Now that you are here reading this article, it is important to understand that there are NOT a terribly high number of dangers likely to occur while sailing in the Caribbean. Despite the ease of finding horror stories on the internet, truly dangerous experiences are the exception and not the norm. Many factors can play into your experience of sailing the Caribbean, the majority of which are determined by a few issues of common sense, preparedness (or lack thereof), and practical abilities. Let us consider the following thoughts and counsel for avoiding unwanted fear and danger during a typical sailing experience in the Caribbean.
Whether you are hiring a captain, going on a day cruise, or bareboat chartering (renting a sailboat on your own), it is important to understand the region you will be cruising in. Learn about the Caribbean islands you will be sailing in. If bareboat sailing is your primary goal, it will be to your benefit to know the seas you will be sailing upon. Know the geography of the island coastlines you will visit. Is it an area of regularly rough seas? Are there sheltered anchorages? Are there evident tides? How do the currents run? What season are you sailing in, or into? Avoiding hurricane season is the easiest way to avoid the greatest of natural dangers that sailing in the Caribbean can present. Educate yourself about the culture and the hospitality of the people you will interact with. This is the easiest way to make your arrival in a foreign land free from stress and anxiety. Sailing in the Caribbean is a popular tourism feature of many islands and trying to be that “good” sailing tourist will likely make your experience more positive.
Upon boarding any sailboat, one of the first things to acquaint yourself with is the location of safety equipment. Life vests, lifeboat, lifebuoys, dinghy, radio, EPIRB, satellite phone, navigation tools, and anything else that can potentially save your life in a dangerous situation, all need to be noted of where they are stored and how they work. Obviously, if your time of sailing in the Caribbean is with a crewed sailboat, the captain and crew will have given you the standard tour of safety features of the boat and how to utilize the life vests if they are required. It is to your ultimate benefit to listen attentively to the captain’s instructions as situations can occur suddenly and without warning while sailing in the Caribbean.
Of primary importance before and during sailing in the Caribbean, is to check the weather, wind, currents, and sailing forecasts. There are many different weather apps to download onto your phone or navigational tools that will keep you informed of changing conditions and weather patterns to look out for in the hours ahead. No weather forecast is perfectly accurate but regularly consulting these forecasts may help you be prepared for potential surprises. Certainly, seasoned sailors will be able to read and sense what is on the horizon just by looking with their own eyes, but the technology available at our fingertips is a definite help to avoiding sudden weather fiascos.
There are many benefits to owning charts and a guidebook to sailing in the Caribbean, but one of the best is when it comes time to choosing an anchorage. Knowing charted depths, charted navigational aids and hazards, reading about the facilities available in each port, suggestions for choosing the most comfortable mooring spot, and a basic level of safety in certain anchorages, all result in making your sailing experience in the Caribbean relaxed and enjoyable. It may be tempting to anchor in that pristine isolated bay, however, there is wisdom in the old saying of “safety in numbers”. The reality of life in today’s world is that being isolated from others may make you more vulnerable to an unwanted boarding of strangers, theft, and even danger of assault. These things can happen even in the most popular anchorages with plenty of other boats around you, but it is less likely when perpetrators risk being seen by others. However, there are certain precautions one can take to protect ourselves, whether anchoring alone or with others nearby.
Most crimes on sailboats take place during the darkness hours if you are anchored in a place with others around you. It is wise to hoist and secure all boarding ladders once you have finished utilizing them, day or night. Dinghies, canoes, and kayaks should be secured on board to reduce the risk of theft and/or a means of gaining access to the deck more easily. If air conditioning is an option on your boat, it is best to lock the entry points to below deck. However, if there is a need for fresh air circulation, at least try to lock the easiest entry access to below deck (the main hatch), and leave portholes and skylights open to keep you cooler. Making access to all cabins difficult is the goal to feeling secure and sleeping well.
In the case that someone does succeed in unwantedly boarding your boat, despite your best efforts to secure yourself and your boat, it may be helpful to have an alternative place from your “real” location of locked and secured valuables. A regulation safe may be installed in a secret place on board, which would hold most of your cash, valuable jewelry, important documents, and perhaps even weapons of defense. These are items that will be accessible to you in times of organized necessity. Most unwanted boarding’s do not have the luxury of time to access a weapon of protection. A more visible, locked location, for quick access when being forced to hand over money, passport, credit cards, etc., is useful for the protection of your life. The wisest action in these situations is to give the criminals the things which they desire to steal. Trying to overpower them or deny them may lead to violence. Most things are replaceable, and nothing is worth getting hurt or killed over.
This may seem obvious but too often we become careless and forgetful, setting ourselves up for disappointment and inconvenience when we return to our vessel, only to find that it has been burglarized because we forgot to close and lock the hatches. Many sailors would advise us not to put the name of our boat on our dinghies, thereby not alerting dishonest people on shore as to when we are not on board. Many bareboat charter groups always leave someone on board to keep watch for unexpected circumstances like unwanted boarding or dragging anchor. Always take your keys with you, for your dinghy and your boat. Dogs provide great security for sailboats and there are many cases where a barking dog has saved a sailor from unexpectedly finding themselves in a dangerous situation.
Many other unexpected things can occur while sailing the Caribbean, things that can be a danger to lives and boats. We have covered but a few of the typical situations that can be avoided, particularly when sailing as a holiday adventure is the primary goal. Engine failures, dragging anchors, broken stays, ripped sails, damaged rudders, and similar types of boat problems are also considered dangerous if unexpected. Know your abilities and plan. Are you prepared with the basic tools to be able to fix typical boat issues? Do you have back-up navigational tools if technology fails you? If you know your abilities, plan ahead in thought and practical preparation of equipment, always are aware of your surroundings on land, at anchor or sea, and optimally, stay calm in times of stress…sailing the Caribbean will be an experience you will return to time and time again!!