Atlantic Crossing: Week 2

Day 7: Week 2 Begins

Sunday, May 12, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 29°43.655’N, 56°50.989’W
Distance sailed: 900 nm
Distance to Horta: 1,500 nm (along our expected route)
Distance in last 24 hours: 118 nm
Wind is 15 knots from the S, sunny.

Mike’s weather comments jinxed it, at least for overnight. We doused the spinnaker after dinner, with enough time to get settled on the white sails before we started the evening watch rotation. Our predicted S winds did not show up – instead, we had 7-9 knot, SW winds (230-240°) for most of the night. Combine that with choppy southeast swell, and it made for bouncy sailing where the speed would creep up to 4.5 knots, only to have the boat hit a series of big waves, and be bounced back to 3 knots of boat speed. As a short, relatively heavy boat we are particularly vulnerable to this kind of swell – we fall into the well between the waves, and struggle to get back out again. A few extra feet of boat length, and you’d actually be able to maintain your overall speed a little more.

(Our friend John [who sailed to Antigua with us in 2022] mentioned that we sailors seem only to talk about waves and wind… my response to you, John, is that sometimes that’s all there is out here! :wink:)

Last night’s uncomfortable sailing has been more than made up for by this morning’s conditions. After a brief spot of motoring while we got through our morning coffee (and the added bonus of hot water for showers!), we launched the spinnaker and turned the boat slightly more northward. Since then, we have been cruising along at 6 to 7 knots, splashing through the swell and making up for the distance we lost overnight.

Today marks a full week that we’ve been at sea. Despite being hundreds of miles from land, we are still seeing a few birds every day. This morning, we had a tropic bird fly by on a recon mission – two loops around the boat, then a few fly-bys of the cockpit and he was off again. Yesterday evening we saw a new-to-me bird: mostly black (or very dark grey), with a white stripe on the edge of his wings, and a shape like a more compact booby bird. I will have to remember to look him up when we get back to land – I’d normally turn to my Merlin Bird app for identification, but I had to factory reset my phone while we were in St. Martin, and that app didn’t make the cut for the limited-app reboot.

The other fun ID of the day were two Portuguese Man-of-War jellyfish. I spotted them as we were running the lines for the spinnaker, so I couldn’t even stop to take a photo of them – classic wildlife move, to show up right when you’re in the middle of something else! Look these guys up if you’re not familiar with them – they have a semi-circular, pink-tinted fin which sticks up out of the water and propels them through the wind. Very cool creatures – I have spent all the rest of the morning looking for more, but haven’t yet seen any. Mike says to just wait till we get to Portugal… :roll_eyes:.

Week 2 of our trip means we get to start into the second bag of rationed night-watch treats – not that we’ve finished the first one, of course. But better to have too many treats, than to run out of Oreos in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. We’re also noticing that we are adjusting to the altered sleep schedule – it is easier to stay alert throughout the night watches, and be more mentally active during the day. Our sailing friends Tessa and Hartmut (who LOVE to do passages, it seems!) once told us that the “zombie phase” lasts to about day 4, at which point all your days at sea just seem to run together. I think I was a zombie for a day or two longer, but otherwise they were pretty spot-on with their summary. Good thing we have this blog to record our daily adventures, and try to keep the rest of this passage from becoming one big blur! :smiley:

Day 8: Cold front

Monday, May 13, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 30°01.187’N, 54°33.506’W
Distance sailed: 1,024 nm
Distance to Horta: 1,381 nm
Distance in last 24 hours: 124 nm
Wind is 12 knots from the S, cloudy.

For the west to east passage through the North Atlantic, there are three big picture components to the weather. The first is the east to west tradewinds blowing across the Atlantic just north of the equator. The first phase of our trip was working north to get out of those tradewinds before we could turn east.

North of the tradewinds, a region of high pressure (or multiple areas of high pressure) sets up, often referred to as the Azores High, since it is commonly centered south of the Azores. These high pressure areas feature very light winds – we spent a day and a half motoring and motor sailing through one just a few days ago.

