Tackling the trade winds
It’s one thing getting to the Americas, but an entirely different kettle of (flying) fish to get back
The classic trade wind transatlantic crossing takes advantage of the clockwise wind pattern that rotates majestically around the Azores High – the high-pressure anticyclone that resides perhaps predictably over the North Atlantic and the cluster of islands from which the system gets its name.
For centuries mariners in the northern hemisphere have taken advantage of what is effectively a watery conveyor belt in terms of both wind and current.
A notional and not entirely serious guide as to what to do popularly recommended that one headed south until the butter melted before turning right; whereupon you would be carried majestically towards the Caribbean and Americas. For example, a sailing vessel, say in the UK, starts by heading south toward the Canary Isles and allows this immense swirl to ease them towards their destination.
And this can be sailing at its most sublime. Just three years ago we crossed from the Canaries to Barbados in conditions where the word ‘comfort’ hardly does it justice. Warm winds, sparkling seas, flying fish jumping conveniently onto the barbecue, you know the sort of thing.
So much for getting there but getting back is nothing like so easy since the eastbound flow of this otherwise bountiful carousel takes place much further north where the weather isn’t quite so agreeable.
In other words, whereas sailing there is usually very pleasurable the return voyage with its assorted options can be much more challenging.
For example, many years ago I met a man who had decided to return to the UK and set off from the West
Indies to the Azores, thereby avoiding the storms of the higher latitudes. In doing so he entered the ‘Azores High’ where extended periods of calm are common.
With little fuel on board, that single leg took him nearly three months, during which time he ran out of his essential supplies and had to resort to eating the goose barnacles scraped from his hull. His family had given him up as lost.
Until recently there were few alternatives for those sailors who wanted to return to European waters but that’s no longer the case. Many owners choose to transport their boats back on cargo vessels either specially adapted or built for the purpose.
To return a 40ft monohull to the Atlantic’s eastern shore would cost about £12,000. This on the face of it, might sound expensive; but when you consider the wear and tear of the sails and rigging on an upwind thrash of perhaps 3,000 miles or so it might actually be quite a good deal. A friend whose catamaran (uninsured against damage caused by ‘named storms’) was seriously damaged in the hurricane that struck Antigua in late 2017 paid over twice that amount due to its large footprint; but that still could have been the best option.
The photograph that heads this column shows a dedicated boat transporter recently spotted alongside in Poole Harbour. As you can see, its cargo includes a magnificent J Class yacht and many other boat types, both sailing and power, monohull and multi. Apparently, it was on route from the USA and bound for Scandinavian waters, with perhaps a few stops in between.
And the trend is gaining popularity. Since boating is an essentially seasonal activity there is some merit in transporting your vessel from one chosen area to wherever else intrigues.
So, for those vessels parked on deck it’s no doubt the Baltic for tomorrow but wherever else next year?
‘For centuries mariners have taken advantage of a watery conveyor belt’
Travelling first class: a boat transporter in Poole
Monthly musings Yacht surveyor and designer Andrew Simpson cruises in his own-design 11.9m (39ft) yacht Shindig. Read his blog at www.offshore-sailor.com
Atlantic trade winds in July