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Five very different Atlantic crossing experiences

Elaine Bunting speaks to five very different crews, all of who had a very different Atlantic crossing experience during this year’s ARC

On the first night of their Atlantic crossing, a ‘dark shadow’ passed 100m away from Christian and Manuela Lücking’s boat. It was unlit and not moving. Unnerved, Christian Lücking called the Coastguard. Two hours later, the Coastguard called back asking them to return and check the vessel.

When they returned, they found a wooden fishing boat, around 10m long, with a 40hp Yamaha outboard on the back. It was deserted and empty apart from a solitary lifejacket hooked on the bow. The Coastguard concluded that it had been packed with migrants fleeing through Mauritania, and abandoned after they swam ashore to one of the Canary Islands.

Abandoned fishing boat off the Canary Islands

Shaken, the Lückings resumed their course, let draw and returned to the route being taken by the 84 crews in this year’s ARC and ARC+ rallies south-west towards St Lucia.

The Swiss couple class themselves as beginners in the realm of ocean sailing. Their Enksail Noordkaper 40, a pretty, traditional-style long keeled pilothouse cutter, custom built in steel by Dutch yard Gebroeders van Enkhuizen, was launched in 2018.

Svala is a sturdy design, beautifully fitted out, designed to take its crew anywhere in comfort. Sailing double-handed on their first Atlantic crossing, the Lückings were not seeking any dramas.

But a day later, they picked up a Mayday from a boat ahead. The skipper said they were being pursued by a small motorboat. The Lückings misheard it as ‘persuded’ and were mystified, but worked it out when another ARC yacht just ahead of them proposed turning upwind and motorsailing for four or five hours, reasoning that a small motorboat would be unable to keep up.

Both yachts did so before turning back and carrying on. Nothing further was seen or heard of the ‘pirate’ boat but the Lückings were at Code Red, though their ARC adventure had barely begun.

Rush across the Atlantic

Ian and Nia Baylis were in much more of a rush on their Atlantic crossing. Indeed, Rush is what they call their Pogo 12.50.

The Isle of Wight-based couple, who used to work as professional superyacht captain and mate, were sailing on the ARC with their two children aged 11 and 9, a friend’s 18-year-old daughter, and professional racer and solo sailor Alan Roberts.

Their stated objective was “to sail safely and get there in one piece” but Baylis says they also wanted to stretch the Pogo’s legs a bit.

“We had constructed polars on the basis of wind and sea state that were 60-65% of what the boat can do in flat conditions. And that is 200 miles a day, every day of the week if you want it. Alan and I were fairly full on with properly sailing the boat compared with a twin pole conventional bluewater boat.”

Nia and Ian Baylis sailed with family plus crew (including professional sailor, Alan Roberts, pictured) to stretch the legs of their Pogo 12.50 Rush

In the first week at sea, Rush had covered just under half the crossing. Initially, there were good, strong following winds, but then came a trough that moved from north to south in a band across the fleet, bringing strong winds and rain. Baylis recalls more than 40 knots and a night sky fissured with bolts of lightning.

As it passed it was followed by a ridge of high pressure that left the entire ARC fleet floundering. For four days, Rush “barely moved,” says Baylis. This was one of the most difficult periods of the crossing.

There is nothing serene about being becalmed on an ocean – quite the opposite. Sails slap and battens clatter painfully against the rig, the boat rolls incessantly, in a haphazard motion unlike the rhythmic, corkscrewing predictability of tradewinds running. It may be hot and airless during the day, and hard to sleep at any time. Unsurprisingly, many crews chose to motorsail, to keep some wind in the sails and hasten the transition.

The crew of Rush was determined to sail every mile of their Atlantic crossing. Baylis says they spent many hours with the main pinned hard in to stop it flogging against the rig (a downside of swept back spreaders for downwind passagemaking) and resorted to a Solent and Code 5 on a cabled luff because those held their shape better in the very light winds than their bigger A2 spinnaker.

Their 3oz Code 5, set on a furler, was the most useful sail “by a country mile”, he says. “We used that for light airs reaching all the way to VMG downwind up to 25 knots.”

When the wind came back and the tradewinds began to fill in, Rush began to tear along again. The Pogo is a yacht that likes to be sailed vigorously, and the crew was kept busy. Baylis found reefing early worked best.

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“We were reefing downwind at 12 knots as you can’t sheet out that much with swept back spreaders and you end up with a big air brake. We found she responded well and is faster with a couple of reefs in the main and either the big or little kite.”

