Boat Hitchhiking Part 2: How an Atlantic Crossing Works

sailing across the atlantic part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of the How to Hitchhike on a Boat series! If you missed it, you can read part 1 here. In Part 2, I’ll talk about the best time to cross the Atlantic.

The best time to cross the Atlantic

Although boats can technically cross the Atlantic at anytime, due to hurricane season in the Mid- and Western Atlantic, the vast majority of sailors go at the same time. For this reason, I will only talk about the normal crossing season.


The best time to cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean or South America is between November and February. The Mid-Atlantic tradewinds – Easterly winds that travel continuously from east to west – are stable and (usually) unaffected by hurricanes at this time of year. Sailors use these tradewinds like a rapid, getting into them by the Cape Verdes and literally riding them all the way to the Caribbean.

November is the very beginning of the season and can be a temperamental month for the tradewinds. Late hurricanes can still sneak up on the Caribbean side and if a sailor is going in November, they tend to leave it until middle-to end of the month. Leaving at this time enables sailors to reach the Caribbean for Christmas Day and gives them a good amount of time in the island chain before setting off back to Europe in May or June.

The exact weather is different every year. Some years November is dangerous and unstable, some years it’s flawless. Most sailors recognise the need to be flexible with crossing dates and only set off when the weather is right.

As a result, you may find a boat in November but spend 6 weeks hanging around before they get a good weather window to set off. This isn’t a bad thing; a sailor on a deadline might take unnecessary weather risks. Flexibility counts.

sailing across atlantic

Getting to the Canaries

While most boat-hikers get on a boat in the Canaries, the boat itself will most likely have started its journey further afield. Many cruisers start from Scandinavia, Germany, the UK or France but due to the comparatively small offshore distances, do not require crew until the full ocean crossing.

A great way to get a bit of offshore experience is to find a boat for the mainland Europe/Africa to Canaries leg. The boat you find for this may not want crew for the Atlantic crossing or may well not be crossing at all – but they may well be happy to take you the few hundred miles to the Canaries – all good experience on your sailing CV!

Southern Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar and Morocco are all common places that boat-hikers sail from to the Canaries. This has the added bonus of getting a reference from the skipper of that boat, for your search for the Atlantic crossing.

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Leaving the Canaries

Most cruisers wait for a good forecast and then set of from the marinas of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria or Santa Cruz de Tenerife. They either head directly for the Caribbean/South America or south to the Cape Verdes – a Portuguese island chain 800 miles to the south and firmly in the tradewind belt.

The best time to cross the Atlantic east to west is often simply between November and March when the long range forecast is good and the tradewinds are stable.

Length of Journey

The length of an Atlantic crossing completely depends on the boat and the weather. Generally speaking, the bigger the boat, the faster the passage as bigger boats go faster. A 32ft yacht will max out at 6 knots (about 7mph) whereas a 50ft yacht will go significantly faster at around 15 knots and cruise at around 10 knots.

The majority of average cruisers crossing the Atlantic will be on boats between 34 and 60ft with journey times between 16 and 30 days in good weather. If a storm comes and the boat has to go around it or gets becalmed, the trip gets longer – if there’s particularly strong wind, it might be a hair-raising but faster journey than usual.

Essentially, you could easily be looking at three weeks to a month at sea. You need to be prepared for that and accept that delays may occur. I know people who’ve taken 6 weeks due to storms and calms.

caribbean beach


The destination depends on the skipper and you need to make sure you’re okay with where they’re going before you agree to crew. Sailors make landfall all over the Caribbean and South America. The first thing that happens upon arrival is either a celebratory drink or customs – depending on the time of arrival!

Trip overview:

  • Sail from home country to Canaries
  • Provision in Gran Canaria or Tenerife
  • Set sail for Cape Verdes or Caribbean
  • Sup some Champagne

Come back next week for Part 3 – How to find a boat!

If you want to check out one of the popular destinations that sailors stop at on the way to the Canaries, read my post about the beautiful La Coruña.

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