Cruising the Eastern Caribbean
(This is an opinion piece. Feel free to debate in the comments.)
This is a question we’ve received a lot. As I sit down to write this article I know I’m about to start a firestorm with the ‘old salts’. The reality is in 2020 you do not need what is classically thought to be a ‘Bluewater Boat’. A heavy displacement, thick fiberglass, full keeled boat to cruise the Caribbean.
A basic boat straight out of the factory or an ex-charter boat will do just fine. It is high time to dispel the myth that modern cruising boats or catamarans are an inferior choice for an offshore sailor. And that only a heavy displacement boat is safe in big seas. The term “bluewater boat’ can apply to new modern lightweight production boats equally as much as to the classic designs.
What is a Bluewater Boat Anyhow?
Let’s start with what is a ‘Bluewater Boat’ anyhow? When you first say you’re thinking of going cruising everyone will tell you you need a ‘Bluewater Boat’. But what exactly is a ‘Bluewater Boat’? The problem is no one can actually tell you.
What you will hear is: “It must be a sound boat”. “You need a full keel”. “You need a boat over 40 feet”. The list goes on and on. The term is not officially defined and what you are hearing is some person’s opinion of what they feel they themselves would be comfortable going offshore in.
A boat is a tool. And You need the right tool for the job. If you have no other desire than to slowly make your way down to Grenada over a season and then cruise the Caribbean for a year or two (or more). There is no reason that any Category ‘A’ certified vessel will not work.
Certification Standards for Offshore Boats
In 1998 the European Union created a unified set of standards for the design and construction of vessels sold within member states. The Regional Craft Derivative or RCD is the law and applies to all boats from 8 to 79ft (2.5m to 24m). Under RCA boats are classified into 4 categories.
|Category A – Ocean||Covers largely self-sufficient boats designed for extended voyages with winds of over Beaufort Force 8 (over 40 knots), and significant wave heights above 13 feet (4m or more), but excluding abnormal conditions such as hurricanes.|
|Category B – Offshore||Includes boats operating offshore with winds to 40 knots and significant seas to 13 feet (4m or less).|
|Category C – Inshore||Boats operating in coastal waters and large bays and lakes with winds to Force 6, up to 27 knots, and significant seas 7 feet high (2m or less).|
|Category D – Inland and Sheltered Coastal Water||For boats in small lakes and rivers with winds to Force 4 and significant wave heights to 18 inches (0.5m or less).|
While the European standards are no guarantee that a boat will be suitable in all conditions encountered in its category, it does help prospective buyers differentiate between vessel suitability for passage making.
US Vessel Certification Standards
The closest US version of the European RCD/ CE Standard is the voluntary American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) standards. There is the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) who helps manufacturers ensure that their boats are built to the applicable standards set by the ABYC.
Unfortunately for prospective off-shore boat buyers. Both the ABYC and NMMA do not help with defining what a ‘Bluewater Boat’ is. Unlike the EU category certification system, there are no design categories to differentiate between boats of different ocean-going capabilities.
Fortunately, many US builders build their boats to both NMMA and CE standards and publish an RCD Category for the boats they build.
I think it may be safe to draw the conclusion that CE RCD Category ‘A’ would be the closest legislated build and design standard that we have to define what makes a ‘Bluewater Boat’ is in terms of the boat itself.
For Some, Certification is Only Half The Story
Mention to some sailing buddies at your local marina that you are looking at buying a new lightweight production boat for your planned Caribbean cruising adventure. And the tone turns somber fairly quickly. You will be told that going offshore requires a ‘solid boat’. Nothing other than a full keeled heavy fiberglass boat will do.
You try in vain to say you love the modern looks of the new boats. Your wife loves the big galley and the wide beam which makes for a cockpit with incredible entertaining potential. Plus a new boat means new systems and fewer worries. Right? You may even go one further to say that you don’t find a classic fifty or even twenty-year-old design and layout appealing at all.
At some point in the conversation, you will begin to doubt yourself. Surely new production boats cannot be that bad? Try to pose the same question on an online forum or Facebook group and you will be slaughtered.
The funny part is if you take the time to research each poster you will often find that the vast majority have not gone off-shore. They may have never owned a boat. These armchair sailors don’t really know what you need. They are expressing their fears of offshore sailing by repeating the party line that heavy old boats are good lightweight boats are bad.
