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How to Sail Across the Atlantic (or the World) in 25 Easy Lessons
Storm-tossed seas, speedboat pirates, sleeping whales, exploding toilets—crossing the Atlantic has its risks. But if a novice skipper can make the trip safely, so can you. By Paul Bennett

Photo: Paul Bennett at the helm of his ketch, Lucy
CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN: Paul Bennett at the helm of his ketch, Lucy

Out there, somewhere, moonlit swells are rolling through the darkness over a point I have dubbed "The Spot": 2,700 nautical miles (5,000 kilometers) equidistant from Cape May, New Jersey, and Lisbon, Portugal, and roughly 1,290 miles (2,389 kilometers) southeast of Newfoundland. The Spot marks the halfway point on our journey and is, by definition, the farthest we'll stray from land on our voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. I plotted it before we set out. But now, on watch at 4 a.m. in the predawn cold with nothing to do but stare into the dark and fiddle with my new LED headlamp (on, off, on, off), I've become much more intimate with this invisible point. I've measured it 12 times in the past two hours, and I'm pretty sure that at this moment, The Spot is lurking 2.3 nautical miles (four kilometers) dead ahead.

To go up on deck, I have to concoct an excuse. Several months ago, after hearing a gruesome story from fellow cruisers about a husband tripping overboard on watch—and his wife waking hours later to find herself alone, surrounded by empty ocean—my wife, Lani Bevacqua, and I made a pact that neither of us steps out of the cockpit when alone on watch. But this is important. The idea of The Spot has become my personal "heart of darkness," and the urge to be on deck staring at the black sea around us when it arrives is impossible to ignore. So I tell myself that the jib, which in all truth is perfectly trimmed, needs some adjustment. It could be chafing against a shroud. Better check.

I click my life harness into the jackline, a web strap with a 10,000-pound (4,500-kilogram) breaking point that runs to the bow, and I step up to the bowsprit, which despite Leonardo diCaprio's screeching in the movie Titanic, has not lost its exhilarating sense of freedom. The moon is beginning to set, and the sea is turning absolutely dark. But if you peer long enough into the blackness you can make out shapes. You think you see a fin. You look for the glowing swoosh of bioluminescent plankton just below the surface. You hope that a bunch of lights on the horizon isn't an oncoming tanker. One night, I mistook a rising Venus for a masthead light and spent several minutes trying to hail the planet on the VHF radio.

Conditions are calm right now: 12 knots of wind, two-foot (61-centimeter) seas. Lucy bounds forward with an easy motion that tells me everything is OK. Standing on the deck of a 38-foot (12-meter) sailboat in the absolute center of the Atlantic in the middle of the night feels more mundane than I had assumed it would. When I imagined this moment months ago from my leather chair in New York City, it was much more Byronic. I was the plucky adventurer thousands of miles from anywhere, alone with the sea, like the people I read about in books and magazines. Instead, as I look out at the barely discernible line of the horizon, I see the concrete facts that led me here: the engine we repaired in Virginia, the rub rail we replaced in Rhode Island, the mortgage, the dodgy ports whose officials we've grown adept at bribing. I see weatherfaxes predicting approaching storms. I am not surprised. When we began this journey 18 months ago, concocting our dream to sail around the world on a 38-foot (12-meter) sailboat, we were hopeless romantics. It didn't take long for the details of staying alive to overwhelm our dreamy fantasies of balmy islands and fruity rum drinks. "My main goal here is to not die," Lani blurted out one afternoon during a frenzied weekend of pre-launch repair work on our boat. It was a primal concern, but one that summed up pretty much everything we had done to that point and everything we intended to do from there forward.

And so, The Spot is a heroic benchmark to contemplate while killing time on watch, but it's less a romantic accomplishment than a logistical one: We managed to organize our lives in such a way as to make it this far (without dying). And now, closing in on The Spot, I realize that the greatest achievement of our voyage is that it was accomplished by us—nautical amateurs—and that anyone who wants to make their own ocean crossing can accomplish the same feat, provided they have a grasp of basic seamanship and are aware of these 25 fundamental precepts.

