Aboard American Airlines Boeing 737 flight 2154 bound from Grenada to Miami on May 8, 2013, the Caribbean Sea is a beautiful sight to behold. In the morning sun, the view from 36,000 feet captures the eloquent contrast between the aquamarine-colored reefs and the darker blue hues of deeper water. During the past 195 days, these Caribbean waters have been our playground, sailing Cutter Loose a total of 2,837 nautical miles from Rock Hall, MD to Grenada, the southernmost island in the Windward Island chain.
On October 23, 2012, the day of our departure from Osprey Point Marina in Rock Hall, MD, the ominous long range weather forecast casts a pall over our journey south on the Chesapeake Bay. Departing the east coast for the Caribbean in autumn is tricky business. At this time of year, cold fronts pass every few days and there is always the chance of a late season tropical storm. As if on cue, Hurricane Sandy was turning to the north towards the Atlantic coast just as we were beginning our journey south.
We had signed on for the Caribbean 1500 rally, an annual mecca for cruising boats sailing from the east coast to the Caribbean. This year, the rally was scheduled to depart from Hampton, VA on November 5th. Prudence dictated an early arrival in Hampton to prepare for the storm and participate in pre-rally events. For three days, heavy rains and high winds pelted Hampton Roads, resulting in widespread flooding. Thankfully, our floating dock adjacent to a five story downtown hotel and parking garage at Hampton Public Piers was well protected and despite soggy conditions, we survived Sandy unscathed.
But now there is another villain on the horizon. A low pressure center exiting the east coast near the Georgia/Florida border is expected to turn north and follow the coast, creating classic Nor’easter conditions. The decision was reached by rally control to depart Hampton ahead of schedule, gambling that the 30 some Caribbean 1500 vessels would complete their crossing of the Gulf Stream well ahead of the storm.
Our Island Packet 460, Cutter Loose, makes rapid progress during the first few days of the voyage, exiting the Stream about 200 miles due east of Wilmington, NC. Later that day, we gradually begin to feel the effects of the approaching Nor’easter. By midnight, successive bands of squalls begin moving through our little space in the Atlantic, creating 40 knot gusts of swirling winds, downdrafts, confused seas, pelting rain and abundant thunder and lightning. With deeply reefed sails, we endeavor to sail on a broad reach to smooth out what has become a bumpy ride. The wind and swells, however, have a mind of their own, seemingly coming from every direction all at once. The autopilot cannot cope with these conditions, disengaging with every change in wind direction. In the darkness, we detect that the UV panel on the headsail is torn and flogging in the wind.
In the early hours of the morning with radar showing no apparent end in sight to the squalls, we decide to quit sailing and heave-to for several hours until the squalls abate. By daybreak, weather conditions improve considerably, but the sea state is still confused. Feeling somewhat rested, we are underway once again, sailing east in southerly winds, patiently waiting for the predictable easterly trade winds to send Cutter Loose on a thrilling beam reach to our destination. But on this voyage, the trades never materialize. During the final two days of the passage, we become resigned to motorsailing south towards the British Virgin Islands, directly into the wind.
Nine days after departing Hampton, we make landfall on the island of Tortola at 4 o’clock in the morning. Despite some uncomfortable weather and bumpy sea conditions, Cutter Loose performed admirably on this passage. We are elated to have arrived safe and sound at our intended destination. But for the first few days in Tortola, it is disconcerting and confusing to be walking on land. Being forced to devote immediate attention to intricate clearance procedures seems overwhelming at first. Gradually, we succumb to the rhythm and warmth of the tropics. With the post-rally activities completed and 1500 miles accumulated thus far on this journey under the keel of Cutter Loose, we are now on our own to explore the islands of the Eastern Caribbean.
