You have the boat – purchased or rented – and you are ready to head out on your own private adventure. No tourist-filled cattle boat for you anymore. It’s time for the two of you to explore those small, romantic bays that long-time Caribbean boaters have told you about.
The whole day is perfectly planned … a quiet cove, a picnic lunch, a bottle of champagne … and a National Park Service Ranger pulling his boat up alongside yours to write you a ticket for illegal anchoring. Not exactly what you had in mind? In that case, the first thing you had better do before you head to that romantic spot is to find out where you can legally drop your hook. There are many ways to obtain good information about where to anchor in the Caribbean; here are a few of the best.
Within the U.S. Virgin Islands, the first resource to consult is the National Park Service (NPS) website. The NPS has very strict rules governing the use of anchors and you risk a ticket if you violate them. The only Marine National Park in the British Virgin Islands is the Wreck of the Rhone , where anchoring is strictly prohibited (mooring buoys are available). Boaters are allowed to anchor in the sand bottoms of Tobago Cays Marine Park; however, there is no anchoring allowed anywhere in Bonaire – the entire island is a National Marine Park.
Nautical charts produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA atwww.noaa.gov) offer the best information about reef location, types of bottoms at each anchorage, water depth, hazards, channels, etc., from Virgin Gorda to St. Thomas (NOAA chart number 25641.) Imray-Iolaire charts cover the non-U.S. Caribbean all the way down to Trinidad and west to Aruba. Charts are available at most ship chandlers, such as Budget Marine, Island Marine Outfitters, Island Water World and West Marine, and range in price from approximately $36.00 for a single page to $80 for a Chart Kit that contains five to six charts and aerial photos of favorite spots. (You can check the full range of charts available from NOAA’s approved online vendors: www.oceangrafix.com andwww.maptech.com. Look for Imray-Iolaire charts at www.nauticalcharts.com andwww.bluewaterweb.com, to name a couple.) However, traditional nautical charts can be a bit daunting for those who are not used to reading them – don’t despair! There are many other resources available for those of you who want something simpler.
An excellent source of information, and one that is easy to carry on a small boat, is any one of a number of cruising guides that offer specific information about the islands. Guides from Cruising Guides Publications (www.cruisingguides.com), not only provide anchoring information from the Bahamas to Trinidad, they also offer advice on how to approach an anchorage, the type of bottom you are likely to find, restaurants ashore and other tips. Reed’s Nautical Almanac is another good resource; it is crammed full of all sorts of useful information, such as local holidays and tide tables. These guides range in price from about $26.00 to $50.00; you will find that most boaters have two or three different volumes on board. It is not a bad idea to compare information in different books – and never forget that a cruising guide was accurate only on the day it was written. That said, however, you will find that most boaters cherish any cruising guides written by Donald M. Street, Jr., in their possession – no matter how old. Street has cruised the Caribbean for decades. His books contain small sketch charts, as well as tidbits about life in the islands before the arrival of many modern-day conveniences. A good rule of thumb, though, is that if your guide is outdated, spend the money to buy a new one.
If you just want to know where to go today, without have to take a course in navigation, local knowledge is the key. Even boaters who arm themselves with charts and the latest cruising guides should seek out people who live and boat in the area they want to visit. You may be tempted to explore an anchorage that was written up last year – the people on the beach might have been there last weekend. Ask around. Walk down the dock and talk to people. Discuss your plans with the folks at the marine stores; they deal with captains – professional and amateur – every day, and they keep up with what is happening around the islands. I have yet to meet a boater who would not share information – and opinions – with a fellow mariner, especially if you buy him a beer while you are chatting at the local boater’s bar.
Still not ready to head out on your own? An easy way to get where you want to go is to follow someone into an anchorage – provided that someone knows the area. Get friends to show you how to navigate into a secluded bay and talk you through the tricky parts (on a working channel please, not channel 16). Just be sure you use the most important resource you have – your brain. Ask questions, evaluate the answers and share information. If the boat you are following draws three feet and your boat draws six – and the captain of the lead boat doesn’t know that – you are in trouble. Pay attention to markers. A Boat Exclusion Area marker means, “Stay out.” Look around you. White water usually means shallow water – maybe even a reef. Above all, communicate with your crew and the person providing the information.
A True Story:
We had started the engine, furled the sails and were ready to approach the anchorage. I was at the helm. The owner/captain said to me, “Okay, take her straight in.” When I did not immediately comply, he turned and gave me a questioning look.
“I’m going to take her around the reef instead of straight over it,” I replied, stating what I thought was obvious.
“There’s a reef in front of us?” he asked. “I didn’t know – I’ve never been here before.”
I was startled. Had he been driving, I am sure that when he headed toward the reef I would have corrected him in my usual diplomatic way, “Where the [censored] are you going?” But what if I had turned over the helm and gone below? I was unaware that this was his first visit – a potentially serious failure to communicate by experienced boaters who should have known better.