The irresistible lure of the cruel sea: What drives yachtsmen to sail cross the Atlantic?

Stuart Alexander, who crossed the Atlantic with half a mast, can understand why four British mariners set out on this perilous journey. He explains the terrifying experience of navigating the planet’s wildest and moodiest stretch of water

Loïck Peyron, the famed French yachtsman, describes the Atlantic as “a bit like my back garden”. Yet despite that cosy comparison, he admits that it still frightens him even more than South America’s notoriously challenging Cape Horn. The Atlantic is “the most dangerous place I have sailed”.

The British solo sailor Mike Golding, who stopped counting his Atlantic crossings when he reached 30, still rates the Southern Ocean, which encircles Antarctica, as more frightening – but he points to the problems posed by the many moods of the Atlantic, which batters those taking the northern route westwards and caresses those taking a southerly course to the Caribbean.

The silver sea in which the British Isles are set has inspired adventure, romance, and fear for hundreds of years. With the US coastguard last night just hours away from once again halting its search for the four UK sailors who went missing last week, many might ask why people continue to pursue such a plainly dangerous endeavour. But crossing “the pond” has remained an enduring attraction for adventurers since 1492 – if you believe Christopher Columbus was its original conqueror – or even earlier if the Norsemen/Greenlanders beat everyone to it.

Sailing round the world is of a different order; the Southern Ocean is of a different ferocity; the Pacific is, wrongly, seen just as a cruising ground; but the Atlantic crossing is the one which you need on your CV. It remains the gateway to the New World as far as the Europeans are concerned.

The Atlantic is closely monitored by satellites these days, criss-crossed by more shipping than formed the convoys in the Second World War, and is the subject of more weather analysis than any other stretch of water, not least because it determines so much of our local weather. It is also lonely and dangerous, and it is contemptuous of puny mankind.

It was on the northern route, having started in Florida’s Fort Lauderdale, that my only attempt was ruined by losing the top half of our mast 350 miles south of Halifax. We still made it to Southampton.

From left to right: Paul Gosling, James Male, Steve Warren and Andrew Bridge who are missing after the yacht ‘Cheeki Rafiki’ capsized in the mid-Atlantic Ocean From left to right: Paul Gosling, James Male, Steve Warren and Andrew Bridge who are missing after the yacht ‘Cheeki Rafiki’ capsized in the mid-Atlantic Ocean (PA)
Back then, in 1990, satellite navigation was still being developed. Radio communications were via a valve radio through the big listening station at Portishead, south of Bristol. Now yachts large and small have computers, a permanent satellite positioning system readout, a constantly updated estimated time of arrival, normal telephone communications and e-mails to anywhere in the world.

What has not changed is the need to be prepared for anything the Atlantic can throw at you. Of course there is sometimes the boredom of being on deck watching interminable waves, then going below for a few hours, then coming back up to see just the same: waves.  And there is the wonder on the northern route of seeing your first iceberg, totally silent, bathed in a strange ultra-violet blue light.

When the wind is howling and the waves are building on the northern route, the racing yachts going west still have to keep going through miserable grey days and black, threatening nights. Hit an iceberg, or a rogue container which has fallen off a ship, and even the toughest yacht can be threatened. The dangers of the Grand Banks fogs and the freezing cold of the Labrador current are unforgettable for Mike Golding.

Much further south, there is a constant stream of boats both westbound and eastbound sailing from France, Spain and the Azores to and from the rum cocktail islands of the West Indies. It took Columbus several weeks and he did not know where he was when he found land. Last year, the billionaire Dona Bertarelli and her skipper partner Yann Guichard set a new record for the same route to San Salvador of six days, 14 hours, 29 minutes and 21 seconds.

While sailors are a different breed from the Everest “tourists” because they have to do everything themselves, many will have another yacht in sight for the entire crossing, especially if they sail in a convoy.

To give you an idea of the power of nature and the ability of humans to harness it, the eastbound record on the classic route from Ambrose Light, New York, to the Lizard is still three days, 15 hours, 25 minutes and 48 seconds. That’s faster than the speed achieved even by the propellers of huge liners and it was set by the Frenchman Pascal Bidegorry in August 2009.

The love affair which the French have with their ocean racing heroes, especially singlehanders, was given a massive boost in 1964 when a former naval officer called Eric Tabarly decided the British could not have it all their own way after Sir Francis Chichester and a former special services officer called Blondie Hasler raced from Plymouth for a half crown bet.

That became the Ostar, the Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race, and is still on the Royal Western Yacht Club of England’s calendar. There are big plans for the 60th anniversary in 2020, which is also the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers’ voyage from England to form a new life, a new colony, eventually a new country now called the United States of America – perhaps one of the most significant transatlantic voyages ever made.

“The Atlantic has everything,” says Pete Goss, the Royal Marine turned round-the-world yachtsman who was awarded the Légion d’Honneur by the French government after a heroic rescue in the Southern Ocean. “No two Atlantic crossings are ever the same. It is an ocean that sets the rhythm of British life and is in our historical blood.”

The same view is taken by Gilles Chiorri, a former competitor and now ocean race organiser. He will be in charge of the Route du Rhum race which starts from St Malo in November bound for Guadeloupe. More than 80 boats are expected on the start line, including one entered by the 75-year old Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who has a few transatlantic miles under his keel.

St Malo expects 1.2 million people through the turnstiles in the 10 days leading up to the start. “Every good sailor in France wants to cross the Atlantic to fulfil a dream,” says Chiorri. “It is both a crazy and heroic event. I know that when I went to the start of the second race in 1982 [it is staged every four years] it proved to be something that changed the whole course of my life.”

Loïck Peyron adds: “The Atlantic can go from nothing to the worst. I remember Sir Robin completing with Sir Peter Blake on their Jules Verne record-breaking round the world voyage [in 1994] with no sails and streaming ropes from the stern to slow the yacht down as it approached Brest in a storm. But when you turn left at Cape Horn to come back north you feel so happy to be back in the Atlantic. And you can always choose which bit of it to play in.”

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