Cruising the Leewards

A few days ago, we had a lovely sail from the Saints in southern Guadeloupe to Portsmouth, Dominica. The leg was mostly a beam reach, which meant the boat settled into her groove nicely, comfortably. We sliced through the waves at an average of 7 knots boat speed and Clarity was at a reasonable heel.

It was a nice change of pace from our usual sails this season. But more on that in a bit.

The Leeward Islands have been one incredible destination after another, with gorgeous terrain, fascinating cultures and amazing people. Here’s a photo gallery of the places we’ve been blessed to experience thus far. Keep reading below the photos!

 

I’m embarrassed to say that before this season, I was pretty uneducated on the Leeward and Winward island chains. I had never heard of places like Saba, or Statia, or the Saints in Guadeloupe. And some of the islands I only became familiar with as they dominated the headlines during hurricane season last year.

I also had an ignorant mindset that the islands were similar, albeit a breathtaking repetition. It could not be further from the truth.

These amazing places have been one eye-opening exploration after another, all with their own topographies, their own cultures, their own vibe.

Some have one volcano that dominates the terrain. Others, like Dominica, have nine, and other islands, like Anguilla, are flat as a pancake. Some have powdery white beaches, while others have black volcanic sand that sparkles for miles.

We often find ourselves pausing as we plan our next stop to ask, okay, is the next island its own country? Is it part of the French West Indies? Dutch West Indies? Is it a British Overseas Territory? What currency do they use there? All of the French islands, for instance, are on the Euro, while the other islands use the Eastern Caribbean Dollar, and some islands still accept the U.S. dollar. Our shore bag has become a kaleidoscope of currencies.

Even each French island has its own feel. In St. Barts and St. Martin (the French half anyway), the locals were able to communicate in basic English due to the steady tourism there, and would politely switch if they heard me struggling with French. In Guadeloupe, though, hardly anyone speaks English. Though it can be challenging at times, since Aaron and I have never learned French, it’s also forced me to work on some basic phrases, which we should be doing anyway. We are in their country after all! And it’s another great learning experience for Claire.  It’s painfully cute to hear her say, in her lilting voice as we leave a store, “Au revoir; Merci.”

In St. Barts, it was all about luxury – beautiful shops, expensive restaurants and charming little streets that oozed wealth. We saw some of the most breathtaking beaches there, too, though our first black sand beach on St. Kitts ranks up there, too. Guadeloupe, however, was more rugged, especially in Deshaies, a sleepy little fishing village on the north coast. The town was mostly locals, and the locals have café and croissant each morning at the bakery. The waterfront restaurants were simple, though the cuisine was anything but, and all around the massive island was lush, green, wet rainforest. Absolutely beautiful.

The daily schedule on the French islands, if you want to call it that, is somewhat consistent. People wake up early and head to town. Just after lunch, all of the businesses close for at least two or three hours, and the streets become a ghost town. Around 4 or 4:30 p.m., some of the shops may open up again. Restaurants don’t reopen until 7 p.m. for dinner, or whenever the chef happens to drop back in. Everything shuts by midday Saturday, and stays closed all of Sunday. Many shops follow their own hours, though – perhaps they’ll open that day, perhaps they won’t. C’est la vie.

Other islands, like St. Kitts, Montserrat, and Dominica are louder and livelier. The rasta culture is strong and the islanders are warm and inviting. Bars and restaurants stay open late, especially on Friday and Saturday, with music pumping well into the night. Locals at the pool hall welcome you for a match, and others are more than happy to sit down with you and tell you about their family and their experiences growing up on these islands. Montserrat was a particularly moving stop for us in this regard, as many of the locals lived through the eruptions of the Soufriere Hills volcano from 1995 to 2012. Hearing firsthand accounts of these catastrophic events helped us better understand and appreciate the resilience of these amazing people.

Living in these places, rather than just visiting as tourists, has allowed us to settle into the rhythm of each place and truly dig in. What an incredible gift, the three of us being able to soak up these islands like traveling sponges.

The sailing, though, has been a bit of a challenge. We had the idea that once we left the Virgin Islands, we would get the Anegada passage under our belt – our last major haul east – and then have moderate sails with just a little more easting from St. Martin south. The reality has been much choppier.

