sheltered from the sea are great for power from wind generators and keeping cool, but do tend to defeat the object of a ‘sheltered’ anchorage. Tradewinds can vary greatly in strength not only on the passage, but when cruising in the tropics. It is not unusual to have in excess of 25 knots between Caribbean islands, along with a big sea. Squalls are a fact of life and you can get some strong to gale force gusts on their leading edge. Being able to reef quickly is therefore essential.
Between the islands of the Caribbean, particularly when heading north, it is often quite hard on the wind and a small working headsail is useful. Last winter we had long periods of strong tradewinds, which for some crews were more testing than they wanted. There is a standing joke for weather forecasting through the islands: that we can put up the forecast in November and take it down again in April – NE-SE 15-20 knots with occasional squalls.
We generally sail in the tropics during the winter months, which is the dry season. During the summer it can become very hot and humid, and of course there is a chance of hurricanes, which peak in the Caribbean during August and September, although the hurricane season extends from early June to the end of November.
An increasing number of yachts stay in the hurricane belt relying on forecasts and the fact that hurricanes are slow-moving so can be avoided. Others may leave their yachts on land, stripped of deck gear with lorry straps to the ground, relying on preparation (and luck) to keep safe.
This we have done with our yacht at Clarke Court in Grenada where a massive storage facility has been developed. Although Grenada is in the hurricane belt, statistically the island is hard hit only about once in 50 years, so fingers crossed!
Between the tradewinds of the northern and southern hemispheres is the ITCZ, which is a band of squalls and thunderstorms. Where you pass through this band is extremely important when racing, but as long as you have fuel the pain of passing can be minimised by the use of the engine when cruising.
“SQUALLS ARE A FACT OF LIFE. YOU CAN GET GALE FORCE GUSTS ON THE LEADING EDGE”
Crossing the Doldrums
Boats on a tradewind circumnavigation will usually cross the Doldrums between Panama and the Galapagos Islands and when we last did this passage it took four days; two days’ sailing and two motoring. However a yacht that did not want to motor took 16 days over the same passage.
In the Atlantic, crossing is best done on the western side – as far west as possible, as long as it does not mean beating to round the corner of north-eastern Brazil.
Away from the ITCZ the tropics can generate some impressive thunderstorms, although these are most frequent when sailing close to large land masses. When crossing oceans in the tradewinds away from the land or the ITCZ, lightning strikes are thankfully quite rare.
Large squalls do occasionally grow enough to produce thunder and if a thundery trough develops (usually when close to the ITCZ) you can get a period of intense squalls and thunder with the wind jumping to gale force on the leading edge of the squall.
Generally tropical sailing is great: sunshine, warm water and good winds. However it does get a bit more complicated around large land masses and in squalls. The winter sun we seek is also the enemy, as it is very intense and can quickly burn. Having suffered from ‘surfer’s eye’, I always keep a good pair of sunglasses close at hand, along with sunscreen and a hat.
Dealing with squalls As a rule, the higher the cloud, the heavier the rain in a squall and the stronger the wind will be as it arrives. A large squall carried along with a brisk tradewind can give a gale force gust on the leading edge as the wind and rain arrive close together.
This gust front will normally pass through quite quickly, leaving you with torrential rain. At times groups of squalls occur when one is quickly followed by another. They can be best monitored by radar, although a hand-bearing compass will give you a good idea if you will be hit or not.
For more on squalls, tactics for dealing with them and a video briefing see www.yachtingworld.com/squalls