Tempted to head off on an transatlantic adventure? Elaine Bunting looks at how to prepare for an Atlantic crossing in just one or two years
In the spring of 2021, Laura Blom-Sipkens and her husband were chatting in their car when a thought suddenly struck her: we should take a break from work and take on an Atlantic crossing with the children.
“I don’t remember the conversation we were having but suddenly I saw this might be the moment. The kids were in the right grades at school and I thought: ‘We should go. We need to do it,’” Blom-Sipkens recalls.
Life is very busy for the Dutch family. Blom-Sipkens is an anaesthesiologist, her husband, Bas, an orthopaedic surgeon. They often work different shifts. Their three children are aged 11, 9 and 7, and the oldest and youngest have dyslexia. “We didn’t want them to miss classes, so there never seemed to be the right moment,” she says. “But the oldest is finishing primary school now, so it seemed like the right time.”
The couple have sailed since childhood, mainly inshore in small boats and dinghies, but a longer voyage was something they’d been thinking about. “My husband loves sailing. I like it a lot, but I’m more of an adventurer and it’s the adventure that I like,” she says.
Beginning their search for a suitable boat, the couple decided on aluminium or steel construction. After eight months of searching they found a Van de Stadt-designed Samoa 47 laid up on the south coast of France, and bought it. The yacht needed a refit, so the couple transported it home overland to the Netherlands to have the work done nearer home. Then they entered the 2023 ARC transatlantic rally. Now with a year to go, their preparations are on a strict timeline.
Why not now?
Many people planning to sail across the Atlantic plan their adventure three, four or even five years ahead of time, but others manage to do it in a much shorter timespan. After all, many things can change in five years; events may swerve you onto a different course. So if an opening can be found between work commitments, children’s education and duties to parents, why not take it now?
And if you do decide to make the leap, how would you prepare for a year of voyaging and an Atlantic crossing with an accelerated run-up? Is it possible to plan from scratch and execute well in under 18 months or even within the year?
This is a tight timeline. To be at the starting point for an Atlantic crossing in the right season from mid-November through to January you need to leave northern Europe no later than September, and preferably earlier. If it’s your first ocean passage, there will be an enormous amount to prepare and to learn, and your choice of yacht will greatly affect how much time you have to play with.
If you are thinking of buying a new boat, you’ll need a two-year run-up, perhaps longer. Bear in mind that supply chain delays and bottlenecks are currently causing delivery times to drag, and schedules are slipping again and again. You’ll also need to build in time for snagging and warranty work on a new build.
“I would normally say you could go with a new boat within a year, but at the moment, almost certainly not,” says Jeremy Wyatt, director of World Cruising Club. With over 25 years of experience organising the ARC and other rallies, Wyatt is an authority on the ways skippers prepare for ocean crossings and their degrees of success.
“You need to allow more time in your planning whatever you are told,” he says. “With a new build, you need to own it and have it in your possession for six months before you plan to sail away, as a rule of thumb.
“I think with new boats, owners are a bit over-optimistic in their planning and with the information they are given. They maybe don’t always appreciate how complex it is, and with lots of systems on board, that is understandable.
“So I would say getting a new boat with only a year to go is too risky. You would need more time.”
If time is short, you may need to look at a brokerage yacht, which opens up a host of other questions. What is the right type and size of yacht, and what will represent a good buy?
Data from a generation of ARC rallies, from thousands of yachts that have crossed the Atlantic successfully, proves that any well prepared yacht can do this, from 34ft up to 100ft-plus. The choice depends on your budget and your expectations.
A smaller yacht is fine if you are prepared for longer passage times and less stowage and comfort. You might also be ready to go more quickly if you were prepared to accept fewer home comforts, which tend to require multiple complex systems. Every piece of equipment you can live without is something that can’t go wrong, and a learning curve you can eliminate.
How much time have you got?
As well as calculating your budget for upgrading and refitting, you’ll need to consider how much time you will have to plan, oversee and carry out a multitude of tasks. If you have to work right up until you sail away in the spring or summer beforehand, time will be a scarce commodity.
You will likely want to take courses on diesel engine maintenance, troubleshooting and repairing mechanical and electrical systems, medical and sea survival courses, and do meteorology and radio comms courses. You or your crew may also want specialist hands-on offshore sail training or onboard tuition, but courses like these don’t run every week, and you may have to travel to them.
A yacht that needs less work will buy you more time to fit all these in.
“My advice for going next year would be to get a boat being sold by an owner who had been extended bluewater cruising already, a yacht that has been used and maintained continuously,” counsels Wyatt. “Maybe you would be buying a slightly more expensive boat, but it might save you money and time in the long run.
“I wouldn’t rule out a hard-used boat if the owner had been living aboard, using it and it’s been looked after. It’s boats that have been sitting in the marina with systems not used and maintained that tend to give problems.”
Sue Grant, managing director of bluewater brokers Berthon International, agrees: “A year is quite a long time if you have the right boat. Age is not so critical, the standard of fit-out is. The ideal scenario would be someone has prepped for going and changed their plans. We have got a few like that [for sale] at the moment as, when Covid restrictions lifted, the right time [for their owners] had passed.
“Reliability is what you are looking for. Look at things that can go wrong, such as standing rigging. With a watermaker, engine, generator and electronics, they need to be operational but not the latest and greatest. There are things you will need to stay safe, and then there are things such as flatscreen TVs or AV systems that are nice to have but you will never get back [at resale].”
