Atlantic Crossing – Stats and Lessons Learned

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Snowflake’s Atlantic Crossing Stats:

Start: Mindelo, Säo Vicente, Cape Verdes Islands

Final Destination: Prickly Bay, Grenada

Days at Sea: 22 (21 nights)

Miles Sailed: 2,297

Average Speed: 4.55 knots (top speed 10 knots; slowest 0.0 knots)

Number of Changes to Sail Plan: 22 (not including reefs)

Number of Squalls Encountered: 9 (top wind speed – 27 knots)

Engine Hours: 21

Fish Caught: 3

Santo Antao on the left and Sao Vicente on the right.

As I write this from Snowflake’s cockpit, the sun is shining down over the lush, tropical island of Grenada. It’s hard to believe that just a month ago we were anchored in Mindelo in the Cape Verdes. Looking back over the last month, the feelings of accomplishment, joy, awe, and disbelief are abundant.

While Snowflake did not make as great a passage time as some boats, she did better than others and we are satisfied with our stats. Overall, we were prepared for the crossing, but there were many lessons learned.

Lesson #1 – Have the Right Sails

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; realist adjusts the sails.” – William A. Ward

During our planning stages, we knew that the Atlantic crossing would be a downwind sail. With that in mind, we purchased a whisker pole for our headsail and practiced sailing wing on wing when given the chance over the last year. This configuration worked out really well for the crossing.

Snowflake’s downwind sail configuration — wing on wing.

The one thing we wished for on the crossing was a light wind sail. When we left Mindelo, the trades appeared to be picking up, but they were still quite light. This made for a challenging and slow sail for Snowflake with some of the lighter winds we encountered. It wasn’t that we had not realized the benefits of having a light wind sail when we were planning, but sails are expensive and unfortunately it wasn’t in the budget to purchase one for Snowflake at the time.

Regardless, we worked with what we had, remained very patient and despite the light winds we made it across in a respectable twenty-two days.

Lesson #2 – Patience Is a Virtue

“More accidents have happened at sea because the captain needed to be in a certain place by a specific date than any other reason.” – Joseph Conrad

Something that we already knew about onboard Snowflake was the need for patience. We learned this early on while we were sailing in the Mediterranean. When sailing, you are at the mercy of Mother Nature and she doesn’t care about your schedule, so a lot of flexibility must be given regarding departures, arrivals, and landfalls.

Keeping this in mind, we remained flexible in our departure from Mindelo and in our arrival and landfall in the Caribbean. It’s a good thing we did as well. In order to make the most of the light winds and our sail plan, our course deviated much further south than we originally anticipated. Rather than making landfall in Barbados, we ended up further south at Grenada. Because we did not have light wind sails and could only take limited amounts of diesel fuel due to budget restraints, we knew there was a possibility that the crossing could be much longer.

Having patience is one of the key things for an ocean crossing. There were a few times when we were only going one or two knots, but we waited it out and drifted slowly towards the goal.

Lesson #3 – Spares are Essential

“The beautiful thing about the ocean is the only thing out there is what you bring with you.” – Paul Dunn

When you’re out in the middle of the ocean, there is no marine store or chandlery to pop into for parts or items needed to fix problems that may crop up on passage. Over all, we planned well for this, with the exception of engine oil.

Towards the end of the crossing, one of our engines managed to get water in the oil. Fortunately, we had enough engine oil on board to complete two oil changes while underway, but it would’ve been better to have more to complete at least three oil changes on both engines if necessary. Thankfully, after spending time on the engine while at anchor, everything seems to be working as it should.

On the last day of the crossing, we started the water maker to top up the tanks before arriving in the anchorage. Within seconds of turning on the water maker, we realized something was wrong – water was not flowing out of the test faucet. Immediately, we assumed that some of the Sargasso weed we encountered in the middle of the ocean must have lodged in the strainer somehow. Because we were within hours of the anchorage and we still had enough water to carry on for a week, we simply turned off the water maker and decided to tackle the problem once we were settled in the anchorage.

Sargasso weed

After digging around, the next day, we quickly discovered that the problem was not Sargasso weed but the hose to the test faucet. There was a weak spot in the hose that busted, causing some water to go into the forward bilge rather than through the faucet. This was an easy replacement, as we could simply dinghy over to Budget Marine and purchase stronger hose to replace the old hose. If this had happened in the middle of the crossing, we would’ve discovered the problem sooner since we check our bilges every four hours at shift change. However, replacing the hose would’ve been challenging. While we could have jury-rigged something that may have worked, it wouldn’t have been ideal. But this is why we always make sure we have extra jerry cans of water onboard and we never let the tanks get low before running the water maker. From now on, we will also make sure that we have plenty of hose onboard in case we need to replace large sections in the future.

