Blue Water

The Hardest Part of Crossing an Ocean

Those who have crossed oceans will all have different forms of advice. Some will recommend eating extra to gain weight that you will inevitably lose while crossing, others will declare infinite storm preparedness. I have much simpler words of wisdom.

My advice is this: Setting sail across an ocean is easy, the hard part will be returning to the world of civilization. On the ocean, direction doesn't matter. At times we were 200 miles north of our course, yet our heading was unchanged because the ocean is so vast. If a storm was passing by, we would change course and sail the wrong way for a good distance to avoid the weather system. Once we were clear of it, we would then resume our previous course. There is nothing to run into, no reefs, no lee shores, no anything.

Today is day 22 from Bermuda to the Azores and we have seen a grand total of 4 ships! Night watch is more focused on watching the weather as we have never seen navigation lights on the horizon.

All that is going to change as we are nearing the end of our voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.

In 40 nautical miles, we will pass Corvo, the first island in the archipelago. Tonight's watch is not only focused on the weather, but also on traffic and land.

We are reaching the other side, and soon, 10 miles off course can put you on a rock! Just as a lee shore can limit your ability to sail around a weather system.

Most of all, landfall means the return to civilization. No longer will it be only Maddie and me in the world of the visible horizon. We will be able to venture off away from Wisdom and walk for miles over land. We will meet new people and new cultures, and we will have made it to the other side.

This may sound wonderful, but we have been living in a bubble of "just us" for over 3 weeks. I have come to know Maddie in even deeper ways and she is my entire world out here. There has been no stress of timelines or schedules. We have no meetings to get to, no due dates for our work. It has been a wonderful escape from the hectic world we live in, where we can sit back and appreciate every single unique sunset and watch the stars come out in the sky.

I sit here on night watch and look at the moons light glittering a beam of light ahead of us, the shadow of our tanbark jib blocking out a section of this moonbeam, and the water rushing past. We have no cares or worries, but we are rapidly driving ourselves forward towards the end of this bliss.

Landfall means that this blissful world we have lived in for the past month will stop. That is the hard part of crossing an ocean to me, having the journey end!

Flag Size for Blue Water Cruisers

A while ago, I did a post about how to select the proper flag size for your yacht. The longer your yacht, the larger the flag should be, that way it all looks proportional.

This is great for weekenders and coastal cruisers who can avoid bad weather by hiding in a protected cove. This is not the case for a cruiser out in the ocean.

Our flag was tied to the topping lift in a location that I could reach. If foul weather was coming, I would furl the flag around the topping lift and tie it off with another line. I had to do this because the flag was large enough to actually pull on the topping lift and cause us to heel a bit.

The flag met its demise one violent storm when its furling line actually came off and the flag flew free. It beat so violently that it shredded itself.

When selecting a replacement flag, I went a size smaller and tied it in the same place. This flag seems appropriately sized for ocean sailing. In storms, it hasn't caused us any ill effects and has not necessitated a good furling. It is small enough that a violent beating doesn't seem to hurt the cloth, as none of the stitches have worked free. This flag is made by the same manufacturer, so it's not a difference there.

When at anchor, the flag does look small relative to the rest of the yachts, but it is still visible from a distance and meets the legal requirements.

If you are choosing a flag for a coastal boat, get a nice big pretty flag to fly! But if you are planning on crossing blue water, consider choosing a flag that is a size smaller.

Time Zones on the Ocean

When crossing an ocean East to West or West to East, you will be crossing many time zones.

Time zones are an artificial creation  by humans to help organize our days in a predictable fashion. It is much easier to proclaim that the work day starts at 9am and ends at 5pm and not have to specify where this time is taken and how to convert to your local time.

Time zones change 1 hour every 15 degrees of longitude. This means as you sail across an ocean, every 15 degrees will mean that your clocks will change by an hour.

You have a few choices here on the matter, you could keep your clocks on the same time as the country you departed from or the country you will arrive at, and simply deal with the variance in sunrise and sunset times. You could also adjust your clocks as you progress across the ocean. And lastly, you could ignore the constructs of time zones all together and live by UTC time.

We are buddy boating across the Atlantic with an Australian couple on "Adventurous" and they are advancing their clocks by 1 hour as they cross the time zones.

Maddie has not adjusted the time zone on her phone as we have sailed across two time zones, so it has its own time. I have set my phone to UTC time and simply ignore the constructs of time zones all together.

For me, noon is when the sun is directly overhead. That is when I take the moon sight with the sextant. Time zones make it difficult to know which hour I should be getting ready to take the sight. As we advance East, I know it will be a few minutes earlier than last time. At this current moment, I start getting my sextant ready at 3pm UTC. I am ready and I don't miss the sun.

Now, timezones make it easy for daily living if you live by a clock. You eat breakfast at this time, you eat dinner at that time, you awake at this time, you sleep at that time. But while cruising, all of that can go over the side of the deck! We sleep when we are tired and we eat when we are hungry. Some days, we have one meal, other days are spent cooking and eating in entirety! Since time is immaterial to us, I feel fine having a clock that simply tells me my latitude instead of how to live my life.

With watches Maddie and I don't really follow a time schedule. Instead she does first watch until she is tired. I do the next watch until I am tired. This way, neither of us is forced to be out there if we are falling asleep.

When crossing an ocean, time is a construct that you can use or be used by. On the boat, the choice is yours since no one is telling you what to do.

Ocean Navigator Mentality

When we first started cruising, the goal was to cross the Atlantic Ocean. We wanted to sail to Europe via Bermuda and the Azores, to give us stopover points along the way. While our hearts were in the right place, we still were not mentally ready to go.

