How to sail across the Atlantic and back

Confined to quarters during the pandemic, many sailors are itching to slip their lines and sail for the sun. Elaine Bunting explains exactly how to break free and sail across the Atlantic and back

How to sail across the Atlantic and back

Just as the island of Hiddensee drew across the wake of the boat, Malin Andersson took up her camera and shot a video.

When she looks at it now, a late summer scene from the Baltic coast of Germany, she remembers it as the instant she knew for certain she was right to think of leaving work to go cruising.

Malin and her partner Kaj Maass, both from Sweden and aged in their late twenties, met as students and formed a plan to take a year off before starting a family.

After years of scrimping, they bought a Bavaria 38 and renamed her Cross Ocean.

With the last tiny island of a summer cruise behind them, they began to prepare to sail across the Atlantic and back, and a year of adventure.

‘From then, we have never had a moment of regret about setting off,’ she says.

Each year, hundreds of yachtsmen of all ages sail across the Atlantic.

Some have only a few months of freedom, others plan to cruise indefinitely.

Their ambitions shape diverse choices in terms of boat design and preparations.

Here, we look at some of the biggest considerations if that is your goal, too.

What’s the right boat to sail across the Atlantic?

A good place to start might be with the question: can I sail across the Atlantic and back in the yacht I have now?

In most cases, the answer is yes.

Almost any well-prepared yacht of 30ft and upwards can tackle the downwind crossing, and indeed there is no reason why an even smaller boat can’t do it successfully.

People have crossed in Folkboats; the legendary American sailor Webb Chiles sailed across the Pacific in a converted 24ft dayboat, and some masochistic adventurers have crossed oceans in micro yachts not even long enough for them to stretch out in.

Two sailors I have repeatedly met over the years are Swedes Pekka and Barbro Karlsson.

They first crossed the Atlantic in 1986 in their 32ft Arvid Lauren-designed double-ender, Corona AQ.

A woman and two men sitting on the deck of their yacht

Pekka and Barbo Karisson have sailed their 32ft double ender across the Atlantic multiple times over 30 years. Credit: World Cruising Club

Over the last 30 years, they have made multiple crossings back and forth, observing boats getting ever larger, even of the same LOA as theirs.

By comparison, theirs is dwarfed in every dimension, including beam and freeboard, yet it has everything this experienced couple need for living on board for six or more months every year.

So, really, it is a matter of cost, preference and expectation.

The big question is whether your current yacht is the best tool for the job given your budget.

Is it large enough for the crew you intend for longer passages, for the provisions, fuel and water?

A 35-footer might take 25-28 days to sail across the Atlantic from the Canaries to the West Indies.

Obviously, the longer and faster your boat is, the more stowage and water tankage you will have for less time at sea.

You might also ask yourself which parts of the adventure are the most valuable to you.

You will need a solid yacht to sail across the Atlantic

A solid yacht set up for bluewater cruising is a good option and can be sold once you return home. Credit: Tor Johnson

If you don’t intend to do the more arduous return home to Europe, maybe you don’t need a bigger, more expensive, more complex long-legged bluewater cruiser; you could consider shipping back – more
on that option later.

If you intend to live on board for longer, then perhaps you will want more space, including for guests, greater comforts and faster passage times.

In that case, one solution might be to buy for the duration of the project a second-hand bluewater cruiser already well kitted out with the right gear, then sell her right afterwards.

‘I think that makes total sense,’ says Sue Grant, managing director of Berthon International, the well-known brokers specialising in bluewater cruisers.

‘The best thing you can do for a North Atlantic circuit is to buy from the guy who had the dream, had the money and didn’t go. A refit will always cost you more than you think.’

For a two- to three-season transocean cruise, Grant advocates stretching up to your next level, especially to a yacht that doesn’t need a big refit and brands with a strong residual value.

‘If you buy a high-quality Hallberg-Rassy or an Oyster then sell it you’d lose 10% of value but have three years for it.’

Buy a boat you will enjoy

While in the Azores in 2012 I met Stuart and Anne Letton, who were sailing their Island Packet 45, Time Bandit, back to the UK.

Their boat was brimming with sensible ideas for living aboard and I have kept in touch with them over the years as they are a wonderful source of thoughtful advice.

Since then they have sold the Island Packet, bought an Outremer 51 catamaran, sailed across the Atlantic again, and are presently in Indonesia having sailed across the Pacific.

In total, they have now logged a very impressive 60,000 miles.

