By Don Street
Spring is in the air and some sailors are thinking of leaving the Eastern Caribbean, heading to North America or Europe.
Check the chart and don’t leave yet!
Do not leave the Eastern Caribbean until after the first week in May. Northwest fronts can come out of the States in April and even early May. I well remember early May 1968, powering up through the East River in New York on the 62-foot sloop Djinn with the wind blowing 25, gusting over 30, with sleet. This made the deck so slippery the captain said, “No one out of the cockpit until we get to City Island.”
The number of boats that I’ve known that left for Europe too early and had disasters or near disasters while approaching the Azores are so numerous I will not bother counting them.
To plan your passage, purchase Imray Iolaire passage chart 100, which covers the whole North Atlantic and the Caribbean. It is a gnomonic projection, where a straight line indicates a Great Circle course. On the chart are all the normal Great Circle courses that are likely to be sailed by a yacht, with the distance to be sailed. The booklet with the chart contains weather and wave-height charts for the months when yachts are most likely to be sailing in the North Atlantic. The weather charts show wind direction, frequency and strength, and the percentage of calms plus gale frequency.
If you are heading from the islands to the US East Coast, the Canadian Maritimes or Europe, you must be prepared to weather a gale or near gale, but the chances of running into a gale are minimized if you leave after the end of the first week in May. A gale is Force 8 on the Beaufort Scale, which means 40 knots or more, sometimes much more. Winter gales are usually stronger than summer gales. April gales will most likely be more severe than May gales.
The weather charts also show areas and frequency of wave heights of 12 feet or over. The chart does not show how much over 12 feet can be expected. Remember that if the waves are running 12 feet, occasionally they will get in sync and waves of 24 feet will arrive.
Experienced offshore sailors say, “Anyone heading north or northeast from the Eastern Caribbean before the end of the first week in May is playing Russian roulette with three bullets in the cylinder.” This is also my conclusion, based on 70 years of reading about disasters, being told of disasters firsthand and hearing many second-hand reports, backed up by 12 transatlantics (seven on the engineless Iolaire), plus almost 40 trips between the Eastern Caribbean and the US East Coast or the reverse.
“The chance of running into a gale in the Atlantic is minimized if you leave after the end of the first week in May.”
Heading to the US East Coast
Heading to the US East Coast there are basically three different routes:
• From the islands to Bermuda and onward;
• From the islands direct to the mouth of the Chesapeake;
• From the Virgin Islands on a course a little north of west, passing north of Puerto Rico; the Navidad, Silver and Mouchoir Banks, and the northern edge of the Bahamas, until the Gulf Stream is reached.
Boats heading to New York, New England or the Maritimes often head to Bermuda: course north, 830 miles from St. Thomas, and 930 miles from Antigua. Conditions on this route vary drastically. Ideally, you’ll have a fast beam reach in the tradewinds for the first 500 or 600 miles, and then run into a hundred miles of light airs. Eventually a southwester should fill in and take you on to Bermuda.
This does not always happen, however. In 1980 so many boats were heading to Bermuda after Antigua Sailing Week that a race was organized among about 15 of them. They left Antigua with a booming tradewind—which died at the end of 24 hours. There was no wind from there to Bermuda. All abandoned the race and motorsailed until their fuel ran out. Hot racing boats (with very frustrated crews on board) were taking 11 and 12 days to do the 900 miles.
In 1985, Iolaire had a normal passage north to Bermuda until, on the fifth day out, I saw a big black cloud moving in from the west. We shortened down before it hit and then spent the next 36 hours under double-reefed main and staysail.
Bermuda to Newport or Halifax
The sail northward from Bermuda to Newport can be an easy trip, 635 miles on a course approximately northwest, sped along by the prevailing southwest wind. But it is worthwhile to consult a weather router to avoid any bad northwest fronts blasting off the coast. It is also very important, before leaving Bermuda, to ascertain the location of the southeast meander of the Gulf Stream. When racing from New England to Bermuda, boats that find the southeast meander and stay in it are among the top finishers. But if you run into the southeast meander when heading northwest, it stops you dead.
Again, keep track of the weather and do not get caught in the Gulf Stream by a cold front that swings from north to northeast. This can cause horrific conditions. If necessary head south, back toward Bermuda, get out of the Stream and wait for the front to pass. If you get caught, shorten sail, slow down or heave to until the blow passes and wind shifts.
Some boats head due north from Bermuda, sail 720 miles to Halifax, and then cruise the Nova Scotia coast to the Bras d’Or Lakes (fresh water, no fog). They then exit the north end of the lakes and sail to the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon to stock up on inexpensive beer, wine and booze, French cheeses and reputedly the best French bread in North America. Then 40 miles on to Port Fortune, Newfoundland, to top off fuel, water and stores and do a crew change if necessary. (Port Fortune has daily bus service to Newfoundland’s capital, St. John’s.) Then they take off to Ireland, 1720 miles, or stay and enjoy an unusual summer cruising ground.
