Sailing Saint Maarten to BVI

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Sailing NW in the Caribbean Sea is a real dream sailing course. The tradewinds are always from the east, maybe 10 degrees north or 10 degrees south but always generally from the east. So, if you turn west and head from Antigua, the eastern-most island, and sail west or northwest, then you are sailing a broad reach.  Next, imagine sailing a broad reach in 20 knots winds and in 5 to 7-foot seas surfing down waves in the middle of the night. What a wild and very fun ride we had.  We saw many 7 knot surfs, 8 knot surfs and one out of control 9.6 knots of SOG. I saw it but could not snap a photo as I was holding on and standing with bent legs like I was running a stair-stepper side to side. The boat was rolling from midship cleat to midship cleat as she surfed down waves. What a great sail! Here is the overview first.

Sailing 95 nm from Marigot to BVI, 20+ knots, 5-7 foot seas. We let her run via B&G autopilot holding a 140-150 wind angle the entire way!

Sadly Leaving French Marigot

It was very sad to sail out of French Marigot, as the harbor is great, and the French bakeries are amazing and the fine wine is delicious. We made ourselves leave, never an easy thing to move on as a cruiser. It is far far easier to simply stay put in one harbor one island and not push on. We are happy we are learning all these great places and now plan on returning to these places knowing exactly what to expect and where all the key services are located. We will sail back next season as these Caribbean Islands are just too wonderful to bid goodbye.

After receiving our negative covid 19 rapid tests at Soulinga Pharmacy for 39 Euros, we had one last bakery stop.
We will miss this view out the galley porthole of French Saint Maarten, but we will sail back….
This nearly put tears in our eyes, Marigot over our stern as we sail NW for the BVI. Radeen at the helm, double-reefed main and a full 110 jib sailing the B&G autopilot on wind angle hold of 145-degree angle, a broad reach.

The sunsets, nighttime sailing, full speed into the darkness

We departed at 1700 and sunset was around 1830, so we were well on our way when the sun rapidly hit the horizon on our bow. We set the sail plan with a double-reefed main and a full 110 jib. We placed the autopilot to hold a wind angle of 145 degrees off the starboard bow for a broad reach. We can sail this down to 155 and up to 135 degrees easily. Any higher in these 20-knot winds gusting 22-25 and this full jib would need to be furled, especially at night. The seas were rolling under us from the starboard stern so the boat had that difficult roll where the stb stern first lifts, then the boat rolls to port, then the wave rolls under toward the port bow, and the boat rolls hard to starboard as the stern dips down in the trough. It is very difficult to move around the boat, let alone sleep. But, we let her roll and roll she did. Island Spirit LOVES to sail like this. She hit 7 knots easily and some 8+ knots as well. YIKES!

Sunset as we sail NW for the BVI. Double reefed main and a full 110 jib. The swell was reported to be 7 feet, but we think it was more like 5 feet. (PS: photos never show the true waves)
As the sun set, darkness falls and the horizon disappears!
This is the view from the helm as we are sailing 6-7 knots full speed ahead! Radar is #1 telling you there is nothing solid in front of you. Autopilot is #1 also as she will hold the given wind angle and thus maintain sail trim, then the compass will save you when you get totally disoriented as I did at 0200..I .looked at the compass and resumed the proper course after some wrong buttons were pushed on auto, there is nothing else to use. NOTE: See Radeen below deck in the red lights 🙂
Here is a Google Pixel cell phone nighttime shot with the moon reflecting over the bow. Lucky for us, the moon was up til 0300 guiding us west.
This shows what you can really see over your bow…NOTHING, ZIP, NADA, it is a black horizon sailing full speed ahead into the darkness. This takes some real trust in your gear.

B&G Instruments and Wind Steering via Autopilot

I have talked about this many many times before, but it is so critical to nighttime sailing that I want to try to show it and explain it again. Whenever our sails are hoisted and we set sail, we always run the autopilot on wind vane steering. That means we set the boat on the heading we want towards our destination. Then we trim the sails to this heading. NOW, we turn on the autopilot and tell it to hold this given wind angle, whatever that may be. We are pointed the right way and the sails are set for this current wind. POOF, the pilot grabs the wheel and steers and the masthead anemometer sends data of wind angle to the pilot. The two will work together holding this angle. In this run, that angle was 145 degrees off our starboard bow. 

