|"Common sense & timing is everything"
|Perception vs Reality
of long-distance voyaging
|At sea... COMMON SENSE RULES
|© 2000 - All Rights Reserved
Lack of using good common sense can have far reaching and often irreversible consequences.
Today, with all the technology available to even the most frugal of sailors - it is more likely you will sail around the world in 90%
perfect or near perfect weather, then it is that you will be caught in anything worse then heavy rain or 30 knot winds. Again, it is
about common sense and timing.
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean (or any other ocean) has its schedule. From Europe, the crossing usually takes place in late
autumn-winter. This is when the trade winds, currents, and weather are the factors that should decide your best time for going.
There are actually other times of departure too, you just need to stay away from the Atlantic hurricane season, which is June
Leaving the US, you´ll probably want to go in the summer. The spring or autumn will then be spent in the Caribbean or
From either side of your crossing, the voyage down to the point of crossing is the Canary Islands from Europe or Bermuda from
the USA. These areas themselves, in fact, are often used as excellent preparation and training for crossing the ocean. You can
give your self months of practice and training and get to know your boat in all kinds of situations and will also have the chance to
service or add parts in harbors along the way.
Planning the route
You´ll find information on when to find favorable weather in the Atlantic Pilot Atlas. The prevailing wind and trade winds' force
and direction are carefully marked for different places. There will also be a special note for any chance of gale. The Atlantic Pilot
Atlas has this information for every month of the year and is a must for a safe passage.
Best time for a westward-passage via the Canaries is between November and December. Leave too early and there is a risk of
hurricanes. Leave too late, and the winds might be too weak. Crossing eastwards you will be better of leaving mid-May to mid-
August, when the chances of gale are lower.
You'll need charts, but not for the Atlantic ocean crossing obviously (it´s pretty much straight forward). Get the charts before you
set out, depending on the harbours and waters you´ll cruise before and after the Atlantic. Charts are usually easily obtained in
harbours and Marinas, but the most popular can be out of stock. You can also order them on the Internet.
The Atlantic Crossing Guide provides information on harbours, crossing deadlines, distances and a whole lot more for the typical
The Europe - Caribbean route
This route differs depending on from where you are going. Going from northern Europe the route usually goes over Bay of
Biscay to Gibraltar and finally the Canary Islands before the crossing. The route down to the Canaries takes around 3 months. From
there the crossing goes past the Cape Verde Islands just west of Africa. Our landfalls are usually Barbados or St Lucia in the West
This route usually starts in late July, because the Bay of Biscay and Gibraltar are difficult to cross past September and October
respectively. We started out from Amsterdam. There is not much in the Cape Verde’s and the islands are not very popular among
sailors, so the islands are usually just bypassed on the crossing.
Charts (marine maps)
You can get them in paper or digital. You can download the digitals from the Internet, and you can also buy them on CDs, and
you can use them on any laptop computer or digital marine navigation unit. They can be combined with your GPS, radar and
autopilot, to simplify your navigation. Of course, we recommend you use a digital GPS Chart Plotter as this gives you the most
updated charts and avoids the expensive cost of paper charts.
We did the trade wind crossing from the Canaries starting out December 25. We left Tenerife in wonderful weather, but by
sunset that all changed. The wind picked up and by 11 PM it was pitch black, wind at 15 to 20 mph and huge waves were rolling in
from aft. There were all kinds of horrifying sounds coming from every part of the boat, and it continued for two days.
Well, as they say, what doesn’t kill you, strengthens you, and this for us, was the worst weather of our entire voyage. Proof
again, the difference between an "offshore" vessel and a coastal cruiser is a smoother ride. Ours takes the hard stuff well, and
thereafter we actually enjoyed most of our heavy weather and fast
On any crossing (and in the Caribbean) you will encounter squalls. They are big gray or black clouds that often carry rain and
heavy wind. Daytime you just look out for them and at night they will show up on a decent radar. It is possible to avoid them by
changing the course, but we don´t even bother. They arrive fast and end even faster.
To prepare, you take down some sail before the squall hits. Since we didn’t use the main much, we took to the habit of being
prepared and lessen the genoa, thus never had any problems. However, if you go lazy and fail to adjust the sails before they hit,
you could easily end up with a situation and potentially lose a sail. Note that the wind will reach you before the actual cloud does,
since the wind usually beams down from the cloud in 20º to 40º angles.
If you plan your route well, your chance of encountering a hurricane is virtually slim to zero. If you do sail into extreme winds,
there are a few things to consider. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the wind that causes havoc with boats, but the waves, stuff
flying around, and land. Out a sea, a hurricane will result in a miserable boat ride - and a rough bout with seasickness. Other then
that however, with a little common sense, you'll be OK.
The first rule of high wind is to stay with your boat - latch everything down including your self, and stay calm. Minimize the sail
and try to sail with the wind. A boat with a small storm sail will behave much better than without.
