Plotting a course to Caribbean sabbatical cruise
John Kretschmer shares his wealth of knowledge on the logistics of a Caribbean sabbatical so you can do it too
The second route, and one that’s becoming popular, is to depart from the southern Midatlantic coast. Boats often leave from Norfolk while some prefer to avoid any encounter with Cape Hatteras and take the Intracoastal waterway south to Beaufort and Moorhead City, North Carolina, and shove off from there. The timing is usually a week or two later than the first route because you are already well south of New England. It’s possible to depart as late as December, and I have made this passage in January, but it was cold and rough.
The Gulfstream crossing is easier to time because you encounter it on the first or second day out. If the wind opposes the current wait a day or two. This route is a real ocean passage, usually at least 8 days and often more. Bermuda is not a logical option as it lies well east of the straight-line course, unless a tropical storm or deep low dictates an abrupt change in plans.
I made this 1,300-mile passage twice last fall, once aboard Quetzal and once on a friend’s Tayana 48. Each passage was 10 days of upwind sailing, and one included gale force winds during a vicious frontal passage. The year before we had a dreamy eight-day passage. We left Norfolk on October 22, with cool rainy southwest winds, and flew east-southeast and stayed just north and east of the rhumb line on a lively port tack in clocking winds. When we reached the 65th meridian, dubbed I-65 by voyagers, we picked up the northeast trades. From there it was a fast reach down to St. Thomas. This is the route favored by the ARC, Caribbean 1500 and the Salty Dawg Rallies. It’s the best route for reaching the Caribbean, fast but not too cold and with a bit of luck more of a reach than a beat.
The third route is to leave from points farther south, anywhere along an arc of coastline from Charleston to Fort Lauderdale. Many boats like the idea of sailing south to Florida, using a mix of the ICW and offshore hops, as a warm up for the passage to the Caribbean. This is probably still the most common route because its primarily daysailing all the way. However, it’s surprisingly challenging, especially in the winter months when the trades are in full glory, blowing from the east at 20 to 25 knots and you have to pound out 50 miles a day and then scramble to find an anchorage before dark. It’s not called the “thorny path” without reason.
Ft. Lauderdale’s longitude is 80°W and St. Thomas is just east of 65°, but Ft. Lauderdale’s latitude is at 26°N and St. Thomas is at 18°30’. The difference of longitude is more than 15° while the difference of latitude is 7°30’. This is not, “sailing south to the islands,” it’s bucking, pushing, pounding east, southeast toward the islands. For every degree south you need to knock off two degrees east.
If you have plenty of time and are willing to play the cold fronts that sweep across the Bahamas frequently in the winter, bringing temporarily favorable winds, this route saves you from making many overnight sails. Waypoints might include Bimini, Nassau, Georgetown, Crooked Island and Mayaguana Island in the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Luperon and Samana in the Dominican Republic, the south shore of Puerto Rico, the Spanish Virgins, and finally, the U.S. and British Islands.
Leaving Ft. Lauderdale in early November, cruisers working fast reach the Virgin Islands by Christmas. My contention is that this route is perfect for the return voyage in late spring and early summer. It’s essentially downhill all the way and you are able to enjoy these beautiful landfalls without the urgency of jumping on the next cold front to keep pushing east.
Whatever route you take to the islands, the warm trade winds wash away the stresses of the passage. And for those like me, who are not always happy to see land ahead, get over it, it’s time for cruising in paradise. I have been sailing the Caribbean for four decades, and the current crisis aside, this constellation of island countries is more alluring than ever and is undoubtedly best explored under sail. Marinas, boatyards and chandleries make the logistics of finding parts and organizing repairs easy. You can safely leave your boat in a first rate, secure marina and fly home for business or a family visit. Restaurants and beach bars abound and so do quality grocery stores and fresh markets, offering healthy, interesting eating options.