What does it really take to sail an Atlantic circuit? Justin Halewood cuts through the noise to share what he and his family have learned
For many people, sailing the Atlantic Circuit is a voyage of a lifetime, encompassing both adventure and the challenge of crossing the world’s second-largest ocean. Yet, like any great adventure, it’s not immune to myths and misconceptions that can cloud the perception of what the journey truly entails. This is perhaps particularly true in an age of social media, which has undeniably helped to promulgate fallacies about living on a boat and sailing offshore.
Many Instagram accounts (ours included) paint a picture of uninterrupted serenity and often omit the everyday challenges and hard work that come with life at sea. This idealised version of sailing can lead to unrealistic expectations among aspiring liveaboards, who may not fully grasp the complexities, responsibilities, and occasional hardships involved. It’s important for prospective voyagers to view these stories with a discerning eye and seek a well-rounded understanding of the sailing lifestyle beyond the Instagram filter.
In this article, we’ll delve into some common myths associated with the Atlantic Circuit in particular, looking for the facts behind the fables. The examples below are based on our own experiences and will probably provoke strenuous disagreement as well as knowing nods.
To state the obvious, what holds true for one boat and crew may not necessarily apply to another, as each voyage is a unique combination of conditions, experiences, and perspectives.
Orcas are your enemy
In recent times, the mere mention of orcas along the Iberian coastline has conjured visions of formidable marine predators lurking beneath the surface, poised to tear off the rudders of unsuspecting yachts. While reports of orca interactions are increasing, it’s important to remember there are no recorded incidents of wild orcas harming humans in their natural habitat – so if your boat is attacked, try not to take it personally.
Since 2020, three vessels have sunk after these encounters around the Iberian coastline, out of roughly 500 documented interactions. It is estimated that orcas make contact with only one out of every 100 boats sailing through their location. By my rudimentary calculations, this means the odds of being sunk while navigating through ‘orca alley’ might be in the realm of approximately 1 in 5,000. I would suggest the odds of getting caught up in a lobster pot along the same stretch of coastline are far, far higher, potentially with similar disabling consequences to your typical orca attack.
Though I want to avoid trivialising the matter, it was noteworthy to us that some cruisers had resorted to extraordinary measures to safeguard their vessels, including the preparation of explosives, chemicals and diesel to pour over the side.
It’s worth mentioning that the Iberian orcas, with a population numbering a mere 39 individuals, are designated as critically endangered. Any form of harm inflicted upon them falls squarely within the category of a criminal offence, as defined by an array of regulations and treaties, potentially carrying severe penalties, including imprisonment.
Take reasonable precautions by timing your passages to avoid periods of high interactions in particular areas (there is good data for this now) and the risk becomes a negligible one to be managed as for any other hazard at sea.
For the most part, encountering orcas while embarking on the Atlantic Circuit is a captivating and awe-inspiring experience rather than a cause for alarm. Cherish the moment, respect their domain, and let it serve as a reminder that we are privileged guests in their habitat.
You’ll sail downwind most of the time
One undeniable truth about the traditional East to West Atlantic Circuit is the prevalence of downwind sailing. While the wind won’t be aft of the beam a full 100% of the time, if you pick your weather windows carefully, it can come close.
Perhaps our surprise at this was a result of being conditioned to beating into southwesterlies in the Solent, rather than sailing with the prevailing wind direction. For that reason it’s worth focusing your preparations for life on the run, preparing for rolling with lee cloths and safe stowage; having a good gybe-preventer system; and downwind sail options you’re confident with offshore (our preferred sail plan was two genoas run wing-on-wing, plus main when possible).
Cruising chutes, spinnakers and parasails can be a fun addition to your sail wardrobe but ask yourself if you’re happy gybing with them, leaving them up overnight or using them with self-steering systems, particularly if short-handed.
Expensive upgrades are a luxury
Some may harbour the delusion that worn-out gear and minimal spares will suffice for an Atlantic Circuit. This notion is not only misleading but potentially dangerous. In our experience the importance of reliable equipment cannot be overstated.
The Atlantic crossing in particular is an unforgiving environment, with UV, chafe, swell and high temperatures subjecting your boat and its equipment to new and unchartered demands. These conditions have a nasty habit of finding where you’ve taken shortcuts with your preparations.
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Two common examples from our experience: Trying to get by with a single electronic auto-helm – most are not designed for continuous use in rough conditions and can fail if overworked. If short-handed, this is a vital piece of equipment and its failure can lead to dangerous levels of fatigue among crew trying to juggle hand-steering, sleep, cooking and sail changes. Take a spare or better yet, invest in a reliable wind vane system (we chose a Hydrovane).
