Q&A: UK To Boston Via The North In June

Question: I wondered if I could seek your advice on a trip that has been suggested to me but that I have serious reservations about: Sailing from the UK to Boston, leaving around the end of May, taking the North Atlantic route. The skipper seems to be under the impression that we will have easterly winds en route but my pilot books don’t back this theory up. They say we’ll have it cold and on the nose most of the way. What about the ice? Satellite images show there’s more of it about every year.

Answer: You and the pilot charts are correct. If you head directly across from the UK to the USA you will have head winds most of the way as you will be on the track of low pressure systems crossing the North Atlantic. Most will pass north of you, first giving SW winds and then NW after the frontal passage. At least one or two gales would be par for the course. You will also be in the ice zone as you cross the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Fog will be likely for the last third of the voyage. All in all, it’s going to be a tough cold passage that only strong boats and crews should attempt.

To get downwind sailing you need to get under the Bermuda/Azores high, getting into the NE trades, by sailing way south past the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde Islands before turning west at about 20N. Once almost at the Eastern Caribbean you can turn north past Bermuda and head for the US northeast coast. This is a MUCH longer, but much nicer, trip. BUT, you will have to be VERY careful of early season hurricanes on this route. Ten years ago, I would not have worried until around 15th July, but with the warmer water we are seeing now, nasty storms are starting in June and even May.

I must be honest here, I would have real reservations about going to sea with someone who is wrong about such basic issues affecting the contemplated voyage. It shows a scary lack of planning that may have manifested itself in other areas such as boat preparation.

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Meet the Author


John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

4 comments… add one
  • russ Jul 7, 2011, 10:29 pm

    What would be the best time and the best route to go across the Atlantic to Europe from New York and back to New York from Europe? The boat is a 1970 Irwin classic 32 ( 32 ft. 4 inches). Best and safest route with best wind conditions and best weather conditions is what I would like to know. How long would it take? How many people would you suggest as crew? Thanks. Russ

    • John Aug 7, 2011, 2:30 pm

      Hi Russ,

      Wow big question(s). More than I can really deal with here and now. One big issue is that I’m really not at all sure that an Irwin, particularly one that old, is a boat you should be attempting this in. I would also suggest that you get some offshore experience first on shorter passages with others before attempting this. You will then be in a position to answer many of these questions yourself.

  • John Apps Dec 16, 2012, 6:59 am

    If you go far enough north, usually above 55degNorth you will get easterlies from the top of the succession of Lows going through. So the original poster’s skipper is right. If you track the OSTAR and Jester Challengers you will find that a valid tactic in these races is to take the Northern Route as it is called.
    I must admit I have tried the Northern Route in my 27 feet fin keel boat and had so much bad weather which forced me to lie-a-hull that I have not attempted it since. I ultimately broke an inner shroud off Newfoundland and had to go south and then east. Someone else has suggested elsewhere that it should not be attempted by any boat under 30 feet. That said Jester a 25 feet junk rigged Fold Boat has successfully undertaken the Northern Route coming second in the 1960 OSTAR.

    • John Dec 16, 2012, 12:11 pm

      Hi John,

      That is true, but it depends a lot on the position of the jet stream and every year will be different. Also, to get easterly winds you may have to go too close to Cape Farewell, Greenland, a very dangerous place due to potential ice and the crush zone between the Greenland ice cap high and the lows that track west too east below the cape. Also, quite often one of those lows will turn north up Denmark Strait, slow and intensify, and then anyone to the south is in for a very nasty time with big time west winds, maybe for days. In summary, the east to west north Atlantic non-stop passage is only, as you say, for the very strongest crews. Personally, I prefer to break it up using the Viking stepping stones route via Iceland (north coast easier), Prins Christian Sund and Labrador. I have done this twice west to east and once east to west.

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