Sailing across an ocean, there are myriad sail plans and systems to choose from to power you across an ocean. We spoke to six ARC 2014 finishers to find out what works best
A warm wind at your back, the azure main rolling beneath your keel and unfettered miles left reeling in your wake. That’s the dream at least, but crossing an ocean isn’t always plain sailing, as the crews of the 2014 edition of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) discovered.
Those who took the rhumb line westwards from Gran Canaria to St Lucia in the Caribbean sailed hard and fast, and got wet as a result. Others sailed south for kinder but slower conditions. While some boats were sailing for glory, and others for comfort, or even just to arrive in one piece, they all proved that every Atlantic crossing is different and that preparation is the key to a successful passage.
After choosing a yacht and picking a crew, an Atlantic skipper must decide what sail plans to use and how to steer the boat. The range of options is huge. Sail-plans range from a simple main and genoa to more exotic coloured sails, and steering options span helming by hand, to windvane self-steering and electric autopilot systems.
Sails and steering interact and the two have to get along, so it’s never going to be a simple choice. The final decision may be based on many factors, but it’s only when land has slipped astern that these choices are really tested.
With the Atlantic behind them and the Caribbean sun overhead, we went to find out how the ARC crews got on.
10 tips from our Atlantic crews
- Learning to use ‘coloured sails’ offshore with confidence really pays off when running in light or moderate winds.
- Production boats are usually under-specified for ocean sailing. Replace fittings with stronger ones.
- Sail together beforehand. A long ocean passage can be really intense.
- Take lots of water, you’ll need it. If in doubt, take more.
- Take foul weather gear as it can be cold and wet. It is, after all, the North Atlantic in December.
- Know the noises your boat makes. A different sound is the first warning when something isn’t right.
- Food is important for morale. Seasoning and herbs go a long way. Little treats make a big difference.
- Clean out the fuel tank and take plenty of spare parts and filters as one isn’t enough, and know how to change them.
- A twin-grooved headsail foil gives more sail plan options than a single one.
- Satellite communications are a boon, but expect teething problems.
What is the best sail plan for ocean sailing?
The ‘best’ sail plans depends on your boat and crew, but our crews agreed on a few points:
- Mainsail and poled-out genoa are more than adequate to get you across the pond, and most boats have these already. It may be underpowered in light winds, and getting the mainsail down in a squall isn’t easy.
- Twin headsails are simple, give a good amount of sail area and are easily furled. They lack power in lighter conditions and can make the boat roll. Two poles with guys and good sheeting angles are important.
- Coloured sails boost speed in certain conditions, but they require practice to build confidence. Mid-ocean, with large swells running, is not the time to try it for the first time. A symmetric spinnaker is best, but a cruising chute, wing-and-wing with the poled out genoa, is a good compromise. A Parasailor is significantly more stable than a conventional kite, but isn’t a panacea for all downwind sailing.
- Self-steering systems make life easier, but all have weak points. Electric autopilots are
usually reliable and accurate but guzzle power in rough conditions. Servo-pendulum windvanes such as the Monitor and Windpilot, which use a small foil to generate power to move the main rudder, tend to meander in light following winds. The Hydrovane, which steers directly with an auxiliary rudder, was reported to be a bit more accurate. Whatever setup you have, be sure to test it thoroughly before the off.
What is a Parasailor and how does it work?
A Parasailor is a symmetrical spinnaker with a difference. It is the same shape as a spinnaker, but it has a gap across its middle, held together by cords. Attached to these cords is a fabric wing that inflates like a parachute.
Its makers claim it does three things:
- The gap allows air to flow over and through the sail, creating a steady airflow and making the sail more stable.
- The wing holds the width of the sail out and dampens the speed and force with which the sail can collapse.
- The wing creates lift, reducing the force pushing the bow down into the water, making the boat more directionally stable and less prone to roll.
Using a snuffer, it can be set from the bow, a pole, or flown loose like a kite. It’s not cheap, it’s still a spinnaker and needs some practice, but the manufacturer claims it puts the enjoyment back into downwind sailing.
The ARC 2014: facts and figures
- Start Las Palmas, Gran Canaria
- Finish Rodney Bay, St Lucia
- Rhumb-line distance 2700 miles
- Fastest crossing Leopard by Finland (100ft Maxi), new record of 8 days, 14 hours, 39 minutes and 51 seconds.
- Average cruiser crossing 18 days, 11 hours
- Slowest crossing Efwa (Allegro 33), 25,days 13 hours, 34 minutes
- Shortest distance sailed Atalanta (Oyster 575) 2,690 miles
- Longest distance sailed Sanuk (Bavaria 47) 3,298 miles
- Average number of crew per boat in cruising division 5 adults
- Damage 22 boats suffered damage to sails, rigging or autopilots, mostly due to the forces of wind and waves on fully-laden boats
- Drop-outs 6 boats dropped out for medical or gear failure reasons
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