To the Caribbean via Brazil - it really makes sense
The Milk Run – where you head south from Europe “till the butter melts” then turn right with the Trades, somewhere between the Canaries and Cape Verdes - was the obvious route for my first Atlantic crossing and it really isn’t a bad route when you are unsure of what the ocean might hold. I’m glad I choose a southerly version of the route. When sailors complain about the surprisingly rough crossing they had it is often on a more northerly track, aiming to make the most direct course they can from the Canaries to somewhere in the middle of the Caribbean chain, and going sooner in the season than I did.
But I had no sooner landed in the Caribbean and had my moment of epiphany that this wasn’t going to be a one year adventure than I was regretting that I hadn’t been a bit more adventurous in my crossing. Half the reason for my regrets was that my ocean sailing eyes were being opened by the stories of sailing the immense coast of Brazil and visiting the tiny islands deep and remote in the Atlantic, such as St Helena and Fernando de Noronha. Trinidad is the cross roads for yachts coming up from the south – from Southern Africa or from South America – and this was the first time I was bumping into them.
My big discovery was to realise that I might have sailed to different places if I had grasped the nettle at the outset and planned to be away for a few years rather than a 12 month round trip. This is a point that was reinforced by the yachts I met in the Caribbean and then even more during my return crossing. I had by then a long list of places I wished I had visited but as far as my first crossing went the big regret was not to have gone to Brazil. As we travelled around the Azores and met people during the full year we spent there I came to realise that Brazil is as much the counterweight to European Portugal as North America is to the British. Many of us think nothing of visiting Canada or the USA. We all know somebody out there. We are awash with the American Dream and the American way of life from the TV programmes and Hollywood. And in the Azores we realised that we were meeting Brazilians almost as much as European Portuguese and that those terribly overblown TV soaps were actually coming from Brazil not Portugal. The effect was to change my mental map of the Atlantic ocean.
It is our loss that Brazil barely impinges on the consciousness of us Northern Europe-centric sailors. After a year in the Azores I was wondering why we had never thought of sailing to Brazil. Why haven’t you?
In the Azores I realised that we were actually on a route to Brazil. Not a very clever one but a route nonetheless. Boats were coming in from the northern Caribbean planning to sail to Brazil. It’s a long way from the Azores but it is certainly better than trying to fight all that adverse current on the direct line from the northern Lesser Antilles. These boats would cross to Madeira and the Canaries and down to the Cape Verdes using the prevailing currents and winds of the ocean. How much easier if they had started from Europe, as you would. And if you sailed as far south as you wanted in Brazil using the good angle you made across the equator, you would have the seasonal Trades and ocean currents to bring you north into the Caribbean.
Perhaps you don’t want to go as far as Rio de Janeiro. Rio lies a long way south on Brazil’s huge coastline. You might be happy to aim for Forteleza or Recife and Natal on Brazil’s big bulge to the east, stopping off first at Fernando de Noronha. This remote island has a reasonable harbour and probably only one other visiting yacht in it; that is adventure enough for me. It is also probably the shortest Atlantic crossing you can make if you set off from Dakar or Banjul or the Cape Verdes, although the snag is you have to go through the Doldrums and cross the equator. So there is another first for you.
Depending on where you are on the Brazilian coast you will be getting NE Trade Winds, strongest between December and February, or SE Trades, from March to August. The SE Trades have a lot of south to help you go north before they hand you over to the NE Trades.
This is the kind of adventure a yacht making an independent crossing can indulge in. Dump The Plan. Don’t be tied to arrangements you made before you even set off. You may never be coming this way again. Get the most out of it. Listen to the sailors you meet. The best advice about the next place on your route comes from sailors who are at the jumping off point to it. Go to Dakar and ask the sailors in the yacht club. Someone there will have made that crossing in the recent past.
From Your First Atlantic Crossing, 4th editionBooks