Challenge: Crossing the North Atlantic

Five Irish-Americans and an Adoptee Land In Ireland

By Thom Burns

The trip of a lifetime? Or the challenge? It was hard to define for five Irish-Americans and an Italian-American who sailed the route less traveled across the North Atlantic to western Ireland. As we prepared to get underway, I felt a great sense of relief. Finally, the seemingly endless checklists, almost constant research, and the working on equipment were about to end. The rigors of the sea were next. I was absolutely confident the boat, Breagan, a Norseman 400, could handle the challenge. Now could we?

Breagan off Skellig Islands on the west coast of Ireland. Photo was taken from Dinghy on subsequent cruise around Ireland. Crew included Jack Mowry, owner and skipper, Thom Burns, Andy Basile, Mike McGarry, Steve Burns and Pat Burns.
Photo: Thom Burns

Gale warnings with northeast winds directly along our initial route caused us to delay one more day, in St. John's, Newfoundland, our chosen port of departure. The gale delay was one more example of risk aversion versus the bravado of experience. A British boat, Blackjack, skippered by Mike Miller, Commodore of the Ocean Cruising Club along with his wife, Jan, decided to depart Newfoundland two days earlier during the same gale. "It will be a bit lumpy," said Mike. They have 19 crossings under their belt and are both a young seventy years of age. We, on the other hand, carried a crew of six and an average age of fifty. They also have a well found 38 footer with a seven foot draft which goes upwind very well. Jack Mowry, owner and skipper of Breagan (pronounced bray gone), has a well found boat that needs to crack off a bit more.

The delay helped us get two days of sealegs and shipboard routine but dug us quite a hole against a fast passage because we only logged 60 nm in the first 48 hours. We were faced with the poor choices of slatting sails, motoring our fuel supply away immediately and very slow progress. We chose to endure the lack of progress because prudent seamen don't burn up their options that early in a crossing and because the weather faxes showed help in the form of a minor low which was on its way.

The low finally overtook us and gave us winds primarily out of the south. Our spirits were raised! We were moving relatively quickly with speeds generally from five to six knots. With boat speed comes full sails and happy sailors. After riding the low for almost three days the dreaded light winds returned. 

This time the weather was far more interesting. Hurricane "Alberto" was hanging around the Caribbean, a giant high with very light winds covered a 36,000 square mile area of the Atlantic including where we were and where we wanted to go, 

04 Aug 00 Breagan Update

Message: We've had a great sail since about 2000 last nite. Before that very slow with a little motoring. We are headed to 50 degrees north by Saturday nite to avoid very light winds. We've been sailing at 6.5 or better all day with the spinnaker flying. Saw dolphins, a large sea turtle, a whale or two, and flocks of various sea birds. Eating well and showered today thanks to great water making capability. We are tracking with another boat, Sabalo. It keeps it interesting. We met the couple from Maine in St. John's, NF.

and a deep low in the 930 to 950 millibar range was making its way out of Labrador. It would take the low 24 to 36 hours to get to us. Our strategy was to get across the projected center to the correct side of the low for us, which was the south side. If the strategy worked, it would give us following seas and something less than storm force winds. A quick review of the Beaufort scale found in Chapman's revealed that storm force winds of 48 to 55 knots produce 29 foot waves. Gale force winds of 34 to 40 knots produce 18 foot waves. Every concentric circle you are able to move out from the center of a deep low lessens the probability of the stronger winds and bigger waves. The motivation is strong to avoid the worst of a deep low.

We sailed or motor-sailed to the southeast. Never did we allow Breagan's boat speed to dip below six knots. Eighteen hours later the wind shifted temporarily. It was a good sign because it was out of the southwest. The waves built to about six feet but they were not supported by the current wind. This meant we still had more time to go in the avoidance direction which was southeast.We put up more sails and kept the boat moving. Four hours later we double-reefed the main and hoisted the gale sail to balance the boat. Another two hours and the wind backed counter-clockwise forcing us onto a hard pounding close reach in building wind and waves. This was anything but comfortable. Our main concern was for the boat.

06 Aug 00 Breagan Update

Message: Record Day!