The British Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands become home to us during the months of November, December and January. Between stints of resolving nagging problems with the navigation instruments on Cutter Loose, we are free to savor the intricate nooks and crannies of these islands at a relaxed pace. The simplicity of remaining put or moving to another equally gorgeous anchorage, beach or snorkeling spot is the ultimate in personal freedom. Francis Bay, Leinster Bay, Salt Pond Bay and Lameshure Bay on St. Johns as well as Little Jost Van Dyke, White Bay on Guana Island, North Sound on Virgin Gorda and Deadman Bay on Peter Island are amongst our favorite cruising destinations in the Virgins.
Locals inquire why one would ever want to leave the Virgin Islands. They correctly assert that the Virgins are the quintessential cruising grounds and that it doesn’t get any better than this when headed down-island. However, on February 3rd (Super Bowl Sunday), the urge to see what’s around the next bend compels us to depart Virgin Gorda, sailing 85 miles east across the Anegada Passage to the shores of St. Martin.
Once the anchor is down in Marigot Bay, the first instinct after clearing Customs is to gorge oneself on croissants at the French patisseries and boulangeries. When the weather is calm, dropping the hook at Grand Case and Ile Tintamarre are very enjoyable experiences. But when the wind and/or the swell are up, refuge can be found within a massive, shallow inland bay called Simpson Bay Lagoon. Although the water inside the Lagoon is murky, every conceivable type of marina, marine service and dining establishment is within an easy dinghy ride. Not every neighborhood on the French side of St. Martin is safe at night. The morning cruiser’s net on the VHF radio hosted by Mike at Shrimpy’s Laundry keeps us alert to trouble spots, and we quickly learn that there are many alternative dining and entertainment destinations on the Dutch side of the Lagoon.
Similar to the Virgins, it is difficult to escape the delights of St. Martin. Hundreds of cruisers call Simpson Bay Lagoon home for the entire season. However, Anguilla with its white beaches and fancy resorts is clearly visible just seven miles north of Marigot Bay. In the easterly trade winds, the easy sail to Road Bay is delightful. To diversify the daily routine, we spend the day with cruising friends at the upscale Mediterranean-style Cuisinart Resort on the south coast, followed by jazz Sunday at the more informal setting of Johnno’s beach bar in Road Bay.
From Anguilla, it is on to Gustavia Harbor on the island of St. Barth’s, just 25 miles to the southeast. St. Barth’s caters to the rich and famous, which is reflected in the size of the yachts in the inner harbor and the prices on the menus at local restaurants and at the high end clothing shops. Aesthetically, Gustavia is very tidy. The buildings surrounding the attractive horseshoe-shaped harbor are constructed with tile roofs, brilliant orange in color. Not a spec of litter can be found on the sidewalks or in other public spaces. The anchorage fee includes access to wifi Internet service throughout the harbor.
When one’s appetite for luxury has been fulfilled, it is just a few miles from Gustavia to Anse du Columbier, a protected anchorage on the northwest corner of St. Barth’s. Here, one can relax and enjoy the delights of the beach or hike to the lovely hamlet of Anse des Flamands on the north coast.
With a calm weather window, the 100 mile journey from St. Barth’s to English Harbour, Antigua is easily accomplished in an overnight sail. Along the way, the lights of Saint Kitts and Nevis to starboard twinkle in the clear night sky. Now at anchor adjacent to historic Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbor, we order a new masthead wind instrument from the local electronics dealer. While waiting for the part to arrive from the U.S., we set out on a clockwise circumnavigation of Antigua. Our overnight stops included Jolly Harbor on the west coast, Long Island on the northeast coast and our personal favorite, a dramatic anchorage just inside the reef near Green Island on the east side of Antigua. The circumnavigation is completed upon our return to English Harbor to install the fresh masthead wind instrument.
