Passage notes: Ascension to Barbados wrap

pw path

pinterest sailboat ocean atlanticSeventeen days (and five hours) after leaving Ascension, we made landfall in Barbados on a sunny afternoon. Impending arrival was heralded by small fishing boats: wooden runabouts with a small cabin and a miserable radar footprint. It made the first one a little extra exciting, as it barreled towards us at dawn about 50 miles south of the island. In the following hours, several more passed close by and we and had to maneuver (or be maneuvered around) to avoid a boat-vs-net situation with a couple.

This was the fastest, most comfortable passage we’ve made…ever? In years, anyway. Averaged out, Totem put away more than 180nm per day. Considering how mellow conditions were- 15 knots was typical- it’s pretty speedy, especially over such a long time. Jamie is an inveterate sail tweaker, but it came down to smart routing and the kicker was the current.

The typical route from South Atlantic to Caribbean, as written by Jimmy Cornell, indicates an equator crossing around 30 west. That’s recommended because northeast trades make for an upwind slog to the Caribbean for boats crossing too much further west. But studying the conditions for a while, Jamie didn’t see the NE winds materializing; from Brazil up to the Caribbean, it tended more ENE. That meant we’d be reaching, not upwind. He ran routing software in PredictWind’s Offshore program, and it also wanted to send us nearly to the Brazil coast. A delivery captain shared her waypoints, which also recommended routing that crossed at more like 43 west. With so much lining up, why were so many boats crossing 700, 800 miles to the east? We ultimately crossed around 44 and had a passage that was days shorter from A to B.

1- wing in wing
While westing below the ITCZ, we were either wing-in-wing like this, or flying the asymmetric, as above, on port tack in gentle SE trades.

Cornell’s recommendation also eliminates a lot of the ocean current that was our key to an efficient passage. Boats following the Cornell plan also have the west flowing equatorial push, but then nothing once heading north. We got to ride that equatorial current, then trade it for an even bigger push along the South American coast (up to three and a half knots!).

Dolphins play in the bow wake at sunset: Niall's getting close to hear them squeak
Dolphins play in the bow wake at sunset: Niall’s getting close to hear them squeak

We also saved a lot of motoring in the light airs along this passage. Our big ITCZ crossing was only about 14 hours of motoring, because near Brazil, it more or less pinches shut. We watched boats to the east got stuck in an expanding ITCZ and spend days powering through to get to the other side. The asymmetric got a workout, too: the right sail plan was a significant help.

ocean sailing kayak flying asymmetric on starboard tack
Starboard tack in ENE wind north of the equator – and, more asymmetric miles

Of course, routing isn’t static. We had a great passage, but that doesn’t mean this is “the way to go.” And don’t let me give the impression that our choice was an obvious one. It wasn’t, however good it feels in hindsight; the truth is we second guessed it right up until committing to stay westbound instead of peeling off north. The kicker was monitoring the ITCZ conditions and updating routing recommendations daily in PredictWind’s Offshore, and dialed up the routing recos in FastSeas too. Yet just a few weeks ago, when I wrote about weather and routing before we left Ascension (see this post), the decision was not only up in the air – but we were leaning towards the earlier, more easterly ITCZ crossing.

When we went, with the conditions we had, we had a great ride. But it hopefully makes the point that it’s a good idea to look hard at the options instead of following what’s worked for the herd historically, since maybe it doesn’t fit your immediate situation.

We don't fly the asymmetric at night, so when the sun goes down the genoa comes out
We don’t fly the asymmetric at night, so when the sun goes down the genoa comes out

How did it all feel, in hindsight? A great passage, very comfortable, and if I have any complaint… it’s that it was kind of boring. And yes, “boring”is the best kind of problem to have on a passage! Not much went amiss.  It was two and a half weeks of mostly spectacular conditions, with a few undramatic squalls thrown in…no big deal. I love sailing, but arriving is pretty great too.

OK, not always boring: squalls are especially stunning at sunrise!
OK, not always boring: squalls are especially stunning at sunrise!

During the last few days the anticipation of land was palpable. We were alternately excited (looking up information about Barbados, again, and at our next Caribbean stops) and blobs (reading another book or three, introducing Mairen to Seinfeld and giggling through season 1). And finally having that feeling of ARE WE THERE YET?! And then at last, we were. Not too tired, because we had such easy conditions and plenty of sleep with our watch schedule, but a little mentally friend nonetheless…promptly reset with the laid-back welcome of island time.

customs dock port st charles barbados
Totem at the dock for clearance inspection in Port St Charles, Barbados

While we were underway, I posted three updates to the blog – to read about daily conditions, what we saw, what we did, what we ate (hint: no ship’s biscuits), you can find them all under the Atlantic passage tag.

12 Responses

  1. Great crossing in super time! Our routes look pretty much the same, glad those WP’s helped with the current. Not feeling so bad that you kicked our butts time wise since we did 3800NM but am sure you still would have beat us!! ?

    Enjoy Barbados and land!

    1. If I recall you weren’t able to fly an asymmetric, which also made a really big difference for us. Waypoints = fantastic! Thank you Judy!

  2. Nice Ride! Now I understand how the Southie I met in St. John managed the passage on his 30 footer with a Great Dane on board! I don’t know what is your plan, but FYI my favorite island in the EC, Bequia is a short downwind sale from Barbados.

    1. I always love a “favorite island” report. We are northbound now but plan to return to the Caribbean at the end of the year, and I’d love to get to Bequia.

  3. Happy to read you had such a great passage. When everything goes that right, for me anyway, it becomes a weird emotional mix: it’s almost disappointing to reach the end of the trip, at the same time that it’s exciting to reach land.

    1. Completely understand Jaye! It is mixed. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like when that landfall in in the USA!

  4. Congratulations on a voyage well made! It was fun following your progress day by day with some fantastic ground speeds. Enjoy the Caribbean. It is a fun place. Oddly enough between Budget Marine and Napa Auto Parts we were always able to find what we needed albeit at some higher costs than what we were used to in the US.

  5. Congrats on the comfortable and safe passage! Its difficult to tell, but it looks like you have an interesting genoa sheet arrangement in the sunset photo above in this post? My guess is that its a second sheet arrangement through a forward track car that allows for proper sheet angle when you reef the genny without having to move cars? Or am I seeing things?

    1. Hey Eric – Good observation. Attached are 2 genoa sheets and 1 barbour hauler. The barbour hauler is always attached because we are rarely close hauled (where barbour hauler has no value). Instead from about 60 degrees AWA, to downwind the barbour hauler is the active sheet. The benefit is in its sheeting location outboard on the toe rail and forward some (because sail is eased) adds .5 to .75 knots over just going to genoa sheet block location. Also, as you get further downwind, the normal sheeting location puts the sheet against the lifeline – whereas the barbour hauler is outboard of the lifelines.

      And there is another aspect to my sheet and barbour hauler attachment that I’ve been testing to solve an occasional problem – will have an article out soon on the issue and solution details.

      1. Hey Jamie. Ah. I see it now. It also looks like you attached your sheets to the clew via a loop of line – so you can get to the knot when off the wind maybe? Thanks for the explanation. Looking forward to the article.

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