Tom Tursi
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@ Spring Cove Marina, Rock Hall, Maryland
Mail: PO Box 609, Rock Hall, MD 21661  Phone: 410-639-7030   Fax: 410-639-7038


Tom Tursi
South Atlantic Ocean

South Atlantic Following is a series of reports prepared by Tom Tursi of The Maryland School of Sailing & Seamanship and transmitted by satellite uplink from Susie Q3, an Oyster 53 sailing yacht, during a cruise from  South Africa to Brazil in January 1998. These reports were published on the Internet at:


South Atlantic


Monday, 12/29/97, Rock Hall, MD, USA: In preparation for our sailing trip across the South Atlantic Ocean, I did a little research on what conditions we might expect to encounter. We leave from Cape Town, South Africa on January 11, 1998 and sail to Salvador, Brazil with an intermediate stop at Saint Helena Island in mid-ocean. Rhumb Line distance from Cape Town to Saint Helena is 1700 NM on a course of  309T; Saint Helena to Salvador is 1925 NM at 275T. With an estimated average daily run of 160 NM, the passage should take about 22 days underway plus the time in port at Saint Helena. This would put us into Salvador around February 5th if all goes smoothly. 

I studied several reference documents to get an idea of the weather and sea conditions at this time of year; most useful were the DMA Pilot Charts (NVPUB 105) and the Sailing Directions (PUB 121, 1988 edition) for the South Atlantic Ocean. The Pilots are a series of 12 charts, one for each month of the year, which graphically summarize historical data on water & air temperatures, barometric pressure, wind strength & direction, storm probabilities, large wave probabilities, ocean currents, ice zones, magnetic variation and more. The Sailing Directions are printed in a 1-1/2 inch thick book with text and many fold out charts describing in detail the South Atlantic Ocean environment including weather, oceanography, marine life, hazards, navigation, bordering countries, restrictions, and more. 

We’ll be sailing during the Southern Summer, so it may help your thought process to add six months to January (6+1=7) and conclude that this is about the same as July up North. 

The South Atlantic is dominated by a large zone of high pressure air which produces a counter-clockwise circulation. Starting out, we’ll sail in a NW direction along  the east edge of this zone and thus can expect Southerly winds; these will gradually back to SE. From Saint Helena we’ll sail N by W along the north edge of this high pressure zone and can expect Easterly winds. These Trade Winds are predicted to blow between S and E for about three-fourths of the time at strengths of 15 to 25 knots. Otherwise, we can expect light variable winds, some periods of calm and some storm conditions. Storms would be from local thunder squalls or from passing low pressure systems, however, winds above 50 knots are not expected since hurricanes do not normally occur at anytime in the South Atlantic. 

During the first one-fourth of the passage we expect rougher conditions due to the influence of the Southern Ocean and other factors. There’s a 1% to 2% chance of storm systems with gale force winds, a 20% probability of waves greater than 12 feet and probability of a complete cloud cover about 50% of the time. However, visibility should be good and precipitation should occur less than 5% of the time for the entire passage. Temperatures will be cool but comfortable for the first one-third of the passage with a gradual warming trend as we approach Brazil where it will average about 80 degrees F and with increasing humidity. 

Major ocean currents circulate in a counter-clockwise direction in the South Atlantic and average less than one knot in speed. This flow, influenced by various land masses and other factors, produces strong local currents (Benguela Current, South Equatorial Current, Brazil Current) plus localized speeds to 4 knots and some counter-currents. Also, there is the Subtropical Convergence Zone, extending as far north as 27 degrees S, where the east setting currents of the Southern Ocean collide with and dive below the southern edge of the Equatorial Current. If entering this zone we’d meet opposing currents flowing to the east, but our route should keep us north of this area. In general, our sailing route will be in favorable current flows for most of the passage and this will benefit our speed made good. Also, our route will remain well north of ice from the Southern Ocean. 

