Atlantic Crossing: Week 1

We have arrived in Horta!  We arrived on Monday, May 27th, just before 8am – as soon as it was light enough to enter the harbour safely! We were at sea for 21 days and 21 hours, and were very happy to finally be on shore again!

During our passage, we posted a daily update on our PredictWind Tracker. We don’t have Starlink, so the IridiumGo satellite phone is our only form of communication while offshore. It enables us to send emails, make emergency phone calls, and – through partnership with PredictWind – post daily updates on our location tracker.  For those of you who weren’t able to follow along with us, we are reposting those updates here, as well as illustrating them with some photos from our passage. We also want to have the posts available outside of the PredictWind program, since we won’t keep that account active once we reach mainland Europe.

Read on for details of our first week on passage!

Goodbye Caribbean!

Saturday, May 4, 2024 – 18°03.979’N, 63°05.878’W

Anchored in Marigot, St. Martin

It’s been just over a 17 months since we arrived in the Caribbean. Not long, really, but it feels like that landfall in Antigua was another era.

We’ve made so many amazing new friends and thoroughly enjoyed our time exploring the lesser Antilles. Now it’s time for new adventures and to make our exit from the Caribbean before the hurricane season. Europe beckons!

With a good looking weather window, we’re all packed up and ready to head out first thing tomorrow morning, bound for Horta in the Azores. We expect to head roughly north for the first five days with gentle to moderate east/north-east winds, before the winds shift to the west and we can turn our course east towards Europe.

We expect the passage to last 18-20 days, but it’s not a race. A wise sailor told us a couple of years ago: “the islands have been there a long time… they’ll still be there when you get there”. So we’ll watch the weather, take our time, and take care of the boat and ourselves and look forward to an amazing arrival in Horta.

We’re off!

Sunday, May 5, 2024, 11:24 GMT – 18°03.981’N, 63°05.903’W

Engine’s on and anchor’s coming up. We got our final pre-departure forecast from the weather router this morning and everything looks really good for the week ahead.

We have gentle east winds this morning with clear skies.

Innisfree is on our way out of Marigot Bay, SXM – Glenda and I are all smiles.

Departure day – leaving land behind

Sunday, May 5, 2024, 14:55 GMT – 18°12.204’N, 62°59.259’W
Distance covered: 14.4 nm
Distance to Horta: 2310 nm (along our expected course)
Wind is NE at 10 knots

We left Marigot Bay at around 7:30 a.m. After a rainy few days, our battery had dwindled so we motored for a bit to charge up and run the watermaker to top up our tanks.

We’re now nearing the north end of Anguila in the middle of a small parade of sailboats also departing today. Starry Night is ahead of us. Ino beside us, Kanaloa, Juliana and Josephine behind. Progress is a bit slow as we work into the chop close-hauled, but we’ll speed up and settle down once we hit the top of Anguila and can turn our course north.

Anguila will be the last land we see and smell until we get to the Azores. There’s an earthy, lush smell to these islands, and the smell of land is something you really notice when you sail offshore and then make landfall again.

Day 1: Into the NE trades

Monday, May 6, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 20°19.168’N, 63°00.035’W

Distance sailed: 141 nm
Distance to Horta: 2,185 nm (along our expected route)
Distance in last 24 hours: 127 nm
Wind is 17 knots from the ENE, mostly cloudy.

We departed Saint Martin yesterday and had fantastic sailing conditions throughout the day. The seas were relatively calm and we moved along quickly with the wind just forward of the beam and the boat flat.

When we crossed the Anguila Bank, however, and the ocean depths dropped from ~50 m to 3,000 m, we found ourselves in a strong current pushing west, forcing us to point the boat NE, closer to the wind, to maintain our northerly course. Our little world now became a crooked one as the boat heeled over 15 degrees, and memories of our passage down to the Caribbean came flooding back (we spent a lot of that trip heeled over in strong winds).

Already done with the heeling…

Once into our watch rotation in the evening, the waves began to build. Sailors describe a sea as “lumpy”, when it’s these kinds of conditions: the waves aren’t all that big, but they’re coming from multiple directions (including in front of us), and they are closely spaced. When it comes to comfort at sea, it’s not so much the size of the waves but the period between them that matters. Big, well-spaced rolling waves can be a gentle ride, like a drive down a rolling country road. What we’ve had since last night, however, is more akin to driving along a pothole-riddled logging road. Ugh.

