Caribbean for Newbies

The question came up every year: “Whadya think about chartering in the Caribbean?” And every year the answer was the same: “Nah.”My wife, Jennifer, and I sail our Caliber 38, Catamount, in the northern latitudes, on the fresh waters of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. The idea of chartering in the Caribbean raised many different questions: Isn’t everything so close you don’t really
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The question came up every year: “Whadya think about chartering in the Caribbean?” And every year the answer was the same: “Nah.”

My wife, Jennifer, and I sail our Caliber 38, Catamount, in the northern latitudes, on the fresh waters of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. The idea of chartering in the Caribbean raised many different questions: Isn’t everything so close you don’t really sail much? Isn’t it too hot? How big are the sharks?

When the issue came up again this year, Jennifer had been rereading C.S. Forester’s classic Horatio Hornblower series. She read aloud from the final book, Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies: “Here where the trade winds blew at their freshest, just within the tropics, in the wide unbroken Atlantic, was, as Hornblower decided at that moment, the finest stretch of water for a yachting excursion to be found anywhere on the globe.”

So with Hornblower’s endorsement, the decision was made. But where to go? A friend walked us through the choices, and we settled on the Grenadines, part of the nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (known as SVG), in the Windward Islands. She described it as “more than other island groups, like the way the Caribbean used to be.” St. Vincent itself, at just 12?N, is the northernmost, and the 30-some islands and islets of SVG stretch over 45 miles southwest toward Grenada, offering an excellent chance of doing some serious sailing.

The same friend recommended TMM Charters, which has a base at Blue Lagoon, at the southern end of St. Vincent, and a reputation for offering good boats, good advice, and excellent service. A few e-mails exchanged with John West, the base manager, convinced us.

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On a cold, gray April day, we got in a few last runs at our local ski area, drove to Boston, and flew south to learn if Hornblower was right. The first of many surprises was seeing St. Vincent from the air. The island rises over 4,000 feet in steep, serrated ridges and cloud-shrouded summits, capped at its north end by the La Soufriere volcano. The next surprise was landing on a short runway backed by a hill. The nearby cricket stadium looked bigger. Not to worry. We were soon sitting in the cockpit of Dolphin Dance II, a brand-new Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 45DS, at TMM’s base. We thought her a bit big for just two people, but John told us she is easily handled by two; plus, she’s fast, maneuverable, and fun to sail. He was right on all counts.

John and his wife, Renelle, invited Yvonne Armour-Shillingford, head of SVG’s Tourism Authority, to join us for dinner at the French Verandah restaurant at nearby Mariners Hotel. With their help we ordered from a menu that included local specialties like callaloo soup, conch, and mahi-mahi; you definitely don’t find these at any restaurant on Lake Superior. The country’s goal, they told us, is to improve health care and provide universal secondary-school access for all its children. One source of the economic growth needed to pay for this will be a new airport on the other side of the island, big enough to handle jumbo jets. Seeing a smidge of concern on my face, John and Yvonne assured me that SVG planned to maintain its character by learning from the mistakes made by some of its Caribbean neighbors.

The next day we had our boat checkout and chart review, featuring British Admiralty charts. VHF coverage is spotty because of the mountainous terrain, so TMM provides cell phones to its customers for contacting the base. No radio weather forecasts are available, but we could call John if necessary. He’d look out his window at the sky, then tell us what he tells charterers every day: 20 knots of east wind with a slight chance of a shower.

We set off for Bequia, the first island to the south, reaching in 20 knots of wind in the biggest swells we’d ever seen. Boats home-ported in the Caribbean and around the world had gathered in Admiralty Bay for the annual Easter Regatta. We were astonished by their size. Back on Lake Huron our 38-footer is usually the largest boat in any harbor. Here our 45-footer was the smallest, dwarfed by, among others, two 150-foot superyachts. What an eye-opener.

We didn’t hang around; there were too many places to go and too much to see. We were tempted to visit the private island of Mustique to the east, but none of its rich-and-famous visitors are on our Christmas card list, so we headed southwest to Mayreau instead. Dolphin Dance II rolled sweetly in the swells as she rose and dove, rose and dove again and again on the five-hour romp to well-protected Saline Bay.

From the anchorage, Mayreau’s little village looked like a featureless collection of shacks strung up a hillside, but as we strolled its narrow streets it became clear that each house, store and restaurant has a distinct color scheme and character. Flowering trees cover the tiny patios. Water is precious here; every building has a cistern marked with the name of the international aid group that donated it. A small Catholic church stands on the hilltop with sweeping views of the Tobago Cays to the east and Union Island to the south. Make no mistake: poverty is pervasive in these islands, but the locals proudly try to maintain their culture and way of life in today’s complex world.

Then it was off to Tobago Cays Marine Park, a few miles to the east. This was our first opportunity to navigate through reefs in shoal water, and we tried our best to distinguish this blue from that blue. There aren’t enough blue-greens in a box of Crayola crayons to illustrate the palette of colors in the waters of the Cays. Azure is close, cerulean closer, with maybe a touch of cobalt. We followed a local charterboat into the passage, admiring its neat gybe off the stern of an anchored megayacht.

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