1. A Bluewater Boat

For us, the task—as decided over martinis one cold February evening in 1999—was to set off on an ill-defined ocean-crossing voyage that might, or might not, take us around the world. Long-distance ocean voyaging begins and ends with the boat. It's your house, your shield from the weather, and what keeps you from swimming all that way. And after thousands of miles of late-night watch, alone in the cockpit of Lucy, I began to appreciate all the superstitious anthropomorphizing that seafarers and sea poets have done over the centuries. At some point, your boat becomes a part of you.

But a boat is also a piece of equipment; and as with anything else, you need to find the one best suited to the task at hand. We knew we needed an ocean-capable boat—what's known in the business as a "bluewater yacht."

What exactly constitutes a bluewater yacht—as we learned over the first six weeks of our adventure, which we spent poking around marinas from Annapolis to Boston and consulting pretty much every book, Web site, and magazine article we could find on the subject—depends on two competing schools of thought. One school holds that the proper craft for crossing oceans is a heavy, strong, traditionally designed sailboat. The philosophy here is that if you get into a storm you want a boat that is built like a safe and has a proven track record. You want something heavy that won't break up when it gets battered by 50-foot (15-meter) waves. And you want something that lets you hunker down—the nautical term is "heave to"—in a really bad storm to wait it out.

The diametric view holds that, with the technology at our disposal—specifically weatherfaxes, relatively accurate satellite weather charts that can be downloaded from the sky mid-ocean—having a strong boat that can withstand tough weather is less advantageous than having a fast one that can outrun it. The theory is that if you can see a perfect storm gathering 500 miles (805 kilometers) away and marching toward you, wouldn't you rather race southward at ten knots and suffer little more than some gray skies and choppy seas?

It had been more than a decade since I'd been on a boat, and my experience coastal cruising with my parents in Connecticut, where the only time we'd been out of sight of land was on foggy days, hardly qualified me for open water adventure. Lani's experience—a few summers on Sunfishes at YMCA camp—had been even paltrier. So, a few weeks later we settled on an old, neglected Shannon 38, one of the toughest, most conservatively designed sailboats in the world, made to bob through storm after storm without a scratch. Although we'd planned to buy a cheap fixer-upper in the $30,000 to $40,000 range, the boat ended up costing nearly $85,000. We rationalized this, and the mortgage we had to secure, by the fact that she came equipped with some critical pieces of offshore equipment—like a single side band (SSB) radio, a radar, and a life raft—and that she was generally in good shape. In the end, we wound up exceeding our repair-and-equipment budget by about 300 percent.

But such was the fortitude of our spirit that, employing the tools at our disposal, we financed the balance on credit cards and, playing a shell game of balance transfers, housed the deficit of our lives (about $20,000 over 18 months). On the eve of our departure, we were broke, and in debt. But as true Americans, we felt that this was not only acceptable, but thoroughly normal, and off we sailed.

2. Don't Worry About Superstitions

Sailors consider it bad luck to change the name of a boat. But Rolling Home, the moniker of our chosen vessel, fell into the unacceptable marine-pun category alongside Seaquel, The Seven C's (for a large family with the surname Christian or Callaway), Sea Ya Later, Nautomatic, Yacht Sea (with a picture of dice), and so on. As we'd learn, your identity on voyage becomes inextricably entwined with your boat. Plus, we liked the name Lucy.

3. Embrace the Gearhead Within

When I look back and tally up all the time spent fixing Lucy as opposed to sailing her, I am astonished by the fact that over 70 percent of our cruising time was consumed by me hanging upside down in the bilge or scraping my knuckles trying to tighten a hose clamp behind a bulkhead. Erase the images of palmy islands, crystalline waters, and warm sun and replace them with oil-covered gaskets, sulphurous water hoses, bloody knuckles, and the sensation (strangely titillating) of 12 volts of electricity coursing through your body, and you'll begin to get an idea of what it's like to go voyaging.

The most rugged thing I had accomplished prior to our trip was hanging some sheetrock in our apartment. But by the time we sold Lucy in Toulon, France, I could bleed a diesel engine in the dark in rolling seas. In the process, I collected a cool set of tools, a nifty tool bag, and something called a bosun's chair, which can take you to the top of the mast as the boat heels and bucks 50 feet (15 meters) below. Still, my evolution from effete New Yorker to greasy, low-slung handyman was slow, gradual, and painful. For the first six months it seemed like everything I tried to fix only got worse.

