People have been doing Atlantic Circuits since the time of Columbus and there’s a very good reason. It’s easier to sail with the wind than it is to sail against it.
Sailing where the wind blows
From northern Europe, there’s a very clear squashed circle of favourable winds that will blow you south from the UK to the Canary Islands, across to the West Indian islands of the Caribbean and then northeast all the way home.
For sailors, cruisers and liveaboards living somewhere on the perimeter of the Atlantic ocean, the Atlantic Circuit is a perfect route for true exploration.
If you leave from the UK, you can sail south to Spain and Portugal before going offshore to the Madeira Islands and the Canary Islands. From there you head west with the tradewinds all the way to the tropical shores of the Caribbean!
If you’re leaving from North America, it’s only around three weeks to the Portuguese islands of the Azores. Many American sailors then head south to the Madeira group and Canaries before returning to the Americas.
For all sailors though, the Madeira group and Canary islands are also gateways to the Mediterranean.
The Classic Route Around the Atlantic
East to West
The classic route begins from Falmouth in the UK. From there you head south to Spain. From Spain you sail to Madeira (or its tiny sister island and one of my favourites, Porto Santo).
From Madeira you go south again to the Canary islands where you can collect yourself, provision in huge hypermarkets and get any last minute spares, parts and deliveries.
Now it’s time to cross the Atlantic!
From the Canary islands, the most common place to sail to is the West Indies. Depending on how long you want to spend on your Atlantic Circuit will depend on which island you aim to make landfall on.
Many sailors then work their way up the Windward and Leeward islands of the Caribbean with just daysail between them and dependable winds.
The return Atlantic crossing from west to east often begins from Antigua or the French/Dutch island of Saint Martin. This is because the winds are usually very favourable from these islands and the provisioning is excellent.
Most sailors leave the Caribbean and head to the Azores, a mid-Atlantic island chain belonging to Portugal. From there they return home to the UK, France or other European countries.
West to East
North American sailors often head to the European islands on the way to the Caribbean. This somewhat lengthy route is ideal as it gives them time to explore these off-lying parts of Europe without leaving them trapped in the midst of EU countries and nearing the end of their Schengen Visas.
As the Schengen Visas last 3 months, North American sailors have time to sail to the Azores, Madeira Group and the Canary Islands before jumping off again to the Caribbean.
This route entails leaving from the eastern coast of North America and sailing around three weeks to the Azores. After island hopping their way down to the Canary Islands, they re-provision and set sail for the Caribbean.
Island hopping up the Caribbean and Bahamas, North American sailors can return home via the coast or the inland waterways in the USA.
Why do the Atlantic Circuit?
Sailors of all ages do the Atlantic Circuit because it is easily achievable in one or two years, depending on how much time you have. Of course, you can also do it over many years and explore the many surrounding countries.
For many cruisers, they can only take a one year sabbatical from work and so fit in their circuit there.
Others sail with children and only want to homeschool at sea for one year.
Many sailors are retired but only want to leave their friends, family or homes for one or two years and of course, there’s always a question of money.
The Atlantic Circuit is the perfect compromise between time, money and adventure. Easily doable in one year, you get to explore so many islands that are extremely hard to visit any other way, let alone in the number you can by boat.
Time Frame – One Year
In order to complete the circuit in 12 months, you’d typically leave the UK around August or September. This gives you good weather to cross the Bay of Biscay off western France and get below incoming autumn storms.
Then you must be in the Canary Islands by mid-November in order to cross the Atlantic as early as the weather allows. This means you get plenty of time exploring the Caribbean.
You will need to leave the Caribbean for Europe again by around June. There is a short crossing season between late Spring storms and early hurricanes.
If it takes you 3 weeks to cross the Atlantic from the Canaries and you leave on December the 1st, you’ll have around 6 months to explore the Caribbean!
Time Frame – Two Years
Two years means much more time to explore all the islands you come across and sail further afield than the one year circuit.
However, you will be in the Caribbean Sea during a hurricane season and must take this into consideration as you will need to be somewhere outside of the hurricane area for the season.
The beginning of the Circuit is the same and you leave the Canaries in December or January. Because you have two years, you can start at the bottom of the West Indies and arrive in Grenada, or even Trinidad and work your way north island by island.
As Grenada is out of the path of hurricanes, some two year sailors start at the top of the West Indies and work their way down. This way they can reach Grenada by the start of hurricane season. From there they can even head to Colombia or Venezuela.
However, sailing from the Canaries to the top of the West Indies is a longer passage and often sailors, including the ARC, choose an island midway such as St Lucia or Martinique.
After or during the hurricane season, sailors can explore Central America, the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) or go north to Cuba and Hispaniola (after the hurricane season).
When the hurricanes end in November, you have another full 8 months with which to explore more Caribbean countries including the Bahamas or head up to the USA.
When your second June comes around, it’s time to head east to the Azores and home.
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