Sailing Across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean
Updated: Jan 14, 2020
For us, crossing the Atlantic ocean from Europe was a rite of passage. The reason we bought Polaris, a blue water performance sailing catamaran, was to cross oceans. After sailing our first 4,480 nautical miles (NM) on Polaris over the summer of 2019 in the Mediterranean, it was time to do some big passages. We decided to cross the Atlantic in two segments. The first was from Lanzarote in the Canary islands to Mindelo in the Cape Verdes some 997 NM and the second was from Mindelo to Antigua, in the lesser Antilles, a further 2,180 NM. For both passages we had (the same) two additional crew.We treated the first passage as the beginning of the overall Atlantic crossing in that we ensured we left Lanzarote with enough food to see us through to well beyond Antigua. The same is true of; the ship’s medical supplies, spare parts and other consumables including water and fuel. Essentially, though, by breaking the trip up into two parts we enforced a sort of practice run with a rest stop in Mindelo. The first leg would be an opportunity for us to work with the crew off shore and a chance to weed out any bad habits. In addition, it provided time to recharge, buy extra fresh foods and of course explore Mindelo and its surrounds.
Lanzarote to the Cape Verdes
Leaving Lanzarote in November felt a long time coming. We had been in Marina Rubicon for over Six weeks including a visit back to Ireland and the UK. It was certainly time to leave and our two crew joined us around Five days before departure. If you are ever thinking of taking crew on a longer passage I would highly recommend getting them involved in less consequential stuff before hand to ensure there is good synergy, to allow the group to get acquainted and to understand each other’s communication style. On their first night with us we decided to dine out on neutral territory and put time into getting to know each other. We also went on a beautiful hike the following morning, again putting the emphasis on a non-sailing activity to build the team. There would be plenty of time for sailing. Through these two days we realised many common areas of interest and, at a basic level, were able to quickly ascertain that these two guys were really nice. We were not only happy to have them come sail with us but knew we were likely to build friendships with them both. This was very important to us because we were effectively inviting two strangers to come and live in our home 24 hours a day for between Four and Six weeks all things considered.
Arrival in Mindelo
The passage to Mindelo took Eight days. In that time we shared some magical moments as a team. We saw a whale off the stern one day while sitting in the cockpit eating lunch. A few days after that, just when our energy levels were dwindling, a pod of dolphins came to swim and play between the bows… a sight one never ever tires of. Then both Tom, Jim and I each caught a Mahi Mahi, transforming a slightly bored crew by providing us with a new focus as we fought, caught, filleted, cooked and ate our delicious catches. These provided many delicious lunches and dinners for the remainder of the passage and beyond. From a sailing perspective and keeping in mind that we viewed this as a training passage for the second bigger one, we used the opportunity to practice flying the Spinnaker and Gennaker and general downwind sailing options including sailing wing on wing with our Main and Genoa. Jim and I did not have much need for these downwind sailing configurations in the Mediterranean so it was great to have two extra people on-hand in case something went wrong.
On this first passage the crew worked together as a unit and we made only a few minor adjustments in the second passage. Firstly , in the first passage I was doing all the cooking but I also had, arguably the most tiring night watch, from Two until Five am. I also did the same amount of sailing as everyone else and Jim decided to change my night watch to Five - Eight am shift instead. Secondly, initially we had decided the night watches should be done in pairs with Jim plus one crew and I plus the other crew. The thinking being that I know how Jim requires things to be done safely and Jim and I both know the boat therefore neither of our two new crew would be without one of us for guidance. After a few short days we decided that the weather was fairly calm and we trusted the crew enough to wake us for a specified reason which Jim had outlined before. That decision led to us all getting almost twice the amount of sleep, a rare luxury Jim and I had not enjoyed before when sailing just the two of us. Thirdly, the first passage was also a chance for me to cook for the guys and understand what they do and do not like. They were both very flexible overall but I was able to tone down spices and increase other flavours I could tell they preferred. For both passages I had a meal plan to guide me but it was flexible based on what people felt like or what was feasible and comfortable to prepare given the sea state.
Cape Verdes to the Caribbean
After a euphoric arrival in Mindelo and several provisioning trips, incredible sight seeing days and even a kitesurfing session for Jim we all felt ready to leave. Mindelo is a vibrant African island but we were soon very keen to get underway. We had been there for five days and the longer we spent there the more we just wanted to get the longer second passage started! But as is often the case with these things there were a few delays. Captain Hooper had us working pretty hard preparing the boat but on the other hand he had banned us from leaving if we were over-tired. He wanted us to have all the tasks done and then a day of complete relaxation.. Although things took longer than expected Jim still insisted on the day of rest day and he was right. The final delay was due to the fuel dock being out of order. Despite having enough fuel we wanted to be sure that we could turn the engines on in and motor for as long as necessary in an emergency. Once finally ready to leave we had the last small obstacle. A 25 knot cross wind providing an extremely tricky manouever for Jim to get Polaris out of the berth without drifting into Four boats, their mooring lines or the several mooring buoys scattered all around us. But with careful calculation, he did it and as we departed there was loud applause from onlooking boat owners.
