Rod Heikell's very informal site on sailing around bits of the world and an eclectic collection of things nautical or nearly so.

Sailing the ATLANTIC

A page of general bits and pieces on sailing the Atlantic. Some of it is from the Skylax blog on the Atlantic, some from talking to fellow cruisers, and some from my own past articles and musings.




'Crossing an ocean in a small yacht is a bit like living your life backwards. At the beginning you die, then you get fitter and younger, and then when you arrive you have an orgasmic celebration and the idea that life is just beginning.'

Douglas Graeme

Gibraltar to the Canaries
Canaries to the Cape Verdes
Atlantic westabout
Atlantic eastabout

Gibraltar to the Canaries 2007

Gibraltar to Graciosa

Skylax en route from Gib to the Canaries November 2007  From the Skylax blog


Sunrise, Bill & Sharon's Sabre 452

We slipped the lines at Marina Bay at 0630 and it’s still dark. I’ve been talking to boats on the dock for the last week suggesting there will be a lot more wind around and after Tarifa than there is here, even if it is all in the right direction blowing out of the east. Bill and Sharon on Sunrise, a beautiful Sabre 452, are leaving with us.

We make our way out into the roadstead and weave our way through all the anchored ships, ferries zooming off to Morocco and bumboats going back and forth to the anchored ships. It’s busy. We put three reefs in the main (yep –we’ve been here before) and motorsail towards Tarifa. Bill comes out in Sunrise and puts everything up. Maybe I’m being a bit over-cautious, but I stick with it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Get hold of a copy of Colin Thomas’s Straits Sailing Handbook and follow his advice to the letter. It’s worth the price just for the advice on getting in and out of the Straits of Gibraltar, but also has a lot of information and pilotage for the coasts around Gibraltar.

By Tarifa the wind is kicking up and Sunrise is starting to round up. Just after Tarifa it’s up to 35 knots and it’s not long before I’ve got 40 knots on the clock and we are doing 7-8 knots under a triple reefed main and nothing else. Bill tries to wrap up the genny, gets it in a muddle but finally rolls it up and puts three reefs in the main.

OK I'm no Spielberg, but we were rocking around a bit as we were ejected from the Straits of Gibraltar with 40-45 knots at times. Still, made for a fast beginning to the passage. Sunrise is off to starboard, both of us under triple reefed main only.

We fly downwind with F6-7 and more in the gusts until midnight. It’s usually like this on this trip to the Canaries. Come out of Gib like a cork out of a bottle and then once you are off the African coast and a little bit around the corner the wind dies away to a gentle Force 4 or so and there you are putting up more sail to keep you moving comfortably through the Atlantic swell.

Once you get down the African coast the wind drops off appreciably compared to the Straits of Gibraltar and you will soon be untucking a reef or two.


We have been slowly sailing downwind for the last four days. Sometimes with the wind on the quarter, sometimes wing and wing straight downwind. The days drift by in a relaxed fashion as the miles are clocked off, nothing spectacular at 147/132/123/127 miles from noon to noon, but not too bad either in the light winds. We see a few ships and bizarrely keep nearly bumping into Sunrise for the first three nights. Bill and Lu have a radio sched so they are nattering away in the evening.

Bill turns on the iron spinnaker to try and make Graciosa before the light goes, but we keep on drifting downwind and eventually make a night entrance into the southern bay on Graciosa and nearly bump into the outermost boat which doesn’t have an anchor light on. Once we have the anchor down and are enjoying a glass or three of good Spanish red, someone on the outermost boat notices we are there and comes up and turns on the anchor light. Fool…




We move around to the yacht pontoon in La Sociedad on Graciosa and find a berth. Nice people come up and take our lines. La Sociedad is wonderful. A small fishing village where the streets are sand and 4 wheel drives rule. It has a few restaurants, a few shops, and posters everywhere proclaiming La Republica di Graciosa. They have no truck with big tourist hotels, most of the waters around the island are a marine reserve, and don’t want villas and English pubs. Viva La Republica di Graciosa. It’s the first place in the Canaries that I actually like and compared to the tourist ghettos of Lanzarote, Fuenaventura and Gran Canaria, it feels a bit like what the Canaries were 30 years ago (so I’m told).

Graciosa inner yacht pontoon

After three days I pay the modest berthing fees (there is no water or electricity on the pontoons even though the connection boxes are there, and I figure this is intentional so the place doesn’t turn into some cloned marina like others around the Canaries), around 7 euros a night for Skylax (46ft), and take a quick tour of the church with a distinctly nautical theme.