Lesson #4 – Know your Power Consumption

“If you want things to be like home, stay at home.” – Jimmy Cornell

Sailing in the Med, to the Canaries and Cape Verdes was a different ball game compared to crossing an ocean. On these voyages, our sails were constantly shifting tacks and we were never sailing much longer than a week at a time. Snowflake’s solar panels are mounted on her bimini, and depending on where the sun is located and which tack the mainsail is on, the panels are covered. Because of this, during the crossing we ended up sailing on a different tack during the day just to let the panels absorb enough power.

Most of Snowflake’s sailing up until this year has always been during the summer months — more sun and longer days. With the shorter days, her panels weren’t absorbing as much sun anymore. Add in a couple of cloudy days and we weren’t getting much charge during the day.

In addition, once we left the Canaries and started getting closer to the Verdes, it became hotter. This meant that the refrigerator was working harder, using more power. The first several days of the crossing, we were turning the fridge off at night in order to save power. This was important because Snowflake has AGM batteries and we didn’t want to drain them down. Also, we needed to have enough power to run our navigation lights and instruments at night.

Around the eighth day at sea, we had to resort to turning the fridge off completely. No more cold drinks and no more leftovers from meals. While not a horrible problem, it did alter our meal plans quite a bit and resulted in a few things having to be thrown out due to spoiling after turning the fridge off.

Since completing the crossing, we have reached out to someone who specializes in marine electronics, solar, and power configuration. We hope to sort out this issue in the near future, as we are still not where we would like to be in our power absorption.

If we could go back in time, we would’ve planned for this by adding more solar and designing it so that we could move or tilt the panels to make the most of the sun during the day. We also would’ve investigated better ways to insulate our Waeco refrigeration system in order to make it more efficient.

Lesson #5 – Be Prepared for The Worst

“The art of the sailor is to leave nothing to chance.” – Annie van de Wiele

If your fridge goes out in the middle of the Atlantic, what will you do? Do you have food onboard that doesn’t need refrigeration?

If your cooking fuel regulator or stove stops working, do you have an alternate cooking source or food onboard that doesn’t need to be cooked?

Both of these things happened onboard Snowflake during the crossing. I already mentioned the fridge and while it made galley duty a bit more challenging, we had plenty of food on board that allowed us to prepare meals without refrigeration. However, if we had planned all our meals so that they all needed refrigeration, we would’ve been in dire straits.

When the regulator for our cooking fuel tank gave out, this presented a bigger problem. Thankfully, we were prepared with a backup system. Snowflake carries Spanish butane tanks for cooking fuel. Before leaving Spain, we knew it was a possibility that we would not be able to refill those tanks again, so we planned a backup system. Our backup system was still butane (that is the only cooking fuel we were able to obtain in Spain and France), but we had two small camping gaz tanks onboard. When our regulator gave out on the Spanish tanks, we simply switched over to a different regulator and the camping gaz tanks. While this was an easy fix, it meant that we needed to be more careful with the amount of cooking fuel we were using. We still weren’t exactly sure what we would find in the Caribbean and what we would need to do to switch our system to propane once we got here.

When our main burner on the cooktop quit working, that was a bit more serious. We still are not sure exactly what happened with it, as we took the burner apart underway, cleaned it, and reinstalled it but it still didn’t start working straight away. This meant that we were down to the small burner for cooking. Unfortunately, the burner was too small to bring the pressure cooker up to pressure and too small for any regular size pots or pans or our stove top oven. Eventually, we got the main burner working again once we were anchored, but the flame was never very strong. Thankfully, we had enough food on board during the crossing that we could get by and still eat decently without using the pressure cooker, stove top oven, and we made do with smaller pots and pans.

Snowflake has since gotten a new oven and cooktop unit. However, if making another long ocean passage, we would purchase a small one burner unit or camping stove as a backup and take more canned goods or items that did not need cooking.

The end of another day at sea. Time to reef the sails and prepare for night watch!