It is now March 5th and for the first time, we are on a schedule. We must remain on track for an early May arrival in Grenada. From Antigua, it is roughly 200 miles due south to the island of Grenada, where our sailing season will come to an end. This is trade-wind sailing at its finest. With 20+ knots of easterly winds on the beam, inter-island travel in a southerly direction from Antigua is a sailor’s dream. Covering 200 miles in six weeks may seem like a simple task, but there is much to see and do in this stretch of paradise. Besides, the one aspect that we enjoy most about cruising is moving at a leisurely pace.
Our next stop is the mountainous French island of Guadeloupe, known as the butterfly island due to its shape. We used the town of Deshaies as our base for inland exploration. Much of the interior of Guadeloupe makes us feel as if we are on the set of Jurrasic Park. Near Basse Terre, we hiked to within 100 meters of the rim of Soufriere, an active volcano. From Deshaies, it is a series of half-day sails to Iles des Saintes and Marie Galante, smaller French islands that are politically part of Guadeloupe.
Then it is south to the island of Dominica, which, unlike most other islands in the Caribbean, offers no magnificent harbors or beaches due to its volcanic core. The primary attraction here is the beauty of the island’s interior rain forests and the warmth of the Dominican people. Our guided tour of the Indian River and our vigorous hikes to Victoria Falls and Sari Sari Falls are amongst our best memories of cruising the Eastern Caribbean.
From Dominica, we leave behind the Leeward Islands and enter the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles. Martinique, with its metropolis of Fort de France, is the most highly developed French enclave in the Windwards. Sailing further south, the town of Marin is the Annapolis of Martinique. There are literally thousands of boats moored here, including a considerable charter fleet. Each day, Air France delivers dozens of pale charterers from Paris to Marin for their winter holiday. Several quaint coastal villages such as St. Pierre, Anse Mitan and Sainte Anne make Martinique a unique destination and one of our favorite cruising destinations in the Windward Islands.
In April, the winds of winter give way to the squalls of spring. The island of St. Lucia is the next link in the Windward chain. With plentiful provisioning opportunities, abundant restaurants and a protected marina, Rodney Bay is a required stopover for all cruisers transiting the area. We paused here to meet Pittsburgh friends who requested that their renewal of marriage vow ceremony be performed on board Cutter Loose. While this was the first such assignment for us, we proved up to the task. Based on this success, we are considering the expansion of this cottage industry as a means of replenishing the cruising kitty. In an effort to induce business, we now offer a written ten year guarantee on all marriage and renewal ceremonies performed aboard Cutter Loose.
Between the magnificent Pitons of St. Lucia and Grenada lies the island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The cruising community is unified in its avoidance of the island of St. Vincent, due primarily to the near certainty of harassment from aggressive boat boys who charge fees to protect one’s yacht. Following suit, we choose to skip St. Vincent, opting instead to clear Customs at Port Elizabeth on the island of Bequia. From here, it is a short daysail south to Tobago Cays, perhaps the premier anchorage in the entire Eastern Caribbean. Located within a National Marine Park, Tobago Cays is a pristine spot in the lee of Horseshoe Reef where the wind blows briskly but the water remains flat. Here, we spend several days combing the white beaches and swimming with the sea turtles. This is truly an outstanding place.
After a brief stop at Clifton Harbor on Union Island to clear Customs, we sail ten miles further south for an overnight stay on a free mooring ball at Sandy Island, near Hillsborough on the island of Carriacou. The next morning, we clear Customs in Hillsborough for the 37th and final time of the season. From here, it is an interesting 30 mile sail past Diamond Island and Ronde Island to St. Georges, the capital city, a university town and major port of Grenada. Following a tour of old town, the public market and the fort, we move on to the south coast of Grenada. Grenada is quite cruiser-friendly, as evidenced by the semi-permanent accumulation of cruising boats anchored in Prickly Bay and Mount Hartman Bay. For 75 cents USD, one can ride the public van service from these anchorages to Grande Anse beach and the nearby shopping and entertainment district. It is little wonder that so many cruisers spend the entire season on the south coast of Grenada.