We took a wide range of spares but didn’t use most of them. But those we did use helped us avoid stressful situations waiting for packages to arrive in remote places. Plus, the cost of spares once out of Europe can be shockingly high.
There appears to be a certain ‘make do and mend’ romantic sentimentality among some cruisers. Self-sufficiency has its charms, but it’s crucial to remember that your safety, as well as that of your vessel (and other boats nearby who may be tasked to help if your equipment fails), is paramount. Prepare yourselves and the boat as thoroughly as you can, trying to avoid over-thinking the investment in purely monetary terms.
The Caribbean is the ultimate destination
While the Caribbean may evoke images of idyllic, sun-soaked sailing adventures, it’s not always the tropical and tranquil haven it’s be made out to be (and perhaps once was), especially when compared to the more familiar waters of the UK and Europe.
Behind the Caribbean’s postcard-perfect exterior, there are plenty of inescapable downsides. Unpredictable weather, vicious squalls and choppy seas can make short passages between islands feel like relatively epic endeavours. Sweltering heat and humidity can make conditions down below uncomfortable and sleeping without fans or cooling difficult. Additionally, provisioning can be expensive, as food prices soar outside Europe.
If and when we set sail again in future, we’d be tempted to stay in Europe. The nine islands in the Azores, two in Madeira and seven in the Canaries make for a good alternative to the Caribbean, with arguably better weather and sailing conditions; cheaper and higher-quality provisioning; and well-equipped marinas. One marina in the Atlantic islands worked out at 7 euros a night for a 36ft monohull, with water, electricity and the use of washing machines and showers included!
While it is hard to beat a Caribbean sunset spent on anchor, it is important to be realistic about the pros and cons of all cruising areas, keeping an open mind to less conventional destinations.
Provisioning can be incredibly expensive
As you sail away from European shores, another myth that may unravel is the idea that provisioning will be more affordable in less developed areas, with an abundance of fresh local produce. The opposite is often true.
In particular, when you reach the Caribbean or more remote areas, the cost of food can rise significantly. The islands rely on imports that are often heavily taxed, which can drive up prices for both essential provisions and dining out.
We made a hobby out of finding new record prices for our provisions, with £14 for a single cauliflower in Antigua being a favourite. The best solution appears to be to stock up as far as possible in Europe (think sauces, condiments, dried goods, luxuries), with the exception of rum that is in plentiful and cheap supply once you reach The Antilles.
Insurance is simple
Securing insurance for an Atlantic circuit voyage is an often-underestimated challenge. Many sailors are surprised by the complexities involved in obtaining comprehensive cover for the transatlantic leg in particular, even after years of loyal custom with their existing provider. Factors such as vessel condition, crew experience, safety equipment, and planned route all weigh heavily in the underwriting process. It’s definitely worth investing time and effort in finding an insurer willing to provide adequate cover at a reasonable cost before setting off.
A shoestring budget is fine
One of the enduring myths surrounding the Atlantic circuit is that it can be undertaken on a shoestring budget, subsisting on freshly caught wild lobsters while spending life on the hook.
While the concept is well grounded in historical precedents, it’s crucial to dispel this notion for modern-day cruisers. There is no avoiding the fact that sailing an Atlantic circuit demands careful planning and financial preparedness. From ongoing vessel maintenance and renewing safety equipment, to provisioning and marina fees, the costs can quickly add up.
Be careful of economical ‘budgets’ proudly shared by other cruisers, as they often seem to omit expenditure on maintenance (I’ve sometimes wondered if this is some form of coping mechanism) and treat UK-based expenditure as an invisible line item (i.e. home insurance, phone bills and mortgage costs).
In summary, there appears to be a unique set of accounting rules for sailors that help us avoid the reality that this is not a cheap hobby.
Attempting the journey with insufficient funds may not only jeopardise your safety but also limit your ability to fully embrace the experience. In reality, while budget-conscious sailors can find ways to economise, it’s essential to acknowledge that this is not an endeavour that can be undertaken without a reasonable financial commitment.
Plan your budget then add 50%.
The sun is both friend and enemy
As you head south, basking under the sun’s increasingly warm embrace is undoubtedly a delight but too much of a good thing can have adverse effects on your skin and overall well-being. Having good protection from the sun is vital to ensuring your crew don’t end up with sunstroke, sunburn and dehydration.
