Places to sail
in the Caribbean.
             Please send any comments to me.

This page updated: August 2013
      




Caribbean In General section
Northeast Caribbean section
Leeward Islands section
Windward Islands section
Southern Caribbean section
Western Caribbean section

Veni, Vidi, Velcro.
(I came, I saw, I stuck around.)

Note: I don't repeat information you can find on charts or in guidebooks. And I do focus on things that fit my cruising style: I anchor out, use libraries for internet, don't go to restaurants and bars.




Caribbean In General

Stephen Pavlidis' "Island Hopping"
Caribbean Cruisers Association
Several South/Latin America / Caribbean articles in 5/2002 issue of Cruising World magazine
Mostly about buying real estate and becoming citizen: EscapeArtist

Best guidebook for Florida-to-East-Caribbean: "A Gentleman's Guide to Passages South", by Bruce Van Sant (on Amazon).

Terrific book: "Reed's Nautical Almanac - Caribbean" (on Amazon).
Radio frequencies and schedules, reprints of key chart pieces, harbor approach recommendations, customs and flag info, writeups on key ports, etc.

Decent overview book: AAA's "Caribbean Travel Book" (on Amazon).

Map from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection of the University of Texas at Austin: Caribbean

Caribbean map from World Atlas
Caribbean maps from Caribseek

Southwinds magazine: If you had only two places you could spend your time on the boat, where would you choose?

Mr. Van Sant: Luperon and Conception. Conception because it's just the best there is - it has everything the Bahamas has, and Luperon because it has the Dominican Republic and everything you ever needed.

From JeanneP on Cruising World message board:
Puerto Rico and Sint Maarten (SXM) are the cheapest places to buy food. Also [Puerto Rico] probably is best place to have things shipped in, because it's the U.S.A.

Sint Maarten / St. Martin cheapest for liquor and cigarettes. Also a good place to find kids, since lots of people work in St. Martin in season, many with kids. Find them in Simpson Bay Lagoon. Next would be ... Trinidad?

Chandlery: Budget Marine in St. Thomas, SXM, Antigua, Grenada, Trinidad. Well-stocked, and you can order just about anything.

Most beautiful islands (IMO): Martinique, Tobago.

From Jack Tyler on Cruising World message board:
Examples of places where we were the only cruising boat in the anchorage, in season, include:

Caribbean Navigator Group on Facebook
Coconut Telegraph Group on Facebook

Hurricane season choices / hurricane holes:
Ralph Trout article
Pavlidis article

From Rick Kennerly on World-Cruising mailing list:
Re: Leaving boat in USVI/BVI marina for hurricane season:

I would never leave an unattended boat in the water at a marina during hurricane season - and I bet your insurance company won't like it either. Frankly, I couldn't afford the Maalox. Plus there's some chance someone might sail away with it, if you don't need it - it's the islands, Mon. There are several yards in the islands where you can haul - none are inexpensive. However, none of the USVI/BVI yards are as attractive as Marina del Rey in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, for unattended, long-term storage. Two of the bareboat fleets haul there each year.

MdR has rows of buried concrete and rebar revetments, 5 ft deep, 3 ft wide, and 300 ft long. Steel loops are sunk into the revetments every 5 feet. The yard blocks your boat so that the revetments run perpendicular to the boat, one revetment fore and one aft. Then everyone uses those 4-inch wide ratcheted trucker tie-down devices to bind the boat to the earth - four to six devices per boat. Mast halyards are extended with line and run to the loops on the ground too. The halyards help hold the mast up during a storm. The storage yard is 28 feet above sea level. You're wedged in pretty tight, but they've not lost a boat in the last two hurricanes, the last of which had surge within 6 feet of flooding the yard.

Cost is about $300 a month.

From torla on SSCA discussion boards:
We have thought about going to Puerto Rico and leaving the boat there during hurricane season. We need a safe place where we can leave the boat for several months and are concerned about insurance.
From Bill Trayfors on SSCA discussion boards:
Unless you have a reason for leaving the boat in PR, I'd think about the Virgins, particularly the British Virgins. Best hurricane holes are Nanny Cay Marina on Tortola's south shore (where my boat weathered five, yes five, hurricanes successfully); also, check out Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor. There are a couple of other good hurricane holes in the BVI (e.g., Paraquita Bay), but these are not great places to leave your boat.

St. Thomas is probably no longer a good option. Hurricane Hole in the east end of St. John is well sheltered, but you have to get there early and it's not a place to leave the boat, really.

Places to avoid in PR include Culebra's Ensenada Honda and Fajardo on PR's east coast. Not sure of other locations there, but I'd be worried about more than just hurricanes if I were gonna leave my boat in PR :-)
From Osiris on SSCA discussion boards:
For places acceptable to Insurance over the hurricane season you might want to check out the boatyards on the east coast of Puerto Rico. They have constructed special pads in the boatyards to hold the boats so they cannot blow over during a hurricane. Supposedly they even had gotten pre-clearance from several of the major insurance companies such that utilizing their storage qualifies as being "out of the hurricane zone".
From torla on SSCA discussion boards:
We don't think we have enough time to get to the BVI.
From BigGB on SSCA discussion boards:
Well ... the east coast marinas like the one in Fajardo are certainly one choice, but you DO have time to get to the BVI's if you can get to the east coast of PR. We made it from Ponce on the south coast to Road Town in one long day ... it just isn't that far, so I would keep my options open. As I understand it, there are some insurance companies that will insure you in Nanny Cay if you use their tie-down system. Perhaps the marina there can be of some help in determining which companies will do so.
From viexile on SSCA discussion boards:
I heard prices on Virgin Gorda are skyrocketing due to new management. Some people on St. Thomas leave their boats in yards in PR. Theft can be a problem. Others ride things out in the mangroves in Vieques - preferable to Culebra. I don't particularly relish the idea of riding out a 'cane aboard, but the "insured pricks" drive a lot of people down here crazy. They never show up at the docks before a storm. They're "insured". Why go to the trouble? If one of "their" boats winds up sitting on my boat due to neglect, which is evident every year a hurricane passes by (like last year, over 100 miles north), they probably ought not to show up to survey their damage. About 40% of the boats don't get much attention. Virgin Gorda is good, but again, pricey. I've got the best slip in St. Thomas, backed up next to the mangroves on a dock, blocked by several other docks, as far as you can get from the entrance to the bay. I also tie a large hawser from one dock to the next at the last minute to deflect those "neglected" boats (new or not) straight into the mangroves and on top of each other instead of at my dock area. It is, however, nerve-wracking watching the damn storm tracks with three boats of my own and a couple others of friends' kicking around. Forget hurricane hole. T'aint available with the new National Park rules ... I won't even try to explain. First named storm whoever gets their tackle down gets to keep it there for the rest of the season - but not before. A total clusterfuck race for a very few boats. The NPS is more concerned about mangrove damage than people getting killed, and will cut your boat loose just before the storm - wait, she's with DPNR now.

