Last summer I had the pleasure of coaching the owners of a modern 45’ cruising catamaran on the challenges and satisfaction that comes from an open water inter-island passage: in this case from the BVI south to Grenada. The month was July which is technically within the Caribbean’s storm season (June through November) but statistically unlikely to see a major weather system. Besides, we were keeping a wary eye on the weather and serious disturbances are well forecast these days.
With a few of the owners friends along as watch keepers, all went smoothly on the 400 mile upwind leg from Tortola to St. Lucia in around 15kts of warm ‘tradewind’ breeze.
Although sailing close hauled in 1-2 metre (3-6 foot) long period offshore swells is definitely not a cruising cat’s most comfortable point of sail, once we settled-in to our 3 hours on, 6 off watch rota the miles clicked by and, after 2 days and 2 nights, we made landfall in Marigot at lunchtime when — since we sail ‘dry’ on passage — we all enjoyed a well-earned beverage!
After a couple of days exploring ashore and anchoring at Anse Chastanet near the majestic twin peaks of the Pitons and nearby Jade Mountain, Link to site we island-hopped down to Tyrell Bay, Hillsborough, Carriacou where we anchored for the night before the next leg down to our final destination, St. George’s harbour on the southwest end of Grenada.
From the local sailors’ newspaper, Caribbean Compass we learned that Grenada’s harbour of Grenville was now easier to enter thanks to newly laid buoys, Link to Compass piece so we were tempted to call in to explore that part of the island on the way south and also break the trip in to shorter legs.
Had we been on a 45’ monohull I’d have been very tempted to explore this seldom visited port but all my experience on cruising cats has made me even more wary than usual of the perils of a ‘lee shore’. A lee shore is one of those paradoxical nautical terms because the shore in question is actually the windward shore of an island or landmass. Sailors long ago called it a ‘lee’ shore because they self-centeredly considered it to leeward of them.
Why be extra cautious of a lee shore in a cruising cat? Well, what that makes them super-comfortable cruising boats (voluminous hulls, high topsides and superstructure, shallow draft) makes them lousy at clawing away from a lee shore when the going gets rough and you need to avoid being blown on to the bricks. And taking down the sails and motoring can be arduous on a cat as the props are often so shallowly immersed that they often break the sea surface (‘ventilate’) as the boat pitches in short seas that they lose their thrust. Even though your driving engines may be powerful, if the props are spinning in the air they’re not pushing your boat through the water.
By comparison, aboard a well found monohull with deep or even moderate draft, a competent sailor should be able to sail upwind away from danger if they had to. Even if you had to resort to motoring, the usually more deeply-immersed propeller pushing a more easily-driven hull with less above-water windage would rarely get into serious trouble.
So even though no major disturbances were in the forecast, we decided to play safe and sail the longer course, to leeward, of Grenada, non-stop all the way to St. George’s. We were aware that this time of year, the Caribbean gets a weekly ‘wave’ of low pressure coming across the Atlantic from Africa. These waves are mostly benign and usually just bring cloudy weather and rain for a day or two but they occasionally spawn brief ‘microbursts’ embedded within very localised thunderstorms which bring strong gusty winds which can be surprisingly vigorous—easily reaching 45 knots.
A few hours out, after sailing past the semi-active submarine volcano ‘Kick ‘Em Jenny’ Link to Wikipedia Piece
we watched an anticipated wave approach and as luck would have it, this one packed a punch. But since we were now to leeward of Grenada, instead of having to fight our way off a rocky shore, we were able to fall off to a deep broad reach and a enjoy an exhilarating sleigh ride under double-reefed main and jib. As the anemometer climbed quickly to a steady 30 knot overs the deck, we hummed along at a sustained speed of over 12 knots with several bursts of 15 knot+ surfing. The highest recorded downhill surfing run was 16.2 knots — seen steady for several seconds by the owner braving the rain but enjoying the ride on the cat’s flybridge.
After about half an hour, the rain and strong breeze subsided. We were able to shake out our reefs, harden back up to our rhumb line and continue on to St. Georges. Had we chosen the windward passage with it’s long lee shore and nowhere safe to hide, the owners and I would have had an entirely different sort of afternoon with a lot fewer grins and great memories.