Eventhough we sail on a True course heading, we’ll steer by the ship’s compass which reads in Magnetic; it’s therefor necessary to constantly correct compass heading by the amount of the magnetic Variation. The Pilot Chart shows Variation to be a fairly constant  20 to 25 degrees Westerly for the entire passage with changes of one degree occurring about once per week for our rate of speed. Thus, steering compass corrections will be relatively simple to maintain. 

Overall, this looks to be a comfortable and pleasant downwind passage. I’ll be on a good boat with proven ocean capabilities and good crewmates who know what they’re doing and who are fun to sail with. Not a bad way to avoid the ice and snow of a Northern winter back home. 

Leaving Cape Town

Monday, 1/12/98, 1030(-1), Lat 32-11S, Lon 15-44E: We left Cape Town, South Africa at 1200 noon yesterday. It was a brilliant, sunny day, winds steady at 15 knots from the SE, temperature 70F. Thirty, large, ocean sailing yachts vying for the starting line surrounded by hundreds of spectator boats plus some press boats and with Table Mountain as a backdrop made quite a spectacle. After passing Robben Island we put up our big chute and were off to Saint Helena Island some 1700 miles away on a course of 309 True. Glad to be away from hectic shore life, we quickly settled into our now familiar “at sea” routine and the simplicity of shipboard life. Table Mountain gradually dropped astern, but its nearly 3000 foot height kept it visible until dusk when it was 60 miles away. It must have been an impressive sight to the early European discoverers. 

Heavy Going

Wednesday, 1/14/98, 1800(-1), Lat 27-29S, Lon 9-32E: Susie Q3 was fitted with a complete set of new sails by Doyle in South Africa and these gave us 190 miles for the first day. But the South Atlantic said “This is my turf and my terms” and she gave us 30 to 40 knot winds for the next two days. First from the West, requiring that we beat to windward in heavy going. Then the wind backed to South and then East allowing us to run downwind with mainsail and poled out genoa. Last night, the sail track on the main boom ripped out and two hours later the whisker pole broke like a pretzle. This of course happenend at two am, the bewitching hour, but we did have a bright moon to fix some jury rigs which kept us sailing until daylight. In the morning, we rigged the other pole and made a temporary lashing for the mainsail and we're back in sailing form. Winds have moderated, but the seas are still lumpy and we're maintaining 8 to 9 knots on a good heading toward Saint Helena. Everyone is doing fine and none 
the worse for our experience. 

Eastern to Western Hemisphere

Sunday, 1/18/98, 0830(0), Lat 21-02S, Lon 00-00: We’re now 435 miles from Saint Helena. Notice that we just passed from the eastern hemisphere into the western and are now on the same longitude as London, England (a little celebration, please). Since leaving South Africa, we completed 1265 miles in 6.8 days for an averege of 186 miles per day, a significant increase with our new sails. The last two days have been steady, smooth sailing with the winds mostly from the Southeast, but gradually backing toward the East. We just completed a gybe over to starboard tack in order to maintain course. Two nights ago, while I was on night watch, the cruising spinnaker let go at the masthead due to failure of the swivel shackle. It went down into the water to starboard and I steered to avoid running over it. I shouted for help and my crew mates scampered up on deck and hoisted it aboard; only minor damage and fortunately not ripped. We put up the poled-out genoa for the rest of the night and continued on. All is well and we're making good progress. 

Saint Helena.. a tiny dot

Tuesday, 1/20/98, 1700(0), Lat 15-55S, Lon 5-43W: We arrived at Saint Helena (pronounced “Santa Lena” by residents) and just nosed out another yacht (Oceanos) by 1/4 mile; it’s hard to believe we could be so close after starting out together 1700 miles back in South Africa. This is a mountainous and beautiful island with peaks to 3000 feet straight up from the water's edge. It's an English posession with 5000 inhabitants, most being English citizens. The last three days gave us steady SE winds of 15 to 25 knots directly from astern allowing for a fast downwind run of 8 to 9 knots. We had following seas of 12 feet, cloudy skies most of the time and rain some of the time. We sailed with mainsail and poled out genoa as our big cruising spinnaker blew out again. That's the second blowout of this sail which was new in Australia. So, during our South Atlantic passage, we've busted one pole, one main boom track and one spinnaker. We'll be doing some repair work here and plan to resume our passage to Brazil on 1/24/98. 

