A Cat Can Take You There
Six fantastic charter destinations to explore on two hulls
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Replete with rich boating history
Close to home; affordable flights
Numerous and varied spots for gunkholing
2. The Abacos
Sublime snorkeling in clear water
Enough cays to fill at least a week of exploring
Mild to warm temperatures year-round
An exotic and far away location; a bucket-list destination
Most islands are still wild and barely developed
Uniquely beautiful scenery with islands galore
Tasty (and adventurous!) food
Line-of-sight navigation with good anchorages
5. Florida Keys
There’s no place on Earth quite like Key West
Lovely, reliable and straightforward sailing
The only thing prettier than the fish are the sunsets
A unique destination for chartering sailboats
Off the beaten track
1. The Chesapeake Bay
With its historic shallow-draft dugout canoes, bugeyes and skipjacks, the thin waters of the Chesapeake Bay have long been home to an assortment of keel-free vessels, and for good reason—there may be plenty of water out on the open Bay, but things can get shallow really quickly close to shore.
The result is an almost ideal multihull chartering ground. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better boat for exploring the innumerable creeks and other shallow-water anchorages lining the Chesapeake’s deeply indented 11,600-mile shoreline.
As an added benefit, aboard a multihull you have the option of tucking into all kind of nooks and crannies denied to the monohulls plying these waters—no small thing, given that this is one of the most popular cruising grounds in the United States and the better-known anchorages can fill up quickly.
Want to pull in late to uber-popular St. Michael’s on the Eastern Shore? Aboard a deep-keeled monohull, your chances of finding a good berth may be marginal. But aboard a shallow-draft cat, the world’s your oyster. Same thing among the less developed but no less popular spots within easy striking distance of the sailing Mecca that is Annapolis. I’ll never forget one evening on the Rhode River, watching a 35-foot cat serenely pass by our crowded keelboat anchorage as it traveled to a quiet little thin-water spot on the far side of Big Island.
As for the sailing itself, Chesapeake Bay is a joy no matter what boat you’re sailing. Despite the thousands of boats in the area, there’s plenty of room for all, especially when the wind kicks up and scares away the powerboaters. And when the wind falls, there is always a good spot within motorsailing range to drop the hook.
2. The Abacos
The Sea of Abaco and the Abaco Cays in the northern Bahamas have it all—sun, sand, crystal-clear waters and an abundance of sea life—all within easy striking distance of Florida. One thing the Abacos don’t have, however, is an overabundance of deep water.
Here, you can be miles from shore and still clearly make out starfish rumbling along the sea floor six feet below; here, sand banks and ledges are widespread; here, an ability to judge soundings by eye can be more important than reading a depthsounder; here, the delta between a 5-foot and 4-foot draft can make all the difference, even in the middle of the area’s major port, Marsh Harbour.
In short, it’s perfect multihull territory.
Tooling around on a fixed-keel monohull means keeping a sharp eye out for shoals like those off Man of War or the Sand Bank Cays—shoals whose extent are not entirely known, and must therefore be given a wide berth. But aboard a multihull drawing three feet and change, these features are less problematic.
Then there are the anchorages. Although beautiful, many of the less developed ones only offer protection across a few points of the compass, unless you can tuck up nice and snug in a shallow little bight. The anchorage at the west harbor off the settlement at Great Guana Cay, for example, is great if the wind is from the north or east, but wide open to the south and west—unless you can squeeze into the shallows, where you only have to worry about seas coming in from the west. Same with Matt Lowe’s Cay, just off Great Abaco Island: the welcoming bight along the southwestern shore offers 180 degrees of protection, provided you can get in close.
Of course, whether you’re under sail or on the hook, there’s nothing like the wide-open layout of a well-designed cruising cat for taking advantage of the Abacos. This part of the world is custom-made for lounging, and the more space you have to lounge in, the better. Similarly, with its clear waters and abundant sea life, you’ll find yourself in the Sea of Abaco as often as you’re on it. When it comes times for a snorkel, there’s nothing like the wide-open cockpit of a multihull and a set of dual swim steps to awaken your inner Poseidon.
