Sail the Atlantic

Sail the Atlantic: Essential Info

Introduction to Transatlantic Sailing

Sailing the Atlantic Ocean is a great adventure. The fact that you will sail at least 2500 miles gives you a sense of the vast distances involved. It is a true bucket list item that most people only dream of—and only a few get up and do. When you first start thinking about transatlantic sailing, there are so many questions, so we’ve covered the most common ones here. We finish with a selection of the best transatlantic voyages you can join.

Common Questions About Sailing the Atlantic

yacht in storm

What Sailing Conditions and Weather Can I Expect on a Transatlantic Sail?

The weather will always vary in the North Atlantic. Even in the powerful trade winds we look for when sailing west from the Canaries to the Caribbean on the ARC, we can have gale force winds or dead calm. The variability of weather patterns is one of the most significant factors when planning a crossing. The consistent trade winds we find on the ARC contribute to a more predictable and comfortable sailing experience, making the southern passage route favorable for many. While the one certainty is that you will experience all sorts of weather and sea conditions throughout your crossing, weather forecasts don’t extend very far ahead, so we can only plan so much – and unlike a fast-moving cruise ship, there’s only so much we can do anyway. So be prepared, for flat calm, searching out every zephyr of wind, but also for battening down the hatches, putting on some foul weather clothing, and riding out some heavy weather. Vigilant weather monitoring is always key and allows us to adjust sail plans in good time. Forecasts are good enough these days there is little if any reason to be caught in hurricane force winds.

ocean sailing

What central weather systems should you know about when crossing an ocean?

The North Easterly winds are the dominant feature of any transatlantic crossing. These reliable winds are formed by the warm air rising at the equator and then dropping Earth down to Earth at around 25° north. Their location does vary, as does their strength, but they will always be a key asset when sailing to the Caribbean.

The Gulf Stream is one of the most powerful ocean currents, originating in the Gulf of Mexico, and is critical to an eastbound transatlantic route. It flows out of the Gulf, passes through the Straits of Florida, and follows the eastern coastline of the United States before veering northeastward across the Atlantic Ocean. This current is driven by wind patterns and Earth’s rotation (he Coriolis effect). We try and find the Gulf Stream when sailing across the Atlantic Ocean from west to east.

caribbean sailing crew

What is the Best Route Across the Atlantic Ocean?

The most common transatlantic routes are the east-to-west crossings using the trade winds that blow from the north-east. Most boats will therefore head to the Canary Islands for a final stocking up of food and fuel before setting off for the 2000 miles to the West Indies and the Windward Isles of the Caribbean, with Barbados and St Lucia being common destinations. This is the route the ARC takes, with the ARC + going a little further south via Cape Verde.

Heading West to East on an Atlantic crossing, usually from the Atlantic coast of the USA, Caribbean, or Bahamas, boats need good route planning to make informed decisions that let them take advantage of the prevailing westerlies, which are found at somewhat higher latitudes (usually about 35-50° above the equator). If the crew is lucky, the Gulf Stream will also be running here, and you can take advantage of it and have a swift crossing. The route will likely sail north to avoid the Azores High, an area with high atmospheric pressure and light winds. This means heading north to Bermuda and then east for the final leg. It will likely be much cooler than the crossing further south, and you are more likely to run into tougher weather conditions.

The most common route across the South Atlantic is from Cape Town to Salvador, Brazil, via St. Helena. It is 4,000 nautical miles of open ocean and includes a unique cultural stopover at St. Helena Island en route.

cooking at sea

What is Life Like During Transatlantic Crossings?

For many sailors, worrying about the weather and life onboard is intimidating. However, you’ll quickly find your rhythm on an Atlantic crossing, with regular watch rotations, constant movement, and meal times, which are features of daily life. You’ll quickly bond with your fellow crew as you take turns in helming, logging your position, adjusting sail settings, looking out for potential hazards and meal preparation. Food on a transatlantic crossing can and should be good and varied, although you will be on nonperishable food after a week or so. With creativity and care, some fantastic meals will still be made. Watches will be 4-6 hours, giving you plenty of sailing time and rest during your transatlantic journey, especially when the wind is light and we’re in calm waters.

sailing yacht under spinnaker

What is the Best Boat to Cross the Atlantic Ocean On?

