Some sailing friends and I wanted to do another trip during the winter and this is a summary of the process we went through deciding where we should go.
Where to Visit
When to visit was a constraint of ours, we wanted to sail in the off-season after the new year. So it was either January or February. We immediately started thinking Caribbean island, but which one? Being a sailor I started off with the pilot chart to get a sense of the conditions. Also we knew it wasn’t Hurricane season (and the pilot chart would have confirmed this).
The pilot chart certainly could have been more detailed. It shows, however, that the wind is pretty much the same all along the Caribbean islands this time of year. In the north you have a 78% (30+48) chance of east or northeast winds around force 4 (11-16 knots), most of the rest with a force 3. Forces 3-5 are good sailing weather so force 4 is smack dab in the middle. (Don’t worry, the full pilot chart includes detailed instructions on its interpretation)
Further south you get 88% chance of a force 4 out of the east or northeast and 0% chance of calms. There is 2x as much current (the green arrows) further south.
Elsewhere on the chart you can see that the water temperature is right around 80F. You can also take a look at the seasonal sea state and frequency of gales on the pilot chart:
Gales are easy. The chart tells us that we’re not at all likely to encounter gales in either Antigua or Grenada.
Waves are a bit trickier to interpret. The smaller scale (shows more area) page of the pilot chart indicates a chance of seas greater than 12′ that doesn’t reach 10%. The zoomed in larger scale chart of the Caribbean is concerned with seas 8′ high and the line implied (it’s not actually drawn for Antigua or Grenada) would indicate a 10% chance of seas or swell that high around those islands. Seas 8′-12′ are something to be aware of in both locations.
It seemed like a toss-up. Some crew picked the Grenadines as our destination and we started looking at booking.
Additional Sailing Conditions Research
I started looking at Sunsail’s information for the Grenadines and I discovered the Grenada is the only Sunsail base listed as “Expert” in the entire Caribbean. That and they’re referred to as “the windward islands” so additional research was needed. I found Antigua, another Sunsail base for the purposes of comparison. I started watching the forecasts from NOAA. I referenced WeatherSpark which has really cool summaries of the seasonal weather in the Grenadines (again contrasted with Antigua).
As I read up I found lots of anecdotal evidence that the Grenadines would be more challenging cruising grounds than Antigua but nothing was conclusive let alone quantifiable. I also looked over the Navionics charting app for the area after reading about the less protected anchorages in the Grenadines.
I’d love to show you the sites or data I used to make the final decision. Unfortunately I never really found enough information online to arrive at a conclusion. I’ll keep looking for online resources for this kind of research; any leads are appreciated!
My crew and I wound up reaching out to our other sailing friends who had been to these locations in the Caribbean and asked around; of course everything we got back was anecdotal. Based off all of the information we gathered and discussions we’d had I ranked the Sunsail bases that had entered the discussion in order of “difficulty” along with snippets from the Sunsail site supporting the ranking:
- Antigua: “perfect for confident sailors who have some previous experience”
- St. Martin: “a destination for confident sailors with a reasonable level of experience”
- St. Lucia: “classed as a level 3 destination due to the higher winds and more exposed Atlantic swells however there is an abundance of sheltered bays and ports and the majority of sailing is line of sight”
- Grenada: the only Sunsail base listed as “Expert” in the entire Caribbean
I borrowed this ranking from an email between the potential skippers of the trip. This lined up well enough with the rankings that Sunsail gave the bases though their rating system seems a bit vague if you start doing comparisons in detail.
Given the non-negligible chance of 8′ or larger seas indicated on the pilot chart Antigua’s more protected anchorages sounded advantageous. Ultimately given the amount of response we had from non-sailing friends we decided to go with the easiest location that we hadn’t already chartered: Antigua. I’m pretty confident Antigua is going to be an amazing trip!
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