Blasting across the Atlantic - SailNet Community
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Blasting across the Atlantic

Our assignment was to deliver the Whitbread entry America's Challenge to Southampton UK from Newport RI in time for the start of the Whitbread Around the World Sailing Race scheduled for September 21st. Race rules actually required all boats to be in the UK by September 1st, but we were unsure if we could get to the UK by that date as it was already August 18th when the boat was finally ready to depart.

Great circle distance from Newport to Southampton is 2880 miles and rhumb line is 3300 miles, so sailing a great circle saves over 400 miles. However, Weather-specifically low pressure systems, and Gulf Stream current play a role in route planning. We did not intend to break records on the trip across, just deliver the boat to the UK intact, though as quickly as possible, so our strategy was conservative.

After reviewing Jenifer Clarks Gulf Stream Analysis, and weather forecasts our initial plan was to sail over the top of the Bermuda High-pressure system staying close to the north side of the Gulf Stream. We would adjust our course north or south as weather systems came through. What we did not want were low-pressure systems coming through to our south, which would give us east and northeast winds on the nose.

We departed Newport on the afternoon of August 18th just behind a departing cold front. We had west and then north winds at 15 knots for the first two days. A good way to start a voyage.

However, on the third day (21 August) winds began building from the east and northeast as a Gale approached us from the west. We soon realized the Gale would be passing almost directly over us and with building winds and seas slowing forward progress we elected to head SE to sail beneath the low and put us into an area of south and SW winds.

We fell off and put the wind abaft the beam on the portside, which quickly allowed America's Challenge to pick up speed and begin surfacing down eight and ten ft seas. Boat speed averaged near 12 knots but there were consistent speeds in the high teens and low 20s while surfing.

While running off that night we began to hear a loud crackling sound, and though we investigated at length, its source could not be found. We did agree the sound was loudest under the aft deck near the rudderpost.

This crackling sound, which imitated that of a massive electrical short circuit, continued for several hours that night and then abruptly stopped. The following day we were still investigating the reason for the sound when a crewman happened to look through the hull viewpoint next to the rudderpost and immediately noticed the reason for the previous nights sound-the bottom quarter of the rudder was missing.

We quickly surmised the crackling as the sound produced by the cored rudders skin and foam tip separating and peeling off the rudder body. Now, not sure of the rudder's integrity, we sailed cautiously for the next few hours as we monitored and examined the rudder through the viewport. We soon agreed the remainder of the rudder would probably remain intact, as we could see no further separation or renewed crackling.

We continued on with winds now abaft the beam as we hugged the top edge of the Bermuda-Azores high. We dipped to 38N in the process of sailing below east ward moving low pressure systems, and though this took us off a great circle path we had consistent winds abaft the beam and averaged over 250 miles each day. If we had been further north wind and seas would have been forward of the beam and progress significantly slowed.

To keep speed up in light air we continually shifted water ballast and sails to produce the minimum amount of wetted surface and keep the boat level. Sail bags were moved from below decks to the gunwale and then back again. With the seemingly unlimited sail inventory we had aboard this was a laborious task.

Many of the larger sails required half the crew to move, and as sails became wet their weight seemed to increase exponentially. There was a noticeable increase in speed when the boat was kept level and weight distributed properly.

Sailing flat is physically and mentally less stressful on a crew and therefore less tiring. Sailing flat often increases speed by more than a knot, and sailing faster than surrounding waves has many benefits. It reduces the opportunity of being pooped or broached and makes the boats motion less jerky.

Working at the navigation station was never a problem due to heel or speed, though I will admit that to see GPS SOG readings of 25 knots can make you wonder, but only momentarily, what might happen if the boat slams into a sleeping whale of floating container. I elected to spend little time contemplating this and instead banged away at the computer keyboard.

GPS Blank

One morning about half way through the trip, while downloading weather charts via the SSB and watching a satellite image scroll down the computer screen, the GPS display went blank. The screen did not go dark as occurs when normally shut down, but stayed lit without a display of numbers or letters.

Turning the unit on and off numerous times, and following the manufacturers restart and reprogramming procedures had no effect on restoring the GPS operation. The only entry in the units troubleshooting manual that appeared to address this problem told us to return the unit to the manufacturer! We continued to search for a solution and finally, many hours later, saw the display briefly return when the connection at the antennae was jiggled.

