Call For a Tow

Atlantic Crossing Preparations


There’s nothing like the imminent departure for a 2,800 mile Atlantic passage to focus the mind. Since Liz and I hadn’t done a passage of more than 470 miles in two years, focus is what we had. The thing is, like the hundreds of other Atlantic passage makers, we had a myriad of issues vying for our focus.

These issues I will break down into four groups and briefly discuss how we plan to deal with them to make what will be the longest passage of our circumnavigation, in 24 years of sailing:

1) Weather and Routing

2) The Crew

3) Safety and Communications

4) The Boat

Weather and Routing

We left Cadiz on Spain’s Atlantic coast last September, to cruise the Atlantic coast of Morocco. From Rabat in Morocco, we sailed 470 miles to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands in late October and are now lying in Las Palmas in Gran Canaria until Dec. 1, at which time we’ll head off for Barbados, some 2,800 miles to the southwest.

A Dec. 1 departure should be well after the Atlantic hurricane season. The Azores high, which persists throughout the late spring to early fall and keeps the weather stable in the eastern north Atlantic, deteriorates, allowing lows to track across from North America to Europe. Boats sailing from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean should be far enough south to avoid the brunt of these weather systems but could be adversely affected by the associated westerly winds and big seas.

For this reason, many head south to the Cape Verde Islands, 800 miles south southwest from the Canaries and cross from there. This reduces the long passage by some 600 to 700 miles and should keep the boat firmly in the benevolent trade wind belt and well south of the nastiness of the north.

Our plan is to sail non stop to Barbados. Depending on the winds, we may not try to sail a straight line to Barbados, but instead, sail south of the direct route to get more firmly ensconced in the northeast trade wind belt. This strategy should also keep one further away from the hurricane path, should a late season hurricane develop.

We’ll be relying on an Ontario (Canuck) based weather forecaster in the form of Herb Hildeberg who operates the ‘South bound net’ to keep us informed of weather systems en route. This good Samaritan has for a long time provided weather info for mariners in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Every evening at 2000 UTC we’ll be dialed into 12359 kilohertz on the SSB long distance radio to learn from Herb what the weather gods will be serving up for us.

The SSB radio will also be put to use enabling us to talk with fellow voyagers within approximately 1,000 miles of us. Daily radio schedules (scheds) will be established so we’ll be able to keep in touch. These scheds will be used to report our position each day, pass along weather information, or other pertinent info ie. shipping traffic, fishing traffic etc.

The Crew

Well over 98% of our passage making in the past has been without crew. This is for two main reasons: 1) We would only take people we know who are experienced. Mid ocean is a bad place to uncover unacceptable behavior traits of any kind. Although we’ve heard success stories of unknown, untested crews working out well, we’ve heard more horror stories. 2) It is usually very expensive for prospective crew to join us for the long trips ie. Mexico to French Polynesia, Vanuatu to Australia, Thailand to the Med. The one way ticket prices can be painfully high.

But the stars were in proper alignment for this trip. Two tried and true sailor friends of many years agreed to escape part of the Canadian winter to join us in our attempt to find the ‘New World.’

Gus Kolaric is a veteran of four Hawaii to Vancouver passages, not to mention one Vancouver to San Francisco trip with Liz and I aboard our previous boat, Hoki Mai, in 1985, a scant 24 years ago.

David Allester is known to many east coast and Caribbean cruisers after having cruised those waters for about 12 seasons with his wife Eileen Quinn aboard Little Gidding. David and Eileen were long time Boat US log contributors and many will have heard some of Eileen’s six music CDs or heard her voice in concert at boat shows or regattas.

Additional crew means sleep deprivation will not mar the enjoyment of the trip. Extra hands will make sail handling easier and safer and should allow us to carry more sail area than we might if just Liz and I were aboard.

Extra crew will mean very real changes in our day to day routines. Daily patterns and routines established over 24 years sailing with just your mate will abruptly be altered and that will require some getting used to.

Provisioning for four instead of two will mean putting twice as much food on the boat. Cooking for four and cleaning up after four will require a different modus operandi from our same old same old.

It will no doubt be a shock to the system but we recognize that Gus and Dave will provide not only basic help in running the boat, but also new and different perspectives on cruising as well as provide us with good company to boot.

Safety and Communications

In the belief that staying safe on the boat means staying on the boat, the crew will be encouraged to wear safety harnesses whenever on deck outside the cockpit.

Jack lines will run fore and aft from bow to stern on both sides of the boat and be securely tied to cleats. The safety harness’ four foot tether with heavy duty karabiner on its end will be snapped onto the jack line. This allows the crew members more freedom of movement while moving around the deck.

Heaven forbid we need to abandon ship, but if so, it would be to our newly acquired four person life raft. Although it comes with some supplies, we also prepare a rather large water proof bag filled with additional provisions and supplies such as canned and dried foods, water packs, knife, fishing tackle, flares, portable VHF radio etc. For additional drinking water, we’ll keep two 20 liter jugs of fresh water on deck beside the raft to be tied to the raft when the raft is deployed.

Our Epirb 406 (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and flares are stowed alongside companionway steps for easy access should they be required.

Last but not least, we’ll take, in a backpack, our newly acquired Epirb 406 (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon). This beacon should send out a signal to satellite stations for 48 hours, long enough for our position to be found and rescue vessels to be alerted and dispatched.

The Boat

In readying the boat, we have to keep in mind our main objectives. We have to keep it floating, we want the mast to stay up straight and the sails to propel us in the direction in which we wish to go.

Keeping it floating

Check that all hoses and hose clamps are in good shape. This means checking all of them and tightening all hose clamps and replacing any showing signs of wear. All through-hull fittings are checked and sea cocks are opened and closed to ensure their proper operation. All bilge pumps and bilge pump switches, stuffing boxes (one for the propeller and one for the rudder shaft) are checked. If stuffing boxes are found to be leaking excessively, tighten as required. We close deck vents and remove dorades. Deck hatches are covered and secured by dome fasteners to prevent water ingress and minimize the possibility of the hatches being ripped off by deck sweeping waves. We disconnect our bow anchor and plug the anchor windlass hawse pipe. We’ve learned the hard way that a shocking amount of sea water can find its way into the boat through that seemingly small hole at the bow of the boat.

Keeping the mast up

Pre-departure check list means a thorough rig inspection, looking at all fittings employed in keeping the mast up. All turnbuckles are secured with split rings as are all clevis pins in all toggles.

All standing rigging wires are checked for cracks, especially where they enter swage fittings. The swages themselves are checked for cracks. These cracks can be so fine, a magnifying glass is used.

After the examination on deck is completed, a trip up the mast is made to check wires and swages aloft as well as mast tangs, spreaders and spreader tips. While aloft, wind instruments and VHF radio antenna attachment, anchor light and navigation lights can be checked. The halyard shivs should be rotated to check for freedom of movement and all halyards checked for wear.

Sails: ‘Keep the Drive Alive’

For the first time on a long downwind passage, we plan to run twin head sails only, each poled out on different sides of the boat for most of the trip. We are doing this because we believe taking the mainsail out of the equation will make the passage much safer. Not having to worry about accidentally jibing the main with that potentially lethal boom should make sleeping easier on those long, dark, windy nights. In anticipation of such a strategy, we installed a second inner forestay on which we hank a second jib. We hope this sail configuration will also make the boat more directionally stable and make life easier for our windvane and autopilot. We’ll see.

So by now you get the idea one needn’t worry about not having enough to do on a cruising sailboat soon to depart on a long trip, and we haven’t even talked about provisioning for four for a trip that could take up to 30 days! Liz will talk about that next.