From the Windward Passage South to the Rio Dulce ~ by Steve Pavlidis
Posted by Steve Pavlidis at the SSCA Discussion Board : Aug 11, 2005
Steve Pavlidis is the well-known cruiser and author of a half dozen excellent cruising guides. See his website at: http://www.islandhopping.com/
A transit of the Windward Passage
varies from a reach to a run depending on wind direction. Bear in mind that the trade
winds will be at their strongest from December through March and can make for boisterous sailing conditions, albeit off the wind (Webb Chiles once said: “…better a gale from behind than 20 knots on the nose.”).
Vessels approaching the Bay Islands of Honduras
and/or the Río Dulce from the eastern coast of the United States will find a nice reach or run once they have worked their way through the Bahamas
to Great Inagua and the Windward Passage. Skippers approaching from the Turks and Caicos
Islands or the northern coast of Hispaniola will enjoy the same conditions. Although longer in mileage, for some this route is preferable as it offers a considerable amount of downwind sailing compared to the route from Key West
to Isla Mujeres where you must fight the current
the entire trip. In fact, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand miles of downwind sailing from Great Inagua or Provo to the Rio Dulce. The current will range from on the nose as you pass southwest through the Windward Passage, to abeam from the Windward Passage to Jamaica
, to astern as you sail from Jamaica
to the Caymans, and again it will be on the beam as you sail from the Caymans to the Bay Islands or the Rio Dulce. This is in ideal conditions mind you, at any time of year a reversal or an eddy can form and you’ll fight the current.
And let me make one more comment about the Windward Passage. This can be a very rough body of water
, after all, it’s not called Windward for nothing. Although it’s only shown on Pilot Charts
and only briefly touched upon in the Sailing Directions for the Caribbean Sea, the Windward Passage usually has a southwest setting current of about ¾ knot
. At times however you can find a northeast setting current flowing through the Windward Passage at speeds that I have seen at times to be over two knots although generally it is between .75 and 2 knots. When you add this to a moderate northeast breeze, the Windward Passage can be reminiscent of the Gulf Stream
when you have wind against current, and it will take you quite a while to get out of the flow, usually about ten hours or so depending on your speed as you head
southwest through the passage. Don’t even think about heading west to get out of the current, you might find that you’re heading into an easterly flowing current that works its way along the southern shore of Cuba
, while the currents close in to Haiti
are reported to be in the range of ¾ knot
setting in a northerly direction near Pearl Point. Use caution north of Cape Mole, Haiti
, where this northward flowing current meets the current that sets west along Haiti’s northern shore. I went through the WW Passage in May and found 2 knots on the nose with 25 knots of wind on the stern, which made for good sailing, but at a speed over the ground of about 4 knots.
Cruisers headed to the Windward Passage need to be aware of the IMO Traffic Separation Scheme that lies east of Cuba’s Punta Maisi and makes good use of the northward flowing current found there (this current has been reported to reverse with northerly winds). The traffic separation scheme allows for a two mile wide corridor for northbound vessels and a two mile wide corridor for southbound vessels. These corridors lie within Cuba’s 12-mile territorial limit so bear that in mind if you plan to go that route. If you’re not comfortable with that, keep 12 miles east of Punta Maisi and you’ll be out of the traffic separation scheme as well as Cuban territorial waters.
Bear in mind that the United States Coast Guard maintains a very strong presence in the Windward Passage and that they often board and inspect yachts passing through these waters. In May I spied a vessel heading N through the WW passage which took up a postion 4,000 yards off my stern at 0200 and turned and paced me until daylight (and I was only making 4 knots over the ground due to the current). At daylight I confirmed what I already knew, that it was a USCG cutter
, and they then closed to within 2,000 yards of my vessel and played twenty questions with me. Although I was asked if I had ever been boarded by the USCG, I was heading south to Jamaica and not north so I was not boarded, had I been heading north I have no doubt I would have been boarded. After giving me a weather report and wishing me a safe voyage the cutter
turned and headed north again.