Disconnecting the antennae connections showed salt water corrosion and a loose crimp fitting, so the fitting-along with 6 inches of cable-were cut off and a new one attached. Failure of the first fitting was due most likely to the antennae being mounted less than a foot above the deck on the boat's stern where it was being frequently immersed in salt water.

We had a plastic sextant and Celesticomp calculator aboard, so I knew we could rely on that for the remainder of the trip, but the GPS was the heart of the electronic charting, communications, and performance sailing systems and was needed for running these programs.

Sail Handling

Though this was a racing boat there were procedures and techniques that cruising sailors could use. For example: when a spinnaker is dropped the a tag line leading from the spinnaker clew to between the boom and loose footed mainsail is used to pull the sail below. By pulling the spinnaker through the slot between the boom and loose footed mainsail the sail is collapsed, flattened and restrained.

Once the sail is below it is stretched from bow to stern and then rebundled using yarn stoppers. A closed loop line, resembling a pulley clothesline, is used to extend the spinnaker so that a crewman need not drag the sail up to the bow.


We regularly had water coming across the deck when winds were over 15 knots, and water coming across the deck always came through the cockpit on its way out the open stern. On one night while we were surfing down waves with water continually filling the cockpit the 406 Epirb mounted on the underside of the mainsheet traveler was washed overboard.

Owing to darkness no one on deck saw or realized the Epirb had been swept away until we received a message on our Inmarsat C asking if we were OK and requesting that we check our Epirbs to determine if they were onboard. We quickly determined the on-deck Epirb to be gone.

We e-mailed back that all was well aboard and that our on-deck Epirb had been washed overboard. Fortunately we had a second Epirb below. This incident makes clear that Epirbs mounted on deck need to be both easily deployed but also protected from seas that could wash them overboard.

For those who can afford to do so a second Epirb mounted below decks might be a good investment, especially if your vessel will be venturing to remote or rough weather areas.

Several countries, including USA, England, Germany, Spain, New Zealand and Canada picked up the Epirb signal. They all queried us within a few hours of the Epirb being swept overboard, and so we were impressed by the response time.

Our Inmarsat C and B system worked fairly well thought there were bugs in both software systems that caused us to become frustrated on numerous occasions. When the systems worked they were superb but numerous messages going out from our C system never reached their destination. This was not due to any failing in the Inmarsat C system, which I have used with pleasure many times previously but with these systems particular software and, I think, with the placement of the C antennas.

Both C antennas (we had two systems aboard) were mounted on the stern adjacent to the corner lifeline stantions. These stantions and their stainless steel wire may have been causing some signal reception and sending problems. Problems with our GPS reception may also have been related to its antennae being mounted below and near stainless steel lifelines and next to a stantion. An arch or pedestal may be a better place for these type of antennas, as it places them away from sources of possible interference.

Vang Explosion

Three times during the passage our vang exploded and each time it was due to failure of a block within the vang's multiple block and tackle system. The vang was designed as the weak link in the boom-gooseneck-mainsheet system, and its failure prevented worse problems had the gooseneck, or mainsheet failed. All three vang failures occurred under similar conditions of dynamic loading, brought on when waves were contrary to the wind and the mainsail and boom were undergoing cyclical loading as the boat accelerated and decelerated.

Fortunately no-one was near the vang the times it failed, so there were no Injuries. I examined what pieces could be found of the destroyed blocks and was reminded of the tremendous forces developed when vangs, as well as sheets, halyards, preventers are under load.

Wear and tear of active sailing induces great stresses on deck hardware and produces a belief that blocks, shackles, pins can never be too strong or robust. The bigger the better, but there always needs to be a weak link in a system, and the weak link should be selected so its failure will: (1) do the least harm and (2) prevent further problems. In this case the gooseneck, mainsheet and preventer were all designed to be strong and the vang selected as the weak link since its failure would preserve the boom and gooseneck and be the easiest to fix.

Mainsail Blowout

When just 60 miles from Southampton we were sailing on a beam reach with a full main and jib. Seas were short, sloppy and confused and we regularly felt the boat lurch as cross-seas slowed our progress.

