From sail plans to nav software, rig failure and SSB, there's plenty you can learn from the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, as Ali Wood discovers
Atlantic Rally for Cruisers: lessons from an ocean crossing
A huge cheer breaks out across Rodney Bay marina as Garuda, a Beneteau First 50, motors in.
Boats sound their horns, the steel drums play loudly, and crews put down their morning coffees and dash bare-footed across the pontoons to take their lines.
Everybody’s looking at the rig, for where there should be a mast, is a spinnaker pole. The crew are exhausted.
‘Thank goodness for help,’ says Russian skipper Slava Gromov, as he takes a longed-for sip of rum punch.
Five days ago, Garuda has dismasted, and two boats had to turn back to help her.
It’s certainly the most dramatic story from the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers 2018, but every skipper has a tale to tell.
The 2,700-mile sail across the Atlantic puts yachts under strains you might never encounter in a decade of coastal cruising.
Kit and crew are tested to their limits, and from rig failure to autohelms, power issues and nav equipment, there’s a whole host of lessons to be learned from sailing offshore.
You can’t have too many spares
‘When you leave with minor niggling concerns, they come back to haunt you at 0200, when the wind’s blowing 30 knots,’ confides the skipper of Gitana, James Fiske, a superyacht captain.
James bought the Gitana 43 for the crossing and spent two years restoring her.
All this time, she’d been a floating workshop, but the weekend prior to leaving Plymouth he emptied the lockers, and didn’t put everything back.
It wasn’t until they needed the pop rivet gun that he realised he hadn’t got any rivets.
‘You don’t buy spares, you build them up – nuts, bolts, washers, shackles and split pins,’ he says. ‘Keep everything on board.’
Fortunately, they did have some spares that came in handy – some piping from the marina mooring line helped curb noisy sheets, and sail repair tape and patches were used to strengthen chafe points on the genoa.
Sailing downwind for 18 days puts a lot of strain on the sails.
‘The shock loading on the genoa as you come out of the roll and it collapses and fills is huge, and it’s repetitive,’ warns James.
For some yachts, such as X-Yachts X-50 SeaGoddess, this strain proved too much, in spite of the ‘perfect 15-20-knot winds.’
The crew woke one morning to find their mainsail ripped.
The new high-tech fibre laminate sail – a brand used by global racing yachts – is not the type you can simply patch once the fibres have broken as it can’t be stitched.
‘We had to sail the rest of the way reefed and with a storm jib – we were bored out of our minds,’ says co-owner Pip Zee.
‘The dealer thinks it’s a production error, and as the sailmaker here doesn’t dare touch it, and there’s none in Martinique with the experience, we now have to motor 200 miles to Antigua.’
Still, Pip is philosophical.
‘It happens, right? It’s a part of sailing. In six months’ time we’ll be crossing back and we’ll have a second chance.’
New sails or old?
New sails are a big investment, but it was a wise choice for James Dean, skipper of Nina, an X-Yacht Xc 45, who came second in her class.
‘I was hoping to run with the old sail and knacker it out, but with hindsight I’m glad we bought a new one in Gibraltar as it took a lot of punishment,’ says James.
‘We did damage our mainsail a bit. We glued patches to where the sail touches the spreader but the glue didn’t bond well to the new sail and it fell off. A cruising main, to me, should come with spreader patches built in.’
Chafe is a big problem – not just with sails, but ropes, too.
James strongly recommends having a Dyneema sheath made and stitching it to the headsail halyards and foresail sheets – a process known as parcelling – though he warns it can eventually slip down.
A sensible idea, according to crewmate Stephen, is that James had a new headsail made with a high- clewed yankee cut, so it set off a pole really well.
‘Someone with the same boat did the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers last year and had it made especially. I copied him!’ admits James.
‘A lot of yachts have headsails around 106%. This is 135% so it’s more of a genoa than a jib.’
Which sail plan?
Nina’s tactic was to run downwind goose-winged.
‘The yachts with spinnakers would get a few miles ahead, but when they had to take them down we’d overtake them,’ says Stephen.
