Previously published in BWS by Tor Pinney.
Ah, the Lesser Antilles, irresistible as a Siren’s song. Every year these eastern Caribbean islands lure more and more sailors to their sunny skies, steady trades, warm waters and white beaches. However, those who heed the call face a long offshore passage before the first island heaves into view. It may be useful to review professional delivery skippers’ boat preparation, route planning and passagemaking techniques for the 1,100-mile, Miami-to-the-Virgins crossing.
Most yacht delivery and cruising sailboat skippers heading for the Lesser Antilles from Florida or the U.S. Gulf Coast choose Miami (or a little south of there) as their departure point. It provides a better angle for crossing the Gulf Stream’s strong current than Fort Lauderdale farther north, while to the south the Florida Keys curve away to the southwest, which only adds distance to the transit.
The first step toward accomplishing any goal is to make the mental commitment to do it. If you want to sail to the Virgin Islands and beyond this season, say so. Brag about it to your friends. Set a departure date. Visualize the trip. Buy the charts and guide books. And arrange to have your mail forwarded there so you absolutely have to go. A determined attitude is a prerequisite to completing any substantial voyage. This goes for professionals and cruisers alike.
The next step is provisioning. Here’s one instance where pros and cruisers differ greatly in their requirements. For the delivery crew, provisioning is simply a matter of loading up with a few weeks worth of food, figuring on a 10-day average passage and then doubling the amount to cover unexpected delays. But for the cruising sailor who is heading down to the islands for the season, the year, or longer, Florida is the last chance to really stock up. Almost everything costs more in the West Indies, and some things found in stateside stores aren’t available at all in the islands. Cram every locker, compartment and crevice with non-perishable foods and supplies. You really can’t have too much aboard. The same goes for equipment, spares, tools and cleaning supplies. Provisioning a cruising sailboat is a project that ought to be completed before leaving the mainland. Fort Lauderdale is an ideal place to do this, with many stores and services that cater to yachts.
Finally, plan to carry plenty of fuel for the auxiliary engine. You may wind up motoring for many days. Delivery skippers insist on having at least a 500-mile motoring range for this trip, even if this means carrying extra fuel jugs lashed on deck. They’re pros, not purists. If the wind won’t give them a boat speed of four knots or better, the engine will.
It is the delivery captain’s business to move a boat from point A to point B as safely, directly and quickly as possible. While the cruising sailor isn’t in such a hurry, there are some good reasons to follow the pro’s lead on this passage. If you glance at a chart of the region, it appears that you could easily island hop all the way from Miami to the Virgin Islands, with the longest “offshore” leg being the 100 miles between Grand Turk Island and Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. However, this is deceptive. As you sail southeast through the Bahamas’ Exuma islands chain, you soon run head on into the trade winds. In the fall these perennial winds blow most often from the east-northeast through east-southeast at 15 to 25 knots, sometimes harder. If you do beat your way down to Puerto Plata on a hard port tack, you’ll still be facing nearly 350 nautical miles into the teeth of these powerful winds and seas, a miserable prospect at best. Add to that the knot or two of adverse current and you’ve got a long, grueling journey that will test the resolve of the captain, the loyalty of the crew and the structural integrity of the vessel. This is why the Bahamian port of Georgetown, Exuma (nicknamed “Chicken Harbor”) is crowded with Caribbean-bound boats that won’t make it the rest of the way this year.
The bottom line is that beating into the trade winds is the pits. And is to be avoided if at all possible. If you want to spent a winter cruising the Bahamas, that’s fine. But if you’re intent on reaching the Lesser Antilles, follow the delivery skippers’ route offshore to the east.
Most boats make the passage from Miami to the Virgins in November and December, right after hurricane season. The Pilot Charts show us that the northern limit of the Northeast Trades is roughly on the same latitude as Miami at that time of year. Since the objective is to avoid going east against the relentless head winds likely to be encountered south of that latitude, knowledgeable sailors head east from Miami, through the Bahamas, and then continue due east or even a shade north of east into the Atlantic. The idea is to make nearly all of your easting north of the trade wind belt in the area of relative calm called the “Horse Latitudes.”
