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Offshore at last!

We’ve just arrived to the Azores islands with the Ocean Ladies yacht, and I wanted to share with my network what it’s really like to sail across an ocean. Crossing the Atlantic is a huge task, but with a bit of support and flexibility, it can be done by ordinary sailors with work and family commitments.

Facts first

 

  • Yacht: Swan 441 Carissa Oceanlady, designed by Ron Holland and built in Finland in 1980

  • Team: skipper Raija Alapeteri, first mate Maarit Suomi, crew Sari Heinonen, Tiia Niemi, Marita Sauhke, Marjaana Suutarinen, Susanna Viljanen and Taru Weckroth

  • Sailing Club: Ocean Ladies, Finland

  • Race: ARC Europe 2022

  • Route: Sint Maarten - Bermuda - Horta (Faial, Azores) - Ponta Delgada (Sao Miguel, Azores). The crew will change at Ponta Delgada and the boat continues to sail via Cherbourg, France to Finland.

  • Dates: start 7 May, stopover in Bermuda 15-18 May, arrival in Horta 1 June 2022

 

Why this journey?

 

25 years ago, I had my first ocean crossing experience, sailing across the Atlantic from east to west. Since then, my offshore sailing interests have been in hibernation due to family and work commitments, although I co-own a small sailing boat and have some racing experience. I joined the sailing team Ocean Ladies, who provide offshore sailing experiences and training for ordinary women, and signed up to be part of the crew planning to cross the Atlantic from west to east. Atlantic crossing from east to west along the southern tradewinds route is relatively easy, with warm weather as well as predictable wind conditions and ocean currents, while the west to east route is harder, with less predictable weather and therefore more interesting sailing. We planned to participate in the ARC Europe race, starting the journey from Sint Maarten in the Caribbean, stopping briefly in Bermuda, and then sailing across the widest expanse of the North Atlantic to the Azores islands.

 

How was it?

 

The ocean served us a rich buffet of wind and weather conditions, some sweet and delicious, others very tough but satisfying. The first leg of the journey from Sint Maarten to Bermuda was generally easy sailing in good weather during daytime. After enjoyable days, very strange nights followed, as thunderclouds gathered in the western horizon at night. On three nights we saw lightning storms that we were able to avoid by taking an eastern course, but finally, we had no choice but to sail through one of them. The clouds lit up by lightning were a spectacular sight, and once we got close to the storm, lightning covered the sky. We took down all the sails and motored through the storm. This was allowed according to the race rules and would have been the only safe course of action in any case. The crew on deck got thoroughly wet and none of us particularly enjoyed the experience, but we passed through the storm unharmed.

We replenished our supplies and made some repairs in Bermuda. Our fridge had stopped working and this had revealed a problem with our batteries. After several plot twists involving a number of electricians, the final fix was completed 2 minutes before we were due to slip the lines, and we only just made it to the start line. We never made it to Bermuda’s famous pink coral sand beaches, but I hope there is a next time.

The beginning of the journey to the Azores was easy sailing with light winds and warm weather. Winds and ocean swell gradually picked up to create much more challenging conditions. The final days towards the Azores were the hardest, with windspeeds of up to 40 knots and waves built up to the size of houses. This was true ocean racing mode: waves washing over deck and crew, wearing full offshore gear - most of it only moderately less wet inside than out, and the boat rocking violently. While sailing the boat in these conditions is challenging, it’s also difficult just to move around, cook, or even eat and sleep. 

The weather calmed down to a comfortable but strong wind on the day before we approached land at Faial island. Dolphins escorted us at sunset, and after a smooth night’s sailing, we crossed the finish line in front of the famous Horta harbour at sunrise. 

 

What do we do out there?

 

When we are on the ocean, the crew is divided into 3 watch pairs of 2 people. One watch pair works on deck, another is standing by - ready to come on deck to help but also cooking and cleaning, and the third watch pair rests. The watches last 4 hours during daylight and 3 hours at night. The skipper and first mate work 5 hours on and off. Coming to a watch session was always a surprise, sometimes a happy one and sometimes not, as the weather had always changed in some way between each watch on this journey. We were not alone on the ocean either, even though we saw only a couple of ships and other sailing boats - we saw birds throughout the journey and dolphins came to greet us almost every day. 

