Sailboat cruising in the Caribbean, or anywhere along the Tropics, presents its own set of challenges unique to the region. What is the best cruising boat for the Caribbean? Read on…
The temperature is hot, humidity is always high and when the rains come it’s very wet. Heat, water, and humidity mixed with salty sea air is a recipe for deterioration and corrosion not to mention it can make for an uncomfortable stay if you’re on the wrong boat.
What’s a ‘wrong’ boat?
In the Caribbean, substantial seasonal winds come and go and each island creates a situation of interesting wind patterns that can often be gusty and erratic. In addition to the wind patterns, there are waves, tidal flows, and currents that create a wide variety of sailing conditions. The same passage is never really the same.
One day it might be blowing 15 knots and the next it could be gusting up to 35 knots.
When choosing the right cruising boat it’s important to consider the cruising grounds you’re going to spend most of your time in. A boat that is great for cruising, say the Bahamas, may not be a great boat for doing a circumnavigation. Make sure to read ‘What’s The Best Sailboat For Cruising?’
That being noted, there are at least 10 factors that need to be considered when purchasing a boat with the intention of sailing the tropics. Here they are:
Top 10 Must-Haves: The Best Cruising Boat For The Caribbean
1. Proper ventilation and breeze flow
In the Caribbean, it’s imperative that a constant breeze is flowing through the boat at all times. Lack of air circulation causes mold and mildew to grow in hours. Furthermore, it’s hot. With the sun beating down on a boat, you’ll want to ensure that the vents, windows, and outdoor areas are open to the fresh breeze. Boats that fail to have forward facing windows, good vents and fans to circulate become hot boxes.
The good news is that when anchored or on a mooring ball in the Tropics a boat will always be facing the wind. To make use of that excellent position you’ll want to ensure air flow is going through the boat and reaching around to the outdoor seating area or cockpit.
Windsocks and rain protected side windows can help a poorly ventilated boat. And it’s possible to back into a mooring ball attaching the stern rather than the bow but overall it’s key that the air is flowing strong. Many of our Catamaran friends complain that their biggest issue is not having good air flow.
2. A boat that can point close to the wind
The majority of time spent sailing in the Caribbean you’ll be close hauled or on a reach. Having a boat that can point close to the wind is a key factor if you like to spend less time sailing and more time on anchor drinking your cocktails.
3. Draft consideration
If you’re going to include the Bahamas as part of the Caribbean having a low draft or lifting keel is ideal. There are still plenty of anchorages you can visit with a moderate and even deep keel but they’re limited. And in many cases, you’ll have to anchor quite a distance from land. If, however, you want to do the entire island chain any draft will work. Our draft is 8’ and we’ve enjoyed anchorages from Florida down to Trinidad. The only area we really had to take it slow was the Bahamas. The rest of the Caribbean is rather deep.
4. Easy-to-reef rig configuration
Rarely do we have a passage where we’re not reducing our headsail and/or spilling or main. When sailing along the islands the gusts of winds coming off the land can be severe and in-between the islands the waters get rather turbulent and the winds blow stronger.
Ideally, the easiest and safest confutation for sailing in the Caribbean is to be able to tend to sails from the safety of the cockpit. That means that you’ll want furling headsail(s) and a furling main from the boom or the mast.
On our rig, I have to go to the mast to raise, reef and lower the mainsail. Having to go on deck during a storm is not fun. In several cases, if I didn’t have a life-line strapping me to the mast I would have gone overboard. In hindsight would I change our rigging configuration?! YES.
5. Wind, sea and sun protection
When newcomers first start cruising many of them underestimate the time longer-term cruisers spend avoiding the sun. Sun avoidance becomes a daily chore. For a boat in the Caribbean, it’s important to have a high-quality waterproof Bimini, side and back panels (to add on at the anchorage) and a strong spray hood. Having to helm in the open sun or without protection from the wind and sea spray is hell. It’s important to make sure that there’s ample amount of space in the cockpit to be out of the elements but not a full enclosure as fresh air is required to keep the temperature to an acceptable level.
Extra tip: the Bimini and spray hood are hugely important but not at the detriment of being able to see forward. Whatever boat you’re looking at make sure you can comfortably sit or stand at the helm and see forward. One of the big complaints I’ve heard from boaters is that the top of the spray hood is right at their eye line making it a pain to comfortably look forward.
