SEAWISE WITH DON STREET
Don’t Leave the Caribbean Yet!
Throughout the more than 60 years I sailed in the Caribbean I heard and read horror stories of boats that left the Caribbean in April heading to the northeast coast of the United States or to Europe, and ran into gales. Leaving the Caribbean before the end of the first week in May is like playing Russian roulette with two or three shells in the cylinder.
This was illustrated well in 2015, when, after departing the Caribbean in April, five yachts were caught in a storm 600 miles west of the Azores during the first days of May. Four of those boats were lost. Two people — one crewmember and a baby — lost their lives. The fifth boat was in trouble and had a ship standing by, but the crew finally decided to stick it out and managed to save the boat.
About 15 years ago a very well equipped Little Harbor crewed by four experienced sailors went missing in April en route from the Caribbean to Newport, Rhode Island. A very short EPIRB message went out, and then silence — no boat or wreckage was ever found.
The Imray Iolaire passage chart 100 (a gnomonic projection where a straight line is a Great Circle course) is a real eye-opener. You will see that before July, if sailing the Great Circle course to Ireland or England, you will be spending two days going through an area where icebergs can be expected. Triangles show the location of icebergs that have been seen well clear of the normal ice area; a few have even been seen south of the Azores.
On the back of the chart there are wind, gale and wave-height charts for all 12 months of the year. As the late Uffa Fox wisely pointed out in his book Sailing Seamanship and Yacht Construction, the weather charts show the frequency of gales, i.e. winds over Force 7 (28 to 33 knots) — but they do not show how far over Force 7 those gales might be. Winter and early spring gales will be much more severe than late spring and summer gales.
Similarly, the wave height charts show the areas and frequency of waves over 12 feet — but they do not say how far over 12 feet those waves might be. Again, the waves will be bigger in the winter and early spring gales than in the late spring and summer gales. Moreover, waves periodically get in sync and become double the height of the seas that are running. Thus, if the seas are running 15 feet, one must periodically expect a wave or series of waves of 30 feet or more. (A Norwegian crewmember on my last transatlantic trip was once on an oil rig in the North Sea that was 100 feet above sea level, yet it was swept and badly damaged by a wave of 120 feet. Big waves had gotten in sync.)
If you cross-check the information on the back of the Imray Iolaire chart 100 against the NOAA or BA weather and wave-height chart, you will see that they all pretty much agree. When checking the NOAA wave-height charts for March and April, you will see a circle denoting excessive wave heights. That circle moves around a bit each year, because each year storms have different tracks and different intensities, but the circle is always in a prime place to catch the boat that left the Caribbean en route to England before the end of the first week in May. Those who are hot at pulling weather and wave-height charts off the internet will also see that a red circle denotes areas of excessive wave height all winter long and well into the spring.
Aside from the risk of encountering gales, those heading to the East Coast in late March or April can get caught in what is referred to as a sub-tropical hurricane. These spring up southwest of Bermuda, about halfway between Bermuda and the States. They then run up the Gulf Stream for about 36 to 48 hours and then dissipate. They are small and intense, hit no land masses, and do not cross any heavily trafficked lanes. Until they showed up on satellite weather images, no one knew they existed. (The few reports of wind velocities that were way out of line came from ships 50 to 70 miles away, and were discounted as exaggerations or faulty equipment.)
In light of all this, if heading to the northeastern United States or to Europe, wait until the end of the first week in May before departing the Caribbean. You might still run into bad weather, but the chances of being hit by a really bad gale or a sub-tropical hurricane will be reduced.
About 25 years ago, en route from the Caribbean to England in April, a 60-foot sloop was rolled 360 degrees. Two crew were injured and needed to be taken off. The sloop was beyond helicopter range, but the US Air Force said they had a tanker available whose crew was experienced at refuelling helicopters. The rescue services had two helicopters available. (On long overwater flights they must have two, in case one has to ditch.) They flew out to the sloop, air-lifted the two injured crew off and flew them back to England and hospital. The skipper and remaining crew managed to get the sloop into Falmouth with no outside help.
The following May, after I had laid up Li’l Iolaire, I was flying home on British Airways and the man seated next to me introduced himself. He was a very experienced sailor. He asked me if I knew of the 60-foot sloop that had problems the previous April. When I said I did, he related the following story.
“I was recently in the Grenadines, having a drink in a makeshift beach bar, and I noticed a big sloop at anchor and its dinghy coming ashore. From the dinghy, two men came to the bar, the younger man wearing a polo shirt with the name of that particular sloop embroidered on it. We struck up a conversation. I discovered he was the skipper of that boat, and a very competent seaman. I congratulated him on getting the sloop into port unaided, despite having been rolled 360 degrees, and then putting her back together and bringing her back to the Caribbean. But I asked him, ‘Why, with your experience, did you leave the Caribbean for England in early April, when you knew you would inevitably run into some really heavy weather? Why did you not wait until May?’”
“He gave various little excuses that did not make sense. Finally, I said, ‘I’ll bet it was an idiot owner who insisted you leave in April so he could have the boat in England in time to enjoy some early May sailing.’ His reply was rather mumbled; he got up, paid the bill, and he and the older man left and returned to the sloop. I then discovered from the bartender that the older man was the sloop’s owner.”
Visit Don Street’s website at www.street-iolaire.com.
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