Transatlantic crossing 2021 - weather, sail plans and the route

John & Susan Simpson
Fri 26 Nov 2021 12:00
At the skippers’ briefing prior to the start of the rally we had been given two options for our route to the Caribbean.  Ideally we needed a high pressure weather system to be sitting over the Azores in order to create North East winds to carry us from the Canary Islands to St Lucia.  Unfortunately the forecast was for the opposite - a low (not high) pressure system was sitting over the Azores creating South Easterly winds around the Canaries and a long sausage-shaped hole stretching for hundreds of miles South with very little wind.   So the options were either to take a northerly route with the potential for beating into gale force winds and rough seas, or go South almost to the Cape Verde islands and motor for the best part of the first week until we reached wind.  The southerly route would take longer but was the safer option, so that is what we did.  This photo shows the routes taken by all of the boats crossing with the rally and you can see that most did the same as us, hugging the African coast to pick up what little wind there was until we were just a few hundred miles from the Cape Verdes.  A few of the racing division chose to go North (above the red line in the photo) and encountered some very rough conditions.

There was a gentle SE wind as we pulled away from the start line in Gran Canaria and we hoisted full mainsail and Genoa for a very pleasant sail on calm seas.  An hour later the wind fell too light to make progress under sail so we rolled away the Genoa and continued under engine.  This light wind continued for another couple of days and we ended up motoring for about 30 hours.

As it happened, with mattresses and bedding hauled out onto the deck to dry it was a good job that we had a few days of calm seas and hot sunshine!  We were able to get everything dried and the crew cabin reinstated.

By the end of the afternoon on day 2 there was enough wind to put up ‘Big Bertha’ - our bright red A4 gennaker.  We turned off the engine and enjoyed some great sailing as the seas were still calm and there was enough wind to give us 7-8 knots of boat speed.   We carried Big Bertha through the night, with the moon so bright that it was almost as light as day.  
This photo was taken at 2 o’clock in the morning - you can see our navigation lights at the top of the mast.

During 25th/26th November the wind started to increase slowly and stabilise from an East/North Easterly direction.  We were able to adjust our course so that we skirted across the top of the Cape Verde islands and started to head towards the Caribbean.  That felt like a real milestone moment as every mile we travelled was now in the right direction!  After the end of the first week the compass heading was 270 degrees for the rest of the voyage.

After a few experiments with different sail settings we ran under poled out Genoa only, gradually reducing sail as the wind increased to force 5-6 on our starboard stern quarter.  An entry in the log at 0800 on 28th November reads BAD NIGHT!!!  The sea state was quite confused with swell coming from two directions behind us.  We think this was as a result of gale force winds further North clashing with the usual trade winds swell.  Casamara may weigh 33 tons but she rocked and rolled like a cork as the conflicting seas rose under the boat from astern.  It was difficult to sleep and the main saloon bunks were often occupied in preference to those in the sleeping cabins as the centre of the boat is always the most stable point.

The log records that we were still ‘ROLLY ROLLY’ on 2nd December and this continued until we were about 2/3rds into the crossing.  Eventually the wind eased and the sea took on a more settled state.  The swell was still around 3 metres high from astern but the gap between waves lengthened and the motion became much easier.  By midday on 3rd December we added a poled out Staysail so that we had the two foresails poled out either side.  The boat was definitely more stable with the two sails and we concluded that two sails are better than one.

We recorded the wind direction and speed in our log book every hour for the entire crossing and it’s interesting to see just how consistent it was once we had travelled far South enough to get into the Trade Winds.  These are so called because the commercial sailing ships used them to ply their trade between Europe and the Caribbean.  Once Casamara was settled into her stride she just continued like a train on tracks with the wind blowing steadily from behind her.  We had some squally days as we got closer to the Caribbean with gusts of wind to around 30 knots, but generally the wind blew 16-20 knots all the time.  

We ran with the twin headsail plan until 5th December when the wind moved more into the North.  We put the mainsail on the port side with a preventer to stop the boom crashing back again with the rolling of the sea and kept the poled out Staysail on the starboard side.  We were now only 500 miles to go and this change of sail plan started to give us an average of 9 knots an hour so the excitement about arrival time began to build.  It wasn’t to last, though, as the weather turned squally again and we had a couple of nights of reefing/unreefing the sails as the squalls came through.  It’s an odd feeling sailing along quite happily in the dark when the sea and sails suddenly start to react to an approaching squall.  Looking behind you can see the approaching cloud blacking out the starry night sky and judge how windy it was going to be in a few minutes time based on how big and how dark the patch in the sky has become.  Whoever was on watch kept an eye on the approaching squalls and adjusted course or sails accordingly.

The last day of the passage dawned with less than 50 miles to go and the log still recording ENE or NE force 4 winds.  We sighted St Lucia at 0940 and shifted our course to round Pigeon Island on the Northern tip of St Lucia and into Rodney Bay to find the finish line.  
Sighting St Lucia

At 13 mies to ge we removed the pole and preventer as we now had the wind on the starboard beam and both Genoa and mainsail out on the port side. Just as John, Noa and Laura were on the foredeck the biggest squall of the passage blew in and suddenly we were in strong winds and lashing rain.  All hell broke loose for a few minutes but it felt a lot longer, and by the time it had passed we were all soaked to the skin.  A few minutes later normal service had resumed, the sun was shining, winds had calmed and we continued without incident around the corner to the finish line, which we crossed at 1330 local time.  
We just sailed across the Atlantic!