Sailing the Atlantic Ocean or should I put, instead, sailing through horrifying squalls on the Atlantic? My body tightened into a ball even though I was still upright. The saloon was tossed dramatically over to the left. With a couple red night-lights painting the scene I witnessed latched doors open, previously secured items fly through the air and buckets of water hit the top and sides of the boat. Was it rain or was it sea? Probably both. When the lightening lit up the skies I could see the tops of massive whitecaps being blown horizontal in the wind.
As I listened to our crew member, Ryan, yell from the cockpit, “48…52…55…59… and coming from the northwest,” I quickly deduced that he was assisting Simon with the local on-the-spot weather report. Unfortunately our local weather wasn’t anything like the forecast.
But that’s what sailing the Atlantic Ocean is like – it’s unpredictable.
“The wind is changing Simon. It’s moving to the southwest!” I then heard Simon scramble to pull the main sail in and then release it to the other side. Simon’s aim was to put our mainsail in line with the wind to avoid a knock-down. He wasn’t quick enough. The boat slammed from the left over to the right (starboard) side. A few more items were added to those that had already flown through the saloon.
All I could hear was Ryan calmly describing the facts and explaining what the radar was showing. There was an air of nerves in his voice but to my surprise he kept cool. All I could think was, ‘poor Ryan – this first experience of ocean sailing might be the last for him. After years of sailing I was terrified so I couldn’t imagine how he felt.’
I also heard the roar of the engine, the whooshing of the sea being pushed off our hull and the wind howling an angry song.
And then there was the periodic ‘CRASH’ when the bow hit a wave rather than rode it. Every time I heard the crash my muscles tightened more, my stomach turned and I felt as if a bit of my body broke.
Added to the red night-lights were flashes of lightening from every direction. I tried not to contemplate a lightening strike to the boat. No – that was too much to consider. Instead, I sat in the saloon watching the boat being tossed around like a beach ball being passed over an angry crowd at a hard rock concert.
This was squall 14 out of 16 and it hit us at 4am in the morning a couple days away from our destination.
Our journey was taking us from Bermuda to Charleston and we estimated it to take around five days. In the end, we finally arrived in South Carolina after ten days with a short diversion to Wilmington, North Carolina. We couldn’t get to Charleston – the wind and gulf stream pushed us north. And with using our fuel to power through the squalls we were running the risk of not having enough diesel.
Interestingly, when we crossed the entire Atlantic Ocean from Africa to St Lucia (Caribbean) we only had three squalls in 18 days. None of the squalls were remotely as bad as the one’s we encountered on our 800 mile Bermuda to Charleston trip.
The first few squalls where bad but over time we started to get more comfortable with them.
As soon as I saw one on the horizon, I (or one of us) immediately pulled in our headsails and prepared to release our boom to spill any wind hitting our mainsail. I also prepared to turn the engine on so that we could motor through the storm giving us a tiny bit more control over the boat. For the entire duration of the trip, we kept two reefs in our mainsail.
Reefing a sail is the term used when sailors reduce the amount of sail that’s up. On our sail we have three reefing points. The first point reduces the sail a bit, the second a bit more and when you have three reefs there’s barely any sail up.
Why keep any sail up at all in such harsh conditions?
The mainsail actually helps to stabilize the boat. Even in terrible storms we’ve found it better to keep some of the sail up rather than no sail. Without the main the boat really get’s tossed all over the place.
The squall described above was named Olivia. When our twelfth squall hit we decided to name it Liam after Ryan’s son. The next was Madison, our daughter’s middle name. Liam wasn’t too bad. Madison was worse but the one above was yet to come. Before Olivia we had Nice.
The four of us couldn’t do anything to change the situation.
We downloaded weather reports every six hours but the forecasts were nothing like the weather we were experiencing. Our friends, Ron and Mercedes, were sending us any intel they thought might help.
We saw high winds north of us so we went south…it didn’t matter. The forecast displayed 20-knot winds and we had constant 35-knot winds. We just had to deal with it. And naming the squalls made us all laugh.
