Navel gazing doesn’t get much better than from the deck of a sailboat anchored somewhere exotic. You can think great thoughts staring up at the stars from a South Seas anchorage. It’s also better doing so on a catamaran. Full confession: I’m a cat convert, a cat evangelist if you will—of both the furry four-legged kind and the fiberglass two-hulled type. If you corner me at a cocktail party, you may soon hear me proselytizing. I’m not ashamed. I mean, it’s not like I’ve gone to the dark side that is powerboating…
And I’m not alone. Cats are the fastest-growing segment in sailing and can now be found in all four corners of the globe as more sailors come out of the shadows to embrace them. There are lots of reasons for this. First and foremost, even small cats are big, and they don’t have to feel like you’re driving a tennis court for you to enjoy all that leg room. In fact, their size works to their advantage, with props set wide apart for easy maneuvering. Second, they’re great for both cold and tropical climates and also require less propulsive power (smaller engines consume less fuel). Cats also stay level in a rolly anchorage, meaning you can skip setting a flopper-stopper and still get a good night’s rest.
Cats have a different motion. They shimmy upwind and waddle on a broach reach or run. For first-timers that may feel weird. But it’s a motion you’ll soon get used to. I don’t even notice it anymore. What I do notice is that people are more sure-footed, and that means kids, older folks and pets are all safer. I also notice that fewer people turn green, even in lumpy conditions. And let’s face it, even in non-pandemic times, there’s nothing like a little social distancing and some extra privacy for taming an unruly crew. Then, of course, there all that room for self-contemplation...
The market for catamarans was worth approximately $1.5 billion in 2017. It then jumped significantly after back-to-back hurricanes, Maria and Irma, destroyed much of the Caribbean charter fleet late that same year. The industry expects catamarans to grow over 6.5 percent annually until 2024, which is great news for two reasons. Not only do cats depreciate more slowly, but if you buy one now, there’s likely to be a healthy resale market down the road.
While the reasons to opt for catamarans are many, the lovely places to take them are limitless. The world truly opens up when you have two shallow hulls and a party deck in between. Here are some of my favorite places where I’ve taken cats for both navel gazing and inspiration.
Anegada Island is the siren on the horizon in the British Virgin Islands, the leading charter and cruising ground in the Caribbean. Sailing to Anegada used to be tricky, as it’s nestled up against Horseshoe Reef with shallows all around. Now, a well-marked channel leads to Anegada’s lagoon, so there’s no need to take bearings and sweat it as you make your way into the anchorage where few deep draft vessels can venture.
Come ashore at the Anegada Reef Hotel for a candlelit dinner with your toes dug in the sand. Take a taxi to the windward side and chill out at Cow Wreck Beach. Snorkel along the reef and then laze about as long as you want, because Anegada is an escapist fantasy where the livin’ is easy and the Painkillers are ‘da bomb.
Almost directly east of the BVI lie the islands of St. Martin, St. Barths and Anguilla (pronounced “angwiluh”). While French St. Barths is a busy upmarket island for the “in crowd,” English-speaking Anguilla is sparsely populated and the epitome of relaxed. To the north of the long island lie spits of sand and a scattering of cays. One tiny destination is Sandy Island. (Almost every island group in the Caribbean has a “Sandy Island,” as you’ll see below.) You can walk around the entire island in 20 minutes. Local residents arrive around 1000 to set up the one bar, which gets put away again in the evening. The cocktails are expensive, but the beach can’t be beat.
Farther north are Anguilla’s Prickly Pear cays. It's a place where tourist boats disgorge their hotel clientele daily. But by 1500, the place is empty, and you can walk the shoreline to visit the ground-nesting blue-footed boobies and their fluffy little chicks unmolested.
A fair distance south of Anguilla lie the Grenadines, a crescent-shaped string of islands below St. Vincent. Among these, you’ll find the Tobago Cays clustered in the shallows with a horseshoe reef protecting the entire group. Wind your way through the coral heads, and you’ll pop up near Baradel, an islet with a sandy beach and a roped-off section where even dinghies aren’t allowed in order to protect the local sea turtle population. Don your snorkel gear and lie still in the warm water. You’ll soon see (and hear!) them munching contentedly on the seagrass below.
Nighttime in the Tobago Cays is quiet. There are no real bars here, so you can party one of two ways: on your boat, or at a pre-arranged beach barbecue. The latter is no ordinary grill session. Rum punch is mixed in huge vats, there are bare lightbulbs strung from trees, and the lady who does the cooking should be on the cover of this magazine.
Union Island is the southernmost of the Grenadines, and what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in variety. The main town of Clifton on the eastern side has restaurants, mad shopping and Happy Island, a tiny bit of “land” built entirely of conch shells on the harbor reef. It features a single tiny bar with a single big blender, and you can only get to it by dinghy.
When the trade winds are strong from the east, it’s best to sail over to Chatham Bay on the western side. From here you can hike to the top for the great vistas or stroll along the beach where shacks offer island fare with signs like: “Shark Attack—We Serve Figure Licking Good Food.” Chatham is a large anchorage, but be sure you set the hook well, as the katabatic gusts that sweep down from the hills can punish you all night.
Another Sandy Island? Yup. A tiny stretch of pristine beach—a sandbar really—Sandy Island is just off Carriacou Island, north of Grenada. The water to the east of Sandy is actually a marine park, so you can’t anchor, but a number of moorings are available. Most days, you’ll have the place to yourself, and that’s the perfect way to enjoy the small—about 400ft-long—beach where you’ll find little more than seashells and your own footprints.
Carriacou, to the east of Sandy Island, provides protection from the trades. On calm evenings the peace and quiet here is a lovely change from some of those other Caribbean beaches where the music thumps all night long. It doesn’t get any better than swinging to a mooring alone near this Robinson Crusoe-esque island.
