Sailing in the western Caribbean not only offers some of the most incredible sailing but also the chance to explore some uniquely different cultures and countries.
Those with an appetite for wanderlust will revel in the autonomous rule of the Kuna Indians in the San Blas or get lost in the archipelago of Bocos Del Toro on Panama’s northeast coast. Follow the Mayan legacy through Guatemala, Belize and Mexico and the protected waters of the Rio Dulce or enjoy the underwater wonders of the offshore islands of Belize’s barrier reef.
There are many reasons to head this way and, despite the misled notion that you may get ‘stuck in a corner’; with some careful planning and waiting for the right weather, sailing the western Caribbean is very rewarding. When we first arrived in Panama, we had intended to go through the Panama Canal but we changed our minds and decided to head north instead.
Panama lies below the hurricane belt and has been fortunate enough never to be hit by one. It therefore offers year round cruising. From the months of December to April the north easterly trades prevail, but not as strong as in some parts of the Caribbean. However, heavy swells can arrive from Columbia. During the summer months the wind is more variable and from any direction, sometimes bringing short-lived squalls of up to 45 knots and torrential rain. The tidal range is negligible at 1 to 1ÃÂ½ feet. Offshore an easterly setting counter current can be felt.
When it was time for us to leave Panama and head north, we staged ourselves from the San Blas so that we could leave with the wind on our beam. We were heading to San AndrÃÂ©s and Providencia, Colombian islands off the coast of Nicaragua. This was a pleasant sail during the change of seasons when the trade winds and seas were easing. The currents in this area can be a little unpredictable as the equatorial currents eddy around after hitting the coast of Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
By the beginning of June it was time to be on the move again, especially as we were above 12N and needed to keep a watch on hurricanes and tropical storms. From Providencia we sailed to the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras. It’s important to make this trip in settled weather as the course leads over shallow areas where breaking seas can be hazardous. And already we were seeing the thunder and lightening storms that these summer months can bring. In the winter months watch out for cold fronts or ‘northers’ that come down from the US. As you approach the corner of Nicaragua, the equatorial currents are with you again heading in a westerly direction.
From the Bay Islands it’s a simple down wind sail to Guatemala’s Rio Dulce for hurricane season. But due to the sandbar across the entrance of the river, planning for the trip needs to be organised to coincide with high water springs and not solely with the weather. We were affected by variable winds from all directions and battled a knot of current as well as being surrounded by thunder and lightening, which is expected this time of year. Although hurricanes do hit this latitude, by travelling 20 miles inland, you are offered the protection of the hills and calm waters, which make the Rio Dulce a good place to spend hurricane season.
By the beginning of December we were making our way to Belize. Here you need to keep a sharp eye on the weather as cold fronts roll down from the Gulf of Mexico. These ‘northers’ can be expected from November through April. They bring winds from the south that blow for around 24 hours before turning northwesterly, then north, for a steady period, before finally returning to the northeast. The northwest wind can reach 60 knots or more, so it’s important to be tucked up safely somewhere in advance. Inside Belize’s barrier reef a southerly setting counter current of up to a knot can be found. Hurricane seasons runs from June to November for both Belize and Mexico and the best sailing times are during the months of spring and autumn.
In Mexico strong currents of up to four knots can be found running in a northerly direction between Cozumel and mainland Mexico, although closer to the mainland a counter current can be found. This northerly current is the beginning of the Gulf Stream, which should be a major consideration when passage planning any of this area. Conditions can turn ugly when strong north winds oppose the strong flowing northerly currents. In the Yucatan Strait currents can flow up to five knots.
From here, with careful planning, the cold fronts can be used to travel up and down the east coast of Belize and Mexico or towards the east Caribbean. You can also catch a ride on the Gulf Stream, as we did, up to North America.
Rosie Burr and her husband, both from the UK, have cruised the Caribbean and North America for the last six years on Alianna their Corbin39.