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Hands On Approach to Caribbean Passage Planning

Donald Street wrote: From my earliest days, in the earliest days, in 1956, I had the exploratory interest. The quote is from his website, and he was talking about his pioneering sailing aboard his wooden yawl Iolaire. Does the name sound familiar? It should because Street's influence on Caribbean cruising is evident in the Imray-Iolaire charts most modern Caribbean sailors have come to depend on. Street's understated "exploratory interest" made them possible.

Last summer, my fiancée Mia Karlsson and I led a teenage live-aboard sail-training program for the adventure travel outfit Broadreach. Aboard a 50-foot Beneteau named Arwen, which we boarded in Anse Marcel, St. Martin, we covered the 600 or so miles from St. Martin to Trinidad in a leisurely 32 days, retracing Street's exploration and utilizing his knowledge as we made our way south.

Though Street's efforts occurred nearly half a century ago, rocks don't move, and the waterproof charts he had a hand in creating are invaluable to the modern Caribbean sailor. I was determined to teach the kids real sailing, and we burned through less than half a tank of diesel on the entire voyage – often anchoring and mooring under sail – the kids learning seamanship the right way. Street, in his engineless Iolaire, would have approved.

Sailing the chain of Caribbean islands rather than cruising it, requires more than just the knowledge gleaned from glancing at the chart. The Imray charts are typical in that they provide great detail of the dangers that lurk beneath the water's surface. Yet they don't offer much in the way of details when it comes to the water itself and the wind that affects it. Spend a few days in the Caribbean, and it becomes obvious that it's windy and that it often blows from the same direction, the east, varying only slight north and south depending on the season. These are the Trade Winds, that glorious band of latitude in which the islands reside, where it's always sunny and usually windy, indeed sometimes too windy, come hurricane season.

By phase II of our 'Arc of the Caribbean' voyage, the kids would begin relying heavily not on the front of the Iolaire charts, which by now they'd mastered, but on the backs of them, where the real value is hidden. Street hadn't simply charted the rocks and reefs and outlined the inlets and anchorages, but also documented his experiences in his sailing directions. These directions give life to the islands represented on the front of the chart, describing typical wind strengths, expected currents, and compass anomalies. They even offer the best course-to-steer on the more popular routes, and include tips on anchoring techniques, tide information and buoy data.

New at navigating, I coaxed my students into figuring out Street's directions on their own, rather than outright telling them. One morning I laid the passage chart upside down on the table and simply asked our navigator for the day to start reading. It slowly dawned on everyone that while the directions sounded like an adventure narrative, they were in fact providing the clues the novice navigators needed to get us safely to Nevis. They no longer needed me to teach them, as they were teaching themselves.

Gradually our kids became good sailors and better navigators, sailing us onto the hook in the Iles des Saintes after a successful overnight passage from Montserrat. With Street's help, they learned of the wind shadow created by the high islands like Guadeloupe and St. Lucia. They anticipated the blustery winds we encountered near the northern and southern tips of Dominica, where the wind often blows fierce and from odd directions as it rounds the rocky headlands. They learned to steer a more easterly course through the inter-island channels, as the trades force water between the islands, sometimes creating ripping currents and bigger than normal waves that conspired to push us west and off course.

Our final overnight passage was our longest yet, from Grenada south to Trinidad, where we'd be dodging oilrigs and fighting the North Equatorial Current, all explained in detail on the chart. We made our landfall, Street's advice on the current and his recommended course-to-steer proving spot on.

Thanks to Street's ambitions as an explorer, his precise directions and my kids trust in them, we were able to sail the chain of islands and experience them in a way most modern cruisers do not.

For more information about Broadreach and the 'ARC of the Caribbean' sail-training program for teenagers go to www.gobroadreach.com

Andy Schell is a professional captain and freelance writer, based in the Caribbean, Annapolis and Stockholm, depending on the season.
He lives aboard his yawl Arcturus with Mia, his fiancée. www.fathersonsailing.com

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