Crossing the Atlantic Ocean
Updated: May 29, 2022
”Rocking, wide stanced, holding on for dear life; your entire universe is contained in this little capsule adrift in the middle of the ocean, a thousand miles from anywhere.”
So what’s it like to sail across the Atlantic? Seven or eight years ago when we first had this dream to buy a boat and cross the Atlantic, we didn’t know what it would really entail. Fast forward to when we left in August last year, we still didn’t know if it was something we were capable of. We’d done a Day Skippers course, been out to practice a bit. Never done more than one night passage. Probably at that point we couldn’t have done it, but it’s been a steep learning curve to get from the UK to Cape Verde and we know an awful lot more now than we did then - mainly about what can go wrong, so maybe we were less confident than in our naïvety at the outset. But everyone says it’s easy, so…
The sailing itself is relatively easy. We didn’t see a single other yacht after the first day and only about three ships on the AIS. You are also constantly in deep ocean so you don’t need to worry about hitting things, although obviously you still need to keep a lookout. Because the distances are so vast, you also don’t need to be changing sail set or direction as much. You check the weather twice a day, but because it is a trade wind crossing, you don’t have to reef and unreef very often as the winds vary from light to moderate. We’ve sailed a lot with the headsail poled out on one side and the mainsail out on the other. This is very stable - good for nights and also maximises sail area so it’s also a good technique in light winds. It’s not so manoeuvrable, but given how little traffic there is, this doesn’t matter very much. The sea state has also been pretty easy. In the first days when the winds were very light, it was very calm and things were very easy on the boat. This was good to get our sea legs - it normally takes about three days to adjust to being at sea. Once we hit the trade winds, the waves increased in size. This makes doing things on the boat a bit more challenging. Having said that, the waves have been more like rollers. We didn’t feel like we were in a washing machine like when we crossed Biscay. So in that sense things are easy.
So what are the challenges? Obviously you are very far away from land; at times a thousand miles in any direction; completely isolated and alone. No one can help you out there. You’re unlikely to be rescued in time if things did go wrong and if you haven’t brought enough of what you need and rationed it accordingly, you have no way of obtaining it. The most important resource is fresh drinking water. Enough for two people and two cats for at least three weeks with some spare. We have our tank which holds 250 litres. We also had a further 100 litres in four 25 litre containers, plus a few smaller bottles dotted around the boat. Plus we had our watermaker. This may seem like overkill, but in theory your main water tank can burst and you would need enough water to last if that were to happen. We had our watermaker installed before we left. It’s a low powered one, but should produce five litres in an hour. We tested it before we left and it worked. Unfortunately it hardly produced anything at all at sea. The filter was leaking so we sealed that. We also moved the position of the prefilter, but it was still getting air trapped in the system somehow. Maybe it’s an air leak or it just can’t make it when on passage. Either way it was a big investment and extremely annoying. The issue we had was that bacteria can build up if it’s not used every three days, so we ended up lugging buckets of seawater onboard to feed the watermaker directly from these buckets, thus bypassing the prefilter and seawater intake. This worked. Otherwise, to ration our water we have been using hand sanitiser for hand washing and seawater for washing up. We had one shower indoors near the end of the trip that takes water directly from the tank, but it used quite a lot of water. Otherwise we used the water we brought in our solar shower. A black bag that heats up in the sun and you hang on the deck - it actually works a treat. As the water in the tank reduced, we wanted to transfer the water from the containers to the main tank. They are too heavy and the waves are too big to successfully pour into a funnel without wasting most of it, so we used a jiggle pipe that we bought in Cape Verde. This involves jiggling one end of a pipe with a ball bearing and the pressure causes water to come out the other end. We put three of the containers in the tank and kept one by for emergencies.
Food for us and the cats was also an important consideration - we needed a balance of fresh food to eat in the first week or two plus things that are easy to snack on if it gets too rough to cook. We had hoped to have access to frozen vegetables which would have been more like having fresh food, but unfortunately we lost two bags due to having to turn the fridge off overnight. We had lots of tins, but these take up space in your rubbish when empty, so that’s another consideration. We rationed our treats to have something to look forward to each week - a bottle of non alcoholic beer each per week, a bottle of coke a week and a bag of crisps a week. We have lots of herbs and things like mustard, chilli, garlic, sundried tomatoes and olives add a little flavour to most dishes and keep well. We made sourdough bread and flapjacks on passage. In terms of cat food, we had plenty of dry food which is what they are accustomed to eating. We had some very stressful moments in the beginning when Chocolate stopped eating dry food again and was scratching his mouth again. This was after being given the all clear by the vet in Cape Verde, who said it might just be his age that means he is having trouble digesting dry food now. Luckily we could ration out the soft food and he has been eating that fine. Other resources have to be managed too - your rubbish and your laundry. We got some tips from other cruisers that made the crossing before us. One was to stuff all your plastic waste into a plastic bottle. Paper and organic material goes over the side. Cans are crushed. This means that after three weeks we didn’t accumulate much volume of rubbish. Another tip we got from the same cruisers was naked sailing. This saves on laundry and as it was so hot, it was the preferable option. Suncream is a must though!
