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The Trinidad Solution

En route south to Trinidad, one veteran delivery skipper couldn't help feeling that he was going the wrong way in the early summer.
It is early June and we’re heading the wrong the way. Super Chief, the Hylas 49 that I have delivered to and from the Leeward Islands for years, is sailing south, toward Trinidad. Owner, Henry Radzikowski and I are blasting along on a beam reach, the early summer trades are in full glory—they’re steady at 20 knots, but they’re a soft, warm 20 knots, making a kinder, gentler trade wind. Our speed-over-ground is consistently at eight plus knots; if the wind holds we should raise Chaguaramas in about two and a half days. Although it seems odd not to be making the 10-day, 1,500-mile passage north to Annapolis, I have to confess that the Trinidad solution makes a lot of sense, at least from an owner’s point of view.

A quirk of geography and the woes of insurance companies have combined to create an ongoing boom for boatyards and marinas in Trinidad. Together with its smaller stepsister Tobago, Trinidad is an intriguing island nation that is one part South American and one part Caribbean. It is also strategically located south of hurricane alley. Until recently, Trinidad, with a reputation for petty crime, poor facilities, and cloudy waters, was off the beaten track for most cruisers. The 1990 edition of Hart and Stone’s Cruising Guide to the Caribbean states bluntly, "We cannot commend Trinidad as a cruising area, the only advantage is that it lies south of the hurricane paths." But that has changed dramatically in the last 12 years. And although Trinidad is now firmly established as a cruising destination in its own right, most sailors still enter first at the mouths of the dragon, Bocas del Dragon, looking for a safe haven during hurricane season, a move often prompted by a close reading of their insurance policy.

Almost all marine insurance companies, after a decade of paying out excessive hurricane damage claims for boats in the tropics, have drawn a line in the sand, or actually two lines in the water. Although details differ slightly depending on the carrier, it is safe to say that from June 1 through November 1, the area above 12 degrees N and south of 23.5 degrees N, roughly the south shore of Grenada to Georgetown in the Exumas, becomes a zone of no coverage.

The devastation of past hurricanes should be enough to prompt every boat owner into a definitive plan of action at this time of year.
According to risk managers there is a statistical basis for this no-coverage zone and a quick glance at the tracks of the Caribbean’s severe hurricanes in the 1990s, including Floyd, Luis, Mitch, Lenny, and others, seems to confirm that notion. Still, that doesn’t help sailors looking to buy boats this summer in the Caribbean. A friend recently made an offer on a Norseman 400 catamaran lying in Tortola. He was excited at the prospect of leaving the boat in the islands after closing, and spending most of July gunkholing in the British Virgins. Negotiations were going along smoothly until he inquired about insurance. Most companies declined to offer a policy until the boat was removed from the no-coverage zone, and the one company that would insure the boat wanted two-and-a-half times the normal premium. While cruisers in the Caribbean may still be insured under their existing policy, these folks may be in for a surprise when it comes time to renew or update their coverage.

So what options do you have short of sailing 1,000 miles or more north to the US mainland, which ironically, is not all that safe during hurricane season anyway? Head for Trinidad, man; it is just a two or three-day sail from anywhere in the Eastern or Central Caribbean. As the tropic bird flies, Trinidad is just over 400 miles south of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and even less from the Leewards and Windwards. And it’s summertime, so the sailing is easyeasy that is as long as no tropical systems are brewing.

We cleared out of Jolly Harbor on the western side of Antigua just as the abrupt first light of the tropics decorated the horizon. We were fooled by the classic Caribbean wind pattern, with the breeze seeming light as we headed south. Of course, as soon as we neared the southern end of the of the island the wind accelerated and funneled toward us. We hardened the sheets and held our course, and once south of the island we had clear air, from an easterly direction, and we eased the sheets and picked up speed.

"Whenever we neared an island we were invariably lifted and then headed as the wind curled around the southern side of the landmass."
This wind pattern was repeated as we peeled south on the leeward sides of Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, and St. Lucia, maintaining enough sea room not to lose the wind all together. Whenever we neared an island we were invariably lifted and then headed as the wind curled around the southern side of the landmass. Lumpy seas tell you immediately that you’ve cleared the lee and an easing of the sea state lets you know that you are under the protection of the next island in the chain. GPS is nice, but certainly not necessary in the Caribbeaneven a casual observer can navigate by nature’s signs.

