Caribbean Exit Lines

Leaving the West Indies is no joke if you don't get the timing right

One would think that boats that have sailed to the Caribbean and spent the winter there would’ve already had a really good shakedown. On leaving the Caribbean for parts north, east, or west, they should, therefore, present very little risk to underwriters.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Boats leaving the Caribbean bound for Panama, the United States, and Europe cost underwriters large sums each year in heavy-weather damage claims, groundings, and abandonments. Almost invariably, claims arise because boats leave the Caribbean at the wrong time of year.

Skippers heading west to Panama can be overconfident, under the impression that this passage is an easy 900-mile downhill slide. But on the U.S. pilot charts for January to the end of March, and again in July, big red circles east of Panama denote expected wave heights of 12 feet or more. Even when waves don’t reach these heights, it still gets rough near the end of the trip, where a countercurrent of up to a knot runs against a stiff, 15- to 25-knot trade wind.


A boat leaving too early bound from the Caribbean to Miami or Fort Lauderdale risks running into a “norther” that starts as a northwest wind-dead on the nose-and clocks through north to northeast, making Silver Bank and the Bahamas a deadly lee shore. Farther north, boats frequently get blasted by cold, late-season northwesterlies, and others heading for Europe get their tails royally kicked in Atlantic Ocean gales.

Prepare and Plan
Ascertain the best time for your departure from the Caribbean by consulting the pilot charts for the North Atlantic for the month you’re planning to leave, for the month before, and for the month after. Use both NIMA’s Atlas of Pilot Charts, North Atlantic Ocean (because these charts show the infamous red line indicating where and for what percentage of time you can expect waves of heights greater than 12 feet) and the British Admiralty Routing Charts, January-December, North Atlantic Ocean (because they depict more clearly the area where you can expect to encounter winds of Force 7, 28 to 33 knots).

In the fall of 2003, Imray-Iolaire ( published the Atlantic Routing Chart (No. 100) in a gnomonic projection on which great-circle courses can be drawn as straight lines. This chart is particularly useful for those employing the northern route back to Europe via Bermuda and the Azores. It shows how closely you approach the ice fields if you swing north to pick up the prevailing westerlies. It shows, too, that the northern routes from North America to the British Isles take you through the ice area.


Panama Bound
Cruisers heading west to Panama from the eastern Caribbean need to be wary about stopping on the Venezuelan coast (see “Below the Hurricane Belt,” July 2003). Before choosing a destination in Venezuela, check in with the Caribbean Security Net (www.caribcruisers. com) for current incident reports. Bonaire is an interesting but expensive stop. Curaçao is the ideal spot to call in before the final leg to Panama, as it’s a good place to stock up on food, and it has reliable boatyards.

Cartagena is the best-preserved Spanish city in all of the Americas, and for that reason alone, it deserves a visit. However, in my view, law and order hasn’t existed in Colombia for 40 years. I recommend you leave your boat safely at the marina in Curaçao, hop on a plane to Cartagena, and stay in a hotel while you visit that wonderful city. Besides, you’ll have difficulty obtaining insurance to cover your boat while cruising in Colombian waters.

Stay well offshore of the Colombian coast. It’s always rough off Cabo de la Vela, and outflow from the Rio Magdalena creates a really bad sea. At certain times of the year, the river carries with it a tremendous amount of logs, trees, and other flotsam.
On approaching Panama, you’ll enter a countercurrent, and you can also expect a hard blow. As you head west, the wind increases and sea conditions deteriorate, and you’ll need all your heavy-air downwind-sailing skills and tactics (see “Gale Tactics,” page 76).


Finally, time your arrival at Cristobal, Panama, for daylight; if necessary, slow down to make this happen. Although the entrance is well buoyed and well lit, the many lights ashore can be confusing. More than one boat has missed the channel and ended up in trouble.

Florida Bound
I strongly advise anyone heading to Miami or Fort Lauderdale against leaving the Caribbean before late March. By that time, the northers that in winter force their way all the way down to Florida are weaker or have died out.

From St. Thomas or Puerto Rico, the course is roughly northwest, skirting the northern edge of Mouchoir and Silver banks and the northeastern edge of the Bahamas until you can swing west, through Northeast Providence Channel and Northwest Providence Channel and on to southern Florida. Rig your headsail sheets to the end of the main boom, set up the anti-jibe preventer, and have a glorious sail, because you should be on a broad reach or running dead downwind before the trades.


