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NAVIGATION-I
 

 

 

The reputation of the Lesser Antilles as a sailing paradise is no mere abstraction but the product of favourable conditions: climate, a wind regular in strength and direction and the short distances between islands. For all that, even these pluses remain subject to luck and all the rest of sailing’s pitfalls. It’s worth getting to know what these are so you can look out for and avoid them.

Wind, weather and sea
(See also the sections on Climate and Cyclones in the General Introduction)

Wind regime
The Lesser Antilles are in the trade wind belt of generally regular winds, which seldom blow above force 6 except in squalls. The trades blow from the E quadrant, angling, depending on the season, anywhere from NE to SE. They are most regular and blow most freshly from December to May (also the season of least rain). From June to November they are more irregular and can even fall away to a calm. In the summer light to moderate breezes from the W quadrant can occasionally blow on what is normally the leeward (i.e. W) coast of the islands.
The regularity and steady direction of the winds, the almost total absence of gales save beneath the larger squalls or in the case of a tropical depression or cyclone (see introduction section on Cyclones), greatly simplifies one’s sailing. This is most particularly the case between Grenada and Antigua where the islands lie across the line of the trades. On the other hand, headed W from Antigua or Guadeloupe to the Virgins you’ll have the wind aft. But to come back eastwards, only if the wind is ENE or NE will you avoid having to make several tacks. In the same fashion you need to note, with the trades varying as they do from NE to SE, that more often than you’d expect, an upwind destination requires sailing hard on the wind. Under the higher islands (like Dominica, Guadeloupe, St Vincent, etc,) the wind shadow can be either partial or total, requiring you to motor or motorsail.

     

Squalls
The build up of massy cumulus before a squall hits warns you what’s coming. They move down the line of the wind and usually carry rain, sometimes heavy. The increase in wind varies depending on the sort of squall in question. You can divide squalls as follows:
• Black or dark squalls These darken the sky and usually have heavy rain. The gust cells are usually moderate and relatively short-lived.
• White squalls Ahead of the arrival of one of these you can see the white curtain of water particles leaping up, caused by heavy rain and violent downbursts of wind. Under this sort of squall gusts can hit 35–40 kn for a short while.
Both phenomena suggest a prudent shortening of sail, above all for yachts that are a bit tender.

Sea state On the Atlantic Ocean coasts the sea is usually moderate to rough depending on the strength of the trades. In the passages between the islands, it can be shortened and steepened by currents. On the leeward coast the sea is usually calm, sometimes with a low, gentle swell. In some periods of the year, most often when the trades are weak or have died away (usually in summer), the swell can cause a phenomenon locally known as a mini-tidal wave or strong surge caused by a big ground swell. Usually of small significance, this appears as long waves from the W usually causing an unduly high flood tide. Poorly anchored boats, or those too close to shore, can find themselves driven aground.

Currents
The current is generally westerly with a rate, on the Atlantic coast, of 0·5–1kn. It strengthens in the passages between the islands and in some of them can reach 2– 3kn or more (for example in the Virgins and the Grenadines). The tides can produce counter-currents of a lesser rate felt closer to the coasts. These are a function of the time and the relative range of the tide.

Tides
They are diurnal or semi-diurnal depending on the time of year and place. The range is slight: from 0·2–0·3m, and exceptionally up to 0·9–1m in some places (for example the windward coast of Martinique). 

 

 

 

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