A couple on the trampoline of their catamaran

Catamarans are increasingly popular thanks to their speed and space. Credit: Stuart & Anne Letton

‘Before we went cruising, I spent a lot of time looking at what would be the best, safest mode of transport. I wanted a proven, tough, sturdy, bombproof ocean cruiser, hence Time Bandit [the Island Packet], the “Beige Battleship”,’ says Stuart.

‘Having spent my sailing career racing performance dinghies and keel boats, this was something of a departure for me. It was safe. And a bit boring. However, the reality is you all end up in the same place, give or take a few days. With reflection, though, I’d say, buy a boat that will make you happy, one that reflects your sailing style and capabilities. We opted for slow but safe and used the safe features a handful of days in 10 years. Those were years we could have been enjoying more rewarding sailing.

‘Buy what you will enjoy, can afford and are able to keep running. Do the maths on running costs, rig, insurance and repairs, and work that into the budget.’

Asked about their ideas of the ideal size for a couple, the Lettons comment: ‘Generally I’d say bigger is better, but the costs are exponential. Personally, for two up, I think around 40-45ft feet is a good size: big enough to be safe and comfortable, small enough to manage.’

Tips on how to sail across the Atlantic from Stuart & Anne Letton

The couple own the Outremer 51, Time Bandit and have completed four Atlantic crossings and sailed 60,000 miles

Stuart and Anne Letton

Stuart and Anne Letton.

‘Being very well set up for dead downwind sailing is important, especially well thought-out preventers, fore and aft on the spinnaker pole and main boom.

‘An asymmetric or spinnaker will keep you moving in lighter air.

‘Save on gas with a Thermal Cookpot and get as much free power from water and sun as you can.

‘Trade in your trusty CQR or Bruce anchor for a spade or similar “new technology” anchor.

Is a bigger boat better for crossing the Atlantic?

Like the Lettons, I think 40-45ft is something of a sweet spot, offering the volume and tankage required for longer cruising, yet still manageable by a small crew.

Bigger has its advantages, even up to 55ft (above that the loads become too large to handle manually and maintenance is a massive chore for a family crew, requiring significant time and budget).

The waterline length and extra speed will be your friend, most of the time.

Speed is your ally in evading bad weather, and if you are sailing to a schedule.

A yacht anchored in a bay with a palm tree

The Witt family sailed around the world as part of the World Cruising Club World ARC

Karsten Witt and his wife, Sheila, circumnavigated in the World ARC in their X-55 Gunvør XL, and he says: ‘It was hardest work for the smaller or slower boats. They are at sea longer, therefore experience more and sometimes harder weather, arrive later in port, get more tired and have less time to make repairs and bank downtime.

‘I would always go for a modern boat that’s faster,’ he adds.

‘If you had a heavy 40ft cruiser you would miss weather windows. Other boats spend days battling headwinds because they were doing 6-7 knots upwind and they couldn’t point. We averaged 200 miles a day every day, so in five days were a long way away and in completely different weather.’

But you certainly don’t need a large or expensive yacht, just a well-prepared one.

Starting with the basics: safety gear, fire and gas installations, good sails with deep reefs, in date and inspected rig, winches and all machinery serviced, and power and battery systems upgraded if necessary, plus full inspection of keel fastenings and rudder, skeg and bearings.

After that, you really need to know how everything on board works, how you’d repair or service it and, if you can’t, how you would manage without.

A crew on a yacht about to sail across the Atlantic on the ARC

Karsten and Sheila Witt and family enjoyed the extra pace and comfort of their X-55. Credit: World Cruising Club

Only after considering that is it worth adding complexity.

Multiple power generation systems, including hydro-generator and solar panels, watermakers, diesel generators and WiFi networks.

Mark Matthews is marine surveyor who ran Professional Yacht Deliveries for 12 years, a company that moves around 200 yachts and averages 350,000 miles a year.

When he made his own Atlantic crossing, it was in a 42ft production yacht.

‘We kept the original sail plan and sails and did not have a generator or other means of charging the batteries apart from the engine. We took bottled water to supplement the on-board tankage. We only invested in a secondhand satellite phone, jerrycans for additional fuel, fishing tackle, wind scoops for the West Indies and provisions for the crossing. We crossed from the Canaries to the West Indies in 17 days,’ he explains.

But if you are looking at a boat for the way back to Europe or outside the downwind routes of the tropics, maybe you should look at more conservative, heavier displacement types, he suggests.

A yacht for a one-way voyage?

The downwind Tradewinds crossing can really be tackled in any well-prepared boat large enough for your crew, so one way to look at an Atlantic circuit is to weigh up first how you feel about the way back home, and factor that into the cost equation.

A growing number of sailors spend the winter season in the sun, or several consecutive seasons between periods of work, then ship their boat back.