This trip should be duck soup, but unfortunately, it’s proven to be otherwise. Many boats are lost off the Bahamas because they’re coming from an area of high islands with, in most cases, deep water right up to the shore to a region of low islands with outlying reefs and shoals extending 2, 3, or even 4 miles. I always tell people heading from the West Indies to southern Florida, “If you see a Bahamian island, you’re 2 miles too close!” All you should see between the eastern Caribbean and Miami are the tops of the lighthouses on San Salvador and at the northern end of Eleuthera and the top of the light marking the south end of Northwest Providence Channel.

When crossing the Gulf Stream to Florida, lay off your course well to the south of your landfall so that the Stream (which can run as fast as 3 knots) will carry you northward to your entrance. It can be most discouraging to finish your long trip from the Caribbean with a beat to windward against the prevailing southeasterlies and that strong north-running current.

It’s also worthwhile to have aboard a copy of Yachtsman’s Guide to the Bahamas (available from Bluewater Books & Charts in Fort Lauderdale, If a breakdown forces you to stop in the Bahamas, it’ll be helpful in finding a harbor of refuge-but enter one only in daylight.

Farther North
Northers are again an issue for destinations farther up the Atlantic coast. In the spring, even if they don’t work their way down to Florida, they’ll reach the Carolinas. Thus, I advise not heading to Charleston, South Carolina, or Beaufort, North Carolina, until mid-April.

As to the best route, I favor taking the same track north of Mouchoir and Silver banks and the Bahamas. Then, instead of going through Northwest Providence Channel or Northeast Providence Channel, pass north of Grand Bahama and run over to the Gulf Stream. With luck, you’ll carry the trades all the way up to the Stream, and when you turn north with it beneath you, you’ll be wearing seven-league boots.

In this age of weatherfax and good radio weather reports, you should get advance warnings of approaching northwesterly winds, which usually accompany the passage of a cold front. If a northwest front is predicted, you can duck into Charleston and either wait out the norther there or continue up the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). If no norther is predicted, ride the Stream all the way to Beaufort.

I recommend Beaufort because I feel you should leave Cape Hatteras 30 miles to your east-by taking the ICW-or 200 miles to your west.
All too often, boats riding the Stream north and approaching Cape Hatteras run into a northwester, which first switches north and then northeast. With 20, 30, or 40 knots of wind blowing against the 3-knot Stream, sea conditions are such that you can’t make any progress. And once the wind goes northeast, Cape Hatteras and the coast to its north become the notorious dead-lee shore that’s been a graveyard for ships for 500 years.

The ICW has two limiting factors: bridges with 65-foot clearance and ever-diminishing depths, now down to 9 feet or less. If you can’t negotiate the ICW, then to get to the mouth of Chesapeake Bay from the eastern Caribbean, stay well offshore. Sail a rhumb line to a point 100 miles east of Norfolk, then turn west.

When a northwester blows through, the temperature drops, sometimes down to freezing. When preparing for this passage, the skipper should make sure that every member is fully equipped for cold, wet weather. If necessary, before departing the islands, order warm clothing and foul-weather gear from the States and have it shipped to the boat.

Bermuda Bound
The first part of the trip to the States via Bermuda is usually a wonderful sail. You leave the eastern Caribbean and aim for the North Star. The wind should be on the beam, giving a good, fast reach. If it’s north of east, don’t worry about staying on the rhumb line, just trim sails and adjust the course so that you’re going as fast and as comfortably as possible. Even if you’re driven below the rhumb line, at about latitude 27 north the wind will start to ease off, and frequently by the time you reach latitude 29 north or 30 north, it will die out altogether. Put up your light drifters to coax the boat through the calm area, or turn on the mill and power north.

Usually, when you come out of the calm spell, the wind comes in from the southwest. If you’re west of the rhumb line, ease sheets and head for Bermuda. If you arrive at night, unless conditions are ideal, I advise standing off until you can enter Town Cut at St. George in daylight.
When leaving Bermuda to head for the States, wait until late May or early June. It’s pretty much a matter of sailing a rhumb-line course, but try to ascertain what the Gulf Stream is doing. Often, there’s a southeast meander, which is most useful to pick up if you’re trying to place in the Newport-Bermuda Race. However, in 1975, when the Gulf Stream wasn’t as well monitored as it is today, Iolaire, heading northwest, hit that wonderful southeastern meander, and in 24 hours of hard sailing, we made good only 40 miles. So obtain as much information about the Gulf Stream as you can before you leave. And take along a thermometer. Alongside the Stream are little cold eddies that break off spinning counterclockwise and warm eddies that spin clockwise. With the aid of a good navigator, a regular check on the water temperature and a little luck can speed you on your way through the Gulf Stream.

