The Atlantic Crossing: Coda

If there was a beginning to our Atlantic Crossing, it was our sail from The British Virgin Islands to Bermuda.  And although we have been claiming the crossing from “North America” to “Europe” was done from Bermuda to the Azores (Portugal), it took us another week to get to the European continent 1,200 miles away.

The final leg was mostly uneventful until we were within a couple of hundred miles of land.  The winds were tight off our starboard bow (again) but for once they were reasonable (10-20 knots) and the seas were pretty flat (3-5ft).   Half way through the trip I realized that The Atlantic Ocean has been completely different from my expectations.   I thought that there would be big rollers that we would sail up and down – rollers I have experienced both in the Caribbean and off the coast of Maine.   But it was not to be.   The seas for our entire trip have been “lumpy” or “confused”.  For much of it, we would have swells coming in from two different directions and wind-waves on-top of those going in a third: a result of big circular wind conditions that churned up the ocean.  As a result, Ondine went up, down, sawed this way and that, surging forward as waves pushed her and stopped as she slammed into them.

The highlight of the crossing for me was when a pod of dolphins came racing towards us and then sped buy in a J around our port side and stern.  There must have been over 50 of them, and unlike most of the dolphins we’ve encountered they the vast majority didn’t focus on us.  We think that they must have been chasing tuna or some other food source.  Here are some pics:


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The speed at which they travelled and the frequency of their jumping was spectacular.  I LOVE DOPHINS!  J

A couple of them came by for a quick “hello” at the end.



The crossing took us six days, but when we got to the Straits of Gibraltar, the wind (as predicted) was directly on our nose at 25+ knots, and so rather than try to fight that we ducked into Portugal to a well protected anchorage in Faro.

We were lucky enough to be welcomed by the Portuguese authorities just before reaching Faro: we were boarded by the coast guard!   They were very friendly, checked all of our documents and then bid us welcome to Portugal (though for the record, we never really left as the Azores are part of Portugal, but we didn’t focus on that).  My favorite part of the process was when they asked for my “qualifications”, or Captains License.  Now that’s a pet peeve of mine, because before we left the US, I wanted to get a license, but it’s really not required and in fact, I can’t get the US certification because it’s offered by the coast guard and is only available to US citizens. So I didn’t get one.  I could have got a British one, but I really think of myself as a North American at this point, so I didn’t.  But in with my boat papers and passport, I do have my Green Card, and the Portuguese Authorities asked me “are you carrying this card in place of your Captains License”.  I thought about it quickly, and I figured, well, yes, I kinda am.  I mean if I were a citizen, I’d have  a “six pack” (slang for a particular kind of skipper license offered by the Coast Guard), but because I only have a Green Card, and because I live in the US0fA, I don’t have  a license (you are expected to have one if your boat is European), so yes, I am carrying this Green Card in place of my skippers license.  And that was that.  We took some pics and we were on our way.






We stayed in Faro for a couple of days to recover and send Steve – our longest-serving crew member home.  Thanks Steve for spending a month on Ondine.  Looking forward to seeing your pics!  :-)  Here’s a couple Emma-Kate took of Faro:



From there we sailed to Cadiz – the sailing capital of Spain and picked up Grant Lee.  Poor Grant, we were supposed to pick him up in Gibraltar on June 1st, but what with the head winds and a late departure from Horta we were a few days late and several nautical miles short.  And although we offered to meet him in Faro, Grant said “I’m on holiday and I’d rather not take the 10 hour bus ride”.  Fair enough, Cadiz it was.

