Cruising south through the tall Caribbean islands that kiss the clouds (September 2017)
When I retired five years ago my wife Brenda and I headed out from our home in Connecticut, aboard Pandora, our Saga 43′ sloop, for a run down the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) and over to the Bahamas for a winter of cruising. After several seasons in the Bahamas and the purchase of a boat (a 2007 composite built Aerodyne 47, also named Pandora) we decided to head to Cuba from the Bahamas beginning in Georgetown, cruising the south coast and around the western tip of Cuba and on to Havana (see the BWS article, October 2016).
For our fifth winter afloat in 2017, we decided that it would be fun to spend time in the eastern Caribbean. A number of our cruising friends had been sharing their experiences, and we were intrigued by what we had heard. While we enjoyed the beautiful beaches and crystal-clear waters of the Bahamas, we were excited about exploring the many cultures of the Leewards, especially the wonderful food and wines available in the French islands. The Leeward islands are part of the Lesser Antilles and include Puerto Rico and the islands south and east to Dominica, a total of 19 islands.
With the exception of an occasional overnight or two, Brenda prefers to spend the nights anchored, so when it’s time to do long passages I find crew to accompany me on the long runs from the U.S. to Tortola and home. I have become more involved in the Salty Dawg Sailing Association that sponsors, among others, the Salty Dawg Rally from Hampton, VA, to Tortola. While I have done long runs with crew on my own over the years, it’s great fun to hook up with like-minded cruisers who are going in the same direction. With daily SSB radio nets and twice daily weather briefings from weather router Chris Parker, the 7-to-10 day passage from Hampton, VA, to Tortola is even more fun with a “community” of boats heading your way.
Brenda joined Pandora in Tortola, and we began our run south with our first planned stop, after the BVI, in St Martin. Compared to sailing on the East Coast, where passing fronts make for changing winds on a nearly daily basis, the winds in the Caribbean are very consistent, almost always blowing from an easterly direction at speeds of upwards of 30 knots, but usually at a more moderate 15-to-25 knots.
While the passing of a front in the Bahamas brings with it clocking winds that force cruisers to frequently run for cover to avoid being caught on a lee shore in an exposed anchorage, the arrival of a front in the Caribbean usually leads to a slacking of the trades for a day or two. The run from North Sound in the BVI, the eastern most point in this island group, to St. Martin is about 85 miles and nearly directly east into the trades with the best option of waiting for a drop in wind speed perhaps requiring a wait of a week or two or longer. In our case, as we were anxious to move south, we opted to motorsail into moderate easterly trades, which made for a very long day and some pounding into the chop the entire way.
In the long run it was worth it as we arrived and dropped the hook in Marigot Bay right in front of Marigot, the capital of French St. Martin. The island is divided into two countries, French on the east and Dutch to the west. Most cruisers clear in on the French side because it’s simpler and less expensive, while the megayachts opt for the deeper channel on the Dutch side.
Entering the canal into Simpson Bay from either side is subject to the opening times of the narrow causeway bridges. As the channel into the lagoon from Marigot was recently dredged, Pandora’s six and a half foot draft wasn’t a problem. On the Dutch side, massive yachts barely squeeze through the narrow lift bridge. Clearing in on the French side of the island is a cinch as you can actually fill out your paperwork on a computer kiosk at a local chandlery.
Unlike the BVI where depths in the anchorages are great and anchoring often a challenge, there is plenty of space to drop the hook, have good holding and easy access to both the French and Dutch sides once you are cleared in. While many cruisers make their first landfall in the Caribbean in the BVI, St. Martin is only about 50 miles farther from the U.S. East Coast and facilities for the inevitable repairs and provisioning are much better in duty free St. Martin and Sinte Maarten.
Experienced cruisers will tell you to “eat on the French side and shop on the Dutch”, which is true as there are so many wonderful and reasonably priced places to eat in St. Martin that you could spend many weeks there and never run out of new places to try.
We enjoyed shopping for Caribbean spices in the open market in Marigot. On the Dutch side there are two large well-stocked chandleries: Island Water World and Budget Marine with the former, from my point of view, offering the best selection and excellent prices. As both sides are duty free, you will find that prices and selection is comparable to the U.S., and for a 24-volt boat like Pandora, the selection is the best I’ve seen anywhere. In addition, there are many support services for getting hard-to-find parts for electrical systems and watermakers, which makes sense as so many megayachts make the Dutch Sinte Maarten their home for the winter months.
