Winds of the Atlantic Ocean: a sailor's guide

Winds of the Atlantic Ocean: a sailor's guide

Trade winds, monsoons, polar winds, hurricanes or westerlies are typical wind patterns for the Atlantic. How to prepare for them and how to sail in them?

The Atlantic Ocean is a vast expanse of water that exhibits different wind patterns throughout the year, influenced by changes in temperature over water and land, location (tropics, equator, poles), Earth's rotation, and air pressure. These wind patterns, such as trade winds, monsoons, polar winds, hurricanes, and westerlies, were recognized and used by ancient mariners who had limited navigational tools and resources. Today, modern sailors have access to electronic instruments, radio, GPS, satellite imagery, and weather forecasts, but understanding the principles behind these wind patterns is still crucial for a safe and successful voyage.

What winds will you encounter in the Atlantic Ocean?

The origins of navigation can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as the Phoenicians, Greeks, Vikings, Arabs, Persians, and the indigenous peoples of the Oceania islands, who were the first to venture out and explore new territories. In those early days, sailors relied on visual cues such as lighthouses and natural landmarks to navigate, but with the advancement of seafaring, tools like the astrolabe, sextant, and compass became essential for astronavigation. Knowledge of the winds and currents that prevail in the Atlantic Ocean also played a crucial role in enabling sailors to chart their course effectively. If you aspire to be a seasoned sailor, you should also learn how to interpret weather patterns and cloud formations to help you navigate the high seas.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Do you want to sail on the sea, but don't dare to take on the vast Atlantic? Test your knowledge on the Mediterranean Sea. Here you can try out how the currents work in the Mediterranean.

Trade winds: fresh stable wind

The tropical regions of the Atlantic Ocean are marked by a recurring pattern of winds known as trade winds, which blow from the east. These winds reach their peak intensity near the equator and gradually weaken as they move towards the subtropics. Trade winds are characterized by the movement of air masses from areas of high pressure to those of low pressure. While they are most common during the summer months, they are less frequent in winter. These winds are usually encountered up to about 30 degrees north and south of the equator.

The moderate strength of the trade winds makes them a stable and reliable option for sailors, with an average speed of around 20 km per hour. These winds are not particularly stormy or dangerous, but instead carry a number of important benefits that have been utilized by sailors and traders since the beginning of overseas travel. In fact, it was thanks to the trade winds that crossing the Atlantic Ocean to America was possible. The first chart of the trade winds and monsoons was produced in 1686 by Edmund Halley, using data collected by British merchant seamen.

Nautical charts and navigation

Nautical charts - mandatory equipment for navigators

Westerly winds: adrenaline ride for advanced sailors

A zone of prevailing westerly winds, also known as contrary winds, consistently occurs in the temperate latitudes of the Atlantic. These winds are driven by Earth's rotation and the interplay between low and high-pressure systems. As a general guideline, the strength of the westerlies and their gusts increase with altitude. In the North Atlantic, these westerly winds exhibit recurring meteorological patterns, such as storms that deliver rain and snow showers to Europe and North America.

For seasoned sailors, the westerly winds in the North Atlantic provide an exhilarating experience. Navigating the Atlantic demands a higher level of expertise and knowledge compared to the more leisurely sailing found in the Adriatic. If you are already familiar with all types of winds in the Adriatic, you are ready for an ocean adventure.

For an ocean sailing experience, head to the Canary Islands, a popular destination for advanced sailors. These "islands of eternal spring" provide not only engaging sailing conditions but also excellent sailing infrastructure, secure anchorages, and marinas along the coast of each island. Additionally, the Canaries boast stunning natural beauty and numerous tourist attractions to explore.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Apart from trade winds and westerly winds, the Canary Islands can also experience a warm Saharan wind known as Calima during July and August. This African climate phenomenon carries not only a heatwave but also dust and sand, resulting in a sandy haze that significantly reduces visibility.

Polar easterlies: a voyage for the hardy

As implied by their name, polar winds are a recurring weather pattern in the Atlantic Ocean's polar regions, characterized by easterly-blowing winds. These east polar winds are fueled by temperature disparities between the frigid polar air and the warmer air closer to the equator. The east polar winds are strongest during winter when the temperature difference is most significant. In contrast to trade winds and westerlies, polar winds are generally weaker and less consistent

Polar easterlies play a key role in the formation of polar ice caps and ice sheets, and in the circulation of ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream — this is formed as the east-west polar winds push cold air and ice from the poles to warmer places at latitudes around the equator.