6. Spacious, comfortable cockpit
Considering that the weather is almost always beautiful in the Caribbean you’ll spend a great bulk of your time in the cockpit (if you have a good breeze going through to the cockpit!). Whether you’re sailing, enjoying meals or entertaining the cockpit is equivalent to the kitchen on land – it’s where everyone congregates.
That being said, you’ll want the cockpit to be comfortable while sailing and when stationary. To be comfortable I need to lay down quite a bit of the time when we’re sailing (I get seasick – that’s nuts, isn’t it?). Our cockpit has very long side benches with memory foam cushions, a beanbag and loads of pillows. The area around our cockpit table is narrow so there’s no large empty space in the cockpit to fall around when on a steep heel.
From the cockpit, all passengers can easily see forward making it easy to keep an eye on what’s around us.
7. Shower off the back of the boat
This might seem like an insignificant option but don’t underestimate the many benefits of a simple small hose offering fresh water at the back of the boat!
- Less water is used if someone showers after already being in the sea. They just have to lather up and rinse with fresh water.
- Someone that is wet with sea water that walks through the boat leaves a trail of salt water. Salt water corrodes everything and it stinks terribly. Avoid getting salt water anywhere inside the boat at all costs.
- People that visit you will often get on the boat at the back – either the catamaran stairs or the sugar scoop. That’s where all the sand, dirty feet marks, and salt water congregates. With a freshwater hose, you can easily wash it off. (As a side tip, some people put a kitty litter tray at the back of the boat with fresh water where people can dip their feet into it before walking onto the boat).
- Taking showers in the heads on a boat increases moisture, condensation and ultimately causes a breeding ground for mold. The less you show in the head the easier is to keep them clean and smelling good.
8. Modern Anchor and adequate anchor chain
During our 2018 sailing season, the number one biggest reason for newcomers to have a less than desirable cruising experience came down to having bad anchors and/or not enough chain. Can you imagine finally getting out to live the dream and then you drag on your anchor during the middle of the night? At best the experience is scary at worst the boat is wrecked.
A good modern anchor is a Mantus or a Rocna. These anchors are much better than the older generation anchors at digging in and holding tight in a variety of seabed types. Regarding the amount of chain to have, we usually never anchor in any depth over 10 meters or about 30’ but on a few occasions we have had to go up to 15 meters or 45’. We always put out a scope of 5x the depth so the most chain we’ll use (ideally) is 225’. We only have 210’ on Britican so on occasion I put everything we’ve got out.
No matter what boat you choose that’s right for you, it’s imperative to make sure the anchor suits the boat adequately.
Having a watermaker isn’t imperative but it’s nice to have. Instead of having to go into marina’s every couple weeks or carrying bladders of water to and from a water station it’s nice to just flip a switch. Furthermore, on some Caribbean islands water is not only expensive but sometimes you can’t even drink it. I know people that have paid good money for non-potable water!
Watermakers, however, are not devoid of issues. They require quite a bit of upkeep and they seem to be the one bit of kit that’s often breaking.
If your plan is to anchor for long durations having a watermaker will be quite a convenience. If, however, you’re going to move about a lot and/or are going to stay in marinas more often then not, a watermaker isn’t important.
10. Antifoul paint for high growth areas
The Caribbean is a high growth area for hull creatures. Most boaters have to reapply antifoul paint every year. That means that every year the boat must come out, dry up a bit and have a new coat of paint applied.
There are a variety of paints. Interestingly there’s one paint that’s made in America but it’s illegal to buy there so you can get it elsewhere. Apparently, none of the ablative paints (slowly wear off) are good for the environment so it’s a matter of finding a paint that does the job and is something you feel okay about.
We have CopperCoat which is not ablative. In theory, you are supposed to be able to put it on and not have to touch your hull for five to eight years. For us, however, CopperCoat has NOT worked. We now have extremely expensive antifoul paint that doesn’t work.
The best thing you can do is determine where you’ll spend most of your time and ask around other boaties to see what works the best in that particular area.
If you’re interested in getting more information about how to choose the right sailboat, check out our Sailboat Buying Guide.