While the run from the BVI east to S. Martin is usually a long slog to weather, as you make your way south and east, the runs between islands get shorter and the sailing better as you head south. Although these runs are indeed “ocean sailing” with exposure to easterly trades and large seas, the period of the swells is long and conditions generally comfortable. For us the next major island to the south was St. Barths, a short 15 mile run after we exited on the Dutch side.
St. Barths is French flagged and very popular with the “in” megayacht crowd, and some keep their yachts there for the entire winter season, tucked into the tiny harbor of Port de Gustavia, Mediterranean-mooring in impossibly tight conditions. Most cruisers opt to anchor out in the lee of the island, just outside of the harbor entrance, although it can be unpleasant if there is a north swell running. By the time you reach this area you are in cruiser’s territory, as there are only a handful of charter boats on holiday, unlike the Virgins where the bulk of the boats are on charter.
St. Barths, a mere five miles long and barely one mile wide, is as cosmopolitan as you’ll find in the islands and is the winter playground of the rich and famous with magnificent yachts of all descriptions spending time there each winter. The shopping is first rate with a wide selection of fresh food and just about any gourmet items you might enjoy. Yes, it can be expensive and there are plenty of shops that cater to the uber-rich set, but there’s also more than enough to enjoy for those with a more modest cruising budget.
As we continued south, we opted to skip a few of the smaller islands, St. Kitts and Nevis, as well as Monserrat with its active volcano, as the anchorages did not offer much protection with the northerly swell that was running while we were there. However, these charming islands offer much and should be on any cruiser’s list. We hope to visit them this coming season.
On our run to Antigua from St. Barths, we departed at dawn and as we cleared the island we found ourselves right in the middle of the Caribbean 600 race fleet. To be in the presence of such sailing machines as Rambler and Leopard, some of the fastest mono hulls in the world, as the sun came up over the eastern horizon was a sight to behold.
From St. Barths and south sailing between islands is more oriented north/south and with the consistent trades, sailing here is a dream come true with Antigua an easy 70-mile ESE run on a close or beam reach from St. Barths. By the time you reach Antigua the island chain curves more to the south so the wind is nearly always on the beam.
In fact, for the months that we sailed in the Leewards, the wind direction only veered from an easterly direction once when a front came through bringing light westerlies that only lasted for a few hours. It’s also worth noting that while it rains often, it’s usually a brief shower followed by stunning rainbows, sometimes more than once a day. As an added benefit, the frequent gentle showers kept Pandora’s decks salt free. Unlike the northeastern United States, strong conductive squalls are rare so the high winds and the crash and bang of thunderstorms are rare in the Caribbean.
Antigua has a strong British heritage although it has been an independent country since 1981. It continues to have a strong cultural link to England. It is here in the two major harbors, Falmouth and English Harbor, that many magnificent sailing yachts make their winter home. Among the classic sailing set, the Classic Yacht Regatta draws dozens of the most magnificent sailing yachts in late April for a week of racing and partying that marks the unofficial end of the winter season before the fleet disperses to more northerly climes. As Antigua is where so many megasailing yachts make their home, it’s also an excellent place to refit or get supplies although not as convenient and a bit more expensive than St. Martin, as it’s not a duty free country.
Antigua is a beautiful and friendly island with rich history and plenty to do. While we were there we had our first experience with their national sport, cricket, a game that is hugely popular, drawing locals as well as vacationers alike to their regular games.
Antigua was the center of England’s naval power in the Caribbean beginning in 1725, and the famous Admiral Nelson was stationed there in the late 1700s. The dockyard has been meticulously restored and to tie up Med-moor style for a week or more takes you back to a time when England was one of the great sea-powers. Nelson’s Dockyard, as it is known, remains a working boatyard, complete with sailmakers and a facility nearby for hauling out for repairs. There is also a skilled local labor pool if you wish to have painting or varnishing done and a wide array of services from engine work to electronics to address the inevitable problems that crop up while cruising.
GUADELOUPE & ILSE DES SAINTES
From Antigua we headed to the village of Deshaies on Guadeloupe, an easy 40-mile run due south with wind on the beam, in perfect moderate trade wind sailing. This teacup harbor on the northwest tip of the island, provides a stop that has all the charm of a lush tropical island along with the rustic charm of France, complete with wonderful dining and an authentic French bakery right near the dock that serves up terrific pastries and French breads every morning.