A drift anchor is great for slowing down the speed and riding out the storm. In really bad situations, you have to turn the boat
toward the waves and battle the ocean. Again though, this kind of weather is almost unheard of on the Atlantic in the calm season,
and now with all our years sailing, we have never been faced with anything much over 30 knot winds.
Heavy weather when in harbor
Most sailors take their boats southwards during the hurricane season in the Caribbean. Below Saint Lucia, there should not
be a many hurricanes around. However, we left our boat in Bequia once, this island usually considered a safe "hurricane hole",
and has served us well. John Jr. however likes to hold out on Trinidad or Tobago.
Lightning is always scary. Luckily most fatal lightning strikes are on golf courses, so don’t let thunder stop you from cruising.
We’ve never been hit, but have taken all the reasonable safety precautions.
Fortunately, personal injury is very rare from lightning hitting a boat. Turn on the Autopilot and go below. Do not touch any metals.
If hit by a lightning, the damage could be great to electronics. The boat might also need a complete rewiring. You could keep your
hand held GPS in the oven or microwave. Some physicist said that could save it, due to Faraday’s cage effect. We don´t know. But
in a lightning storm, we put our hand-helds in the microwave.
The waves out on the open sea can be huge. Usually, that doesn´t pose a problem to the boat, as she will just ride them.
Occasionally, waves come from different directions, and seemingly from all directions at once, hitting the boat violently. (Another
good reason for a true heavy blue water boat) - even though the noise is alarming and can be very nerve wrecking, your good
solid sturdy boat will hold up well and keep you safe. Our vessel was 16 years old when we bought her, now she is 25 years old,
and she continues to protect us.
In a very violent storm, it is better to drop as much sail as possible, steer with the Genoa or storm sail and hit the waves head
on. This meaning going off course and then returning back on course after the storm has passed. Such storms are however
almost non-existent at the middle Atlantic, providing you have chosen the right time for your crossing. The waves will sometimes
be big, often 10 - 15 feet, but also long. On the "trade-wind" crossing they will come from behind but we have never had one break
over the boat.
I believe every sailor has to be somewhat of a risk taker, and this requires applying more than average common sense
measures of safety and security.
We are known not to hesitate to sail in foul weather. Still, we would never ride a car without strapping on a seatbelt. Especially
not in the cabs of NY City! Before every ocean passage, we study the potential risk or danger and do everything possible to avoid
or prepare for it. We have back ups and back ups for our back ups. We may be risk takers, but we are certainly not dare devils.
It is not using common sense to throw oneself straight out of a plane with just your fingers crossed. It's wise to have a parachute.
On an Atlantic voyage there are some dangerous threats. Most all of them however, can avoided and all of them can be prepared
There are stories of sailors, that are alive one second and dead in the next, killed by an unexpected swing of the boom. A
sudden change in the wind, a freak wave, a mistake in the setting of sails which can cause the boom to violently swivel over the
cockpit in an instant.
There is however, a common sense solution, and that is on long, monotonous ocean voyages it is good to use a "preventer",
rigged from the boom end to the bow of the boat. It will keep the boom from making sudden unexpected movements.
Here is where you will find - most sailors discover the difference in a true "blue-water sailing vessel, and one of it's coastal
cruising cousins. It is rare, but not so unusual on lighter vessels to have a mast break. We have already seen several instances or
sailors who have suffered this hazard. Freak waves, hard winds and knock-downs can cause this accident. The major danger is
getting hit by the mast or thrown overboard. The boat usually keeps afloat.
You can prevent this accident by having a strong, heavy, sturdy boat with strong rigging. If you have this accident, most likely
you will be adrift until rescue, unless there is a major piece of the mast left standing, enabling you to rig some temporary sail.
Man over board
One of the main important reasons we suggest "the smallest boat you can live comfortably on" is safety. Your safety is more
important than being frugal. When it comes to safety - and "man overboard" most Skippers don't ever think it may be them that is
the man overboard. Fact is however, that's exactly who it usually is. Therefore, it is then that the less capable, less
knowledgeable, and weakest person on the boat that needs to rescue YOU!
There is only one way to prevent this - clip to a lifeline when ever you are on deck. For sure when you are standing and when
working with your sails. Stay attached to your lifeline whenever moving around deck or on watche. Everyone on your boat should
be familiar with the Man overboard drill, and how to do it. Some GPS devices have a Man Overboard button. The idea is that you
push it and it will keep the record of the position where the person was lost and direct you back to it. Another good thing is the
fluorescent stick commonly used for scuba diving in case of emergency. You keep it in your PFD and activate it in the water. They
also float, and the light at night will make it easier for you to find someone or for them to find you!