To the north of the bulk of the Caribbean lies the Bahamas, with little island clusters like the Berry Islands, the Exumas and the Abacos. You can run from the southern tip of the Abacos all the way up to Green Turtle Cay in the north in one day. But hey, what’s the rush? Around about the midpoint is Hope Town on Elbow Cay, with a protected harbor full of moorings that has been guarded by a candy stripe lighthouse since 1862. The trip up the lighthouse’s 200 steps is mandatory for views of the Sea of Abaco on one side and the Atlantic on the other. This is one of only two manned, kerosene-fueled lighthouses still working and has a light that can be seen up to 23 nautical miles away.
The town below is mostly two waterfront streets bursting with colorful colonial homes in what is today called Bahamian architecture. Gingerbread houses with lace trim are painted every bright hue that Home Depot most certainly would never sell.
For something completely different, find yourself aboard a cat in Cuba, an island with a truly unique kind of Caribbean shabby-chic. Private boats all have to do the paperwork Cha Cha, but you can also charter a boat in the resort town of Cienfuegos. Once out of Bahia Cienfuegos, turn right and head west toward Cayo Largo and the only Wi-Fi in Cuban waters. A hotel with a small marina welcomes visitors, but the real find is nearby Playa La Sirena, with its white sand beaches, which are deserted after 1500, when the hotel’s guests have all been bussed back to their quarters. The anchoring here is easy, the beach is big, the solitude is priceless, and the sunsets are on fire.
One thing: provisioning in Cuba can be hit and miss. Sometimes you’ll find vegetables, and sometimes there’s little more than what might pass for ham. Bring enough rum, though, and you can always trade with some local fisherman for fish and lobster. They aren’t allowed to take hard currency (no cash per government regulations), but they love cheap rum and cerveza, so stock up on Havana Club and Cristal, and you’ll eat like kings.
Isla El Coyote
For another Spanish-speaking cruising paradise, check out the Sea of Cortez, which stretches from La Paz up along the eastern coast of Mexico’s Baja Pennisula. Most people jump aboard and rush to the UNESCO site that is Isla Esperitu Santo. But while Isla Esperitu Santo is spectacular, if you head farther north, just past Isla San Francisco, you’ll also find the small and strange Isla El Coyote, which can be equally rewarding in its own funky way. Truth be told, it’s more a large rock than an island that, for whatever reason, sprouted a fishing village. You can’t wander far once in “town,” so after making what could be an ambitious beach landing with your dinghy, come ashore for a cold Pacifico and some great fish tales. El Coyote is fronted by a reef on the western side, but there’s a nice sandy bottom along its edge, so you can anchor securely with the waves sloshing among the nearby rocks and then just laze about into your cockpit. The sand and the reef create spectacular colors, making it feel like you’ve landed in a blue bubble.
The song Bali Hai wafts on the breeze as you anchor in Bora Bora’s lagoon in the Society Islands, commonly known as Tahiti. Nothing conjures up fantasies of a tropical escape like Bora Bora, with its swaying palm trees, azure waters and the scent of tiare heavy in the air. What do you want to do? Swim with manta rays? Check. Visit some old WWII gun emplacements? Check. Eat some unbelievable Franco-Tahitian grub? Check. The umbrella drinks at the resorts may drain your wallet, but the views will fill your soul.
Every July kicks off the Tahitian Heiva, a festival that lasts a month and includes dancing and singing competitions, canoe races and a general party atmosphere. Each island has its own competition; the winners then go to the big island of Tahiti Nui to duke it out and be crowned champions. Buff locals glide by in their pirogues and will either draft or race your boat as part of their training. Keep your eye on the depthsounder, though, because these waters can get skinny fast, all the more reason to sail there on a cat.
If you feel like Tahiti has been “done to death,” try heading farther afield to Tonga to see what French Polynesia must have been like 50 years ago. Tonga is basic, which is also part of its charm. Granted, the provisioning can be a bit mindboggling, but the people are also the most generous and genuinely caring souls in the world.
Sailing and anchoring in Tonga is an adventure. You’re either in three feet of water or three hundred. Anchoring is even nuttier since it’s mostly done over a coral pan where your anchor will lie sadly on its side with barely enough sand to cover the tip. Having a cat here is a real plus since it allows you to sneak right up until you’re almost to the beach before dropping the hook.
Navigating the nooks and crannies of Tonga can get exciting. The charts are sketchy, with many places simply labeled “inadequately surveyed.” You’ll find this to be especially true as you wind your way through the narrow channels to Kenutu Island, a blissfully remote corner of the universe. Being aboard a shallow-draft cat will dramatically ease the pucker factor.
Lest we forget the Med, let’s see how cats are doing in Europe. The island of Hvar in Croatia is a truly chic destination in a country with one foot firmly planted in all things Eastern European and the other strolling through the laid-back Mediterranean. Croatia’s history has so many facets to it every stop tells a story: from the vast Diocletian Palace (4th century Roman emperor) in the city of Split to the medieval walled towns of Trogir and Dubrovnik (which served as backgrounds to numerous scenes from Game of Thrones) to the submarine tunnels built by Tito (a communist agitator in 1940s Yugoslavia). Croatia is an unbelievably layered onion in the trues sense of the word.
Hvar Island, a few hours’ sail from Split. The quiet charm of its northernmost town, Stari Grad, is magical. But most of the attention goes to the island’s swanky capital (also called Hvar) on the southern side with its upmarket eateries and glitterati clientele dancing the night away in swanky rooftop clubs. You don’t really need a shoal draft in most parts of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast and cats used to get side eye here. However, they’re coming on strong, and it’s not unusual to see one tied up below the Fortica, Hvar’s formidable fortress.
MHS Summer 2021