Puerto Calero Marina makes a good base in November when Las Palmas on Gran Canaria is choked full of ARC boats and you stand no chance of getting in there. 

We motorsail down to Puerto Calero on Lanzarote. OK, it’s a purpose built marina with villas scattered around it, but Mr Calero has succeeded in making it a lot less sterile than other places in the Canaries. We have been here before and the welcome is wonderful. They try never to turn a yacht away, however humble. It has a cetacean museum funded by Mr Calero. There is a drinks party with wonderful snacks for visiting yachts (that happens to coincide with the Bluewater Rally boats that are here before leaving for Antigua – in light winds and even worse wind on the nose, but that’s how it is when you are on a rally and D-day approaches, Departure day that is) and for 28 euros a night you get water and electricity included.

That's our tender (Endeavour) opposite - or is that vice versa?

We hire a car to go supermarket shopping and sight-seeing in Arrecife and drive over the moonscape that is Lanzarote to see Sunrise in Port Rubicon on the south side. It’s a huge marina and despite restaurants and bars, it lacks a certain something. Bill and Sharon have hired a car and come to see us in Puerto Calero and somehow we cross tracks mid-island.


Canaries to Cape Verdes

Lanzarote to Mindelo (Cape Verdes)

Skylax en route from Gib to the Canaries November 2007  From the Skylax blog

Skylax off the Cape Verdes. Photo Andy O'Grady


We potter out and fill up with fuel at the entrance to the harbour and then set off for the Cape Verdes. Very soon we are bowling along down the west coast of Fuerteventura headed for somewhere Lu and I have not been before. Iíve cooked a big goulash for the first few days. Fuerteventura is a big island and by dusk we are still not clear of it. We always cook up a big stew or ragu before leaving, enough for at least two dinners and sometimes more. It just makes it easy on everyone if a hot dinner is pretty much ready to go for a couple of days.

Skylax in the seas off the Cape Verdes. Photo Andy O'Grady


Mostly we have had Force 4-5 (14-20 knots) from the NNE-NE with occasional small increases up to Force 6 (25 knots) and a few lulls where it has dropped off to Force 3 (under 10 knots), though not for long. The wind is pretty consistent. We have carried our foresail downwind rig for a bit, genny poled out and staysail poled out the other side (lots of string), but this rig really needs 20-25 knots as the staysail is pretty small. Now we have taken it down and have a double reefed main up and the genny with the wind on the quarter.

Downwind rig. That staysail is a tad on the small side for anything under 20 knots.

Downwind rigs are something we have not really thought enough about. The main chafes on the lower cross-trees and especially on the leeward runner which is off and sliding lazily back and forth over the lower cross-tree chewing away at the main. Our staysail is not really big enough for a proper downwind rig with the genny out the other side, so we are caught betwixt and between for a downwind rig in the 12-18 knot range. Higher than that and the staysail is big enough.

Even so we have been making pretty good progress: 133/144/149/158 NM daily runs.


We have been talking to Andy on Balaena for most of the trip as we agreed to meet up in Mindelo a few months ago. Andy and I wrote Ocean Passages and Landfalls and, though we have met on terra firma, we have not met in our respective boats. Balaena is a 42ft gaff cutter that Andy built, a modern gaff cutter as Andy is always quick to emphasise, and he has certainly been clocking off some healthy daily runs in it. Mind you we havenít been dawdling too much either and have clocked off 166 and 164 NM runs in the last couple of days.

Around 20 miles off Mindelo I saw a flash of tan sail on the horizon and we hove-to to wait for Andy. Balaena came flying across the swell, all sails up including the gaff topsail, a wonderful sight, and as they went past we took photos of Balaena. Then we opened up the genny and flashed across their stern while they took photos of Skylax. Weird to meet up at sea, literally, and then sail in company down to the port.

Balaena off the Cape Verdes. Photo Lu Michell

We got in just at dusk and anchored off in the harbour. 968 miles in 6 days and 6 hours, not too bad with Skylax throttled right back. We took waypoints on the way in as Bill on Sunrise was some distance behind and wouldnít arrive until after midnight. Even worse Bill had some problems with his rudder, water was swooshing up through the bottom seal and into the boat and the rudder itself was making an awful clonking noise.