The Anegada was the first wake-up call from the easy sailing in the Virgin Islands. It kicked our butts, quite frankly. The first 12 hours after leaving Leverick Bay, BVIs, was manageable, with moderate but consistent seas. However, at midnight, a line of squalls we had been watching grew and then surrounded us. Using our new radar, we veered off course to try and avoid the worst, but there was no escaping them.

For the next 16 hours, it was squall after squall after squall, regularly pushing us off course, all the way to Marigot Bay, St. Martin. And the squalls turned the seas into a washing machine. Claire and I were both horribly sick, leaving Aaron at the helm for the duration. There’s a quote from Mark Twain about seasickness: “At first, you are so sick that you are afraid you will die, and then you are so sick you are afraid you won’t die. “ That pretty much sums it up.

From that passage on, it’s been mostly upwind leg after upwind leg (close-reaches as we call it, rather than a hard-beat). The trade winds have been strong this season, with few periods of easing. With each hop to the next stop, there was inevitably some easting, which meant we were beating into it. For those reading this who don’t sail, this is about the most uncomfortable sailing there is, especially for a monohull. The boat is dramatically heeled, which makes climbing around topsides an impressive obstacle course and getting anything down below basically not worth it. Finally dropping the anchor, only to be met with a tornado down below, is not exactly awesome. Nor is your glass casserole dish flying out of the oven and shattering all over the galley while underway. (God bless you, Aaron, for cleaning up that one.)

Also, since we’re out sailing the Atlantic, the seas in general are always kicked up, so unless we want to wait a month or two in each port for that epic weather window, we’re out in four-foot seas, minimum, with six-foot typical. Aside from the Anegada, I’ve been able to keep my seasickness in check, but unfortunately Claire has not been so fortunate.   It’s been much better the last few sails, thank God, but for a while, she was sick every time we pulled anchor.

Beam reaches and downwind sailing are much more comfortable – the boat is less extreme, Claire and I can go down below, and we’re usually still maintaining a screaming pace. We want more of this!

Luckily, though I might be jinxing myself here, we seem to be at the end of the easting tunnel, and it should be smoother sailing from here on out to Grenada. And even with the stresses that the sails have brought in the last few months, the payoff of these incredible family experiences has been more than worth it. The boat has been treating us so well, with very few issues that need fixing or addressing.

Which brings me to our plan for hurricane season and next year! Aaron and I have had a lot of time to talk through possible trajectories. The first decision we made was to sail the boat to Grenada for hurricane season, rather than turn around at some point to head back to Puerto Rico. There are a number of reasons why, but two primary ones. First, there will be a ton of kid boats there for Claire. Two, we will be able to still do some cruising around that area during the season, rather than having to stay put, like we did in Luperon, Dominican Republic.

As we’ve been making our way down the island chain, we’ve also had to blast through some islands and skip others altogether just to get further south before the hurricane season ramps up. As a result, we’ve felt that we haven’t had a chance to fully explore this gorgeous area as thoroughly as we’d like. And, our Anegada nightmare has made us realize that we likely are not ready yet for passages of more than a few days, at most.

So, we’ve decided to do the Caribbean again next season! This time, we’ll be heading north from Grenada and will follow the general arc west, so NO EASTING – woohoo!! There’s so much more to see, and now we’ll be able to do it comfortably, both in terms of schedule and sailing.

Our insurance company is requiring that we get Clarity to Grenada by July 1, so we’ll be keeping a moderate pace as we continue south for the next month. Then, we’ll get her settled while we fly to the States mid-July to visit friends and family for a few weeks.

It’s hard to believe that it’s already June, and to realize how far we’ve come. I often forget that we started this season all the way back in the Dominican Republic. Aaron also did the tally of our miles so far in the last two seasons, and it comes to just shy of 3,000 miles. Here’s a tally of all of the islands we’ve visited just since Puerto Rico:

  • Culebra, Spanish Virgin Islands
  • St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
  • St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands
  • Beef Island, British Virgin Islands
  • Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
  • Great Dog, British Virgin Islands
  • St. Martin/ St. Maarten
  • St. Barts
  • St. Kitts
  • Nevis
  • Montserrat
  • Guadeloupe
  • The Saints, Guadeloupe
  • Dominica

It’s funny, people don’t seem to ask anymore how long we’re doing this. No end date in site.

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