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Postcards from a Caribbean Winter - Part 1: The Lessor Antilles

by Rod Morris 23 Jan 14:19 UTC 18 November 2018
Lesser Antilles, Caribbean Sea © Rod Morris

For the past three winters we have been sailing Oh!, a 40' Leopard catamaran, throughout the eastern Caribbean. The cruising area we enjoy on each of these voyages has ranged from Grenada all the way to Beaufort, North Carolina.

Over the past three seasons I have learned to look at the areas where we sail as three separate cruising grounds: the Lessor Antilles, the British Virgin Islands (BVIs) and the Turks and Caicos/Bahamas. Each has distinct characteristics; sailing conditions, cultures, geology, geography, flora and fauna. In many ways, what shaped much of the human history on these islands comes down to, "How high are the islands and how shallow and protected are the seas around them?" These physical characteristics played a huge roll in in their history and today create three very different cruising experiences.

We really enjoy the Lessor Antilles and are returning to them again this year for the fourth time after crossing the Atlantic in December to complete our "2018 Atlantic Circuit". Our year started out in Beaufort N.C. with a passage direct to Antigua. We then cruised as far south as St. Lucia before returning via the Lessor Antilles, BVIs and Bahamas to Beaufort. From Beaufort we then crossed the Atlantic via Bermuda, to the Azores, and Madeira Islands. In November and early December we will cruise the Canary Islands before setting out on our longest passage yet, another Trans-Atlantic in the trade winds back to the Lessor Antilles.

Over the next two months we will write 9 articles in this series three from our winters in the Caribbean, one on each of the Atlantic Ocean passages, three from the summer in the Azores and one on our autumn in Madeira/Canary Islands. You may also see many pictures, with captions, at our Instagram site: sv_oh; and at our website and blog. We hope you enjoy them!

The Lessor Antilles

The Lessor Antilles are a chain of islands stretching from Trinidad in the south to Anguilla in the north. Geologically, there are three distinct types of Islands in the chain. Low limestone and carbonates dominate islands with beautiful white sand beaches. Older volcanic islands, that have been highly eroded and are quite dry with limited beaches, are mostly quartz sands and gravel. Finally the tall most recent volcanic islands have steep mountains, cliffs and lush tropical rain-forests but few, or very small, beaches. For our cruising this year, we spent most of time exploring the latter group of islands.

The islands that touch the clouds are: Grenada, St. Vincent, NW Martinique, Dominica, Western Guadeloupe (Base Terre), Monserrat, Nevis, St. Kitts and Saba. They are rich tropical islands with everything from rain-forests and high volcanic peaks to lush rich soils and an abundance of locally grown produce. The higher the island is, the richer its biodiversity. It is not uncommon to find mango and banana growing wild, or beautiful bird of paradise, wild ginger, orchids, and bougainvillea covered walls and hedges everywhere, often with many types of hummingbirds enjoying the flowers' nectar. The bright flowers and multi-colored homes and businesses provide a beautiful contrast to the many shades of lush green and blue waters of the Caribbean. Sea birds, Terns, Brown Pelicans and Frigate birds as well as numerous song birds grace the islands. Spices and a wide range of local produce are found in all the markets.

There is a direct relation between island height and monthly rainfall. It is unmistakable when visiting these islands verses the others in the Lessor Antilles and it is backed up by the rainfall statistics recorded over several centuries. It is the abundance of clean, pure, fresh water captured from the clouds all year round, that makes these high islands so lush and wonderful to explore.

Fresh water brings life for plants, birds and animals which also enriches the islands for humans. Add to this beauty a European influenced cultural history going back 526 years since they were first discovered by Columbus, and further yet from the settlement of indigenous peoples, and there is plenty to explore and experience. You can explore this rich history through hiking, rum distillery tours, renovated forts, the old town centers, churches, museums, books and so much more.

From the initial roots of colonizing North America and the Jamestown Settlers, through colonial wars, land swaps, pirates, slave trade, plantations and the more recent boom in tourism, there is no shortage of fascinating history and local lore to discover. Not a lot is known about the pre-Columbian inhabitants, the Caribs and Arawak peoples who occupied these islands for centuries.