4. The Joys of Plumbing

A few months after buying Lucy, we made a 23-mile (37-kilometer) "shakedown" sail from Stonington, Connecticut, to Block Island. This trip was marvelous: clear skies and steady ten-knot winds. We'd invited Lani's parents and brother, David, a college student. Lucy was majestic with her twin headsails and gentle, even motion through the water. Although Block Island can be overrun with tourists, we found a patch of empty harbor near the docks to anchor.

The next morning I awoke to the sound of the electric toilet cycling endlessly. "I think the toilet's clogged," my mother-in-law, Marilyn, announced as she came out of the head. I leaped confidently into action. When I pressed the button on the electric pumping mechanism in the toilet, it sounded funny, like it was spinning but nothing was moving. I pushed once more. Certainly what I heard was the sound of a clog somewhere in the line—probably toilet paper. I traced the outflow line to the probable source of the clog, a Y-valve, and proceeded to loosen the hose clamp and pull open the line. I was very careful to close the Y-valve first, based on the articles and books that I had read. I didn't want seawater to come flooding into the boat, getting everything wet.

As I pulled the hose free from the valve, I learned two very important lessons about repairing things. First, that pressure accumulates in a closed system (and, being clogged, the outflow line was a closed system) in equal proportion to how much pumping you do—between Marilyn and myself there had been a lot of pumping so far. And second, that a crucial component of any repair is acquiring all the facts, which in this instance included the following: My father-in-law had also used the head at some point during the night, he had probably done quite a bit of pumping himself, and it was a far more than toilet paper clogging the system. In the next moment, the obstruction in question shot out of the line with fire hose ferocity. It caked the walls, the ceiling, and the floor. It covered me completely from head to toe. I can say, unequivocally, that being showered with another person's crap has been the single worst experience of my life.

That's when I dedicated myself to becoming a much more careful and analytic mechanic.

5. Go With the Flow

The correct way around the world follows the trade winds and predominant ocean currents as they move through the tropical latitudes from east to west. Timing is everything. You want to leave one part of the globe as hurricane season begins and enter the next part as it's ending. A typical circumnavigation with a departure from the East Coast of the U.S. goes something like this:

Hurricane season in the Caribbean lasts from June to November, so either you embark before this and spend those months in some relatively safe harbor just south of the hurricane belt (which lies roughly between 15 degrees north and 30 degrees north), usually in Trinidad, Venezuela, or Colombia, or you try slipping south after hurricane season in December (attempting also to avoid the onset of winter). In any case, you want to arrive at the Panama Canal around March.

Cyclone season in the Pacific Ocean lasts from December until April or May. This is about the time you want to be exiting the other side of the canal. You now have about eight months (from April to November) to cross the Pacific and find a safe spot on the other side before cyclone season begins again. A lot of boats divide the trip in half by heading to New Zealand for the austral summer there, and then sailing back north to tropical climes the following May. Others push on directly to Australia.

After transiting the Torres Strait between Australia and Indonesia sometime in June, you can go north of the Equator and cross the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea, and then move on to the Mediterranean; or you can push south, staying below the Equator, to South Africa. For the former, you can make your transit anytime between November and March—so it's a little more leisurely with several months in late summer to kick about Indonesia. (Of course, there are pirates to contend with; read on.) On the southern route, cyclone season in the Indian Ocean starts up again in late October, so you need to scoot from the Pacific in July or August and get across that ocean as quickly as you can.

Beyond the Cape of Good Hope (which is anything but), it's usually a cakewalk up to the Caribbean, as the South Atlantic is the one ocean on Earth without a tropical storm season.

Photograph by Lani Bevacqua

Writer Paul Bennett got his sailor's stripes the hard way—he earned them. But you don't have to. Get a jump start on skipper wisdom by reading the full story with 20 more crucial lessons on sailing across the Atlantic in the February 2005 issue of Adventure.

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, February 2005

How to Sail Across the Atlantic: 25 easy lessons

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Related Web Sites

World Speed Sailing Record Council
Want to take on current speed champion Steve Fossett? Find out the latest achievements in round-the-world sailing.

Weather is everything on the open sea. Bookmark the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to learn about tracking weather trends.

Q&A: Confessions of a Backyard Submariner
Writer Paul Bennett's last article for Adventure was a profile on wunderkind, self-taught submarine builder Karl Stanley.

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February 2005

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