From Jack Tyler on SSCA discussion boards:
[Someone asked: Luperon versus Rio Dulce for hurricane protection:]

I'd suggest you consider four options, depending on which direction you want to head; after all, the Rio Dulce and Luperon mandate very different routing choices.

1. Luperon - For a month or maybe two, suitable [after that, Luperon gets boring]. I'd beat down the island fever with inland travel, as it's a fascinating, gorgeous country mired in poverty and corruption with wonderful people. We've been to the DR multiple times, find the South Coast easier to cruise, and a full storm-season diet in Luperon would be our last choice.

2. West/South/East Coast of Puerto Rico - There are two excellent hurricane holes, the first [Puerto Real] just N of the yachtie stop in Boqueron which has an inner pool that, depending on your draft, is very protected. You probably would end up in the outer estuary if all the fishing boats beat you to the inner lagoon. The second [Guayanilla, maybe ?] is W of Ponce with its stores, movie theater, bulk food warehouse and, more importantly, marine vendors, great museums and lots of local sites. The advantage of the PR coast as a choice is that you aren't locked into one spot but rather can roam around and see all three coasts while being within a short distance of one of these protected mangrove estuaries. I haven't mentioned the sweet little town just E of Cabo Rojo [must be La Parguera] with its own mangrove estuaries and boats have ridden out big storms there with much success ... so I suppose there are actually three choices. Because PR also offers the U.S. infrastructure (ready flights, USPS service, 800 numbers, etc), there is much to recommend cruising there in the storm season ... although as with the other choices, you are taking a risk to some degree.

3. North Sound, Grand Cayman - you would probably reach this via the Windward Passage and visiting the lovely N coast of Jamaica along the way. North Sound has an inside mangrove estuary on its east end, which in turn offers an inner pool with even more protection, and a nice marina is located there as well. There are no depth issues presuming you carry less than 7 feet, although the same is not true in some other parts of North Sound. This is a very protected setting with good holding, and you are in the middle of a First World country. A short dink ride away is the main street with bus service, and everything you would need (marine vendors, wonderful hardware stores, huge groceries, etc) is within bike, bus or perhaps walking distance. This is a small island with tourism and banking as its main businesses, and so I can imagine the island getting quite small after 4-5-6 months ... but it's a unique choice in its own right with gorgeous clear warm waters, the availability of North Sound gunkholing, and with easy sailing to the Bay Islands, the Honduras coast and the rest of the Western Caribbean thereafter.

4. Rio Dulce - much of a mix of pieces of the other choices. The river itself of course is fascinating, and now there is a wide range of marinas so you can pick one based on location, services, cost and the local cruiser community you find there. The small town is a rural Honduran agricultural center and provides access to the rest of Central America via bus as well as very special Honduran sites like Tikal.

I know of no immigration or customs issues that would present themselves to you in any of these places, presuming normal compliance with visa extensions. Three of them (PR, DR and the Rio) offer interesting inland travel options. All offer international air service, although the DR and Rio aren't as convenient. You may not have insurance coverage available for some of them, if that is an issue for you. Were I you, I'd think about what kinds of off-season activities were important to me, which routing was the most inviting longer-term, and then pick among 2, 3 and 4. If I were planning an extended visit back to the States - or wanted that as an option - my choices would narrow to the Rio, as I wouldn't be sure the boat would see proper prep in a storm warning in the other three locations in my absence.

...

If your goals include subsistence living during the storm season and the level of the local economy is one of your necessary considerations, then that would likely boil down to food, fuel (propane, diesel, gasoline), and the occasional splurge out in the town. That makes the Rio and Luperon your two 'cheap dates', with PR somewhat more (though don't forget the cheap/easy USPS and phone options) and Grand Cayman the expensive choice.

OTOH in Grand Cayman, you can leave your protected anchorage (which is just about exclusively yours), cross North Sound and feed the manta rays in crystal-clear water any day you wish during the storm months, or visit the air-conditioned library and enjoy a full mix of International newspapers, a good book selection, etc. Some of the PR locales offer similar lifestyle enhancements. Those niceties aren't really available with the cheap dates.

Also, a tight budget precludes extensive inland travel, one of the ways to avoid the inevitable island fever. I guess my point is to encourage you to think about the qualitative side of the inexpensive lifestyle you would like to have, and not just where the lettuce and beer is the cheapest. Also - and maybe I'm missing something here - these places are supposed to all be on the WAY to somewhere, yet they are almost all over the Caribbean. Seems like a big factor would (should?) be what you hope to do in the Caribe that the storm season is interrupting. I'd encourage you to fold that in, too.

Finally - since you mentioned budgets and alluded to the cruising kitty - you might find it of interest that getting a job in Grand Cayman can be quite easy. In fact, we ran into numerous sailors there who ended up working for a while with the cruise on hold. Excellent pay in a First World currency, legally mandated retirement programs (which are convertible, meaning you can then leave with both their and your contributions), and the employer pays for the work permit process (which was running 6 weeks when we were there). Normal North American office skills and also boat skills (they do a LOT of tourism stuff using local boats when the cruise ships plow in each morning) are in demand, or at least were in 2002. In fact, they were holding a job fair while we were there and were claiming on the radio that 600 jobs were available for qualified applicants. Just something to think about ...
From sailmarcella on SSCA discussion boards:
The Rio Dulce in Guatemala is a great place to store a boat. Most marinas have ventilation services and there are two forms of 'haul-out' services for bottom jobs or repairs. One is Abel's and the other is Carlos. The area is constantly growing and there are so many places to travel and see that it takes a few weeks to see it all. Also, the plus side of the Rio Dulce is:
1. better filtered water systems,
2. fresh water (no salt water),
3. very friendly local people and other cruisers.