The winds we have right now are, after all, called the “NE trades”, and we knew when we left that the first few days might be a bit of a slog as we try and go north/north-east. After consulting with our weather router, we decided this morning to crack off a bit and let our heading slip 10-15 degrees more to the west. Doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a big difference when you’re not quite taking the chop head-on, the boat is a bit flatter and a bit quicker.

We know it takes a few days to get into the rhythm of a passage, and it can be hard to sleep on the first night, but the bouncy conditions didn’t help. We were both feeling a little bleary-eyed this morning and some (very carefully made) coffee and breakfast sandwiches made a world of difference. We’re both planning for some naps during the day today.

There have been lots of other sailboats around since we left. Some we know well and are visible on the group tracker, others are new to us but are visible by eye a few miles away. It’s nice to have company and to hear the chatter on the VHF from time to time. You know everyone is dealing with the same challenges.

And the boat has been great. Innisfree is taking it all in stride. The weather has been dry (aside from the occasional wave spray) and according to the forecast the sea and wind conditions should get better in about 24 hours. Looking forward to it.

Final note: we noticed this morning that our Garmin InReach seemed to be shut off, so the tracker wasn’t working. Should be up and running now and we’ll keep an eye on it from now on.

Day 2: Northward!

Tuesday, May 7, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 22°23.520’N, 63°21.378’W

Distance sailed: 271 nm
Distance to Horta: 2,064 nm (along our expected route)
Distance in last 24 hours: 130 nm
Wind is 13 knots from the NE, sunny.

Lumpy seas continued throughout the day and into the night. The boat settles into a rhythm as it rides up and over the waves: its up to you to align your body with the boat, maintaining just enough rigidity in your muscles to stay upright against the 15-degree heel angle, while also moving with the bobs and rolls, and preventing those muscles from getting jarred or injured. It’s all great until you try to get up, and suddenly it feels like mountain-climbing just to get to the other side of the boat. Even without the disrupted sleep schedule, it’s no wonder we’re tired at the end of the day!

We had a visit from dolphins yesterday afternoon! Mike was downstairs and I was watching a group of birds dive-bombing a school of fish at some distance. Suddenly, greyish-brown blobs in the water manifested into a small pod of little dolphins (possibly porpoises)! They swam up to the bow for a minute or so, before deciding that we were too slow – so off they went, presumably back in search of the same fish that the birds were after.

The rest of the day passed in the hard-to-remember haze that is typical of a calm day at sea. You eat when you’re hungry, nap when you’re tired, and fill the in-between times with podcasts and books and the twice-daily weather download. We will start to feel more human in another day or two, once we adjust to the watch schedule; for now, I just focus on staying hydrated and keeping out of the sun, and trying to ration out my podcasts and downloaded videos so I don’t run out by the end of the week.

Where we are now, several hundred miles south of Bermuda, the ocean is a beautiful lapis blue, speckled with golden-brown patches of sargasso weed. Our Garmin tracker shows that we’re about 2 degrees of longitude west from the path we took on the way to Antigua in 2022 (too bad we didn’t have this weather and sea-state on that trip!). The ocean temperature has dropped a few degrees from what it was in St. Martin, and you can feel the change in air temperature as well. Last night I was cold enough to wear my wind-breaker while on watch – tonight I may even have to wear long pants!

Day 3: Leaving the Sargasso Sea

Wednesday, May 8, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 24°21.160’N, 62°51.017’W

Distance sailed: 397 nm
Distance to Horta: 1,969 nm (along our expected route)
Distance in last 24 hours: 126 nm
Wind is 13 knots from ESE, sunny.

Since we left Saint Martin, we’ve been sailing north through what is known as the Sargasso Sea. We mentioned it yesterday, but the sargasso weed grows in the warm waters in this area and at time gathers into large floats of gold. It makes for a pretty contrast against the ocean and sky.

Yesterday afternoon the winds started to ease. We’ve been working mostly north or a bit west of north since we left, looking for opportunities with shifts in the wind to move a little more eastward. With the winds easing and the seas calming down, we could point our bow a little closer to the NE winds. Eventually the winds dropped below 6 knots and we fired up the motor for a few hours. In addition to keeping our speed up, running the engine boosts the electrical power we have available and we took full advantage, running the watermaker to top up our tanks. The calmer ocean also meant we could dig out the fresh food in the fridge and make a nice pasta + vegetable dinner that involved a bit more prep work.

Since late on the first day of the trip, we’ve never been far from another sailboat. Joan (pronounced Jo-Anne), is a French sailboat about the same size as us. We are both on our way to Horta and we’ve been wandering across each other’s course, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, sometimes close (200 m), sometimes 4-5 miles apart. Each boat (and her crew) sails a little differently, I guess.