When we sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay, I viewed our position as "miles from shore" or "miles from the coast." I hadn't let go of land and was not ready to go out to sea, even though I really did want to!

We left the bay and hugged the coast as we made our way down to Cape Hatteras, where we were forced to move offshore to avoid the Diamond Shoals. The "Graveyard of the Atlantic", home to more wrecks than any other place in the Atlantic Ocean, extends a mere 14 miles out to sea. To be safe, I positioned us at 20 miles from the coast. 20 miles! And to think I was planning to cross an ocean!

We got wrapped up in a gale and spent the next four days hove to. The storm carried us 50 miles from shore and I started to get nervous! I feared that the storm might sweep us into the Gulf Stream and push us very far north while we were still trying to make our way South. When we reached 50 miles from shore, I took the helm and brought us around the cape and back into shore.

The valiant sailor who wants to cross an ocean returns to shore after an 8 day voyage, 50 miles from land...

We then hugged the coast all the way down to Florida. It was a mix of ICW down to Charleston, SC, where at one point we were several miles inland sailing on a freshwater river. Once we hit South Carolina, we began coastal hopping. We would wait in a town for the weather to be right and then hop out into the ocean to ride a cold front south. The winds were strong and we made the whole trip from Charleston, SC to West Palm Beach, FL under trysail and staysail! These strong winds carried us quickly, but never far from shore. The furthest out we got was still under 30 miles from land.

Then we made the great leap to the Bahamas! A mere 50 miles with land at your stern as you sail off over the horizon. This baby step came with much fear and trepidation since we were going to go offshore and away from land! I had my nervous panic the night before we left and Maddie calmed me down and talked me through it. The next morning, we left and in two days we arrived at West End, Grand Bahamas! A switched flipped in my head, but I just hadn't realized it yet.

We sailed from island to island, and the practice of putting land to your stern and sailing toward an empty horizon started to feel normal. It really clicked when we made the windward sail from Nassau to the Exumas.

This 37 mile passage took us 5 days and over 150 miles under our keel! We left Nassau and didn't see land for a week! When we arrived in the Exumas, the thought of leaving land behind and spending a lot f time at sea felt less scary. The world changed in perspective from "our position to land" to "our position."

When we left the Bahamas to reprovision in Florida, we left Staniel Cay behind us and sailed past many islands over the next few days. We arrived in Florida and anchored as if we were returning from a daysail. Arriving at land didn't feel impacting or emotional, it just felt like we were here so that we can leave again.

Then we did the big shove off when we left Florida for Bermuda. This was to be a 700 mile voyage that should take 7-10 days. There were no jitters or fears, no nagging feelings about preparedness or apprehensions about leaving land behind for such a long journey. We simply raised anchor and went out to sea. We sailed away from Florida and encountered no wind. The short trek took us 20 days to complete! In those three weeks, my grasp on reality changed.

I no longer view our position in the world as being relative to anything else around us. I no longer listen to weather forecasts, or anything that is not on this boat. When we go to sea, we are everything right here on our lonely ocean world with nothing but waves and clouds in sight. We are in the center of what we can see and we are moving forward towards our far off destination. We are not "miles from anything" because we are right here right now.

We look at the clouds for our weather forecast and we look at the stars for guidance (as well as our GPS). We are merely here.

When we left Bermuda for the Azores, there was just a feeling of peace. We sailed out of St. George's Harbor and didn't even look back to see the land disappear over the horizon. We had departed and our world was now the boat, and the boat is right where we are. We set a course for the Azores and relaxed as we crossed an ocean.


I look back on our first attempt to cross the Atlantic last year and realize the difference in mentality. Yes, had the weather been better, we would have crossed the ocean, but I would not have been as relaxed as I am now. I would have constantly been calculating how far from land we were instead of sitting back and watching the sunset over our little visible disk of ocean.

If you want to do blue water cruising, don't think of it as going far out to sea. Picture it as being right where you are. You should not base your perspective on some distant point of land, instead, your world should be focused around you on your boat; wherever that may be.

Ocean Passage Planning

When you want to go from one place to the next, you might find that the shortest is across the ocean. If you are sailing, the quickest way across will be when the wind is blowing well and in the direction you are going. 

If there is no wind, you will have no power with your sails. If the wind is on your bow, you will have to beat into the wind and waves as you tack towards your desitnation, easily sailing 2 to 3 times the distance between the two points.  

Picking when to go based on the weather will give you the perfect conditions to make your way there quickly and easily.

If you are planning to go in the direction of the prevailing winds, then you will find it easy to choose. Since you are going with the prevailing winds, most of the days will be blowing in the right direction. This means that you will have plenty of times to choose from! Simply picking a day that has fair winds will give you ideal conditions. 

If you are planning to go in the opposite direction of the prevailing winds, then you will have to wait for a cold front to come through and reverse the winds. This will blow you to your destination, but the days are not as frequent. 

Cold fronts come through periodically, and can vary in intensity. Obviously, you don't want to go out in front of a very powerful cold front, but you also don't want to head out on a very weak one that won't be able to push you along. 

It is important to keep in mind that cold fronts are also called "storms" by other people, so be prepared for those kinds of conditions. 

We have sallied from Charelston, SC to Ferdinandina, FL moving along quickly under storm sails, and again from Ferdinandina, FL to Fort Pierce, FL thanks to strong cold fronts. 

There were small craft advisories, and we were only flying the trysail and staysail, yet we were doing 5-6 knots most of the time with periods of 8-10 knots! The ride was rough and intense, but we did manage to cover two days worth of sailing in a single day!  

We worked hard, slept little, and sailed fast. Once we arrived at our next inlet, we were able to pull in and go to sleep for the whole day!