The real beauty is that the ocean winds are never ever steady from one exact direction. They will clock and back 10, 20 30 degrees. In this situation, the pilot will head up in a clocking wind and fall off in a backing wind and it will maintain the same angle. Over time, you sit and watch the COG, course over the ground, and see if it is hitting the destination. If it is not, then you adjust your pilot wind angle to plus 5 to plus 10 or minus 5 or 10. Then re-trim the sails for this and stand watch. Here are some screens to show this setup.

Here you can see the pilot on the left is holding a wind angle of 140. Radar is in the center showing no red targets dead ahead. On the right you can see SOG of 6 knots, COG of 295, ETA 6:45 am. The current time is 19:53 and we need to steer 5 degrees left right now. Well, that is right on course for ocean sailing.
The wind over the past hour was at a compass heading of 061 left and 092 right. That is a 30-degree wind shift! WOW, the average wind direction was 076. On the right is the speed, a low of 11.9 knots, a high of 19.1 knots, avg 15,5 knots. This is why we sail on wind vane steering, the sails remain trimmed all night long.
Here is one capture of mighty Island Spirit 35 surfing at 8.0 knots of SOG!!!! We saw a high of 9,6 knots and felt out of control. I thought the bow wave and side waves were coming over the deck as the boat was pushed down so hard. Of course, this always happens at night!

Safe Arrival in BVI

As planned, the sun came up as we approached the British Virgin Islands. We along with our buddy boat, IP40 SUNKISSED, Nina and John surfed past Salt Island and then into Sir Francis Drake Passage. From there, we motor sailed downwind to West End where we jumped through all the hoops to check into the many offices of the BVI. Two hours later, we were cleared in.

Island Packet 40 SUNKISSED surfs into the BVI from sea
Island Spirit sees the BVI from sea as the morning sun illuminates the islands. A beautiful sight to see.
Sailing side by side most of the night, we both entered the BVI at Salt Island, a nice wide opening.

First stop, Of course, the BEYC!

After check-in at 11 am, we had decided to motor up to our #1 happy place, The Bitter End Yacht Club to celebrate my (Hayden’s) birthday. We have spent many vacations here. The weather report was to be windier the next day, so we powered up to BEYC and took mooring ball #2 and spent a week. What a joy. Our next blog post will a full report on the BEYC rebuild and Saba Rock.

Hayden raises the British Virgin Islands Flag off the Bitter End Yacht Club on Feb 9, 2021.
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9 Replies to “Sailing Saint Maarten to BVI”

  1. Thanks for the posts Hayden. Takes a bit of courage (and trust) to sail into the darkness of night under those conditions. Staying that close to the larger IP 40 also deserves kudos. Art

  2. What a great sail although I”m sure there were a few times when you were torn between reefing in the jib a bit or “enjoying” the ride.
    Of course it was at night but at least there was no rain or hail or lightening to add a bit more excitement….and where was the moon anyhow?

    Good to hear that you are now planning to come back next year…but are you still gonna bring the boat back to Rock Hall or leave it in PR again?

  3. Thanks for another great post, Hayden. I also love the electronic wind vane autopilot feature. Going deep downwind, it adds another safety layer in preventing a catastrophic jibe. I use Raymarine on Flying Fish, and it has been flawless, but I am also very impressed with the data options available on the B&G electronics.

  4. Once again, thanks for taking us along on the ride. Indeed it sounds like it was a wild one! Sailing at night was never one of my favorites and that black out picture reminds me why! Sail on friends. Enjoy your time in the BVI.

  5. So glad you had no unexpected bad weather at night. I don’t like sailing into blackness – never have, never will. I think part of it is coastal sailing conditions with currents, other boat traffic and lightening storms. The worst. But I’m glad you’re safe and making good progress and enjoying both land and sea!

  6. Your posting about going from the FWIs to BVIs was wonderful and filled refreshed my old brain with many cool memories! Wow! We have the PROMASTER parked in friends drive here in Story, Wyoming at the east foot of the Bighorn Mountains, for an overnight snow storm and currently -2 temperatures.
    You guys are way braver than us, your ‘chicken sailor’ friends. We were afraid to leave mainsail up overnight in milder conditions going to and from Europe on much milder nights. Your photo out your window before leaving St Maarten is such a joy. Love to you both from cold Wyoming.

  7. What a great wild ride! Not sure I would ever be able to leave Saint Maarten, especially with all that great food. Surfing in a IP? Wow!! Hard to imagine. The only way we’ve ever seen 9+ knots is in the Gulf Stream or the Cape Cod Canal. Really great to follow your adventures. Thanks for sharing!

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