Lesson #6 – Check Over Produce Daily

“When people ask, ‘but what do you do at sea?’ you can answer: ‘I pick over my fruit and vegetables’, which is a guaranteed conversation stopper because no one likes to ask why.” – Annie Hill

Before leaving Mindelo, we stocked up on heaps of fresh fruits and veggies. After reading The Boat Galley’s book on storing food without refrigeration and Annie Hill’s Voyaging on a Small Income, we strategically purchased produce that was not yet ripe and organized the galley and forward cabin in order to best store the produce so that it would keep the longest. All in all, we did well as the only thing that went bad was one orange. We had fresh tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, cucumbers, potatoes, onions, ginger, apples, and oranges for the majority of the voyage.

Now, for that one orange that went bad… it was a quick lesson to check over all produce daily. This is something that we did each day, but for two days the oranges were overlooked. That one act of carelessness ended up in one severely molded up orange that puffed out a cloud of smoke when tossed off the boat. YUCK! So, rotating produce and picking out what needs to be used up each day is essential.

Lesson #7 – Chafe Is No Joke

“Sailing a boat calls for quick action, a blending of feeling with the wind and water, as well as with the very heart and soul of the boat itself.” – George Matthew Adams

Luckily, Snowflake did not suffer too much from chafe on this crossing. The only area that we had to keep close watch on was the genoa sheets. Because we were using a whisker pole on the genoa, the sheets would start to wear at the point where the pole attached. We were able to adjust the sheets on the sail to prevent this chafe, but constantly had to keep an eye on it.

Based on our research and conversations with others, we knew chafe was something that we needed to keep an eye on. After seeing what the pole was doing to the genoa sheets, this confirmed that chafe is no joke and it was something we were constantly checking on the crossing.

Lesson #8 – Weather Routing Is Helpful

“I hate storms, but calms undermine my spirit.” –Bernard Moitessier

One of the small squalls we encountered, showing off with a colorful rainbow.

Before we left mainland Spain, we knew we would need a way to check weather once we were out at sea for more than a few days. Fortunately, we had an InmarSat Pro satellite phone that we were able to (finally) get set up for data use. Using OCENS, we were able to set up an email and weather grib file account that would work on very compressed files (satellite units are expensive, so data needs to be as compressed as possible). However, because this was our first ocean crossing, we felt that we could use a bit of guidance along the way from an experienced sailor and weather forecaster.

A new day at sea.

Going with Chris Parker for our weather routing is something that we are very thankful we did. Every five or seven days, we would send Chris an email with our coordinates, speed, and sail plan. Chris would then reply to us with a detailed routing plan, custom made for Snowflake. That means that he took into account our average speed and the fact that we did not have light wind sails. He also knew that we had a limited supply of fuel on board and that we needed to make the most of the wind. With all of this in mind, Chris routed us further south in order to make the most of the light winds. He notified us of not only the course and waypoints, but also the wind speeds, gusts, wave height and direction, as well as the possibility of squalls. Nine times out of ten, Chris was spot on and his routing helped us to have a smooth and well thought out sailing route.

Lesson #9 – Rest is Important

“How can anyone appreciate the luxury of eight hours’ sleep who has never kept watch and watch about?” – Annie Hill

Sailing is not rocket science; but as you can gather from the previous lessons learned, you do need to be constantly on your toes and well rested. Keeping a look out for shipping traffic and other boats, spotting squalls in time to quickly reef the sails, being prepared (mentally and physically) to go forward and make sail changes, as well as just simply being able to brace yourself during the constant motion of the boat. With a small crew onboard, it can make it challenging at times to get needed rest. When faced with decisions at sea, a well-rested captain or crew will make better choices.

Gotta be on your toes to see these nasty squalls in time to reef. Once you see them, they are on you fast!

With two of us onboard for the passage, we kept a watch system of four hours on, four hours off each evening. During the day, we took turns napping. While this worked for us, it may not work for everyone and we found that it pays to test out different watch schedules on previous, shorter voyages beforehand to make sure you find one that works for you.

Lesson #10 – Don’t Forget Entertainment

“It isn’t that life ashore is distasteful to me. But life at sea is better.” –Sir Francis Drake

Before we embarked on the crossing, we asked numerous sailors what we should be prepared for. We were surprised by the number of people who told us their Atlantic crossing was boring! Boring? An ocean crossing? We just couldn’t fathom it! However, we did take this feedback into consideration in our planning.