This on-off cruising lifestyle could be compatible with some remote working, so while extremely expensive in itself, shipping represents a trade-off that could be worth considering.

A yacht being craned onto a transporter ship

You may find a smaller boat adequate, especially if you are shipping it home. Credit: Neville Hockley

Minus requirements dictated by the longer, more windward crossing back home, perhaps you could go in a ‘one-way/downwind-only/island-hopping’ boat option.

That could be a much smaller boat, a lighter, simpler or more performance-orientated yacht.

A one-way voyage involves relatively short times at sea, possibly three weeks at most, and you might be able to manage without spending a fortune on equipment.

This year, Peters & May will be loading from Antigua, St Lucia and Martinique and have ships going into the Med, Southampton and other North Sea or Baltic ports.

Michael Wood, general manager of Peters & May, quotes typical prices of US$10,200 for a 32-footer and US$21,600 for a 41-footer.

Unlike a delivery service, shipping saves on the wear and tear from an Atlantic crossing, so is also something to weigh up.

Ready to go?

Typically, getting ready to go off for an Atlantic circuit or more needs a two- to three-year runway.

I have met people who have done it much quicker – I recently met an American family who only decided to go cruising last June and were in the Canary Islands with a brand new catamaran in November – but it is stressful, and you risk sailing away with a long list of warranty work needed, and jobs lists incomplete.

It might take most of a year to choose, trial and select the right boat, then you could spend the next year sailing from your home port, preparing, fitting new gear, testing and sea trialling everything and upping your knowledge level.

Kaj Maass and Malin Andersson, an engineer and a pre-school teacher respectively, bought their Bavaria 38 Cross Ocean in 2016 for €80,000 and lived on board for a summer and winter to increase their savings.

Provision on yacht ahead of the crew left to cross the Atlantic

You’ll need space to store enough food for the crew – though choice in foreign ports may be limited. Credit: Kaj Maass & Malin Andersson

‘You don’t have to set off for several years right away, you could make the adventure in smaller parts,’ says Kaj.

‘We met several sailors who sailed for a couple of months, left the boat, flew back home, and continued later on. We adjusted upgrades, the time frame for the adventure, and saved during our day-to-day lives before setting off.’

Do make sure everything you fit for your cruise is well-tested and problems ironed out before you set out to sail across the Atlantic.

If you buy a new boat, expect lots of snagging.

Sorry to say it, but yards tend to put switches, filters and so on in silly places, and because yachts have relatively low volume sales, information about fitting or installation problems can take a while to circle back and be corrected.

Some cruisers decide to replace their engine for peace of mind before leaving to cross the Atlantic

Kaj and Malin replaced their engine for peace of mind. Credit: Kaj Maass & Malin Andersson

If you leave before inevitable glitches are corrected, you could spend days arguing with the boatbuilder or manufacturer about who is responsible and how they are going to get spare parts to you.

This quickly rubs the nap off a dream cruising life.

A year of home-range cruising will also allow you to gain all the knowledge and training you need, which should include essential maintenance know-how and medical and sea survival training (people tend to rave about the latter, interestingly).

It will also allow you time to prepare a manual about your boat, with info and serial numbers and specs of everything on board, which will pay you back handsomely if you need advice or spares.

Tips on how to sail across the Atlantic from Kaj Maass & Malin Andersson

The couple own the Bavaria 38, Cross Ocean and have sailed from Sweden to the Caribbean and back via the Azores

A woman raised a flag on a yacht at the end of crossing the Atlantic

Malin hoists a courtesy flag as their Bavaria 38 makes landfall in St Lucia. Credit: Kaj Maass & Malin Andersson

‘You do not need that much. Less equipment equals fewer breakages.

‘We would never go without a windvane and we are definitely pleased with having a centre cockpit boat, which keeps you safe and dry in the centre of the boat, though the master cabin is worthless at sea.’

When to go

Go with the kids

There has been a big upswing in families taking a year or 18 months out from normal lives, to return later.

This seems to coincide with that point in an established, stable career where a sabbatical is possible, there is enough money to buy a boat for a special project, parents are healthy and the kids are not yet in the run up to major exams.

Most often, the sailing families I meet have children aged between five and 12.

A family on the deck of their yacht before they left to cross the Atlantic

Crossing an ocean with a family is entirely feasible. The Paterson family took part in the 2018 ARC on their Moody 471. Credit: World Cruising Club/James Mitchell

The obvious rewards for children spending every day with their mum and dad have to be weighed against the considerable extra work and commitment, though I have yet to meet a parent who regretted it.