Goodbye Little England

Saturday, 1/24/98, 2000(0), Lat 15-50S, Lon 6-22W: We left Saint Helena at 1400 this afternoon and we’re now about 50 miles out. We're sad to leave this beautiful island, its pleasant and cordial residents and its rugged mountains. This is a little slice of England in the middle of a vast ocean, on the way to nowhere, with relatively few visitors who can get here only by boat. Weather is tropical but comfortable; the land is dry and very rocky. Residents have automobiles and many modern conveniences but cherish the simplicity of their lives. Our race started this afternoon in light SE winds and misting rain. It's now muggy below and a little cool with light, occasional rain outside. I have the 0330-0700 watch tomorrow morning so I'll go to bed soon. We rotate the night watch so as to have a different time each night for four nights, and then the cycle begins again. Salvador, Brazil is 1875 miles away at 275T and we estimate about 11 days to get there. 

Cruising Chute Shredded

Monday, 1/26/98, 1700(+1), Lat 15-12S, Lon 12-27W: The last couple of days were cloudy with periodic rain squalls which tend to increase wind speeds by 10 knots and back the wind direction 30 degrees. Otherwise, winds have remained a consistent 10 to 20 SE. Today most of the clouds went away and we have brilliant sunshine. Yesterday we shredded the big cruising spinnaker again so we're using the small one and maintaining 8 knots or so. We're using a pole on this chute which gives us a better sailing angle and speed; at dusk we'll drop the chute and pole out the genoa. The seas are not too large and motion of the boat remains comfortable. I had a freshwater shower on deck and we just finished dinner; tonight I have the 1030 to 0100 watch. And so, we continue on to Brazil. 

OK, It’s My Turn!

Tuesday, 1/27/98, 1330(+1), Lat 15-03S, Lon 15-07W: Today is one of those days where hand steering is necessary due to the size and direction of the waves and the gustiness of the wind. The wind and waves are coming from our port quarter; the mainsail is set to starboard and the genoa is poled out to port. Periodically, a wave lifts the stern and throws it to starboard, the bow plunges down into the valley and heads around to port. This turn moves the apparent wind angle ahead thus increasing the drive of the mainsail and accelerating the turn even more. If we turn too far to port, wind gets in back of the genoa and could break the pole. One second of inattention could produce a hard turn; two seconds could cause the genoa to backwind. So you steer hard to starboard to counteract; if you don't properly moderate this steering correction, the bow swings to starboard and allows wind in back of the mainsail with a possibly damaging gybe. You can feel the stern being lifted to a wave through the seat of your pants like an airplane pilot does, but, in a center cockpit boat as this, the reaction is delayed because you're not at the stern where the action begins. It's necessary to stay within 20 degrees either side of your course to avoid these disasters. But this is like driving your car across the George Washington Bridge at rush hour with crazy-wheels in the rear; you don't go where you think you're steering. 

To stay in the groove, I look with soft eyes at the sails and over the bow at the water ahead in order to know whether the boat is going straight or is turning. I listen for oncoming waves and periodically glance at the apparent wind instrument, the compass and the wind speed instrument. At night, I look past the bow at clouds, stars or the moon to sense the boat's heading. On a heavily clouded, dark and moonless night this all becomes very difficult. During the day, we rotate the helm under these conditions once per hour among the four of us. At night, unless it's really bad, we each take 2-1/2 hours. If we get into trouble, we shout and stomp for help. It's fun steering under these conditions, but it's sooo nice when your relief pops up and says “OK, it's my turn.” 

