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Caribbean Voyaging Overview

Getting to the Windward Islands from the southeastern US, cruisers have to pay their dues with days and days of upwind work.

After spending the last five months beating into tradewinds, we've finally made it to St. Lucia, with the Leeward Islands in our wake and 120 miles of the Windward Islands stretching ahead to explore. We felt we had finally rounded the bend on our way down the arc of the Caribbean island chain, something we mentioned on a number of occasions to boost on board morale during yet another along slog to windward. At times the going has been hard on the crew and the boat, not to mention the cat, but it's been a near idyllic kind of sailing just the same with short sprints from one lush volcanic island to another. Our chart work no longer looks like economic indices gone mad—we’re now logging straight, beam reaches nearly on the rhumb line, and it seems like this is finally what the brochures rave about. For those sailors interested in taking this route, here’s a smattering of what we’ve learned since leaving the US:

Our route from Charleston, SC included the Bahamas, Culebra off of Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands, St. Martin, St. Barths, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, and now, St. Lucia. The prevailing wind here means that boats headed southeast from the US East Coast can expect to bash into the trade winds on a daily basis. You might derive some solace from knowing that most of the ships in the Golden Age of Sail couldn’t work their way down island short of returning to the US, crossing the Atlantic to Europe, and re-crossing the Atlantic back to the Caribbean. In the Bahamas and much of the Caribbean, many cruising boats wait weeks for the right weather window and for the wind to drop to 10 knots before motorsailing to their next destination, trying to get as much easting in as they can.

During the winter months, the Bahamas are susceptible to northers, strong cold fronts that send winds shifting from the southeast to the south to the west as the front approaches, and to the northwest and then the northeast as it passes. These fronts bring downwind sailing conditions and allow boats to make good easting. The farther south you travel, the less and less you’ll feel the effect of these fronts.

Overall, we found the Bahamas a challenging place to sail. The weather always seems to be changing, the islands are low, and the depths are shallow, and the currents can run strong. Those things can also be said of Turks and Caicos, the Dominican Republic, but are less the case in the British Virgin Islands, whose sheltered waters have rightly made it one of the chartering capitals of the world.

Further south the wind remains more or less from the same direction, east with variations to the north and south. In the spring and early summer, the Atlantic High is the weather maker for this part of the world. A pronounced high-pressure system in the Atlantic compresses the air pressure gradient isobars surrounding it, strengthening the trade winds, and a weakening Atlantic high moderates the wind. The Atlantic high is influenced by fronts coming off the US mainland and their associated low-pressure systems that cause the Atlantic high to drift this way and that, influencing winds thousands of miles away. As we’ve worked our way south, the forecast has been for winds either from the East or the Southeast for months now, blowing consistently at 15-20 knots in its moderated form, or 20 to 25 in its strengthened form, although we’ve seen 30 and more on several occasions. With hurricane season now in effect, we’re keeping a keen eye on the tropical waves that come off of Africa. Because the most active hurricane month is September, our plan is to get below 12 degrees North latitude and out of the hurricane belt, and then begin our trek toward the Panama Canal.

You don't have to look far to find traces of the volcanic origins of these islands. High mountains, like Mt. Pelee in Martinique (above), which destroyed a town in 1902, can cause some amazing windshifts and gusts for cruisers sailing in its lee.
The eastern sides of the Windward and Leeward Islands are exposed to the Atlantic, while the western sides offer protection from the swells. The mountains on many of the islands affect the wind in a variety of interesting ways. If the mountains are high enough, they trap the clouds at the summit, sending gusty winds from cold air cascading down the leeward side of the mountain with heavy, but usually short-lived showers. Likewise too, should wind be funneled through canyons, it can accelerate and make for locally much stronger conditions.

The mountains can also play havoc with wind direction. One can expect peaks to exert an influence on the wind at the rate of approximately 10 times the height. A 3,000-foot peak can have a wind shadow of some 30,000 feet, 5.6 statute miles, or 6.4 nautical miles. We had to check and recheck the compass in the lee of Guadeloupe—in the blink of an eye we’d gone from beating against a southeast wind to a broad reach and a west wind, as the wind blew over the top of the island, cooled, and then curled back around. Our glorious downwind sail lasted all of 20 minutes. We’ve found that the areas five or so miles off the north or south ends of these islands usually bring the windiest and roughest sea states. Swell that has been traveling for thousands of miles across the Atlantic refracts off rocky headlands and the wind is deflected around the mountains and increases in strength. A west-setting current often accompanies these patches, and that can also accelerate between the islands. The North Equatorial current averages about a half knot or so, while the South Equatorial Current in the lesser Antilles and between Grenada and Trinidad runs between one and two knots and needs to be taken into account while sailing between the islands.

