Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   September 2019

A Newbie Sailor’s First Day at ‘School’

by David Carey

My wife and I went from landlubbers to yacht owners in a very short time. Although we had owned a 21-foot trailer sailor back in Australia, we didn’t consider it a “proper” yacht. Arriving in Grenada and seeing our newly purchased 1984 Moody 47 sitting on the hardstand was an unforgettable moment. In comparison, this boat was enormous. I remember my first thought as I pounded my fist against the five-ton steel keel that stood as high as my head: “How on earth are we going to sail this thing?”
After six weeks living and working on the hard, with three small kids in tow, the boat was splashed. Erin and I were so useless we had to ask a friend to help us pick up a mooring buoy in Prickly Bay, as we had never driven a boat this big before. It was exciting and scary all at once.

A month or two later, after practicing motoring, mooring, and anchoring, we agreed to sail to nearby Carriacou with another young couple who had taken us under their wing. This would be the farthest we had ever sailed, around 40 miles. Not a great stretch, although it felt that way to us.
The weather was fine to begin with, but as soon as we left the wind shadow of Grenada and ventured out into the open water between the islands, we were hit with 25 knots of wind, with plenty of sail up. The boat leaned over, a lot. As the contents of every cupboard down below spilled to the floor, and the many items I had stowed on board became unstowed, we wrangled some sail in to get the boat under control. 

Continuing our course for Tyrell Bay, we noticed that an “exclusion zone” on the chart was highlighted. What was this? Only Kick ’em Jenny — an active underwater volcano we didn’t know about! Changing course to sail around this submerged sleeping giant, we now lost our wind angle and started the engine to motor-sail.
By this time some rather large squalls had formed. Our buddy boat was carrying on ahead of us so we continued. Although our boat’s wind instrument didn’t work, we knew it was blowing pretty strong; we later found out it reached 40 knots in the squalls.
The afternoon sun was getting low, and by this time we were keen to make it to the anchorage at Tyrrel Bay. I think we had scared ourselves a little.

The motor had been chugging along for a couple of hours with no issues, and then out of nowhere, it decided to stop. In a very rolly sea, I did not feel confident to pull our large engine covers off to investigate. Plus, as I didn’t have a lot of experience with this motor yet, I didn’t really know where to start. We radioed our buddy boat to inform them of our situation. They seemed confident we could sail into Tyrrel Bay and drop anchor under sail. I didn’t think we had much choice: the sun was now setting, and it was getting dark.

After finally reaching the opening of the bay, with Sister Rocks to our left and cliffs to our right, in the dark, we sailed on in.
It soon became obvious we were out of our league here, and this must have been apparent in our voices. After speaking on the radio to our buddy boaters, who had already arrived, they offered to pull anchor, motor out and tow us in. We were relieved to hear it.
This was not an easy thing to do. We had reduced sail to just the staysail. Erin was trying to hold a steady course as we sailed towards the cliffs, while I caught a towrope thrown from my friends’ yacht. During the first attempt, Erin accidentally turned our boat through the wind, and we almost crashed into the other boat. Now she was in tears, but I assured her we would get it on the second attempt.

To this day I don’t know how the captain of our buddy boat threw that towrope so far. I caught it and quickly ran to the bow to fasten it somehow. I remember him yelling, “Tie a knot you can undo under tension!” “But I only know one knot!” was my reply. My bowline would have to do. With the towrope secured, we were towed into the safety of the bay.
We dropped the anchor, let out the scope, and hoped it would set. With the boat now still, we fell in a heap, hugs and tears all around. We were safe.

We learned a lot that day, about wind shadows, how to properly stow your boat, that you need to watch out for squalls, and the importance of knowing your engine. Hopefully, someday, we will be experienced enough to pass on what we have learned to others, but for now, here are the main things we learned from that trip.

Top Tips for Newbies

Your engine is a vital piece of equipment. Take the time to check the tension and condition of your V-belt. Make sure your raw water strainer is clear of debris. If you don’t have any history on the engine, change the oil and the oil filter, as well as your fuel filters.

The weather is so important when sailing between the Caribbean islands. Make sure you are confident at interpreting decent weather reports; don’t rely on word of mouth. Windy is a great app, and there are also weather experts such as Chris Parker, who has been assisting sailors for years. For a small fee you can receive a daily e-mail from Chris that gives you accurate weather forecasts for every area of the Caribbean. Watch out for squalls: these large, dense grey clouds pack a punch and can be full of rain and strong wind. Although they may come and go in less than ten minutes, if you see one, reef early to keep the boat under control.
Tides have an effect on currents and sea states in the channels, too. See the Meridian Passage of the Moon table on page 35.

Wind Shadows
Wind shadows are a natural phenomenon where wind drops away in the lee of an island. With minimal wind it can be tempting to put up full sail, however when you reach the end of the island and head for open water, the wind can pick up to 25 to 30 knots in seconds, overpowering the boat. Always put a reef in prior to leaving the wind shadow. You can always shake it out if you don’t get blasted.

When you are sailing along in calm conditions, everything generally stays in its place. Add 30 knots and ten-foot confused seas and it’s a different story. Look over your decks prior to setting off and ask yourself, “If the boat behaves like a roller coaster (which it will), will this item stay put?” Gas cylinders and jerry cans full of fuel can turn into missiles. Down below, books end up on the floor, cupboards open and spew their contents, and anything not put away properly will end up on the floor.

Summing Up
Yachting can be amazingly fun, amazingly scary, or a bit of both. Perhaps the best thing we learned from this experience was that the cruising community is truly a fantastic group of people. They are willing to offer help to newbies in times of trouble, and never quick to judge as they have all been there before. Thank God for that!

Since this “school day,” liveaboard family David, Erin and their three young sons have cruised the Caribbean extensively, sailed across the Atlantic, and are now exploring the Azores. See their blog at or follow them on Facebook at Sailing to Roam.


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