And then north of the high pressure, the winds generally blow west to east, but it’s more complicated than that. Cold fronts periodically push into the ocean off the east coast of North America, and track on a south-west to north-east trajectory just above the high pressure. These low pressure systems can push down towards the high and bring bands of squalls and rain ahead of the cold front. They’re hard to avoid on this route and it’s expected to encounter one or two along the way.

It’s exactly one of these cold fronts which started hitting us yesterday, and last night wasn’t particularly fun.

A long wave of dark clouds had been forming ahead and behind us over the last day, and after sunset they came together. For a period of about four hours through the middle of the night, we were surrounded by squalls and thunderstorms – our radar showed us dozens of cells tracking from south to north across our path and behind us and there was a lot of lightning activity visible.

Innisfree’s radar showing a line of thunderstorms stretching for miles across our path.

Fortunately, none of them really came over us directly and we managed to avoid the bigger downpours. We saw a fair bit of sheet lightning but didn’t hear much thunder – the worst of the thunderstorms stayed in the distance on either side of us. And despite the storms the winds stayed reasonable, and handling the boat wasn’t an issue. We didn’t get much sleep, and so once the line of squalls had passed over us at around 5 a.m., we hove to (which is sort of like parking the boat and drifting in a safe way) and got a bit of rest before dawn.

The skies today are overcast, and we’re continuing to work our way east. We don’t think this system is done with us yet – a final band of (hopefully milder) rain/storms seems likely to pass over us later today before the winds turn northwest, bringing clearer skies and cooler temperatures.

Day 9: Port tack!

Tuesday, May 14, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 30°54.244’N, 52°56.353’W
Distance sailed: 1,134 nm
Distance to Horta: 1,282 nm
Distance in last 24 hours: 110 nm
Wind is 16 knots from the W, sunny with clouds.

The afternoon remained grey, and the storm drew in closer. By about 4:30 the storm that had been following us finally hit us. I had just stepped downstairs for a quick break, when all of a sudden it started to pour. A glance at the radar was enough to tell us that the storm was going to be with us for a while, so we decided to heave-to and wait it out downstairs. We stayed hove-to long enough to take a break, eat dinner, and be sure that this storm cell had properly moved on. Throughout this time, we were bouncing around quite a bit, with the boat rolling through the swell, and being hit on the side by incoming waves. Yes, we were able to sit at the dinette table and eat our dinner (leftovers from the night before, which was super helpful!), but we were both wedged into our seats, using our legs and feet to brace ourselves into position.

After about an hour, it seemed safe to resume sailing. We had seen one gust of wind that hit 38 knots, but otherwise the gusts stayed around 27 or so knots – and those were already well clear of us. We sailed on through the choppy seas for a few more hours, until another band of storms showed up around 7:30pm. Rather than face the storm on his own while I went downstairs to try (and probably fail) to get some sleep, Mike made the call to heave-to a second time and see how this band of storms would play out.

The hardest part of dealing with storm cells is navigating through the gusting winds and possible threat of lightning. The winds build and swirl, driving up the waves, and making it hard for our autopilot to hold direction. When it’s dark, you also lose your sense of direction – you can use instruments to keep you in line with the winds, but you can’t see the waves and swell which toss the boat around and make your footing very unstable. Heaving-to doesn’t stop the wind and waves, but by slowing the boat to a stop the feeling of the wind is reduced and the waves aren’t as sharp, and the boat can take care of itself.

Mike resumed sailing at 9:30 p.m. The winds were down to 17 knots, and the radar showed that the worst of the band of squalls was far ahead of us. When I took over at 11 p.m., it was still choppy, but the boat was moving along steadily. The moon rose and set in the latter half of my shift, and it was clear enough behind us to see the moon, and several big patches of stars.

As the daylight returned during my morning shift, there were a few storm clouds behind and in front of us. I watched them move around on the radar screen, content in the fact that all the lightning flashes I saw were at least 15 or more miles away. Now, at noon, we have beautiful blue skies and big white puffy clouds. You can almost imagine that the receding clouds just north of us are the Sunshine Coast mountains, and we’re just out for a sporty sail in the Georgia Straight!