The boat keeps moving during darkness as well as in daylight, although we make sure that we don’t have too much sail on before night falls as it is riskier to work on the sails in the dark. When sailing at night, you can’t see anything in front of the boat. We have red night lights for the compass and some of the meters - like boat speed, wind speed and wind direction - and at night we steer based on them. I really enjoyed the night watches. The stars over the ocean, hundreds if not thousands of miles away from artificial light, are incredibly bright. It’s hard to describe how it feels to stand at the helm under that sky when there’s a brisk warm wind and the boat just flies through the invisible black waves. Or what it feels like when your clothes have been wet for days, you are tired enough to fall asleep sitting up, and you still stand there, salt stinging your eyes as you get hit in the face by waves.

 

How is it different from life on land?

 

One of the attractions of this journey was that it provided the polar opposite to my working life during the pandemic.

  1. Online meetings vs. living in very close physical proximity - smell included!

  2. 24/7 online connectivity vs. one email through satellite phone per day. There is no online connection except for daily updates with race organizers and for emergencies through satellite phone. 

  3. Sleep all night vs. a couple of hours at any time between activities. At night there are 6 hours of rest between watches, but this is not nearly enough rest for the whole day, so we also sleep during the day between watches.

  4. Afraid of missing a deadline vs. scared for your life. Sailing is actually very safe, but you will inevitably feel in awe of the power of the ocean at some point. On land, I’m often stressed about completing my work on time, but here in the ocean there are no deadlines, and a total focus on task at hand. When steering, you can’t do anything else and must stay on task exactly as long as scheduled - quite literally until the next watch has placed her hand on the helm next to yours.

  5. A big family house with lots of space for different activities and gear vs. a narrow bunk and one soft bag containing everything for 6 weeks. Our yacht is a 1980’s classic but by no means a luxury model, and we race with a full crew of 8 people. There is a bunk for each person, but very little storage space, so all clothes and personal gear must stay in one soft bag for the whole journey. There is limited storage for food and water, so we must plan and use them carefully.

 

What about the people?

 

The aim was to create a balanced team with the right skills and reasonably good personality matches as well as team dynamics. We have a couple of technically oriented crew members who can deal with the motor and electronics, a couple of navigation and sail trimming experts, and me and another crew member who were responsible for provisioning food and other supplies. I love this fairly humble job. We get to visit grocery stores in interesting places, taste new foods and decide exactly what we take onboard. 

As the boat is continuously moving - as fast as is safely possible - the most important task for all crew members is to steer the boat. We don’t use an autopilot, and although the common impression is that the skipper steers the boat, in our boat she only steers in particularly tricky situations. The basic skills and experience required of all team members was lots of practical sailing experience, especially on this boat, and steering at night in rough conditions. All crew members were expected to be able to deal with seasickness (most of us use anti-seasickness plasters), have some tolerance of discomfort, and have an ability to stay calm in challenging situations. 

The only reliable test of where any individual lies on these capabilities is to see how they work and how the team works together in real life. All of our crew had sailed on Carissa before, with at least part of the team, and most of us knew each other quite well. Still, there were a couple of surprises when the full crew met and started working together, especially after the weather got interesting. We reorganized some tasks to manage the heavy weather days. Everyone who was steering did not have to take part in cooking and housekeeping, but with less rest than on normal schedule. If there’s a next time, I would insist on at least a couple of days or preferably a week of sailing together with the full crew - it takes some time to shake out the glitches.

 

What next?

 

In the end, we finished 10th out of 21 boats and received a sailing skills award for steering by hand all the way. We’ll now take a few days to relax and recharge at the Azores, and hand the boat over to another crew who will continue sailing to France before coming back home to Finland. This journey has opened up new opportunities and many of us are already preparing for new sailing challenges. I don’t have any definite plans yet, and can’t wait to get home to my family - but I hope to sail on the ocean again in future.

There are many similarities in offshore sailing and navigating challenging transformation programs in a business context. But right now, I don’t want to stretch that point. I am simply happier than ever to start my next project. It will be a massive professional challenge, but it will take place in a clean and comfortable office, and I will be wearing dry socks every day.

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