We cleared into Mindelo the next day, friendly officials and a good feeling ashore. Cruiser gossip can be a funny old thing. I had read an account of piracy off Mindelo, well not actually piracy but a trawler that was going slowly and didnít show itís stern (and name) to the yacht that reported the alleged incident. Actually thatís not piracy, thatís just a trawler working and they do go slow when dragging the trawl. Again in the Caribbean I came across a couple of yachts that told me that they didnít go to the Cape Verdes because of piracy. I told them how wonderful it is, that lots of yachts now go this way, and that the piracy reports are spurious, but they were convinced that there are pirates there.Ö despite my first hand report. What can you say?

Mindelo looking out to the anchorage over the outer marina pontoons. If it looks hazy, that's because it is though this photo was on a bad day. When the wind blows strongly enough you get red Sahara dust over everything and we are still washing it off. And it does blow some at times, around 35 knots or so on one day, but the holding in the anchorage is good and the moorings in the marina are solid although a bit of surge creeps in.

We anchored out for 3 days or so and itís quite comfortable with just a bit of ground swell creeping around into the bay. Local advice is to remove loose items from the deck, but I have to say I didnít hear of anyone losing anything and there had to be 20 yachts anchored off at times. A local will come out on his surfboard to offer services, but agree on a price beforehand. Our laundry cost us more than anywhere else I have cruised Ė ever, but then water is scarce and expensive. There are a couple of small supermarkets ashore, a good fruit and vege market up the high street, and a rowdy fish market along the waterfront. Ashore there is the Club Nautico, but on the street behind is a place called The Yacht Club on a 1st floor terrace with good food, cold drinks, and WiFi! The Yacht Club will often have live bands on the weekends and Cape Verdes music is stunning, the best I have heard in local bars/cafes since Cuba. They are accomplished musicians, the music is stunning and often sad, lamenting exile and struggle on the island or celebrating life, love and making love. Donít miss it.

Lu in the main market up the high street.

Cape Verdes music in the Yacht Club just behind the Club Nautico. And WiFi as well ...

Mindelo fish market.

The new marina is up and running here, 28 euros a night for us. The electricity (220V) is included but water is charged for and is not always on, so fill up when you can. The water is all from a reverse osmosis plant and so tastes fine and is potable despite some reports Iíve read. Itís metered and not cheap so be a bit frugal. The security here is excellent and Kai, who runs the marina and has long been the inspiration for yachting in Mindelo is looking to expand the services. Those at anchor can bring their dinghies into the marina and leave them there for a small charge.

We spent 10 days in Mindelo and I would now always take this route going east to west across the Atlantic. Partly because Mindelo was such an enjoyable stop and partly because the trip from Mindelo to Antigua was easy as well with the wind on the quarter for much of the time.

In Mindelo Bill's (Sunrise) rudder, on the Sabre 452, needed something doing it to it. It was banging back and forth in the slight surge in the marina and water had been coming in at an unacceptable rate on the last few days down to Mindelo. So Andy and I dropped it, towed it over to Andy's boat, and I got out my epoxy and biaxial cloth (never leave home without it - there was none in Mindelo) and we repaired the stock where it goes through the bottom bearing. Then Bill towed it back and with the help of Tuga, a diver in the marina, we put it back in again. Bill got safely across to St Lucia when at one point he thought the dream might all be over.

And then what happened. A Spanish Beneteau Oceanis next to me in the marina popped out their rudder and so I donated the last of my epoxy to a good cause. They were headed for Venezuela - just hope they got there. I'll be expanding on the subject of rudders and other boat bits in the near future.


Atlantic westabout

Cape Verdes to Antigua

 Dec 7th to Dec 21st 2007

We left the Cape Verdes on December 7th and motored out into the channel between Sao Vicente and Santo Antao with three reefs in the main as there is an acceleration zone reported between the two islands. Off Mindelo there was around 20 knots of wind from behind and for a while I contemplated taking a reef out. A little further towards the southwest end of the channel the wind piped up to 30-35 knots so we left the third reef in and zoomed out into the Atlantic � well at least until we hit the wind shadow of Santo Antao where the wind dropped off altogether though the sea didn�t. It took a couple of hours motoring to get out of the wind shadow and then we were off with the wind on the quarter and pointed directly for Antigua.

In Mindelo we had picked up a refugee off an ARC boat, Kaiso, that limped in with keel problems amongst others. Everything came out of the boat as most of the hatches and ports had been leaking and three of the crew opted to jump ship. Arabella walked the pontoon looking for a ride and although we were quite happy with just the two of us for the crossing, we decided to give �Rab� a lift to Antigua where she was to join another boat.