And when we weren’t laughing I think we were all cursing the Atlantic Ocean.
The last 24 hours were calm. We still had the Atlantic swell, or big waves spread apart, but the squalls were over. The wind, unfortunately, was straight on our nose making it impossible to sail so we had to motor. After a dipstick fuel check Simon deduced that we couldn’t make it to Charleston. We diverted to Wilmington, North Carolina.
Thankfully we knew the area and the marina well. After a four hour trip up the Cape Fear River we easily moored up on the outer wall of Port City Marina. The previous year we spent a couple weeks at the marina so it was nice to be somewhere familiar. Furthermore, out of all the marina’s we’ve been to (100’s) Simon and I are in agreement that the Port City Marina offers the best service. We give them five stars and thank them for making us feel wanted and comfortable.
Unfortunately, Britican experienced a bit of damage.
And things that were already broke (leaks) got way worse. Here’s my list of damages:
- Alternator bolt sheered off
- Leak in forward berth had water pouring in
- Our daughter’s bedroom had water coming in. We believe that there’s a serious issue with the teak deck above her bedroom
- All the ties that held our unused halyards (ropes coming down from the mast) broke at the same time sending loose halyards flying through the air
- The outboard crane fell off! It’s the crane that pulls the outboard onto our deck from the dinghy. We had to sail with the outboard on the dinghy in the davits the whole way – not ideal
- The engine developed an oil leak
- The bimini waterproofing failed
- And the big one…one of the batons on the main sail broke through the cart and pushed forward past the mast. The baton stayed attached to the sail and proceeded to rub against the carbon fiber mast causing damage. We don’t know how bad the damage is yet but it’s looking highly likely that Britican has to come out of the water and the mast has to come down
Sure, we could have waited for more favorable weather to make the Bermuda to Charleston passage but our trip could have been far worse. As I write this there’s a hurricane crossing the path we took! A hurricane with 65 knots constant.
During our trips I often take notes on my iPhone to remind me of our passage. Here’s what I wrote:
Day 1 – Sailing the Atlantic
Left around 9am. Took Phaia Bombers, Pedialyte and ate an anti-nauseous Anchor Bar. Got main up in Harbor. Reefing lines fine. Said goodbyes. Got out to sea. Rough and windy. Put 2 reefs in. Sienna and Simon puked. Very lumpy.
Water in forward cabin. Water in Sienna’s cabin. Smell of Diesel. Sandwiches for lunch. Flying fish. Took forever for land to disappear. Deep indigo sea with bright white crests. No squalls. Motored for a long time then sailed.
High winds most of the day…over 30 knots. Tropical Storm Emily off east coast downgraded to depression. Shepard’s pie for dinner. Yum. Sailed until 1am. Hit no wind then wind on our nose.
Squall. Ryan and I pulled in headsail and motored till three. Stared sailing again. I tried to sleep downstairs. No luck. Smell and heat. Started to feel seasick for the first time. Slept in the cockpit. Woke every time the boat tipped too far over and had to prevent a fall. Often wondered if I’d fail to wake up in time?!
Day 2 – Sailing the Atlantic
Sienna still puking. Woke to see Simon doing the watch and then again for Ryan. Then I woke for good when the sun came up. Reefed in the headsail…30 to 40 knots of wind again! Eventually I asked Simon to heave too. I needed a break, had to go to the bathroom and thought it might help Sienna. I took a Stergeron seasickness pill.
Looked at the Gribs forecast and they show high winds all the way across! I asked Simon to gel the staysail out. Motored for a bit. Then sailed with headsail reefed. 28 knots of wind. Got a small bit of anti nausea pill in Sienna. She puked it up but think some got in her.
She went to sleep. Discovered tropical storm Emily is totally gone now so that’s good. Tell that to the sea! I keep telling myself I will never sail more than a day or two, at most, again. Feeling okay but not great and poor Sienna. No more long sails.