Bright Blue Water & Shimmering Sun

Thursday, 1/29/98, 1400(+1), Lat 15-09S, Lon 21-15W: About 1000 miles to Brazil. Skies have been cloud covered during most of our sail across the South Atlantic. Between South Africa and Saint Helena, it was usually sunny only during the afternoon but cloudy all night and all morning; this pattern repeated on most days, but with very little rain. Sea water and air temperatures were cool close to Africa, due to influence of the Southern Ocean, and warmed to 70F near Saint Helena. Since leaving Saint Helena, cloud cover has gradually dissappeared, temperatures have warmed and it is now typically tropical weather: brilliant sun, towering cumulus clouds, bright blue water, billions of stars and moderate trade winds at 10 to 15 knots SE. “Summertime, and the living is easy.” 

Calm Seas, Billions of Stars

Sunday, 2/1/98, 0100(+2), Lat 14-26S, Lon 27-22W: We're ghosting along at 6 knots in very light winds with our spinnaker and mainsail; winds continue from the east, so we're sailing almost straight downwind. It's warm but comfortable with no moon and billions of stars. We're making about 150 miles per day and weather is expected to remain light. Yesterday we whiled away the afternoon playing cards in the cockpit in the shade of our awning while we lazed along slowly through calm seas. Our fishing lines have been quiet so we're anxious for a strike. Not much else happening here. 

Cockpit Poker

Tuesday, 2/3/98, 1330(+2), Lat 13-12S, Lon 33-20W: With 300 miles to Brazil, it's become very hot and muggy; light winds continue from the East. We’re sailing most of the time with mainsail and poled out spinnaker on starboard tack; our speed is averaging 6 knots which gave 142 miles for the last 24 hours. Bright tropical sun. Lots of towering cumulus clouds and a rain squall now and then. No thunder or lightening. No fish on our lines. Played cards again in the cockpit yesterday afternoon. I take an on-deck shower every other day whether needed or not. I've been getting good results with my celestial navigation with sun-moon fixes in the daytime and star-planet fixes at twilight. Results show that we're no longer getting a push from the current that was with us until now. However, we expect to encounter a southwest push soon since we're entering the Brazil Current. 


Thursday, 2/5/98, 1400(+3), Lat 13-06S, Lon 38-22W: We arrived  at Salvador, Brazil this afternoon and docked at the Baia de Todos os Santos Marina. We were welcomed by fireworks exploding in the air, crews from other boats and brightly clad ladies offering powerful local drinks and generous embraces. Really hard to take after 12 days at sea! The weather is very hot and humid, as to be expected here and now, but the local zest for life overwhelms any discomfort. 

We covered 3630 nautical miles across the South Atlantic in 22 days for an average of 165 miles per day. Our speed was better during the first half to Saint Helena as the winds averaged 15 to 25 knots with a few days to 40 knots; this produced daily runs upwards of 180 mpd. But the last week prior to Brazil we sailed straight downwind in 10 to 12 knot winds (5 knots apparent) making only 135 mpd. This was sailed mostly with our small, heavy-weight cruising spinnaker as the large one was shredded early in the trip in heavier winds. This brings to mind the need for discretion in the use of light air head sails on a long passage. Sailing downwind at 10 knots boat speed with 20 knots of apparent wind (30 knots true) is very exciting but it puts a light cruising chute in danger and risks its not being available when the winds become very light. Cruising chutes can produce a significant speed increase but they’re a high maintenance item requiring close attention to chafe and other potential damage. Once the apparent wind went above 12 knots, we did just as well with our poled-out genoa. 

Overall, the conditions we encountered very closely followed the predictions in the Sailing Directions and the Pilot Charts (refer to my first report above for a summary). In brief, the beginning of the trip was colder with heavier winds and seas, and the end was hot and humid with light winds and seas. We had cloudy skies about two-thirds of the time which decreased as we neared the end. Very little rain occurred for most of the trip but what there was increased as we neared the end. Barometer readings were a rock-steady 1017 mb as we sailed along an isobar of the persistent South Atlantic high pressure region. We encountered no storm systems or associated lows. Rain squalls produced only light rain and a modest increase in wind speeds of about 10 knots.

The high point of this cruise for me was visiting the island of Saint Helena with its rugged beauty, compact towns, and very pleasant residents. And you can only get there by boat! 

© 1997 Thomas P. Tursi 

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