The slip fees range from $120 USD per month up to $200 USD per month.

My feelings about where not to be during hurricane season:
There seems to be a storm-funnel from the central Caribbean up across the west end of Cuba. So I would avoid Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, east end of Honduras, and the east coast of Mexico (Monterey peninsula and Cozumel and Isla Mujeres) during hurricane season.

From south end of Belize and west end of Honduras, you'd probably have time to dash into Rio Dulce ahead of a storm. But watch out for storms crossing from the Pacific side ?

My experience with some "hurricane holes":

From Pavlidis: "hurricane holes":
[He mentions others, that seem to me to be likely to be absolutely jam-packed, and often the only possible harbor in the area. For example, Marigot Bay on St Lucia, or the creek on N side of Tyrell Bay on Carriacou.


From "The Log Of Passe Partout":
Nice:
English Harbor in Antigua.
Bequia in Grenadines: lots of yacht services.
Tobago Keys: isolated but great snorkeling.

Avoid:
St Vincent: polluted harbor, theft.

From Jerry on "Persephone":
Some officials will try to force you into paying overtime to clear in, on the basis of the time you anchored or the time you entered territorial waters was outside normal working hours.

French islands do not accept USA state-registered boats; you must have federal documentation.
But, from JeanneP on Cruiser Log Forums 4/2006:
The only country we know of that insists on seeing US federal documentation papers is Guadeloupe, and specifically the little bay/village called Deshaies. We have not heard of any problems with the other French islands, including Martinique. What has happened in Deshaies is that the local Gendarme who is responsible for checking you in fined the boat for not having the correct documentation and demanded that the boat leave immediately. (But it's been a long time since we've been there, and perhaps the difficult gendarme has retired ?)

All US and current and former British islands accept state registration.
But, but, from Debbie on "Mahjongg" 10/2006:
In 2004 or so, several state-registered boats they know had problems entering Martinique and other French islands, often being told they had to leave within 24 hours because of their lack of federal documentation.

Tradewinds are south of east during summer, but a little more north in winter. Usually 14 to 18 knots. Fall is rainy season. Late summer into fall is hurricane season.

From "World Cruising Routes" by Jimmy Cornell (on Amazon):
Height of winter tradewinds are Jan to mid-March, and they cause strong wind and high seas in the Caribbean.

From "Insider's Guide to the Caribbean" by Jonathan Runge (on Amazon):
Air temperature rarely dips below 70F or above 90F at sea level, because ocean temperature is about 80F all year.

Open passages between islands are rough: the waves have a fetch from Africa with tradewinds blowing on them the whole way.

From "World Cruising Routes" by Jimmy Cornell (on Amazon):
North of the large islands, the tradewinds are blocked, which is good for motoring east, and bad for sailing west. True especially in the late spring and early summer, when there is more south to the tradewinds.

From "Carribean Voyaging Overview" article by Mark Matthews on SailNet:
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.

From Charles Freeman on the SailNet Caribbean Islands list:
Re: Same-day check-in and check-out:

I've stopped at every country in the Windwards and Leewards save Montserrat and Nevis. In the French islands customs is FREE, and if you can get a handful of the forms ahead of time, most places let you just drop the filled-out form in a mail slot on the Douane (customs) building after hours. I've done this in St. Martin, Guadaloupe and Martinique without trouble. That way I was legal and it was no effort at all. Of course, you don't want to just "sail by" a French island - the food ashore is way too good.

It's a lot faster if you make up your own crew manifest with all the usual passport and boat information on it - after you do a few forms you'll know what I mean by "the usual". Most customs allow you to just staple this to their form rather than filling it out (bring four copies since they usually have a 2 - 4 copy form to fill out).
[My experience 2009-2011: the French islands are all computerized now; no more paper forms or lists needed.]

From Charles Freeman on the SailNet Caribbean Islands list 8/2004:
Re: Refitting:

I can't comment on PR, but I found that Sint Maarten was excellent when I did my refit. Budget Marine and Island Water World prices rival those in the States, there is no duty if you import stuff from the USA, labor is acceptable (but not cheap), anchoring in the lagoon is very protected, and English is their first language. It's a good idea to buy really high-dollar but transportable stuff like solar panels and wind generators in USA and carry them as luggage with you to Sint Maarten or PR (pick some place without duty!!!).

The BVI is hopeless. St. Thomas is better, but not as good as Sint Maarten. I'm told Trinidad and the DR are excellent for labor rates but not good for well-stocked chandleries, so are the places to have labor-intensive low-tech stuff like painting, varnishing, deck refinishing, etc. done. I haven't quite made it down to Trinidad yet so can't comment first-hand.

There is a welder who operates off a barge in Tyrell Bay on Carriacou who is reputed to do the best SS work in the Caribbean. Again I haven't needed his services but he is the one everyone talks about for doing something like a new pushpit or stern arch. Read about him in Chris Doyle's guide to the Windwards. I had some SS fabrication and welding done at FKG in Sint Maarten. Excellent quality work but not a bargain price by any means.
From Judy Rouse on the SailNet Caribbean Islands list:
St. Martin definitely has gotten the most recommendations. I'm told that the Dutch side is the better choice there.
From Allan J. Coppock on the SailNet Caribbean Islands list:
Bit of a toss-up in some regards. St Martin typically is the cheapest place to buy things, and Trinidad is the cheapest on the labor. St Thomas really offers nothing, except that Independent Boat Yard is a good place for doing work on your own boat. There are several good stainless shops in Trinidad, I haven't had occasion to need that kind of work in St Martin, so I can't speak to that. One thing that does change is that St Martin isn't a bad place to be while you work on your boat, and Trinidad has gotten a lot less pleasant in the last few years. On the other hand, if you are doing the work in the summer, Trinidad is south of the hurricane belt, and St Martin has had a bullseye painted on it the last few storms.