Can’t escape the sun. I have a sarong tied to spray hood with my feet anchoring it down. I’m hot, don’t feel great and the boat is all over the place.
Hit a terrible storm. 50 knots. Main reefed x2 and spilled. Staysail up… It Survived. After 15min of sustained winds went to take sail down. Sim and I had a massive blow out. He put boat into wind. I went to pull main in…it jammed. I almost lost fingers. Had to steer with 45 knots hitting boat. Couldn’t hold the steering wheel. Sienna kept telling me I was doing s great job. Sim and Ryan at front. Halyards all came loose. Staysail went down. I told sim I’d never sail with him again.
I slept for something like 6 hrs. Had huge bowl of chili. Sienna stayed in bed. Every time she woke up she was in great spirits.
Got up did night watch with Ryan 9 to 12. Perfect sail 8.5 and calm seas. And then a squall. Looked like we were sailing into a black cave. Pitch black. Got headsail in just in time. Spilled main. Heavy rain. High winds didn’t last too long. I was scared again. Lightening. Pitch black. It eventually ended.
I went to bed when sim came on at midnight. They didn’t wake me up for the 3am watch.
Day 3 – Sailing the Atlantic
Took me ages to get up. Headache. Laid about all day. Motored and sailed. Oil leaking but not too bad. Simon not happy at all. Just in general.
Played my crosswords game a lot. And rumikup – 3 games. Frozen pizza for lunch. Chicken curry for dinner. Sim made Sienna and I breakfast in bed – Porridge.
Had around 3 squalls during the night. Ryan and I saw a white rainbow made by the Moon!!! Words can’t describe how amazing it was.
Simon kept getting the sails out and then five minutes later a squall would hit.
Ryan and I started pulling sails in on sight of a squall. We’d then sit by the main sheet prepped to let it out.
Day 4 – Sailing the Atlantic
Hard waking up. Had no pills yesterday. Felt my ears starting to block.
Got up and looked at the grib. Looked scary. Reds all the way to Charleston. Headed south.
After looking at the forecast and seeing our first squall I took another Phaia Bomber seasick pill. I can feel my ears staring to plug.
Had two squalls and started naming them. The first named squall was our 12th called Liam. The 13th was Madison. It was bad. 58.9 knot wind for ten minutes and the 40 knots for about 20 minutes.
Surprisingly Sienna played on the iPhone. Simon and Ryan cracked some jokes. I silently prayed.
When we see a squall we instantly take our headsail in.
Olivia was horrific. She hit around 4am. Went up to 60 knots. The boat was crashing side to side. The high winds lasted 15 minutes. I sat at the table and felt somewhat numb. I thought that it only takes one thing to fail and the rig can come down. The lightening was vicious.
When it got really bad Simon started laughing.
Day 5 – Sailing the Atlantic
Diverted to Wilmington, North Carolina. I woke up feeling great. The sea had reduced AND I knew that land was close. Heard over the satellite link that my mom and step-dad were going to meet us at the marina! Being able to see them put a smile on my face.
Make sure to watch the video I created about our last few days in Bermuda and sailing the Atlantic Ocean. The video shows preparation, sightseeing and squalls! Watch it here: Sailing The Atlantic Ocean Video And then check out Part 2 showcasing what it’s like Sailing in Rough Seas.
For all my articles/videos about Bermuda, check these out:
- Provisioning for a 5-day sail to Bermuda
- Sailing To Bermuda
- And…Sailing to Bermuda Video – The 5 Day Passage
- Sailing around Bermuda – Life at anchor
- Hamilton Bermuda by Boat
- Hamilton Bermuda At Anchorage
Would you like to buy a boat and travel around the world? Learn from our experience.
Get our Sailboat Buying Guide for Cruisers here.
And that’s that. If you have any comments or questions please leave them below or email me at Kim@SailingBritican.com and when I’m not sailing I’ll work hard to respond. Thanks so much for joining us on the journey 🙂