So You Want to Go Transatlantic? - SailNet Community
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So You Want to Go Transatlantic?

At the start of Leg Seven near Annapolis, MD, the Volvo Ocean Race crews displayed their short-course skills. Their open-ocean abilities would be thoroughly tested after leaving the Chesapeake Bay.
The eight teams that started in Sunday's final transoceanic leg in the Volvo Ocean Race have set off for their destination near La Rochelle, France, with tens of thousands of miles of experience already behind them. Nonetheless, their relatively short stopover time of 10 days spent in Baltimore and Annapolis was a blurr of activity among both shore and sailing teams as the competitors prepared for what could be an arduous trip over the next two weeks.

With numerous transatlantic rallies and races planned over the next few years, there may well be a number of SailNet users looking at making a similar trip "across the pond" in the near future. So, taking a detailed look at what the VOR competitors are now facing can reveal prudent information for every sailor—racer and cruiser alike—indicating steps you will want to take before setting off on any transatlantic trip.

The first priority will be to examine thoroughly the boat and its onboard systems to identify anything that either needs repair or would potentially need repair en route. Besides the basics—like having a structurally sound hull, deck, and rig—all the mechanical, rigging, electronic, hydraulic, plumbing, electrical, safety, and sail systems should be checked to verify that they operate correctly and could withstand a long trip at sea. Systems or parts of systems that don't work should be replaced, removed, or learned to be lived without. Think through whether it's necessary, for example, to have that troublesome voltage inverter working if you're not in need of running anything on AC power. On the other hand, getting the filters changed on the watermaker is probably worth the hassle, because if it works, then you will not have to carry as much fluid and can be more luxurious in your use of freshwater.

After six legs of the VOR, the crews have learned a lot about gear and boat preparation, but that didn't make the 11-day layover in Baltimore and Annapolis any less frantic for the riggers, the sailmakers and the other shore crew.
An important part of this process is also deciding what spares to take, because rarely do we have the luxury of space or allowed extra weight to take everything that we might need. Here's where the Volvo teams have an advantage because not only does each syndicate have a maintenance crew that, like a pit crew in auto racing, is ready to replace worn parts at each stopover, but with six legs already completed, they probably have great confidence in knowing that whatever is prone to break has probably already broken. Because of that, they can keep the amount of unused onboard spares to a minimum. However, when problems develop during this leg, there will be no pit stops, so self-sufficiency is essential. Sails, for example, must be kept mechanically sound as well as trimmed to be fast. Since jibs, staysails, and spinnakers can get a lot of abuse during sail changes, each team has a sewing machine on board (some more than one) to make any necessary repairs en route.

While this level of preparation applies to almost every offshore trip, there are a few things unique to a springtime transatlantic crossing, things that every skipper needs to carefully consider. The following are factors that the VOR competitors have already had to deal with for their current transatlantic dash.

The first is ice. The Labrador Current, which runs along the Atlantic coast of the Canadian maritime provinces, pushes cold Arctic water south past Nova Scotia, bringing with it pieces of the ice pack which has started to break up farther north. In order to prevent another Titanic-style disaster along one of the world's busiest shipping routes, an project entitled the International Ice Patrol tracks and monitors the movement of this ice. Distilled from a combination of imaging techniques and observations from passing ships and aircraft, there are regularly updated facsimile charts made available by the Ice Patrol that show the extent of known ice occurrence in and around these lanes. (The IIP is operated by the USCG, funded by a multitude of nations, and utilizes input from numerous entities, including the Canadian Coast Guard and merchant ships from many countries.)

Most VOR competitors assumed they'd seen the last of icebergs after leaving the Southern Ocean (above), but officials expect ice in the North Atlantic to range well south this year, prompting the implementation of a no-go zone for the fleet.

This year's ice limit is one of the farthest south seen in recent years, with some small bergs and growlers reported as far south as the 40th parallel. In order to keep the VOR fleet out of harm's way, the race's management team has established a trapezoid-shaped box that no boat can enter. "Between 51 and 45 degrees west the boats will have to keep below 40 degrees north," according to Race Director Michael Woods.

