Where We Explore: Atlantic Ocean

Las Palmas continues to be the main point of departure of these popular cruising grounds.

Shirley Heights, Antigua

Shirley Heights, AntiguaMark Pillsbury

One area which has seen little change over the years is the North Atlantic Ocean, where hundreds of boats complete an Atlantic circuit by sailing from the Canaries to the Caribbean Sea, typically after the middle of November, and sailing the following year in May or June to the Azores, either direct or via Bermuda. The timing and route would be the opposite for those leaving from North America.

Historically, there’s no place in the world that has a larger concentration of boats preparing for an ocean passage than Las Palmas, on Gran Canaria, one of the Canary Islands. I started my investigation in this port, where Christopher Columbus prepared his ships for their historic voyage.

Las Palmas continues to be the main port of departure on a westbound transatlantic passage and the port authority recorded a total of 1,485 foreign flagged yachts calling at Las Palmas during 2010. Approximately 80 percent of those boats continued across the Atlantic; another 200 boats, roughly, left from other Canary islands. Some also leave from Madeira, in the Madeira Islands, and even directly from Gibraltar, so it can be assumed that around 1,500 crossed the Atlantic along the northeast trade winds route in 2010, which is similar to most years.

The statistics from Las Palmas also show the nationalities of the visiting yachts, with those from France and Britain making up almost half of the 1,485 visiting boats, followed by German, Americans, and those of various other flags.

Meanwhile, in Horta, in the Azores, the preferred European landfall for boats arriving from an eastbound Atlantic crossing, port officials recorded 1,098 boats clearing in during 2010, showing a slight decline from 1,144 arrivals in 2000.

One significant change is in the nationalities of the crews; the statistics highlight the current predominance of French yachts in the Atlantic, as opposed to 2000, when boats from the United Kingdom led the pack.

Bermuda, which is just as important a cruising hub as Horta, and is used as a point of transit by North American boats sailing between the mainland and the Caribbean or Europe, as well as by boats returning from the Caribbean to either the U.S. East Coast or Europe, is another important telltale and indicator of Atlantic traffic.

The total of boats that called at Bermuda in 2010 was 905 compared to 1,137 in 2006 and 1,160 in 2000. The decline during the last decade reflects the increasing trend among American boats to bypass Bermuda and sail directly to the eastern Caribbean. Whereas 140 boats arrived in Bermuda from the U.S. mainland in November 2009 on the way south, by 2010 that number had gone down to 99.

For boats arriving in the Caribbean from the east, the preferred landfalls are Saint Lucia, Antigua, Tortola, Martinique, and Barbados. Numbers indicate that about half the boats arriving in the Caribbean will spend a season there, arriving in the fall and leaving in the spring. What has changed is the decrease in the number of boats stored for multiple seasons in Trinidad, perhaps an indication of the effects of climate change and economic turmoil.

Boats left at Trinidadian yards for hurricane season show a significant reduction, from a peak of 2,664 in 2000 and 1,845 in 2006, to 1,367 boats spending the summer there in 2010.