Every year roughly 1500 boats cross the Atlantic from East to West and 1000 from West to East. Why do people do it? I mean why undergo a stressful and potentially very dangerous passage that can take up to a month when you can catch a plane and spend 8 hours eating, drinking and watching films?
So why do people cross the Atlantic?
I always ask this question when meeting people that have done the crossing. An accomplished lawyer from England who was about to embark on his second crossing told me:” What would you like for people to read on your tombstone? “She sailed the Atlantic twice” or… “She worked in an office 9 to 5, Monday to Friday?”.
A retired CEO from Switzerland and skipper of a steel boat whom we met in Greece told me that, many years before, she had decided to do the crossing because she wanted to study her own reaction when confronted with limitless waters. “I thought the big blue might frighten me. The idea that we wouldn’t be able to see land for weeks, that there would be so much empty space around…. Well, I did not get scared. I did not panic. I was too busy carrying out my daily tasks and enjoying the feeling of complete freedom”.
This time, I had my chance to ask Gc the same question…and much more!
Why did you want to cross the Atlantic? I’ve always thought that crossing the Atlantic was a massive challenge, and doing it would bring me a sense of achievement. I remember many years ago, I was in Sardinia taking sailing lessons and my instructor mentioned he had crossed the Atlantic. I looked up to him in awe and wondered whether one day I’d be able to do it myself.
What was the best part of the crossing? Overcoming problems. Problems that seemed fairly important and almost with no solution at first. And then we, I mean the crew and myself, we would put our heads together and think of a way to resolve them. Upon succeeding, a great sense of achievement would follow; we were back on track, feeling safe again and making progress on our journey.
What was the worst part? I guess the worst part was the unknown. Not knowing what to expect. That’s rather challenging and scary at the same time. Also…the big waves at night! The first few nights, when surfing down 4/5 metres waves…..you’re not used to it. You see them growing at the back, reaching the height of the boat….you’re always expecting for them to break in and flood the boat! And each time, to your surprise, they don’t!
Another thing I struggled with at first was delegating responsibility. As much as I trusted the crew…it was hard to let go. The crew were all experienced sailors yes, but mono, not catamaran, sailors. The idea that they didn’t really know how the boat behaved with big waves…What if there was an accidental jibe? All these thoughts would keep me awake at night…especially the first week or so.
Do you think that crossing the atlantic has changed you? I don’t think it has changed me per se, but it has definitely given me more confidence in sailing. Everyone is full of insecurities and knowing that you can achieve something as big as this…it’s definitely a confidence booster! It has also been very useful in terms of understanding how to make the team work together. It’s not so easy to make sure that different people who barely know each other get on and live together in harmony….for 3 weeks! We heard stories of boats stopping in Cape Verde (the only possible place where to stop along the way) to drop unhappy members of the crew…or skippers constantly fighting with their crew. We managed to keep everyone happy on board…I guess the good food took a great part in that!
What would be the normal sails setting during the crossing?
Well, we had a long debate about that during the crossing. The crew was convinced that it would be better to have the main fully up most of the time. Personally, I was of the opinion that we needed to reef it. I didn’t want to be constantly on the lookout, I preferred a more relaxed way of sailing.
So we would normally have one reef on the main and the jib fully open. When spotting a squall approaching, we would reduce both sails, by putting 2 reefs on the main and one on the jib. With wind coming from 160 degrees, we would have to be very careful not to jibe; Gladan has got a big main and with the big waves we could accidentally jibe.
Did you break any sails during the crossing? The sea through window of the jib was torn apart. Luckily we had a second new jib that I had made in the UK before the crossing, so we were able to substitute the damaged one. I bought the second jib with the idea of sailing with two headsails, wing on wing, having them furling and unfurling on the same roller…. although I never managed to do so! A couple of the mainsail’s battens dislodged themselves…the topping lift broke and the code zero was beginning to show signs of being overworked. Overall, nothing too major though.
If there is one lesson you learn by sailing across the Atlantic is that, in most cases, there is a solution to problems, you just need to find it!
What was a typical day like? During the crossing days actually last 24 hours! Our shifts were organised in pairs, so each pair would have 3 hours on and 6 hours off to sleep, relax but also carry out daily tasks such as cooking and boat maintenance. At midday we would all gather around the table in the kitchen for the daily weather forecast and general updates, and then decide on the best meals ideas for the day. Shortly after everyone would go on with their tasks. The most popular place onboard was the flybridge where people ‘on duty’ and ‘off duty’ would gather and often have long discussions about life, philosophy, macroeconomics, and, of course, sailing!
How eco-friendly was the crossing? We tried to have a zero impact crossing. We were almost completely self-sufficient thanks to the solar panels. Occasionally, we had to turn the generator on to make water and recharge the batteries, but overall we used just under 30 litres of diesel during the 3,700 miles crossing. We only used the engine for 8 hours when there was zero wind and Gladan was drifting! All the organic waste was thrown into the ocean and at the end of the trip we only had 3 large bin bags of plastic, glass and tin. It made us realise that it is not that difficult to be energy efficient and eco-friendly at the same time which gave us a great sense of satisfaction and independence from ‘civilization’.
You can cut that umbilical cord and be pretty much self sufficient for months, living completely off the grid.
Finally, what advice would you give to people wanting to cross the Atlantic? Don’t be afraid! Just be prepared. Don’t underestimate problems, even little issues if not tackled straight away can escalate and become nightmares. Make sure you have spare parts onboard, run daily checks for chafing, make sure you have a fully equipped first aid kit with plenty of strong antibiotics…sadly, there was one fatality this year. A young father sailing with his family died after contracting an infection in Cape Verde. Without the necessary antibiotics, he passed away in the middle of the ocean and the wife couldn’t even use the satellite phone and computer to raise the alarm because she didn’t know the password. It is very important to think things through and be prepared.