2015 ARC Europe – About sailing fast


After spending a few days enjoying Bermuda’s hospitality, yachts sailing under the flags of 20 different nations left St. George’s Harbour in Bermuda on May 20th to make the 1800 nautical mile journey to Horta in the Azores.

St. George’s Town, Bermuda is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The group set sail from Tortola in the British Virgin Islands on May 9th as part of the ARC Europe and ARC USA Spring Rallies, with more than forty boats sailing with ARC Europe this year; thirty leaving from Tortola and six from Virginia, USA for the first stage of the rally, which was a passage to Bermuda where a further seven yachts joined in.

The current leader is “Dala”, a Leopard 48 sailing catamaran. This is very similar to a sailboat that Lindsay and I plan to purchase in December of this year. Our current options are these similarly priced sailboats aging from 6 to 16 years old: Lagoon 44, Leopard 45, Bahia 46, or Leopard 47. Does this mean that we have a chance to sail faster than the rest of the pack when we make this journey next year? Perhaps. Let me tell you why.

Halfway to the Azores

Generally, the larger the boat, the faster it can go. For a displacement boat, a heavy deep-keel boat, the maximum speed a given hull can attain from wind power is called “hull speed” and is largely dependent on the waterline length of the boat. Hull speed is expressed as 1.34 X the square root of LWL, or length of waterline. This Leopard 48, “Dala” has a waterline length of 45 feet 5 inches, she should be able to sail 1.34 x 6.74, which is 9.03  knots. If we purchased a Lagoon 44, it has a waterline length of 41 feet 10 inches so the hull speed would be 8.67 knots, which is 0.36 knots slower than “Dala”. This means over the course of 24 hours, “Dala” will theoretically sail 8.6 nautical miles farther that a Lagoon 44. In theory then, everything else being the same, a 44 foot sailboat must sail for one hour longer each day to cover the same distance as a 48 foot sailboat! So according to the math, it is impossible to sail faster than a longer boat.

But as you can imagine, there’s more to it than that. For example, just because one car’s engine is bigger than it’s competitor doesn’t guarantee it will win the race! “Dala” is leading this race with the third place boat being a Hallberg Rassy 54, which has waterline of 46.9 feet and a hull speed 0.15 faster than her. Clearly “Dala” is doing better than the others even though it’s hull speed is slower. Why is that?

Most of the time due to the condition of the boat, light winds, headwinds or opposing waves, sailboats are not traveling at their maximum hull speed. However, there are simple things that sailors can do to their boats to make them go faster through the water. For starters, keeping a very clean bottomside and having the sails and rigging “tuned up” makes a bigger difference than a couple of feet of waterline.

The most important thing about sailing fast, however, is knowing which course to take and how to trim the sails. Just a few degrees off course or having one sail overtrimmed can change the boat’s speed by almost a knot.

Sail Trim

The entire crew has to understand what the boat needs and work together for days on end to give the boat what it wants before they can achieve the fastest speed through the ocean. Sailing fast is important but it’s not always about winning. There’s a little more to it than that.

For us, it’s not about winning a race or being the best at something because we are cruisers. Being in the right place at the right time is the goal. A good sailor has researched the best ETA and then calculated the expected travel time to determine when to depart. Whether sailing down a coastline or crossing an ocean, it’s about adapting to changing conditions and doing one’s part to maintain the expected ETA.

The Harbour at Horta, Azores
The Harbour at Horta, Azores

At the end of the journey, all we want is to arrive in the right harbor with two very important conditions in our favor. We need to arrive with the sun high and behind us so we can see the buoys or the bottom and with the right level of tide so we can safely navigate inside without hitting anything. Then we can secure the boat, clear in with the authorities and get on with exploring the next exciting destination! Someday soon, we’d like for you to join us and find out for yourself.