When you are ready to leave Jamaica, I suggest playing along the northern shore, stopping at any or all of the lovely anchorages
there to arrive at the western end of the island (it’s approximately 90 miles from Port Antonio to Montego Bay) to stage for your next leg (I prefer to clear out at Montego Bay and then anchor
overnight at Bloody Bay, Negril, and leave early the next morning from there, this knocks a few miles off your trip and you outward clearance is good for 24 hours anyway). From the western end of Jamaica you have several choices, you can head
to the Cayman Islands
, the Swan Islands (Las Islas Santanilla), or you can head directly for Isla de Guanaja in the Bay Islands (Las Islas Bahía) off the northern coast of Honduras
. From Montego Bay, Jamaica, the southwestern tip of Cayman Brac lies approximately 132 nautical miles distant on a heading of 307̊, while the northeastern tip of Grand Cayman lies approximately 187 nautical miles from Montego Bay on a heading of 290̊.
Also from Montego Bay, Great Swan Island lies about 350 miles away on a heading of 260̊, but don’t take up this heading from Montego Bay, it’s best to anchor
off Negril in Bloody Bay and leave from there (see the chapter on the northern coast of Jamaica). From Grand Cayman, Great Swan Island lies approximately 182 nautical miles distant on an approximate heading of 233̊.
From Great Swan Island, Isla de Guanaja in the Bay Islands lies approximately 120 nautical miles distant on a heading of about 245̊ (this is a general heading, once you enter the waypoints into your GPS
your heading will change a bit). If you are headed for the Río Dulce, you can work your way westward through the Bay Islands to Isla de Utila where Cabo Tres Puntas lies approximately 94 nautical miles away on a heading of 265̊.
Bear in mind that the northern edge of the northwest setting current that flows through this part of the Caribbean flows along the southern shore of Jamaica with a strength of about 1 knot, a bit more closer in, and a bit less farther offshore
. Another branch of the same current sets west/southwest through the Windward Passage and thence along the northern shore of Jamaica to meet up with the current that flows along Jamaica’s southern shore. Their combined flow passes south of the Cayman Islands
and then northwest into the Yucatán Channel. At any time you are likely to see a reverse of this flow, especially north of Jamaica, between Jamaica and the Cuban coastline. You’ll also find eddies, counter currents, at almost any point in the Northwestern Caribbean between Jamaica and the Yucatán Channel that will set you north or east depending on which side of them you’re on. A great way to get a handle on these eddies is to subscribe to Chris Parker’s Caribbean Weather Center and check in daily on the SSB
. Chris can tell you where the eddies are and where you need to go to get on their best side and have them work for you.
With a draft
of 6.5', you won't find shelter inside the reef at Cayman Brac, but you will be able to just enter the cut at Owen's Sound at Little Cayman, but just inside the water
will shallow to less than a fathom so use extreme caution. North Sound at Grand Cayman is a great spot to hide from weather and I heartily advocate using the Kaibo Yacht Club on the eastern shore of North Sound as a base, it's the only marina on Grand Cayman that's currently open as the CIYC is still rebuilding. Kaibo can take a 6.5' draft
at their outer dock
I am one of the first to admit that I treasure Jack Tyler’s learned opinions, they are borne of experience and that says a lot, but I don’t think Jack spent enough time at Mario’s Marina on the Rio Dulce. Without a doubt, the best marina on the river is Mario's, it's sort of a community unto itself and a socal hub for cruiser's here, even those that proudly hail any other marina as better. Tortugal and the rest wish they had as much going on as Mario's does. Truth be known, there are some twenty live aboard boats here at this time, with only a handful at Bruno's and a few more scattered here and there at Monkey Bay, Tijax, Tortugal, Susanna's, Mango's, and Shalahar. Short of sounding like an ad for the place (I do love it here) Mario's has a great restaurant and bar, a small store with gourmet meats, a shaded swimming pool (important!), a weekly Saturday nautical flea market, Sunday night poker games, Tuesday afternooon Bingo, live music
on Friday nights, wifi
and ethernet hookups as well as a computer in the office for your use, generator
backup for the frequent power outages courtesy of Guatemala
Power, a laundry
, showers, and launch service
into town and a weekly van excursion into Morales and Puerto Barrios. As for kids
here, this is a family
oriented marina, kids
are welcome. I like it so much I'm returning next year. You can reach the marina at : firstname.lastname@example.org
S/V IV Play
Rio Dulce, Guatemala