Ok, here’s the deal. If you are heading to the Caribbean next season I’m here to tell you that the best place to make landfall is Antigua. So, feast your eyes on this beautiful sunset that could be yours and read on. There are a number of options for heading to the Caribbean from the US east coast. Beyond where to make landfall, a key question is about how convenient it is to explore the rest of the islands once you arrive.
Several years ago, when I was planning for Pandora’s first run to the eastern Caribbean, I asked around about where would be the best island to head for. Many skippers, heading south for the first time, default to the British Virgin Islands as they are familiar with the area from years of chartering. And while it’s a wonderful place to charter for a week, it’s tough for cruisers to get further south without slogging to weather. The bad news is that there just isn’t a lot of information easily available regarding the islands to the south.
Cruisers wishing to continue south from the BVIs to the next island, St Martin, must make a run of nearly 100 miles due east, directly into the trade winds. Some will say that this trip is “easy if you wait for a cold front”. However, that may take a long time according to weather router Chris Parker who says that you are likely to wait weeks or worse, especially during mid-December through March for a more northerly wind shift. Several years ago, Brenda and I made the run between the British Virgin Islands and St Martin and in spite of light easterlies of only 10kts, it was quite an unpleasant trip, very bumpy motor sailing directly into the wind and waves that made for a VERY LONG DAY that began before sunrise and lasted until long after dark.
It was not a great way to begin our run south after the holidays. Brenda hated it. Unfortunately, our experience was not unique and for us it wasn’t a great way to begin our winter season aboard Pandora. As they say “gentlemen do not go to weather”.
For years now, we have worked with Chris Parker of Marine Weather Center, as our preferred weather router and have relied on him for guidance for local weather forecasting as well as advice on where to cruise based on the type of sailing conditions that Brenda and I prefer. And, when I asked him about cruising the eastern Caribbean, his recommendation was to head directly to Antigua from the US and begin our winter cruising from there.
From the Hampton, VA, the starting point for the Salty Dawg Rally, the run to Antigua is only about 100 miles further than the BVIs and by the time you get there you have made all of the easting required to begin your sailing season. Once you’re in Antigua, you can sail just about anywhere on a reach or down wind.
Chris also notes that Antigua is well protected from the large winter north swells produced by the all to common north Atlantic storms. These swells, that grow out of major lows in the North Atlantic, make anchorages farther north and on the smaller islands untenable for much of the winter.
Stronger winds, known as the “Christmas winds” pipe up in the Caribbean in the second half of December through mid-March. However, it is easy to ride them out with good holding in the protected harbors of Antigua. With so many cruisers in the harbor, there is plenty to do on the island if you opt to spend several weeks there before heading further south.If you need a place to keep your boat when you head home for the holidays, dockage, moorings and marina storage in Antigua are a lot less expensive than you might think and flights home for the holidays are convenient and reasonably priced.
Of course, on any long voyage, stuff always breaks and Antigua has extensive services available so you can get just about anything fixed. And, while equipment is somewhat more expensive than in the US, most anything can be brought in quickly and installed by those who know how to do it. It’s no surprise that many skippers of megayachts have work done in Antigua. Need paint work or varnishing? Antigua is a great place to have that done too and it won’t drain your cruising kitty, well, now compared to some other areas at least.
When heading further south, you’ll be sailing on a reach, the distances between islands are short line of sight sailing and the longest distance you’ll have to cover between harbors is only about 50 miles with most islands closer together than that.
To the south, there is great variety in the islands that you will visit, with each stop offering their own unique cultures, especially the French islands of Guadaloupe and Martinique and the very quaint Le Saintes archipelago just south of Guadaloupe.
Dominica, the “nature island” is very popular with cruisers given its’ rustic nature and extensive hiking trails through the rainforest.Love waterfalls? Dominica’s got that…There are often questions about safety and crime in the Caribbean and while it’s always a good idea to keep your dink locked when on shore and tied to the boat at night, crime is mostly concentrated in certain areas of St Lucia and much of St Vincent. A bit farther south, Bequia and the Grenadines are wonderful and safe.
Antigua has some crime but it’s generally centered in the largest city, St John, where the cruise ships dock, far from Falmouth and English Harbor. Actually, there is a police station right near the entrance of Nelson’s Dockyard. You will feel safe when walking around the area, even at night.
It was no accident that the British Navy chose English Harbor and Antigua as their base of their naval operations in the Caribbean for several hundred years as these harbors are very well protected and offer consistent trade wind sailing on a reach to just about every area of the Caribbean.It’s a truly beautiful place. And loaded with fabulous yachts of all sizes. Yes, Antigua is the ideal place to begin your season and from there you can head further south without beating into the trade winds. And, as the season winds down you may choose, as many do, to leave your boat south in Grenada or Trinidad where you’ll be safe from the seasonal hurricanes.
And, for those returning to the US, sailing back to the Virgins is an easy run, off the wind, and there you can join up for the Salty Dawg Rally back to the US and home. Along the way you’ll want to be sure and stop in St Barths and St Martin as well as some of the smaller islands if the north swell is not a problem.
Antigua is very simply the sailing capital of the Caribbean and very cruiser friendly. And, as rally port captain, I have seen first-hand, that they have been extremely welcoming to the Salty Dawg Rally and have gone out of their way to help us. The Antigua Yacht Club even throws the Dawgs a free party, with food and drink for all. It doesn’t get more welcoming than that, if you ask me.If you’ve been to Antigua in the past you know that what I am saying is true and I am sure that you won’t be disappointed by your next trip. If you are new to cruising the area, trust me, making landfall in Antigua and tying up in historic Nelson’s Dockyard for the first time will give you and your crew a thrill to be in a magical place that has hosted sailing vessels for hundreds of years, a UNESCO world heritage site and the only operating Georgian boatyard in the world.How about this view of the Dockyard from aboard Pandora?Still need convincing? Contact me, Antigua Port Captain for the Salty Dawg Rally, SDSA board member and I’ll answer your questions. Believe me, if Antigua wasn’t such a great spot, I wouldn’t be spending so much of my time working to make your arrival a great experience.
And, speaking of plans, when the Dawgs arrive in Antigua in November there will be quite a lineup of events to please skipper and crew alike. So, I hope that you will join me and the rest of the fleet in English Harbor for our arrival and more than a week of events, some free and all reasonably priced. Click here to see the details of what’s planned.
Can’t bring your boat? Not a problem, there are really special, super great rates at the Admiral’s Inn, in the heart of the Dockyard, just for Dawgs and their friends during our arrival time. How about this as a perfect spot to begin your day with a cup of coffee at the Inn? The place is beautiful. Or perhaps for a glass of wine as the sun goes down. Pandora will be in the Dockyard waiting for you. Well, that’s assuming that you don’t get there first.
So, there you have it. The case for making landfall in Antigua. And, with so many Dawgs together, it’s going to be awesome.
Oh yeah, we even do dinghy drifts and pass around snacks to share or should I say “Dawg Food”. So, why would you miss out on this?