Sure there is some logic to this line of thought. But the one thing that is always lost in these discussions is the sailing area. The boat you need for the North Atlantic, Indian Ocean, or east coast of Canada is very different than what is needed for the Mediterranean or Caribbean. Again, it’s using the right tool for the job. If you plan to sail out of the Tropical Rum and Milk Run routes then a different kind of boat may be worth looking at.
Build Standards – The Elephant in the Room
What is always left out of these get old heavy boat discussions is build standards. Modern European Boats are built to a legally required standard. In the US boats meeting ABYC is strictly voluntary. But any builder worth their salt will build to exceed NNMA and ABYC standards, whilst making sure they meet or even exceed CE European standards.
What this means to the prospective buyer is that today’s modern boats are built to a higher level of standard. We are not talking quality, that is a completely different discussion. A boat built fifty years ago or even in the eighties was possibly not built to any certification standard. That means that critical safety systems such as propane, electrical, fuel system, exhaust, etc. Are installed on the boat in the way the builder at the time thought was best. Some will meet today’s standards, many will not. Not at least without significant investment and refit.
The Cruising Area and Route
If you take a close look at the typical cruising route from Florida down to Grenada. You will notice that there are three sections or stages to the route. Part one Florida down to The Dominican Republic. Part 2 Dominican Republic to St. Martin and Part Three St. Martin down to Grenada or even Trinidad.
|Part 1 – Florida to The Dominican Republic||+/-700nm||Starting off most hops will be short day trips as you get closer to the DR you will be looking at the odd overnight|
|Part 2 – The Dominican Republic to St. Martin||+/- 500nm||Mostly day trips. Depending on the route. Overnight British Virgin Islands to St. Martin|
|Part 3 – St. Martin to Grenada or Trinidad |
|+/- 500nm||Short day trips of 3-4 hours. A few full-day passages and unless you want to skip out whole islands no overnights necessary.|
What Does This Mean in Terms of Selecting a Boat for Sailing in the Caribbean
Sailing in the Caribbean, especially sailing in the Eastern Caribbean is a series of short day hops. Getting to the Eastern Caribbean is again mostly long day hops with the occasional overnight sail thrown in for some adventure.
The weather forecasting services and forecast accuracy are excellent. If you have doubts about your ability to pick the perfect passage weather from online weather sources such as Windy or Predict Wind, you can make use of a forecaster such as Chris Parker.
This means that you can pick and choose the conditions you wish to sail in. Chances are extremely low that you will be caught in an unexpected gale or conditions are outside of the limits of even the lightest Category ‘A’ certified production boat. You will be hard-pressed to go over Category ‘B’ conditions. So even in the very remote possibility conditions get really ugly you are only a few hours away from a safe harbor.
I would strongly recommend against buying a Category ‘B’ certified boat for any kind of offshore passage making or for sailing the eastern Caribbean. There just is not enough of a safety margin built-in for the expected conditions by virtue of the classification Category ‘B’ standards.
Boat Buying Strategy For Sailing in The Caribbean
If you are considering purchasing an ex-charter boat to sail the Caribbean. And budget is a concern. You may not need to do anything to the boat at all to start cruising. After all the boat is cruising the Caribbean waters quite happily right now with charter guests.
Why not buy the boat sail it for a season. And learn what equipment you would like to add to turn your boat into your version of a ‘Bluewater Boat’. Chances are high that some of the items you read on online forums that you must have, just are not needed for your boat. You may discover that other items such as installing a TV or an ice maker are essential to fully enjoy your Caribbean sailing sabbatical.
The beauty of this plan is that you will pass through St. Marteen which is a duty-free port. Stocked full of every imaginable piece of boating gear and service you may need. At about the time you have figured out what you would like to add to the boat. And if you can’t buy it in St. Marteen you can have it shipped in from the US duty-free in a day or two at exceptionally low shipping rates.
Then you can then spend hurricane season in Grenada or Trinidad or wherever your insurance covers you. Installing all of the various bits of gear overtime at your own pace.
This method saves a fortune over buying a boat in The Caribbean, sailing it to Florida, and then paying high priced contractors to fit every piece of imaginable gear to the boat. Some of it, equipment that you find that you didn’t really need for sailing The Caribbean.
There’s More To Being a Bluewater Boat than Just the Boat Itself
Digging deeper into the term ‘Bluewater Boat’. You will find that equipment plays a big part in people’s definition of a ‘Bluewater Boat’. Again the opinion is that a ‘Bluewater Boat’ should have at least the following extra equipment installed over and above normal day sailing and safety gear.
