The Wind in Your Sails

You don't have to own a boat to taste the pleasures of sailing and racing in the Caribbean. Charter a yacht and sail into the sunset!

–Antigua Sailing Week. Photo by Alexis Andrews/ Light WaveAntigua Sailing Week. Photograph by Alexis Andrews/ Light WavePhoto by Alexis Andrews/ Light WavePhoto by Alexis Andrews/ Light WavePhoto by Alexis Andrews/ Light WavePhoto by Alexis Andrews/ Light WavePhotograph by Alexis Andrews/ Light WavePhotograph by Alexis Andrews/ Light WavePhotograph by Alexis Andrews/ Light WavePhotograph courtesy the MooringsSailing in the Tobago Cays. Photo courtesy the Moorings

The sun is shining and the wind is just fresh enough to be cool as we sail into the Tobago Cays. All around us the water is a pale translucent turquoise. The boat heels to the wind and slices rapidly through the sea.

Ahead, the water colour turns pale green, then brown, as we approach the outer reef. We tack, putting the bow of the boat through the oncoming breeze. The sails rattle, then pop and fill as we move off in the other direction. Little palm-studded islands with sandy beaches seem to drift by on both sides.

After passing the last island, we turn the boat into the wind and drop the sails. The boat coasts towards the outer reef and we drop the anchor. There is no land between us and Africa; we are anchored in the middle of the ocean, in a calm oasis created by a protective barrier reef. The only sounds are the sighing of the wind and the cries of laughing gulls.

Twenty-four years ago when I first started sailing in the Caribbean, this kind of experience was only available to a very few; I would have been astonished to see more than three or four other boats anchored in the Cays, this cluster of tiny islands in the Grenadines. Now 40 to 50 is quite usual during the charter season which starts in December and runs to mid-April. These dates are determined by the weather in the north and have nothing to do with the Caribbean. The high season is when most people want to escape the grey and cold of the northern winter.

Sailing is good in the Caribbean year-round, but perhaps the best time of all is during the driest months from March to May. Many charter companies lower their rates in April as demand falls, so you can sail during the best Caribbean weather at bargain rates and see the anchorages at their uncrowded best

Chartering is a small but important branch of Caribbean tourism. It got under way over 40 years ago when the Nicholson family sailed into English Harbour, started a charter company and began restoring Nelson’s Dockyard. In the early days charter yachts were scarce and anyone with a spare cabin could give it a try. But it soon became a serious business, and by the early seventies most of the participants were magnificent traditional sailing yachts, fifty to a hundred feet long and often as many years old.

Antigua, Grenada and the Virgin Islands were early charter bases, and sailing generated tremendous excitement. The first Round-Grenada Race was open to yachts with a waterline length of 45 feet or more and there were 20 entries, which was only a small percentage of the fleet in the Grenadian capital St George’s. The race took place at the beginning of the charter season and was intended as a gentle amble round the island – a sort of grand show-case of the charter fleet. No one anticipated that the normally business-like and serious local skippers would be grabbed by a fever of excitement and cut-throat competitive spirit.

Large light sails were dragged out of lockers where they had been mildewing for years. On the windward leg the sheets (the lines that adjust the sails) were cranked in harder than ever before. Everyone concentrated as never before, barely breathing as they tried to urge their large over-canvassed yachts to go a little faster. As the wind picked up, many boats damaged gear and sails tore in the gusts.

On Paisano I spent a long time at a bilge pump, trying to keep up with the leaks that were opening up under the unfamiliar strain. On one boat a winch ripped out, taking a large area of the cockpit trim with it, and another boat went aground. Still, no real disasters occurred and everyone had a marvellous time. Today racing is normally done by more modern boats which can take the beating. But the excitement remains, and the most famous and thrilling of many Caribbean regattas these days is Antigua Race Week at the end of April.

Up until the late 1960s almost all charter yachts came with a full crew. The guests would join the yacht for a cruise, and the sailing was all done by the captain and crew. Gourmet cooking was the norm; the more luxurious yachts carried extensive wine cellars. But in the late sixties a different kind of charter boat, the bareboat, became a real player. Like self-drive rental cars, these boats were handed over to people who had some sailing experience and they would take them away and go sailing on their own.

