For many lake sailors and coastal cruisers, crossing the Atlantic is little more than a fairytale. It certainly was for us. But ours is an “if we can do it, you can too” story of a husband and wife who took time off work to sail their production sailboat from the Mediterranean back to the Western Hemisphere. We had such an amazing adventure we can only encourage others to make their dream a reality, too.
I’m writing this in mid-December in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia, where we’ve just arrived along with 48 other sailboats participating in the ARC+ rally, sailing from Gran Canaria to St. Lucia via the Cape Verde Islands. But our story actually ends with the ARC rather than starting there...
My wife, Brenda, and I had enjoyed Caribbean sailing for many years. We purchased a boat in the Sunsail fleet so we could explore farther afield and joined a flotilla in Greece’s Ionian islands in 2000. We decided then and there that we would come back someday on our own boat so we could truly cruise on our own schedule.
In 2010, after our kids were out of college, we purchased a 2006 Bavaria 39 in the BVI from friends we knew from our local sailing grounds, Lewis and Clark Lake, a reservoir on the Missouri River. We renamed her Asylum and spent the next few winters sailing up and down the Windward and Leeward Islands.
Because of our limited experience, we decided our first Atlantic crossing should be the “milk run,” from east to west. Our plan was to sail up the East Coast, spend a summer on the Chesapeake, ship the boat to the Mediterranean, cruise Greece and the rest of the Med for two summers and bring the boat back to where we started—the BVI—via the ARC.
The Adventure Begins
In March 2012, Brenda and I sailed from St. Lucia to Puerto Rico, the Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas, and then jumped to Fort Pierce in Florida. From there we sailed offshore to Deltaville, Maryland and spent the summer on the Chesapeake.
The following April we sailed up to Newport, Rhode Island, where Asylum caught a ride on a DockWise transport ship to Majorca, Spain. Using DockWise we could float on and off the ship—no need to take the mast down. As evidence of how easy the rest of the delivery was, when we rejoined Asylum in Spain, we climbed on board and saw I had forgotten to stow a pill bottle full of pencils. It was still standing upright on the chart table—a smooth ride indeed!
We spent June through August cruising Spain, Corsica and Italy, after which we put the boat up for the winter at Natura Navigando, on the Tiber River. Then in May of last year we returned to the boat and started working our way west, arriving in the Canary Islands in late August, where we left the boat in Gran Canaria for two months, went back to work, and returned as the ARC+ festivities and seminars were getting underway in late October. The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) is so heavily subscribed the World Cruising Club decided to split it in two: the ARC proper runs nonstop from Gran Canaria to St. Lucia, while the new rally, the ARC+, runs to St. Lucia with a stopover in the Cape Verde islands.
During the rally seminars, we discussed doublehanding as a couple. Two people on a boat crossing an ocean means fewer hands on deck and a more rigorous watch schedule. Fatigue is your biggest enemy, followed by chafe: or so we were told. With four on a boat, you can have shorter watch schedules and help with the cooking and boat maintenance. Still, Brenda and I agreed we wanted to cross the Atlantic alone as a couple. During our prior (albeit shorter) passages, we felt doublehanding strengthened our relationship. I’m the better sailor, but Brenda is the better “out of the box” problem solver. We make a good team.
Eight of the 50 ARC+ boats had crews of two, so we invited the other doublehanders to a dinner where we could all get to know each other. We shared best practices, compared watch schedules and, most of all, built friendships. Some spoke of how additional crew can actually create more problems than they solve, something we’d already observed firsthand when we arrived in the Cape Verdes, only to see a number of suitcases being offloaded from a neighboring boat. The skipper told me that he and his wife normally sailed doublehanded, but thought it would be fun to have some friends aboard for the ARC. After managing the new crew’s seasickness and keeping them from hurting the boat or themselves, they were thrilled when their friends announced that they would be flying home from the Cape Verdes.
Leg One: Gran CanariA to Cape Verdes—860 miles
The start of the rally was quite the sight. Our racing experience is limited, so it was thrilling to see 50 boats romping over the starting line just outside the harbor. There were two divisions: Cruising and Open. I almost chose the non-competitive Open Division, because I didn’t want my competitive spirit to dominate our experience, and besides, Asylum had one of the shortest waterlines in the fleet. But the rally staff assured me the competition would be friendly, so I caved to peer pressure, and we opted for some stiffer competition.
As doublehanders, our watch schedule was different from most. After an early dinner, we would watch the sunset together and play an episode of Modern Family on our big 32in TV monitor. We would then clean up the galley, after which I would sleep from 2000 to midnight with Brenda on watch. We would then switch and Brenda would sleep until 0600 when we would switch again and I would grab more sleep, until about 0800. That way we both had six hours of sleep before coffee in the morning, my favorite part of each day. We had no formal watch schedule during the day but took naps as needed. Our two rules were that the person on watch had to be tethered to the boat and couldn’t leave the cockpit while the other was sleeping.