Legend has it that the Horse Latitudes earned their name back in the days when sailing ships carried live horses as cargo bound for the New World. Sometimes becalmed for weeks in this region of light and variable winds, the ship’s crew would find themselves running short of drinking water. Rather than share it with the livestock, they’d jettison the unfortunate animals.
For today’s auxiliary sailboat, the Horse Latitudes can provide a relatively easy path to the east. This leg of the journey can, however, require plenty of fuel and a healthy engine—or else the timely arrival of a seasonal norther’.
How far east into the Atlantic should you go before cutting southward toward the Virgin Islands? Yacht delivery crews have debated that question over many a cold Heineken in the watering holes of St. Thomas. The trick is to enter the trade wind belt when you’re north—or just a little west of north—of St. Thomas. That way the trades become your ally as you reach southward across them on the home stretch to the islands.
You’ll need a number of charts and guidebooks for this journey. In addition to those covering the route and destination we’re discussing, you should also have charts aboard for the areas along and to leeward of the planned route, in case you’re forced to make an unscheduled or emergency landfall.
The first hurtle to overcome on this passage is crossing the infamous Gulf Stream. Sailors who know the Gulf Stream by reputation alone, fear it. Local sailors respect it. In reality, for a seaworthy sailboat in normal conditions, crossing the Gulf Stream is no big deal. There are, however, a few precautions that will ensure a smooth start to your voyage.
Rule number one in the Gulf Stream is to avoid northers; the cold fronts that come blasting down the Florida peninsula every so often, usually beginning in November and becoming more frequent and more powerful as the season progresses. A bit further on, these wind shifts will become your ally, but when strong northerly winds blow against the northbound current of the Gulf Stream, big, steep, breaking waves build rapidly, making for a rough passage. If it blows really hard, the Stream can become extremely dangerous for even the stoutest vessel.
There’s no excuse for getting caught by a norther’ your first night out. Just listen to a NOAA weather radio forecast on the VHF before casting off. They’ll report approaching cold fronts at least 24 hours in advance. Internet and SSB weather services like Chris Parker (http://mwxc.com/services.php) are also excellent sources.
It’s about 55 nautical miles across the Gulf Stream from Miami to the Great Bahama Bank’s northwest corner. Here the Great Isaac lighthouse marks your first waypoint. When planning your course, compensate for the three-knot (midstream average) northerly-setting current by steering about two points south of the rhumb line. Work out current vectors based on your boat’s speed, allowing for the current’s gradual increase and then decrease as you cross.
Most skippers make a night crossing of the Stream in order to arrive on the other side with daylight. This does make the ship traffic, which can be considerable near Miami, seem more intimidating, but it will thin out soon after you get away from the coast. For setting watches, three hours on and six off works well with a three-man crew, though that is entirely up to you. It not only allows enough rest, but also rotates the watch schedule, giving each crewmember their fair share of sunrises at sea.
Great Isaac Light boasts a 23-mile visibility range. You’ll spot it off the port bow before dawn and round it by sunrise. As you approach, be sure it is bearing more than 60-degrees true. Any less puts you in danger of the off-lying reefs. Give Great Isaac a wide berth as you round it; at least a few miles. If the tide is rising on the Banks it’ll tend to sweep you in toward the rocks at a knot or more.
For the next 65 miles, you’ll be heading a point south of east in Northwest Providence Channel, a 30- to 50-mile wide, deep-water pass through the northern Bahamas. It’s not unusual to see some freighter traffic and the occasional cruise ship. After dark you’ll spot Great Stirrup Cay’s 22-mile light and a flashing red aero beacon, which you can pass fairly close by in deep water.
If you’ve been making decent time you’ll cross Northeast Providence Channel on your second night out. Ahead lies the open Atlantic, but before heading into it you have the option of stopping in Spanish Wells, Bahamas, near the northern tip of Eleuthera Island. Spanish Wells is a prosperous community of Bahamian fishermen and their families who are descendants of the original Loyalist settlers. Here you can replace any fuel you burned en route from Miami, and top off the water tanks one more time. Also, a little R&R ashore for the crew is a good morale builder just prior to the offshore leg of your trip.
To enter Spanish Wells from Northeast Providence Channel, follow the Bahamas guidebook instructions carefully. There is a shortcut through the north reef called Ridley Head Channel, but it requires local knowledge to enter. It can, however, be a handy shortcut when leaving Spanish Wells in settled weather, with good eyeball piloting skills and a bright, high sun.