Not long after dinner yesterday, a cruise ship (the Celebrity Eclipse) appeared behind us on the AIS, bound for Bermuda. Their track was taking them towards us and Joan, and we worked to adjust our course to the east to get out of their way. Without needing to radio them, we could also see them kindly tweak their course to the west. It’s a big ocean, but yesterday saw us pass not only the cruise ship but several freighters as well.

Having throttled up our motor to move out of the way, we both noticed more vibration than usual in the boat. Once we were safely out of the way we stopped the boat, dug out our GoPro and used it to look underneath the transom. Sure enough, our rudder had managed to collect a big blob of Sargasso around the top, and there was even some weed wrapped on our prop – probably the source of the vibration. Luckily, the winds were still light and there was about thirty minutes of daylight left, so I went for a short swim cleared the weed and we were back underway before long. Vibration gone.

After sunset the winds picked up again and we shut off the motor. Overnight the winds shifted from NE to ESE, and we followed them around, altering our course to the NE and quickly recovering the easting lost in the previous 24 hours.

The sailing conditions right now are fantastic. The sargasso is all but gone. The seas have remained settled except for some big, widely-spaced rolling swell, and Innisfree has been galloping (for us) along at 6-7 knots. And to top it all off, Glenda made the effort to make fresh ground espresso coffee this morning (instead of our usual instant coffee), so we had delicious lattes with breakfast.

Day 4: Steady as she goes

Thursday, May 9, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 26°23.525’N, 62°08.502’W

Distance sailed: 528 nm
Distance to Horta: 1,842 nm (along our expected route)
Distance in last 24 hours: 131 nm
Wind is 9.5 knots from ESE, sunny.

Our mostly-northward progress continues as we chase the bottom of the so-called ‘Azores high’. Our weather router’s daily emails tell us to keep pushing forward until we run out of wind – but so far, we have yet to find that spot (not that we’re complaining!). Winds continue between about 6 and 14 knots – usually increasing just long enough for us to put a reef in the main (shrinking the sail, and reducing how much we lean over), before it drops back to 10, and we have to shake the reef back out again.

Aside from sail changes there isn’t much to do during the day, but again, that’s not a complaint. We are still in not over the ‘zombie days’ of passage, slowly getting our bodies used to 3-hour sleep intervals (more like 2h 45 minutes once you’ve factored in the shift changeover), and the additional physical demands of a constantly-moving boat. I have managed to do some knitting, which speaks both to the relative calmness of the passage, and the fact that the cockpit isn’t getting flooded with salty spray every few minutes. I have grand plans to bake things if/when we make the turn east and (hopefully) take on a more downwind route – but downwind sailing has it’s own motion to get used to, so we will have to wait and see.

Everywhere you look is just ocean – miles, and miles of ocean. The chart tells us that the ocean floor is more than 5 km (3.125 miles) beneath us (the depth sounder has long since given up on us). Put that horizontally, and it would take more than an hour to walk it. There is something very humbling about being a small boat in the middle of this vast space. In my few visits to the prairies, I have found all that extra sky slightly unnerving, but I don’t have that same sensation on the ocean.

With only waves to look at, it’s easy to spot things that don’t belong here. I have seen at least one empty water bottle every day since we left St. Martin. There are lots of flying fish about, and yesterday I even spotted a lonely Tropic Bird, which is a white, sea-gull-sized sea bird with a long, pointy tail. The sailboat Joan continues to pop on and off the horizon as well, but they are rarely close enough to appear on our AIS. I need google to remind me how far the visible horizon is when you’re out on the ocean – whatever that number is, that’s usually how far away from us they are!

Déja vu

Friday, May 10, 2024, 1:33 GMT – 27°17.996’N, 61°41.730’W

On November 19, 2022, we sailed past this spot on our way to Antigua. You can see our tracks crossing. I remember that day as the day we started to feel the influence of the tradewinds, and today we are turning east as we leave the tradewinds behind. The ocean feels so vast, and it is somewhat mind bending to realize that we were in this exact spot just 18 months ago.

Day 5: Full of stars

Friday, May 10, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 28°16.213’N, 60°46.918’W

Distance sailed: 661 nm
Distance to Horta: 1,721 nm (along our expected route)
Distance in last 24 hours: 133 nm
Wind is 5.5 knots from the ESE, sunny.