The Society Islands of French Polynesia are the stuff of every cruising sailor’s dreams: lagoons with white-fringed barrier reefs, monolithic mountains stabbing a blue sky, palm trees rustling gently in warm trade winds.
The Îles Sous-le-vent (Leeward Islands) are home to all of the local charter outfits, with pretty villages, friendly people, good food and perfect beaches. It would take weeks to explore this area, so aim for the four islands of Ra’i?tea, Taha’a, Bora Bora and Huahine.
The starting point for most charters is Ra’i?tea, the “sacred one” to Polynesians, which is where the islands earned their reputation as a cat-sailing haven. At a temple here, ancient priests and navigators from across the Pacific would gather to share their knowledge of ocean navigation, which enabled them to settle small islands in ten million square miles of ocean, navigating without instruments at a time when the “civilized” world still gazed at the sea with fear.
Ra’i?tea shares a barrier reef with Taha’a, and all passages to and from are well marked, with delightful sailing in flat water. Baie de Faaroa is fjord-like and it’s fun to explore the tropical Aopomau River in your tender.
Taha’a is the gateway to Bora Bora, which, with two extinct volcanoes rising from a cobalt sea, is arguably the world’s most recognizable landfall. Have a drink at the Bora Bora Yacht Club bar, which served as a message drop for Pacific cruisers for decades, and explore the Lagoonarium.
Huahine, the “garden island” where pungent vanilla and sweet watermelons grow abundantly, is off the tourist radar and is much the way it was when Captain Cook saw it. Enjoy dining ashore at small hotels (Hotel Huahine or the Hibiscus Hotel on Taha’a), take a four-wheeled island tour, visit a black pearl farm for a memorable souvenir and anchor near motus (islets) to snorkel the gin-clear waters.
The southern summer (September-May) is warm and humid, while winter (April-August) is cooler and dry. The best sailing is usually September-October with easterly trades of 15-20 knots. Tides are (hurray!) only about one foot, and rain showers can be expected year-round, but fear not, this is warm rain. Be wary when anchoring in the lee of high islands (notably Ra’i?tea), which can have strong downdrafts.
Few markets mean provisioning is best left to the charter company and, remember, you’re in France, so don’t stint on the wine!
Insider tip: stretch your charter from seven to ten days—you won’t regret it.
Thailand or, more accurately, the Andaman Sea and Phang Nga Bay, is catamaran heaven. Protected by the bulk of Phuket (pronounced poo-KET), the smooth water and pleasant breezes in this area make for great sailing. With a shallow draft, it’s easy to cozy up to the pristine sandy beaches.
The prime charter season is the northeast monsoon (November-May) with clear sunny weather and mild breezes. Stronger sailing breezes come with the southwest monsoon (June-October), but you also get daily rain and humidity. Your call.
No travel photo can do justice to Phang Nga Bay, where islands of limestone thrust up from the calm sea like surreal fangs. There are more than 80 islands to explore, ranging from James Bond Island (setting for 007’s Man With The Golden Gun) to Koh Hong, a so-called “room” island with a hollow center that you can explore with your dinghy or kayak. On many islands, you’ll see the rickety bamboo scaffoldings used to harvest the basic ingredient for the Thai delicacy bird’s nest soup.
Don’t miss Pan Yi, a village on stilts inhabited by the so-called “sea gypsies” (1,400 people and one policeman), where restaurants offer lunch specials caught from their kitchen windows and kids play on a floating soccer field.
The Phi Phi Islands (pronounced pea-pea) are two of the most beautiful islands in the world with gorgeous beaches (Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach was filmed here) and a Viking cave with ancient paintings. In the winter, you can sail to the Similan Islands west of Phuket, which are uninhabited and likely to remind you of The Baths in the BVI, but without the crowds.
Eyeball navigation, few hazards and good anchorages make Thailand pleasant for less experienced charterers, but a word of warning: Thai food can blister your tongue. Remember the phrase “kor mai phet” (not too spicy, please!).
Thailand, especially on the water, hasn’t become just another tourist stop, so now is the time to explore her aquamarine waters.
5. The Florida Keys
A week-long charter along the Florida Keys, from Key Largo to Key West, is a trip you’ll remember as both a journey and a destination. Unlike many hot charter destinations that offer a main body of water with islands strewn about, the Keys are uniquely situated in a linear fashion, encouraging you to visit them on a point-to-point charter. And luckily, the local charter companies will accommodate that.
