Eastern Caribbean, the size of Lake Michigan!
30 March 2017
“If you can sail the Great Lakes, you can sail anywhere.” Dave Skolnik, speaker at the Seven Seas Cruising Association, expressed this when he asked me about my blue water sailing experience. We were discussing some ocean passages to get to the Bahamas and Caribbean. He does captained deliveries with owners and takes students on his boat for ocean passages. He said, “Great Lakes sailors are the best because you guys are used to some pretty difficult conditions.”
Lisa and I have just completed a year of sailing in the Eastern Caribbean. A typical year in this area consists of spending hurricane season (July through October) in Grenada, Tobago or Trinidad, working up the chain to St. Martin and back down for the next hurricane season. That's pretty much what we did, starting in the Virgin Islands and making an excursion from Tobago to Barbados. Few cruisers venture to Barbados because it entails sailing upwind. Uproar doesn't mind and from Tobago it was a sweet ride.
During this year we logged a lazy 2200 nautical miles. We logged 800 miles in our summer cruises from Milwaukee to the North Channel of Lake Huron and back. And we did this in three weeks! Our year in the Eastern Caribbean is analogous to spending a year sailing from Chicago to Door County, then over to Mackinac Island, and back down the Michigan shoreline and around to Chicago. Not too tough a trip except for the 7 months of incredibly uncomfortable weather. Imagine this trip in great weather among beautiful islands with different cultures, and languages.
Speaking of weather, the weather is mostly beautiful...and yes, wish you were here. Temperatures range from mid-70's to a high of 90 in the Grenada summer. Winter nights require a light blanket for sleeping, summer requires running a fan if the trade winds aren't blowing. Water temperature ranges from upper 70's to mid 80's. I don't wear a wetsuit for snorkeling but Lisa often does. Water in winter has a bit of a chill at times. I biked a lot in Carriacou, Grenada during the Summer and sweat through my clothes every time. I got used to it and sure lost weight! But on the boat there is almost always a breeze that makes life comfortable.
Wind comes from any direction and speed in the Great Lakes. Summer thermals can cause some wicked puffs in Milwaukee when the wind blows from the southwest. Northeast blows often reach well into the 20 knot range with rough seas. Outside sailing season, storms can reach shocking levels. Just looking at the dramatic lighthouse pictures taken during these storms makes one shiver. But when the weather is right, sailing conditions in the Great Lakes are ideal. No salt and no sharks!
Wind is most often ideal in the Caribbean. Trade winds blow consistently from northeast to southeast. Wind swings in this range about every week making passage planning easy. Velocity hovers in the 15 knot range but can sustain 20+ for days on end. We are now in Guadeloupe where the wind has been very light for the past week. We did have one strange night where the wind blew stink, about 30 knots, for most of the night. The next morning was dead calm. The wind is consistently stronger in the Caribbean than the average winds I have experienced in the Great Lakes.
Caribbean squalls are often rain accompanied by 5 to 10 knots more wind. Five knots added to 15 is no big deal but add 10 knots to sustained 20 knots and that's quite a blow! We are getting used to reefing when things look questionable. I'm in the process of installing forward, downhaul reefing lines so we won't have to leave the safety of the cockpit to reef. It rains in short bursts often at night and early morning. Dominica gets 300 inches of rain/year on the windward side. The leeward side where we anchor gets about 70 inches/year. That's still a lot of rain. We installed a forward deck shade to keep our cabin cool and so we can leave the hatches open in the rain. This is an important part of our cruising gear.
Storms in the Caribbean are sure different from the Great Lakes. Great Lakes storms are often more intense and shorter duration. When we get a good one in the Caribbean, it can blow hard for days. Fortunately we haven't experienced a hurricane but we did run from Matthew and get a pre-frontal squall that was a keeper! Waves are definitely larger in the Caribbean but smoother and easier to sail. Great Lakes chop can really be a bummer compared to Caribbean swells. Our year here has included some bumpy passages that were sub-optimal.
The chart and overlay shown is to scale. Tomorrow we sail from Deshaise, Guadeloupe to English Harbor, Antigua. I'm hoping the wind is aft enough to use our spinnaker but we will probably motor most of the way. Light and variable winds are in the forecast. It will be like cruising from Frankfort, MI to Charlevoix if you add mountains, salt, and palm trees.
If you are a Great Lakes sailor, don't underestimate your abilities. You can sail safely and enjoy yourself here too.