North Atlantic Routing Logic – Part ll

We’ve been talking to various cruising friends and routers about our North Atlantic plans. The northern route via Iceland and Greenland is easy weather wise. Short hops and our boat speed means patience should be rewarded with smooth seas. Likewise the traditional tradewind route via the Canary Islands and West Indies is easy, albeit long.

It is the middle, more direct route about which we want expert opinions. While we always make up our own minds, and the final decision will rest on the weather patterns we see when ready to depart the UK, we like to get an early jump thinking about various scenarios. For part one of this discussion click here .

This allows us to put what we see weather wise into context. By early April we will start to watch the 500mb and surface analysis data along with forecasts, in order to get a feel for the pattern this. We’ll judge what we see in the context of our own analysis, keeping in mind the expert conceptual advice noted below.

The east to west scenarios we are considering are not for the faint of heart, or for an ordinary cruising yacht. But Wind Horse , with her ability to maintain high average speeds, and enormous range under power, makes it feasible to discuss a non tradewind east to west passage.

We’ll start with John Harries, the most experienced Arctic cruiser we know. John, and his wife Phyllis, has made the North Atlantic passage many times. He is also extremely conservative. John made the following points in our discussion regarding routing which gets us back to the States early:

  • Going direct from Ireland to Newfoundland only makes sense with a perfect weather window.
  • Evan at Wind Horse’s 260 mile a day speed you need a week, and it is almost impossible to predict weather this far in advance.
  • There is a tendency for upper level cut off lows to sit off Newfoundland and generate horrible weather.
  • Even professionals have a problem forecasting these high latitude events with any degree of certainty.
  • St. Anthony is a better landfall than St. Johns in that ice is apt to be less and we avoid more of the shallow water and infamous Flemish Cap area.
  • If bad weather is forecast once we depart Ireland there is no bailout other than to return to Ireland (heading north takes you to Greenland which in turn necessitates going way north to Nuuk since the south will be icebound).
  • Azores to Bermuda or St. Johns (latter being 1200 miles) makes more sense in a normal year since we can always dive south into the Azores high to avoid bad weather.
  • Leave Bermuda by July 10th because of hurricane risks.

John has a fascinating website devoted to high latitude cruising which you can get to here.

Ralph Naranjo has been studying weather since the days we circumnavigated together (many decades ago!). He has made the North Atlantic passage many times, and as head of offshore sailing at the US Naval Academy done his share of routing and interfacing with meteorologists (Ralph’s day job is as Technical Editor of Practical Sailor) . We asked Ralph his opinion of the direct route from Ireland and what he thought of the new University of Colorado report on hurricane activity. Ralph’s comments follow:

  • The (University of Colorado) report alludes to an abatement of what is now a moderate to strong El Nino that will result in a cessation of the westerly shear that has torn apart tropical storm development during the past season. The result would be an earlier reestablishment of the Azores and Bermuda High and more of an easterly surface flow across Caribbean waters AKA better conditions for tropical storm development.
  • What this means for latitudes north of 40N is a more normal progression from west to east of surface lows that unfortunately remain quite volatile through May.
  • Ireland in May and a sprint across double digit latitudes that begin with a 5 will include some rugged voyaging. This is likely to be a more “pilot chart like” year due to the presumed end of the ENSO event. That said, May averages out to 20-25% of the time being gale force conditions in the portion of the Atlantic you’ll cross – if you choose the northern route. Above 50 there’s less westerly but the E to NE storms are frequent enough to be an issue. Building in enough time to wait out the most punishing blows seems essential. The route is much more appealing in late June or July.

Ralph is also a voyaging consultant and can be reached at

We also chatted with John Neal ( who has done the Bermuda Azores run many times during his sail training cruises with students. Aside from extolling the virtues of the Azores, John felt the Azores Bermuda passage with Wind Horse would typically not be difficult given her range and ability to maintain efficient momentum when headed upwind.

You will notice a common thread here. The best route depends on what the season dishes up. For a final opinion on this subject we chatted with Rick Shema ( Rick is a full time weather router and works with commercial mariners, cruisers, and racing programs. We’ve worked together on a number of potentially difficult passages. Rick responded to our query as follows:

  • Getting back to you regarding predictors for spring/summer upper level winds and weather patterns. First off, in Dr. Gray’s report he cites no skill in November predictors for the following tropical cyclone season. However, there are significant correlations in his predictors with other physical features for later this year. For example, positive values of 500mb geo-potential heights implies more ridging in Central Atlantic. This is mainly due to stronger U/L southerly winds and enhanced blocking ridge pattern. Positive 500 hts also indicate weaker U/L tropical zonal winds, which means less vertical wind shear between 200 and 850mb.
  • El Nino should be waning in May and that would mean a northward movement, as well as, the seasonal northward movement of the storm track. However, storm track still south of norm due to El Nino, and I’m concerned with storm systems along Plan Azores Bermuda route.
  • At this point, Plan Ireland to Newfoundland seems the most favorable of the three options. Because: 1) tendency for storm track to be south of norm, 2) and indictors leading to a blocking U/L ridge in north central Atlantic, and possible need to travel further south than norm to reach the high cell the Azores route.
  • No guarantees there won’t be adverse weather for Ireland to Newfoundland, but we can mitigate the risk hopefully easier.

There you have it. Nothing concrete today of course, but we have the basis for watching the patterns. We will start consulting with Rick towards the end of April.

Posted by Steve Dashew  (March 1, 2010)

3 Responses to “North Atlantic Routing Logic – Part ll”

  1. Todd Rickard Says:

    Credit where credit is due…

    I believe you are referring to Philip J. Klotzbach and William M. Gray’s Annual Hurricane Forecast from Colorado State University, not the University of Colorado. As a CSU alum, I couldn’t help but help point this out. Go Rams!

  2. Alcir Says:

    I would like some information regarding a trip from Bergen Norway to Rio De Janeiro Brasil,i own a 32ft Motor Sailor Alo 96 and i do not have ocean cruising experience,i really appreciate any kind of input : regarding departure time, route,preparations and all that can help me in this enterprise,it is something that i want to do for a long time and i believe that this is the wright moment in my life to start preparing for it;i thank very much for any kind of help.
    Great Winds

  3. Steve Dashew Says:

    Best to get some experience locally, and work your way up to this long of a passage. You will want to break the trip up, and need to avoid the Atlantic hurricane season, and the gale seasons in your part of the world. V