Features April 1, 1998 Issue

Offshore Log:
West Indian Cruising Life

The crew of Calypso discovers the reality of Caribbean cruising: strong winds, idiotic bareboat charterers and no source of good wine. But the boat boys are proving to be more polite, and the weather, of course, is always warm.

Your bareboat charter in the Virgin Islands may have given you the impression that Caribbean sailing is a few hours of easy reaching in 15 knots of wind, followed by a calm night in a protected anchorage. Once you get south of Antigua, however, the sailing takes on a different character.

In crossing the passages between the southern islands of the West Indies, you might as well be at sea. The Atlantic swell rolls unimpeded from Africa, compressing in the 20- to 30-mile interisland passages to give you what is politely termed boisterous sailing. In fact, winds during the southern Caribbean winter of 1998 averaged 18 to 30 knots—more than enough to keep even the most enthusiastic sailor happy.

The southern Caribbean tradewinds are constant nether in direction nor velocity, and the sailing is not for the timid. There has been a reef in Calypso's mainsail since before Christmas, and we have seen the entire genoa for perhaps three or four hours in about 600 miles of sailing since then.

Likewise, many southern Caribbean anchorages are little more than open roadsteads, and the strong winds create swells that wrap around headlands into all but the most protected harbors. We measure how good an anchorage is by this criterion: If we can sleep in our forward cabin, it's a calm anchorage; if we are chased to the main cabin in the middle of the night by the rolling, it's a typical anchorage.

Calypso has dropped the hook more than a dozen times in half a dozen countries in the last month. We sailed from Antigua to Grenada—just 75 miles north of Venezuela, and almost 2,000 miles south of Newport—for a week of racing aboard Rob Mulderig's beautiful Farr 72 sloop Starr Trail, then began working our way part way back up the chain of islands for a more leisurely bit of cruising in late winter and early spring.

Sail Area
Sailing in the strong winds of the southern Caribbean has convinced me that I made a mistake in sail choice by getting a genoa that is much too large. At 137%, our roller reefing headsail is good for up to about 15 knots of true wind going upwind. After that, it's time to reduce sail area. Beam reaching in 25 to 30 knots of breeze, we usually reduce the sail to 110% or smaller.

Unfortunately, reefing the headsail to much less than 120% results in a hopeless bag that can be used for reaching, but is useless upwind. In fact, despite its foam-padded luff, the draft of the deeply reefed headsail is so out of proportion to its chord that the result is a disconcerting and inefficient lee helm when trying to go upwind.

Instead, we should have built a higher-tech sail with a full-length luff, but with an LP of 115 to 120% of our foretriangle base. This sail could be efficiently reefed to perhaps 100%, keeping the boat on her feet better and allowing us to point substantially higher while keeping the sailplan in better balance.

If any sailmaker tells you that his roller reefing 150% light-air genoa can be magically reduced to 110% with little loss in efficiency, run, do not walk, to another sailmaker.

We will probably begin by re-cutting this sail to a smaller size, but that is always a second-best solution to having the right sail from the start.

Cruising Folks
If the number of cruising boats from a given country is any measure of the economic strength of that country's economy, it is clear that the European Union is doing great things for that region's economic growth. In particular, things must be booming in Sweden, Germany and Great Britain. In our informal head count of cruising sailboats in the Caribbean islands south of Antigua, Brits take the prize, with about one in four boats flying a red or blue ensign. After that, it's pretty evenly divided, with US boats a distant second, followed closely by Swedish, German, French and Dutch sailors, with other Scandinavian countries trailing further behind.

There are also a surprising number of boats from countries that you don't normally associate with seafaring: Switzerland and Austria.

Generalizing about the relative size and quality of the boats is more difficult. American boats, on the average, are neither larger, newer, nor nicer than European cruising boats. In fact, European boats appear to be better suited to long-range cruising than American boats of similar size, with greater emphasis given to ground tackle, on-deck dinghy storage, and the nearly-universal back porch, which serves as a swim platform, boarding ramp, and shower stall. We call it a back porch, but it's really an open sugar scoop style transom extending beyond the conventional transom.

Of course, you may not want to watch your neighbors' morning or evening ablutions, as they doff their clothes—assuming they were wearing any in the first place—and lather up. Needless to say, some are more interesting than others.

Heavy Metal
A significant number of European cruising boats between 35 feet and 50 feet are custom or semi-custom boats of aluminum or steel. A fair number look decidedly home-built, but at least half are beautifully finished. A large percentage of the metal boats are hard-chine or multi-chine designs. Many of the aluminum boats are unpainted, which takes some getting used to, as practical as it may be.

American Cruisers
American cruising boats, on the other hand, are more typically production fiberglass boats. In the 35- to 45-foot range, the two most common cruising boats flying the stars and stripes are the Tayana 37 and the Valiant 40. As we sit in Bequia, there are three Valiant 40's and four Tayana 37's in sight, out of perhaps 125 boats in the harbor.

These are, of course, two of the early boats that helped make Bob Perry a successful designer. The designs, if not the boats themselves in some cases, have held up very well over time, although they do look surprisingly old fashioned next to a modern purpose-built Euro-cruiser.

I Spy
Our favorite cocktail-time recreation is lounging in the cockpit, scouting the other boats through binoculars. If you admitted to spying on your neighbors on land through a pair of field glasses, you might find yourself in jail, but it somehow seems like fair game when you're at anchor.

It's not just us, I promise. Everyone does it.