Our big event of the morning was a gybe that we made as the winds finally veered from south to west, so that we could continue sailing towards Horta. This is the first gybe (or tack) that we’ve done since clearing Anguilla on Day 1! Innisfree is now heeling to starboard, so means we have to re-learn how to maneuver through the boat and where to position our coffee mugs and food dishes to keep them from sliding of the tables. But I’ll take it, if it means that those storm clouds have moved on!

PS: Mike was overly eager in saying that we had left the Sargasso Sea several days ago. There is still sargasso in the ocean today, probably stirred up by the passing storm!

Day 10: Over the hump

Wednesday, May 15, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 32°05.746’N, 51°05.062’W
Distance sailed: 1,261 nm
Distance to Horta: 1,162 nm
Distance in last 24 hours: 127 nm
Wind is 11 knots from the W, sunny with clouds.

As I sit in the cockpit and write this, the “distance to destination” counter on our chart plotter is ticking down past 1,160 nm, which is half of the 2,320 nm distance we started with when hauled up the anchor and departed St. Martin on May 5. We have sailed much more than 1,160 nm so far, and in reality, we probably have less than 10 days left in the trip. Exactly how many days will depend on the weather, of course. However imprecise it is, it’s a good day to sit back and reflect… we’re halfway through our journey.

Yesterday afternoon the westerly winds of the cold front that chased away the storms made for some fast downwind sailing, and that continued through the night. So much so that before dawn we found we had run east ahead of the winds and slowed down. After some motoring and frustrating flopping in the swell, the morning arrived and the west winds caught up to us again. With the spinnaker up, we’ve been making good progress since.

If the current forecast holds (and it’s been changing regularly, so no one’s taking bets), we may have a couple of days of smooth downwind sailing ahead of us. If so, it’s most welcome. We are still both trying to recover from the physical and mental efforts of the two storm-filled nights and catch up on sleep. With the sun out, we took full advantage yesterday to charge the batteries and make water to fill the tanks, and showers are on again when we want.

There’s a lot of “down time” when you’re on watch. The autopilot does nearly all of the driving, and if the winds and conditions are steady, whole watches can go by with out touching the sails. We’re both rolling through our stock of “watch materials”. Books, podcasts, movies. We each had downloaded hundreds of hours, and it really does help the hours go by on watch. For example, here’s some of what I’ve been chewing through: I’m just about finished the book “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu. Excellent “hard” science fiction. Then I’ll go back to working my way through Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”. For podcasts, I’m keen on history podcasts, so I have a number of episodes of Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” podcast, but also Mike Duncan’s “Revolutions”. For the cleantech/clean energy geek in me, one which I only discovered in the last month is Volts (go to This is a great podcast; the host and the guests know their stuff and get into the details.

Day 11: Water, water, everywhere

Thursday, May 16, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 33°37.255’N, 49°42.050’W
Distance sailed: 1,383 nm
Distance to Horta: 1,060 nm
Distance in last 24 hours: 122 nm
Wind is 17 knots from the WSW, cloudy with sunny patches.

After two catnaps yesterday afternoon, two 2.75 hour off-watch sleeps overnight, and another nap late this morning, I feel like I’ve caught up on my sleep again. At least until the watch cycle starts again at 8pm…

On this trip, we decided to go with set watch schedules, instead of rotating them each day like we did on our trip to Antigua. Mike is generally better at staying up late than I am, so he takes the 8 to 11 p.m. watch, and then the 2 to 5 a.m. watch. I’m on duty from 11p.m. to 2 a.m., and then from 5 to 8 a.m. Overall, this schedule has worked well for us, although I’m sure I’m getting the better deal out of it. Last night, for example, the half-full moon was up from sunset through to 2:30 a.m. – so my entire ‘night’ shift was technically bright enough for me to see the waves crashing beside us. On my second shift, there is already a hint of daylight on the NE horizon as settling into the cockpit with my instant coffee and my podcasts. Within about half and hour, the eastern sky turns the most beautiful shades of lavender, pink, and orange as the sun slowly comes up over the ocean. Within the first hour, I am already able to pick up my knitting and enjoy the gradual return to daylight. This is such a contrast to our passage to Antigua, where, due to the time zone and the November time frame, the sun went down at 4:30 p.m. and the dark-night watches seemed to go on forever!