The days ticked by with daily runs over 160 NM and up to 171NM with everything on under-drive to keep it easy on us and on �Mole� the autopilot. Most of the time we had two reefs in the main with wind E-ENE at 18-25 knots. We could have carried more sail but the girl was happy and �Mole� in charge without any strain, so we left it at that. There were a few BBC�s and LBC�s (big black clouds and little black clouds) around, but fewer that the previous crossing further north and with less weight of wind in them. There was not a lot of rain in the squalls either compared to the previous more northerly route and we carried a fair amount of the red dust that blows over Mindelo all the way to Antigua.

Often we didn�t bother to reef the genny in as we were a little under-canvassed anyway. Most of the time we carried a reefed main and the genny poled out and when were making too much northing and not enough westing, we simply gibed the main over and headed west for a bit. I still have a theory that the wind goes more towards the NE in the day and back towards east at night, though we are not talking major shifts here.

We ate well, too well, and when it looked like we were going to get to Antigua well before christmas the mince pies were consumed, and then the christmas cake, though we didn�t get around to the christmas pudding and brandy butter until after we had arrived. Lu baked bread, we lost several fish and lures, and generally slept, read, ate and navigated to Antigua.Lu makes bread .... and buns


We entered Freeman�s Bay at 0300 on the 21st, probably a silly thing to do, but we did so very slowly and I have been in there a few times before. After the anchor was down we popped the cork on a couple of bottles, though we were by now pretty dog-tired so the last bottle didn�t get finished before we all crashed.

It was hard to believe we were there with so little fuss after the previous crossing and encounters with Tropical Storm Peter in 2003. Still, a dip in the morning into the warm soupy water of Freeman�s Bay soon convinced us we were in the Tropics and a trip ashore and a celebratory bottle of Carib sealed the matter.


Ahhhhh Antigua

And the other Antigua in St Johns when the cruise boats are in ...


Atlantic eastabout

Transatlantic eastabout

 I wrote this in 1999 in a La Nina year. There is a brief coda on the same crossing in Skylax in 2005, a normal year.

Traditionally yachts crossing from the Caribbean to Europe have left the Leewards in late April or early May for Bermuda and then head for the Azores sometime around late May to early June. The last leg to Europe is usually in July and preferably before the end of August. The logic of this route is that from the Caribbean there will usually be easterlies and southeasterlies until around 26į-28įN after which winds will become variable with usually a bit of motoring in the final approaches to Bermuda. From Bermuda the traditional route to the Azores has been to head northeast to around 40įN until westerlies are picked up.

While I was in the Caribbean with seven tenths I continually came across people who asked me why on earth I was going all the way up to Bermuda before heading for the Azores. Go direct was the advice and although at first I was sceptical, in the end a few friends who had made the trip and a number of delivery skippers persuaded me this was a viable option.

I had a few questions garnered from the pilot charts and The Atlantic Crossing Guide.

Q. Wonít there be a lot of calms en route?

A. Probably no more than you will encounter on the route via Bermuda.

Q. Will I need a lot of diesel to motor part of the way.

A. Yes and no. For yachts that can sail in light airs and have light air sails like a big genoa and a spinnaker there should be few problems. Heavy yachts that need half a gale to move them should take on a lot of jerrycans of extra fuel.

Q. Do I sail a direct rhumb line route or head northeast for a while before turning east.

A. Silly question. It depends on what weather systems are developing although generally a rhumb line works out just as well as heading northeast then east.

So it was that I left St Maarten for Horta on Faial on the 13th of May, loaded down with as many goodies from the supermarkets on the French and Dutch sides as could be squeezed in, but with just two extra 5 gallon cans of fuel and three 5 gallon cans of water. For the record seven tenths holds nearly 50 gallons (200 litres) of fuel in the main tank and uses a smidgen under Ĺ a gallon (2 litres) an hour which gives us nearly 6 knots at cruising revs in a flat calm. The main water tanks hold a hundred gallons (400 litres), I think, and for most of the voyage we washed dishes in salt water and rinsed in fresh. Well, at least until closing the Azores when fresh water was used for everything from the dishes to showers.

Before I left I plotted 3 mid-Atlantic waypoints on the pilot chart. These were pretty much guestimates based on the prevailing winds at that time of year and information gleaned from those who had already sailed the direct route. Although the waypoints were more for reference than absolute waypoints with the actual route to be dictated by weather information we obtained en route, in fact we passed close south of all three. The waypoints are shown on the accompanying map.

