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Atlantic Crossing to the Azores

Are the Guides Wrong?


At best, they appear to now be somewhat out of date and incomplete.

If planning an Atlantic Crossing to the Azores, the guides most often consulted all pitch the same routing for departures from Bermuda or the U.S. Mid-Atlantic or Southeastern Coast.  They are:

1.  Atlantic Crossing Guide, Hammick (our 1992 edition was the latest available in Spring, 2003)

Recommends heading NE from Bermuda (or southern U.S. ports) to 38-40°N, then riding the prevailing Westerlies while saving sufficient fuel to motor SE the last 100-200 miles through the Azores High to reach the Azores

2.  World Cruising Routes, Cornell (ours was the 1998 edition)

Recommends a similar routing, leaving Bermuda and heading NNE to 40°N (or adjusting this when departing from the U.S.) and riding the prevailing Westerlies.  Cornell also mentions a rhumb line routing from Bermuda and describes it as shorter with lighter and/or no winds, headwinds, and no current, but warmer.

3.  Atlantic Islands, Hammick (ours is the 1999 edition)

While her recommended routing is similar to that in her Atlantic Crossing Guide, Hammick does in this later book acknowledge a rhumb line choice to the Azores although she cautions it is slower and may present problems for boats inadequately fueled.

These traditional views have been in vogue for many decades.  What’s changed in the last 30-40 years? Lots…



Heavier, slower boats with smaller SA/D ratios and less windward ability

Lighter, faster boats with higher SA/D ratios and more windward ability; wider selection of sails

Smaller, less reliable engines

Larger, more fuel efficient but lighter weight engines

Limited fuel tankage

More fuel tankage (not incl. vast ‘jug farms’ seen on some boats

No real-time area-specific offshore weather information available

Most boats on this route now carry SSB radio; some use weather routing services; some download wx charts and grib files; most boats receive WxFax

Limited ability by crew to read wx charts, do self-forecasting

Marginal ability but it’s improving as many wx info sources are now available on boats underway

It doesn’t take long when talking to sailors arriving in the Azores to figure out that ‘riding the Westerlies’ can present occasional  problems, in the form of harsh Lows with tough winds & seas, and especially so for short-handed crews.  Herb Hilgenberg (SOUTHBOUND II) was recently heard on his Net to say that he’s not sure why the guides read the way they do, but he finds the advice unnecessary and at times risky, since there’s plenty of wind for most boats further south…but without the same level of exposure to harsher weather.  And as one round of boats after another arrive after taking a more southerly route, usually absent tales of bad weather and punishing seas while having made decent passage times, we all begin to wonder why the Guides aren’t at least more thoroughly discussing what we can call a Southern Routing.

On our passage we “met” Klaus, an Austrian on a Norseman 44’ Cutter, on VHF about 4 days before arriving in Horta and found his explanation of all this to be worth passing on.  Mind you, Klaus has made six Atlantic Circles in the last six years, each year from inside the Med at one end to as far west as Aruba, Grand Cayman and Mexico at the other, one round-trip per year.  (If you’re wondering, this was later verified by folks we met in Horta).  As we probed him about why he was running as far south as we were while we were both closing on the Azores, he explained exactly what you see in the table above (which is how I came to write it up that way).  While talking with Klaus on VHF, he had to break several times to make sure his next weather fax download was coming in properly; he NEVER misses one, he said.  He listens to Herb, yes.  But mostly, he pays attention to the current Surface Analysis with an eye to two goals: Don’t get trapped in the High and don’t get so far North you’ll be uncomfortable.  Given most of the boats making this passage today and the on-board weather information available, both are realistic goals.  And here’s one other fact that makes Klaus’ opinion worth considering:  he’s made these passages, almost every segment of every one of them, single-handed.

Klaus final advice to us was to prowl the docks once we arrived in Horta and look for broken gear and torn sails.  “When you find them, you’ll find boats that took the traditional northern route,” was his promise.  And that’s exactly what we found after our arrival.

One final note:  If a boat was to find this Southern Routing difficult, it would be a boat like our WHOOSH.  We have a SA/D ratio with 100% fore triangle of 14, we’re heavily laden because we think we’ll be in Europe for some years and are probably carrying too much ‘stuff’, we didn’t use a light air downwind sail (although I wish we had), we’re ketch rigged so windward ability is not our forte’, there’s just the two of us, and we’ve intentionally tried to be very conservative about sail management.  Moreover, on our own passage we chose not to motor when we lacked wind.  We logged only 5 hours of motoring or motor sailing during our 16 day passage from Bermuda to Horta, Faial and, on six days, had winds of less than 10 kts for at least half the day.  And yet, we made what seems to be a decent passage averaging 120 NM per day (total GPS mileage, 1976 NM) and, far more importantly, had a great time, arrived relaxed and rested, and didn’t break anything.  And contrary to Cornell’s claim, when we had current (which was not uncommon), it was a fair one.

Some years, this Southern Route might have lighter winds while the Northern Route might be more benign.  But that’s the whole point of amending whatever traditional routing you are considering with some real-time analysis of conditions during the last week or so before you shove off.  And for monitoring conditions as they develop, then ebb and flow, during your passage.

One is left to wonder:  Did we really need to be as far north as the guides recommend in order to make it a more comfortable, safer or more satisfying passage?  Our own conclusion is that only through monitoring weather routinely would one know the optimum routing for their boat and crew, and for the seasonal conditions with which they are presented.  All of this, in our view, should be reflected in the referenced guides if they are to accurately portray the full range of choices available.


© Jack Tyler – July, 2003

WHOOSH, currently lying Horta, Faial, Azores