The next layer down the "Elevation Scale" are the much dryer islands of Barbados, S.E. Martinique, Marie Gallant, Eastern Guadeloupe (Haute Terre), Antigua, St. Bart and St. Martin, as well as numerous small islands in the Grenadines, Les Saints, etc. These islands are clearly dryer and the lack of abundant, year-round, fresh water is very noticeable. Desert plants like cactus and prickly pear abound. The older age and eroded former peaks of these islands has a side benefit beautiful beaches, coral reefs and a gentle coastline suited to resorts and modern development.

The final layer down the "Elevation Scale" are the low lying Islands of the Grenadines, Barbuda, Anguilla and Anegada, in the BVIs. With only a few tens of meters of elevation, these islands are best known for their coral sand beaches, and dry climates. Often the only natural fresh water comes from the passing of a squall that lasts just a few minutes during the winter season.

The beaches on these lower, older islands can be truly spectacular, with powdery soft sand and crystal clear warm, aquamarine waters for swimming. On some of the islands, like Barbuda and some of the fringing islands of Antigua, you will have the beach all to yourself. The hurricanes from 2017 devastated infrastructure on Barbuda and heavily damaged Dominica, St. Martin and the BVIs. However, beaches are resilient and return much quicker than the surrounding buildings. Despite the destruction, we found the natural beauty still there and waiting to be enjoyed. The benefit was that we often had places to ourselves and the people, especially on Dominica, went out of their way to welcome us and thank us for visiting their Island.

The joy of cruising in the Lessor Antilles, is discovering the uniqueness of each island with their micro-cultures and huge variety of things to do. Our favorites are Dominica and the former French and Dutch Colonies which are now departments of France and the Netherlands. There are so many excellent hiking trails, sights to see and a large community of cruising yachts to interact with many of those yachts have been exploring these islands for years. A simple invitation for wine and cheese or beer and nachos will lead to great friendships and a wealth of knowledge about places to explore or help finding services you may need.

The French Islands are particularly easy to enjoy. Clearance and customs are straight forward just fill in a computer based clearance form and pay the small fee of 3-5 euros. These computer forms are often located in restaurants, chandlers, tourist offices, or private service companies, which in itself is so friendly and welcoming. On most of these French Islands, you never even see an immigration or customs officer. Marie Gallant was the notable exception where the check in is more of an inconvenience for the officers rather than the crusiers since they are not yet on the French computer system.

After the quick and simple clearance, there are cafés, markets, and well-stocked grocery stores to explore with reasonable prices and a wide variety of European and domestic foods and wines to fill the galley. It is all great. The islands are clean and, well... French, but you don't need to speak French to have a great experience; everyone is welcome. This adds another dimension to the flavour of these islands as well as the great baking!

Sailing in the Lessor Antilles is quite different from the other areas we have visited. The conditions are more "robust". Once the trade winds settle in, they are pretty consistent and bring with them frequent squalls which can really pack a punch. A typical day will have sunny skies with scattered clouds and the occasional big squall. Winds are typically 15-25 kts everyday out of the East and NE with some SE winds. The seas can be anything from glass calm when a high pressure system settles in, which is fairly rare (I have only seen it two or three times in three seasons), to up to 3-3.5m rolling Atlantic ocean swell. The swell is typically 1.5 -2 m each day, so it is lively sailing. As one of our guests from the B.C. west coast said last March, "I wouldn't even think of going out in these conditions on the Strait of Georgia". But then, neither would I.

Down in the islands however, the waves have large periods and are more like big rollers topped with wind driven chop. Put in a second reef with six or more wraps on the genoa and enjoy the ride! The sailing can be fantastic and it is usually in brilliant warm sunshine. Just keep an eye out for the squalls; they move fast in the trade winds and can pack 45 knot winds and torrential rain but pass quickly.

Meeting and interacting with the cruising community is our favorite evening past time. Invite a crew from a neighboring yacht to share some wine and cheese, or a breakfast coffee and croissant, and it is amazing the conversations and friendships that develop. We are looking forward to returning to the Lessor Antilles and welcoming old friends and new guests on Oh! again this year to share our adventure and the cruising lifestyle.

This article has been provided by the courtesy of Bluewater Cruising Association.

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