We have extensively written about safety at sea and offshore sailing in publications such as Yachting World. Ultimately, the right boat for sailing across the Atlantic is the one that makes it safely across! However, such an epic offshore sailing experience has some genuine safety concerns. Although it can be tempting to join the most convenient or cheapest option, you have to take this very seriously. Too many yachts have sunk, and sailors died crossing the Atlantic Ocean to approach this in any way except professionally. Size matters, as larger yachts deal with sea states much better, can move faster, and usually have more crew, equipment, safety gear, and spare parts on board. A professionally run, commercial yacht such as those run by Rubicon 3 will have been rigorously inspected within the last 12 months, be professionally maintained, have all the safety equipment and more, and be run by a highly professional crew who regularly train on emergency procedures. That is not to say amateur yachts are not safe – there are some fine yachts and superb sailors out there – it is just you don’t know quite who you’re setting to sea with or on what.

navigating at sea

How Long Does It Take to Sail Across the Atlantic?

The actual time it takes to sail across the Atlantic can vary significantly, although it typically takes from 2 to 4 weeks, depending on several factors. Weather conditions are crucial, as favorable winds speed the journey, while storms, hurricanes, or calm periods can cause delays. The chosen route also impacts the duration; east-to-west crossings from the Canaries to the Caribbean generally benefit from consistent winds, while west-to-east routes from the U.S. East Coast or the Caribbean to Europe might take longer due to less predictable winds and currents. The type of vessel is another determinant of how long your transatlantic voyage will take; larger, modern sailboats designed for long-distance cruising are typically faster than traditional tall ships or older boats. Additionally, the experience and preparedness of the crew can influence the crossing time, as skilled sailors are adept at optimizing sail trim, managing watch rotations, and performing emergency repairs. The specific distance covered, such as the 2,700 nautical miles from Gran Canaria to Saint Lucia, also affects the overall duration of the voyage.

using sextant

What is the Best Time of Year to Sail Across the Atlantic Ocean?

The best time to sail across the Atlantic Ocean varies depending on the direction of your voyage. For westward crossings, the ideal period is from late November to early January, coinciding with the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC), which benefits from the reliable northeast trade winds (in the northern hemisphere. These would be southeasterly in the South Atlantic). An eastbound crossing is best undertaken from May to June when the weather is milder and the prevailing winds are favorable. It’s crucial to avoid the hurricane season, which spans from June to November, as these months pose significant risks due to severe storms, more challenging conditions, and unpredictable weather patterns. Proper planning and vigilance are essential for a safe and enjoyable transatlantic journey.

lady sailor

How Hard Is It to Sail the Atlantic?

You’ll see a theme here, but how hard a transatlantic crossing is depends on the weather sailors encounter and the boat. If you get benign conditions, sailing the Atlantic Ocean is as easy as any other offshore or ocean sailing. It is just a (long) stretch of water. However, when it gets tricky, you face challenging weather conditions and suffer breakages, and you need a high level of experience. There is nowhere to hide on the Atlantic Ocean and little if any chance of help, even if you carry a satellite phone. For a safe and sensible transatlantic crossing, you need a well-found boat, good weather information, good crew members , and sound technical knowledge. It is recommended that you have some training, such as an RYA Day Skipper or ASA 104 at a minimum.

Crew navigating on a chart

Can Solo Travelers Join a Transatlantic Voyage?

Solo travelers are welcome on a Rubicon 3 voyage across the North Atlantic and will be embraced by the camaraderie and adventure shared with crew members onboard. Beyond the exhilarating transatlantic crossing itself, these journeys offer opportunities to become integral members of the crew and forge lasting friendships. Whether sharing stories under the vast expanse of the starlit skies or navigating heavy weather, solo travelers on these transatlantic voyages will discover a community where the voyage becomes a shared experience of discovery and connection.

offshore saling yacht in caribbean

What About Transatlantic Crossings on a Tall Ship?

Sailing across the Atlantic with Rubicon 3 aboard a 60-foot yacht with a crew of 10 offers a uniquely intimate and hands-on experience compared to a traditional tall ship, which is why it is a popular choice. With Rubicon 3, every participant plays a crucial role in navigating, handling sails, and steering the course, fostering a deeper understanding of seamanship. The smaller group size ensures personal attention from experienced crew members, allowing for more personalized instruction and the chance to develop a strong sense of camaraderie. Unlike on tall ships, where individual contributions can sometimes feel less significant, aboard Rubicon 3, each member becomes an essential part of the sailing adventure.

Top Rated Transatlantic Voyages You Can Join

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