Five years ago we experienced the phenomena locally known as the ‘Christmas Winds’ when we were sailing from Grenada to Cariacou. Caused by a big high pressure area to the northeast, winds typically blow from around 25 to 30 knots when the isobars get tight.
As the post ARC parties ended we knew these were building but we also knew we had a deadline to get to Antigua where we had family joining us for Christmas. Having just sailed nearly 3000 miles, how tough could a few short hops up island to Antigua be, despite the winds? Tougher than we had expected was the short answer!
Our first hop was St Lucia to Le Marin on Martinique. Chosen for the ease of provisioning due to the fact that the supermarket at Le Marin has its own dinghy dock where you can take the shopping trolley straight to the dinghy. Very important when using the opportunity to stock up with French wine. Having refueled in St Lucia we set out late morning for what was expected to be a slowish windward bash of just over 20 miles. Everything was stowed securely after a few weeks in harbour and the spare sails were lashed to the deck.
After about an hour of getting thoroughly soaked by spray, as we pounded into the waves, we were experiencing some pretty large short steep seas coming straight over the bow and sluicing down the deck. Trying to get as close to the wind as possible we now had two reefs in the mainsail and the genoa and we were also running the engine to try and minimize the time until we got into the shelter of Martinique. Lesley was not coping well being sea sick despite the precautionary patch and nervous of the sea state. We were hit all of a sudden by a couple of massive waves which broke over the foredeck and brought a wall of green water several feet deep straight back over the coachroof towards the cockpit obscuring foreward visibility for a split second. As the water drained away we spotted the two old spare sails, that had been lashed on the foredeck, slipping straight under the leeward guardrail and landing in the sea beside us. They had torn free from their webbing straps with the weight of the water.
The next 20 to 30 minutes was a salutary lesson in how difficult it is to retrieve anything from the water in these conditions. We did recover the old genoa, it took several attempts but the mainsail sank and has not been seen since! What we learnt was that although we could get back to the semi submerged sail, which was drifting quite easily, staying near it long enough to hook it, and attach something too it was very difficult. For what its worth, we eventually dropped all sails and salvaged it under engine. In those winds and seas the traditional techniques we all learn for man overboard recovery under sail proved just too tricky. However had it been an unconcious person in the water, approaching and holding station under engine, would not have been an attractive proposition at all due to the risk of injury. The sail weighs approximately 75kg dry, so not far off the weight of an average person so it was quite a realistic exercise in man overboard recovery – difficult enough with two people on board, but it would have been far more difficult if it was one of us.
Sail recovered, we re-hoisted the working sails and motorsailed to Le Marin where we dropped anchor, tidied up the boat and went to bed exhausted.
Whilst the supermarket was very convenient the next day, in retrospect we could have made our previous day much easier on ourselves by changing the destination to Fort De France which would have given us a much freer course – faster and more comfortable, with the added bonus that the next leg would have been shorter. Oh well we live and learn!
The next afternoon we sailed in the lee of the island to St Pierre on the north west coast – an easy sail, and an ideal kicking off point for Dominica the next day. The anchorage at St Pierre is on a shallow shelf which does not extend far off the beach so effectively you get a row of anchored boats but only stacked one deep – the shelf is not wide enough for two rows before dropping off into water too deep for most of us to anchor. One of the risks of anchoring is dragging the anchor – where when the forces on the anchor move it from where it is dug into the sea bed. In this situation it can break out and not reset, effectively just dragging along the seabed as the boat floats away! To minimise the chances of this we almost always lay out a lot of chain (normally 5 times the depth from bow roller to sea bed, or more if there is expected to be high winds and a chop) and having set the anchor we reverse against it at fairly high rpm (2000 rpm) to ensure that its bedded in hard and fast. When we go to sleep we often set an anchor alarm – a gps device that has a preset distance that you set, that if exceeded an alarm goes off. Now if you consider that with 60m of chain out and the anchor alarm at the back of a 17m boat even if the anchor does not move, but the wind changes direction and the boat swings around, the gps can move through a distance of over 140m we normally want to know before we have moved that far so we set a much smaller alarm distance and accept that we will be woken occasionally by change of wind or tide (not such an issue in the Caribbean as it was in Europe). Our anchor alarm is great because it shows a track of where the boat has travelled since being set on a little screen so its easy to tell the difference between dragging and just merely swinging around the anchor.
That evening with anchor alarm set to just 50m we went to bed but were woken by the alarm at about 1 am. Taking a look around, it was clear that the wind had died and was going round in circles. We, like the boats around us, were just swinging to whatever breeze there was. However, one nearby catamaran seemed a lot closer than it was before – not uncommon with boats swinging in different directions, but this was not comfortable.
Checking again after about 15 minutes it was clear that things were not right. In relationship to all the other boats we remained fairly static but this one catamaran was definately coming to meet us! Our choices were to try and wake the cat crew or move. We decided the latter was the easiest for us, however having we could not find a suitable gap to re-drop the anchor so eventually Lesley suggested we just move on – after all we had had a couple of hours sleep!
We set sail north, Derek taking the first stint until we got into the shelter of Dominica then Lesley took over and sailed us up the Western shore. By daylight we had passed Dominica and decided to head to the beautiful Isles De Saintes – a tiny set of islands between Dominica and Guadeloupe. Arriving mid morning, we went ashore to check in and stretch our legs. It was a brief visit as we had to keep heading north but we had heard a lot about the islands and they did not disappoint – we would definitely be back to spend some more time here.
After an early lunch ashore, we set sail and had an uneventful trip to Guadeloupe. By evening, having gained ourselves a day by doing the overnight sail from Martinique to Isles de Saintes, we were a little more chilled and anchored in the lovely Deshaies bay, location of the TVs series death in paradise. We enjoyed watching the sunset over a sundowner or two. Just one more island hop and we would be in Antigua before our visitors touched down.
The trip to Antigua was equally uneventful. The winds had by now subsided a little and our course was a bit freer so we were averaging some pretty high speeds with comfortable sailing – just how we had envisaged Caribbean sailing. By mid afternoon we had made it with a day to spare. We anchored outside Jolly Harbour, halfway up the western shore and arrived in time to clear in.
For those not so familiar with Caribbean sailing clearing an and out is something that has to be done every time you sail between islands belonging to different nations (and sometimes even between those that belong to the same nation). The process can be painless (in the case of most French islands it is normally done at a single computer terminal in a shop, bar or intenet cafe), or it can be a long frustrating affair (Barbuda involves three different offices in three different corners of the capital town). What often surprises us is the bureacracy and volume of paperwork that is involved. The principle is simple: The skipper must go ashore at the first opportunity and report to customs, immigration and port authority. Nobody else is allowed ashore until all formalities have been completed! In most ports the three offices are together or close by but it still involves a lot of toing and froing between the offices and the officers can be so grumpy!
In theory many of the islands use advanced web based clearance systems too which should speed up the process but our experience has been that although its a big time saver when they work, always worth doing in advance, many of the port authorities don’t know about them or don’t use them which is rather frustrating. There is often a fee and that can be trivial or huge depending on the islands. It can also be different on the same island (Jolly Harbour is cheaper than English Harbour in Antigua), Woe betied anyone arriving out of hours or over a weekend in some islands – the additional fees can be daylight robbery. In most places you also need your outbound clearance from your previous island in order to check in – if you haven’t got it you can’t come in so don’t forget to clear out. If you do lose it, head to a French island because its not needed there for check in, so the process gets reset!