First and foremost, ensure your cockpit is adequately shielded from the sun with a decent bimini that can be left up while sailing. As you head into the tropics, having side panels to protect you from the morning and late-afternoon rays will feel like a wonderful luxury. In addition to our bimini, we purchased some simple canopies to protect the cockpit and shade the deck while on anchor and in marinas.
Furthermore, don’t forget the importance of personal sun protection. Encourage the use of broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF rating, wide-brimmed hats, and sunglasses to shield eyes from glare. We added a cockpit bag before we left that always held a bottle of sunscreen alongside soothing aloe vera gel for post-sun exposure relief. If you’re luck with hats is anything like mine, it’s worth taking a good number with you.
Lastly, hydration is key to staying sun-smart. We weren’t really fans of soft drinks before leaving, but having refreshingly chilled beverages such as coconut water and other electrolyte-rich liquids helped us stay hydrated while providing a welcome treat on passage.
Cruising in schengen is off the cards
For British sailors exploring European waters post-Brexit, complying with the 90-day rule within a 180-day period in the Schengen Area presents a significant logistical challenge. Reading many blogs and articles, you’ll be told it’s crucial to maintain accurate records of entry and exit dates, as overstaying can result in fines, penalties, or even being denied entry into Schengen countries in the future.
Adhering to this rule can result in a relatively rushed dash south to the Canaries in time for your crossing. The problem comes when trying to cross Biscay before the end of August but not wanting to leave the Canaries until the trades establish typically in mid to late November. When you factor in waiting for good weather, this plan often means you have less time to explore the Atlantic coast of Europe along the way.
In our opinion to miss spending time in areas like the Spanish Rias would be to pass over some of the best parts of an Atlantic circuit. In addition, the artificially compressed time frame involved with leaving the UK later in summer in order to comply with the 90-day limit, can create pressure to accept less favourable weather windows and therefore pose higher risks to boat and crew. We didn’t think this was acceptable or in the spirit of the regulations.
But there are options. To extend your time in Schengen waters beyond the initial 90 days, it is worth considering long-term tourist visas or residency permits, a process that requires months of planning. The process is even more involved if you plan to visit America and it’s worth keeping in mind that (technically) you’re unable to sail into the US on just an ETSA.
The Cruising Association is a great source of guidance and www.noonsite.com has a helpful section for each country’s immigration procedures. Some cruisers ignore the regulations altogether – something that is perhaps more feasible in Schengen than it is in the US (or so I’m told).
Never trust the forecast
Obtaining weather forecasts is undoubtedly a critical part of any competent sailor’s preparations for a passage but we often found them to be inaccurate, specifically in underestimating the strength of the breeze. We struggle to think of an offshore passage where we did not at some stage experience 30 knots despite typically leaving with a forecast of less than 20. Add into that the influence of acceleration zones and katabatic breezes, and predicting the wind strength felt more like a game of roulette than a science.
In the end, alongside religiously downloading our GRIBS and consulting forecast apps before departure, we also relied on intuition and experience, developing a rule of thumb to take the maximum forecasted wind strength and add 10 knots. We also started to focus on the sea state rather than wind, aiming for forecasts with short and long-range swell of less than 2m to ensure a comfortable passage.
Anchoring is for pros, marinas are for wimps
One of the enduring myths among sailors is the belief that every picturesque anchorage promises an idyllic, peaceful night’s rest. While escaping the greedy clutches of marinas in order to spend life on the hook undoubtedly has huge appeal, this utopian notion can be quickly dispelled by a rolly anchorage (at least for monohulls). Seemingly serene bays or coves could transform into the bane of our existence as we grappled with relentless rolling caused by swell that was often barely visible. For whatever reason, the rolling is typically far more irritating than that experienced when sailing downwind in a swell, often starting in the middle of the night as surface cooling stills the breeze. Over time, we learned to welcome a steady breeze to hold the boat steady.
It is also worth noting that in many places on the Atlantic Circuit, marinas can be surprisingly affordable. We found that the Spanish Rias, Madeira and, in particular, the Canaries, offered fantastic value for the level of comfort these marinas offered versus the nearby anchorages, that in the case of the Atlantic islands, often suffer from rolling and poor holding. Despite this we often encountered overly positive accounts of various anchorages, something we felt was often borne out of a pressure to appear intrepid.
In conclusion, embarking on the Atlantic circuit is a formidable undertaking that promises adventure, challenges, and a deep connection with the open ocean. While myths and misconceptions may abound, understanding the realities of this voyage is crucial for safe and successful navigation. Dispelling these myths ensures that sailors are well prepared to face the unpredictable elements and unique experiences that make the Atlantic circuit an unforgettable journey.
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