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Discussion Starter #1 (Edited)
Early this coming February me and a dozen of my closest friends are chartering two boats in Antigua. We want to visit Gravenors Bay on the south side of Barbuda (White Bay in particular) but both cruising guides suggest that the anchorages there are best left to “experienced reef navigators” and note that the charts available for the area are sketchy at best.

Most of our collective experience is in the waters of New England on the US East Coast (1000nm+ as skipper for me so far this season) where the water is not at all clear so we have very limited reef navigation experience. For the most part the charts for New England are accurate but we still have some additional gear for checking out unknown anchorages that we could bring. Most commonly we use my handheld depth sounder from the dinghy to check out anchorages.

Any tips for getting started reef navigating? Should we stick to what we know and figure our course in by dinghy and sounder? Any other tips? There has to be some preparations we can manage between now and February but I’m drawing a blank.
 

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Bristol 45.5 - AiniA
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I can be intimidating at first but if you use common sense you should be OK. In some ways it is not all the difficult as long as you are good at seeing things and responding quickly in a non-panicy way to what you see.

Couple of things that help: you want to have a high sun, preferably behind you so the glare is reduced. For the areas you are talking about it would early afternoon. Polarized sunglasses are a big help too. You need to know how to handle your boat, for example if you have to stop quickly and backup what are the tendencies e.g. with prop walk. You will be going dead slow so need to know it handles then. You want to have one crew forward with a good measure of common sense. One of the interesting things when the water is really clear is knowing how deep - sometimes 6 feet and 25' look pretty much the same. You need a good means of communicating from bow to helm. A lot of yelling back and forth is not helpful when conditions get dicey. My wife and I have developed a set of hand signals for things like speed up/slow down, go to neutral and so on (beside left and right of course). In the old books they talk about going up to the spreaders to look. Not very practical on a charter boat, but I have noticed that my wife likes to stand on top of the windlass - even the extra foot seems to help. Also when you are going in turn on a track on your plotter, it helps when you are coming out and visibility might not be so good (e.g. early in morning).

Overall, discretion is the better part of valour. If you don't feel comfortable with the situation, don't do it.
 

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Generally charter companies do not let you go where you are likely to run aground. The boat will have a decent depth finder and perhaps a chart plotter.

However, the general rule in the Caribbean is to go slowly in good light so that you can 'read' the waters and judge the depth by the color of the water. We often use the dinghy and a hand held but we never trust the chart plotter because once you leave Miami they are not sufficiently accurate for 'blind navigation'

Enjoy Phil
 

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Discussion Starter #4
Thanks guys. The boats definitely have chartplotters. I'll be sure to record the track on at least two plotters in case we need to beat a lower visibility retreat, that is an excellent tip!

I wonder about a compromise for getting a good view: standing on the boom travelered out to one side might get one a better viewing angle? I expect the helm position of the cockpit will have a much better view than the mono-hull.

Regarding sun angle, is "overhead" more important than "behind"? If noon is right overhead is 10am better than 4pm even if you're headed east?

Anyone know of a resource better than google maps for getting a sense as to what different depths look like?
 

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We've been into that anchorage on a boat that drew 7 feet - it was a very slow go getting in and out.

Killarney makes some great points.. a forward observer, good hand signals that both/all parties understand, mid day, etc.

From what I recall that anchorage is very swell-dependant.. if the swell is running large there won't be enough depth to ride it through the troughs either entering or perhaps even trying to stay there. As it was I managed to dump a coffee filter full of boiling water on my hand as we rolled in there - a nasty burn/scald that put a crimp on the swimming that trip! (That and the fact that our hosts are still finding coffee grounds here and there from time to time!)

Pretty, scenic, but not much shelter from wind or swell.. I'm a bit surprised that the charter company is OK with that destination. If it works out for you, watch out for the donkeys, the bumpy cab ride and boat ride to the Frigate Bird colony is a worthwhile daytrip, the debris all over the eastern beaches is a little depressing, but the beaches are otherwise deserted!
 
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Discussion Starter #6
During previous charters we've avoided the areas they've expressly forbidden but other than that I think we can sail and anchor wherever as long as we don't leave the allowed area. I guess we'll see what they say in the briefing.