For weather information we mostly depended on Herbís (Southbound II) weather net on SSB 12359kHz at 2000 UTC. Although we were not logging in, but just listening, there were more than enough yachts in the general vicinity to plot what was happening weather-wise. His analysis of the weather situation and routing information is simply superb. In addition the US National Weather Service gives a high seas forecast up to 35įW with 13089kHz at 1130, 1730 and 2330 UTC being the most useful.

Seven tenths arrived in Horta a shade under 21 days after sailing 2300 miles at an average speed of 4.56 knots. Nothing startling except we arrived with around a quarter tank of fuel. I had been hoarding it for the final approaches to the Azores where the Azores high usually means little or no wind for 200 miles around the islands. In fact we had enough wind to keep sailing nicely and so ended up with a fuel bonus. The best 3 hour run at night was 23 miles in squally conditions, but much of the time was spent at pretty sedate speeds of around 3-5 knots with everything up. I carried the 150% genoa on the roller reefing and a lot of the time it was all out. In addition we had an asymmetric spinnaker which was used when the wind was under 10-12 knots for that extra bit of power. Wave height seldom exceeded 1-1Ĺ metres and was a benign long swell most of the time.

This year there seemed to be an increasing number of yachts taking the direct route and most of them averaged around 18 to 25 days. Some just hit it lucky and had good sailing while others carried a lot of fuel and motored when the speed dropped. A 50 foot catamaran that left a couple of weeks after us took 14 days. By contrast those doing the traditional route had a miserable time of it. If there was not enough wind then depressions unusually bombed up over Florida and passed close to Bermuda. On the Bermuda to Flores leg a friend of mine in a 34 foot boat took 21 days and some took longer.

If you are heading towards Europe from the Leewards it makes a lot of sense to head direct for the Azores. You will be covering somewhere between 2200 to 2400 miles, whereas the distance to Bermuda is around 900 miles with another 1850 miles to the Azores if you are lucky. In practice most boats do 2000 plus miles on the Bermuda to Azores leg. Which leaves you with a total of at least 3000 miles on the traditional route assuming all goes well.

I should add a rider to all this. 1999 was a La Nina year and so weather was not typical. Tropical storm Arlene brewed up on the 11th June and passed 100 miles east of Bermuda before dissipating on the 18th June. The hurricane season this year in the Caribbean is expected to be nearly as bad as last year which spawned two extremely destructive hurricanes in George and Mitch. So it may be that the easy direct crossing I had and the troubled crossings from Bermuda were somehow a result of a La Nina year. That would be so except that those I have talked to who have crossed in other years have had similar experiences to mine. On reflection the only thing I would do different next time is take a bit more diesel in jerrycans.


Green waypoints seven tenths route. White waypoints (approx) Skylax route. Map from VPP.

Skylax transatlantic eastabout 2005 coda

In 2005 we travelled the same route though leaving from Antigua instead of St Maarten and heading directly for the Azores, specifically Horta again. We left at roughly the same time and instead of curving north towards Bermuda as I had in seven tenths, headed directly on the rhumb line route. 2005 was not really El Nino or La Nina (they do not necessarily oscillate between the two) but had some El Nino tendencies (source data from NOAA). The weather though was very unusual and even Herb Southbound II pronounced it unlike anything he had seen. Amongst the anomalies were:

  • A hurricane skipping over central America from the Pacific though it quickly disintegrated in the Caribbean.
  • Lows flying off the east coast of America and especially lows with associated fronts coming off Florida and persisting.
  • Huge troughs that persisted for days and hardly moved. We went further south than I have ever been on the eastabout trip to try and get around one persistent trough which really only dissipated when we had gone way south.
  • In between all the lows there were persistent headwinds and everyone whether north or south of the rhumb line experienced around two weeks of light headwinds in early May.


In Skylax we took two days longer than the same trip took in seven tenths and sailed 2800 miles to cover the 2100 miles of the rhumb line. In seven tenths we sailed only 2300 miles to cover the 2100 rhumb line route. Next time I would probably follow the arcing route that I did in seven tenths, though I suspect much of our travail in Skylax was the result of bum weather and things could easily be better in a subsequent year on the rhumb line route. We were also hampered by our small jib in the lighter stuff (see my entry in the blog on Sails).




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