Tradewinds: Everything you need to know before sailing the Atlantic (2024)

Meteorologist Chris Tibbs explains the Atlantic tradewinds and how to use them to ensure a smooth transatlantic crossing

A transatlantic tradewind crossing from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean is on many a sailor’s bucket list. Endless sunny days of running before the wind followed by nights under a sky full of stars with dolphins playing alongside…

The tradewinds are the driving force for sailing across the Atlantic and with the clockwise circulation of air around the Azores High, it appears quite obvious which way we should go – skirt the high without getting too close and losing the wind. With today’s good forecasts and communications this should be easy enough, however reality shows that the day-to-day weather can be quite different from the climatological averages.

How far north or south the Azores High is established, and where any low pressure over Africa is, will determine just where the band of strongest winds will be found. There are large initial gains to be made if we can head on a direct route at the beginning of the passage, but at some stage we will have to make a dive south to stay in the tradewinds.

In phase with the shift

The gains made by heading west first are that it is in phase with the expected wind swing. We start in a more northerly wind that will tend to veer towards the east as we progress. Going west first helps avoid a dead run all the way. But sailing and weather is not that simple; the wind shadows and acceleration zones can extend a long way from the Canary Islands.

My rule of thumb is to get at least 100 miles south of Tenerife but we have to get clear of the Gran Canaria wind shadow first. If we can slip through during the afternoon, when the wind shadow is at a minimum, gains can be made but there is a risk of getting caught in light wind.

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We may also find a band of stronger wind along the African coast where a heat low increases the pressure gradient. Heading south in this wind band can give some great speeds, but on port gybe in a veering wind gybe angles can be large.

There are other considerations to be taken into account; often in November there will be the tail end of a cold front splitting the Azores High. This can give a band of light and variable wind, and with the trades generally steadier to the south, a dive south may be called for.

It is often said that a more northerly route following the great circle is faster but has a greater chance of beating or encountering some strong wind. If you are racing across, it may well be worth the risk, but at times it has proved to be punishing.

Over the last few years the record for the ARC has been broken a number of times and interestingly the fastest routes have been both to the north and the more traditional southern route, which just goes to prove that the weather is not quite as settled as averages show.

The majority of yachts follow the traditional route heading towards the Cape Verde Islands before tracking west. There are a number of good reasons for this: it’s the most well trodden path and gives a good average, while staying as far away from the tiresome swell created by North Atlantic storms. It is therefore considered a more comfortable route with consistent tradewinds at the cost of a few extra miles.

Tradewinds: Everything you need to know before sailing the Atlantic (3)

With the Azores High well established to the north there were strong tradewinds through the Canary Islands for the 2015 ARC (left). In 2016 (right) the pattern was completely different.

The last time I sailed the ARC was in 2015. It was a pretty straightforward year; a fast start and a rhumbline course for the first week, then a dive south to avoid light winds. We were downwind the whole way with a poled out headsail for about 70 per cent of the time and spinnaker the rest.

We were lucky and had a fast passage of 16 days. In 2016 the wind gods were not so kind and it was a year of either going way south or following a northerly course. The middle route was particularly slow.

Having been forecasting for yachts in the ARC for over 15 years I have seen a great deal of variability. Following the traditional route will usually give a very pleasant sail, however for the racing division and more performance orientated crews, a more northerly option may be faster (but not always).

On a long passage, extended forecasts are useful, but look for consistency in weather routing solutions. It is easy to be tempted to take an extreme route only to find that the forecast changes radically over time.

Stick or twist?

Some sailors will choose a route well ahead of time and stick to it. However, large gains can be made by using the available forecasts and being more flexible. For me, this is a large part of an ocean passage but over 15-20 days at sea many may feel there is no harm in an extra day or so of great sailing!

Tradewinds: Everything you need to know before sailing the Atlantic (4)About the author

Chris Tibbs is a meteorologist and weather router, as well as a professional sailor and navigator, forecasting for Olympic teams and the ARC rally.

First publish in the December 2017 edition of Yachting World.

Tradewinds: Everything you need to know before sailing the Atlantic (2024)


Can a beginner sail across the Atlantic? ›

Novices can sail in guided group expeditions. Many sailing schools and organisations offer transatlantic training programs designed to prepare novice sailors for the challenges of open-ocean voyages.