The crossing took them 18 days and 7 hours. Baylis had noted over 130 sail changes. “We went through every sail combination,” he says. “Along the way, you have to make sure you don’t get carried away with the moment. It is tempting to send it. But, as fun as it is, you have to say ‘Let’s peel down to the small kite, go down to eight knots and have a rest’. It can be a fine line but, particularly with a following sea, you can damage the rudders. We sailed tidily and we called sail changes early.”

First timers’ Atlantic crossing

Things were more cautious for Vincent D’Avena and Kean Chung, and their families, who passed a great deal of time fishing, and got huge satisfaction from landing and cooking their catches.

The D’Avenas, from the US, decided to buy a boat and set off on an Atlantic crossing only in June, and managed to buy a Lagoon 450S whose original owner pulled out just before its launch. Vinny and Ayesha D’Avena were sailing with their two sons, aged 16 and 14, and decided to let the boys take part in single watches day and night.

“That gave them some independence and also those great moments at sea,” Vinny says. “We had a fairly delicate crossing,” he explains. “We registered in the open class and never once thought about speed.

“We didn’t want to break anything. We underpowered our sails consistently. Lagoons get a big knock for not going fast but we consistently made 61% of wind speed.”

They mostly ran with a Code 0 and jib, only occasionally hoisting the mainsail. “But actually it takes the wind out of the jib,” he explains.

“It felt like a long charter adventure. We slowed down, did a lot of swimming, and spent 16 hours one day without any sails at all just drifting and really enjoyed not trying too hard.

“We chatted and played songs on the radio, and my boys became semi-professional fishermen. We caught 18 fish including barracuda, wahoo and a tuna so big we couldn’t get it on board. It was fun.”

Vinny admits that his wife, Ayesha, didn’t enjoy the Atlantic crossing quite so much as he did. “But the entire experience has been wonderful.

“What we have learned most is it is more about the people than the places. In your 40s, it is really hard to meet new people – you’re in the same routine, going to work everyday, going to baseball practice. Here, we met 40-50 new adults and they are such great, great people. There is this deep quality about people’s conversation; there is something about your character if you are choosing to do this.”

Goliath the tuna

Fish was also on the menu aboard the Oyster 49 Kaizen. Kean and Nyree Chung and their two children, aged 11 and 7, had always intended to take fishing seriously, even conducting an experiment beforehand taking on the Atlantic crossing on the breaking strain of various lines and lures.

‘Goliath’ the tuna

It paid off – big time —when they caught a 45kg tuna. With difficulty they managed to land ‘Goliath’, despite breaking a gaff in the process, but then there was too much to eat or refrigerate. They put a call out on the radio offering some to others and made a detour to the classic yacht Peter von Seestermühe. Skipper Christophe von Reibnitz (who sails on the ARC every year), rowed over in his wooden tender to collect it.

This was the Chungs’ first ocean crossing and, Kean says, “It was what I’d hoped for, though I

Fish was frequently on the menu for the Chung family aboard their Oyster 4

expected the waves would have been bigger. It was a crossing of two halves. For the first half the wind was strong and from behind and we made a lot of progress. The second half was about strategically avoiding wind holes and we decided we would cover higher distance to avoid the calms.”

Initially, they sailed under twin headsails. “We were getting good speed. But we were like a children’s toy being dragged on a cord – the back end would wiggle and the boat fishtailed. It was uncomfortable, especially in the aft cabin, so we added some mainsail,” says Kean. “Not so much it would prompt a gybe but enough to push the mast and that brought the balance more towards the centre of the boat.”

Their heavy sails tended to collapse in very light airs, and they motored for around 60-70 hours. “We do carry a lighter weight drifter but it is only rated to 14 knots apparent and I would prefer to be safer in stronger winds and have more forgiving sails. If something went wrong we’d have to go and retrieve it and that carries much higher risk than saying it’s calm and we have to motor.”

Life change

The ARC was Chloe Need’s first crossing as the skipper of her own yacht. The 28-year-old is a former accounts manager who decided to give up a career ashore and take up sailing professionally.

Over the last four years she has taught sailing in Australia, the Caribbean, and Croatia. She has previously sailed across as crew, “But this one,” she says, “was purely for me.”