We toyed with the idea of working our way to the windward side of Grenada for a better approach angle to Trinidad. But the sailing was so pleasant with the autopilot in charge and the stereo belting out an eclectic mix of Mozart, Marley, and the Rolling Stones, we really didn’t want to sail upwind or contend with the Atlantic swell sooner than necessary, so we continued south on the leeward side.

The fabled Boca del Dragon (mouth of the dragon) at Trinidad's northwestern tip, is one of three portals that lead to the hurricane haven in nearby Chaguaramas.
At 0200 we passed close aboard Point Saline, the southwest point of Grenada, to clear the offshore shoalwe were 78 miles from Bocas del Dragon. The light of day revealed that we had the Caribbean to ourselves; we were surprised not to encounter any other boats; in fact, I had anticipated a mad rush as we neared Trinidad. Although the wind held and we continued to make great speed through the water, a strong northwest current was challenging our plans for a daylight arrival. It’s amazing how quickly you become greedy: the log was pinned at nine knots and yet all we could focus on was the SOG reading of seven and two tenths on the GPSit was as if Neptune himself was stealing two miles from us every hour.

Trinidad and Venezuela’s Peninsula de Paria appear as a single landform from a distance. As you draw near, the mouths of the dragon become clear. There are four different mouths, or inlets into the Gulf of Paria. Most yachts choose the easternmost, a narrow cut between Trinidad and Monos Island and the closest to Chaguaramas. The wind is often constricted and the current always pours out of the mouths. For the first time in two and a half days we fired up the engine to make our way through. Turning east out of the pass you are met by a forest of masts. Wow, there are hundreds, maybe a thousand, sailboats at anchor, in marinas, and on the hard. That’s why we didn’t see any other boats in the Caribbeanthey were all already in Trinidad.

Chaguaramas Bay is perfectly protected by a rugged, mountainous peninsula that juts off the northwest corner of Trinidad like a left shoulder. We hurried into the northeast corner of the bay to Power Boats Boat Yard and tied up at the fuel dock. It was just about closing time. No problem, the travel lift crew would stay late and haul Super Chief straight away. Another wow; this was certainly a different attitude from boatyards up island. Within an hour Super Chief was ready for hurricane season, propped up ashore in the far corner of the yard.

The forest of masts that punctuates the harborfront around Chaguaramas proclaims this town as a cruising sailor's community.
That night Henry and I chatted with a group of cruising sailors at the Crews Inn bar across the Bay. Being longtime Caribbean sailors, they told us that their boats were ‘around the corner,’ in Carenage Bay, on TTYA (Trinidad and Tobago Yachting Association) moorings. "There are hundreds more boats over there," they told us. According to the Caribbean Compass, close to 3,000 sailboats make their way to Trinidad every summer. And why not? There are complete facilities offering a full range of services, from maintenance to complete overhauls, and the prices are affordable. "Another advantage Trinidad offers if you’re having work done," one of the cruisers told us, "is that unlike Venezuela, everybody here speaks English, which makes it just that much easier when it comes to explaining a detailed project."

And Trinidad also offers one more advantage: music. Pan, or the steel drum, originated on the island and Trinidad’s calypso bands are thought by many to be the best in the Caribbean. Trinidad’s Carnival is undisputedly the best in the Caribbean and the reason why many sailors extend their stay well past hurricane season. From Christmas until the weekend before Ash Wednesday Trinidad is alive with music as contests are held throughout the island to determine which bands will perform during the annual festival. Carnival in Trinidad, which next year will begin on February 7, rivals New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro in its raucous good fun and is just another reason to head south toward the mouths of the dragon.

Suggested Reading:

Timing Caribbean Arrival by Beth Leonard

Holing up for a Hurricane by Liza Copeland

Hurricane Season by Tom Wood

SailNet Store Section: Line and Rope



John Kretschmer is offline  
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