In 2019, Russell and Kate Hall sailed across the Atlantic in their Hallberg-Rassy 46 with their boys, Hugo, 8, and Felix, 6.

‘Somebody said to us that living with kids on a boat for a year is like living on land with them for four years,’ Kate laughs.

‘It can be quite draining but it’s also part of the reason why we are doing this, so it’s the yin and yang.

School lessons kept the children from getting too bored during the crossing

Additional crew can help with sailing and school when you sail across the Atlantic. Credit: Erin Carey

‘There are jobs that require both of us and you have to rely on the children to keep themselves safe at times. They sleep really well on board and they go to bed at sunset and wake at sunrise, then they’re full of beans. You might not have had much sleep. It takes a while to adjust.’

The Halls concentrated on the basics of English and maths, and then tailored history or geography or science projects around places they were visiting.

This seems to work for most families.

Schools will usually provide a curriculum plan for time out, and there are a lot of distance learning and ‘school in a box’ courses for homeschooling children, such as Calvert and Oak Meadow.

‘My advice would be to be easy on yourself,’ advises Kate Hall.

Two children with a half way sign to mark the half way point of an ocean crossing

Celebrating milestones can help bolster a young crew’s morale when you sail across the Atlantic. Credit: Erin Carey

‘We started with five hours’ schooling a day and then reduced that to two-and-a-half. Chill and relax; it all works out. There are always things to learn.’

If you are planning to sail across the Atlantic with kids, look at taking on extra hands to help with the sailing.

Also consider joining the ARC rally where in port you share a pontoon with all the other family boats so there are lots of other kids of different ages for yours to socialise with, as well as an organised daily kids club.

The friendships made between adults and children also often shape later cruising plans.

Seasons and routes to sail across the Atlantic

If you are planning on sailing across the Atlantic, don’t leave it too late to set off across Biscay – late August or September is pushing your luck from a weather point of view.

Ideally, make the most of the summer cruising opportunities travelling south through France, Spain and Portugal – these could be among the best parts of the trip.

Annually, the ARC rally leaves the Canary Islands in November, the ARC+ heading for Mindelo in Cape Verde first, and the ARC direct to St Lucia.

This is so that crews can be in the Caribbean for Christmas.

A yacht set up with a preventer on the sail

White sails can make a solid downwind sail plan if well set up with preventers and guys

It is early in the season for Tradewinds, though, and you may have to be prepared for a trough, a front, or calms – or all three – on the way across unless you wait until January.

Whether you cross early or not, my own personal preference would be to go via Cape Verde.

It’s a fascinating archipelago and culture, a place to re-provision or make repairs, and it breaks up the crossing.

It lengthens the time away and overall distance, as Mindelo is 800 miles south- west of the Canaries, but the leg south into ‘butter melting’ latitudes will then put you into almost guaranteed Trades, even in November.

From the Caribbean, you can then sail up to Florida via the Bahamas, or the US East Coast, or return to Europe via the Azores.

Routes for sailing across the Atlantic

The routes to sail across the Atlantic and back. Credit: Maxine Heath

For the return to Europe, most cruisers generally strike out from Tortola in the British Virgin Islands or St Maarten, both good for provisioning, spares, chandlery and repairs, or head up to Bermuda and wait for a springboard forecast for Horta.

From here, crews will again wait to pick their timing to head across to Spain or Portugal or up to the UK.

According to Jimmy Cornell, author of World Cruising Routes, as early as March and as late as mid-May there are reasonable chances of favourable south-easterly and south-westerly winds on leaving the Eastern Caribbean.

The advice he offers is to track north-easterly towards the Azores and stay south of 30°N until 40°W.

For cruisers a southerly route is generally the preferable passage to choose, staying south of the Gulf Stream in lighter winds and taking on extra fuel and motoring if conditions deem necessary.

How much will it cost to sail across the Atlantic and back?

Cruising costs will depend on how you wish to live while cruising.

If you want to spend time in marinas, eat out regularly, hire cars, take tours and fly home occasionally, obviously that will be different to a more self-contained life on board at anchor.

As a guide, we asked Swedish couple Kaj and Malin to add up their costs to prepare for their trip and during the 14-month sabbatical.

A yacht at anchor in an anchorage

Costs will be much lower where you can stay at anchor rather than berth in a marine. Credit: Kaj Maass/Malin Andersson

‘The budget for our trip was €80,000 to buy the boat, and €30,000 of upgrades,’ Kaj says.

The upgrades included a new engine, new standing rigging, a Hydrovane and satellite communications.

They dropped the rudder and the keel and reinforced the area around it.