Two days out of Las Palmas Asylum was number 43 on the leaderboard, but we came on strong and finished 33rd of 50 boats. After applying a handicap and a penalty for motoring—of which we did little—we expected to win third or fourth place in our class, a surreal feeling given we were vying for hardware against some really salty sailors. Unfortunately, due to my bad penmanship, our declaration for motoring hours was logged as 76 hours instead of seven, and we came in 10th in a field of 11. Humbling! (Postscript: we were later presented with a duplicate third-place trophy.)
On a happier note, we were enthralled by the Cape Verdes. Compared to the Caribbean, or even the Canaries, the people, the climate and the landscapes of the Cape Verdes seem distinctly different. After a couple of days of exploring (and catching up on sleep) we set off on the “Big Leg” to the Caribbean. By now it was clear that one of the biggest blessings of the rally experience was the friendships and relationships we built with other people from all over the world.
Leg Two: Cape Verdes to St. Lucia—2,090 miles
The start of leg two was on a spectacularly beautiful day, so while I was negotiating the start line, Brenda was busy snapping photos of our new friends. That first night I counted 38 sets of nav lights around us.
A friend once told me an Atlantic crossing is mostly boredom with moments of terror mixed in. He must not have been a double-hander. With just Brenda and me on board, our days were anything but boring. Everything, even cooking and eating, takes twice as long on a rolling boat. We cleaned and dried cushions and linen that were wet with seawater, wiped the salt off the stainless steel, inspected the rig, and fixed or jury-rigged whatever broke each day. In our free time we read, played games and talked. And of course, we slept whenever possible as the boat moaned and clanked and shuddered around us.
Then there were the moments of terror. One came in the black of the night as we wrestled with the Parasailor spinnaker after it had wrapped itself around the mast when the autopilot suddenly shut down without notice. The noise was deafening. The sheet had whipped behind the boat, snapped Old Glory off her flagpole and was tight against the dinghy davits.
It amazed me how disoriented I became trying to steer the boat in a circle to unwind the sail from the mast. After that tactic failed, we scampered around on deck in our life jackets and harnesses. The danger of losing fingers or being thrown overboard by the whipping sail was very real. We had to stop and think before we did anything. In the end we freed the sheets and guys and let them trail in the water (engine off, of course) after which we released the halyard and let the sail fall into the sea beside the boat. Then came the job of lifting the now very heavy sail on to the deck and stuffing it into the V-berth. (We’re still trying to dry the cushions!) Fortunately, the sail sustained only minor damage, although a few days later, we weren’t so lucky, and the sail was badly damaged in another broach. Rats!
We reached the halfway mark on Thanksgiving day. Mimosas with breakfast! It’s funny how being exactly in the middle of the Atlantic on a family-oriented holiday can make you a bit forlorn. We missed our kids and our grandson—the whole clan. To celebrate the holiday, Brenda made a magnificent roast turkey dinner complete with dressing, potatoes and pumpkin pie.
We still had nearly 500 miles to go when the faster boats in the fleet began arriving in St. Lucia. Mixed feelings about that! My competitive spirit came out again, but while we had positioned ourselves 60 miles south of the fleet to take advantage of an anticipated northeast wind shift, the shift never came, and with our Parasailor out of action, we were resigned to crossing the finish line with a poled-out jib—kind of like losing your star running back just before halftime. Asylum had been making 150 to 160 miles per day with the Parasailor up, but now we were lucky to make 120 miles.
Still, we did a good job of keeping things in perspective. “Wait a minute,” I told myself. “You’ve been waiting to do this trip for years. Don’t make it a long cross-country drive where you are merely counting down miles rather than enjoying the view.” This was especially true because the view was nothing less than spectacular, albeit very similar to what we’d seen the previous dozen days.
Throughout our passage there were many moments to be treasured: sitting on the bow in the late afternoon sun with my wife and a rum and Coke; watching the clouds and waves. It truly doesn’t get any better than that. On my midnight watches, the moon illuminated the path before me. I’d known we’d be sailing into the sunset every day, but sailing into the setting moon was a real treat. We started in the Cape Verdes with a new moon, and each day it set an hour later and a day fuller. After moonset, the stars were magical. I didn’t want it to end.
Of course, it did, and we crossed the finish line at 0926 local time, completing the course in just over 16 days. Now, lying in the marina in Rodney Bay, we realize we have been changed, not because we are better sailors or can brag about having crossed an ocean, but because of the many like-minded people we’ve met along the way.
Last night Brenda and I threw another party on our little boat. Twenty-nine of our new friends came and traded stories of adventure and of lazy days at sea. Sailing in the ARC brings a true sense of belonging, a true sense of camaraderie, a bit of competition, and a shared love for the adventure of sailing. In the end, it’s all about the friendships. s
Thane and Brenda Paulsen live and work in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. They are part-time cruisers who enjoy Caribbean sailing and have now added “crossed the Atlantic” to their sailing resume.