The Porta-bote tribe of the cruising community is small. Ken and Vicky from s/v Huskabean are card carrying members of the Portabote tribe. We met in Marigot Bay on St. Martin a few days before we set sail for the Azores. Like us they were waiting for the weather window, and Wednesday May 29 looked like the day. Ken, his crew mate Yves and I chatted briefly over Aleta’s stern rail and agreed that since we were both heading in the same direction it made sense to stay in touch.
Like us, Huskabean would check-in with the Transatlantic Cruiser’s net hosted by the Seven Seas Sailing Association at 21:15UTC, then we’d switch down to 4.051MHz at 21:30UTC for a daily update. Gem, a third boat on the same schedule, would listen in to our SSB chat, but wasn’t able to communicate with us via the radio. Instead, we received InReach text messages from Gem via our IridiumGo satellite link.
May’s last Wednesday morning broke clear and bright. I woke early and watched Huskabean sail off its anchor and head north towards the west end of Anguilla. Over the next six hours we finalized our preparations and weighed anchor at noon, following their course.
This was by far the longest passage Aleta had attempted. Our biggest and least controllable risk was (and always is) the weather. Ocean forecasts are generally more accurate than land-based ones because there are fewer variables. There are no mountain ranges or big cities, for example. Nonetheless, government forecasters on both sides of the Atlantic won’t stand by anything more than three to five days out. On-going access to good forecasts is therefore a key element of reducing the captain’s stress on Aleta, hence the IridiumGO.
We also purchased a subscription to Predict Wind, an app that pulls publicly available forecasts (GRIBs) from NOAA in the United States, and the ECMWF in Europe. Predict Wind interprets the data and recommends ‘weather routes’. Huskabean, on the other hand, could only access NOAA’s gribs, but had subscribed to Chris Parker’s weather routing service via the SSB. In practice, that was a conversation every couple of evenings with Chris about the weather at their specific location. Chris then provided recommendations for what course Ken should take. Because it’s a radio service, we eavesdropped on Ken’s conversation with Chris. Each evening Ken and I would compare notes during our call. All this talk about the local weather was both valuable and reassuring.
In broad strokes, the forecast called for something rare: winds across the Sargosso Sea for days, giving us a near rhumb line for the Azores. The traditional route from the Caribbean is to head directly up to 38oN, around 250 miles east of Bermuda, then turn right. Cutting across the Sargasso Sea this time of year, while 300-400 miles shorter, invites becalming and long days of motoring. We heard the palpable excitement in Chris Parker’s voice when he saw that we’d be on a beam or broad reach all the way. The only spoiler was a large low-pressure system rolling slowly out of the west. By June 2 the system was forecasted to stall around 40oN and 36oW, just behind our route. Even so, we had to move as fast as we could to stay ahead of it.
Aleta loves a beam reach. With a single reef in our main, full jib and the occasional staysail, she romped along ticking off 150, 160 and even 172 mile days. Day after day. We only motored for seven hours and still managed 130 miles on our calmest day. Huskabean is a Morgan 38 and therefore closely matched to Aleta’s 40’ hull speed. Ken’s six-hour head start lasted a full five days.
Yet, when we were 30 miles apart their conditions were different from ours. Sometimes better, often worse, and somehow we caught up. At one point on day five we were only a mile apart. Over the next couple of days Ken steered a little more east. We continued a little more north and extended our lead. At one point on day nine we slipped into a stream that goosed our speed and we happily shot along at 8 to 9 knots.
The low-pressure system deepened, but with new forecasts we had a much clearer idea of what was going on. Predict Wind’s US and European routing models lined up and the message was: keep feckin’ moving! With luck we’d nip in just ahead of the trough and avoid a whole bunch of nastiness. Thanks to the current’s turbo-charging, we soon put the front a full day’s sail behind us. Arriving at Horta late on the evening of June 13 in a flat calm, we heaved-to and entered the harbor at sunrise.
Huskabean wasn’t as fortunate. The day after we passed them they faced squalls we never saw. Then for the next few days things didn’t improve. Around day 10 the low front overran them, bringing with it 45 knot gusts, torrential rain, and a 180o wind shift. Conditions were bad enough that Ken heaved-to in rough seas for 25 hours waiting for things to ease off. Bear in mind Aleta was only 130 miles ahead of Huskabean when the trough passed them. That’s just around the corner in the vast scale of the Atlantic. It shows what a difference a day can make.
We stayed in radio contact and Huskabean arrived two days after us. As Ken said, the good thing about strong winds is that you sail fast! Gem also arrived on Sunday with a broken forestay that forced Louise and Chris to motor for the last 500 miles.
As with so many things in life, there’s no substitute for data, cautious planning, fair winds, and a smidge of good luck to make for a happy outcome. Aleta sailed 2,360 miles on starboard tack and gave us all the excitement any of us had wished for.