During the day, we don’t maintain a set watch schedule. Mike gets up at 8 a.m., and I often go back to bed for an hour or so. This typically depends on how much coffee I’ve had on my watch, and whether or not I’ve already had breakfast (it’s hard to sleep when you’re starving!). From then, the day passes in a series of daily chores: second breakfast (for me), email checks, weather downloads, lunch, writing this daily post, naps, more weather downloads, and eventually, dinner. If you have nothing to do, you usually end up in the cockpit: even on calmer days it’s not particularly comfortable sitting inside the boat, since the only forward-facing seat is at the chart table/nav station, and that’s where the weather station is set up. We have learned quickly how to brace yourself when moving around inside the boat yet have still ended up with an impressive collection of bruises on our arms and legs.

Overall, I think we prepared well for this trip. We have lots of food left (including a few frozen, pre-made meals), and despite the suggestion in my title, we are having no problems keeping the water tanks topped up. Mike and I have learned that we are not ‘passage sailors’ – that’s not to say there aren’t some amazing moments and indelible memories. I just love being out of sight of land and looking out over the expanse of the ocean. But for us these long passages are really a means to an end – namely, getting ourselves and Innisfree to Europe and we seem to be doing well. How many days left until we see land again?

Day 12: Keeping calm and carrying on

Friday, May 17, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 33°36.140’N, 47°36.628’W
Distance sailed: 1,494 nm
Distance to Horta: 964 nm
Distance in last 24 hours: 111 nm
Wind is ??? and the weather sunny.

Well, I had said no one was taking bets on the forecast and yesterday morning the picture for the coming days had changed. Instead of a downwind sail to the north/north-east to get around a light wind area in front of us, the light wind area was now forecast to dramatically expand. There was no way to escape around it to the north.

After thinking about our options, we made a right turn and pointed the boat ENE towards Horta. Sometimes when there’s uncertainty in the forecast the best move is to just make as many miles as you can towards your destination rather than try a detour that may or may not pan out. At least this way if we do have to detour later, we’ll be doing so from a point closer to Horta than if we’d continued to work north. The weather data we downloaded later in the day confirmed the “big calm” ahead of us, and as the evening fell the wind slowly dropped. We motored for a little while, but eventually found enough of a breeze from the south that we could sail through most of the night at a leisurely 3-4 knots. It wasn’t until around 7 a.m. this morning that the wind finally quit and we were forced to turn on the motor.

In 2022, our passage to Antigua lasted just over twelve and a half days. So today will mark another milestone for us as this becomes the longest sailing passage we’ve ever done, in terms of both time and distance. It’s strange how one’s memory of time passing changes – right not it sure feels like this passage has been longer than the one to Antigua. Maybe it’s simply because this still feels like “the middle” of the journey, and not yet the anticipation of the end.

Today also marks an interesting milestone in terms of location. In the southern Pacific Ocean, there is a place that has been nicknamed “Point Nemo”. It is the point on earth that is farthest from any land. At some point in the next 24 hours, we’ll also pass our own “Point Nemo” for this journey, where both Bermuda and the Azores will be about 900 nm away. In fact, at about 850 nm away, the closest point of land to where we are right now is the south-eastern tip of Newfoundland!

Meanwhile, it looks like the calm conditions and motoring for us will continue into the weekend. We’ll be looking to try and sail when we can, even if it’s a bit slower, but when we finally do push through this lull in the wind we’ll have the exciting prospect of starting the final stage of this journey and our run into Horta.

