Despite all the technology we have available to us today, crossing the Atlantic is still a major challenge for the bluewater sailor. You need to be self-sufficient for 2,000 miles, even if you are island hopping, a reality that means carrying a lot of fuel, traveling at an economical speed, and being outside the range of reliable weather forecasts.
Imagine what it must have been like more than 100 years ago when the first motorboat set out to cross the Atlantic. The first steamship crossed the Atlantic in 1819, and it took another 80 years before a motorboat made an attempt.
In 1902, William Newman decided that an Atlantic crossing would be a good way to promote his marine engine. That was just 15 years after the first-ever motorboat had hit the water. He loaded the 37-foot Abbiel Abbot Low to the gills with more than 700 gallons of kerosene to fuel the 10-hp, single-cylinder motor. Together with his 16-year-old son, he set out from New York.
Thirty-seven days later, they tied up in Falmouth, England, after a voyage during which they suffered many engine problems, bad weather and leaking fuel tanks. Still, they averaged 5 knots for the crossing with a little help from the auxiliary sails.
By 1904, there were proposals for a transatlantic race for motorboats. Thirty-four entries were received, but despite the excitement and enthusiasm, the race was never held. None of the craft being developed to compete ever crossed the Atlantic, but one boat, by the Napier Company, was advanced for its day. Its designer expected his cruiser to cross the Atlantic at a speed of 17 knots and take just seven days for the crossing, a speed almost equal to that of the Atlantic liners of the time.
Detroit, with a Scripps Motor Company engine, was similar in size to the Abbiel Abbot Low. Skippering this boat was the experienced Thomas Fleming Day, who, as the editor of The Rudder magazine, could get a lot of publicity for the project and its 12-hp gasoline engine. The boat was loaded with 1,100 gallons of fuel when he and his three crewmen left New York in 1912. But in rough seas, the ballast started shifting. Morale was low, with constant rolling and exposure; some 23 days later, they made landfall on the Irish coast to a hero’s welcome.
Another 25 years later, the writer and sailor Marin-Marie made the journey from New York to Le Havre, France, in the 42-foot Arielle. He set several records, including one for the first singlehanded crossing by motorboat, and one for the fastest Atlantic crossing by motorboat.
Two years later, the first motorboat crossing from east to west against the prevailing winds and currents was made in a 31-foot boat named Eckero. There were no heroics or publicity on this one; the skipper, Uno Ekblom, could not get a U.S. visa and therefore couldn’t buy a steamship ticket, so he decided to make the crossing in his motorboat with two crew. The Eckero was fitted with a single-cylinder, 10-hp diesel, and she arrived in New York after the 34-day, 3,750-mile voyage, stopping at the Azores and Bermuda to refuel.
World War II stopped Atlantic crossings by small boat. The next recorded attempt was notable for its audacious approach.
“Seaworthy” is hardly a word that could describe Half-Safe. This wartime-built amphibious craft was designed for military river crossings in fine conditions, but Ben Carlin and his wife set out to cross the Atlantic in her and, quite amazingly, succeeded. As Carlin describes it: “These Ford amphibious quarter-ton trucks proved almost useless in military service. With a freeboard of just 15 inches when unladen, they were easily swamped in all but the calmest of inland waters.”
Carlin converted his craft by building a cabin on the top, adding bow and belly fuel tanks, raising the freeboard, and generally making her more suitable for an ocean crossing. The couple sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1950. After stopping in the Azores and Canary Islands, Half-Safe made landfall on the African coast and then continued the voyage by land up into Europe.
That crossing was followed in 1955 by the 43-foot converted lifeboat Aries, which left England and made the world’s first known double crossing of the Atlantic by a motorboat. The crew experienced bad weather in both directions, but the solid lifeboat design held strong.
Designer Jim Wynne, who developed the first modern sterndrive, was co-driver of a 22-foot outboard-powered boat that set out to cross the Atlantic in 1958 with a freighter that supplied fuel, to show that even smaller boats could make the journey. Twice, the Coronet Explorer had to be lifted on board the freighter in bad weather before arriving at Newport, Rhode Island, so technically, his was not a complete crossing.
Next came the Dana Rescuer, a North Sea trawler. This 23-foot rescue lifeboat design took the southerly route, stopping off at islands before completing a 33-day passage to Panama. The Dana Rescuer was powered by a 46-hp Perkins diesel and was reputed to have had a range of 4,000 miles at an average speed of 6 knots.
The 1970s were a time of innovation and casting caution to the winds. Alan Cargile planned to cross the Atlantic in a 30-foot Great Lakes cruiser, a fine-weather, shallow draft boat with acres of glass windows that looked totally unsuitable for the task. The Spirit of Nashville had a single Volvo Penta diesel coupled to a sterndrive. When Cargile left New York, the boat was loaded with nearly 4 tons of fuel. Speed was kept to about 6 knots to minimize consumption. The boat finally arrived at Le Havre, France, having taken 31 days for the crossing and putting into Newfoundland for repairs. The engine had run nonstop for 695 hours, with fuel consumption of 2.13 gallons per hour. Volvo Penta earned a great deal of publicity from the voyage, which prompted competing engine builder BMW to join the Atlantic hopefuls.
BMW supplied two 45-hp diesels for a planned Atlantic crossing by Voyageur 47. Carrying 1,850 gallons of fuel and with an economical cruising speed of 7.2 knots, Voyageur 47 left from the Mediterranean heading directly to New York. She covered 4,800 miles in just 720 hours. This ranks as one of the most fuel-efficient, and probably the longest nonstop, voyages that a powerboat ever made. And later, Voyager 47 also made the return crossing of the Atlantic.
Al Grover made the first nonstop crossing of the Atlantic under outboard power in 1985 aboard his 26-foot Groverbuilt with just a single main 40-hp Evinrude, plus a small backup outboard.
All of these boats crossed at slow speeds, but Bob Magoon, in 1977, attempted to be the first to cross at planing speeds faster than the Atlantic liners. His boat was a 40-foot Cigarette powered by a pair of 450-hp Mercruisers. The planned crossing had fuel stops scheduled in the Azores and Bermuda, but the boat ran out of gas before reaching the Azores.
Even still, Magoon’s attempt was the start of fast boats on the Atlantic. Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Challenger II set a record in 1986, averaging 36.5 knots with three refueling stops. The current record speed now stands at 53 knots average, but the record holder, the Fincantieri Destriero—at 223 feet in length, with 60,000 horsepower on tap, and burning 10 tons of fuel per hour—is a far cry from her pioneering predecessors.