Crossing the Atlantic, every sailor’s dream
From September onwards, many boats head towards the Canary Islands for a stopover before setting out on the great adventure that is sailing across the Atlantic.
Boats from a host of countries gather in the Canaries to “cross the pond” from November on. The idea is to arrive in the best possible conditions and, once there, finish any work on board, stock up on provisions and enlist final crew members.
Las Palmas is traditionally the home port of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, which more than a regatta per se has become a way of crossing the Atlantic in the company of a further 200 boats. What’s more, all participants benefit from the organising committee’s vast experience in guaranteeing the safety of boats and crew, as well as a series of crew-focussed events. In recent years, though, Lanzarote, and in particular Playa Blanca, has seen more boats stopping off at Marina Rubicon as the first step of their Atlantic crossing. Proof of this is that out of the seven editions of the Gran Prix del Atlántico , the last two have set sail from this modern marina in Lanzarote. This amateur race tends to attract around thirty mostly Spanish vessels with crews eager to cross the Atlantic on their sailboats.
The chance to take part in this adventure is not just limited to boat owners or skippers, though. There are also sailboat charter companies that provide a boat, an experienced skipper and accommodation for thrill-seekers prepared to spend at least two weeks without seeing land. No experience at all is required, but you do have to actively collaborate in tasks and night watches as instructed by the skipper. An adventure is always on the cards. Another option is to dockwalk and speak with one of the skippers meticulously preparing their boats. Fluent English, sailing experience and especially the willingness to work hard on board all play in your favour.
First leg: Spanish mainland – Lanzarote
Boats wanting to embark upon the crossing should first make their way to the Canaries. This is highly recommendable not only because it is a natural stopover to take advantage of the trade winds, but also because it puts boats and crew to the test over the first 600-mile stretch from Gibraltar.
The journey from the mainland is normally divided into 2 or 3 stages, with an obligatory stopover somewhere in the Strait of Gibraltar in order to prepare for the crossing to the Canaries. Good options are the stylish Marina Alcaidesa in La Linea de la Concepción, the port of Barbate around 20 miles from Tarifa, or even Ceuta on the other side of the Strait.
For many sailors, crossing the Strait of Gibraltar is a unique opportunity to sail in one of the world’s busiest stretches of sea and experience an array of factors that will make this a true test of seamanship.
Besides heavy maritime traffic, in the Strait you come across currents, tides, coastal shallows, banks of fog, and a unique microclimate requiring all these variables to be studied with extreme attention.
Tips for crossing the Strait of Gibraltar
It will probably be difficult to have everything in your favour (currents, tides and wind), but perhaps the most important thing is not to have everything against you.
– Remember that there are separate shipping lanes that are clearly marked as A and B on nautical charts.
– Call the Tarifa Coastguard (VHF Channel 10 – Tel: 956 684757) before setting sail. They will track you throughout the entire crossing and provided valuable weather information, as the forecasts you get in La Línea or Algeciras are not the same as in Tarifa.
– It might be interesting to enter the Strait from Gibraltar after high tide. Don’t forget that the annual tide tables in Gibraltar are GMT.
– There are normally 9 hours of current in your favour.
– In the middle of the Strait, the eastern current starts at the same time as high tide in Tarifa and heads westwards six hours later. These currents are marked on nautical charts and calculated according to the time of high tide in the area.
– In the narrowest part of the Strait, towards the east between the meridians of Tarifa and Punta Europa, the current is at its strongest and then reduces to 1.75 knots in the west and to the south of Punta Camarinal (Bolonia) and to 1 knot to the south of Cabo Trafalgar.
– Maximum increases in strength, with currents reaching three knots, are felt more along the coast on both sides and even more around prominent headlands.
– A fairly violent tidal current forms in and around the Los Cabezos shallows (near Los Lances beach in Tarifa) during the strongest moments of incoming and outgoing tides and covers a considerable area during calm periods. In bad weather, it can extend throughout the entire Strait and join up with the inshore current between Punta Malabata and Punta Alboasa.
– The prevailing wind direction is always Levante or Poniente. Force 3-4 Levante in Gibraltar often means Force 7 in Tarifa and possibly Force 6 up towards Cabo Trafalgar.
– Always keep an eye on the traffic and especially the fast ferry that sets out from Tarifa.
– Avoid the so-called «escarceo» swirls caused by currents. They are usually found right next to the shore and are marked on nautical charts.
– Ports and marinas usually have a guide to tides and currents.
It’s weird to see how your boat can almost come to a halt or literally fly depending on if the current is with you or against you. If you carefully watch the GPS, you’ll soon see the effect this has on your speed.
Once you cross the Strait, you should head out around 100 miles to the west of the coastline. By doing so, you enjoy cooler northerly winds and avoid the warm land breezes. What’s more, you manage not to bump into Moroccan fishing boats that cast their nets not just with the intention of catching fish, but sometimes also “catching boats”, which are then set free after being pilfered or a special ‘levy’ having been handed over…
Next stop Lanzarote.