Azores to Southampton

The Passage Plan

An extract from Jimmy Cornell’s sixth edition of World Cruising Routes, p161, suggesting June-July as the best time, makes for interesting reading and advice:

“The prevailing winds of summer are NE and therefore all passages from the Azores to Northern Europe are usually closed hauled. A direct course for the English Channel is rarely possible, nor is it advisable, as the westerly winds and east-setting current that prevail in higher latitudes will set the boat into the Bay of Biscay. The usual tactic is to sail due north until steady westerly winds are encountered, but not to join the great circle route to the English Channel before latitude 45°N is reached.

In the area immediately to the north of the Azores calms are frequent, their extent depending on the position of the Azores high and the ridge of high pressure that normally extends from it towards Europe during summer. If such calm spots are encountered one should be prepared to motor through them and make the desired northing. Even if there is no wind, the weather will be fine and sunny before it gives way to westerly winds, overcast skies, and generally wet and cold weather. Summer weather for the English Channel is difficult to predict and the winds can come from any direction and at any strength. Visibility can become poor in the approaches to the Channel and both this fact and the presence of strong tidal currents, as well as the large amount of shipping, must all be borne in mind when making landfall on the English coast.”

 Note that the first edition of World Cruising Routes was published in 1987, almost 30 years ago, well before the advent of the Internet and down loadable 10-day GRIB weather forecasts that is available today. Nevertheless, it does provide tactical insight when less information is at hand.

Above is the GRIB ten day weather forecast obtained on Sat 27 June 2015 just before our departure from Ponta Delgada. The area covered is limited because of bandwidth download limitations on the smart phone. What is clear is a developing low, centred just north of the Azores (with gale force winds) and travelling NE which would be unlikely to have posed a threat as it would have remained ‘out of reach’ as we travelled initially north and then northeast towards the English Channel. However, the next developing low, further west would pose a bigger threat as the forecast indicated strong winds that would sweep east much of the way towards the Portuguese mainland coast before heading northeast.

SailGRIB weather routing run based on GRIB forecast of 27 June 2015 indicating strong winds late Thu 2 July into Fri 3 July. It is not far from the route actually taken.
SailGRIB weather routing run based on GRIB forecast of 27 June 2015 indicating strong winds late Thu 2 July into Fri 3 July. It is not far from the route actually taken. The time taken is also comparable.

I ran the weather routing Android app SailGrib using the same GRIB file specifying an approximate polar performance diagram for an Island Packet 380 as well as a maximum allowable headwind and tailwind true speeds of 15 and 25 knots, respectively. (Baybreeze is, after all, a cruising yacht and not a racing one!). The optimal route follows approximately the great circle for the first 400 nm and heads with a more easterly component as the wind strengthens so as to avoid much of the onslaught. So, this was roughly the plan adopted, with La Coruña acting as a safe haven should the need arise. However, there is no guarantee that things will turn out as predicted. GRIB files are just forecasts, after all!

We did not have the ability to download GRIB files on passage but instead relied heavily on weather faxes provided by an SSB radio receiver and weatherfax software on a PC. With much more sophisticated information available, the advice was to head NE then E before heading towards the Channel rather than N to the 45th parallel then NE to the Channel as recommended in Cornell’s book.

Extracts from the Ship’s Log

Day 1. Sat 27 June 2015. WSW 2-3 -> W 3.
1040 departed Ponta Delgada. 1440 arrived at Caldeira Franca du Campo and anchored for lunch. Sunny day. Dived underwater to scrape clean the hull as best we could. 1845 departed for Southampton.

Illustrates the dangers of using a chartplotter alone, in this case OpenCPN and C-MAP! The location is Caldeira Franca du Campo on the south coast of São Miguel. The track should actually lie one cable (about the island's width) to the north.The above chart illustrates the dangers of using a chartplotter alone, in this case OpenCPN and C-MAP! The location is Caldeira Franca du Campo on the south coast of São Miguel Island. The boat’s track should actually lie one cable (about the island’s width) to the north.