Further east in Calvigny Bay is the lovely La Phare Bleu Marina and Resort where we take advantage of the reasonable weekly dockage rate to de-commission Cutter Loose for hurricane season. At 12 degrees north latitude, the south coast of Grenada lies below the traditional path of Cape Verde tropical storms. However, layup in Grenada during hurricane season is not without risk. Hurricane Ivan visited Grenada in 2004 as a Cat 3 storm, leaving a path of destruction in its wake.
Four miles further east is Grenada Marine, a popular storage boatyard located in St. David’s Harbor. May 6, 2013 marks the end of a memorable sailing season, as Cutter Loose is hauled, power washed and moved to a steel storage cradle in the yard. As a further precaution, her deck cleats are strapped and ratcheted to underground concrete blocks, each measuring 10 cubic feet. Once each month during the off season, she is inspected for mold, mildew and battery charge level.
Nearby is the small beach resort of La Sagesse Nature Center. After a long day of de-commissioning in the yard, guests look forward with great anticipation to the soothing powers of La Sagesse, including a swim on the beach, comfortable accommodations and an appetizing meal in the open-air dining room. From La Sagesse, it is a 30 minute taxi ride to the airport, courtesy of the resort’s driver, Mr. Boney.
Without a doubt, spending the winter on board one’s cruising boat in the Caribbean is literally a dream come true. We follow in the wake of those who have come before us. While the crew of Cutter Loose has meerly scratched the surface of Caribbean cruising, we consider it a duty to share our thoughts and advice for those who are considering travel to this most interesting place, especially for those who expect to sail beyond the Virgin Islands.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of cruising is sharing a cocktail in the cockpit of one’s boat with cruisers whom you have never met. The technique is to dinghy over to the neighbors, rap on the hull and invite them for a visit. One learns more than they ever imagined from these encounters…sometimes more than one actually needs or wants to know! The most memorable experiences involve meeting folks from non-U.S. flagged vessels, exploring cultural and lifestyle differences between our country and theirs. Friendships and camaraderie built on the water are precious byproducts of the cruising experience.
Notwithstanding the constant breeze, the blue sky, the white beaches and aquamarine water, not everything or everyone in the Caribbean is perfect. Anyone who has visited here by commercial cruise boat can attest to the deteriorated conditions in some of the older port cities. Always remember that sailors come here to experience a different way of life. Don’t expect the local grocery stores to resemble the Whole Foods environment that we have come to expect in the U.S. The islands are third world countries, packed with unique opportunities for exploration than cannot be found at home.
Similar to the coral reefs, the tourist economies of these islands are fragile. They need our help. Take a taxi tour of the island. Buy some fruits and vegetables from the sidewalk vendors. Utilize the services of the laundry ladies or engage local workers to clean and polish your boat. If you feel that produce in the grocery stores lacks freshness or that food prices are expensive in certain areas, consider the fact that almost everything is shipped here from another place. Importation adds considerably to the cost of living. Always remember that locals pay these same prices, often with very limited resources.
Learn to appreciate the fact that despite challenging circumstances, the vast majority of locals are warm, polite and friendly with a ready smile, just waiting for you to interact. There are times when you will be approached by panhandlers. Occasionally, you will fall victim to a come-on or an insistent taxi driver or vendor. And, yes, you may come in contact with an unsavory character that relies on deception or intimidation to attract business. Consider this part of the territory. Learn from other cruisers how to avoid unsafe areas. Try to understand that the tourist season lasts only a few months. Locals must work diligently to accumulate sufficient income to survive until the next tourist season.
During our 195 day cruise, Cutter Loose called at 20 major islands covering nine independent nations plus five domiciles of the French West Indies. This journey represents the fulfillment of decades of planning and reading and dreaming. By far, it has been the most satisfying and rewarding travel experience of our lives. We strongly encourage other like-minded sailors to relentlessly pursue their dream of cruising these idyllic waters.