Can't see any other way to become an experienced reef navigator other than to navigate some reefs :)
 

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Reef navigators mantra: Blue, blue go on through, Brown Brown go around. Eyes on the water, color change.
 

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Can't see any other way to become an experienced reef navigator other than to navigate some reefs :)
I don't think the charter company would have quite that level of enthusiasm with the use of their boats :). That said, if there are questions as to whether they would let you go there, you could always inquire ahead of time. That way, if it is off limits you could adjust your planning accordingly, rather than waiting for the briefing...
 

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Bristol 45.5 - AiniA
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As to time, it all depends on the glare conditions. Before you get in the shallow bit you can go on course and see what the glare is like. Something nasty is when there is cloud and little glare and then sun appears just when you don't need it.

Not sure I am a fan of the standing on the boom trick. What happens if you do hit something. At best, the person falls into the water (video running?), at worst they fall on the deck. Also if they are swung out to one side they are even further away from the other.

In most ways it is not that hard as long as you are really careful and take your time.
 

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Discussion Starter #10 (Edited)
Not sure I am a fan of the standing on the boom trick. What happens if you do hit something. At best, the person falls into the water (video running?), at worst they fall on the deck.
That could make an entertaining video.

I envisioned standing on the boom with one arm wrapped around the mast, shoulder pressed against the mast, as high and forward as practical. Travelered over just to put the boom underfoot a bit. Wherever you stand the plan is to move slowly enough that a collision doesn't knock anyone down.

I guess at the spreaders you'd be sitting in the bosun's chair not standing on a spreader...
 

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If a sudden stop is a possibility,an observer in a chair at the spreaders is hanging on a fairly long pendulum, and worst case is an uncontrolled swing out and back.

A strop around the mast might be a good idea....
 

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Me thinks that looks like a lousy place to sail into, even if the crew knew what them was doing. Me and my friends would anchor in the more leeward bay. Then us would take the dinghy around to Gravenors.

The way us got good at navigating reef is by starting in safer places with no swell. Also by taking the dinghy out a lot. And by diving the reefs. If you don't know what you are looking at, standing on the boom ain't gonna help. Don't forget that after you anchor, the boat will fall back and swing, so you have to consider the length of anchor line you have out and what the tide/swell will do to your boat relative to the coral all around you.

Us have run into coral, it was late in the day and us couldn't see it even though us knew it was there, somewhere. Coral is amazingly sticky to a boat keel. Luckily us had lots of clearance to the other side and some friendly locals who helped we off.
 

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Discussion Starter #13
Me thinks that looks like a lousy place to sail into, even if the crew knew what them was doing. Me and my friends would anchor in the more leeward bay. Then us would take the dinghy around to Gravenors.
Not the first mention of concern, time for some double checking. I'm going to have to review the cruising guides again but I remember them both indicating that Gravenors might be the best anchorage in Barbuda if a north swell was running. I read an account of staying just west of Cocoa Point on Active Captain and that sounds like a handy bailout point if Gravenors seems dicey.
 

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Not the first mention of concern, time for some double checking. I'm going to have to review the cruising guides again but I remember them both indicating that Gravenors might be the best anchorage in Barbuda if a north swell was running. I read an account of staying just west of Cocoa Point on Active Captain and that sounds like a handy bailout point if Gravenors seems dicey.
I think that's right, vtp.. the North swell can roll around the top of Barbuda making that 'leeward' anchorage uncomfortable, giving the nod to the lee of the southern point and Gravenors.

IIRC that so-called leeward anchorage is also known for its 'pink sand' beach?

Bottom line, any plans to stay at Barbuda are generally wind and swell direction dependent, and as with any tenuous anchorage, one must be prepared to bolt if necessary or make alternate/back up plans. Obviously the worse thing would be choosing to try it and end up wanting/needing to leave in the dark.. a scary idea, and probably foolhardy.

If it works out, though, it's damn pretty:

 
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Reefs are easy to see. What we call "Bommies" which are small isolated outcrops of coral are the things that will sneak up on you. Generally, you'd want a bright sunny day with the sun higher than 45 degrees whilst preferably wearing polarised sun glasses. If the water is choppy it can make reef spotting a little bit more difficult.

