ARC weather expert and Yachting World columnist, Chris Tibbs, provides a masterclass in Atlantic crossing preparation and execution
There is only one adjective that adequately describes our transatlantic crossing with the ARC last year and the season of Caribbean cruising that followed it: fantastic! The rally was my 26th crossing. I’ve raced across, cruised and done commercial deliveries before, but this was the first I had ever done aboard my own boat. I sailed with Helen, my wife (it was her fourth crossing) and two friends who, although very experienced sailors, were doing this for the first time. In December last year I wrote about our preparations in Yachting World. Now, a year later, it feels time to share our experiences and explain what went well and what didn’t.
On a cruising-to-racing scale of one to ten, I would put our efforts on the ARC at about four – slightly nearer cruising than racing. Our Wauquiez Centurion 40S, Taistealai, like most of the non-racing boats, was very heavy, being full of food, fuel, water, and cruising gear. This was noticeable in performance and the feel of the boat, but it is inevitable if the main reason for the passage is cruising at the other end. A few of the cruising class bought dinghies, outboards, and anchor chain in the Caribbean and went across on freeze-dried food, but not us.
We kept the boat sailing at an average of 6-7 knots by regularly changing sails, hand steering, and generally keeping the boat moving but with a fairly conservative sailplan. We did two watches of two, which made for pretty easy sailing. Being two-up meant we could change sails without calling the off watch.
The damage list
My policy was to try and keep everything simple, manageable and, if not repairable, then possible to live without. Our damage list comprised of two popped rivets on the vang, a broken ring on the snuffer (a lesson here: buy cheap, buy twice), some damage to the saloon table and a problem with the bilge pump. We were a bit disappointed when the saloon table separated from its mountings, especially after I had added extra fittings, but it is easy to underestimate how much force an 80kg person exerts when falling into a table as the boat rolls downwind. We were carrying a battery drill and spare bolts for repair purposes, so I was able to fix it.
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The bilge pump was potentially the most serious issue. One morning after a breezy night, we found the bilges full of water. They pumped out OK but I was mystified as to where the water was coming from. Eventually, we found that the motion of the boat was forcing water back through the hose fittings on the pump outlet itself. There was no way to tighten the snap fittings and, as the hose outlet was normally above the waterline, there was no seacock. I thought I had covered all the underwater aspects of boat preparation before we left, but not having a seacock on the electric bilge pump outlet became a problem.
Before leaving we replaced all our instruments and displays with brand new Raymarine units. Our boat is ten years old and, while the old instruments, chartplotters/multifunction displays (MFDs) still worked, adding to the system would have been difficult, and as our long-term plan is to sail across the Pacific, reliability is important.
Immediately we appreciated the amazing clarity of the i70 displays, which were easy to read day or night and we have also become converts to the MFD anchor alarm. In the past I have generally relied on a depth alarm when anchored to give a warning of dragging. But the latest generation of MFDs use low levels of power and have an anchor alarm function that measures distance moved. If you set the minimum distance (19m) there are occasional false alarms when the wind dies and you swing around but we have found it incredibly accurate. I was also pleasantly surprised at the accuracy of Navionics charts since I have been cruising in the Caribbean.
The radar was most useful in detecting and avoiding squalls. Although there were a lot of squalls around during our crossing, the maximum wind we saw was 27 knots. In some years squalls of over 50 knots have been reported. We had a moderate tradewind crossing and spent a lot of time goosewinged with a poled-out headsail. We were happy with our 110 per cent jib with a high clew, which sat well on the pole and gave us good visibility forward. We also used spinnakers and a Parasailor to good effect.
There is an argument for using a staysail sheeted hard in when sailing goosewinged to dampen the roll. Although we were not rolling badly, we tried this technique using an inner jib rather than a staysail, set close behind the foresail. We discovered that oversheeting it made steering more difficult without reducing the roll at all, yet when sheeted correctly, it added speed. We used it when the wind was slightly too strong for the spinnaker, but not quite strong enough for main and poled-out jib alone.
Once we were cruising in the Caribbean between islands we were rarely without a reef in the main and having a small jib was helpful. The original sail for the boat was about 140 per cent but we haven’t regretted getting it recut to match the 110 per cent jib. The new jib has soft hanks and we intend to try twin headsails on the Pacific crossing when we will be mainly two-handed and relying on the autopilot.
