We’ve just arrived at Azores islands with the Ocean Ladies yacht, and I wanted to share what it’s really like to sail across an ocean. I’m writing this looking out from the 20th floor window of an apartment building right next to the large and modern Ponta Delgada harbour, in an Airbnb flat I’ve rented for my final night here. I can see our boat far below in the harbour among dozens of other boats. It looks tiny, while the ocean extending in all directions seems huge, and I can’t quite believe we’ve actually done it – crossed the Atlantic.
Yacht: Swan 441 Carissa, designed by Ron Holland and built in Finland in 1980
Team: skipper Raija Alapeteri, first mate Maarit Suomi, crew Sari Heinonen, Tiia Niemi, Marita Sauhke, Marjaana Suutarinen, Susanna Viljanen and Taru Weckroth
Sailing Club: Ocean Ladies ry, Finland
Race: ARC Europe 2022
Route: Sint Maarten – Bermuda – Horta (Faial, Azores) – Ponta Delgada (Sao Miguel, Azores). The crew will change at Ponta Delgada and the boat continues to sail via Cherbourg, France to Finland.
Dates: start 7 May, stopover in Bermuda 15-18 May, arrival in Horta 1 June 2022
Why this journey?
25 years ago, I had my first ocean crossing experience, sailing across the Atlantic from east to west. Since then, my offshore sailing interests have been in hibernation due to family and work commitments, although I co-own a small sailing boat and have some racing experience. I joined the sailing team Ocean Ladies, who provide offshore sailing experiences and training for ordinary women, and signed up for the crew planning to cross the Atlantic from west to east. Atlantic crossing from east to west along the southern tradewinds route is relatively easy, with warm weather and predictable wind conditions and ocean currents, while the west to east route is harder, with less predictable weather and therefore more interesting sailing. We planned to participate in the ARC Europe race, starting the journey from Sint Maarten in the Caribbean, stopping briefly in Bermuda, and then sailing across the widest expanse of North Atlantic to the Azores islands.
How was it?
The first leg of the journey from Sint Maarten to Bermuda was in general easy sailing in good weather during daytime. After enjoyable days very strange nights followed, as thunderclouds gathered in the western horizon at night. On three nights we saw lightning storms that we were able to avoid by taking an eastern course, but finally we had no choice but to sail through one. The clouds lit up by lightning were a spectacular sight, and once we got close to the storm, lightning covered the sky. We took down all the sails and motored through the storm. The crew on deck got thoroughly wet and none of us particularly enjoyed the experience, but we passed through the storm unharmed.
We replenished our supplies and made some repairs in Bermuda. Our fridge had stopped working and this revealed a problem with our batteries. After several plot twists involving several electricians and the friendly crew of a Swedish yacht docked next to us, the final fix was completed 2 minutes before we were due to slip the lines. We just made it to the start line, but unfortunately we never made it to Bermuda’s famous pink coral sand beaches.
The beginning of the journey to Azores was easy sailing with light winds and warm weather. Winds and ocean swell gradually picked up to create much more challenging conditions. The final days towards the Azores were the hardest with up to 40 knots of wind and waves built up to the size of houses. This was true ocean racing mode: waves washing over deck and crew, wearing full offshore gear, most of it only moderately less wet inside than out, and the boat rocking violently. While sailing the boat in these conditions is challenging, it’s also difficult to just move around, to cook, or even eat and sleep.
The weather calmed down to a comfortable but strong wind on the day before we approached land on Faial island. Dolphins escorted us at sunset, and after a smooth night’s sailing we crossed the finish line in front of the famous Horta harbour at sunrise.
What do we do out there?
When we are on the ocean, the crew is divided into 3 watch pairs of 2 people. One watch pair works on deck, another is standing by, ready to come on deck to help but also cooking and cleaning, and the third watch pair rests. The watches last 4 hours during daylight and 3 hours at night. Skipper and first mate work 5 hours on and off. Coming to a watch was always a surprise, sometimes a happy one and sometimes not, as on this journey the weather had always changed in some way between each watch. We were not alone on the ocean either, even though we saw only a couple of ships and other sailing boats – we saw birds throughout the journey and dolphins came to greet us almost every day.
