Sail Across The Atlantic: The Definitive Guide


If you have ever dreamt about crossing that big blue pond most regularly known as the North Atlantic Ocean, you have come to the right place. Regardless of your level of experience as a sailor, to sail across the Atlantic will be a demanding challenge.

 And as with everything else in sailing, preparation is essential. This guide will take you through everything you need to know before you embark on this amazing journey.


How long to sail across the Atlantic?


Since Christopher Columbus famously traveled 3.000 nautical miles (nm) across the Atlantic in around 5 weeks back in 1492, holding the time of the fastest Atlantic crossing by sail has been a prestigious achievement.

It is currently held by the multi-hulled Banque Populaire V in about 3 days and 15 hours. In general, multi-hulls are often faster than mono-hulls and sailing across the Atlantic in a catamaran or another type of multi-hull is expected to earn you an arrival 3-5 days earlier than a mono-hull.


sail across the atlantic


Interestingly, sailing across the Atlantic from west to east is generally considered a slower passing even though most records are achieved passing in this direction (New York to Cornwall).

The reason is that the west to east route is generally windier, which is far better suited for efficient racing boats than for regular sailboats. For cruising, passing the Atlantic east to west should take around 3-4 weeks, depending on the sizeof your sailboat. 


The smallest boat to ever successfully complete the crossing was only 5 feet, so basically you can pick whichever boat you like.

However, before you acquire a used optimist dinghy at your local sailing club and fill it to the brim with a variety of questionable canned food items, please realize that there are a few benefits to picking a larger vessel that you may want to consider. 


First and foremost,if you are sailing across the Atlantic in a small boat, your passage time will be longer.


Anything smaller than 35 feet, will likely extend your travel time to somewhere around 4 weeks and perhaps a couple of days beyond.Further, the waves in the open sea will be remarkably longer between its trough and crest than what you would normally experience closer to shore.

This means that smaller boats will roll significantly more from side to side as the waves will pass under.


Just take a look at this journey in a 26 foot boat.



Normally, it is considered that a boat around 40 feet or larger will provide a more comfortable sail and you more than likely would not enjoy sailing much smaller. If your vessel is motor-driven, it is naturally a completely different story.


If you have stumbled upon tickets for a crossing with a commercial cruise ship, sailing across the Atlantic will likely take 6-8 days  of sailing (depending on cruise of course) in open sea without any breaks.  


Alternatively crossing the Atlantic by motor yacht will likely be around the same time or a little slower.But, it is really important to keep in mind that the risks of embarking on such a journey in a motor yacht far exceeds those of a regular sail.


There will always be another gust of wind, but if you are trapped in the middle of the Atlantic Sea with missing fuel or an irreparable motor, you are in for a tough battle. Finally, crossing the Atlantic in a trawler requires some deliberate rebuilding to make it able to cover the distance.


In general, it is advised to be even more careful when planning motor-driven crossings.



Atlantic Crossing Sailing Routes


You do not need to be a science professor to realize that there are at least two ways of crossing the Atlantic.



atlantic crossing sailing routes
photo credit: Yachting World



Going from east to west or going reverse. However, it is safe to say that the east to west crossing is by far the more popular.

The reason is that the trade winds going west is blowing around much sunnier and warmer latitudes than the west to east crossing.And who wouldn't like a nice golden tan to go with this remarkable achievement?

Going east to west,there is a few popular routes to choose from. The general rule of thumb is that northern routes are shorter and faster while southern routes are for comfort and safety.For a fast passing,you should embark from the Canary Islands and aim for the Azores.

From there you turn west, for the shortest possible direction across.

For a more comfortable ride you should aim further south for Cape Verde when leaving the canaries. Perhaps even go all the was.

This route will in general be less windy and will also have a far lower risk of hurricane storms. You might want to brush up on our sailing in a storm guide to ensure you are prepared for anything.

You may even find yourself sailing against the wind and there is a technique to it to get it right. You might also want to check out boating fire safety to ensure you have the necessary equipment should the worst happen on your long journey.


The best route to sail


ACR Atlantic (Atlantic Cross Rally) is the southern route and is an excellent option for relatively inexperienced offshore sailors. It is an annual “race” where around 200 participants is racing across the Atlantic.


Some participants aim for a good result while the majority participate to make sure that they cross along with a good number of other boats.From a safety standpoint having “competitors” nearby is a comfortable feeling in case emergencies arise.  


If you want to signup for one of these events, simply have a look at all the details to see if it is something of interest.  



Best time to sail across the Atlantic


The ACR Atlantic begins around end of November or beginning of December. At this time of the year the trade winds are nice and strong - somewhere around 15-25 knots, while the hurricane season stretching from June to November is slowly ending.


In late December and January the high over the Azores, which also should be one of your main concerns when choosing a route, will sink further south and built even stronger trade winds - 25-30 knots. For recreational sailing, the increased breeze is something you would rather avoid, which leaves end of November and December as the only suitable window for a crossing.