‘One yacht blew three spinnakers and sailed 600 miles more than us. But the problem with sailing big angles on the wind is that there’s so much slop in terms of sea state that whenever the wind drops to the low teens you have to sail higher for it not to collapse.’
Some boats, such as Aurora B, a Hallberg-Rassy 42F, ran twin headsails: ‘We basically went over the start line and didn’t change them for two-and-a-half weeks,’ says co-owner Gemma Simmonds.
Others, such as Nina, Gitana and Gauntlet, went for an even simpler rig of a mainsail and poled-out genoa, which was reefed at various stages.
‘We sailed defensively,’ says Yachtmaster instructor Stef Weilgart-Whitehead of Sigma 38 Gauntlet.
‘We had lots of reefs at night to give the boat and the crew a rest. It’s much more dangerous to reef at night and it’s harder to see squalls coming. The last thing you want to do is wake up crew in heavy wind and rain.’
She preferred to put the reefs in before darkness fell and to shake them out in the morning.
Indeed, Jack Rowland Smith, a Hanse 531, suffered a crash gybe at night whilst putting in a second reef in the main.
They managed to sail with a bent boom but kept the main double-reefed the whole way to avoid breaking it completely.
‘We were really down on power,’ says skipper John Hardy. ‘If I did this again I’d have an inner forestay with two jibs. On a monohull the main is a worry because of the risk of an accidental gybe.’
Mark Thurlow, skipper of Moody 49 Rum Truffle, had hoped to use their Parasailor, but the winds were stronger than expected.
‘It’s good between 8 and 25 knots, though if you need to douse at 25 knots, that’s quite a job,’ he says.
Instead, Mark, Gina and crewmate Sean sailed goose-winged with the main and poled-out genoa until the spinnaker pole broke.
‘I think it was just metal fatigue: too much wind, too much pressure,’ says Mark. ‘We jumped off a wave and it went crack’.
After losing the spinnaker pole, they sailed with a staysail and genoa, which though looking ‘strange’ worked very well.
An accidental gybe is one of the biggest fears of Atlantic sailors, and in at least three instances this happened due to steering errors or malfunctions.
The most dramatic gybe happened to Garuda but the implications for double-handed sailors Suzanne and Joachim Nordqvist on Mo Chara, were also challenging.
‘We’ve never spent so little time together!’ says Suzanne, after their autopilot went into standby, and their Bavaria Ocean 40 gybed causing the jib sheet to part.
‘We got the autopilot working again but once in 24 hours it went into standby. We couldn’t trust it after that; someone always had to be on deck all the time.’
As well as having thicker sheets next time, Suzanne and Joachim say they’d also have windvane steering for backup, and take more crew to help with helming.
The crew of Hanse 531 Jack Rowland Smith also experienced their autopilot turning itself off.
However, as a crew of six, they were comfortable with keeping a constant watch.
‘We had a big repeater panel down below – perhaps it was too much of a power drain,’ suggests skipper John.
For Stephen Heap on Nina, the 10-year-old autopilot was helpful, but in the end they hand-steered.
‘We had something wrong with the rudder bearings. It seemed the more we steered the hotter they got and the stiffer the helm. The autopilot was quite energetic,’ he explained.
They found that it over-corrected and moved the helm excessively (though this could have been to do with calibrating the autopilot response settings).
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According to marine surveyor Ben Sutcliffe Davies, rudder bearings often suffer from wear. There are reports that certain materials such as nylon can swell, causing this kind of problem.
Other common rudder problems include water ingress and crevice corrosion in stainless steel rudder stocks. Before an ocean crossing, thoroughly check your rudder for play and moisture.
Steering to the wind
Another option – one that reduces the risk of an accidental gybe – is to sail to an angle fixed to the wind, rather than a compass course.
While most electronic autopilots can be set to steer to a wind angle, for Mark Thurlow on Rum Truffle, windvane steering was a great investment.
