Not every guy with a little dinghy and big dreams should set off on a journey across a vast ocean. But with some training and the right safety equipment to go with it, an Atlantic crossing isn’t necessarily that big of a deal.
Picture-perfect sunsets. Water gently lapping against the side of the boat. A gentle breeze blowing from behind.
These are not images generally associated with an Atlantic Ocean crossing. Usually those three words conjure up scenes from serious offshore races, with some poor guy in full wet weather gear standing behind the wheel gripping on for dear life. The boat is always lurching over waves as big as skyscrapers, people are dangling precariously over the side, and water is slamming into the cockpit.
The Atlantic can be quite a dangerous stretch of water. You never know what Mother Nature will decide to throw at a little boat in a big ocean. But crossing the Atlantic doesn’t have to involve scenes taken from the nightmares of a sailor.
With a bit of luck and careful timing, this big milestone crossing could very well end up being quite boring. We were Azores-bound by early June, leaving Bermuda among the slow trickle of boats meandering away from the Americas. There’s a very short window each year in which the passage is most likely to be comfortable, and we managed to jump through that window at the perfect time. We spent more hours drifting along next to whales with zero wind to propel us than we did gripping on for dear life. While looking down into the huge eye of a whale can be a bit startling, I’ll take that over a wall of water any day.
We baked bread. We read books. We lazed around in the sun. And while this may not seem like a big deal to many, seasoned sailors may appreciate what a triumph it was that we didn’t break a single thing. Every line, shackle, and bit of electronic gadgetry arrived in the same condition in which they left. After years of sailing through rough seas, we were shocked.
Our crossing took 19 days, which was quite short for us. With no SSB radio onboard, we use a spot tracker to send out our location and a satellite phone to receive free text messages. A close friend sent us the weather every few days, which is how we kept our passage so uneventful. He directed us away from a low pressure system and into calmer waters before the wind picked up, which left us sailing along nicely in 15 knots instead of battening down the hatches 200nm away in 40 knots of wind. We’ve been to so many places where the weather forecasts are notoriously unreliable, making them completely useless offshore. But the forecasts in the Atlantic are almost passable. So to make this crossing as peaceful as possible (or to at least be prepared ahead of time) it really helps to have access to them. Of course, you can always ditch the gadgets and just sail away, as long as you’re prepared to get wet and hold on tight if it doesn’t go to plan.
No matter how hard you try to time a crossing there are no guarantees when it comes to the weather. However, you can definitely reduce some of the risk by leaving at the right time of year during a good weather window. Besides, by the laws of probability if you make sure to be prepared for all the worst case scenarios, then there’s no way any of them will actually happen, right?
People are often worried about being all alone out in the big, empty ocean. Land-based dreamers tend to think that being surrounded by so much water will leave them feeling very tiny in a very big space. But offshore, all alone with my husband and my boat, it’s the exact opposite. With no land in sight you lose all perspective. You become the biggest thing in the whole world. If you stand up and look around, everything is flat in every direction and there’s a continuous straight line where the ocean meets the sky. It’s like being trapped in a little bubble, with invisible walls only just out of reach.
The sun sets a lot slower as you get further away from the equator. I had no idea. As we got closer to Europe, our little bubble was filled with bright orange skies for hours on end as the sun struggled to drop below the horizon. Dolphins danced on our bow wave and a quiet song from our ukulele carried out over the water, attracting curious sea birds. The Atlantic crossing can be a harrowing experience, testing your limits and shaping you as a sailor. But it doesn’t have to be.