180 NM yesterday. That's an average of 7.5 knots. We flew the chute for 12 hours and then went to various combinations ending with a double reefed main and jib. This with our previous day of 147 NM made up a lot of ground on our first two slow days. We continue to be entertained by the wildlife at sea. Yesterday during our fast run it was about 20 pilot whales off the boat from 10 to 1,000 ft. They would leap in pairs, triples and quads. When I was down below, I looked out the leeward window and two dolphins were swimming with us. Showers again today, thanks to water maker. Today we accomplished general housekeeping. Great lunch prepared by pressure cooker in the hands of Pat. Electric heaters on to dry out boat. They also toasted us out of the cabin without shirts, 500 miles into the N. Atlantic !

Mike McGarry, my watch partner, and I discussed the situation and the pounding the boat was taking. We called Jack and suggested that we get some help on deck and pull down the main and turn downwind to our crossing course with only the gale sail set and see if we could ride out the weather. Within a couple minutes Pat and Steve Burns, the oncoming watch team, joined us. In building ten foot sloppy, choppy waves because the gale hadn't totally settled on a wind direction yet, I motor sailed into apparent winds gusting over forty knots on a close reach. The main came down without a hitch. Our first difficult seamanship manuever was accomplished.

Pat Burns on the helm while Mike McGarry grills steaks the day after the near gale in ten foot seas. Photo Thom Burns












The difference was unbelievable. No pounding and we were on our crossing course. One hundred square feet of sail was pulling us along at over six knots and best of all "Otto," our faithful autohelm could steer the boat. This allowed the watchstanders to seek shelter from the spray behind the dodger. So far our strategy was paying off.

The wildlife entertained us for hours. Here two dolphins play off the bow. The one on the left has actually rolled onto its side to look at us. The power of wave action is apparent all over the west coast of Ireland as we make our approach. This could be something in a blow.  

During the night, we were in sustained 30 plus knots of wind with gusts to the high thirties. The only questions were: Would it get worse? Would we sail back into the center of the low since we were going north of east? In the morning the winds were in the 27 to 32 range with growing wave heights. We decided to hoist the storm tri-sail to better balance the boat. This doubled our sail area to 213 square feet of bullet proof sails and it decreased our motion in the building but more uniform waves. Our speed increased to the seven knot range with an added half knot of gulf stream current which gave us a speed over ground of 7.5 knots. We logged our best day of 180 nm. This was followed by a 171 nm and 159 nm. In three days we had blasted 510 nm on our course line and all of it downwind! Everything was a great expenditure of effort. Precision walking became an art form. Fixing food required three times the normal energy and careful planning to avoid launching utensils. This is when the pressure cooker became invaluable. The lid locks on and, for the most part, it can be kept on the stove. If you can boil water and throw food in a pot, something edible will result. Every watch team used it. Jack and Andy Basile made a pot roast which was great. Patricia used it on a ham which tasted like shredded ham. Mike and I used it to boil up a large amount of pasta, since if it left the stove in the now 18 to 20 foot waves, it couldn't throw boiling water everywhere. Our food needs were being creatively met with the help of the pressure cooker and some great pre-planning by Pat. Most of us still employed the three minute rule. If a piece of food hadn't been on the deck, counter or floor more than three minutes, it was eaten. Each day of the gale we got better at handling chores. Now we had to get ready to power the boat up with more sail area. If a blow doesn't get into the too windy category which this one so far hadn't, the worst time is as it departs when the big waves remain but the wind starts dying off rapidly.

The Skelligs greet the mariner as you approach Dingle Bay. We could see these islands for over ten hours before there rugged nature presented itself. Photos by Thom Burns

We had minor repairs to both the main and jib to make before we could hoist either in total confidence. The main went down below for repairs at the beginning of the fourth day. Mike and Jack worked on it for about three to four hours, repairing a couple of slugs and a small tear near the top seam. The wind was now in the low twenties. As soon as the repairs were done, the main was hoisted with a double reef. The genoa now went in for sail repair. Jack and Mike had it repaired in about three hours. Just in time to hoist it and pole it out for better sail shape. What a relief to see normal sails again.