- Water is fairly easy to find within a day’s sail in most areas
- There are many Caribbean cruisers, sailing The Caribbean without a watermaker. In places such as St. Anne, Martinique there are even water delivery boats
- We cruised the Caribbean for two seasons without a water maker. It is entirely doable. I can however tell you that a watermaker is a luxury that we would hate to live without again. As your cruising plans tend to revolve around where and when you can get water next
- If your plan is to sail the Caribbean for a season or two it may not make financial sense to add a watermaker to your boat
- This is one item I wouldn’t want to leave home without. On day sails not having an autopilot is no big deal. But once the sun goes down and you start to get tired in the early hours of the morning, hand steering can be a safety concern
- Fortunately, today most boats are sold with an autopilot as part of their basic equipment
- Wind Vane Self Steering
- As a backup rudder on a monohull, there is a valid argument to be had for equipping your boat with a wind vane
- As an autopilot – Possibly a valid argument
- As a backup autopilot – For the short distances sailing in the Caribbean between islands, there is no need to spend the extra money and equip your boat with a wind vane
- Some form of solar is important on any boat unless you wish to rack up the hours on the engines or generator charging up the batteries every day
- Wind Generator
- As with solar, you do need some method to top up your batteries. I would urge anyone considering a wind generator to evaluate how much solar they could equip their boat with for the price and maintenance hassle of a wind generator
- Something often missed by people installing a wind generator on their boats is that they install the wind generator next to the solar panels. This frequently shades the panels all but eliminating any useful output
- Chart Plotter
- Of course, you can cruise without a Chartplotter. Having a Chartplotter, especially one networked into your vessel electronics system makes things like autopilot control so much easier. Not to mention the massive improvement in situational awareness.
- If you are out for a short season an iPad or Tablet with Navionics will work. However, if you need to purchase a new tablet solely for navigation take a look at the price of entry-level chart plotters such as the Raymarine Axiom. They are not more than the price of a high-end tablet
- If budget is a concern you don’t need a large chart plotter. A 7″ model will work just fine
- SSB Radio
- Unless you wish to participate in Cruiser Nets on SSB there is really not much value in having one installed simply for sailing the Caribbean. In my experience, it is not worth the cost, installation hassles, and time required to get certified if you will only be cruising the Eastern Caribbean
- A satellite communication device is much easier and cost-effective. Even when you take the monthly subscription into account
- Satellite Phone
- Useful especially for emergency communications and medical emergencies
- If budget is an issue I would highly recommend getting a Garmin inReach or similar text messaging and tracking device
- Having an EPIRB on board adds peace of mind. Knowing that in the event of something catastrophic happening help will eventually be on its way
- If budget is an issue I would highly recommend getting a Garmin Mini inReach. With the press of a button, you can communicate your position to a private rescue organization who will then work with the maritime rescue authorities to coordinate providing you with assistance
- Additional Sails
- Unless you like to race there really is no reason to carry any extra sails for the Eastern Caribbean. You can happily sail The Caribbean with a Genoa and a Main
- AIS Transceiver
- There is a great deal of boat traffic in The Caribbean. Especially at night. Cruise ships have time to kill between ports and will do big lazy eights across the path you are sailing. Each time you look at their navigation lights the picture will be changing. After a while, this gets confusing. Looking at an AIS depiction can help you figure out what is really going on
- Make sure to get a Transceiver as the price difference between a receiver only unit and a transceiver model is not very much
- One of the biggest upgrades you can do to any factory stock boat is to upgrade to a modern high-performance anchor. The anchors that most yards particularly catamaran yards ship their anchors with are poor performers. Buy a correctly sized Rocna or Mantus anchor. You will sleep well at night. To make things easy for you click here for the Rocna sizing guide and Mantus sizing Guide
I hope I have managed to dispel some myths about what makes a ‘Bluewater Boat’. That the term ‘Bluewater Boat’ is entirely subjective. Often nothing more than words used by boat salespeople to describe the equipment installed on a boat. Or the heavy build of an older boat.
A better term than ‘Bluewater Boat’ would be an offshore certified boat equipped for an Atlantic or Pacific crossing or equipped for the Eastern Caribbean.
Unfortunately, the term ‘Bluewater Boat’ is so heavily used that I doubt its use is going to end any time soon. I hope that for a future cruiser looking to buy your first cruising boat that your ears perk up each time you hear the words “Bluewater Boat’. And that you consider the boat selection advice with informed caution.