It’s long been your goal to sail the Atlantic Ocean. Now you want to know how hard it is to sail across the Atlantic. You can cross through parts of the country such as Cape Verde, the Canary Islands, and Portugal if you begin sailing east and head west. Other routes include going along the Northern passage. No matter which route you plan to take, are you in for a hard voyage ahead?
Sailing across the Atlantic Ocean is not necessarily hard, but before you leave port you must be aware of and well prepared for the following situations and dangers:
- A long journey
- Large waves
- Strong weather, including hurricanes (depending on the time of year you set sail)
- Collisions with freighters and boats
In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know to safely sail across the Atlantic Ocean. With this information, you can make a smart, realistic travel plan so you can enjoy the sights around you while taking all the necessary precautions!
How Long Does It Take to Sail Across the Atlantic?
If you recall from our blog, in another post, we addressed the length of time you might spend traversing the Atlantic on your sailboat. In case you missed that post, here’s a recap.
On average, you’ll spend three to four weeks aboard your sailboat voyaging across the Atlantic Ocean. Some more experienced sailors have cut that trip length down to two weeks, halving their travel time. How does this happen? Well, sometimes you can speed up your arrival date through luck, finding a great and viable shortcut, or being able to travel quickly.
If you happen to hit the jackpot and have one or a combination of factors that let you cross the Atlantic faster, then great! That said, this isn’t the norm, so you have to anticipate that you’ll spend the better part of a month on your sailboat riding out the oceanic waves.
If you start west and head east, which is taking the Northern passage, here’s how the travel breaks down. From the Caribbean to Bermuda, you’ll travel five to eight days. Then, as you head from Bermuda to the Azores, you can spend two weeks to 17 days along that route. From the Azores to Portugal, that’s between four and eight days.
Oh, then tack on anywhere from three to 10 more days to get to where you want to go specifically. That’s 26 days on the lower end and 43 days on the higher end to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
Let’s say you took the Southern passage instead, which sends you east from a westward starting point. Beginning in Portugal and riding to the Canary Islands would take five to seven days, so about a week. Then, you’d spend five to eight days venturing from the Canary Islands to Cape Verde. Finally, from the Canary Islands to the Windward Islands, add on 16 to 21 days.
That’s 26 days of traveling at the least and 36 days of travel at most. The Southern passage might save you some time then, but not necessarily.
What Is It Like to Sail Across the Atlantic? What to Consider Before the Journey
Planning your route is just the beginning of your trip across the Atlantic Ocean. Next, you have to make sure you’re as ready for the voyage as possible. Part of this involves gathering the appropriate supplies, but also making sure you’re physically and mentally prepped for the long stretch of time at sea that’s ahead.
The following points will gear you up for life on the Atlantic:
Make Sure Your Boat Is in Great Condition for the Atlantic
That rickety old sailboat that’s prone to leaks is not one you want to bring on your trip along the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic can be calm and uneventful, but certain seasons of the year will bring with them a multitude of dangers. We’ll talk about this more in the next section.
Even during those more placid times of the year, weather shifts can and do occur, and frequently at that. If your boat begins leaking, the mast breaks, or the boom moves unexpectedly in terrible weather, these are all very bad scenarios. At best, you could end up injured. At worst, your boat could sink, leaving you with nothing.
Even if you’re not thrown overboard by a leaking boat, boom injuries can be fatal if the boom moves quickly and forcefully enough.
You don’t necessarily have to run out and buy a brand-new sailboat ahead of sailing the Atlantic, as that’s probably not in most people’s budget. If you can, then by all means, do so. Otherwise, you want to patch up your boat so it’s in its best condition ever. Repair or replace any trouble areas and then you’re free to sail.
Have Lots of Supplies
Remember, you want to anticipate spending at least 30 days on your sailboat traveling across the Atlantic, and even that timetable is a little low. Some routes can take as long as 40 days or more to complete.
We’d recommend bringing 50- or 60-days’ worth of supplies, especially food and water. That said, you’re not exactly stranded in the middle of nowhere if you run out of either, as the Atlantic has nearly countless harbors and ports depending on where you go. These include:
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So yes, you’re at no shortage of places to stop, as the above list more than adequately proves. However, you do have to think of this. For each number of times you stop to fuel up–be that your sailboat or yourself–you’re only extending the amount of time it will take you to reach your destination.
Preparing adequately can keep you from stopping unless it’s absolutely necessary. As you pack your supplies in bulk, do make sure that you take into consideration the weight requirements of your sailboat. Surpassing the recommended weight limit can make you more likely to capsize.
Be Careful of Which Time of Year You Go
We touched on this in our post about the length of time you’ll spend sailing across the Atlantic, but it’s worth mentioning again. Certain times of the year are much better for planning such a trip than others.
It’s not only the outdoor temperatures you have to accommodate for, but the prevalence of stormy weather as well. From June to November, which is typically some of the warmest months of the year in the US, you want to stay away from the Atlantic Ocean, especially the Canary Islands.
This period is hurricane season in the Canaries. If you start from the Canary Islands and move quickly, then sure, you might be able to get away with planning a June trip on the Atlantic. Heading towards the Canaries from June to November is very ill-advised though.
Instead, your safest period for embarking is from November to February. Remember that the Atlantic Ocean is bridged by warm-weather islands such as the Caribbean, where water temperatures are about 83 degrees Fahrenheit in November. In other words, if you tip out of your boat by accident, you’re not at risk of freezing in the least.
