The Atlantic Ocean is a vast sailing area bordered by four continents – North and South America in the west, Europe and Africa in the east – and a popular cruising ground both for transatlantic crossings and for shorter-distance trips closer to the shore. Sailing itineraries that take sailors across the Atlantic offer an enormous diversity of cultures, landscapes and destinations, and make an excellent option for experienced sailors looking for their next big adventure.
For a transatlantic cruise, the most important concern is to avoid the hurricane season, which lasts from June to November. Most boats departing from Europe and Africa set off in late November in order to reach the Caribbean Islands by Christmas. Those looking to leave earlier are advised to postpone going west because hurricanes may still develop in high-risk areas. Hurricanes are rare south of latitude 10°N, which makes a passage via the Cape Verde islands a popular transatlantic route among experienced seafarers, with less time spent in potential hurricane zones and an easy way out to the south.
Trade winds are typically force 4 or 5 during a crossing, with some lighter days and some days of 25 or more knots. The northerly route is faster, but has an increased risk of adverse winds and swell, which is why it is not recommended for inexperienced skippers and slower sailboats. The southerly route offers steadier trade winds and a lower risk of swell, which makes it safer and more comfortable.
The North Atlantic region is dominated by an area of high atmospheric pressure known as the Azores High, which stretches all the way to Bermuda. The prevailing winds in the region rotate around this area clockwise in the north and anti-clockwise south of the equator, which means that the UK gets mostly westerly winds, Portugal gets northerlies, and the east coast of the United States gets predominantly southerlies. As a result, those sailing from Europe to the Caribbean enjoy friendly easterly winds, while sailors going in the opposite direction have a more challenging task.
The best time for a transatlantic cruise from west to east depends on the route. Spring and summer are the best time to take the northerly route, via Canada. Those following the southern route, from the Caribbean via Bermuda and the Azores, can depart as early as mid-spring. The southern route is the best option for sailors looking to complete an Atlantic Circle in a year because, once they reach Europe, they have plenty of time to make the return crossing in December.
The Atlantic sailing area is divided into North Atlantic and South Atlantic. The North Atlantic sailing region includes the coasts of Norway, Denmark, Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar in Europe, Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea in Africa, Canada and United States in North America, Central America and a portion of South America. Island groups in this region include the Caribbean, Saint-Pierre & Miquelon Islands, Faroe Islands, the Azores, Madeira archipelago, the Canaries, Cape Verde islands, and São Tomé and Príncipe.
The South Atlantic region is bordered by Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo, Angola, Namibia and South Africa in Africa and Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama in South America. Island groups in the South Atlantic region include St. Helena, Ascension Island, the Falkland Islands and Tristan da Cunha.
Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands is the main port of departure on transatlantic trips, while Bermuda and Horta in the Azores are the most popular stops when sailing from west to east.
Crossing the Atlantic on a sailboat is an adventure of a lifetime. The most popular sailing itineraries from Europe and Africa include either the Canary Islands or Madeira as the final stop before the first long leg of the journey. Cruises from Madeira to St. Kitts and Nevis, from Gomera to Tobago, and from Tenerife via São Vicente to Barbados are typical east-to-west itineraries. For shorter trips, the remote volcanic tropical island of St. Helena is a popular destination from Namibia, and island hopping itineraries from Portugal to the Azores, the Madeira islands or the Canaries make for a wonderful Atlantic sailing experience.
Cape Verde is another excellent island hopping destination. The archipelago’s diversity – impossibly long white sand beaches, carved rocky landscapes, commanding mountains, peaks, canyons and cliff-top villages – provides a rich backdrop for discovering the fusion of European and African culture unique to the islands.
Going from west to east, sailors typically either take the warm southern route, which takes them to Bermuda and the Azores, or they go through the far north Atlantic to the Baltic countries or the British Isles. The southern route comes with the risk of calm weather or, in late summer, gales in the eastern Atlantic, while the northern passage can be uncomfortable due to cold weather, fog, icebergs and deep depressions.
Bermuda and the Azores are not often visited by sailors who are not crossing the Atlantic, but the islands have a lot to offer nevertheless. The lush, green Azores traditionally welcome sailors in the large marina on the island of Faial, known for its astounding scenery, black sand beaches and delicious fresh seafood dishes. The volcanic archipelago consists of three island groups, each famous for its rare, inimitable beauty.
Bermuda, an island discovered by shipwreck survivors and home to the oldest ocean race, is a prime sailing destination year-round. The island’s clear waters, temperate weather, diverse underwater life and coral reefs offer a lot for nature lovers to explore, while the Crystal & Fantasy Caves, deep underground pools surrounded by chandelier ceilings and stunning formations of every shape possible, draw countless visitors each year.
Sailors taking the northern route, via Annapolis or Newport, get to enjoy the spectacular sights of Nova Scotia and St. Pierre and Miquelon, a small French archipelago south of Newfoundland. The sweeping mountain vistas of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse, the star-shaped Citadel Hill, Point Pleasant Park and the stunning Halifax Harbour are only some of the main sights in Nova Scotia, while Île-aux-Marins off the coast of St. Pierre and Miquelon provides unique insights into fishing traditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the island is preserved the way it was a century ago.