Re-fueled and rested, it’s onward to the Caribbean. Check the weather forecast again. At this point experienced skippers are hoping for a norther. Those same cold fronts that you were avoiding just a couple of days ago in the Gulf Stream can now be a real asset. The prevailing winds here are from the east and southeast—exactly where you want to go (naturally), but as a norther approaches it sets up a veering wind pattern. First, the wind shifts to the south, then southwest. Just ahead of the front it may die in the west. Then the leading edge of the front comes with a cold rush out of the northwest, usually accompanied by blustery winds, clouds and rainsqualls. Then, as the sky clears, the wind clocks around to the north and northeast before settling back into the prevailing easterly again. Delivery skippers, setting sail as soon as the wind goes south, use these favorable wind directions to make a few hundred miles of “free easting” into the Atlantic. Just be sure your sails are reefed way down before the arrival of the actual front. It can carry a brief but powerful punch!
In the absence of a norther, the likely alternatives are beating into steady easterlies, or motoring into light easterlies. If the former, head out on a starboard tack to gain plenty of distance from the leeward reefs and islands to the south, and perhaps get north of the headwinds. If the latter, head due east under power, then feel the gentle rise and fall of the Atlantic Ocean and count your blessings. For the next several hundred miles, you’ve got to resist the temptation to head southeast toward the Virgin Islands. You would soon find yourself beating into the trade winds with the additional threat of dangerous reefs to leeward. Keep your resolve to go east. It’ll pay off.
As you’re making easting in the Horse Latitudes, the Pilot Chart indicates a couple of notable features. On the second day out of Spanish Wells a current may set you 10 or 15 miles to the north. Later, somewhere around 68-degrees west longitude (depending on your latitude), you’ll cross the San Juan to New York shipping lane. Keep a sharp lookout here; there may be a lot of traffic.
Around 70 degrees west, start putting a bit of southing in your course so that you cross the 24th parallel around the 67th meridian. Then head roughly southeast by a point south toward a waypoint of 22 degrees north and 65 degrees west. This meridian, called “I-65” by some of the regulars, marks the last leg to the Virgin Islands and the best part of the trip. From here you sail due south, soon picking up the Northeast Trades if you haven’t already. The boat charges along with a bone in her teeth on an easy reach. Man, what a sleigh ride!
You may see another sail on the horizon. Give them a call on the VHF and say hello. Keep an eye out for freighters, too. They pass this way while traveling between Europe and Panama.
As you approach the Virgin Islands from the north, a 1/2-knot current will nudge the boat westward. Be careful not to overcompensate. If you stray farther east than 64 degrees 30’ west, you risk sailing onto the infamous reefs of Anagada. They’ve claimed countless unwary vessels over the centuries, and still manage to snag the occasional yacht today.
Land Ho! If you find you’re closing with the islands after dark, don’t risk entering at night. Heave-to and wait for dawn. Accidents often occur at the very end of an offshore voyage when the skipper is tired and overly anxious to get into port. Even in daylight it’s hard to tell which island is which at first. They seem to overlap. A radar can help clarify things, but be certain you have reliable position fixes.
If you’re heading for the U.S. Virgin Islands, leave Jost Van Dyke to port and carry on to St. John, which is an easier place to clear in than St. Thomas. If you’re entering the British Virgin Islands, sail around the east end of Jost Van Dyke and along its south coast to make your landfall in Great Harbour. It’s the kind of place you’ve been dreaming of. After clearing in with customs and immigration, take a stroll down the white, palm-fringed beach to Foxy’s thatch-and-bamboo beach bar for a well deserved rum punch. You and your crew have earned it!
Best of all, the whole Caribbean now lies waiting for you, one harbor at a time!
Tor Pinney (www.tor.cc) is a former delivery captain and a lifelong cruiser with about 150,000 nautical miles logged under sail. His articles appear in boating magazines worldwide and his authoritative book, Ready for Sea! – How to Outfit the Modern Cruising Sailboat (Sheridan House), is available in nautical bookstores and online. Tor is presently revisiting the Caribbean aboard his 42 foot ketch, Silverheels.