Monday, November 8, 2010

Circumnavigation Routes, Part 7

During our sailing trip this past spring from Bocas del Toro, Panama to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, the subject of circumnavigating came up, as it always does when Nan and I sail with John Kretschmer. Being in the Caribbean at that moment, we spent most of our time talking about the best ways to sail that particular sea.

Several books are devoted to advice about sailing the "Thorny Path" from the east coast of the United States to the Virgin Islands by way of the Bahamas, which is, as the name implies, a relentless bashing to windward. Most recommend avoiding it by staying to the north and sailing as far to the east as possible using the variable winds of those latitudes before turning south into the easterly trade winds and aiming directly for the Virgin Islands. For those with the patience to pick and choose their wind opportunities, there are books that prescribe the path itself, like Bruce Van Sant's Gentleman's Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward, which was recommended to me by my friend Paul Caouette but which Amazon tells me is out of print.

John Kretschmer is a proponent for sailing the Caribbean islands from south to north, or more accurately, from southeast to northwest, using the trade winds to natural advantage instead of fighting them. He has crossed the Atlantic several times, and this south-to-north route is part of his normal return trip, but what about those wanting to sail directly from the United States? John says the best way is to circumnavigate the Caribbean in a counter-clockwise direction. When he first mentioned this idea, during our sailing trip last year in the Spanish Virgin Islands, I imagined that he meant sailing from Florida to Mexico, following the Central American coast to the south and then the north coast of South America to the east, arriving in Trinidad and then island-hopping back to Florida.

During this year's discussions, I discovered how wrong I was. John said that sailing east along the north coast of South America is even more of a thrashing than the Thorny Path. Instead, he recommended sailing east from Mexico's Yucatan peninsula to Cuba's southern coast to stay in the lee of the trade winds and then using the evening land breezes to make progress to the east past Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. One would still need to island-hop to windward from the Virgin Islands down to Trinidad, but then one would be in position to reverse course and enjoy the downwind sail back through the islands, hitting any points of interest missed on the way down. Hang a right at Puerto Rico, and negotiate the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas to arrive back at the original starting point.

This is the route I hope to take beginning next spring, when Whispering Jesse is set to sail. Depending on what we find along the way, it may take a year or more to return home. Then what? As John has suggested, why not get Europe out of the way sooner rather than later?

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