Of the total budget, around €10,000 was spent on safety equipment.

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Their cruising costs were around €2,500 a month for the two of them, averaging out the most expensive parts of the journey from Sweden to the Canary Islands, when harbour fees were costing around €40 a night.

This would cover some eating out ashore and car rental for tours.

Over the longer term, a good rule of thumb is to allow 20% of the cost of your boat for running repairs to cover antifouling, sail replacement, servicing and, if you are leaving your boat to return home, you’ll need to factor in haul-out, storage and hurricane tie-downs.

If you plan to buy a boat, sail it back and sell it right after your trip, however, you may be able sidestep some ongoing costs.

Cutting the cord

Maybe you don’t have to wait until retirement to go cruising.

There is a strong argument for taking a career break (or breaks) and working for longer if necessary as it spreads the cost and reduces the risk of the big adventure never happening.

Two yachts with white sails sailing

Additional offwind sails, like a furling Code 0, can keep the boat moving in light airs for more enjoyable sailing and to save fuel. Credit World Cruising Club

Around half of the people I meet on transatlantic rallies are taking sabbaticals and intending to return to the same post, or have quit a job.

Both options have become quite acceptable, and in some professions and countries sabbaticals are actively encouraged as a retention incentive.

‘Tell the world you are leaving,’ advises Kaj Maass.

‘Make sure you create some pressure on yourself to realise your dream. Involve your employer early on in the planning process. A modern employer will understand and respect your decision to explore the world and live out your dreams, maybe they even see a long-term benefit from the knowledge and experience you will gain from it and you can [negotiate] a leave of absence.’

A satellite phone on the deck of yacht

Satellite comms add a level of safety and keeping in touch but can be costly. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Those running a business may bring in a trusted general manager or step up a family member while they are away.

Keeping tabs on business while away is possible (though it can be expensive in satellite data) but it’s not something that generally works well on a day-to-day basis.

You do need to be able to cut the ties to enjoy cruising, not least because the cruising life comes with its own workload, from maintenance to laundry.

A man carrying out maintenance on his yacht

Long-distance cruising comes with its own workload and maintenance. Credit: Kaj Maass/Malin Andersson

‘Trying to mix work and pleasure compromises both,’ says Stuart Letton.

Before setting out, the Lettons brought their son in to run their web-based business supplying global brands with customisable marketing material.

‘While our business was under new management, it was still a struggle for me to let go. I can remember sitting in WiFi cafés from Spain to the Galapagos trying to blend cruising with work and, while it helped my conscience, I doubt the effort did much for work or cruising.

‘That’s not to say it isn’t possible. With good WiFi and satellite connections you really can work pretty much anywhere. But if you don’t need to, I’d cut the ties, burn the bridges and go. If you need to work, fine,
just get your management team in place, communication systems properly set up and resourced, and go.’

Two yachts anchored in St Lucia

It helps to set a deadline so you can realise your dream and sail across the Atlantic. Credit: Kaj Maass/Malin Andersson

However you plan to break free, what really helps is a deadline: a date that you are going set off, with a scene you can visualise to keep you motivated as you work through the preparations and demands of shore life.

Most preparations are really just logistics, and you’re probably already pretty good at that.

The bigger obstacle is often mustering the courage to leave.

I often hear cruisers describe hassles – one described cruising as the act of sailing from one place where you couldn’t get something fixed to another where you hoped you would – yet when I ask for their best advice it usually boils down to a simple prescription: just go.

Kaj Maass said exactly that when I asked him that question.

‘Just do it. Life is too short not to live out your dreams.’

To rally or not?

This is entirely a personal choice.

Advantages of the ARC, which is the best organised and biggest, are great seminars, preparation information and tools.

It’s also an ideal way to meet lots of fascinating, like-minded people, and is agreed to be good value despite costs.

It also gives you a departure date to hold yourself too.

The ARC fleet leaving the Canary Islands

For a first taste of ocean sailing, it can be reassuring and fun to join a rally to sail across the Atlantic, like the ARC. Credit: James Mitchell/World Cruising Club

Plus is has good parties and entertainment on tap to keep crew happy.

The cons would be its early crossing date for the Tradewinds season, large fleet size (though check out ARC+, which is smaller) or if you just want to be low-key and go it alone.

The Viking Explorers rally is one alternative, but not many others still run.

If you do your own thing, you will still find a wonderful cruising community anywhere cruisers other, and there is fantastic support across the world for independent voyaging through the Ocean Cruising Club.

Preparations for sailing across the Atlantic  – the basics

While in no way a comprehensive list of preparations, here are some jumping off points to think about when planning your voyage:

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