The boat keeps moving during darkness as well as in daylight, although we make sure that we don’t have too much sail on before night falls as it is riskier to work on the sails in the dark. When sailing at night you can’t see anything in front of the boat. We have red night lights for the compass and some of the displays like boat speed, wind speed and wind direction, and at night we steer based on them. I really enjoyed the night watches. The stars over the ocean, hundreds if not thousands of miles away from artificial light, are incredibly bright. It’s hard to describe how it feels to stand at the helm under that sky when there’s a brisk warm wind and the boat just flies through the invisible black waves. Or what it feels like when your clothes have been wet for days, you are tired enough to fall asleep sitting up, and you still stand there, salt stinging your eyes as you get hit in the face by waves.
How is it different from life on land?
One of the attractions of this journey was that it provided the polar opposite to my pandemic working life.
- Online meetings vs. living in very close physical proximity – smell included!
- 24/7 online connectivity vs. one email through satellite phone per day. There is no online connection except for daily updates with race organisers and for emergencies through satellite phone.
- Sleep all night vs. a couple of hours at any time between activities. At night there are 6 hours of rest between watches, but this is not nearly enough rest for the whole day, so we also sleep during the day between watches.
- Afraid of missing a deadline vs. scared for your life. Sailing is actually very safe, but you will inevitably feel in awe of the power of the ocean at some point. On land, I’m often stressed about completing my work on time, but here on the ocean there are no deadlines, and total focus on the task at hand. When steering, you can’t do anything else, and must stay on task exactly as long as scheduled – quite literally until the next watch has placed her hand on the helm next to yours.
- Big family house with lots of space for different activities and gear vs. a narrow bunk and one soft bag for everything for 6 weeks. Our yacht is a 1980’s classic but by no means a luxury yacht, and we race with a full crew of 8. There is a bunk for each, but very little storage space, so all clothes and personal gear must stay in one soft bag for the whole journey. There is limited storage for food and water, so we must plan and use them carefully.
What about the people?
The aim was to create a balanced team with the right skills and reasonably good personality matches and team dynamics. We have a couple of technically oriented crew members who can deal with the motor and electronics, a couple of navigation and sail trimming experts, and me and another crew member were responsible for provisioning food and other supplies. I love this fairly humble job. We get to visit grocery stores in interesting places, taste new foods and decide exactly what we take onboard.
As the boat is continuously moving – as fast as is safely possible – the most important task for all crew members is to steer the boat. We don’t use an autopilot, and although the common impression is that the skipper steers the boat, in our boat she only steers in particularly tricky situations.
The basic skills and experience that all team members were required to have was lots of practical sailing experience, especially on this boat, and including steering at night in rough conditions. All crew were expected to be able to deal with seasickness (most of us use anti-seasickness plasters), have some tolerance of discomfort, and ability to stay calm in challenging situations.
The only reliable test on where any individual is on these capabilities is to see how they work and how the team works together in real life. All of our crew had sailed on Carissa before, at least with part of the team, and most of us knew each other quite well. Still, there were a couple of surprises when the full crew met and started working together, especially when the weather got interesting. We reorganised some tasks to manage the heavy weather days, so that everyone who was steering was out of cooking and housekeeping, but with less rest than on normal schedule. If there’s a next time, I would insist on at least a couple of days or preferably a week of sailing together with the full crew – it takes some time to shake out the glitches.
We had a fairly normal share of disagreements and drama that comes from people interacting in small spaces. But we also learned to trust each other. When we were out on the rough ocean, I think each of us was scared at some point, even though I also know for a fact that the boat would have been able to take on much worse. When a couple of hours’ rest became very scarce and precious, each of us understood in very concrete terms that everyone’s effort was important. I was filled with doubt each time I took the helm in rough weather, as I was worried I would make a wrong steering move and bury us all under the giant waves. On the other hand, the odds were that the boat would find its way despite my amateur moves while my friends could get a bit of rest, and in the end I was happy to take those odds. And that’s the magic: together we can achieve things that none of us can do just for ourselves.
In the end, we finished 10th out of 20 boats and received an award for sailing skills for steering by hand all the way. My hands can tell – the skin on my palms is hardened and peeling between the fingers. After a few days of relaxing and recharging at Azores, we have handed the boat over to another crew who will continue sailing to France and then home to Finland.
This journey has opened up new opportunities and many of us are already preparing for new sailing challenges. I don’t have any definite plans yet. While experiencing the ocean was the most important part of the journey, the most fun part was the social programme set up by the race organisation – stopovers on the very different islands, tours and events and meeting the other crews. I would definitely consider sailing in an organised race again.
I hope to sail on the oceans again in future, but right now I can’t wait to get home to my family. I am also happier than ever to get back to work – in a clean and comfortable office, and wearing dry socks every day.