From article by Todd Duff in 3/2011 issue of Caribbean Compass magazine:
Where (boatyards) to refit in the Caribbean:

Lots of trip reports (mostly from people who chartered boats) at Caribbean Travel Roundup Newsletter.

Great pictures from all over the Caribbean: Sailing with Halimeda

From Little Gidding's logs:
"... for the cost of a snack at a cafe in Martinique we could have bought a week's worth of groceries in the DR."

From article by Don Street in 1/2007 issue of Caribbean Compass magazine:
Security:

... The French islands have had some thievery but to the best of my knowledge no armed burglary.

From Antigua north, yachtsmen on their boats have had little serious trouble with crime - petty theft, yes; armed burglary, no. ...

... I am well into my seventies ... If we are sailing as a couple, only the two of us on board, we will not sail south of Antigua except to the French islands. If we are sailing with a full crew of four (or better five) we will sail south of Antigua but we will check carefully as to the situation before visiting Dominica. In St Lucia we would only anchor by Pigeon Island, otherwise it is alongside a dock in Rodney Bay Lagoon or in Marigot Bay.

As for the west coast of St Vincent, forget it; Union Island the same. The other Grenadines are fine. In St George's, Grenada, we'll stay only alongside the Grenada Yacht Club dock, not anchored out in the Lagoon or outside the harbor. Grenada's south coast is okay.

Forget about Trinidad unless you're in a marina or boatyard; the same with mainland Venezuela, which is a tragedy. ... Nowadays, little or no crime is reported from Las Aves, Los Roques and some of Venezuela's other offshore islands, but along the Puerto La Cruz coast, the Paria Peninsula and in Margarita, the situation is pretty bad.

... Singlehanders are the most likely target ... boats with four or more crew are seldom attacked. No firm figures on this, just my gut feeling. ...

Analyze the situation and cruise the Eastern Caribbean - the sailing is great, and you'll meet some lovely people and see some beautiful scenery. ... the only way to be completely safe is to spend your life in bed. ...

From Andy Bacon on Cruising World message board, 3/2009:
Observations on the Eastern Caribbean:

We have sailed the Eastern Caribbean for a number of years now. During a trip up to Florida, we found a number of people in Georgetown Bahamas who - prior to setting off along the 'Thorny Path' in order to get there - were anxious for all the information they could get on the area. So, partly in answer to this demand, we will try to cover the more practical side of getting along out there. There are some significant differences to wintertime sailing in the Bahamas, as will become apparent to any reader familiar with those waters. For one, it's warmer!

A disclaimer: we are bound by necessity to deal with topics in general terms. There will always be a specific instance which someone can relate which is contrary to what we say. In addition, we cannot mention, describe or quote everything and everyone: just because we don't, doesn't mean they are not valid. Just outside our experience.

There is a sister article to this one, describing the modifications we have had to make to our sailboat to make it suitable for living aboard in the Caribbean: see the Boat Equipment page.

THE WAY OF LIFE: GENERAL

Our sailing area is the chain of islands stretching from Puerto Rico's East Coast (colloquially known as The Spanish Virgin Islands) down to Grenada. Here small independent nation states, some less than 100,000 people strong, sit alongside bigger islands which are economically dependent on, and politically part of, large nations like France or the USA. All of them are beautiful!

In the former group, economic resources are stretched thin. Per capita income is low, yet the people do not seem unhappy or resentful of their situation. In general, infrastructure is basic: do not expect good roads, wide smooth pavements or sidewalks, ultramodern telecommunications, well-funded rescue services or medical facilities. More on some of these aspects later.

The positive aspect of the generally good demeanour of the occupants of these islands can occasionally be marred by unpleasantness: dealing with surly officials when completing the formalities, declining the wares of hard-sell boat boys and vendors, the discomfort of seeing hard poverty right in your face. But these instances are infrequent, and not confined to this area. Nowhere here have I ever had such unwarranted unpoliteness by any official as when once arriving at JFK New York, for instance. Everyone has bad days. They are rare out here.

The 'islands with rich parents' have better provisioning, services, infrastructure and facilities, obviously. That does not make visiting them necessarily any more pleasant: every island has its song to sing. But the diversity certainly adds a richness to the whole cruising experience in the area. The French islands are stocked with goods from, yes, France! Camembert instead of Kraft! Good wine at affordable prices! A different language with all the associated challenges!

So much for life on land. In the winter, at sea, typical conditions will be 15-20 knot winds from just North of East (plus or minus 30 degrees), seas 5 to 6 feet plus or minus 2 feet. In the right boat, this makes for really satisfying sailing, but without the white knuckles. At anchor, there will often be a small swell running in all open and semi-open anchorages. Sleep will be interrupted, but seldom: once a month perhaps, unless you habitually choose to stay in marinas or only in popular unsecluded horseshoe or almost-landlocked bays (of which there are few). At least, that's our general experience. The prevailing wind shifts more East and then South of East as summer approaches. Winds are affected by weather systems leaving the North American continent, but not to the point of clocking around, fading to a gasp prior to the passing of a front, as in the Bahamas.

RESOURCES AND INFORMATION

We have depended extensively upon the following books and guides. Their expense have in all cases been justified. You will find them useful too. A fully referenced list of the guides we regularly use are to be found at the end of the article. The first four are to be found in most chandlers and specialist bookstores, the others are available from chandlers, marina offices and sometimes customs and immigration offices.

If, in the course of dealing with any subject, we quote a source, it is with the sole intention of motivating the interested reader to purchase the source document itself. Any subject which is critical to well-being deserves a proper understanding of the relevant issues, and this article does not provide that. Go to the source itself!

The above list does not include the manuals, repair and maintenance guides and other resources specific to your kind of craft and its equipment. There are probably equally good guides we have not yet come across: Pavlidis' for example.

WEATHER

Life in this area is dictated by the weather. Bear in mind that severe weather systems have passed through the area as late as mid-December and once, in January. In early winter, one needs to keep a weather eye especially out to the East. Even discounting these extreme events, good seamanship prescribes that one keep informed as to weather. Passages will be more pleasant, anchoring more restful, if done in harmony with the weather and the sea state.

