For our 2015/2016 cruising season, our 9th year since leaving Vancouver on Curare in 2007, we chose to explore some of the less travelled areas of the Caribbean. We had thoroughly enjoyed our time last season (Nov/14 through May/15) in the Eastern Caribbean, but found it crowded, well-travelled and somewhat lacking in new experiences. While the scenery was beautiful and the people we met friendly, there was no mystery or challenge to the cruising, something we seem to enjoy for unknown reasons. In the Eastern Caribbean, the answer or solution to any query or problem is as close as the VHF; every morning in nearly every anchorage there will be a radio net where someone has already asked your question and others will be able to provide meaningful advice. Which is great, but sometimes we just like to figure things out for ourselves.
So we set off from Trinidad in December, 2015 bound for the Netherlands Antilles chain of islands, known as the ABC’s (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) 475 mile west. We enjoyed some great dives right off our boat, moored on the reef on the western side of Bonaire. This is a location that was a quick dinghy ride from the dive center that filled our tanks, and a short walk from the well-stocked grocery stores that carried remarkable Dutch products. Curacao was a shorter, but no less enjoyable stop, with the old, colourful buildings around the harbour in Willemstad. We chose not to visit Aruba, as the trade winds were forecast to diminish below 25 knots for the first time in three months and we wanted to take advantage of that opportunity to move west. That weather window provided wonderful 15 to 20 knots of steady easterly breeze, allowing us to sail the 390 miles southwest to Santa Marta, Colombia on a comfortable broad reach.
Our time spent in Colombia was very enjoyable, as we immersed ourselves in the Latin culture again; re-establishing our rudimentary Spanish language skills, chatting to food vendors on the streets and exploring the Colonial heritage sites. We took advantage of our stay in the secure and well protected marina to leave Curare for a few weeks to travel in Colombia, first to Cartagena, then to Bogota and a few small villages in the interior. Marina Santa Marta is a popular destination for boats traversing the Caribbean, mainly westward towards the Panama Canal. During our stay at the marina, two ocean rallies came through: the OCC Caribbean; and the ARC World, all heading for the Western Caribbean and Pacific.
When it was time for us to depart Colombia, we realized that we were stepping off the well-trodden trail when arranging for our port clearance. We told the Captain our next stop was Kingston, Jamaica. He looked up and said “Por Que?, Es verdad?”. I guess this Captain had not previously authorized a cruising boat to depart Colombia for Jamaica. It wasn’t our easiest passage, nor our worst. We had 25 knots close hauled for two days, followed by 18 to 22 knots on a tight reach for another two before we landed in Kingston, 450 miles later. The nights were mostly clear, with a small crescent moon allowing the stars to shine through. We marked our course by pointing the bow (mostly buried in the seas) at Arcturus, while the Southern Cross lit up our stern and Orion passed from right to left as each evening progressed.
Our reception at the Royal Jamaica Yacht Club (RJYC) in Kingston could not have been more pleasant. A dock worker graciously took our lines as we came alongside the fuel dock at four in the afternoon on a Saturday. He then went to the office and informed the club manager, who made the appropriate calls to Quarantine, Customs and Immigration. Each of the officers came in a timely fashion and dutifully filled out their respective paperwork and warmly welcomed us to their country.
Having completed the entry formalities, Geoff returned to the office to register Curare into the RJYC, only to realize that they were setting up for an awards ceremony that evening, with presentations for the inaugural Round Jamaica race held the previous week. With salt crystals still stuck in his ears, and ripe from the passage, the manager took him around the bar making introductions to various members, who all provided the warmest of welcomes. As the ceremony events began, Geoff took his leave to go and enjoy the Club’s shower facilities. Returning later in the evening, Linda and Geoff enjoyed more of the Club’s hospitality and learned a lot about cruising the coast of Jamaica. We had arrived without any real knowledge of where to cruise, anchor or provision, but within a few short hours, we had gathered a wealth of knowledge from the Club members.
The next day, after washing off as much of the deeply embedded salt from Curare as we possibly could, we left the fuel dock and anchored just outside the Yacht Club breakwater. We had made tentative plans to go out to one of the nearby cays for a relaxing Sunday afternoon with some of the members, but we weren’t sure if the rum from the previous night would have interfered with their plans. By 1100h, three sailboats had come by to collect us and guide us out to their special place beyond Kingston Harbour. Once out of the shipping channel, we sailed through some shallow water in between reefs, cays and sand bars to reach a small strip of land in what seemed to be the middle of the ocean. The first yacht dropped anchor and the rest of us rafted up, well protected from any surge or fetch by the reef. Soon everyone was in the water cooling off and thoroughly enjoying the afternoon. It was a very pleasant introduction into the Jamaican lifestyle.
Over the next few days, we met other Club members who offered us rides to the grocery store, asked us to crew with them on the upcoming Wednesday race and arranged to meet up with us in Cuba in a few weeks. We could have enjoyed our stay at the RJYC for much longer, but we wanted to start exploring the many places we had recently heard about. So armed with our newly acquired information on anchorages along the south coast, we set off Wednesday afternoon as the race across Kingston Harbour got underway.
The south coast of Jamaica from Kingston west to Negril Point is about 140 miles and there are several places to stop for the night, to get out of the trade winds and swell. Our first stop was only 15 miles from Kingston, within the large bay of Portland Bight. Manatee Bay was in shallow, turquoise blue water protected by a small reef. The peace and quiet at the anchorage was fantastic. Moving further west over the next few days, we stopped at small islands and tucked behind reefs each evening. This led us to the small town of Black River, where there were several small grocery stores, a fresh vegetable and fruit market and a bank machine, so we could provision. One other sailboat was in the broad open anchorage, but they left before we could say hello. A Customs officer came out one morning to check our paperwork to ensure we were correctly registered with the authorities. We had found over the past few days that officials were curious about us. Marine police came by at a few of the anchorages, Customs twice and the Coast Guard a couple other times. Everyone was very polite, courteous and intrigued. We definitely were travelling where few boats go.
The winds along the south coast of Jamaica were quite variable, most likely due to the series of strong northerlies blowing down from the USA and across the Gulf of Mexico. It seems these winds are more influenced by the large landmass of North America than by the trade winds, so while we generally had easterly winds during the day, occasionally the winds could blow strongly from the north, as those large frontal systems tracked past Cuba and on towards Hispaniola and the Virgin Islands. Anchoring was mostly behind shallow reefs or tucked into small bays along the coast, in sand or mud. Our new-for-this-season Rocna anchor did not always hold as well as we’d have liked; we dragged twice in places where we felt our Bruce anchor would have held us secure. We’ll give the Rocna a few more chances before relegating it to the backup bowser.
While waiting for the weather systems to blow through in a tiny place named Bluefield Bay, so that we could round the western end of Jamaica at Point Negril, we got to meet with a few of the locals as they repaired their fish boats and nets along the shore. The Jamaican culture is very open and friendly, with peace and harmony their main beliefs. Throughout our time along the south coast, we never felt worried for our safety or security; something that we can’t say about our time in parts of the Eastern Caribbean.
Having cleared out of Jamaica at Montego Bay, our next destination is Cuba; another place less travelled but actually with more cruising information than we found for Jamaica. For now, we feel Jamaica is a hidden jewel of cruising, with good winds for sailing, beautiful and secure anchorages and some of the friendliest people we have encountered. Jamaica is definitely on our list of places to return to someday.