Each time the boat shook the mainsail, which was eased out to port, would slap against the spreaders. A particularly large set of cross-seas caught the boat and as the boat slowed the mainsail-still full of wind-slammed hard against the port spreaders and immediately split along several of its upper horizontal seams.

Since a repair job would have taken several hours we doused and main and continued under jib and "iron genoa." It was the stresses of 12 days of hard sailing exacerbated by slams against the spreaders did-in the mainsail. A lesson to Remember-keep the mainsail off the spreaders.

Onboard Equipment:
Our onboard weather, communications and navigation setup consisted of the following:

  • Furuno SSB
  • Furuno Radar
  • Icom VHF
  • Lieca GPS
  • Vetus recording barometer
  • Laptop computer
  • ProTech Marine ProBox computer (200 Mhz pentium, 64 mb RAM, 6.5 Gigabyte hard drive, 10 comm ports) with 14.5 inch flat panel LCD display
  • B&G Instrument and Performance system
  • Inmarsat C (data) and B (voice)
  • Sextant and Celesticomp calculator

We carried paper charts for the passage but we relied on electronic charts and Navtrec software for daily navigation. A noon fix was plotted each day on paper chart #4090 (North Atlantic Plotting Chart-Canada) along with a DR plot. With the GPS coupled to the ProBox computer our position was constantly updated. An electronic log was also kept using the Navtrec program with position and other navigation information entered automatically every hour.

We had the ability and processing power to run numerous programs Simultaneously. For example we often ran concurrently:

  1. Real time weather satellite imagery using WeatherTrac
  2. Weather fax charts from the SSB
  3. Send and receive messages via Inmarsat C
  4. Navtrec charting system
  5. B&G Tactician program
  6. OCEAN routing software

We did not run the computer continuously to minimize power consumption though maximum power consumption was around 6 amps, and average consumption close to 3 amps.

We had a laptop onboard as well which we was used more for keeping notes and composing e-mail, but the processing speed of the installed ProBox made it a much more efficient machine for all applications.

We arrived in Southampton on the evening of August 31, meeting the race deadline for arrival by several hours! We covered nearly 3500 miles in just over 12 days, which gave us a daily run of around 290 miles. Our best days run was 359 miles, and we had several days where 320 miles was the average. We encountered half a dozen gales during the trip and fortunately were able to position ourselves on the south side of all except the first so that we experienced winds abaft our beam. The strongest wind experienced was 40 knots and the minimum 10, and when I compared these figures with the Pilot charts after the voyage found that our experience fit within the average conditions shown on those charts.

I attribute our ability to make consistent daily runs to several factors:

  1. Excellent boat design and construction allowing consistently high speeds in both light and strong winds.
  2. Ability to receive weather charts, text forecasts and real-time satellite imagery. Real time imagery (infrared and visible) allowed us to track actual development, movement, and dissipation of weather systems. We thus placed ourselves within desired weather patterns instead of sailing a route and accepting weather as it came.
  3. Simple and reliable onboard systems that took little time away from the important tasks of sailing, navigation and routing.


Whitbread 60's are impressive in their ability to sail fast in both light and heavy wind and surf when off the wind. They are however hard on their crews, granting few-if any-concessions to their mental and physical needs.

Most striking is the lack of ventilation.

There are no deck vents-either Dorades or Nicro-Fico flush style-to bring fresh air below. There are small vents located in the cockpit protected by clamshell covers that allow a slight amount of air to come below. Most times these vents are capped however since water washing though the cockpit easily goes through these openings drenching the adjacent bunks-and off watch crew!

Lack of ventilation brings about a below decks environment that varies from being too hot, too cold, but always damp.

There are no portlights or avenues for natural light to penetrate below so lighting is all artificial and minimal in the vein of keeping unnecessary weight off the boat. I found that working below for hours on end at the navigation station caused me to feel much more fatigued than expected. Many days I regularly took aspirin to deal with headaches.

These boats are fast and feel extremely seaworthy in heavy weather conditions. Their speed and maneuverability are an asset when moving through a seaway as they allow movement through wave trains and minimize-or even prevent-being broached. Americas Challenge never buried its bow coming down a wave and tracked well on all points of sail.

Michael Carr is offline  
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