This form of chartering appealed to a sailor’s spirit of adventure. People might come back tired, unwashed, bruised and no longer on speaking terms with the best friends who accompanied them, but they had a sense of achievement.

It was my pleasure to own one of the very first bareboats, a 31-foot sloop called Rustler of Arne. It was very basic. Water was pumped up to the sink by hand, the engine was started by cranking a handle, and the toilet was a huge old-fashioned contraption of china, brass and chrome that always leaked.

As the bareboating industry has developed, both the customers and the boats have changed. At first the industry expanded slowly: there were just a handful of small companies — a few in the Virgins, two in Grenada and one in St Vincent, with probably 60 boats in all. In the mid-seventies, political turmoil in Grenada, caused the major Grenada company to move to St Lucia, which started the industry there. At the same time bareboat companies were multiplying in the Virgin Islands, where easy air access and protected water were proving an unbeatable combination.

Still, even in the mid-eighties there were probably not more than a few hundred bareboats around. The real expansion has come in the last few years and has much to do with French fiscal laws that allowed people to write off investment in the French Caribbean against taxes in France. Faced with the choice between paying taxes and buying a boat, who can blame so many for choosing the latter?

To qualify under the law, boats had to be based in the French islands, which opened up new areas to bareboating: St Martin, Guadeloupe, Martinique. All these islands now have huge fleets and the total number of bareboats is probably between two and three thousand. By the late seventies it seemed that people wanted to take it all with them while they got away from it all. Bareboats became bigger, faster; they sprouted hot showers, multiple bathrooms, hair dryers and even videos.

The crewed yacht charter industry has also grown, but as much in grandeur as in numbers. Most of those grand old boats of yesteryear have been put out to pasture and the crewed boats of today tend to be sleek and sumptuous. It is not unusual to see 10 to 20 multi-million-dollar yachts at a time gracing English Harbour in Antigua. I n recent years there has been an upsurge in huge luxury powerboats that can charter for up to $25,000 a day. This expansion in the charter fleet has generated a shoreside boom both in marina facilities and other support services. In the last few years St Martin has opened five new marinas, including the superb new Port de Plaisance in Simpson Bay lagoon. In Antigua the new Jolly Harbour marina complex has over seven miles of waterfront. In Guadeloupe there is just one big marina, but it has expanded from a few hundred to over a thousand berths.

New marina and haul-out facilities have been added at the southern end of Martinique. In St Vincent work has started on a new boatyard for overhauling maxi yachts, and in Grenada The Moorings have built a marina in Mt Hartman Bay. All this means more employment opportunities ashore, and more choices for those who wish to sail in the area.

It has been a tradition that skippered boats pick their guests and drop them off wherever they wish, free of charge. This allows visitors to make wonderful one-way trips through large
areas of the Caribbean without having to retrace their steps. Bareboats will often offer the same service, but there are usually some restrictions as to where you can pick up and drop off, and there may be an extra charge because the company has to fly in a team to bring the boat back to its home base.

There has been a tendency in selling charters, particularly crewed charters, to emphasise the luxury side of it — the floating hotel with matching towels, gourmet meals and 24-hour bar that will waft you gently along with the trade winds, while a smiling crew attends your every whim. While this might apply to some of the larger power yachts it is both an over-sell and an under-sell for the rest of the fleet. For sailing is different from staying in a hotel, and a large part of the difference has to do with adventure.

Cruising on a yacht, with or without crew, means putting yourself — at least to some extent — at the mercy of the elements. The balmy winds of the brochure can turn into a 40- knot squall with blinding rain, with everyone on board running around trying to tame flogging sails. A wind shift after dark may mean that you have to shake the sleep from your eyes, pull up your anchor and feel your way out of harbour into an unpleasantly rough dark sea. Yet it is these uncertain elements that make cruising the adventure that it is, and bring the sailor the real rewards.

I remember another trip, a long and tiring beat from St Vincent to St Lucia. It was a day of squalls; drenching salt spray flying across the boat kept everyone soaked. No gourmet lunch on this occasion. Most of the passengers were so queasy that the best they could manage was a dry biscuit. Dense rain blocked out the sight of land for half an hour at a time.

Eventually we made it to the calm shelter of Marigot Harbour. The weather cleared, and suddenly in front of us was a startlingly beautiful sunset behind a sand spit of waving palms.

It reminded us that the real beauty of a place depends in good part on how you get there.