Last year, Need bought a seven-year-old former charter yacht, a Salona 44, in Croatia and fitted it out to go off sailing for the next 5-10 years. The project was expensive. “As an ex-charter boat with a bit of wear and tear I had to have full rigging work done, new spreaders and backstay, and also all the equipment for ocean sailing from lifejackets to personal AIS, and seven of everything. It has been over-budget, but you can’t cut back.”

Sunset and Chloe Need’s yacht, Moonflower 3

Of the modifications she made, adding a third reef to the mainsail proved the most valuable when they encountered a brief period of strong winds mid-Atlantic. “We’ve only used it once but it was a saviour. On the crossing we had two reefs in when the wind was getting up to 40 knots but we were struggling to slow down, even without a headsail.”

Having done an Atlantic crossing in the past, “with zero knowledge and it changed my life”, Need felt she could now give the same opportunity to someone else, particularly as an escape from lockdown. So she took a crew of six others, three women professional sailors, and three men “who had never sailed a day in their lives. So throughout the trip we were teaching them to sail.”

Reflecting on the experience, she says: “We had some skyrocket highs, like catching fish, star gazing, countless sunrises and sunsets and deep life conversations. We had some low moments like seasickness, sleep deprivation and lack of wind but the three-week rollercoaster really left its imprint on us all.

“Sailing across an ocean changes your perspective on certain things, and we’ve all become a little more patient and been reminded of the potency of teamwork and positivity.”

Humanitarian mission on an Atlantic crossing

Following a classic route of heading south ‘til the butter melts then turning right, Christian and Manuela Lücking were also enveloped by the strong winds and electrical activity in the trough. For Svala the dramas and adventures just kept coming.

“We had wind gusting more than 45 knots for eight hours, and the wind was so strong it whipped the top off the waves,” remembers Manuela. At one point, a rod of lightning cracked into the water 100m ahead.

The Lückings’ Svala is a steelbuilt Enskail Noordkaper 40

By now in their stride and confident in their super-strong boat, the Lückings simply released the headsail sheets and furled in. The long-keeled boat tracked along steadily. “It really is the perfect solution for a small crew not wishing to sail very actively,” says Christian.

“We only ever made our sails smaller or bigger depending on how fast we wanted to go, and we could go from [a wind angle of] 120° to 140° depending on the size of the waves.”

The calms that followed, though, were “torture. We couldn’t stabilise our sails, the boat was rolling, we were doing 20 miles or 30 miles a day.”

They did not want to motor as Manuela was nervous about using fuel so far out from St Lucia, so they had plenty to spare when a call came from another ARC yacht two days from the finish.

Svala was the slowest yacht in the ARC fleet, and the call came from the crew just ahead, who had so little fuel left the needle on the gauge wouldn’t lift off the stop.

The Lückings diverted but couldn’t find a way to pump fuel up from their tank to the deck filler 1.7m above. They agreed instead to take the yacht in tow and brought them the remaining 100 miles to the finish.

After letting go the tow line and hoisting their mainsail for the final short beat to the finish, the Lückings then overshot the line and had to make three tacks to get back. As they beat back they saw the boat they’d towed holding station, sportingly waiting for them to cross ahead and finish in front. Their time was 24 days and 15 minutes.

Christian Lücking keeps an eye on the vessel they towed to the finish in St Lucia

Now with thousands of miles behind them, they offer some of their experience for others. The twin headsails are “absolutely perfect” for a modest but “no stress” 120-145 miles a day in most following wind conditions.

They were unhappy with their forecasts using only the GFS model, which did not predict the winds in the mid-Atlantic trough. When their Iridium Go! stopped working, they were unable to receive the ARC forecast emails so they strongly advocate using a weather consultant.

Their watermaker did not work when the boat rolled heavily and the intake came clear of the water. In fact, this is quite a common complaint in the ARC and it is worth testing a new installation in similar conditions, if you can, before setting out.

They also noted that their eating habits altered. They weren’t seasick, but Christian says their tastes changed and they could tolerate porridge, rice cakes and soup “but not heavy food”.

Finally, the Lückings emphasise that, even with such an easy sailplan, “two is a very small crew. But we’d do the same again. The disadvantage is that there is no escape, and it is very tiring, so you should be good friends.”

The ARC was, Manuela Lücking remarks smiling broadly, “far more exciting than we expected.” As the slowest boat in fleet they certainly weren’t expecting any silverware, but they got some of that too. She holds up a large silver trophy the couple was awarded at the prizegiving, a special prize for humanitarian aid.


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