The following are some of the sources of information on weather. Details later in the text: Our preferred method is radiofax, for reasons of brevity, clarity, dependability and convenience. We may be in the minority. We use a Sony World Receiver (portable shortwave radio) which is SSB capable, have a wire connecting the aerial to the rigging to improve reception, a cable running from the earphone socket to the mic input of a laptop running weatherfax software which we bought from a commercial enterprise. Some software requires a modulator between radio and computer, ours does not. In the space of 30 minutes, this setup downloads 3 weatherfaxes showing wind and wave forecasts for 24, 48, and 72 hours ahead without (much) human intervention on our part. NOAA also provide radiofaxes showing sea-state up to 72 hours ahead, which we watch sporadically. We know cruisers who have thousands of dollars worth of marine SSB transmitter/receivers to do the same thing, and would have nothing smaller. It's a personal choice, and we have decided we have no use for an SSB transmitter, only a receiver. Were we making long ocean passages, we might think differently. There is one disadvantage to radiofaxes: they do not show the likelihood of precipitation, which can have a significant effect on localised wind strength.

One thing we learned only after much frustration: best reception of an SSB signal is achieved not at the nominal frequency of the transmission. Upper Side Band transmissions are sent 2 kHz lower than the nominal frequency, Lower Side Band at 2 kHz higher. Some listings pre-adjust for the convenience of the reader. You need to read the small print!

PASSAGEMAKING AND ANCHORING

Marine weather forecasts assume an ideal situation: no land effects. The wind they forecast is the 'gradient wind', i.e. that formed by metereological conditions. The wind and sea conditions you will experience while sailing along will for a large part of the time be significantly affected by the islands, a phenomenon which does not occur in the Bahamas. Bruce van Sant provides the insight into what land does to wind. Some of the things you can expect are: The above is not all-inclusive.

In addition van Sant has a method for (almost) painlessly making your way dead-to-wind i.e. Eastwards, in the proximity of high large island masses like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and South America. Invaluable, and it works!

On one occasion, the weather forecast was for 20 knots of wind, and to be just aft of the beam for our course. We judged these conditions to be manageable. We were halfway across from St Lucia to St Vincent when it began to rain. One squall after the other, adding perhaps 10 knots of wind. As we approached St Vincent at midday, the island effect added another 10 knots. Seas were 12 to 15 feet and more. We surfed down them and broached twice. The bimini was still up, and by now we judged it to be too rough to take it down. (We had put in the second reef when we saw the first squall, so we were OK on that score, but we have to stand unsupported at full stretch on the seats in the cockpit and swing the boom away to bring the bimini frame back). The front securing padeye for the bimini tore out, and we were lucky not to have the entire thing carry away. All the books say it: reef early and reduce windage too. Had we remembered that approaching St Vincent would compound the wind situation, we could have taken action earlier. Be warned.

Current

Although tidal rise and fall is small in the Caribbean basin, Don Street points out that there is a way the tide can be used to good effect. In essence, the general constant flow of water toward the WNW at about 0.5 knots is partially offset or in some cases, totally countered by the effect of tide. For some 6 hours from one hour after moonrise and moonset, the water will try to run East. That's right: the flood is to the East. This established fact is not mentioned by any other source we have consulted, yet its use can make a significant difference in passagemaking. Street explains the phenomenon on the back of all Imray Iolaire charts, in his guidebooks and each month in Compass magazine.

Street also describes the current characteristics in the Anegada Passage, a vengeful piece with water with a bad reputation which is almost always a hard motorsail when going BVI-St Maarten. Useful.

Landfall and Anchorages

Both Chris Doyle and Nancy Scott's guides, and also van Sant's, have minicharts showing the depth, best entry, hazards and general characteristics of all the popular anchorages. Don Street has the same, and he is particularly good on the more out-of-the-way anchorages including many on the windward side of the islands. All of us out here could not live without these guides.

Most of the popular anchorages are bays in the lee of the islands, with the occasional open roadstead. So many of the bays are picture-perfect, you stop reaching for the camera after a while. But as Don Street points out, that lovely golden curved beach at the head of the bay can only have been formed by wave action. In other words, these bays are subject to swell coming in from time to time. Hence the comment earlier about broken sleep. See also the comment about North swells, above. But to keep things in persective, we have only had sleep badly interrupted while on the North coast of St Johns USVI, the roadstead at Tortola BVI, off Roseau in Dominica and off Mustique.

Landing the Dinghy on the Beach

Beaching the dinghy in a big swell, with waves surging up the beach, is something you will have to do from time to time. It can be very dangerous. On one occasion, we had arranged to meet friends at a New Year's party on Pinneys beach in Nevis, despite bad conditions. Not wishing to miss the party, we used a technique which has served the two of us well every time we have used it. The guiding principle is to let the waves pass under the dinghy without hurling it toward the shore, when control will certainly be lost. In practical terms, this means using a drogue and approaching the beach stern first. Attach a bucket to the dinghy painter and drop it overboard; stop the outboard well outside the surf line and tilt it; paddle in transom first, sitting astride the balloons, one foot in, one out, facing aft. You must of course, choose your moment: surfers say that waves come in sets of 7, then there is a gap. When you hit the beach (and I do mean wait for contact) each person quickly swings the remaining leg overboard and hauls the dinghy stern first smartly up the beach. Some modification of this technique will be needed for any number of passengers other than two.

Whether you choose to use this idea or some variant, make sure you consider the matter carefully before reaching the point of no return, and wear life preservers.

Night rides in the Dinghy

You will make trips to and from shore, or from another vessel, at night in your dinghy. We see many people doing just this without any kind of light showing. Don't be a mug. One night dinghying back to the boat in Simpson's Bay Lagoon, St Martin, we were nearly ridden down by a speeding powerboat, despite having a flashlight on. Close to shore, when there is so much light clutter, it is admittedly hard to see slow-moving objects. And because he was approaching us straight-on, we too had trouble seeing him! We subsequently found small flashing LED lights sold in cyclist stores, a kind of personal strobe, and we now use these as well when out at night in the dinghy.

