.4
12 Dec 190.3 Finish at 1426 UTC
Total Miles Sailed 3054.3 Over a course of 2800 miles

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