First, the journey: along this 100-mile stretch of islands, curving like a comma off the tip of the Floridian peninsula, there are dozens of Keys worth visiting. And, running parallel to those Keys, across Hawk’s Channel, a barrier reef is home to plentiful sea life and excellent snorkeling. As such, an east-west journey along the Keys involves zigging and zagging between snorkel spots and shoreside spots.
Because Florida is modern and populous, most of the snorkeling spots have transient day-moorings. Dive on the Statue of Christ of the Abyss at Key Largo Marine Sanctuary and pay a visit to Sombrero Cay and Alligator Reef, where you’re guaranteed to find an underwater menagerie.
When it comes to overnighting, anchoring is the way to go. Fishing is a way of life here, so the majority of marinas are better equipped for trawlers than for big cruising cats. However, there are lots of protected anchorages in the lee of keys where you can spend a happy night. Marathon Key and Islamorada are the exceptions—Boot Key Harbor on Marathon has several transient moorings and Islamorada has shoreside provisions galore.
Continuing along your journey, you can anchor in the lovely bay near Bahia Honda State Park, sail along the longest bridge in the U.S., and enjoy the steadfast and easy beam reach that pushes you along. As you cruise downwind, the sun beaming down, you’ll appreciate the spaciousness of your catamaran.
And finally, the destination: Key West. There’s something truly special about this place. Whether you arrive on a monohull, a multihull or a unicycle, you’ll find a way to fit in. Allow for a couple of days to soak it all in: the food, the street performers, the historical sites, the live music, the people-watching, the shopping and the sailboat racing are all colorful and unforgettable.
Best of all, when you’re done, you can leave your boat in Key West, return it to the charter company, and drive back up Route 1 to catch your plane home.
The first sunset did it for me. I’ve seen dozens of them at sea, in some of the most beautiful places in the world, but that first evening anchored in Belize was nothing short of surreal as the sky turned blood-orange red and the line of palm-topped cayes to the west seemed to float above the sea, golden rays piercing the palm fronds and turning the water a dappled pink.
In one way, the sunsets were the highlight of our week in terms of natural beauty. Belize’s barrier reef, the longest in the northern hemisphere, is best appreciated when seen from the air, where a breathtaking palette of greens and blues and browns dotted with the tiny islets known as cayes spreads out beneath you like an aquatic magic carpet. From the deck of our Moorings 4000 catamaran, all we could see was the sparkling water and the dark blobs of the cayes, many no more than sand spits, some capable of housing small villages, others merely ambitious mangrove clusters digging their roots into sand-and-coral outcrops. Indeed, in the Pelican Cayes, a young American couple had just established a bar-cum-restaurant-cum guesthouse on just such a tiny mangrove islet, where we snacked on a snapper speared among its roots and drank icy Belikin beer.
You quickly learn the rules of tropic-water sailing here. Go west in the mornings, with the sun high and behind you so you can pick out the water colors that indicate depth, or the lack of it. In the afternoons, head east, away from the shoreline where distant mountains thrust jagged peaks skyward. In the evenings, make sure you’re anchored snugly in the lee of a caye, watching the easterly trade wind ruffle the palm trees while you sip your sundowner. Holding can be poor here, where sand is often spread thinly over densely packed coral rock, so as we found on several nights, two anchors are often better than one.
You’re always aware that you’re in less-travelled waters; there are no navigation aids and the charts in the cruising guide are hand-drawn. Pilotage is line-of-sight, always with an eye on the sea bed. I would never punt a deep-draft monohull around these waters, and although we never touched bottom with our cat we came close a few times. This is no place for novices, but nor is it dangerous. Keep your eyes open and your wits about you and you’ll be well rewarded.
We sailed out of Placencia, in the south, a charming little town that makes a perfect springboard for tours to the Mayan ruins in the interior and of the nearby rainforests where troops of howler monkeys hoot and holler in the treetops. This is the less-visited part of Belize; further north, the bigger islands and cayes are busier, though far from crowded. In any case, you won’t have to go far to have a caye to yourself.