The Tropic of Cancer is as far north as the sun travels above the equator during the summer months; it’s where the subtropics start before becoming more temperate further north. For several years we had talked about leaving the Eastern Caribbean and traveling north, thinking we would like to cross that line. But the pull of the Caribbean with its reliable sailing and good anchorages was too strong. We love the Caribbean immensely – its cruising grounds are as close to a home as our native lands or at least as close as it gets when you live on the sea; we love dancing to the beat of the tried and tested trade winds. We decided, however, that this year was going to be different.
There are several different options for routes to the Bahamas and North America. The offshore route could take you from the Leewards to north of Cape Hatteras, perhaps with a stop in Bermuda. The best time to take this trip is towards the end of the Caribbean sailing season when winds are lighter with a more southerly component. This also avoids the fronts that come off the east coast earlier in the year bringing NW winds.
If aiming for the Bahamas, a nonstop route can be taken from the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico northwest, along the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas islands, keeping clear of the Navidad, Silver and Mouchior Banks. Or, on leaving the Virgin Islands, take a more coastal route along either the north or south coast of Puerto Rico, the north coast of the Dominican Republic, crossing from there to the Turks and Caicos and finally into the southern Bahamas. This route can be taken at any time outside of hurricane season. Regardless of which route you choose; the earlier in the sailing season you leave, the stronger the trade winds and the greater the chance of running into cold fronts coming off the coast of North America. The later in the season, the more likely you are to incur more settled weather with a southerly component or periods of calms. The favorable northwest setting Antilles current will help you along the way.
We chose to leave later in the sailing season to avoid the adverse winds the cold fronts could bring. In the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, we revelled in the easy sailing and spectacular anchorages, we hung out in the untouched islands of the Spanish Virgins and lingered a little too long in Puerto Rico, savouring the Hispanic flare. Even as we left Salinas, halfway along Puerto Rico’s southern coast, we could feel the pull of the tropics like a sea anchor as we moved west, the wind pushing us one way, the magnetism of the East Caribbean trying to slow us down.
As we gained momentum we gained boats, one then another joined our fleet – all with the purpose to head north. The laws of attraction were in force. We sailed as one (as much as three very different sailing boats can) out of Boquerón across the notorious Mona Passage and over 400 nautical miles, the Caribbean pull getting less and less. We saw no sign of the infamous thunderstorms that roll off the Puerto Rican coast and sailed comfortably wing-and-wing with a fair breeze from astern; the steady northwest current gently pushing us along.
We reached Mayaguana in the southern Bahamas. The Explorer Chartbooks for these islands are a must have when navigating anywhere in these shallow and coral strewn waters. It’s true what they say, the Bahamas are expensive. Clearance for a boat under 35ft is US$150, for 35ft+ it’s US$300. You will want to get your money’s worth. Provision well as food and fresh groceries can be hard to find except in major settlements and costly when you do find them. Rum is one exception to the rule and can be found for under $10/litre. The local Kalik beer is a good thirst quencher on a hot day. Fuel and water are expensive, although in some places, like George Town, water is offered free by Exuma markets. Internet can be accessed onboard with a Batelco data SIM card with coverage in most of the islands. This is the epitome of self-sufficient cruising and can be as costly or as inexpensive as your lifestyle dictates.
Spurred on by the impetus of our forward motion, we continued traveling northwards. As can be expected at this time of year when the winds are light, we had to wait for favorable weather, hanging out in otherwise deserted and spectacular anchorages, often the only boat. We were totally blown away by the amazing hues around us where land takes an unprecedented back seat and sea and sky are everything.
Two thirds of the way up Long Island in the central Bahamas we finally crossed that imaginary line at (this year approximately) 23˚26’16”N, breaking free from our Caribbean constraint, our verdant hilly islands a distant memory. Daylight hours are longer. Happy Hour has been moved back. It does not get dark until after 8pm. The constant trade winds are gone and we listen in earnest to the weather forecasts each day making sure we find a safe anchorage that night.
We are dancing to a different beat now.
Rosie and her husband Sim Hoggarth on yacht Wandering Star have cruised the Caribbean and North America fulltime for ten years. Visit their blog: www.yachtwanderingstar.com