Within 24 hours the waves were down to eight to ten feet and the wind was diminishing. Mike and I figured it was spinnaker time. But when we hoisted the chute we couldn't power it up enough to keep it from slatting in the hang-around waves. The problem wasn't the lack of wind which was still over ten knots. We needed to be able to control the clew with a fixed pole. Mike decided to try to attach a block to the boom and run the sheet through it. He attached the block to the end of the boom, used a preventer on the rail, the topping lift and the travelor to get a giant spinnaker pole. This creative solution worked for over eight hours of good boat speed before the spinnaker halyard chafed and broke. The spinnaker was retrieved from the water. Mike went up the mast and replaced the halyard. More minor repairs for our onboard sailmakers, Jack and Mike. The weather faxes were now out of London.

This pastoral scene of Dingle Harbor greeted us the morning after making the crossing. 

Harbormaster, Brian Farrell, and the dockmaster, Johnny Murphy, were exceedingly helpful.

Dingle is a well protected harbor which suited us well as a landfall.
This light marks the starboard entrance to Dingle Harbor. It was a welcome sight after 13 days at sea. There are round towers and old ruins on at least half the promontories on the rugged West Coast. Photo by Thom Burns
Breagan Crossing Facts:

Elapsed Time: 13 days 4 hours and 5 minutes

Great Circle: 1647 nm

Breagan's Total trip log upon landfall was over 4,000 nm

Top speed recorded: 11.02 knots under spinnaker

Next best speed: 10.2 knots under main and jib

Best day: 180 nm

Second best day: 171 nm

Third best day: 164 nm

Highest true wind: 41 knots

Biggest Waves: 18 - 20 ft

Worst weather: Near Gale with sustained winds of 28 to 33 knots

Fuel consumption: Approximately 70 gallons

Water Usage: Unknown because of watermaker

Sails used: Main, Genoa, Gale Sail, Tri-sail, Spinnaker

Crossing Crew: Jack Mowry, Skipper/Owner; Andy Basile; Mike McGarry, Rigger Extraordinaire; Steve Burns, Asst. Navigator/Watch Captain; Pat Burns; Thom Burns, Navigator/Watch Captain. (Several others contributed on various legs.)

The Royal Navy (RN London) was predicting another minor low with a major one behind it. With less than 500 miles to go and two thirds of our fuel remaining, we decided to try and catch the south side of the first low for its westerly winds and beat the second one into Dingle, Ireland. We motor-sailed for about 18 hours before the low reached us. The winds were out of the southwest which allowed us to run directly down our course line. After a big gale our definition of waves changed. These would never get over eight to ten feet. Even without the big wave push or the stream, we logged a couple of awesome days of 172 nm and 164 nm. On the morning of the 15th of August we could see land. All day we could see land. We took great advantage of the boats amenities by turning on the generator to vacuum the boat and to take showers. We wanted to be ready to enjoy Ireland. The excitement was in the air. Towards early evening we finally were close enough for good definition on the Skelligs at the entrance to Dingle Bay. We still had twenty miles to go. Earlier, the Irish Coast Guard at Valencia forwarded our call to Brian Farrell, the harbormaster at Dingle. Everything was set. We still had to negotiate an unfamiliar and tough harbor entrance in six foot seas, an ebb tide, with a turn onto an aft range down a narrow channel. Brian guided us in the final 100 feet with a flashlight. My sealegs didn't work on the dock as I had to kneel to tie up the stern line. When I looked around, others were having the same problem! Brian was great. He met us with pub recommendations, six shower tokens, customs already notified and an abundance of enthusiam only exceeded by our excitement and desire to experience a little of Ireland as the pub and its music called.

Thom Burns publishes Northern Breezes and

11 Aug 00 Breagan Update

51 46.4N 025 31.0W
Big seas at 18 - 20'. Big winds with a gust of 41. Average is about 25 but a lot of 30+ stuff as well. Flying the gale sail and storm trisail. Team effort in 30+ kts took the double reefed main down and hoisted the trisail. We are averaging over 6.5 knots with this combination right down our track line. Everyone has their sea legs, the crew took hot showers in these big seas. Mike climbed out on the end of the boom to tighten an outhaul fitting. Obtained several useful weather faxes. Could not hear Herb because of "characters on the frequency". Launched the most valuable piece of galley cookware, the pressure cooker. Thankfully, both the PC and the crew survived and our noon meal of pork roast came out of the PC. Tasted great! We've now logged 1138 nm and we're under 600 nm to the harbor at Dingle Bay!