In the wake of the hurricanes that devastated the Virgin Islands last year many charterers ended up going farther south to Grenada and the Grenadines where they found the sailing excellent and the vibe just fine
“God must have been a sailor when he created the Caribbean,” a friend once told me. “How else could he have so perfectly aligned the crescent of West Indian islands running north to south with tradewinds blowing from the east at about Force 4-5 almost every day of the year?”
I could see God’s perfect work for myself as I looked out the window of the plane taking me to Grenada. The Grenadines are as close to sailing paradise as you’ll find in the Caribbean and the islands are as lush as they come.
It was November, and it was a case of three men on a boat looking for an early winter escape. My friends Pete and Ralph flew down from Boston, and we met at a bar called the Dodgy Dock in True Blue Bay, right next door to the Horizon Yacht Charters base. True Blue Bay Resort is a great place to relax and spend the first and last nights of your charter. I couldn’t wait to get afloat, and a day later I was helming our well-named Bavaria 45, Dream Maker, north on the sparkling azure seas toward Carriacou, our first island stop.
Three hours out from the bay we passed the northern tip of Grenada, emerging from the island’s lee into a slight ocean swell speckled with a few whitecaps. “Keep your easting,” was the sage advice from Earl, who gave us a chart briefing before we left Horizon Yachts. The Equatorial current that sweeps across the Atlantic, driven by the tradewinds, is squeezed between the islands, accelerating your leeway.
We gave a wide berth to “Kick ‘em Jenny,” an underwater volcano that last erupted in December 2001. In 1939 it broke the surface of the sea with a cloud of debris, generating a series of mini-tsunamis, one of which reached Barbados. The last “orange alert,” however, was in 2015. Passing Diamond Rock, we eased sheets to bear away for Tyrrell Bay on the southwest tip of Carriacou, often the first stop for charter yachts coming out of Grenada.
Motoring through the popular anchorage past bluewater yachts flying flags from all corners of the world we avoided a submerged pinnacle rock that some local wit had named “Bareboat Bounce,” and picked up a mooring off the gently curving sandy beach.
It had been almost 27 years to the day since my first Caribbean sailing trip to the Grenadines, and Tyrell Bay hasn’t changed that much (yet), though work had just started on a new port facility and marina at the north end of the bay. The rest of bay still has echoes of a sleepy Caribbean back in the 1970s and 1980s.
We took the dinghy ashore to Carriacou Marine, a small, friendly boatyard at the southern end of the bay where a handful of snowbird cruisers were busy working on their yachts, getting ready to re-launch. It seems to be true that cruising is boat maintenance in exotic locations.
The main drag running along the shoreline has a few simple shops, shacks, bars and eating places. Nothing fancy or flashy. Menus offer lobster, lambi (conch) or fish any way you like—fried, baked, curried or stewed. We had a beer in the Lazy Turtle pizzeria and bar, where our sassy waitress Melissa gave free life-coaching advice. “Relax, you’re in de islands, mon!”
Next morning Pete and I walked to Hillsborough, Carriacou’s capital, on a nostalgic tour. Like me, Pete had been here 27 years ago, but time and memory decided to play tricks on us, and what we thought was a stroll to town turned into a four-mile hike. We amused ourselves by counting the numerous rum shops along the way, some no bigger than a front room—indeed, perhaps they were someone’s front room. Carriacou folks like their rum, but we resisted temptation, as we were on our way to get our papers stamped at immigration and customs. Red tape and cruising go together here. Some islands are countries, “each with a flag, a capital and bored customs officials,” someone once told me, and we needed to clear out from Grenada to sail in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, with lots of paperwork, rubber stamps and forms to sign. After a cool drink, we caught the minibus back to Tyrell Bay for 3.50 EC (East Caribbean) dollars ($1.20 US).
We set sail and less than three hours later, anchored in the translucent emerald waters of Clifton Harbor, Union Island, and took the dinghy ashore to “clear in” and go through the whole rigmarole again. Twenty years ago my passport was stamped in a straw hut by a landing strip as cattle grazed around the runway. Today there’s a purpose-built airport terminal funded by the Chinese Government.
Our next island stop was Mayreau. Its spectacular half-moon beach at Salt Whistle Bay was crowded, so we spent the night in Saline Bay. Ralph grilled pork chops, and we dined under the stars as a cool tradewind breeze floated through the cockpit. The exertions of sailing, hiking, hot sun and rum meant bedtime was at “cruiser’s midnight”—2100. Ralph slept in the cockpit, taking advantage of the breeze, and 11 hours went by before we stirred for breakfast.
Taking the dinghy ashore we walked up the main street, a steep hill, passing bars and cafes, one blasting out reggae. It’s something of a breathless pilgrimage to get to the Catholic church at the top of the hill and enjoy the spectacular, panoramic views of the Tobago Cays, our next stop. The Tobago Cays is one of the Caribbean’s most spectacular, exotic (and usually crowded) anchorages, visited by sailors from all over the world. Ralph and I were on the bow looking down into the iridescent depths as we motored slowly through a narrow passage between the islands of Petit Rameau and Petit Bateau, and Pete manned the helm, calling out the depths. At one anxious point the depthsounder indicated 1ft of water under our deep keel, though, with the usual charter company fudge factor taken into account, Pete guessed it was more like 3ft.
The cays are a protected marine park with five small, uninhabited islands lying behind Horseshoe Reef and the aptly named World’s End Reef. Beyond, across thousands of miles of empty ocean, lies Africa. We dropped the hook east of Jamesby Island. If you want convenience, you can pick up a mooring buoy for 10 EC dollars per person a day. To our east lay Petit Tabac island, where they filmed Johnny Depp and Keira Knightly marooned and discovering a stash of rum in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film.