One area we struggled with was our battery charging at night. At anchor you don’t consume much energy at night, but while on passage you have your instruments going, your satellite tracking device, VHF, navigation lights etc. Unfortunately due to the warmer weather our fridge was massively draining our batteries at night as the solar panels were no longer putting any charge into them. This meant the fridge had to be turned off at night, as did anything else at all that was unnecessary. For example we turned off our depth and boat speed monitor as these were unnecessary out in the ocean. For light we had to use a little solar light that we charged up during the day time. Before our steering wheel lock broke we were also using the Hydrovane to steer - the autopilot is a big drainer of power. Unfortunately when the wheel lock broke we just had to turn off the fridge even earlier. Then the battery level had to be carefully monitored by the person on nightwatch. Luckily these measures meant that the battery level never got too low. As soon as the sun was high enough to start charging through the solar panels again then we could turn the fridge back on.
On top of these challenges, we also had some additional ones. These are a normal part of sailing. Nobody will have a trip without some sort of issue. Ours included the watermaker not working and the steering wheel lock breaking. Even the day before we left, we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to leave as there was an unidentified engine noise. Outside the range of my hearing, it had been bothering Luciano for a while and when we brought another couple on board to have a listen, they agreed it didn’t sound right. I dived under the boat to see if it was related to the cutlass bearing - the rubber that stops the propellor shaft moving. I wasn’t quite sure, but then one of our fellow sailors dived too and said it was fine. Then we were told it might be the freshwater pump impeller. We went to the shop, they didn’t have anyone available to do the work and had a whole rally of boats that had to take priority. Despondent, we went back to the boat and changed the belt. It looked in perfect condition. But lo and behold that was somehow the issue that had been causing the noise. Then next day we were set to leave. We were pulling up our anchor as our fellow sailors came past, they were leaving at the same time as us to cross to Suriname. Then the anchor jammed. We saw them looking back at us. We tried to force it out from the inside and the outside all to no avail. Eventually the chain had to be hammered out of the windlass where it had got jammed and we were free. Messages from the other couple who were long gone: “everything OK?” it didn’t seem like a good omen, but we set off anyway, the last boat to leave that day.
So how did it feel? When I had imagined it, I had imagined I would feel quite scared out there in the middle of nowhere, especially after we have had so many problems with our boat. However, our friend Peter, who we used to practice with, always used to emphasise that the boat will long outlast us. Yes we’ve had problems with steering cables and other issues, but we haven’t yet had an issue with water ingress except when it rains and the hatches and windows leak. It is possible to hit something out in the Atlantic that would put a hole in your boat but it would be very unlikely. Maybe a shipping container or a whale. One of the boats that did a crossing before us came across an abandoned fishing boat in the middle of the Atlantic. If you hit that in the middle of the night then that could cause some damage. They were lucky that they saw it in the daytime; you would never see an unlit object at night. Also, the more that time goes on, the more you are lulled into everyday life. As humans, we are so super adaptable that you learn to trust your boat as your life support capsule. That’s not to say that we were not sometimes nervous. The unexplained noises are extremely magnified when you are down below. The boat is constantly moving and when you can’t see it, then you can’t judge how far it is rolling. The lightning was probably the most worrying time. We had two nights when we saw lightning. We put all of our electronics in the oven and steered away as best we could. A lightning strike can cause fires, destroy your electronics, batteries and your engine and you are obviously very vulnerable out there on an expanse of water with a massive metal mast sticking out of your floating house.
The best parts were the views. Water is not just water. The colour changes according to the time of day. In normal light the sea is a deep deep indigo blue, almost purple. When you look at the water towards the sun, it appears in black and white, the ripples and waves outlined in stark relief so the runny silky metamorphic texture is most clearly apparent. Under dark clouds the sea turns gunmetal grey, as if allied in warfare with the sky. At sunset or sunrise it is bathed in a golden or pink sheen where it reflects the sun. Just after sunrise was the best time to see the flying fish. Silvery, shimmering, varying immensely in size they glide a long way over the water. Often alone, sometimes in schools. The other spectacle was the sky. Just before dawn is pretty spectacular. The stars are still twinkling, but more faintly. The sky is mauve with the clouds in charcoal black relief against it. Slowly, slowly the sky behind the boat gradually fans in a muted rainbow of sombre ochre, maroon and purple. Always behind is the sunrise, always in front is the sunset as the boat heads inexorably westwards. The sunrises and sunsets vary from crimson flames that set the whole world on fire, to pinky mauvey fluffy sistine chapel dances of soft light. As the sun sets the sky goes pitch black. The stars come out, crystal clear, satellites moving purposefully in a stately manner, shooting stars crashing rapidly out of sight. Constellations become visible, even the southern cross although we’re still north of the equator. At various times of the night or morning, the moon rises. A full moon unobscured by clouds means your nightwatch will practically be done in daylight with perfect visibility. A slivered or hidden moon means your eyes strain to find the horizon to check for the dim lights of distant boats. Boats that we never saw except those few ships that had first appeared on the AIS. One morning it rained and a huge rainbow arced above us in the sky. We felt like we were sailing through this spectacular coloured arch.
Being at sea becomes normal, your usual state of being. Rocking, wide stanced, holding on for dear life; your entire universe is contained in this little capsule adrift in the middle of the ocean, a thousand miles from anywhere. This is as close as we will get to being in out of space. A little break from the worldly world. A chance to see the earth’s beauty close up and from afar. To feel our aquatic roots and feed our nomadic souls.
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