While in the Canaries and Cape Verdes, we downloaded numerous books on our kindles and even made sure we had some paperbacks onboard to read in case we had any problems with the kindles. We also had a large collection of downloaded podcasts to listen to as well as plenty of music onboard.

The podcasts and music helped night watches to go by quickly, and it was nice to have plenty of books to read during the day. Regardless, we did not find the crossing boring at all. We found that we were constantly busy and never without something to do.

Lesson #11 – There Are Never Enough Snacks

“A sailor’s joys are as simple as a child’s.” –Bernard Moitessier

I may have underestimated our need for snacks while on the crossing. Before leaving Spanish waters, we stocked up on peanuts, crisps / chips, gummy bears, etc. Because we typically don’t snack a lot, we thought we had purchased plenty of these items. We never ran out of peanuts, but our crisp supply got quite low and the other snack foods went fast.

If going on another ocean passage, we would stock up on more glucose candies and chocolate. It seemed that these snacks gave us the energy boost needed during night watches.

Lesson #12 – You’re on Your Own

“There is no harm in hoping for the best as long as you’re prepared for the worst.” – Stephen King

Not all boats travel the same speed. There is not necessarily safety in numbers. Just because you leave at the same time as other boats doesn’t mean they will be close by the entire time or that they will even be able to offer assistance if you run into problems.

We well knew this and prepared Snowflake and ourselves accordingly. Over the course of twenty-two days we saw around five or six cargo ships, perhaps five sailboats, and a couple of large fishing boats. There were many days at a time when we saw nothing but the vast ocean and endless horizon.

Snowflake in her element, surfing the waves and clocking up to 10 knots a couple of times when we had good wind.

There were sailboats that left Mindelo on the same day as us, but none of us traveled at the same speed or made landfall at the same location. Some boats have light wind sails, some don’t. Some boats have greater hull speed than others. Some sailors are overly cautious, like we are on Snowflake. Without a radar, we were not easily able to spot squalls ahead of time at night. Because of this, we reefed both sails at dusk every night, regardless of what the wind was doing at the time. If we had not reefed at night, we may well have made landfall much sooner. Or, Snowflake may have been overpowered by a squall, causing damage to her sails and rigging… resulting in an even slower and challenging passage.

While it is nice to sail with other boats and meet up with friends at certain locations, we have found that it’s safest to plan only for ourselves and for Snowflake. We know Snowflake’s capabilities and we know our own capabilities. Trying to plan around that as well as someone else’s abilities and plans does not often end well, in our experience.

That said, Snowflake and crew took to sea with the full mindset that we were on our own out there.

I hope that this post has been valuable to you, whether it simply satisfies your curiosity or is helpful to you in planning your own ocean crossing. While Snowflake’s Atlantic crossing ended successfully in Grenada, the journey still continues. Stay tuned to the blog and follow our Facebook page for more frequent updates.

“There is no ideal age but I know that if at all possible the best time is now as tomorrow may be too late.” – Jimmy Cornell

If you’re interested in following along with my sailing journey check out Sailing Snowflake on facebook.

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4 thoughts on “Atlantic Crossing – Stats and Lessons Learned”

  1. Dear Julia and LJ
    Thank you for this informative blog! We concur with all your points and comments and can confirm that we were never bored either! Maybe that is an advantage of being a two-man Crew.
    Wishing you safe, interesting further travels and look forward to our paths crossing – planned and unplanned – around the globe.
    Very best wishes
    N&P 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment, Nicki and Peter! Yes – I believe that a two-man crew is never bored! 🙂 And absolutely our paths must and will cross again!

  2. A good report thank you. You are not the only one who has had the same breakages! On the Capetown to Rio race our water maker failed half way. We finished the race with less than 5L water. On my Eclipse transatlantic the gas regulator failed but I had a spare. They are very cheap and light so makes sense. Also later I bought a US style regulator so I could just swap bottles instead of filling them (sometimes hard to do without a car) on the Rush crossing we had two on board. We also used a nominal 4on 4off watch. But we swapped the times each night. So one night I would do 8-12 and then 4-8. The next night I would do 12-4 we were much more rested that way as we had pretty much a full night sleep every other night. Yes sheets and spinnaker halyards need adjusting daily to avoid chafe. Enjoy the WI we did!

    1. That’s a great idea on carrying the US style regulator! Yes, managing cooking fuel refills and swaps are more challenging without a car…as several other things. But it sure is nice to not have to worry with an auto! 🙂 We are really enjoying Grenada and excited to see more of the WI.

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