Grant agrees boat condition is more important than type. “Look at boats crossing with the ARC. It’s wholly wrong that only a medium displacement boat is suitable. That is rubbish. A Beneteau that just needs a tidy up to give her what she needs to go again is probably a safe bet. Obviously, you need to think differently if you’re going into the Pacific, planning to be away for 10 years or going to high latitudes.”
There are, she insists, always yachts on the market that will get you across on a deadline. “Right now, for example, we have a 2010 boat that has been across the Atlantic three times and was shipped last time. She has 2,000 engine hours, new sails but needs new rigging, and could even be ready for a season in the Med before you cross the Atlantic next year. With a good boat, a year is quite a lot of time.”
Ready for a refit
It is commonplace, however, for owners to underestimate how much it will cost to refit and prepare a yacht.
From the survey of their Samoa 47, the Blom-Sipkens were well aware their boat would need a lot of work, possibly including re-engining. They anticipate that they’ll spend 25% of the initial cost getting the boat ready for their trip.
“We knew work had to be done. There were faults in the electrical system, wires were loose and things didn’t work. The engine was smoking white. We had a sense there might be additional problems. But the sails are good and rigging is good, the generator is OK. We will fit a wind turbine and solar panels, and there are all the little costs, for example adding extra guardrails for the kids,” she says.
“When we bought the boat we had a general idea of what it might cost but the prices have gone up due to inflation. The money is running out quickly.”
“Be careful about what you spend your money on,” Jeremy Wyatt recommends. “When buying their dream boat people often focus on the wrong things and neglect the basics. They feel they must have a watermaker or a generator, whereas I wouldn’t exclude boats without those items as you can go sailing without them, especially on an Atlantic circuit.”
Look instead at the integrity of the boat, the rigging and the safety equipment, he says. Insurance companies may insist on replacement rigging every 10-12 years.
The list of safety gear required for the ARC is extensive and can be costly, and you can’t cut corners with the safety of your family at stake. Your new boat may need some replacement sails, or extra downwind sails. The power or electrical systems might need to be upgraded.
You will need to check running rigging, winches and windlass, have machinery serviced, check steering and stern gear and, depending on the yacht’s inventory, invest in an adequate stock of spares. The lists go on, but the better prepared and maintained the boat is when you buy it, the quicker you can be ready to go cruising.
The benefits of teamwork
Whether you have a long time to prepare or not, getting the right crew together can help share out tasks and increase the enjoyment of participation. If you can, select the right people at the outset.
In November, US sailors Chris and Laura (they prefer us not to use their surname) will be travelling to France for the launch of their new Ovni 450, Reverie, on which they hope to cross the Atlantic for the first time with the ARC in November 2023.
Reverie’s launch will be a milestone in what has been a long-term plan for Chris and Laura. They spent two-and-a-half years choosing their ideal bluewater yacht before ordering it, and their Atlantic crossing dream has been years in the making.
The couple are very seasoned sailors who own two other yachts, a Swan 40 that they sail on Lake Michigan during the summer and a Southerly 115 Mk IV that they keep in Florida and sail during the winter. For their Atlantic crossing they will be sailing with friends, another experienced sailing couple.
Chris is a retired business strategist who worked on high level plans routinely made five to 10 years in advance. So it is unsurprising that his ARC preparations are highly detailed. They give an interesting perspective on how to use the pooled expertise of a team to develop a readiness plan.
“If you have a team with the experience, knowledge and passion — all these three ingredients — a lot of stuff comes automatically as long as you give it time,” he observes.
The four friends have weekly conference calls that will continue until they begin sailing from France next summer. From these discussions, the couple have prepared a comprehensive plan covering 58 categories, each of which runs to as many as 12 pages. They cover everything from safety to water supplies, procedures onboard to spare parts, first aid kit and training, travel requirements and food.
“The list is extensive,” Chris says. “I am very big on contingency management so we have power from solar, a diesel genset, hydrogenerator and wind, and we have alternative ways of supplying water – including supplies if we need to rescue other crew and have another four or six people on board.”
In the food category is ‘a 21-day food plan with an additional 30-day contingency plan using dry foods or items in aseptic packaging’. Each topic has been divided into priorities and ‘nice-to-have areas’, such as carrying a good assortment of fishing gear and things to keep the crew entertained en route.
“We look at this as a fully cohesive integrated strategy,” he says.
The other benefit of tapping into the experience of others and involving them along the way is that you can share out responsibilities during the preparations.
“As in a business, one of the biggest signals to me is getting the right individuals. Do they come up with ideas and say they will do them? We have distributed areas and each has a project owner,” says Chris.
“Everybody is participating and that is a big part of developing the plan and making sure it is executed. Not only has my confidence grown, it has become more and more secure.”
Whenever you aim to leave, be sure to allow for sailing time as a crew beforehand. If your yacht is larger than you’re used to, if it’s not very familiar or you’ll be sailing two-up, take your time to build confidence.
You also need time and miles to find out if, for example, the watermaker works upwind on starboard tack or windows leak when it’s rough. You’ll want to practice emergency routines and MOB drills. Those are all best done near your home port.
“Factor in sea trials and the experience of living on board – and not just a weekend on the Solent but for several weeks,” says Jeremy Wyatt. “Then you will find out the things you want or need to change.”
“Most of all,” he adds, “don’t forget why you’re doing this. You are going to be busy; it may cost more than you planned. The more time you take to prepare, the more time you will get to enjoy the journey. When you leave you want to be stress free. You’ve done the hard work. Now you want to sail away and have fun.”
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