How to Complete an Atlantic Circuit in One Year
By the time you read this, Kinship, an American-flagged Saga 43, will have made its second Atlantic crossing in little over half a year. As I write, the yacht is staging in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, just off the coast of Morocco, where the easterly winds sometimes carry soft red sand from the Sahara.
I was aboard Kinship when she made her landfall on the European continent back in June 2012. Her owner, Tim, had invited my wife, Mia, and me along for the eastbound Atlantic crossing. Fed up with unreliable volunteer crew and about to retire onto the boat for good, he hired us, quite simply, so he could get a good night’s sleep offshore.
The first leg of an Atlantic Circle—the first Atlantic crossing—is arguably the most challenging one for yachts departing the U.S. East Coast. The traditional west-to-east route, in particular, which Mia and I followed aboard our 35-foot yawl Arcturus in 2011, is through the far north Atlantic, where icebergs, deep depressions and cool weather can make for a daunting first passage. Kinship chose the southern route via Bermuda and the Azores, which is warmer, but not necessarily easier. It’s often beset by calm weather, and late in the summer, the eastern Atlantic can churn up some ferocious gales.
The northerly route that Mia and I followed is the road less traveled, but the added adventure excited us, and our ultimate goal was Sweden and the Baltic, so it was much more direct. Fog and ice are the main concerns, though in recent years ice has been less of a problem than in the past. It sounds contradictory, but later in the season you often see more icebergs up north, as they melt and break away in the warmer weather. However, if you sail later you should also enjoy better weather. Jimmy Cornell, in his World Cruising Routes, recommends crossing in August.
One benefit of the northern route is getting to cruise in Nova Scotia along the way by making a series of short shakedown hops prior to stepping off the deep end. In our case, we left Annapolis on July 4, sailing direct for Newport, before setting off again for Shelburne, the first Canadian port of call past the Gulf of Maine.
Nova Scotia was spectacular: we spent two weeks on the east coast, stopping in Lunenburg before sailing overnight into the Bras d’Or Lakes. Then it was on to St. Pierre and Miquelon, the tiny French islands just south of Newfoundland. Cheap wine, fresh bread and warm brie were the order of each day as we made final preparations. On July 31 we set off for Ireland.
What we didn’t expect was light winds. During our first week at sea, as we sailed southeast along the Grand Banks to try to get south of an approaching low, we covered only 350 miles in seven days. It was slow going. We did, however, eventually, get onto the correct side of that low, where we successfully hooked into a weather pattern that remained with us for the duration of our 23-day crossing. Strong westerlies, topping out at 40 knots with long “friendly” swells, accompanied each low-pressure system for three or four days at a time, during which we’d make 140-160 miles per day—great going. These were followed by periods of high pressure that flattened the sea right out. Mia would don her bikini while our crewmember, Clint, and I sipped rum in the cockpit in bare feet and shorts. In the end we averaged about 90 miles per day and made landfall in Crookhaven, on the south coast of Ireland, on August 23.
The Southern Route
The following May we sailed the southern route aboard Kinship as part of the ARC Europe rally. Mia started in Tortola with Tim, and I joined the boat in Bermuda for the passage to the Azores. We had a fourth crewmember along and were one of about 30 boats taking part in the event. The rally makes the southern route very appealing for those looking to sail in company—for the independent-minded, don’t let the rally dissuade you. It’s a smallish event, and you won’t feel overwhelmed in port because of it.
En route from Bermuda to Horta, on the island of Faial, we expected light winds, but were pleasantly surprised by the conditions. Kinship was the most northern boat in the fleet by a big margin, sailing the traditional route recommended by Don Street, which theoretically would take us across the top of the Azores high. (Getting caught in the middle of the high meant lots of motoring, and I wasn’t into that.) Our strategy paid off, and we had only one stretch of complete calm and only a few hours of light headwinds. Most of the time the wind was abaft the beam at a steady 15-20 knots. Our best day’s run was 196 miles, and we finished in the middle of the fleet, taking just over 12 days and motoring for a total of less than 24 hours.
Better still, upon making landfall Mia and I realized that we’d overlooked the most obvious reason for choosing the southern route—the Azores themselves. In all we spent two remarkable weeks exploring an island group that had previously held zero interest for us. Horta, on Faial’s east coast, is the traditional landfall for boats crossing the Atlantic from points south and west. The large marina is nestled in a sheltered basin with the town as a backdrop, and the 7,000-foot Pico rising to the east, looming across the channel. What was most startling to us was how lush and green the Azores are, though the storm a week later explained why.
Mia and I rented mopeds—cheaply, I’ll say, at a mere 30 euros for 24 hours—and covered the entirety of the island of Faial. We raced around, making stops in several villages along the way for coffee and fresh bread, and zipped down to one of the black sand beaches for a quick look at what the fishermen were up to.