Wine Woes
After four months in the Caribbean, our wine cellar is almost depleted. Californian and Australian chardonnay is a distant memory. The last bottle of Margaux is jealously guarded for a very special occasion. Garden variety French blanc is all we can afford at inflated island prices.

We will soon be reduced to drinking beer and rum. Next thing you know, we'll be eating Kraft American slices instead of brie. The veneer of civilization is very, very thin when you're on a cruising budget.

Anchor Wars
Southern Caribbean anchorages are now so crowded that you have to time your arrival at popular locations to coincide with the daily turnover of charter boats. We like to arrive shortly after noon, by which time anyone who is going to leave has done so, and most of those who will arrive are still in transit.

This leads to some pretty odd departure times for us, as you may imagine. If we have a ways to go, and the destination is a popular one, we often leave before dawn to get the best shot at a good anchoring spot. Unfortunately, being there at the right time is no guarantee that by the end of the day you will not be hemmed in by a pack of idiots who must have lied about their sailing experience to the charter company.

We spent a week playing anchor dodge'em with a down-at-the heels bareboat—an ancient Irwin 42 with a much patched Bimini and sails to match—that for some reason decided that wherever we anchored, they were going to anchor, no matter how much or how little space was available elsewhere.

In four separate anchorages, they dropped the hook one boat length almost dead to windward of our own, easing back to within a length of our bow. Since we always left earlier than they, getting our anchor up required some tense maneuvering, timing the swings of the Irwin (it anchored on rope, rather than chain) and getting out of town as quickly as possible.

The last straw was in Bequia, where they totally lost control of the boat while trying to anchor next to us, almost slewing into Calypso broadside as their anchor dragged. This was too much even for them, and they slunk across the harbor to bother someone else.

Plowing the Bottom
About nine out of 10 cruising boats in the Caribbean use CQR-type anchors. Almost 99 out of 100 anchor with all-chain rode. We'll look at the ground tackle arrangements of other serious cruising boats in a future article.

The CQR has the advantage of being a decent anchor in a variety of bottoms. In the last few weeks we have anchored in sand, muddy sand, sandy mud, mud, sand and grass, sand and coral, and, by accident, on a dead coral reef. I doubt if any other anchor could have done the job as reliably as our 60-lb. CQR.

Of course, getting the anchor to hold is only part of the problem. The other big parts are making sure that you anchor in such a way that you don't endanger your neighbors, and making sure that you don't interfere with commercial traffic.

Astonishingly large interisland ferries and freighters come into even the smallest Caribbean islands. Usually, docks for these small ships are built in each island's most protected harbor or roadstead, which is, naturally enough, the same location that cruising sailboats are likely to end up, since it is also likely to be the port where customs and immigration are found. The direct route from offshore to the dock is the only one that a commercial vessel will take, and God help you if you anchor in his way.

It almost never fails to happen. Cruising boats, and most of the bareboats, quickly figure out the route that will be taken by the ferry, and will avoid it like the plague. Then, a late bareboat will come in, and seeing a huge open spot—the channel to the dock—will plunk the anchor down. Just before dark, 500 tons of interisland ferry steams in at 12 knots, horn blowing furiously. Panic ensues, followed by much shouting, gesturing and frantic raising of the anchor. If it were not so predictable, it would be entertaining.

Boat Boys
Caribbean boat boys have always been a blessing and a curse, trying to sell you bananas, take your trash, take a stern line ashore, show you where to anchor, give you a full-throated rendition of various Bob Marley songs, "watch" your dinghy (a neat play on the classic protection scheme) and sometimes just begging.

This time, however, the boat boys—just as often older men or women—approaching us have generally been polite and helpful. In some anchorages, we have hardly been noticed at all. We were remarking on the phenomenon in Bequia when a fleet of brightly colored skiffs zoomed past us to accost a clearly marked bareboat. It suddenly dawned on us that the boat boys know that cruising boats are pretty slim pickings, while the bareboat charterers have pockets full of EC (Eastern Caribbean) dollars that they don't want to take home at the end of the week.

We are approached by floating laundry services, ladies selling homemade bread and fresh vegetables, and representatives of canvas companies. We are also drooled at by self-proclaimed varnishers wherever we go, which is a reflection on the nearly hopeless task we have of trying to keep up with our acres of varnished teak—a seriously time-consuming self-indulgence, for which I should have my head examined.

Most Caribbean islands have neither the population, the wealth, nor the infrastructure to support the level of services expected by Americans living in any town of more than a few hundred inhabitants.

In many places, garbage is dumped indiscriminately by the residents, as there is no central trash dump or garbage pickup. Often, garbage is burned in the yard. Because modern garbage contains a lot of plastics, the air is filled with the reek of burning plastics.

It can be depressing. The first world has given the third indestructible packaging, but no means of disposing of it or recycling it. This is a major, serious problem that deserves attention.

In Clifton, Union Island, the trash dump is in the middle of town. It is a wasteland of plastic bags, plastic bottles, grazing goats.

In Barbados, the river that runs through the middle of the capital—a river crossed by literally thousands of tourists every day—is full of garbage, much of it plastic, and the water is bright green with slime. The residents lack the environmental concern to realize what they are doing, the infrastructure to solve the problem, or both.

The Cruising Life
Adapting to the true cruising life, away from the conveniences of American sailing, where a complete chandlery and a supermarket are often only a walk or a cab ride away, does not come overnight.

In the smaller islands of the West Indies, a food market is any store with at least one kind of canned corn beef. If they carry two different brands, its a supermarket.

There's no free lunch in paradise.

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