To the Chesapeake
If you are headed to the mouth of the Chesapeake, arrange to contact your weather router periodically en route. This is because from the time you leave the islands to the time you’re approaching the Gulf Stream will be approximately nine days, and the pre-departure weather forecast may no longer be valid. A weather router’s advice at this point will be invaluable. You want to make sure you are not caught in the Gulf Stream with a hard northeaster blowing against the Stream.
From St. Thomas head north-northwest approximately 900 miles to approximately 33°N, 67°W, then head directly for the mouth of the Chesapeake, about 450 miles. Check again with the weather router, as you do not want to get caught by a northeaster.
Lay a course to a waypoint 70 miles east of the entrance to the Chesapeake. Head for this waypoint, and then turn west and enter the Chesapeake. This route keeps you well clear of Cape Hatteras, the graveyard of many ships over the last four centuries.
The total distance on this route is 1,400 to 1,500 miles.
The safest route
From the Virgin Islands, sail on a course a little north of west, passing north of Puerto Rico, the Navidad, Silver and Mouchoir Banks, and the northern edge of the Bahamas, until you reach the Gulf Stream. With luck you will carry the tradewinds all the way to the Gulf Stream. Then ride the Stream north. Then, again with luck, you will pick up the southwesterlies. For the first thousand miles you will have a two-thirds to one-knot favorable current. When you reach the Gulf Stream, it will boot you along at two to three knots. This will usually compensate for the extra distance, 250 or 300 extra miles sailed, compared to the rhumb-line route.
Check the weather and contact your weather router. If the weather stays favorable (wind west clocking around to southeast) continue north. But if the weather is going to go counter clockwise from northwest around to the east, duck into Charleston, having sailed roughly 1150 miles from St. Thomas. If your boat draws seven feet or less with an air draft of under 64 feet, you can continue on up the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway). If this is not possible, enjoy Charleston until the weather turns favorable, and then continue north.
If you have favorable weather and continue on past Charleston, as you approach Morehead City and Beaufort again check with your weather router. If the wind stays favorable continue to the mouth of the Chesapeake, or on up the coast to your desired destination.
If there is any indication that the wind is going north-northeast or east, duck into the Morehead City/Beaufort entrance. Cape Hatteras is a graveyard of ships that have run into a northeaster while in the Gulf Stream running northeast at three knots. If you cannot fit underneath the 64-foot bridge south of Norfolk, sit in Beaufort, enjoy the excellent seafood restaurants and wait for a weather change. If you can fit under the bridge, head to Norfolk via the ICW—two and a half days to Norfolk is a reasonable time.
Heading to Europe
When heading to Europe there are various routes:
• North to Bermuda as previously described, then from Bermuda either direct to Ireland or England, or east to the Azores and from there to England, western European ports, or the Med;
• From the eastern Caribbean direct to the Azores, then onward;
• The great circle course direct to Gibraltar, passing south of the Azores.
Read the sailing directions, note the mileage on the various routes, and then decide which to use. Contact your weather router for advice and arrange to check in underway for updates.
Bermuda to Ireland or England
The Great Circle course from Bermuda to Ireland or England leads through the southern edge of the area of icebergs, and boats heading from Bermuda to the Azores that take the northern route looking for wind will skirt the iceberg area. Chart 100 used to show positions of icebergs, and was a real eye-opener: it showed reported positions of icebergs well south of the normal area—including one 120 miles northeast of Bermuda and four south of the Azores.
Yachts departing from Bermuda may head direct from Bermuda to Crookhaven, Ireland: 2660 miles. Note that this route leads through the iceberg area for 600 miles. If you suddenly run into a patch of thick fog, it is probably caused by an iceberg. You will also have to expect strong winds and the possibility of gales that will be stronger than on the Bermuda-to-Azores route. But in June the gale frequency is extremely low, and no June hurricanes have wandered far enough north to bother you on this route.
Bermuda to the Azores
Bermuda to the Azores is a mixed bag; contact your weather router before leaving. The Azores High can move around, disappear, or expand to cover the majority of the area between the two points, and can extend quite far north and south.
On chart 100 there are three routes shown: direct, middle and northern.
The direct route is the shortest. It is straight through the Azores High. Some boats have reported not only light airs, but also long periods of flat calm requiring much motor-sailing or motoring.
Some boats departing Antigua will head northeast on starboard tack, close reaching toward the Azores: Great Circle distance 2070 miles. When the wind dies, they turn north, power across the High, pick up the southwesterlies, and sail on to the Azores. But this does not always work. In 1989, Iolaire took off direct to the Azores on a fast close reach. At the end of seven days we were halfway there; the wind was dying. Many boats had left Antigua the same day and we were talking on the VHF. I announced that, as the wind was dying, I was turning north to cross the High and pick up the southwesterlies. Wet and Wild came on and said they had weather info and there was no wind in the entire North Atlantic: the only thing to do was to continue on and fight the light airs. We all did this. The boats with engines ran out of fuel.