And that was how we finally made our overnight trip to Gibraltar: from Cadiz.   And what a spectacular sail!   It might be my favorite sail of all time.  We had a small hole in the main sail caused by chaffing where we had been reefed and so I decided not to put up the entire sail for the trip.  But as we picked up the anchor at the end of the day, the winds picked up to about 20 knots on our beam and even with only half her canvas flying, Ondine was doing 7 ½ – 9 knots.   We zoomed down to the straits in time to catch the favorable tides and zipped through.   And oh-my what a lot of traffic.  In the Caribbean we were used to seeing lots of sailing boats and local fishing vessels interspersed with the odd cargo ship or tanker.  But for the entire crossing we really saw very few vessels and when one showed up, everyone on board talked about it.  The straits of Gibraltar and Gibraltar itself now looked like Times Square to us.   Here is a picture from our AIS (Ondine is the triangle at the middle of the screen nearest the top near “TARIFA”

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Here’s another AIS snapshot I took when we left Gibraltar (this time, follow the dotted line, Ondine is at the top of the pic well away from the action):

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Brief digression on AIS for any geeks reading this.  Feel free to skp this paragraph!

AIS stands for Automatic Identification System and they became mandatory for all commercial vessels after 9/11.   They work exactly like a planes transponder, but operate (digitally) over unused VHF channels.  Using its own GPS receiver, the AIS transmits the vessels’: Name, Type (Cargo ship, tanker, sailing boat), Call Sign (for radio contact, ours is WDF 5957), MMSI (unique identifier for each vessel for identification and search & rescue purposes), Type (Tanker, Cargo Ship, Sailing Vessel, etc.), Class (Three classes of AIS: A, B & C), Destination, Heading, SOG (Speed over Ground), COG, (Course over Ground), Latitude and Longitude.  And from this, our receiver can calculate the vessels bearing and distance (where is it in relation to us), as well as – most importantly – its closest point of approach.


Of the three classes of AIS, “A” is reserved for commercial vessles, “B” sends and receives information, and “C” only receives.   We have a class B AIS so that all those tankers and cargo ships can see us on their screens (if you get C, you can see them, but they can’t see you).  Worth every penny of the investment when you look at all of those boats!


OK Digression Over.

As I mentioned, we sailed to Gibraltar overnight, and sailing through the straits at night is spectacular.  You see all these tankers and cargo ships – some with as few as four lights (two white, one red and one green), and others lit up like small cities, parading down a virtual sea-highway keeping to their “side of the road” (ships drive on the right in case you wondered).  And as you go through, you have Europe to port and Africa starboard  – both clearly visible.  Every now and again you’ll see the bobbing red, green and/or white lights of another sailing vessel looking precarious next to the monsters of the ocean.  Even boats that we usually think of as H U G E – say a 110ft sailing boat, look like tiny gnats in the Straits of Gibraltar.   The biggest ship I’ve seen so far was 1,600 feet long!   That makes a 350 ft cargo ship look puny let alone a “megayacht”.  I wish I had a camera that could have captured it.  But there was no moon and it was just too dark.

And then finally we were in Gibraltar.   Even taking down the sails was an interesting exercise.  Here we are cruising along at 8 knots with limited maneuverability due to the constraints of wind and sails and then there are all of these tankers and cargo ships entering the same space – all in the pitch black: once again, praise be to AIS.   We wanted to keep the hell out of their way so we headed up into the wind on the west side of the bay in between some Cargo ships that were at anchor.  Here’s another snapshot from our AIS to illustrate

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I figured if we stayed between the anchored ships (on the left of the pic above) we’d be safe from new ones entering the harbor.   Emma-Kate and I lowered the sails quickly while tucked in between the slumbering behemoths.  Then as we were about to come out our AIS indicated that a super-fast vessel (20+ knots) seemed to be about to cut off our path so with our new found ability to stop (no sails up anymore) we waited until the vessel cleared – only to find out that it was in fact the port authority zooming down to see who we were.  I thought we were going to be “welcomed” again as we were in Portugal.  They stopped a couple of hundred yards of our starboard bow and waited while we picked our moment to zoom across the bay between breaks in tanker traffic.  And they left us alone.

The green lines on the snapshot above illustrate how far the vessel will move in 15 mins, and you can see the “PILOT” vessel coming towards us – it has a green line that streaks from nearly the top of the bay right into the strait of Gibraltar because it’s moving so fast.

Finally: Gibraltar.


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