Also, between November and February, trade winds are more prevalent. These northeasterly winds are ideal for sailors leaving from the northern hemisphere, as you can travel the equator more quickly. Southeasterly winds that emerge from the southern hemisphere are also considered trade winds.
From either northeasterly or southeasterly, trade winds are partially generated from air that’s moving in a slanted direction. This phenomenon is called the Coriolis Effect after French mathematician Gaspard Gustave de Coriolis. The slanted winds also need high pressure to generate the trade winds that sail you to your destination.
Expect Consistent (and Not Very Fast) Speed for Most of the Trip
While trade winds are handy, if you don’t have them, then don’t anticipate you’ll zip through the Atlantic. It’s going to take you upwards of 40 days to reach your destination after all.
Most sailors who have ridden the Atlantic and discussed their experience say the average speed of travel is about 5 knots. That’s the rough equivalent of 5.75 miles per hour, so we’ll round that up to 6 MPH. We’re sure we don’t need to tell you this, but 6 MPH is not very fast.
The trip will be a leisurely one then, for the most part. Stormy conditions and sudden waves can turn the tide (literally) and liven up your adventure. It’s important then that you don’t get lax. You must anticipate quick weather shifts and be ready to act.
Bring Something to Do
On an average month, 30 days can go pretty quickly. Think about everything you tend to do in a month though. You go to work, maybe to school. You have hobbies, friends, family, and even some leisure time. Your days are busy, so they tend to feel like they’re going by a lot faster.
Now compare that to spending 30 or 40 days on a boat, with none of the above commitments. Okay, so you can bring some hobbies aboard your sailboat, but not all. You have no TV to entertain you, probably no Internet, either. It’s just you and the open ocean.
That can get boring fast, which is something most Atlantic sailors will attest to. Make sure you’re ready for lots and lots of downtime. Maybe you finally catch up on all those books you’ve meant to read. Perhaps you take up knitting.
No matter what floats your boat, so to speak, prepare to do a lot of it.
If You Can, Sail with Someone Else
Another experience that Atlantic sailors have said is they get lonely fast on such a long voyage. If you don’t get the Internet on your phone, then you’re probably not getting reception either. Well, at least not until/unless you port.
Going so long without human contact can be difficult for even the most reclusive introvert. It helps if you have at least another buddy with you. Make sure that if you do opt to bring a partner that it’s someone you trust and can tolerate.
Sailing across the Atlantic is like embarking on a multi-week road trip. The quarters are close, there’s not a lot to do, and the trip is long. That can chafe at even healthy relationships. Unless you want to squabble the whole time, don’t take just anyone.
Is It Dangerous to Sail Across the Atlantic?
As a whole, we’d say that no, sailing the Atlantic Ocean is not necessarily dangerous. It can be downright placid at times, as mentioned. That said, your experience can certainly vary depending on the time of year you go and the route you travel.
For that reason, it helps to be aware. of and prepped for the following risks.
Large Waves in Atlantic Ocean
You are in an ocean, so you have to expect the waves can be a lot more vicious than sailing in a local lake. In the Atlantic Ocean especially, the propensity for large waves is much greater, so you can’t sail without a plan.
Keep your head on a swivel so you can check for waves to the sides of and behind your sailboat. A particularly rough and unexpected wave could capsize your boat, while less severe waves can tip and rattle the sailboat, making for a scary experience.
If you’re approaching a wave, raise your genoa sail, steer with that, and try to head into the waves. Your boat should ride across them well enough.
Hurricanes and Other Strong Weather
Summertime sailing along Atlantic routes could put you in the eye of a hurricane, or at least in its vicinity. Even if you skip hurricane season by sailing later in the year, squalls and heavy storms are common all year long. You want to use as few sails as you can in these situations. If you must raise the mainsail, try not to keep it up for too long as you ride out the storm.
Collisions with Freighters and Boats
Sailing the Atlantic Ocean is a popular feat for many sailors and boaters. Outside of hurricane season, you should anticipate that the ocean will be populated with other boats besides just your own. These can include freighters and leisure sailors like yourself who want the experience of crossing the Atlantic.
You will have to navigate deftly to avoid collisions with these boats. You should also be a careful and conscientious sailor when near others so they don’t hit you. Maintain an even speed, only do maneuvers when you have the room, and give other boaters as much clearance as possible.
Whales in Atlantic Ocean
Seeing a whale in a controlled environment like an aquarium can be really cool, but out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when you’re on your sailboat? Whales aren’t so cool anymore. Your boat could hit a sleeping whale just under the water, causing it to move and capsize your boat. In some instances, a whale could even perceive your sailboat as a threat and try to attack it.
Preventing such a situation isn’t always possible, but it’s not like you’re apt to see a whale on most trips across the Atlantic anyway. If you do, try to turn away from it without causing harm or creating a large wake. You should get away unscathed.
Sailing across the Atlantic Ocean is a great testament to a sailor’s skills and abilities. The trip can take 30 to 40 days, and it does carry with it some dangers. Even if you sail outside of hurricane season, large waves and bad storms can interrupt your trip. You also have to watch out for freighters, boaters, and even whales.
You’re now ready to begin planning your first sailing adventure through the Atlantic, which will hopefully be the first of many!