We know boaters that refuse to use a lifeline. We also know even more boaters that don't use their PFD. We also already know of
at least one cruiser lost in the Caribbean Sea, when he fell over-board. He actually even had an experienced Mate as well as
another couple on-board at the time. We heard their call on the radio, and joined the search, but no one was able to find him. So,
use those lifeline, and wear that PFD. In this case, had the man done either of the two, he most likely would have been rescued.
Never, no never go on deck at night without awaking the other. We also watch as the other snaps on to the lifeline at all single
night watches. This rule is not only common sense for safety, it also considerably improves the sleep of the one not on watch.
We have heard of boats hitting whales. It is extremely rare and cannot really be prevented in any way. Several times our sonar
showed giant fish or mammals under the boat - but even when given the information - there isn't much you can do about it other
then be prepared - but for what?
While we had whales visiting our boat, we were delighted by this rare experience, rather then mortified. The whales surfaced,
checked up out, and went on their way. They were larger than our boat. The entertainment lasted for about 30 minutes. We just
watched the whales in awe until they disappeared as silently as they came. One revisited once more the next day, but left just after
a few minutes.
Again, not much can be done, except having a good life raft and try to keep a close watch. Radar will not be able to spot a half-
sunken container or one just under the surface. In the beginning of the voyage, your eyes will be pinned to the waters, but as time
goes by, you´ll gradually get more confident and just check once in a while. It is extremely rare. We have yet so see one, but we
know others have; so just keep a good watch, and relax.
Freighters and boats
Collisions with boats and freighters are not that uncommon. The watches on boats, especially at night, are usually less than
adequate, with the crew often napping away. It is very hard to judge a distance to another boat at night. You could also get run
over from the aft by a large freighter, without it even noticing that you were there. Radar is very helpful in this situation, especially
when getting closer to landfall at heavily trafficked places. It will warn you with a signal when a distant, large object is
approaching. It will also estimate the distance. You can choose the settings for an adequate range for every situation.
Storms, squalls, heavy weather.
It is important to schedule a passage according to the weather patterns of the area. There are frequent hurricanes on the
southern Atlantic Ocean passage between July and November. Other regions have similar weather patterns to take into account
when choosing timing.
Go when your weather says go, stay when the weather looks bad. You might still encounter storms and heavy weather, and most
certainly sudden squalls. The latter are single, large clouds carrying in them fast winds and rain. At all cases it is crucial to choose
the right sail settings. Sail with less sails than necessary when in any doubt, just enough to maintain good steering if in bad
We had heavy winds and some storms on large parts of our passage. Our 28 footer was comfortable and subsequently made the
crossing in only 20 days.
We set the mainsail perhaps 4 times, only to quickly drop it again. In fact, we did the entire passage using mainly only a small jib
of the Genoa for steering. Still, we often ran at 10 knots. Working only the Genoa was safe and convenient under these
circumstances. But it also proved safer in calmer weather, when sudden squalls otherwise required fast action in dropping the
sails, often in the middle of the night.
If you fail to drop sails in heavy winds, they might get ripped or blown out with the boat violently out of control in the meantime.
A proper, average steering speed at high winds for a boat depends on the size of the boat. It is around 7 - 8 knots for most live
aboard sailing vessels between 26 - 36 feet. When it comes to speed crossing an ocean, we plan our speed at 7 knots and we're
almost never more than 1 knot off our actual speed.
Voyaging on the open sea, sailing off to Paradise, crossing the Ocean, and even, sailing around the world - as with most
everything in life - has real vs perceived beliefs and opinions.
Just as many Texan's believe all of New York State is like New York City, many New Yorkers believe all Texan's have oil wells and
horses on their ranch.
The same misconceptions exist regarding cruising on, or across, the open sea.
No, you don't need a big "yacht" to do it. Yes, you can do it in a small sailboat. No, you don't need to spend weeks without bathing,
and yes you can have ample refrigeration and even free email the entire voyage, and even satellite phone connections (if your
willing to pay for it)
Point is. . . There are may beliefs, opinions, conceptions and misconceptions regarding sailing across the ocean. Below, you
will find our attempt to set a few things straight regarding what is true, and what is not.
Most New Yorkers believe Texas is all cactus, oil wells, and everyone wears cowboy boots & hats. Most Texans believe
ALL of New York State is covered in concrete, crime and everyone eats Italian.
Voyaging to Paradise, or even on around the world, is no different. While everything we hear on the news is 99% bad news and
seldom do we hear good news. It is no different when it comes to sailing. Add to that, the effect of Hollywood Movies and now you
have all the "preconceived perceptions" of Pirates waiting for us around every inland bay and harbor. . .
I promise you. . . It really isn't like that at all.
I certainly don't drive my car down streets known for their drug dealers and gang fights at 2am
in the morning. Neither do I take my boat where I can expect icebergs, pirates, or trouble of any kind. All of these dangers are easy
to avoid. It is a matter of common sense.