Day 2. Sun 28 June 2015. SW 4.
0000 at SE corner of São Miguel Island. 0600-0900 two small bonitos caught by rod and line. Distance logged: 111nm.

Day 3. Mon 29 June 2015. SW 4-5.
1640 wind shift accompanied by squalls, briefly F8. Evening rain. Distance logged: 130nm. Distance to Lizard Point: 931nm.

Day 4. Tue 30 June 2015. NW5 – WNW4-5, occnl F6.
Developing gale at 44°N 26°W. Occasionally very rough seas N Fitzroy forecast. Distance logged: 113nm. Distance to Lizard Point: 813nm.

Day 5. Wed 1 July 2015. NW5-WNW4.
Early morning rain squalls, occnly F6. Sunny later. Barometer rising. Practised heaving to for an hour. Took sextant sun sights to verify GPS position. Distance logged: 107nm.

Day 6. Thu 2 July 2015. W3-4 – S6-7.
0110 patrol vessel without AIS spotted and approaches 200m to starboard travelling in opposite direction. 0600 wind shift so gybed to starboard. Wind increases during day. Higher winds expected soon. Distance logged: 129nm. Distance to Lizard Point: 596nm.

Day 7. Fri 3 July 2015. S6-8.
Battened down. Gale force winds, occnly F9. Rough seas. Forecast: West Finisterre to 0800 Sat S6-7 -> SW5-6, later W/SW3-4. Distance logged: 137nm. Distance to Lizard Point: 441nm.

Day 8. Sat 4 July 2015. WSW5-06 -> SW4.
0600 Genoa poled out on main boom. 1930 two whales sighted in the distance. Distance logged: 122nm. Distance to Lizard Point: 314nm.

Day 9. Sun 5 July 2015. SW4-5 ->SW3.
Engine run for 2.8 hrs to recharge batteries. Forecast: Plymouth/N Biscay SW4-5 b S5-6 later. 1500 200m depth contour passed. Distance logged: 112nm. Distance to Lizard Point: 179nm.

Chart of the Western Approaches to the English Channel with Traffic Separation Schemes and Baybreeze’s AIS display showing numerous ships.

Day 10. Mon 6 July 2015. SSW3-4->SSW6.
1305 Light aircraft swoops past to starboard. 2320 course change to avoid Plymouth/Roscoff ferry, unable or unwilling to change direction. Now in busy shipping lanes. Strong spring tides. Distance logged: 145nm. Distance to Lizard 48nm. Distance to Needles fairway 179nm.

Day 11. Tue 7 July 2015. WSW6-7 -> WSW5.
1500 practised heave to. 1800 anchored at Studland Bay sheltered for overnight stay. Distance logged: 92nm.

Day 12. Wed 8 July 2015. WSW5.
0705 weighed anchor to catch fair tide through the Needles Channel. Route via North Channel. 1300 berthed at Shamrock Quay. Distance logged: 30nm.

Travel statistics: logged distance: 1223 nm, engine hours: 8, duration: 11 days, 18 hours (excludes overnight stop at Studland Bay).

Note: Throughout the entire voyage and with three crew in total, we operated on a 3 hours on, 6 hours off rota, as follows:

In practice, we found it easier that whoever cooked lunch and dinner also cleaned and washed up.


A big THANK YOU to my crew, Len Hiley and Tony Stattersfield. I suggested the trip to Len in November last year to which he readily agreed. It was some time later that Tony, whom I’d met on one other occasion, emailed me to ask if he could join us, even if it was for just one of the outward or return voyages. This was rather fortuitous, as my yacht insurer required a minimum of three able-bodied crew aboard, so I gladly accepted!

I could not have asked for a better crew. Both had expert knowledge of seamanship, boat maintenance and repair which they were happy to exercise and impart. The key to the voyage’s success lay in preparation, something to which we all contributed substantially. A special thanks to Len who masterminded the passage plan allowing us to comfortably sail with the wind on the quarter or behind us for much of the way! A special thanks also to Pedro Pinto of Terceira who showed us great kindness and hospitality.

Messaging while at sea: satellite track and blog