As you make your way between islands the wind funnels around the headlands so you will experience a 30 percent increase in windspeed as you approach within a few miles of the coast. On a day with say 20 knots of gradient wind, you will briefly find yourself in 25 knots or more that will just as quickly settle back to 20 knots or less as you move into the lee of the island.
In the lee of the island we sailed south 30 miles, with the island towering up so high above us that their peaks were lost in a crown of ever present clouds. Agriculture is big on this lush island with sugarcane a major crop. As you can imagine, there is a wide selection of locally produced rums to choose from in the markets, some of the best in the world. With regular flights from France, the island is popular with French tourists who flock here each winter.
A few miles south of the main island of Guadeloupe lay the island archipelago called Iles des Saintes, offering some of the most scenic views in all the Caribbean. When we approached the main town Bourg des Saintes, Brenda declared “this is the prettiest place I have ever been.”
With its quaint seaside village and red roofed, whitewashed cottages, it is indeed a beautiful spot. Renting a golf cart or scooter is a must and a fun way to see the sights and beautiful beaches on this tiny island. The main island is served regularly by ferry service from Guadeloupe and is bustling with French tourists each week. Les Saintes are a dependency of Guadeloupe and clearing in here is as easy as any of the French islands. In this case, for a small fee you can clear in and out easily at a kiosk in the local laundry, a short walk from the dinghy dock.
After getting our fill of fine French food, we headed the short 20 miles south to the anchorage of Portsmouth on the northwest corner of Dominica, one of the most rural and unspoiled islands in the Caribbean. Known for it’s natural beauty and miles of trails through the rainforest, Dominica offers a wonderful mix of rural charm and natural beauty. Once known as a place best avoided by cruisers due to pervasive petty crime, Portsmouth is now safe and very popular with cruisers who flock to this large harbor with good holding. A group of local entrepreneurs got together to address the crime issue and founded PAYS, the Portsmouth Association of Yacht Security, several years ago. As you round the headland to enter the harbor, you will be greeted by one of PAYS members, in our case, Alexis, who roared up to Pandora in his outboard powered skiff, handed us his card and declared “welcome to paradise” before heading off as quickly as he had arrived.
During our visit he took care of whatever we needed and guided us on a number of tours of the island. A run up the Indian River with Alexis was unforgettable as he rowed up the lazy river (no outboards allowed) with tropical birds and flowering trees overhead. The spot was chosen for its haunting beauty as one of the locations where an installment of Pirates of the Caribbean series was filmed and portions of the set built for the movie. A rustic cabin on the river bank remains. The gnarly roots of the trees that line the riverbank surely conjure up evil for those with a healthy imagination.
Dominica was our furthest point south for the winter, so we made our way north to Antigua, stopping again at some of our favorite places along the way. Brenda flew home from Antigua and my good friend Craig arrived to spend a week sailing from there back to the BVI where I would meet up with crew to join the Salty Dawg Spring Rally back to the States.
Unlike sailing on the East Coast of the U.S., spring winds in the eastern Caribbean are nearly always predictable and from the east so making our way north and west to the BVI was a snap, which was good as we only had a ten day window to enjoy the sights and make our way the nearly 200 miles from Antigua to the BVI.
In order to get the most out of Craig’s ten days of vacation, we enjoyed ourselves during the days ashore sightseeing and did our sailing overnight. It was a treat to know, months in advance as plans were made, that we’d likely have favorable winds for our run since the trades are so predictable. Waiting for a “weather window” wasn’t an issue for us so we could focus on getting the most out of the time we had before we had to be back in the BVI and his trip back to the States.
The eastern Caribbean is now at the top of our list as our favorite cruising area. The steady trade winds, beautiful islands, different cultures, great food and wine, and of course, those islands that brush the clouds, all make for a wonderful destination that surely deserves consideration.
Bob has been keeping a blog of his travels for more than a decade. He posted regularly as he traveled within the Leewards last winter. Check out his February, March and April posts.
Weather routing: Chris Parker of Marine Weather Center provides sound insight into finding the best weather in the Caribbean, Bahamas and north Atlantic.
Charts: Excellent charts are available from a number of sources. The author has found that NV Charts offer some of the best detail available. us.nvcharts.com
Cruising Guides: The Chris Doyle guides are updated regularly and offer excellent and up to date information on all areas of the Caribbean.