His Hydrovane system has a fixed auxiliary rudder, unlike servo pendulum systems, which have a smaller servo paddle.
‘We wanted a backup steering system. If anything happens to your rudder, the Hydrovane is your emergency steering. It doesn’t require power, and is silent – unlike the “ee-aw” of the autopilot.’
‘The Hydrovane has various gear settings,’ explains Mark. ‘You can set it to be on course all the time, or set it to 5,’ making it less twitchy in strong winds, but not as accurate in lighter winds.
‘I set it at 3; for long passages you don’t need that degree of accuracy.’
Unfortunately, under heavy cross-seas one of the bolts of the vane’s lower transom mounting sheared. In a sterling team effort, Mark cut a spare threaded rod to length, which crewmate Sean – whilst hanging off the bathing platform at 20 knots – banged into place.
Squashed in the lazarette, meanwhile, was Mark’s wife Gina, who tightened it.
The fitting worked for another two days, but then both bolts sheared and Mark threw in the towel and switched to the electronic autopilot.
In spite of the setback, Mark’s still very positive about the Hydrovane, and is working with the manufacturers to determine the problem.
An advantage of windvane steering is that it doesn’t use any power. Conserving and generating power was a high priority for all skippers on the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, with boat crews varying in their needs, from some who powered washing machines, TVs and freezers to those – such as Gitana – who got by without a generator.
Gitana has two domestic batteries with a combined capacity of 240Ah, charged by a wind generator and solar panel, but power was still an issue.
The crew would have liked more.
‘The deeper into the trip, the more we used the autopilot,’ says James.
‘The AIS drew 3.5 amps and the fridge started working harder because it was hot. We had to run the engine earlier each time to charge the batteries. It went from one hour a day to four.’
For boats with children, power consumption was also a big concern.
‘I had a dream of running off solar and wind, and keeping energy outputs low,’ says Jeremy Paterson, skipper of Banyu Aman, a Moody 471, ‘but when I did all the calculations and fudge factor for having kids onboard, I realised we needed a generator.’
Ed Simmonds, skipper of Aurora B agrees: ‘More battery capacity would be nice so we didn’t have to charge so frequently. We’ve got 550Ah of domestic capacity, which is definitely enough, but when the kids are on iPads, the phones are playing audiobooks, and you have two chartplotters, an autopilot and the radar on for half the time, you use a lot more power than usual.’
As well as relying on the engine and generator to top up the batteries, crews used solar, wind and hydro-power.
Torbjörn Holm, skipper of RiRi, a Garcia Exploration 45, found the solar panels worked well but the D400 wind generator was ineffective when sailing downwind due to the relatively low wind speed across the deck.
It proved much more useful, however, when stationary at anchor.
Nina towed a Watt&Sea hydrogenerator, which slowed them down by half a knot but they found it worked well at speeds over 7.5 knots (though Watt&Sea offer different propeller blades to suit speeds down to 5 knots).
It frequently picked up sargassum weed, a growing problem in the Caribbean, but could be flipped up for cleaning.
Oran Mor had the same problem with the Duogen (combined wind and water generator) picking up weed, but were otherwise pleased with its performance.
Until it collected weed it kept the batteries topped up.
During the 19 days at sea the crew only ran the engine for 15 hours in total.
‘You have to make reliable electricity,’ says John Hardy, skipper of Jack Rowland Smith. ‘I’ve got to run it for the hot water, electronics on board, to make water, drive the autopilot, Sue’s hairdryer and the washing machine…’
John, an engineer, made his own watermaker, which turned out to be very successful.
‘It’s a prototype. It’s quarter the size of the competition and makes 120 litres an hour. I might put it on the market, but I’m supposed to be retired!’
A lot of skippers cited the watermaker as a major draw on power (20 to 40 amps), but wouldn’t have done the trip without them.
RiRi carried a Dessalator, which made 60 litres an hour and allowed crew to shower every other day.
Gitana’s watermaker took 40Ah hours to produce 40 litres of water.