Wear and tear
Our mainsail is fully battened and the cars that run up a track on the mast use ball bearings. It was only when removing the cars before leaving the boat for hurricane season that we realised the bearings on the top two cars were not round anymore. That was easily rectified, but there is some slight track damage.
We fitted one stand-up block for the spinnaker halyard to pass through, but there was not enough room to fit one for the second halyard. It was interesting to see that where a halyard passed through the metal eye it chafed seriously after about seven hours but where it went through the stand-up block there was none at all. The only other chafing problem was on the jib sheet, which needed end-for-ending after the crossing as there was minor wear by the knot.
We had fitted leecloths before the crossing but we did not use them as we mainly slept on the low side. Helen made a nest for herself in the forepeak among the spare duvets and cushions. She had spent a lot of time putting fiddles on galley shelves and finding the right sized boxes for cupboards, but the most successful additions were large plastic boxes that fitted inside the fridge. We have a front-opening fridge, which is great in harbour, but at sea is liable to empty itself on the floor when on we are sailing on starboard tack or rolling. With food inside the plastic boxes, nothing escaped.
We were planning to turn off the freezer after a few days at sea, but we found that we were generating enough electrical power to run a fridge, freezer, watermaker, and instruments. We had chosen multiple charging options. On the way to the Canary Islands we found our Rutland 1200 wind generator and solar panels adequate. For the crossing, however, we added a Watt & Sea hydrogenerator, concerned that when sailing downwind the low apparent wind would not be enough to run the wind generator.
The joys of renewable energy
We were careful about usage, but not obsessive. The Watt & Sea was the main source of power – we ran the engine for only 1.5 hours during the crossing. Our Watt & Sea is held down in the water with a sacrificial pin that is designed to shear in case of collision. We now carry spare pins as they do get bent, as well as spare propellers.
During the crossing, it was noticeable that once the morning sun began to charge the solar panels, we were not only keeping up with consumption, but also charging, so we could use the watermaker. During the afternoon, as the sun declined to the west, the panels were in shade so we were back to just maintaining charge.
Once we were cruising in the Caribbean we found the solar panels and wind generator invaluable. In windy anchorages we were self-sufficient in power. At our favourite anchorage, the Tobago Cays, tucked in behind the reef with the full force of the Trades blowing over the top, we had enough power to make ice and produce water. Conversely, behind large islands sheltered from the Trades, the solar panels came into their own.
We have Sunware panels, made in Germany, available from Marlec, and we are planning to boost our current 138W array by another 76W. The limiting factor is space: we do not have a large structure around the cockpit on which to mount them, so they have to be fitted on the coachroof. Davits, biminis, and solar power structures are all very useful but they can be ugly and, in my view, you need a boat larger than our 40-footer to carry it off.
Having said all that, there have been many occasions when I have wished for davits to lift the dinghy quickly and easily. Instead, we made a sling and hoisted our dinghy up by a halyard onto the foredeck. Dinghy theft tends to happen at night when tenders are tied to yachts rather than chained. My advice is to go for the biggest dinghy and outboard you can manage – the limitation will always be size and weight.
Communications are all-important these days and can make or break a passage. Some yachts arrive in Saint Lucia with whopping comms bills. We ran with a satphone through a modem (Mailasail’s Red Box), which limited the computer to sending and receiving emails and prevented any automatic updates. We had limited pre-paid airtime so we used the satphone only for boat-related emails and a call home for each crewmember midway across.
Before we left I had no idea that the Yellowbrick tracker, which is provided to all rally yachts, can send and receive texts. This proved really useful as it allowed us to keep in touch relatively cheaply and, more importantly, meant that we could save all of our airtime on the satphone for weather information and safety.
The closest we came to a problem on the whole Atlantic crossing was what we now call ‘the dorado’s revenge’. We caught a fish, and Helen made a superb dinner, but in the excitement we lost concentration momentarily and the spinnaker wrapped around the forestay. I am a great believer in spinnaker nets but preparation time was short and I didn’t get round to making one this time. After a trip up the mast to sort the kite out, the dinner had gone cold.
What else did we learn? We decided against a salt-water pump in the galley on the grounds that we did not want to add yet another skin fitting, but there is no doubt that a salt-water supply would have saved us water offshore.
We are off to the Pacific next. Once through the Panama Canal places to get spares and repairs will be scarce for the next 10,000 miles. Then we will see if our preparations have been right.