Navigating the Tobago Cays

Photo by crewmember Nick W., taken from the masthead!

Photo by crewmember Nick W., taken from the masthead!

Nick’s at the helm. Harold, Rob & I hoist the mainsail, still attached to the mooring. We’re secured far into Admiralty Bay in Bequia, so it’s tight, but we’re on the outside row of boats. The big tanker that supplies the island’s diesel is anchored just opposite on the far side of the ferry channel.

The plan is to drop the port mooring line first - this ought to blow the boat to port. Once aimed into the channel, we’ll sheet home the mainsail, drop the starboard line and sail upwind, tacking just before the ferry dock and swing her around downwind, now with some way on, set the genoa and ghost out of the bay.

Except that doesn’t happen at all. Harold and Rob, now done at the main halyard, move forward and drop the port line. Mia & Sara sit on the afterdeck, navigating. Just then a puff comes to swing the bow to port, as planed. ‘Let go the starboard line!’ I shout from the cockpit. But it’s hooked on the sharp tip of the anchor. The delay in freeing it is just enough to swing the boat head to wind. The mainsail grabs on the port tack - oops - and we swing off to starboard, toward the other moored boats and the reef. I slack the sheet, letting it run to the knot, and the bow swings easily to starboard, Isbjorn essentially pivoting on her keel, no way on yet. I think we’ll actually make it around, but crank the engine just in case we don’t.

Sideways to the wind, the mainsheet is at the knot. With wind in the sail, we start to accelerate. I think we can thread through the first two moored boats, then jibe and slide out into the channel. Just beyond though lies the inner reef, in the center of the mooring field, right where we’re pointed.

I slam the engine full astern, fighting the light wind in the mainsail which by now is fully eased and pinned to the rigging. She stops, then starts going astern ever so slowly and towards the channel. The crew centers the mainsail and we jibe her over, still in reverse, and ease her out on the starboard tack, pointing the bow towards the big cruise liner that arrived overnight and whose anchored at the harbor entrance.

Certainly more drama than I’d have liked, and a big eff-up on my part. But another learning experience. I was too quick to order the starboard mooring line released - I should have checked that it was clear first, and it nearly cost us, dearly. We had one shot to sail off that mooring without the engine’s help, and starboard tack was the only shot. Once the mainsail backed, we were doomed.

We make up for it. Rob & Sara navigate the route into Tobago Cays without GPS - old-school, hand-bearing compasses and a paper chart are their only allowed tools. They take bearings off Bequia, Mustique and Canoan as we sail south by west, reaching 8.5 knots at times on a beam reach, Isbjorn’s favorite point. Abeam of the east cardinal buoy at Jondell rocks, we take back bearings - 308ºM let us harden up the sheets and bring her up towards Petit Rameau and Petit Bateaux.

Harold trims the mainsail, with two reefs in her now to slow us down, and Nick furls 1/3 of the genoa to further check our speed. We hit the bearing and overstand slightly, knowing there’s more water to the south and exercising caution to avoid One Fathom Bank, just south of Baleine Rocks, which mark the eastern entrance to the Cays, about a half mile away.

We almost lay the course. Isbjorn tacks onto starboard, out towards Horseshoe Reef, to gain some searoom. The sun is high in the south, so the water, especially over the sandy patches of shallows, is fluorescent. Short of the shallows to the north - we’re hemmed in now, inside the reefs, with dangers on all sides - Isbjorn tacks back onto port, able to lay the first anchorage now in the cut between Rameau and Bateaux. Isbjorn stands in past a classic wooden sloop, sailing as close to the shore as we dare, then tacking onto starboard towards the reef at the last second. Deeply reefed, Isbjorn still makes 6.5 knots upwind, perfectly balanced and in control.

The channel around Rameau is narrow, and dead to weather. We short-tack twice, never topping 3.5 knots of boat speed. I’m nervous Isbjorn won't have enough way on to get her bows through the eye of the wind. But the old girl is still nimble, and she comes right around, slowly but surely, her heavy displacement giving her momentum through the tacks, even under-canvassed. Isbjorn clears the northern reef off Rameau and we ease the sheets to coast down Hoof Channel, to windward of Rameau. 

Horeshoe Reef spreads out to the east and all around us in a kaleidoscope of colors. Baradel sits lonely in the middle, a tiny bump of an island with a finger of white sandy beach projecting east. A couple dozen boats are anchored in bright green, almost electric water over the shallow sandy areas. Local ‘boat boys’ ply the waters in their colorful, outboard powered skiffs. Traffa hails us from his ‘Desperado’ and easily convinces us to join him ashore for a beach BBQ later that evening.

We furl the genoa and pull up in the deeper water at the back of the anchorage, dropping the mainsail and the anchor almost simultaneously behind a big Oyster, making up gracefully for our botched departure earlier in the day.