In the Caribbean, you can find weather information relayed on a variety of SSB and Ham nets, the following are only the ones we’ve been using. The National Weather Service issues its forecast for the region on 6501, 8764, 12788, and 13089 Upper Side Band at 1215 and 1815 AST. There’s also a Safety and Security net on 8104 USB at 0815 that allows cruisers throughout the region to share information on the latest safety issues as well as monitor the latest in the ever-changing world of custom procedures and fees. There are a number of other weather nets that provide useful analysis and routing information. David Jones on the Maritime Mobile Net at 8104 USB at 0830 AST, Eric from Trinidad at 0630 AST on 7152 LSB and Herb on Southbound II at 12359 USB at 1500 EST provide useful information regarding the emerging weather scenario.

Superb sailing and tropical scenery aren't the only attraction here. There are plenty of new friends to be had wherever you go in the Windward Islands. Here the author’s better half gets an impromptu French lesson in Martinique.
Geographically, the Caribbean offers a lot to see in relatively small distances. The French, Dutch, English, Spanish, and indigenous peoples, as well as slaves imported from Africa, toiled, fought, and tried to work it out for centuries, leaving a colorful history for modern day explorers to experience. This ongoing dynamic, combined with periodic volcanic eruptions, shaped the region into what it is today. Daysails are the norm, and when you know that at the end of the day a cheap bottle of wine, a hunk of Brie, a warm baguette, and impromptu French lesson are waiting for you at the lush volcanic island, it makes the hard work worth it. Many of the cruisers we meet have boats that are fast enough to be able to day-sail the entire way from the Bahamas down logging perhaps one or two overnight passages. The wind direction, however, can make rhumb line passages last twice as long if you’re sailing and not motorsailing. For instance, an 11-mile trip from Grands D’Arlet in Martinique to St. Anne, for example, ballooned into nearly 30 miles sailed at the end of the day, so if you’re sailing and want to make the next anchorage before sunset, you need to plan accordingly.

There’s no doubt that beating is the point of sail that's hardest on the boat and its equipment. Pots and pans rattle, the boat pounds, the cat hides, or in really rough stuff, won’t get off your lap. Beating is also a sure way to mix up debris that might be in the bottom of the fuel tank in soon clog the filter. A Baja filter to keep soot, sludge, water, and bacteria out of the tank to begin with is a good way to prevent having to clean the engine’s filters in a pitching sea, which is never a good time. We’ve been relatively lucky in terms of gear failure underway (knock on wood), but had our share. The rivets holding our outhaul track on the boom popped off in the BVIs, one of our 30-gallon diesel tanks managed to move half an inch, and the water sloshing around on deck continues to find a variety of interesting ways into the interior.

Pounding to windward in a corrosive environment for almost 1,000 miles can wreak havoc on your gear. The author snapped this shot just before his outhaul track completely separated from the boom.
The right sail inventory is key to dealing with stiff breezes. Strong winds means sailing with a reef, sometimes two, and a small headsail selection in an attempt to keep the boat from sailing over on its ear. We’ve seen both the advantages and disadvantages of roller furling on other cruising boats. While it’s nice to be able to roll up the sail from the cockpit, too often the sail is the wrong size, a furled genoa won’t give the same performance as a smaller, and stronger sail designed for winds in the 20 to 25-knot range. That simply increases wear and tear on the sail and causes the boat to plod along inefficiently rather than sailing to weather with a bone in her teeth.

Time and time again we’ve been thankful that the boat’s previous owners opted for a full canvas enclosure for our center cockpit. While the enclosure has been great in keeping us warm and dry during the winter months, I would never have thought that we’d still be using it this far south. Beating sends waves of spray over the boat from stem to stern, covering the boat with salt. But because we are kept dry, and stay out of the sun, sailing to windward has been more enjoyable. A close second necessity for us has been our self-steering windvane. The ability to get the boat balanced, set the windvane, and harness the energy of the wind to do the steering for us is indispensable and allows us to do more important things like navigate, cram down some lunch, and just plain hang on.

As we’ve made our way down island, we’ve come across cruisers from all over the globe who’ve trekked here, one way or another, many that have been cruising for years between the Windwards and Leewards as well as Trinidad or Venezuela. These sailors have found their cruising Nirvana and are sticking to it. And why not? Between the French West Indies and the islands formerly of the Commonwealth, the history, people, languages, customs, and cultures here are compelling. And with steady winds facilitating easy reaches between the isles, there’s plenty to do and see—once you make it down here.

Suggested Reading:

Life in the Amazing Abacos by Mark Matthews

Breakdown in Paradise by Mark Matthews

The Trinidad Solution by John Kretschmer

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