Can a 30 foot sailboat cross the Atlantic? ›

Almost any well-prepared yacht of 30ft and upwards can tackle the downwind crossing, and indeed there is no reason why an even smaller boat can't do it successfully.

How to prepare to sail across the Atlantic? ›

A: Essential safety equipment for a transatlantic sail includes life jackets, a life raft, flares, a VHF radio, EPIRB, and a well-equipped first aid kit. Having all necessary safety gear aboard is important to ensure a safe journey.

Are trade winds good for sailing? ›

Known to sailors around the world, the trade winds and associated ocean currents helped early sailing ships from European and African ports make their journeys to the Americas. Likewise, the trade winds also drive sailing vessels from the Americas toward Asia.

What is the minimum size boat to cross the Atlantic? ›

How big of a yacht can you cross the Atlantic Ocean in? For comfort and safety, yachts crossing the ocean should be a minimum of 30ft. This size boat allows you to travel securely across the Atlantic Ocean.

Is 60 too old to start sailing? ›

60 is not too old to start sailing; you should not let age hold you back. The open water awaits for anybody who wants to start as a beginner, no matter their age. Our Competent Crew Practical Course is a perfect introduction to beginners aged 60 to 65 years and over.

What is the safest sailboat for the ocean crossing? ›

Kraken yachts are engineered to withstand the toughest conditions, ensuring that you and your crew stay safe no matter where your journey takes you. Trusted sources in the boating community have recognized Kraken Yachts as the safest choice for sailors.

What size sailboat is best for crossing the ocean? ›

Boats to cross the ocean

It is true that it is possible to make this dream come true with almost any boat, although it is best to select a ship with about 50 feet, in the case of monohulls, and about 40 feet, for multihulls.

What is the best route to sail across the Atlantic? ›

The most common route for those looking to sail across the Atlantic is from east to west, sailing west from the Canary Islands to the West Indies, notably St Lucia. Around 2100 miles, this route has the considerable advantage of being in the north-easterly trade winds.

What is the safest route to sail around the world? ›

If it's your first circumnavigation, it's safer to follow the most popular cruising routes and use the trade winds to move across oceans. This involves sailing westward around the world via the Panama Canal and either through the Suez Canal or by rounding South Africa.

How do you sleep when sailing across the Atlantic? ›

Most sailboats have cabins with sleeping quarters. While underway in the open ocean, sailboat crews sleep in shifts between two and six hours long. Single-handed sailors wake up briefly every few hours to check their heading and watch for other ships.

Do you need a passport to sail across the Atlantic? ›

Of course, a valid passport is required for any cruise touring Europe, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean, or originating in another country. You won't even make it onto the plane that will get you there without a valid passport.

What winds should you not sail in? ›

Anything over 30 knots would result in a bad day for most sailboats. Less for small boats. The general rule is that 10–20 is ideal. Up to 25 knots is good for heavy offshore boats.

What is the best wind indicator for sailing? ›

Davis Windex

The most popular masthead wind indicator, these are the gold standard for detecting wind direction finding. Featuring perfect balance and a sapphire bearing, we've had these on boats for over 20 years without failure.

What weakens trade winds? ›

The strengthening and weakening of the trade winds is a function of changes in the pressure gradient of the atmosphere over the tropical Pacific. Ironically, the warming of the sea surface works to decrease the atmospheric pressure above it by transfering more heat to the atmosphere and making it more buoyant.

How much experience does it take to sail across the Atlantic? ›

Previous Experience: You should have completed several shorter offshore passages before attempting an Atlantic crossing. This experience helps in understanding the demands of long-distance sailing and in preparing for the unique challenges of an ocean crossing.

How much does it cost to cross the Atlantic on a sailboat? ›

Let's first say that an Atlantic crossing is not an inexpensive experience: the cost varies greatly depending on the type of boat, the number of stops and the duration; indicatively, the cost could range between 2,000 and 4,000 euros per person.

What type of boat can cross the Atlantic? ›

Both monohulls and catamarans cross the Atlantic. Catamarans are generally faster, more spacious, and rock less. On the flip side: they can flip! If they do, it's a major challenge to come up again.

How hard is it to learn to sail in the ocean? ›

Learning to sail can be challenging, especially for beginners. Here are some of the common difficulties people may encounter when learning to sail: Understanding the terminology: Sailing has its own set of vocabulary and terminology, which can be overwhelming for beginners.


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