Sailing an ocean

Theo Stocker
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Sailing an ocean for the first time can be a daunting prospect, but it could be easier than you think. We asked the experts how to know when you and your boat are ready for an ocean passage

‘I’ve never sailed the Atlantic before but I have a boat. Should I crew first or am I okay to skipper?’

Jeremy Wyatt, circumnavigator and World Cruising Club Communications Director says:

‘If you have been skippering for years and have plenty

of coastal experience, you will probably be fine to skipper. An ocean passage is as much about system management as it is about sailing. You have to keep your crew together and the boat sailing at a steady rate.

The real challenge of an Atlantic crossing from the UK is likely to be the delivery trip across the Bay of Biscay. As crew, you might just fly out to Las Palmas and sail from there, but you miss the shakedown cruise, and the hardest part. If you want training, or are still thinking about what boat to buy, going as crew is a great option.’

‘Is my boat up to an Atlantic crossing?’

Jeremy Wyatt: ‘You don’t need a special boat to sail the Atlantic, particularly if you are following the usual routes in the right season. She does need to be set up ready for ocean sailing, though.

The ARC has high standards for participating boats, which makes an ocean crossing much safer. We check all boats meet our requirements for sails, rig set- up, spares and safety equipment. You have to know your boat inside and out, and having a boat that is ready for the crossing makes it much more enjoyable.’

‘How long should preparation take?’

Jeremy Wyatt: ‘I usually advise that it takes a year to get ready for an ocean crossing. For a November crossing you should be leaving the UK in June or July, so start your preparations 18 months in advance. Make sure the boat is ready before you leave, as the worst weather you face may be in the Western Approaches.

Be strategic about your preparation. Work out where you have gaps in your skills and get the appropriate training, such as sea survival and offshore medicine. You also need to know your crew, so make sure you have been sailing with them. As skipper, you need to trust your watch-keeper to wake you if something isn’t right.

If you have any doubts as to whether or not you are ready, you probably aren’t, and the prudent thing is to delay.’

‘Where and when should I go?’

Chris Tibbs, author of the RYA Weather Handbook and ARC meteorologist, says: ‘Avoid the hurricane season, which in the Atlantic is June to November. If you go just after this, at the end of November, you will get the maximum amount of time in the Caribbean before the next hurricane season threatens, and December to March is the best time there anyway. The only thing to bear in mind is that the later you go, the steadier the Trade Winds are.

As the main route across the Pacific is close to the equator, where hurricanes can’t form, you can sail between Panama and the Marquesas Islands at any time of year. West of the Marquesas, however, avoid sailing between November and March.

For an Atlantic circuit, don’t leave the north part of the Caribbean before April as you are pretty likely to encounter storms in the North Atlantic.’

What not to forget…

Manfred Kerstan, 78, skipper of Swan 62 Albatross and veteran of 20 ARCs, gives these tips:

‘Water: It’s obvious, but without drinking water, you’re going to struggle. Even

if you have a watermaker, you need to have enough on board to cross the Atlantic without it, in case it breaks.

Crew: You must know your crew, as you will be relying on each other. I don’t take anyone I haven’t sailed with beforehand.

Chafe: Things work loose, lines find pinch points. Keep checking for chafe and wear every day and protect against it.

Mindset: Switch from being a weekend cruiser to an ocean sailor. Know your boat, how she feels and sounds, and keep checking everything.’

Atlantic Rallies to consider

Thousands of boats sail the Atlantic independently each year, but for peace of mind, support and sociable fun, there are a number of rallies to chose from:

The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers:

The Atlantic Odyssey:

Christmas Caribbean Rally:

Sailing an ocean