On Leg Four a few months ago, the teams raced for several days in the Southern Ocean through relatively cluttered ice fields. In fact, one entry, News Corp, collided with a growler while hammering through the Southern Ocean at full speed. It is not surprising, therefore, that Woods and the Volvo committee wished to apply this limit. "It's unfortunate as it completely changes the nature of this leg, they'll nearly be as far south as La Rochelle," commented Woods. Grant Dalton, race veteran and Amer Sports One skipper, believes this could prompt the teams to venture some 350 miles south of their position in the race four years ago. This significant deviation from the shortest Great Circle route will also likely add at least another full day to the trip compared with four years ago.

While not dodging ice, navigators in the VOR fleet know that the trick in any fast transatlantic passage is to look for a track that will keep you to the south of the persistent low-pressure centers which march across the Atlantic at these latitudes. Staying south of the lows means that the wind will come from abeam or astern and the air will be relatively warm. Getting too far north may cut some distance off the overall trip, but might place the boats in danger of finding themselves beating to windward the last few hundred miles to the UK or Europe. That's definitely a lesson for any transatlantic sailor, racer or cruiser, and I know because this happened to a boat I raced aboard in the last Atlantic Challenge Cup race in 1997. After a week of glorious broad reaching aboard Craig Venter's S&S 85 Sorcerer, we encountered light air and found ourselves beating to the finish off England's Lizard Point. (Fortunately, so did the rest of the fleet, and we were able to preserve our lead to win our division).

Transoceanic sailors, says the author, must consider not only weather as a factor for their crossings, but also the anticipated performance of their boats.
Avoiding problems like this requires advance knowledge of the weather and how it relates to the boat's performance. Volvo 60s and many other race boats utilize computer routing programs that can help optimize routes based on predicted weather patterns and the boat's known performance potential. While the shortest distance may be the Great Circle route, it may not be the fastest or safest depending on the boat's performance. Slower boats, for example, may not want to deviate too far from the rhumb line or Great Circle routes, because they tend to go the same speed regardless of the wind speed and direction. Also, slower boats will tend to get overtaken by weather systems, while the fastest boats can nearly keep up with them as they track across the Atlantic. The VOR fleet is doing just that as they ride the coattails of a fast-moving low that has produced a new 24-hour record in the case of illbruck. Think about the multihull speedsters that lie in wait in New York for a favorable pattern to emerge, which might vault them across at record pace.

The other temptress for navigators is that mythical river of tropical warmth, the Gulf Stream, which makes its way eastward across the North Atlantic at speeds of two or three knots. The problem with using what seems like an easy conveyor belt ride is that its path is usually too far south from the Great Circle or rhumb line courses to justify the deviation, and east of Cape Hatteras it starts to diminish greatly in strength. Also, the Gulf Stream's flow starts to break up into eddies and meanders that would likely not correspond to any boats' linear track. Moreover, the warm water creates localized atmospheric instabilities like squalls, which briefly create a lot of wind, but then can leave you becalmed for hours.

Lastly, beside the dangers of ice, straying too far north can also put you in that cold water from the Labrador Current where thick sea fog and very little wind are the frequent results of the cold dense air. Anyone who participated in the 2001 Marblehead-Halifax Race will remember that the fast, record-pace offshore reaching of the first day gave way to drifting conditions after the fleet neared Cape Sable and the windless fog enveloped them for most of the remainder of the race.

So, adventure awaits the Volvo fleet as well as all other sailors who anticipatee transatlantic quests: some fast downwind rides, abundant sea life, and, best of all, after weeks of gray and blue, the sight of inviting green shores awaiting in France, Ireland, or England.

To follow the progress of the racers in the Volvo Ocean Race, log on to the event's official website at

Suggested Reading:

Single-Handed Transatlantic History by John Kretschmer

The Long Way Back to Brazil by James Baldwin

Blasting across the Atlantic by Michael Carr

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Dobbs Davis is offline  
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