Watch out for the northwester; it comes in northwest, clocks to the north, then northeast. Being stuck in the 2- or 3-knot flowing Stream with a strong northeast wind blowing against it isn’t something any seaman likes to contemplate.

Azores and Beyond
When heading for Europe via the Azores, leave the Caribbean after mid-May, when you have a good chance of getting to the Azores without going through a gale. You’ll then be approaching European waters in late June, by which time the frequency of gales has much diminished. Unless you’re extremely unlucky, you’ll only be caught in one gale at the most, whereas boats that leave in late March or April are guaranteed one gale, and will most probably experience two before reaching Europe. At that time of year, gales can be severe.

If you head directly to the Azores from the Caribbean, the easterly trade winds usually prevent you from sailing the great-circle course. Rather than beating to windward, stand northeast, close-reaching on a starboard tack. Farther north, the wind usually eases and swings toward the south, letting you bring your heading more eastward, closer to the great-circle route. Often, that route leads right into the Azores High, where the winds are light or nonexistent. At this point you can either power along the great-circle course and hope you’ll pick up wind before you run out of fuel, or you can turn north, sail or power across the high, pick up the southwesterly when you come out of the top of it, and continue on to the Azores.

Azores from Bermuda
While in Bermuda, check the position of the Azores High, then decide on your course to the Azores. The rhumb-line course to Flores frequently leads right through the high. Be prepared for a slow passage under sail, or carry enough fuel for long periods of powering.

To avoid the high, you can head northeast after leaving Bermuda, work your way gradually up to 40 or 42 degrees north, run along that latitude, then finally turn south to the Azores. This northerly route usually produces plenty of wind, but it’s likely to be cold and should only be taken by boats with a strong crew who don’t mind heavy weather and are equipped to face the cold.

Azores to Europe
When going to Gibraltar, you can take the great-circle course from the Azores. If you’re heading for the western coast of Spain or Portugal, though, take into account the Portuguese trades, which in June blow down the Iberian coast, out of the north, at a steady 20 to 25 knots. Lay your course considerably north of your landfall so you can ease sheets and reach across them. Beating against them is an exercise in frustration.

When heading from the Azores for England or Ireland, you can normally sail the great-circle course. If the wind is out of the northeast, as is sometimes the case, stand north on a starboard tack, until you pick up the southwesterlies. Then take off for Ireland or England. Don’t bother leaving the Azores if there’s no wind. Wait for it, or you’ll do what we did in 1995 on Iolaire, which was to stare at the island of Pico for a day and half before the wind filled in.

Braving the Bergs
Some boats, after leaving the Caribbean, head for the United States, run up the ICW to Norfolk, sail coastwise to Nova Scotia, then head across the Atlantic. Others head north from Bermuda to Nova Scotia and across. For these boats, I recommend a coastwise cruise from Halifax to the Bras d’Or lakes and on to St.-Pierre and Miquelon, just south of Newfoundland, which produce the best French bread in all of North America. That, the excellent wine and cheese, and the duty-free beer make St.-Pierre and Miquelon a worthwhile stop for those doing the extreme northern route. And from there to Mizzen Head, Ireland, at 150 miles a day, it’s only 12 days!

A study of the pilot charts for May, June, and July, checking for gale frequency, wave heights, and ice conditions, reveals that the last week in June is the optimal time to embark on the northern route from Nova Scotia. By that time, the ice problem is minimal, you have almost 24 hours of daylight, gales are few and far between, and you should have a following breeze all the way across.

When sailing this route, monitor two things carefully: ice and Race Rock, which is off Cape Race, Newfoundland. Ice reports can be obtained from the Canadian Ice Service (http://ice-glaces. or the U. S. Coast Guard International Ice Patrol ( With GPS, you can avoid Race Rock. In 1975, a D.R. plot I made in an area much rougher than the amount of wind would indicate put us close to Race Rock, which I thought was about 15 to 20 feet down. I later discovered that Race Rock was only 9 feet down. Obviously, we shouldn’t have gone anywhere near Race Rock.

When sailing the northern route, I strongly recommend taking a pause on the southwestern coast of Ireland. Crookhaven is a wonderful place to enjoy the rewards of a well-timed Caribbean exit.

Don Street still roams the Atlantic Ocean, between his summer home in Ireland and his winter sailing in the Caribbean.