Tuesday, November 23rd: Departure and weather planning. The forecast unexpectedly improved today. Weather in the Northern Atlantic can be broadly split into two categories: hurricane season, and winter. In the former, the weather systems travel Northwest across the Atlantic, slamming into the Caribbean and Eastern United States.
But most boats like ours transit the Atlantic in winter, where the risk of tropical storms is low. Instead, the weather is dominated by a weather pattern called the Azores High. This weather system is enormous, covering most of the Atlantic in a clockwise spinning monstrosity of dry air and sunny days. Between Africa and the Caribbean, the southern edge of the rotation blows from East to West with a stiff breeze. To visualize these trade winds, put a watch face right smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic, and then the trade winds would be between 4:00 and 9:00.
Unfortunately, the Azores High decided to take the year off. Or, rather, it’s still on vacation in France. The same system that made for a fast, downwind transition from France to Portugal is still sitting tight. This means that nasty, stormy, wavy low pressure systems are wreaking havoc with the mid-Atlantic. There’s not really any trades to speak of.
The conversation about what to do has centered around the idea of take advantage of a pair of these low pressure systems — which rotate the opposite way of the Azores High, which is to say, counter-clockwise, on a watch face. If we go around the north edge of two storms, then we’ll slingshot west, and then hopefully motor through the doldrums on the other side, seeking out whatever pitiful trades work by then.
So, with our totally unorthodox crossing plan determined, we head out of safe harbor seeking a pair of angry looking storms to push us along our way.
Wednesday, November 24th: We didn’t get going quite early enough yesterday, and as a result most of the crew has had their first shifts on a cold, dark stormy night. The excitement of starting out is replaced by, at best, fatigue, and at worst “terror” as Scott says. It takes most of the night to get past the Western edge of Madeira, seeking out the windy air to the West. We found them, and then pushed WNW, getting out into the Atlantic. The power of these storms becomes immediately obvious, as winds peak 30 knots, and the waves build. And build. And build. By midday, the entire crew is exhausted from relentlessly bouncing around in three to four meter waves.
We dial back the sail plan, getting to a bare minimum of 3rd reefed mainsail, combined with our handkerchief of a storm sail on the front. We hunker down for the night.
Thursday, November 25th: The weather is changing. The Azores High has finally decided to move South. This is great news for the 2nd half of the trip, once we hit the trade winds, but is going to make the short term brutal. The Azores High is a giant. As it begins stomping down the coast, it pushes up against the Northern edge of the low pressure system that we’ve been riding. Since the South edge of a high pressure system blows from East to West, and the North end of a low pressure system also goes East to West, the winds combine. Swells build from a barely manageable 4-meters to a much harrier 6- and even 7-meter monstrosities.
But the crew seems in good spirits. Mail from home that Guy had tucked away makes for a heartwarming Thanksgiving day feast. We’re still just hunkered down and pushing through, but we can see that the storm systems we have been riding through are diminishing, and soon we’ll have clear skies and strong winds, pushing us South and West.
We’re at 34.15 N and 22.21 W. 30+ knots of wind, 10-15ft waves, topping out at 14 knts boat speed, and sunny. We have 3 reefs in our mainsail to keep from being overpowered.
Friday, November 26th: Rainy. Windy. Mostly sucks.
Saturday, November 27th: The sun came out today. Finally. Lots of zombiesque basking in the sun, recharging batteries. This followed by dozing in too-hot bunks, just letting the day slip away. Pretty magical way to spend a day. No news in or out, just being present and sailing. Nothing more and nothing less.
Saturday, November 28th: Everybody woke up today. The combination of sunny skies, acclimation to the constant motion, and a better sleep schedule finally worked. Instead of hunkering down in the cabins crew are up and about chatting and having fun.
I’m a bit worried about the food situation. Just 5 days in, and we’re finding most of our fresh food is rotting. Exposure to the damp air puts mold growth on hyper charge. A few unfortunate splashes of saltwater got into one of the bilges and wreaked havoc with our carrots and oranges. We’re going to run out of fresh veggies in a couple days, and then it’s mostly cheese and bread. Canned food is about 5-6 days out. Yuck.
With everyone better rested, the dwindling fresh food is all the more reason for me to push for family dinner tonight — put on the autopilot, ease the sails, and take an hour off to eat and hang out for a couple hours.
What’s Next for Pommes Frites?
By the time you are reading this, the crew and I have landed in Puerto Rico, prepared the boat to rest for the winter, and rejoined our families. As I reflect back on this epic experience, I recognize a few things:
- I am extremely grateful for my crewmates who trusted me and shared with me something epic. There were lots of vulnerable conversations, naked laughter, and raw exhaustion. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
- The ocean is vast beyond our comprehension. Going 8 days without seeing another human, no other boats within a 25-mile radius, confirmed the indescribable size of the ocean.
- I am so very proud! I crossed an ocean on a sailboat! With 8 friends. And I kept everyone safe. Heck yeah!
The next adventure has yet to be decided, but we are putting together a multi-part web series documenting our 15 days trekking across the Atlantic. This will include raw interviews with the crew, amazing drone footage, and the many joys and trials of the journey.