SERVICES AND TECHNICAL SUPPORT

Insurance

Insuring a sailing vessel without having awkward restrictions imposed is becoming difficult. Insurers have a variety of conditions attached to policies ranging from requiring the vessel to be South of 12 degrees (i.e. South of Grenada) during the hurricane season, to having to derig the mast. Whether these conditions make sense is an open question: there is nowadays a massive concentration of yachts in Chagamaras in Trinidad from July to November. These restrictions contradict the basic principle of reducing risk by spreading it, and instead serve to concentrate it. Don Street points out that hurricanes have been known to pass through latitudes this far South; should this happen again, the marine insurers (and so too everyone else) will suffer massive losses. Weather is always doing the unexpected. In any case, many do not wish to make the 90-odd mile passage to Trinidad twice a season. If you are one of these, you will have to do some careful shopping.

Fuel and water

Most islands have some sort of dock where one can get fuel and water. However, all diesel in the Caribbean is contaminated to some extent with water, thanks to area's naturally high humidity. Microbes grow at the water/diesel interface in tanks and when they die, produce a sludge which will eventually try to migrate to the diesel injectors and cause a blockage. A properly sized pre-filter in the line will certainly pay back the investment in it. Fuel additives are commonly available to prevent the sludge forming in the first place.

Filters are available which are able to separate water out as the diesel is being pumped into the tank. Such units are not cheap but do work. Whether they eliminate the problem or merely reduce it is something we will never know.

Technical services

We have found that the islands frequented by large motoryachts have all manner of technical services onshore but the providers (riggers and electronics being the worst) have limited interest in serving the smaller vessel. There are richer pickings on offer. You will have to be patient, and learn how to cajole without being annoying. Or go to a smaller island where yachtmen are the prime source of income for those offering technical services.

Chandlers

The area is well served by 2 major companies, Island Water World and Budget Marine, as well as many smaller independent operations. You can usually find what you want in BVI, St Martin (Dutch side), Guadeloupe, Martinique, St Lucia and Grenada. Funnily enough, Antigua is not as well served as the above-mentioned. We have never needed a chandler in the USVI, so cannot comment on these islands. Seldom will you find everything you want under one roof, however. We make list after list and pick up what we anticipate we will need whenever we see it. It's a habit everyone has to adopt.

Dry Storage

There seem to be many places offering on-land storage, some of them quite open. We question how sheltered they would be in a big storm. We also have a pet theory about the influence of the stability of the surface on which the stored vessels will stand. Big weather systems bring lots of rain before the worst of the wind. Jackstands standing on a gravel/earth surface, possibly on reclaimed land, with a piece of plank placed under the feet are in our view vulnerable to a water-induced softening of the base, the plank working loose, the stand partially sinking and the entire structure becoming unstable just as the worst of the storm arrives.

You make up your own mind, but our vessel stands on concrete or tarmac; either the jackstands are welded to each other to reduce their tendency to move outwards, or we rent a cradle; and we ask for lashing down in an area segregated from catamarans (which can start flying in high winds) and less-secure vessels. We have found only three yards where these conditions can be met. We leave the mast up. Perhaps no amount of preparation will do in the event of a Category 5 hurricane strike, but I do hope she will survive a Category 3 and with luck, a 4.

Health and Health Insurance

This kind of insurance is a major budget item. We have found medical treatment for small complaints (ear infection, etc) on small islands to be cheap and good, if a little overstretched: we have waited half a day at the clinic to be seen to, but the attention was as good as anywhere else. You will have to decide for yourself how you cover your own health risk. But major problems might require resort to medevac to Barbados, Puerto Rico or the USA.

Provisions

We provision from all sorts of places, ranging from sophisticated supermarkets to buying from boat boys on tatty windsurf boards. The biggest challenges seem to be obtaining fresh local produce and fresh fish, strangely enough: imported manufactured food is easier to obtain. Even much of the fruit is imported. This is a sad thing really, and an inconvenience: once fruit and vegetables have been chilled (all imported produce is treated this way), their life is shortened and they may not ripen properly. Keep pre-chilled stuff in your fridge, or watch it go off in record time.

For us, provisioning is a reason to go ashore and sightsee and we would not want to say too much more in order not to deprive anyone of the pleasure these adventures can bring.

Communications

Keeping in touch with friends and family tends to be done by email, satellite or cell/mobile phone, text messaging. No different to home, really, although the cost is higher and the frequency of contact lower. Pretty much all islands have a shoreside bar/restaurant with wi-fi, which can sometimes be captured on board if you are not moored too far away. There are also internet cafes although in all the cases we can think of, the equipment is old.

If you have a cell/mobile telephone, make sure it is a tri-band model so as to receive signal in all the islands.

Security

Some people are almost paranoid about their security, and spend much energy monitoring developments on the morning Security and Security Net on single sideband radio (0815 EST, 8104 kHz) while others adopt a fatalistic attitude.

Security is never a problem until there is a situation, when suddenly it becomes one. There is no simple answer as to what on should do to protect oneself and one's property. There have been some very very awful crimes committed against cruisers out here, it is true. But the frequency (read: risk) is low even if the consequences may be disproportionately onerous. Flying in aircraft has a similar risk profile. You would be foolish to be over-conspicuous, over-trusting, offensive, and/or careless.

In 5 years, we were boarded once while ashore, by a group of youngsters who took the bag of snorkelling kit from a stern locker. We recovered it without more violence than a lot of yelling. We always lock the boat when going ashore, but we sleep with hatches and companionway open. We have a battery-operated motion detector/alarm, which we leave in the cockpit at night in anchorages where we are isolated, very close to shore, or have a bad feeling about the place. We have a can of pepper spray, a very bright lantern, a short club and a short whip (hosepipe) close to hand in the bunk we sleep in. Our strategy depends primarily on being alerted before intruders enter the saloon, on the shock to the intruder(s) of being met by a bright light and a lot of shouting, backed up by more violent action where justified. I hope we never need to explore whether this will be adequate.

Firearms are not for us. Most islands have strict regulations about the carrying of arms and can produce lots of bureaucracy to regulate their carriage. I have no idea how a cruiser who had used a weapon in anger against a local would be treated by the local police and judiciary, whatever the circumstances.

