10 steps to becoming an Atlantic-crossing sailor
Follow in the footsteps of Lucy Grewcock and go from novice to Atlantic sailor in less than a year.
Twelve months ago, I was a novice sailor with hardly any offshore experience – I’d learnt the basics as a kid but had never sailed on the open sea. Fast-forward to November 2016 and I found myself sailing almost 3,000 nautical miles across the Atlantic, living, sleeping and crewing on a 39ft yacht.
Journeying from Gran Canaria to the Caribbean via Cape Verde, I sailed with the 2016 ARC+ rally – an annual event that sees around 75 boats crossing the Atlantic each November. Anyone with a boat can enter, and the rally welcomes everyone from professional sailors, to families, amateurs and even dogs!
As one of three members of crew on board, I needed to be confident in following the skipper’s instructions, be able to change and trim the sails, and be fully trained in man-overboard and sea survival procedures. I also had to take on a share of the cooking, cleaning and other day-to-day duties involved in running the boat.
Twelve months before my trip, going from ‘zero to hero’ seemed like a very daunting prospect but, after a year of preparation, I set sail on November 6 and arrived in the Caribbean 27 days later.
Here’s how you could do the same:
1. Learn to sail
If you have no sailing experience at all, it’s best to start with smaller boats or ‘dinghies.’ The RYA (Royal Yachting Association) run beginner courses, which you can complete in a weekend. As a kid, I did my RYA Dinghy Sailing Level 3, which gave me a good foundation of skills, ready for sailing bigger stuff.
2. Up-skill to yacht crewing
Yacht sailing follows the same principles as dinghy sailing but on a bigger scale. You’ve also got things like radios, motors and electronic navigation to factor in. Courses aren’t essential but formal training is a good way to get the basics nailed. I joined RYA’s five-day Competent Crew course with Commodore Yachting , which covers everything from helming (steering the boat) to navigation.
3. Be committed
Before you sign-up for an Atlantic crossing, make sure it’s definitely for you. It won’t be sunset cruising and dolphin watching all the way (although that’ll hopefully be a big part of it), so you need to be prepared for stormy weather and seasickness. Find out what to expect by learning from people who have already made it across: watch Atlantic Crossing videos, search for Atlantic sailing blogs and follow Facebook pages like The Arc Rally.
4. Find a boat to crew for
The best place to find a boat you can crew for is the Crewseeker website. Enter ‘Atlantic Crossing’ and ‘Beginner/Novice’ or ‘up to Competent Crew’ in the search function to see a list of boats advertising for crew with your skill level. Most sailors will want to meet you in person before agreeing to take you on – a good idea all round, as you’ll be spending several weeks in a confined space with these folk!
5. Get on a boat
To prepare for your crossing, spend as much time on and around boats as possible. This is easier said than done if you don’t live by the sea so, if that’s the case, go back to Crewseeker and search for weekend-long ‘UK’ trips to join. Alongside sailing, I learnt a lot by spending time in Marinas and offering to help with everything from cleaning and mending, to going up the mast to inspect the rigging.
6. Prepare for the worst
If your mast breaks, the boat sinks, or you get thrown overboard in a storm, you need to know how to act in an emergency. On a Competent Crew course, you’ll learn about things like life rafts and flares but, to fully prepare for an emergency, you need to do some sea survival training. I enrolled on a Sea Survival Course in London, which combined classroom theory with emergency scenarios in a swimming pool.
7. Know your knots
Make sure you’re not faffing about with essential knots when they’re needed most – this means practicing your figures of eight, reef knots, bowlines and clove hitches until you can do them in your sleep. Other knots are a bonus and you’ll have plenty of time at sea to practice fancy things like the rat-tail stopper and monkey’s fist.
8. Reinforce the basics
Immersing yourself in books, blogs and videos is a great way to pick up tips and reinforce the basics. The Reeds Skipper’s Handbook is essential reading; the La Vagabonde video blogs are a fantastic source of inspiration; and Yachting World is good for informative articles. There’s also a stack of ocean sailing novels to get stuck into – two of my favourites are Brave or Stupid by Tracey Christiansen, and A World of my Own by Robin Knox-Johnston.
9. Take responsibility for something
During the crossing, you’ll be expected to pitch-in with everything but if there’s something you’re particularly good at or interested in, like fishing or first aid, you could volunteer to take more responsibility. There are various courses you can do to upgrade your skills in things like diesel engine maintenance and navigation, and there’s always the crucial role of provisioning the boat (buying food) and planning the meals.
10. Get the right gear
The main season for Atlantic cruising is November to March. At this time of year, you need to be prepared for all types of weather – waterproofs are essential, as are sunglasses, lots of sunblock and a hat. You’ll only have space in your cabin for a couple of t-shirts, fleeces, trousers and shorts, so make sure the clothes you take are up to the job – avoid cotton (which gets damp easily) and go for wicking fabrics that dry quickly and don’t pong as much.