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Crossing the Atlantic East to West

April is an early month to be sailing in the North Atlantic, especially at the latitude where generally favourable winds are to be found for yachts wishing to sail back to the Med after a Caribbean season. However as Ree’s first engagement of the year in Europe is attendance at the Monaco GP in mid May, we need not only sufficient time to cover the miles but also time after our arrival to return the yacht to her in-season operating condition of a high state of polish and general good order before receiving our first guests. The deep ocean, you see, has a way of undoing much of the hard work the crew put into upkeep through the sailing season, in a very short time.

Mid Ocean SwimOur route across the ocean followed the classic sailing ship route: North from the Leeward Islands to Bermuda, East to the Azores Islands, SE to the entrance to the Med at the Straight of Gibraltar, and finally along the east coast of Spain up to our summer base in Barcelona. Total mileage 4,400 nautical miles sailed, a distance for me that never seems to get any shorter! The first leg to Bermuda is chosen because that Island happens to lie in the path of the east going weather systems that march across the ocean from the US mainland to NE Europe so that even though the island is somewhat off route, it is generally considered worthwhile making for there as one can expect to find more favourable winds than by sailing direct for the Azores. The downside of this strategy is that by putting ourselves in the path of these weather systems we may on occasion get more than we bargained for, with a pretty high chance of encountering gale force winds, or worse if really unlucky.

Leaving Tortola on the 1st April we made great time to Bermuda in only 5 ½ days, mostly under sail. The weather on this leg goes from full tropical, to spring temperate in just a few days and is rather a rude awakening for the crew who must exchange shorts and t shirts on watch to unaccustomed trousers and fleeces. The upside is that the drop in humidity from tropical temperate suddenly sharpens up one’s senses, as though a fog has lifted.

St Georges, our port of entry for Bermuda is a clean and neat little town and a welcome relief from the sometimes rough and ready Caribbean. Bermuda looks like provincial England but with US sized cars and US sized people, an interesting mix to say the least. On the 8th after rest and re-provisioning we sailed, not motored out of St Georges cut through the fringing reef to start on the long haul to the Azores Islands 2000 NM to the east. It is fun to sail a big yacht through this narrow harbour entrance without the aid of the auxiliary engine and I think sets the right tone for a voyage we have resolved to sail as much as possible of, using the engine only for calms. We would be granted this wish but not sailing with the frequency of favourable winds we had hoped for by sailing to Bermuda. Instead of winds produced by low pressure systems tracking over us to the North, we had those produced by high pressure to the North, a most unusual pattern.

The result, after one high followed another, was that to keep our course to the eastward with this wind direction we needed to sail as close to it as we could, which for Ree is about 55 degrees wind angle. Sailing close hauled like this with Ree heeled over is fun when day sailing but keeping it up for 2,000 NM into the ocean swells was not. This wind was cold, strong and relentless, and gradually pushed us south of our course line so that in the end we only just managed to reach the southernmost of the Azores Islands and not Horta as we had been aiming for.

Eight days out on the night of the 15th April one of these high pressure systems combined with a low forming SE of the Azores bolstered the wind velocity until it was gusting to nearly 50 knts from the NE and producing the kind of high seas one sees in books on ocean sailing or disasters at sea, scenes that probably put right minded people off ocean sailing in the first place. Conditions being too rough for us to make progress we decided to employ the technique of heaving-to: reducing the mainsail size to a tiny handkerchief, putting away all other sail and then turning the yachts’ rudder over towards the wind. Like this she can achieve a kind of equilibrium and not need steering while sitting with wind on one side slowing sliding sideways. The slick this creates and the reduction of her resistance to the waves helps to stop the seas breaking over her. We stayed like this all night until daylight and half the next morning when the waves were less threatening enough we felt we could to carry on again. It was a humbling night indeed when we were glad to be in a strongly built yacht designed before the current vogue in yacht building for lightness over ultimate strength.

On Sunday 20th April 13 days out from Bermuda we sighted the southernmost island of the Azores group, Santa Maria, which we just managed to reach sailing close hauled before getting pushed too far south so as to make a stop at the Azores off-route. Had we not made it to this island and needed to carry on directly for Gibraltar another 1000 NM moral onboard would have taken a decided dip. I think even Ree herself was in need of a night in port to rest and lick her wounds. In fact Santa Maria is such a wonderfully green and pleasant place, warm and bright in spring sunshine and the people here are so helpful and welcoming, we stayed two nights. As so few yachts, and fewer still superyachts stop here, preferring the Island of Horta further North in the Island the group, that we became the chief attraction for those of the 5000 inhabitants out for a Sunday drive stopping by the port. There was quite a crowd by afternoon staring from the dock with unashamed interest at our every move as we moved about on the deck sorting out and repairing gear and sails damaged or displaced on the way from Bermuda.

On Tuesday 22nd we set sail for Gibraltar 900 NM away and the last leg of the ocean crossing proper before the shelter of the Mediterranean sea is reached. As often happens this leg proved uneventful as the area has no regular strong wind pattern and indeed we had light winds or no wind all the way. At Gibraltar were we would normally take advantage of duty free to re-fuel, it was clear our extensive use of the sails did not really justify a fuel stop, instead we were ready to push on without pause the last 500 NM to Barcelona and call the voyage done. We duly arrived unscathed on the last day of April 30 days out from Tortola.