One day when all the others were becalmed, Iolaire did 70 miles. How? We dropped the main, squared the boom off, and hoisted two spinnakers. We were not towing a prop. The engineless Iolaire took 21 days Antigua to Horta, the boats with engines took 19 days.
But anything can happen. In 2002 a friend was delivering a 38-foot sloop from St. Martin to the UK. He took off from St. Martin on a close reach, with a Number 2 genoa and no main. He sailed a rhumb line course, knocking off 160 miles per day, and never set the main.
Jamie Dobbs, of Lost Horizon fame, for years commuted across the Atlantic in his 38-foot Rival. He did 18 trips in 16 to 18 days. He said, “The wind vane did the steering, the course was set and sails trimmed according to what my Brooks and Gatehouse VMG told me, and I read a lot of books!” His luck finally ran out and he had a slow passage of 22 days.
On Iolaire in 1985 we had a good, though cold, passage on the northern Azores route. It was distinctive in that the 46-foot, heavy displacement Iolaire did a 48-hour run of 410 miles. A ship came over the horizon, confirmed via VHF that my calculated position was correct—and said that 40 miles ahead of us at 41°N there was a large iceberg! On the first morning, 24 hours into this run, the wind was out of the north and building up a large sea that was crossing with the old southwest swell. Periodically the seas would meet at such an angle that the sea would erupt, forming a 20- to 30-foot geyser. It was blowing hard out of the north, cold and overcast, with a heavy mist almost like rain. The log reads, “The most miserable dawn I have ever seen in more than 30 years of offshore sailing.”
Azores to Ireland or England
From the Azores to Ireland or England is about 1200 miles. Stand north until you pick up the southwesterlies. Check the weather carefully before departure, as in the Azores you can run into periods of extended calm. (Note the percentage of calms in the Azores in the months of June and July on the back of chart 100.) In 1995 I had an unhappy crew on board Iolaire as I insisted on departing Horta in light airs. The breeze went flat, and 36 hours after leaving Horta we could still see the peak of Pico.
If the wind settles in the northeast, head north on a fast close reach until you reach the southwesterlies then head for Crookhaven or Falmouth.
Azores to Spain or Portugal
The 900 miles to Spain or Portugal should be an easy trip, but lay off your course to a point 30 or 40 miles north of your landfall. When you approach the coast you will encounter the Portuguese trades blowing 20 to 25 knots from the north and a south-flowing current. If you end up south of your landfall, beating to windward against a strong foul current is a poor way to end a transatlantic.
If heading to Gibraltar, a rhumb-line course is 800 miles from Santa Maria, the easternmost of the Azores.
Antigua to Gibraltar direct
For a few boats—those that sail well in light airs, have crews that are willing to do a lot of trimming and sail changes, have access to real-time weather reports, and have a moderate range under power using their normal fuel tanks or are willing to supplement the fuel supply by carrying bladder tanks—Antigua to Gibraltar direct (3160 miles) is a viable option.
A crew on the Mylne-designed, Fife-built Mariella says, “We took off close reaching, course northeast, then turned east staying well south of the Great Circle route to the Azores. Thus we were south of the Azores High. We sailed hard, in that we constantly trimmed sails and switched headsails as necessary. Whenever the wind went very light we motor-sailed, running the engine no more than half throttle, which gave us very many miles per gallon. Staying south we not only avoided the calms of the Azores High but also the heavy weather experienced by boats farther north. By bypassing the Azores we saved the three-day stop in Horta. Thus we did the entire trip in 18 days, which was five days faster than the boats that took the normal route to Horta and stopped, refuelled and re-stored.”
Sailing direct to Gibraltar on the Great Circle route keeps you below the lows that batter boats farther north. The bottom edge of a low can be a favorable blow.
Hopefully this article has convinced sailors not to leave the Eastern Caribbean until the end of the first week in May, and has provided good solid advice on the various routes to use, all the advantages and disadvantages of some of them.
On all routes the boat, skipper and crew must be prepared to weather a full gale at sea in cold weather. It is essential before leaving the Caribbean that the skipper makes each crewmember lay out for inspection their foul- and cold-weather gear, including sea boots. If any of the gear is inadequate, the crewmember must beg, borrow, buy or steal the necessary gear so that he or she is fully equipped to stay warm and relatively dry in a gale at sea. Also the ship’s medical kit should include anti-seasickness suppositories, not just oral remedies. Once a crew gets so seasick they can’t keep anything down, a suppository up the backside is the only solution. A severely seasick crew is not only useless to the ship, but they can be a danger to themselves by becoming badly dehydrated.
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