The trade winds are driven by the intensity and the position of the Azores high. The trade winds will be running on the edge of the high, and the positioning will therefore govern where the strongest winds are situated.


This is also the reason that sailing south of the Azores is safer than directly across.


If the Azores high is sinking far south, it is possible to adjust your route even further south. On the other hand, heading straight across the Azores does not provide this option to escape. Thus, you need to be prepared to handle far stronger wind speeds. But if you are able to cope, you will also be able to cross faster.


As you get further to the west, the frequency of squalls will increase drastically. A squall is a shower-storm accompanied with heavy rainfall and gale force gusts. You can track squalls either by radar or compass, but regardless, you will still need to be able to reef your sails expeditiously. 


To prepare for a good crossing, most will sail to the canaries at least a couple of weeks in advance -if not a month. This time should be spend on meticulously going through and checking the boat. Most important is the rig, wiring, halyards and sails. If anything needs to be repaired, it is important to take the time to do so. If possible, it could also be worthwhile to bring the boat out of the water,checking that the keel and rudder along with fittings are all in good shape.  


To conclude, an arrival in late October or in the beginning of November is recommended. Then sufficient time is available to prepare while also being able to hold out for a promising long-term forecast. 



How to sail across the Atlantic for free


 In case you are in the sad situation of not having a boat or a crew to fulfill your dream of crossing the Atlantic, you need to know that there is plenty of others in similar circumstances and that many good alternative solutions exists.


Often, particularly when bigger boats are crossing - captains are looking to add members if the original crew is short-handed. There is so much to do on a boat when crossing an ocean of this size, having an extra pair of hands and eyes aboard is typically offered free of charge.


Although sometimes a fee to cover food costs is demanded, this cost is often negligible.


More important than the cost is to find a crew and a captain that you are confident to join in a 3-4 week long sail. These journeys may be riddled with unpredictable challenges or be completely event-less, you need some luck on your side to have a nice smooth sailing experience.


Either way, you will have to share very few square meters with unfamiliar people. For safety - and particularly if you are to sail your first crossing - picking a captain and a crew with solid experience should be preferred.


Especially captains that has crossed more than 3-5 times should be held in high regard. However, it is also important that it is someone you can get along with.And that goes not only for the captain but also for the rest of the crew. Therefore, it is recommended that you try to get to know them a bit before departure.


A couple of nights of food and beer should help you assess if it is someone you can work with.


One approach would be to travel to the canaries and stay during November while asking your way around the marina for open positions. A safer bid would be applying for positions through websites such as Crewbay


This site links boat-owners with crews. Both for professional and recreational purposes.




Boat-owners as well as crews are set up with profiles such that it is possible to review the boat-owners experience. Then there is the opportunity for messaging to align expectations and so forth. 


How to find a boat to sail around the Atlantic


If you instead prefer to be captain on your own boat, there are many options. You'll obviously need a boat and ideally, one that is built for long-distance offshore sailing.Of course it depends a lot on your requirements for comfort and how many you plan to bring in your crew.


A big boat is generally more comfortable but it is also far more expensive.Not only to buy but also to equip. Also, a big boat is far tougher to handle. You need to know exactly what to do at all times in order to handle boats bigger than 40 feet.


The opportunities to recover from mistakes are simply fewer and slimmer. A normal sailboat is likely to be dressed with a mainsail, 1-3 jibs of varying size and a spinnaker and/or gennaker.

 You should expect your crossing to be heavily dominated by downwind sailing, so maybe consider a customized spinnaker designed exactly for that purpose.


It should be designed with a strong thick cloth and shaped in a way so that it tolerates somewhat imprecise steering. That is achieved by making it a bit fuller while moving the center of the sail a bit downward sot hat the widest point on the spinnaker is lower than it would regularly be.


Also, it is advised to make sure that you have sufficient front sails in the lower size-range. Normally, if you buy a used sailboat, it will be suited with a storm-jib as old as the boat itself.

But still in excellent condition as it is rarely necessary to use for inshore cruising. That will surely change while crossing the Atlantic. You should therefore consider bringing at least 2 - and perhaps 3 - small size front sails. The larger ones it is likely you will not need at all.


Finally, it is important that all fittings are solid and robust. The wear and tear, the amount of salt in the water and the duration of time under stress will be a tough test for all the blocks and fittings aboard.

Aim for fittings built in strong materials and that is specifically made for offshore sailing.Unfortunately these will be priced far above inshore alternatives but it is most definitely worth it.


Making sure you have enough supplies when making the crossing across the Atlantic

When you plan on heading across the Atlantic, you'll need to ensure you are stocked up on supplies and have access to cooking and something to keep your food/drink cool or frozen.

You can check out some of the best coolers for boating and keep your supplies fresh and cool with some of those options as it's important you'll be able to stay healthy on such a ling trip.

Ensure you have the right sailing equipment, you'll need a good sailboat anchor for peace of mind at night too.

Get Sailing


Now, that is all there is to it. So go get sailing immediately, earn those red pants and most importantly, have fun! See you in the next one.