From what I have observed, Caribbean sailors have no idea how lucky they are. The Caribbean Sea, which measures roughly 1400 miles long by 450 miles wide offers some of the most diverse and interesting cruising grounds on earth. But like so many cruisers who have spent many years sailing these historic waters, after seeing all corners of the Caribbean we wanted to see the bigger picture and that meant the Pacific Ocean.
The most immediate difference between sailing in the Caribbean and in the Pacific is the distances involved. Although you can visit 27 countries in the Caribbean basin under sail, it is difficult to do much more than an eight day run as many of the great destinations are just a day sail away, or closer. We have made daylight runs from the BVI to St Martin, and from there it is possible to sail all the way to Grenada without ever standing a night watch.
Here, in the Pacific, things are different. Covering close to one third of the planet, the size of the Pacific is mind boggling. From mainland South America to the Galapagos is a thousand miles, and after that, the distances really open up. Three thousand miles brings you to the Marquesas; four thousand take you to the Hawaiian Islands, and from there it is many hundreds or thousands of miles to other destinations. If you are going to the Pacific then you had better enjoy long passages!
In places like the Cook Islands, which consist of 15 small islands scattered over a vast area of ocean, it is a major undertaking to see more than one or two while on your way west. American Samoa and the independent nation of Samoa to the west are more ‘Caribbean distance’ friendly, but then it is hundreds of miles to the next groups of islands. For example, the sail to Tonga is 400 miles with over a hundred miles between island groups, and Fiji is another 450 miles from there. And these island groups are considered close to each other.
While it’s true that the distances between islands perhaps makes them more enchanting, if you have problems and get into difficulties, lack of facilities bring about a completely different mindset in these vast waters. For example, I have met cruisers with what would have been a simple problem, had repair facilities been available, having to face an 800 mile thrash to windward, without use of their engine, to get help. Issues with a rig left one cruiser sailing nearly 1,000 miles to the next island, and then another 1,000 miles to an island where parts could be shipped in. In the wide Pacific, you have to be very self sufficient.
Compare that to the Caribbean. I remember in the early nineties when finding boat parts was becoming easier on many Eastern Caribbean islands and haulout facilities were springing up throughout the region. By contrast, when you leave French Polynesia, the next haulout facility is in Tonga or Fiji, or Hawaii; 2400 miles away! In the Caribbean, you can stop at any many of the islands and find a chandlery, or, at the very least, parts can be shipped in quickly and easily, even in places like Panama or the Cayman Islands. In the vast Pacific, if you didn’t bring it with you and another cruising boat (should you chance on one) doesn’t have it, well, you had better be prepared to do without.
Do I sound homesick? Well, maybe I am, but it took spending a couple of years sailing in the Pacific to realize just how lucky Caribbean sailors are. Just think of the incredible cultural heritage easily accessible within a few days voyaging, and of all the beauty and wild places you can visit.
We still think that the Out Islands of the Bahamas (technically outside of the Caribbean, but culturally associated) is one of the best cruising grounds on earth. You can be alone— or hang out with a hundred other boats—all within one or two days’ sailing. And cruising along Venezuela’s offshore islands, or inside the myriad islands of the San Blas, is as wild as anyone could wish for. Anchor in Portobello and imagine what it was like 400 years ago, or sail into San Juan Harbor past menacing El Morro Castle and history comes alive. Climb the Pitons in St Lucia or hike the wild interior of Dominica and it will match anywhere in the immense Pacific you can find.
Don’t misunderstand; the geographic diversity and sheer magnitude of Pacific cruising is wonderful in that it really stretches perception of the size of our world. But if you are rushing though the Caribbean before seeing all of it, or believe that in some way the Caribbean doesn’t offer as grand an adventure as the Pacific might provide, then think again. Enjoy the Caribbean’s diverse and interesting cultures and geography a bit longer. The easy sailing and short distances make exploring a joy that the Pacific passages lack.
Weather is much easier to predict in the Caribbean than in the Pacific as well. Aside from the generally consistent trade winds that one might experience between the Americas and Polynesia, weather patterns become more complicated the further west you go. Things like the ITCZ and SPCZ accompanied by rapidly deepening lows in the tropical Western Pacific and their effects on the highs that build to their south, can create conditions to challenge any crew. Winds from all points of the compass are not unknown, even during the so called sailing season.
By contrast, in the Caribbean the weather picture, especially in the Eastern Caribbean, is so consistent during the sailing season that at one point back in the day, famous Caribbean sailing personality Joel Byerly, from Antigua, had a tape recording he would play every morning in English Harbour. It basically said: “Hello yachties and welcome to Paradise. Today the winds will be 15-25 knots from the northeast, east or southeast. Have a nice day.”
The Caribbean offers much to see and the sailing is probably the best and most consistent anywhere on earth. Don’t be in a hurry to leave until you are completely satisfied and have seen all you wanted to see.
The Pacific will always be there.
Long time Caribbean sailors Todd Duff and Gayle Suhich are currently cruising in the South Pacific aboard their Flying Dutchman 50, Small World II.