Waking up at 4am, I am bouncing up and down in the forward berth as we cut through the waves. We’re healed over to starboard and I’m lying with half my body on my bunk. My other half is pressed against the fiberglass hull. I crawl out of my bunk and have to use the handholds to work my way aft to the companionway stairs. Climbing up to the cockpit, I find Captain Hank, alone at the wheel.
This is the story of my sailing trip to Dominica, a lush tropical island; the southern-most island of the Leewards. You may have seen Johnny Depp doing his thing here in Pirates of the Caribbean. The island was sadly devastated by hurricane Maria in September, 2017. So we’re on a mission to help bring cruising sailboats back to the island.
It’s day 2 of our Caribbean passage and we’re sailing Avocation, a Swan 48, with Captain Hank Schmitt. Hank is the owner of Offshore Passage Opportunities where he connects sailors looking to gain offshore sailing skills with experienced captains in need of crew. Myself and 5 crew mates have signed up for a chance to see what it’s like to sail between the Caribbean islands.
Our adventure begins 24 hours earlier in St. Maarten. We’re sailing together for the first time as crew. So before departing, we find our way to La Sucriere, a French bakery with mouth-watering pastries. We get to know each other while fortifying ourselves with croissants, quiche, and cafe au lait. Soon we’re back on Avocation and casting off from the dock. The Simpson Bay drawbridge opens promptly at 10:30am as we motor into the beautiful turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. Our destination, Dominica, is 200 miles to the south. It should take us about 30 hours to get there, if the wind gods cooperate.
Hugging the coastline of St. Maarten, we pass a massive cruise ship docked in Phillipsburg and continue heading southwest towards St. Barths, where the uber-rich play. We can just see the volcanic island Saba to our south through the low-lying clouds. It takes us about 4 hours to get close enough to see Gustavia, the capital of St. Barths. We pass another cruise ship behind a pyramid shaped island called “Les baleines de pain sucre” (the sugar bread whales). Once past Gustavia, we cut the engine, unfurl the jib, and hold a course of 160 degrees almost the entire voyage to Dominica on a port tack.
The sun sets behind the clouds as we make our way south past the distant lights of St. Kitts and Nevis. I retreat to my top bunk in the starboard forward cabin around midnight to catch a few hours of sleep before my 4 am rockin’ and a rollin’ wake up.
By 5am it’s starting to get light and one by one the crew are waking up and joining Hank and I in the cockpit. By 6am the sun is up and we have a great view of Montserrat off our starboard and can see where lava flowed into the ocean. Hiding in the clouds is the Soufriere Volcano that inspired Jimmy Buffet to sing I don’t know where I’m a-gonna go when the volcano blows.
After a very light dinner the night before, we all eagerly await the pancakes Hank promised to cook us once in the lee of Guadeloupe. The cruel reality of sailing is that once you see an island it can still take 4 or 5 hours to get there. The waves and swell flatten out once in the lee and the wind shifts from easterly to westerly. Finally, we smell pancakes cooking in the galley and enjoy our breakfast feast while admiring the gorgeous views of Guadeloupe.
Once again, we apply Hank’s strategy of sailing as close to the tip of the island as possible. His goal is to gain ground we’ll lose once we are past the island and exposed to wind and currents. We pass the Phare du Vieux Fort (lighthouse of the old fort) on the southern tip and launch into an epic sail to Dominica.
Winds are now blowing at 18 knots from the west. The waves are 4 feet high with 6 to 8-foot swells. Almost perfect! We take turns at the helm, not wanting to let go of the wheel we’re having so much fun. We can see Dominica in the distance for hours, but its dark when we finally arrive under a full moon.
Our actual sailing time is 34 hours. Albert, our “boat boy”, comes out on his skiff to meet us and helps us secure a mooring. Soon we are onshore, enjoying local Kubuli beer and a dinner of blue marlin and coconut rice at Matilda’s beach cafe. It’s been a fantastic voyage and we can’t wait to start exploring the island in the morning.