‘That was a lot,’ says James. ‘I didn’t fully appreciate the impact, though we didn’t restrict our water intake and showered ever other day.’
According to Jim MacDonald of Mactra Marine, traditional watermakers use a lot of power but newer models such as Schenker and Spectra can produce the same amount of water for 19/20 amps at 12V.
Most yachts taking part in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers used chartplotters, though a couple – such as Gitana – relied on paper charts and GPS.
‘For 99% of the time a chartplotter on deck would have been obsolete and demoralising,’ says James Fiske. ‘I preferred to do a noon plot and announce the 24-hour run – usually 150 miles.’
James’s dad, Des, agrees. ‘With these things you can spend so much time analyzing the data; it’s better to look for fish and enjoy the sailing!’
All the yachts we spoke to had AIS and radar, both for spotting shipping and weather.
‘There were lots of non-AIS fishing boats off the coast of Africa,’ says James Dean on Nina. We also found radar particularly useful for squalls. You could tell how big the squall was – especially in the dark– by the size of the big yellow blob.’
Though some boats went for days – and even the whole crossing – without seeing shipping, Nina found herself unexpectedly on a collision course.
‘It’s quite a surprising when you’ve been hand- steering for three days and suddenly there’s a ship on the AIS,’ says Stephen. ‘We got him on the radio: he was American and he changed course. It was helpful, because when you’ve got a gybe preventer and are goosewinged it takes up to 10 minutes to gybe.’
The IridiumGo, a portable hotspot device, was a popular choice for satellite communications.
It works with a prepaid simcard or contract which allows skippers to connect up to five devices (laptop, smartphone or tablet) with voice and data. A lot of people used it to download GRIB files (highly compressed weather data) and for calls and emails.
‘The GRIB files were great,’ says Mark Thurlow. ‘There was a band of wind forecast which was 13 to 28 knots. We made sure we sat in the middle band and wind-wise the course and route worked out fine.’
Torbjörn Holm of RiRi was satisfied with the Iridium Go and external antenna, which he used with PredictWind forecasts.
However, he warns that it’s slow, taking 10 minutes and using 40MB to download four days of large-scale weather.
It’s better to download smaller files of 200 KB at a time, he says. Torbjörn even called his mum and daughters.
‘It was emotional. It was awesome, but we had to have a quick 3 minutes,’ he says. Torbjörn’s package is €1,600 a year, and includes 75 minutes a month.
Whilst communicating with friends and family was important, staying in touch with other Atlantic Rally for Cruisers yachts was more so.
A small contingent (39 of the 173 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers entries) had SSB high-frequency radio, allowing them to talk to others hundreds of miles away.
The five controllers would do a daily roll-call to check everyone was ok.
The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers spirit
It seems that from cruising couples to family liveaboards, 30ft monohulls to 50ft cats, there are many ways to cross the Atlantic.
For some, budget is a priority, for others it’s performance.
Whilst skippers might vary in their choice of kit and strategy, the one thing everyone agreed on was the joy of sharing the experience.
‘There’s a tremendous community spirit to the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers,’ says Ed Simmonds.
‘We talked about it before we joined, but now we realise what that actually means – how powerful it is, both practically and emotionally, to cross an ocean with other boats.’
The things the ARC crews loved
My flannel. It kept me cool. Des, Gitana
Spinlock lifejacket. I didn’t even know I was wearing it. Dave, Gitana
GoPro on a stick. We could see the weed on the propeller. James, Gitana
Thermal Cooker. Heat it up, stick the food in, and it cooks for a few hours. Fiona, Oran Mor
Audiobooks. Jane Austen was my friend! Gina, Rum Truffle
Children’s seasickness tablets. We would have been stuck without them. Maxine, MR
Treat cupboard. Because a bar of Cadbury’s costs $10 in St Lucia! Roy, MR
Solar shower. 40 litres gave us 10 showers. Kim, Oran Mor
Fishing lures. To catch tuna and dorado. Andras, EH01
Advent calendar. So I can start my countdown to Christmas, Harry, 7, Aurora B