LESSONS LEARNED

We learned that: REFERENCES

These are some of the books we have onboard, and which we have used to learn more about what is written above. In many cases, there are by now updated versions. In no particular order…

DOYLE C., "The Cruising Guide to the Leeward Islands", Cruising Guide Publications, 2003 (on Amazon). There is also a guide to the Windward Islands, and updates from www.cruisingguides.com

SCOTT N & S., "The Cruising Guide to the Virgin Islands", Cruising Guide Publications, 2002 (on Amazon).

STREET D., "Street's Cruising Guide to the Eastern Caribbean: Anguilla to Dominica, iUniverse.com Inc, 2001 (on Amazon). There are also guides to the Virgin Islands, Martinique to Trinidad, and others

VAN SANT B., "The Gentleman's guide to Passages South", Cruising Guide Publications, 2001 (on Amazon).

REEDS Nautical Almanac, Thomas Reed Publications, 2002 (on Amazon).

Shipping big items from USA: have them shipped UPS Ground or whatever to a Tropical Shipping terminal somewhere in USA (such as Miami), and have Tropical Shipping carry them the rest of the way to you in the islands.




Northeast Caribbean




Leeward Islands

Guidebooks:
"Cruising Guide to the Leeward Islands" by Chris Doyle (on Amazon).
"Cruising Guide to the Leeward Islands" by Stephen Pavlidis (on Amazon).

Charts:
Maptech chartkit 11.2 has only 8 charts for $80, about 3 times as expensive per page as most chartkits. And half of the charts are for islands you're unlikely to visit. And you need part of Maptech chartkit 11.3 to get Guadeloupe and Dominica.

From Chuteman on Cruising World message board:
1) St. Martin and Anguilla - Lots of fun, beaches, snorkeling, plenty of eating/drinking options, etc.

St. Martin very busy place especially dutch side but easy to get flights into ... french side quieter and Grand Case a very quaint town with great food options.

Anquilla - quiet, laid back, great snorkeling and beaches, no crowds ... did not sample too many land spots beyond Road Bay. But we used our dinghy lots of places.

St. Martin - if you charter from there ... no requirements moving between french to dutch sides.

Anguilla - pretty easy checking in (charter co will help and Doyle's guide has info) ... but it is a little fee happy if you want to travel beyond Road Bay = they charge a cruising fee and nat'l park fee. Fun Time.

2) Guadeloupe and Dominica - very different ... more land based activities, language factor, less snorkeling, beaches mixed.

a) Guadeloupe - big island - actually 2 shaped like a butterfly ... French speaking ... you can get by but knowing french would be an asset. One half is very green and with mountains ... the other half flat with beaches. Food was pretty good but Grand Case in St. Martin was better.

Sailed to Marie Galante - small, poorer, a few nice beaches yet it was raining when we were there; and Les Saintes - feels like France, the people, the look of the town ... cute, some rocky beaches ... worth a stop.

b) Dominica - Lush is the only way to describe ... mountains and green from end to end ... with every sort of fruit / vegetable growing. We anchored off Portsmouth. Poorer country but very nice people and english-speaking. There are "boat boys" here which can be annoying. Tours, hiking, waterfalls and other land base stuff abound. Food was simple but good. Sampled fruit falling off trees during island tour + public market.

We never made it to Roseau (capital) or southern beaches which are better for swimming + snorkeling ... great visit.

Checking in/out - Guadeloupe = laid back just have boat papers and crew list ... I did not even bother in Les Saintes on my way back from Dominica. Just did it when I got back to Point a Pitre.

Dominica - biggest thing there was finding it ... customs separate from immigration (never bothered) ... Customs will check you in and out at same time if you are staying for less than 14 days. They are just slow (ilon time) and use their own forms with more carbon paper than I've seen in years. Plus they handle more comm'l ships than yachts ... office is adjacent to comm'l dock.




Windward Islands

Guidebooks:
"Cruising Guide to the Windward Islands" by Chris Doyle (on Amazon).
"Cruising Guide to the Windward Islands" by Stephen Pavlidis (on Amazon).
[I bought both. Doyle is much better on shore facilities and shore maps.]

Charts:
Maptech chartkit 11.4 has only 6 charts for $80, about 4 times as expensive per page as most chartkits. And you need part of chartkit 11.3 to get Martinique.
[Instead of buying charts, I bought both the Doyle and Pavlidis guidebooks, and that worked out fine for me.]

From "Destiny Calls": [of the Windward Islands,] "the highest prices and highest quality are in the French islands".

Hurricane hole possibilities:




Southern Caribbean

From The Aldebaran Travel Log:

From article by Tim Murphy in July 2003 issue of Cruising World magazine:




Western Caribbean

Decker Sailing's "Cruising Guides" (Panama and Costa Rica)
Article by Liza Copeland in 10/2000 issue of Blue Water Sailing magazine.

Charts: chartbook from Bellingham Chart Printers ($240 for whole region).

"The Cruising Guide to the Northwest Caribbean" by Nigel Calder (1991; ASIN 0071580166) (on Amazon).

Northwest Caribbean Net: 8188.0 MHz SSB at 1400 UTC.

Cruising meccas: Bahia del Sol in Bahia Jaletepec in El Salvador.
Good places:

From Norman Radder:
Places we enjoyed [in trip to northwest Caribbean]:

From Norman Radder:
We've just returned from a 6 month cruise in the western Caribbean to Mexico, Belize, Guatemata and Honduras. I've saved as computer files all the tracklog waypoints that our GPS (ICOM GP-270ML) saved. There are about 20 files that map out the whole trip.

Since the charts for this region are not the best or even very accurate, it necessary to have waypoints for the various reef passes, sand bars and anchorages, etc. These are passed from cruiser to cruiser in lists and over the SSB or from one of several cruising guides. Another source is from tracklog waypoints. Tracklog waypoints are automatically saved by the GPS or by a computer program such as Nobeltec and represent where a boat has actually gone as compared to waypoints for routes the people have entered, possibly incorrectly.