Day 13: Cetacean Station

Saturday, May 18, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 33°51.826’N, 45°18.546’W
Distance sailed: 1,608 nm
Distance to Horta: 854 nm
Distance in last 24 hours: 114 nm
Wind is NNW at 7 knots; sunny with clouds.

When we are at anchor, one of my favourite things to do is take the spotlight flashlight and shine it into the water to see what appears. Often, we see almost nothing – everything is still asleep. Other nights, I will see skinny little needlefish, tiny jumping shrimps, smallish minnows, or even giant, 3-foot-long tarpon with glowing orange eyes (so creepy, especially when you are surrounded by 20+ of them at once!). Two nights ago, as we were gliding along on lightish winds, I decided to play this game as we sailed – and I was rewarded with lots and lots of jellyfish! These jellies were the “textbook” style of jelly fish – orange and pink in colour, with a round head and longish tentacles trailing out behind. There were dozens of them, from little 4-inch-long guys, up to big globby ones about the size of a basketball. I think they were out because of the moonlight – I saw lots of jellies around midnight, but when I tried to show them to Mike at 2 a.m., they (and the moon) had disappeared.

These jellies were the start of a marine-animal filled day. As day broke around 5:30 a.m., I started to see lots of Portuguese Man o’ Wars floating on the ocean. I had only seen a one or two before this, so I grabbed my camera to finally get a decent photo of them. I had started motoring when the wind died around 7 a.m., which should have made the photography easier. Unfortunately, the large swell and bouncy boat made it a lot harder than I had anticipated. Zoom lenses don’t work so well when they focus on the moving water instead of on the man o’ war!

Around mid-day, long after I had grown bored of man o’ war photos (although they are still fascinating creatures to observe!), I caught sight of a small group of dolphins, swimming off our port side. There were five or six dolphins in the group, clearly far more interested in the fish they were after than in the sailboat motoring past them. We were hoping they would come swim with us, but no luck. We motored one direction, and the dolphins swam off in another.

We continued to motorsail throughout the day, hoping for (but not expecting) the winds to fill back in. It was sunny and warm, and we were having a very lazy afternoon. Suddenly, around 3 p.m., I saw two big sprays of water up ahead – whale blows! I called Mike up from his nap and slowed the engine to a crawl. As we watched, two (maybe three?) whales slowly swam in our direction, making a few blows, then diving into the water with a quick flash of their backs. The whales started on our starboard side, probably a mile or so ahead of us. Over the space of about half an hour, they slowly came towards us, crossed a few hundred metres in front of the boat, and then swam away on our port side. I don’t have a whale book on board, so I will have to identify the whales when I get to land – their key identifying features were their tall, skinny blows, dark grey bodies, and little curved dorsal fins low down on their backs. Clearly, it’s time to buy myself a marine mammal ID book!

After watching the whales for about half an hour, we put the engine back in gear and continued on. Just before dinner, we had one final show: a large pod of dolphins jumping and leaping through the water as we approached. Part of the group circled around for a bit and then headed west; about five minutes later, the remainder of the group jumped and leapt their way across our path, chasing after their friends. Leaping dolphins always look so happy and excited, and they can’t help but brighten up your day!

I wasn’t sure if we would see whales on this passage, at least not until we were closer to the Azores. What a great surprise to see so many dolphins and whales all in one day! Having seen the whale blows, I realize that I probably saw another whale two evenings ago – I had seen two quick spurts of water, but nothing else, so I had written it off as either a jumping fish or a diving bird. But now that I’m more familiar with these vertical blows, I’m sure that was a whale as well.

To round out our creature adventures, I used the flashlight to watch more jellyfish drift by on my first shift last night (hmm… I really should recharge that flashlight!). There were more of the ball-sized jellies last night – and when I looked out over the stern and didn’t use the flashlight, they lit up into photo-luminescent blobs each time they got pushed around in the wake of the boat!

Today, we have the spinnaker up and are finally sailing again. I’d better get back outside in case there are more whalies waiting to be spotted!