With 14 beaches on the islands, the cays are a popular nesting site for Hawksbill turtles. They swim by, popping their inquisitive heads above water to check out the new visitors. It’s a great snorkelling spot, but on the day of our visit, a strong breeze and currents made it untenable. At the cays I had a reunion with 54-year-old “boat boy” Sydney Dallas (see sidebar) who had sold me a T-shirt 27 years ago. Yes, I bought another.
Lying at the top end of the Grenadines, just south of St. Vincent, is the island of Bequia (beck-wee). For most charterers from Grenada, it’s tantalizingly out of reach, unless you’re on a two-week trip. On my four previous trips, I’d never reached Bequia, something of a Holy Grail for yachtsmen of my generation.
You can’t cruise the Caribbean without encountering the sometimes over-zealous entrepreneurs who arrive in colorful boats with names like Never Give Up and In God we Trust. They will try to sell you everything, from T-shirts to ice, lobster, fresh bread, fruit and even anchoring advice.
This time Pete saved the best for last as far as I was concerned. After a short sail north from the cays to the island of Canouan, we made an overnight stop in Charlestown Bay. Pete served up gin and tonics and canapés of roasted mussels (tinned but delicious) before Ralph once again proved his worth as grillmaster. The importance of a well-set anchor was demonstrated here as 40-knot gusts battered the anchorage during the night: Dream Maker’s 45lb Delta, combined with plenty of chain, proved to be up to the challenge.
After another early night, we were up soon after sunrise for the 25-mile sail to Admiralty Bay, Bequia’s renowned harbor. Once underway, it proved an exhilarating four-hour beat to windward in 16-21 knots of wind, making 6-8 knots over the ground with one reef in the main and a couple of rolls in the genoa. Later, as we swung gently on our mooring in one of the Caribbean’s most protected natural harbors, I marveled at nature’s amazing palette of blues and greens. Boats buzzed back and forth bringing fresh croissants, fruit and veggies to yachts. There was even a floating water tanker and a laundry boat.
The bay is surrounded by steep verdant hills forming a backdrop the “capital” of Port Elizabeth: really just a village with colourful wooden buildings and a scenic waterside path, Belmont Walkway, leading to a string of bars and restaurants. Perhaps the fact that Bequia is difficult to get to, except by boat, has helped protect it from mass tourism. As we took the dinghy ashore, we went past the iconic gaff-rigged wooden trading schooner Friendship Rose, hand-built on the beach over 40 years ago. She operated as a mail and cargo vessel between Bequia and Union Island, until 1990, when modern ferries replaced her. Now she takes day-trippers to Mustique and Tobago Cays. On the waterfront I also visited the famous model boatmakers, Mauvin’s and Sargeant’s, after which we dined at the Frangipani, Bequia’s most famous watering hole. Alas, it was over-rated and over-priced.
The following day, after stocking up on ice, beer and vegetables at the bustling market, we cleared immigration and headed south on a 35-mile downwind sleighride back to Carriacou. Unfortunately, upon our arrival the anchor windlass locked up in Tyrell Bay, so we picked up a mooring buoy and gave a spare bottle of rum to an ecstatically grateful boat (old) boy. “I come to de right boat!” he said, raising the bottle in a lengthy toast.
Like a firework celebration, our last fabulous sunset sprayed yachts in the bay red and gold, and the following morning came our final sail back to the Horizon base, another glorious reach, dodging every rain squall we spotted on the horizon and cracking along at 9 knots, parting shoals of flying fish between Carriacou and Grenada. It was some of the best Trade Wind sailing I’ve ever enjoyed.
In the Tobago Cays, they’re well organized, polite and friendly. Back in 1990, I bought a T-shirt and a pair of lurid hand-made swim shorts from a gent named Sydney Dallas. Twenty-seven years on, Sydney was still plying his trade from a boat named Surprises, because, as he says: “I always have a few surprises in store.”
Now aged 54, Rastafarian Sydney sports an impressive crown of dreadlocks, which spill down to his waist when not hidden under a tall “beanie.” He speaks three languages and has lost none of his charms.
The sailing season in Grenada and St. Vincent & The Grenadines is year-round; hurricanes rarely bother these islands. The last big exception was Ivan, back in 2004. It’s a popular destination for cruisers to spend hurricane season and has some excellent marine facilities. It is a beautiful, friendly island, with decent infrastructure and a welcoming attitude to tourists. There are good connections to Grenada from the United States and direct flights from Great Britain.
Most of the major charter companies have bases in Grenada, and one or two, including Horizon, are also in St Vincent. Next time, we would think about a one-way charter from St Vincent to Grenada. This would allow us to spend more time on Grenada itself, which has some intriguing-looking anchorages.
Sailing conditions are governed by the northeast trades, which often blow in the 20s, making for some boisterous passages between the islands. They certainly provided us with some epic sailing; in terms of sailing pleasure, this area knocks the BVI out of the ballpark.
The island’s tourism authority, Pure Grenada (grenadagrenadines.com) is a good source of information on the island, its people and the multiplicity of things to do there. We spent our first and last nights stay at the friendly waterside True Blue Bay resort (truebluebay.com) next door to the marina, with two swimming pools, a choice of apartments and a popular restaurant and bar, The Dodgy Dock.
Paul Gelder chartered with Horizon Yacht Charters (horizonyachtcharters.com)