I yearned to get beyond the scenery—which is astounding—so along with Kinship’s crew, we spent many an evening touring the back streets of Horta. One day Mia asked a lad at the chandlery in town for a good place to eat that was off the beaten path. He, in turn, complained that yachties only ever see the marina, Peter’s Café Sport and the half-kilometer of road connecting the two. While Café Sport is legendary in sailing lore—we had our first celebratory beers ashore there—we longed to see the real Horta and found a fantastic seafood restaurant serving fresh-caught fish and delightful Portuguese wine.
Following our stay, the 900-mile passage to Portugal was the easiest bluewater passage I’ve ever made—five days of beam-reaching in 15 knots of wind, with star-filled skies and not a drop of rain.
The downside of the northern route is the late-season timing. While it allows for leisurely spring and summer cruising in the Canadian Maritimes, or even a jaunt to Newfoundland, it means that once across the pond, the season is coming to a close. Even southern Ireland sits above 50 degrees north latitude, and by mid-September it’s wet, cold and time to wrap the boat up for the winter.
Following the southern route, on the other hand, you can depart as early as late April from either your home port or the Caribbean, and after a good shakedown to Bermuda, a short 1,700-mile hop to the Azores and another 900 miles or so to Portugal, it will still only be the middle of June. The Mediterranean, southern Spain and even northern Europe all await, and there is plenty of time for a return crossing in the Trades come December or January. For those on a time budget, it’s the only way to reasonably complete an Atlantic Circle in one year.
Tim, aboard Kinship, chose to remain in Portugal for the summer. He was keen on really getting to know the landscape and the culture on a deeper level, and preferred a long stay in one place rather than jumping around. “Got back from Faro after a five-day immersion in Portuguese daily life,” he wrote midway through his visit. “What was amazing was the way the people treated their children, hugs, kisses, patience—men no different than women, grandpas no different than parents. No wonder the adults have such dignity and warmth. Amazing! I’ll be sad to leave here.”
Personally, I have to agree with him. Skip the Med—it’s crowded and expensive anyway—and focus on Portugal and Spain.
I also think that if you have more than one season, the northern route is the way to go, despite the appeals of going south. Again, you get to visit Nova Scotia and Newfoundland en route, and after a winter in Ireland or England (there are scores of reasonably priced boatyards) you can sail the Irish Sea and the West Coast of Scotland, which locals call the greatest cruising ground in the world. The nights are short near 60 degrees north, the summers are cool (bring your woolies!) and the adventure high. You can easily spend a summer up north before stopping in France and crossing the Bay of Biscay to sail down the coast of Portugal. From Lagos—where ARC Europe finishes—it’s an easy five-day passage to Gran Canaria to stage for the return journey.
Though it’s the longest part of the circle—some 2,800 miles from Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands, to the West Indies—the return voyage is downwind and usually the easiest. If you started out in the United States, you’ve now got a few thousand miles under the keel, a lot of confidence and (hopefully) a very sound boat. The sailing directions for this leg couldn’t be any easier—“head south until the butter melts, then turn east!”
This is another “rally route,” so if you’re the independent type, avoid Las Palmas during the ARC sendoff in late November and Rodney Bay in St. Lucia during the finish in December. The ARC is a fantastic party and a grand spectacle if you’re a part of it—240 boats are set to take part as I write this, and the event is truly remarkable. But for the loner, the marinas can feel crowded with ARC flags.
The beauty of this route is the flexibility in timing. Don Street recommends leaving after Christmas, when the Trades are fully established. He also suggests first visiting the Cape Verde Islands, another great, unspoiled cruising ground, so as to get farther south where you’ll be deeper in the Trade Wind belt. That said, Christmas in the Caribbean is enticing—one reason for the ARC’s timing—and a November-December passage is indeed doable.
A One-Year Circle?
After Mia and I returned to Arcturus this past summer and sailed her across the North Sea, we left her hauled out in Sweden, about 60 miles inland from Stockholm. A one-year circle was never our goal, and we have no plans to bring Arcturus back to North America. She’s home now, as far as we’re concerned, in Mia’s native Sweden, imported into the EU and only 30 minutes from her family’s house.
Nonetheless, a one-year Atlantic circumnavigation is not only possible, but enjoyable—although you do need to enjoy bluewater sailing, since a complete circle starting from the East Coast represents a minimum of 8,000 offshore miles. You can easily depart the United States in April or May, stop off in Bermuda and the Azores en route, spend half a summer in Portugal, Spain or the western Med, and be back in the Caribbean in time for Christmas. A spring hop up to the U.S. East Coast and you’re back home again, one year, many thousands of sea miles and a great adventure later.
Photos by Mark Bolton (top); Maria Karlsson; Andy Schell (bottom)
Map by Pip Hurn