I often anchor in similar conditions around my way (and even my mooring lies within about 50m of coral reef) and here's what I've learn't.
  • Your charter company will tell you their opinion of your anchoring intentions during your "scheds". They have plenty of experience so listen to their recommendations.
  • If the anchorage is ok, there will usually be someone else already anchored there when you arrive. This helps to provide a point of reference.
  • Move at slow speeds. Reef walls rise almost vertically so watching the depth sounder won't do you much good other than help align your position to a chart if the bay has a variety of depths.
  • In good sunlight, you can spot reef without leaving the cockpit. If cautous you might want to station a spotter at the bow. Clouds affect visibility, however. Broken cloud cast shadows which can be mistaken for reef. 8/8 cloud can make the water extremely difficult to read especially if the water surface is ruffled.
  • Might be a long shot, but the chartplotter on the charter boat may have "breadcrumb tracks" left by previous charterers. This is a great cheat!
 

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Early this coming February me and a dozen of my closest friends are chartering two boats in Antigua. We want to visit Gravenors Bay on the south side of Barbuda (White Bay in particular) but both cruising guides suggest that the anchorages there are best left to “experienced reef navigators” and note that the charts available for the area are sketchy at best.

Most of our collective experience is in the waters of New England on the US East Coast (1000nm+ as skipper for me so far this season) where the water is not at all clear so we have very limited reef navigation experience. For the most part the charts for New England are accurate but we still have some additional gear for checking out unknown anchorages that we could bring. Most commonly we use my handheld depth sounder from the dinghy to check out anchorages.

Any tips for getting started reef navigating? Should we stick to what we know and figure our course in by dinghy and sounder? Any other tips? There has to be some preparations we can manage between now and February but I’m drawing a blank.
There is no way I can think of to learn reef navigation outside of navigating through some reefs.

Polaroid sun glasses are a help.

Arrive between 10 am and 2 pm with the sun behind you.

Assuming you are chartering out of English Harbor you will get a chance to practice some reef navigation running down Goats Head Channel and through 5 island channel. The North East end of Parham behind Great Bird would be more testing.

In good light conditions the Gravenors Bay anchorages are easy to access with the reefs and coral heads standing out clearly. But it does not take much chop to make things difficult. I prefer the anchorages north of Palmetto Point with the most Northerly one being the most sheltered from any swell.

Have you checked with the charter company as to weather Gravenors Bay is a permitted anchorage. In the past they have been off limits.

Finally DO NOT RELY ON WAY POINTS OR A CHART PLOTTER. If you do sooner or later you will join the hundreds of shipwrecks around Barbuda.
 

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Discussion Starter #17
Might be a long shot, but the chartplotter on the charter boat may have "breadcrumb tracks" left by previous charterers. This is a great cheat!
This is a clever idea for use as another aid to navigation. I'd only trust my own track as an escape route though.

Have you checked with the charter company as to weather Gravenors Bay is a permitted anchorage.
We've emailed them and are awaiting a reply.

I just want to say thanks to everyone for their responses; they've been very helpful and I've been pleasantly surprised with how many there have been!
 

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Ahhh me hearties! Never use the chart plotter and only arrive splash on midday!

Well, perhaps I am not good enough to do so!

I find reef picking to be extremely disorientating and looking by eye alone I can well forget the nuances of the chart, guide book and preplanned route.

So indeed I use all the gizmos I have including Google Earth cached images as well as my eyes on full beam. Contrary to popular belief new reefs dont just pop up over night... If theres a dark patch there on an image or by sight its probably been there for years.

The one trick I do use is speed - the slowest possible. And if I get diorientated, or a bit unsure, I head back out and do it again. By regaining the deep water I can slowly check my nav and then when relaxed again go back in.
Last time I went into Barbuda I did exactly that... Turned round and went back out.
The other thing about slow sped is if I do screw it up - I did once in the Great Barrier reef - its just a touch on the bottom and you can reverse of QUICKLY. Going in slow means the person on the foredeck has more time to see, analyise and report back... At 4 knots 100 feet is covered in 15 seaconds... Not enough time for a chat, coffee and spin the boat around.

In the busy cruising areas you may see another cruiser already anchored and thing, ahh I must be in the righht place... But be careful, because his way in may have ben from another direction.

All in all, stay calm, go slow and if in doubt head back to safe deep water and try again.
 
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