Sailing in polar ice waters

Sailing between glaciers with breathtaking scenery

Monsoons: get ready for the rainy season

Monsoons are another type of seasonal wind in the Atlantic Ocean. Most frequently observed along Africa's west coast and the Arabian Sea, they can also occur in other regions. Characteristic of the summer months, monsoons involve warm, moist air evaporating from the ocean. When this air encounters the cool, dry air from land, wind intensity amplifies, and the condensed air results in exceptionally heavy rainfall.

Monsoon seasons function similarly to regular seasons, and the term monsoon is derived from the Arabic word for season "mausim". Monsoons occur at varying times in different parts of the world, so it's essential to research the monsoon schedule for your chosen sailing destination beforehand. Generally, monsoons are categorized into summer and winter monsoons, which alternate periodically. In tropical and subtropical regions, monsoons result from a recurring airflow that shifts direction biannually (the meteorological definition requires a wind shift of at least 120 degrees).

YACHTING.COM TIP: Wind is not the only driving force you can use to your advantage when sailing. Sea and ocean currents also act as free means of propulsion. See how sailing in tidal waters works.

Hurricanes: the destructive power of wind

Hurricanes are powerful tropical storms, or tropical cyclones, that form in warm ocean waters. To develop, the ocean water must be at least 26 degrees Celsius and extend to a depth of at least 50 metres below the surface. Consequently, hurricanes are primarily found in tropical areas where such conditions exist, though they are not exclusive to equatorial regions. A hurricane is a vortex-shaped depression, ranging from 100 to 2,000 kilometers in size, with a characteristic eye at its center. To learn more about tropical cyclones, explore information on when hurricanes occur in various exotic sailing destinations.

The rotating storm system of a hurricane, characterised by extremely low pressure, can reach speeds of up to 300 kilometres per hour, making it highly destructive. As it moves over land, the hurricane gradually loses intensity, weakening significantly before eventually dissipating. This weather phenomenon is not exclusive to the Atlantic and has different names in different parts of the world. In North America and Canada, it is called a hurricane,  in Asia a typhoon, in the Indian Ocean a cyclone, and so on.

The aftermath of the hurricane in the port

The wind is valuable ally and a destructive force

Wind can act as an energy source for wind turbines and pumps, contribute positively to air circulation and temperature regulation, while also serving as a destructive force by transporting dust particles. For sailors, wind is essential as a propulsion mechanism in both sporting and leisure sailing activities. To ensure safe and hassle-free boating, it is crucial to understand the principles of wind flow, recurring weather patterns, and the effects of temperature and terrain. Indeed, wind significantly influences the speed and direction of a boat's movement.

Understanding prevailing and instantaneous weather, interpreting crucial information from aids and instruments such as charts, compasses, navigation systems, GPS, and being aware of regular winds are vital for sailors. This knowledge is particularly important for navigating the Atlantic Ocean safely and efficiently. The Atlantic, being the Earth's second-largest ocean, spans over 106 million square metres of the planet's surface, and thus, presents a complex system of winds that play significant climatic and meteorological roles. By knowing which winds to expect when sailing the Atlantic, their characteristics, and how they impact the environment, sailors can confidently venture into ocean waters.

Numerous established sailing itineraries are available across the Atlantic, with choices depending on your preferences, starting point, destination, and experience. Popular options include transatlantic routes from Europe to North America, sailing in the Caribbean, or navigating around the Canary Islands. The winds in the Atlantic Ocean pose a significant challenge, and together with currents and weather conditions, conquering the elements becomes an integral part of the adventure.

If you choose to sail in the Atlantic, it is crucial to prepare very well. You'll need to have your boat thoroughly inspected to ensure it is in perfect condition, stock up on food, drink, fuel,and check the safety equipment and the functioning of the on-board instruments. It is also essential to have a detailed sailing plan, a planned route and possible alternatives and scenarios for an emergency. If you take all the necessary steps before your voyage, have sufficient knowledge of meteorology, navigation and ocean sailing experience, you are in for an unforgettable experience

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FAQs: What winds are on the Atlantic Ocean?