The first Six days
After leaving the marina we had 20 knots apparent wind at our backs and we were all excited. Jim was very cautious though as he kept a very close eye on everything and everyone especially on that first day. We were all bound to be a bit rusty and this could easily be when mistakes might happen. The swell was huge and after the initial high of leaving, I began to prepare dinner and was being thrown all over the boat. In those conditions the boat is transformed into a much more hazardous environment with obstacles all around. The stairs are to be carefully avoided as the boat’s violent movements threaten to throw you down them. My regular confrontation with the hob gave me many new bruises. And in the cockpit area the stakes are very high with the ocean all around you. A wave can throw you from one side to the other if you are not holding on pre-emptively and either helm can feel a very vulnerable place to be as waves crash over the back of your head and soak you and the entire area.
The weather in this first phase continued like this for about Six days. Really confused seas, huge waves making for sleepless nights for some and difficulty performing basic actions such as cooking, using the toilet, showering, walking around etc. In parallel to the weather, I would also say it took the crew about the same amount of time to settle into their respective rhythms. I’m sure some of us were asking ourselves where the bliss of the first passage to Mindelo had gone? Where were the fish we had so proudly caught? And what of the incredible clear skies at night and evenings sometime spent together up at the trampolines chatting? In these first six days each of us struggled slightly to settle in.
Day Six to Day 11
Around day Six a silent peace fell over the boat. The wind abated slightly, the swell reduced just enough for everybody to get adequate sleep and rest time. We were back to star gazing and were sailing mostly under a reefed Main and Genoa. The conditions were excellent and we were in the best of spirits. Days were spent cooking, reading and playing Texas holdem. The fishing lines were out and Keiran finally caught a delicious Mahi Mahi even-ing up the scoreboard. In this intervening period I can honestly say I didn’t even want to arrive. The routine was addictive, the days were flying by, each indiscernible from the last. We all seemed to be getting something important out of the experience and the atmosphere was sociable; eating together, listening to podcasts on the sound system and sharing books around.
The final strait- Land Ahoy!
Naturally though curiosity got the better of us and come day 11 we were scouring the guide books on Antigua. We were discussing what we were looking forward to most about making landfall and even making a phone call on our satellite phone to the marina in Antigua to check the local time! We had been adjusting the time backwards gradually but were unsure of the exact time in our destination. The team had a minor debate about what time to set the clocks to; whether to Antiguan time or to simply arrive there and change the time after that. We were clearly starting to get slightly fed up and we would all be happy to arrive sooner rather than later. Of course simultaneously the wind died and Polaris consequently slowed right down! Trying to make the most of the final few days though we flew the spinnaker and Jim and I successfully put it up and took it down unassisted. As we got closer to Antigua the wind continued to reduce. We were also tracking to arrive in the dead of night and so as if to draw things out yet further we reduced our sails to a very reefed Genoa to slow us more and therefore ensure a daylight arrival. At 8am on the 23rd of December 2019 after 14 days at sea, we arrived. The sight of land that morning was magical. Antigua looked lush and tropical. Arriving at Nelson’s Dockyard in English harbour felt surreal. The dockyard is a UNESCO heritage site and its beautiful buildings have been lovingly restored and maintained. We were surrounded by colourful, exotic gardens with Pelicans flying overhead. As Jim docked the boat we all congratulated each other. The sense of achievement was overwhelming.
Overall both passages were very successful. Nothing broke and everyone remained safe. We had some challenging weather in parts but overall the wind remained at our back and helped us along everyday. The success of the passage though was not simply down to luck. Our captain made good decisions throughout and taking a conservative approach to sailing ensured an event free experience. We always reduced sails in use at night and always had a reef in the Main when using it to allow for squalls. We reefed by the numbers provided by Catana and that kept everything under control. We had more than enough food and a team of willing participants that made the most of everyday. Reflecting back, I would do it all again. Both crossings thankfully cemented my resolve to continue sailing around the world with Jim. If anything, I enjoyed life at sea even more than I expected. Overall I actually prefer longer ocean passages to coastal sailing, in some ways it can be easier! The weather can be more stable meaning less sail changes. There’s few other obstacles to worry about and there’s no headache to face associated with anchoring or docking. You can truly immerse yourself in sailing, fishing, cooking or reading and there is little in the way of social media to detract from the beauty that surrounds you. Sailing across an ocean to me, makes the world feel smaller and more individually conquerable. We actually got ourselves there and we felt every day of it. Unlike how abstract it can feel to step off an airplane; a mode of transport whose speed somehow obfuscates the distance; makes it feel slightly unreal compared to sailing somewhere yourself as you watch the landscape, weather and timezone change before your eyes. We didn’t use the engines once, we really did get all the way to Antigua under sail alone and that is a very satisfying thought. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to sail so far so early in my sailing life and we are now looking forward to the months ahead-exploring the Caribbean islands.