One use of these files would be for planning a trip by seeing where another boat has gone. You could create a route for a computer navigation program such as CAPN, Nobeltec or MaxSea to see where another boat has gone.

These files were downloaded from my GPS and saved by my GPS interface program as computer files. There is one line for each waypoint and the values on the line are separated by semi-colons: Description; waypoint name; latitude deg; lat min; lat dir; longitude deg; long min; long dir

The files are available for downloading from: http://users.mo-net.com/normandpaula/TrackLogs.html
From Richard Woods on World-Cruising mailing list:
I am currently in Guatemala, having sailed through Belize. I would agree that the charts are not accurate, nor are the only two available pilot guides. In fact, they often say different things and neither are what we actually saw with our own eyes, which are the only navigation tools to use around here.

Some of the reef passes are very narrow and shallow. San Pedro, N Belize is an example. There are two passes within 100 yds. One is 6 ft deep and clear of coral, the other is 5 ft deep and full of coral. The pilot books say line up with such and such a building, but San Pedro is currently a building site and the skyline bears no relation to the pilots. In S Belize we ran aground following Nigel Calder's exact route and he recorded 20 ft min (we draw 4 ft).

So if you rely on GPS you will indeed need actual waypoints from someone who has gone before. But I think it is better to go extra cautiously and pretend you have no chart at all.

From article by Paul Bennett in 11/2003 issue of Cruising World magazine:
Likely places to find mechanics: La Ceiba, Honduras; Fronteras, Guatemala; Belize City; Cancun.

The Caribbean coast is occasionally affected by northers in winter. Throughout the year the prevailing winds are easterly. Hurricane and tropical storm season is from June to October.

From John on World-Cruising mailing list:
I've visited Costa Rica several times (not in the boat, though) and always enjoyed it. It is a neat place. I spent a month teaching a course down there one time (computer programming) and taking Spanish lessons. The train ride from San Jose down to Limon was the best part of the trip, with a weekend trip to Montezuma running a close second.

So far as telling you about Rio Dulce and Belize, I can do that, if you keep in mind that I was last there in 1997, so things may have changed somewhat. The absolutely best place to start that trip is from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, which is a great anchorage and lots of friendly boaters. Almost any place like that which has a "semi-permanent population" (by which I mean that people will anchor there for several weeks and sometimes several months) will have a VHF radio net -- usually in the morning. It is always a good idea to listen to that net, even if you do not wish to participate, since there is a lot of valuable information passed around.

When I went to Isla Mujeres, I started from Key West, Florida (I live in Florida) went over to Cuba, and then followed the Northwestern coast of Cuba down to the end. There is a good anchorage there, and one can wait for weather to make the crossing across the Yucatan Channel to Isla Mujeres. Unfortunately, though, I think going to Cuba may no longer be an option, so now one would have to either go from Key West to Isla Mujeres or from Tampa to Isla Mujeres. It is not a bad trip, but you have to keep watch because lots of cruise ships, as well as other traffic.

When you get to Isla Mujeres, no matter which route you take to get there, you want to stock up just as much as possible with provisions while there. Take the ferry from the island (Isla Mujeres) over to Cancun and there are lots of good, large supermarkets to shop in. Good prices too. Do NOT plan on buying anything other than the absolute necessities in Belize. For one thing, they do not have much, and for another thing, what they do have is very expensive. Be sure and fuel up in Mexico, and I always believe in taking a few extra containers of diesel fuel along, strapped securely to the stanchions.

When you leave Isla Mujeres, heading south, remember that the barrier reef runs all along that coast, and that you have to stay outside the reef to travel. The catch is, you cannot stay outside too far, though, because then you get into the swift Yucatan Current, which is flowing north (and you want to go south). So you have to stay close enough to the reef to be out of the current, but not so close as to hit anything. The charts are not real reliable, so you just have to watch for white water (in the daytime) and keep a sharp eye on the depth indicator. The reef generally runs straight, but every now and then there will be a renegade piece which is sticking out further. Hitting a reef can spoil your whole day. :-)

There are several places along the Mexican coast which have breaks in the reef, and you can go in, anchor behind the reef, and spend a day or so taking a rest. One beautiful place is at Tulum,Mexico, which is also the site of an old Mayan temple. The temple is on a cliff, and when you are anchored in the crystal clear water behind the reef, with the temple on a cliff above your head, it is pretty otherworldly! There is also a nude bathing beach there, and lots of backpackers go there. As well as people who are seeking kind of "mystical experience" from the Mayan temple. Hey, maybe they get one, I don't know.

Once you leave Mexico, the next stop is Belize. You can check in with Customs at one of the little barrier islands there at the very beginning (Ambergris Caye). Just keep in mind what I said about having your boat stocked with food before getting there, though. Sailing Belize is a beautiful experience -- you can sail inside the barrier reef, and there is nice clear water, usually nice wind, and lots of interesting things to see. Placencia is a good place to stop and rest and eat out for a change.

Once you leave Belize, the next stop is Guatemala. Now, Guatemala is a dangerous place, and you have to recognize that going in. The only place you want to go there (in the boat) is up the Rio Dulce, to Lake Izabal. There are several good marinas up there, nice people, and lots of friendly cruisers. So you go across the shallow bar to the little town of Livingston and check in with Customs, and then proceed up the Rio Dulce. It is better to spend the night anchored in Livingston and get an early start in the morning, since you can get to Lake Izabal in one day.

Now, of course I do not know what kind of person you are and what your interests are. Cruisers generally come in to Lake Izabal and spend the summer there (or at least their boat does, anyway) to wait out the hurricane season. There is a lot of card-playing, TV-watching, reading, basket-weaving, whatever, all of which I myself find fairly boring. So I left the boat there and took the bus (nice air-conditioned bus) to Guatemala City and then to Antigua, rented an apartment for the summer, and took an extensive course in Spanish. I rode the bus back every few weeks to check on the boat, but a good marina will take good care of it for you.

[A tip for Guate (Guatemala City) -- do not wear a fanny pack. They cut them off and sometimes the knife slips. Friend of mine got killed that way when the knife went into his stomach and punctured something. Keep money in a money belt, underneath your clothes.]







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