The weather over the last day marks a transition on the trip. Not long after we posted our update yesterday, the wind slowly diminished below 5 knots and we reluctantly turned on the motor and pointed the boat NE.

This was expected, of course: the trip from the Caribbean to the Azores can be thought of as a journey in three stages. The first stage was getting north from the Caribbean across the tradewinds before we could really start to turn east. Yesterday the end of the easterly tradewinds, and entrance into a light wind area of high pressure marked the end of the first stage.

Thanks to Charlie (our weather router) for answering our question yesterday about the distance to the horizon!

When we can, we try to keep one or two sails up while we’re motoring; there’s usually a bit of wind and the sails give us a small boost in speed. Also, given that on the ocean there’s always swell, the sails help to resist the rocking and make life more comfortable on board. This period of high pressure and light winds is a common and anticipated part of this route, and we loaded up with lots of extra fuel before leaving, knowing that we could be motoring for a few days. For now, however, it looks like we may get our wind back overnight tonight or tomorrow morning.

With the high pressure has come clear blue skies. At times not a single cloud in sight. And this has been a real treat at night. The new moon was only a couple of days ago, and the thin crescent moon we have now sets early in the evening leaving dark skies absolutely covered in stars. Looking out at night, the ocean goes black and the humidity above the water fuzzes away the horizon line while the stars reflect in the calm water making it unclear where the ocean ends and the skies begin. It’s easy to pick out the north star just off our bow and then turn and look behind to see the southern cross just above the horizon. Shooting stars are frequent and the Milky Way is vivid streaking across the sky. The hours on watch go by quickly as you stare out across the sea.

I absolutely love moments like these. There’s a sense of timelessness: a feeling that despite everything we have in this modern era, what I’m in that moment experiencing is the same as countless sailors have experienced for hundreds or thousands of years. A moment of shared human experience across time.

Day 6: Times they are a changing

Saturday, May 11, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 29°18.775’N, 58°54.388’W

Distance sailed: 782 nm
Distance to Horta: 1,610 nm (along our expected route)
Distance in last 24 hours: 121 nm
Wind is 14 knots from the SW, sunny.

Quite literally. Last night we crossed 60 degrees West longitude. If you divide the world into 24 time zones, each time zone is 15 degrees of longitude. Of course, countries and regions mess with that simple math for various reasons (here’s looking at you, Newfoundland), and this includes the Azores, who stay on Portuguese time (UTC) despite being nearly 1000 miles west. When we were in the Caribbean, we were on UTC-4, or Atlantic Standard Time. The Caribbean doesn’t adjust for daylight savings – that close to the equator the difference between summer and winter makes daylight savings meaningless. With four time zones to cross on this trip we decided in advance that we would change by one hour at the start, and then we would change by one hour at each of 60 degrees West, 45 degrees West, and 30 degrees West. Consequently, on board we have been living UTC-3 since leaving Saint Martin.

We find it helpful to keep our clocks on board close to what makes sense for where we are. It’s arbitrary, of course, but somehow life makes more sense when sunset is just after dinner and sunrise is just before breakfast, and we can keep to a watch rotation that runs from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. (local time). So this morning, having crossed 60 degrees west longitude, we set our clocks forward one hour.

To celebrate the milestone, Glenda made us fresh cinnamon buns for breakfast this morning. This may be a start of a little passage tradition because 18 months ago on the passage down to Antigua, Glenda surprised John and I with fresh cinnamon buns for breakfast on “halfway day” (Day 6). Yummy. (Editors/Glenda’s Note: going forward, these buns will now be known as ‘700 mile buns’.)

700-mile buns

The times are changing figuratively as well. In the hours before dawn last night, after a day and a half of motoring through calm conditions, the winds finally filled in from the south. We put up the sails, shut off the motor, and became a sailboat again. By noon today we had glorious conditions, sailing downwind before the SW wind at over 7 knots, with the spinnaker flying in the sunshine.

Now we’re into the second stage of this passage: knocking off the miles as best we can while generally heading NE. There’s a cold front west and north of us which we’re likely going to try to stay below of for a few days, taking advantage of good (but not too strong) winds to make miles. The last stage of the trip will come as we get closer to the Azores and the flexibility to adjust our routing diminishes; we will then have to make decisions on how (and when) to make the final approach to Horta.

But that is days away. For now, we’re going to sit back and enjoy some of the best sailing conditions we’ve ever had on passage. Awesome. (G: Careful, Mike! Don’t jinx it!).

Sunset, May 11th. Not sure why we seem to have 2 suns! 🙂