The End of the Thorny Path

We left Antigua on Monday, 25 September, with such high hopes. Since departing Miami in February, Corroboree has been treading what cruising sailors call the Thorny Path. From the Bahamas to the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico and down the Caribbean Islands, it’s roughly a 1,700-mile slog to windward, sometimes lolling in airless heat with the sails flapping and motor droning, more often reefed, close hauled and plowing through heaving swells that slam your hull—bam, bam, bam!—like a prizefighter aiming for a knockout punch.

But once a boat reaches Antigua, the islands curve gently southward, and with the prevailing eastern trades, a yacht should enjoy a brisk and comfortable beam reach for the last 300 miles to Grenada. And that first morning out, we were rewarded. Despite a strange, pale haze obscuring the sky, once we cleared the wind shadow of the island, we encountered a steady east wind of about 15-20 knots and manageable seas. We started clicking off miles, and both we and Corroboree jumped for joy as our speed exceeded 5, then 6 and sometimes 7 knots. On most of our Thorny Passage legs we had done well to make 4; on our worst days, we made 2 even while motorsailing. By sundown we were nearing Guadeloupe, and the ride was so smooth, I was able to fix us a nice dinner of canned minestrone soup augmented with fresh zucchini, onions and spinach and topped with cheese. Many nights on the Thorny Path, the best we could muster was a PBJ sandwich.

Then about 2200, the wind changed. This often happens at nightfall and again at daybreak when the air temperature alternately cools and rises. It’s as if the wind has to reset itself from daylight to dark, and in the islands, the effect is amplified by the way the wind curves around the mountain peaks. By midnight Corroboree was bouncing and jouncing in 20 knots from the southeast, and we had to reef the mainsail in the dark, a somewhat worrisome task. We beat into the wind till dawn, neither of us getting much sleep off-watch and passing Guadeloupe and Iles des Saintes in the dark. Iles des Saintes had been a memorable stop on Duprass forty years ago, and we would have liked to revisit. But after weathering three hurricanes in two weeks in Antigua—Irma, Jose, Maria—we didn’t want to tempt fate by lingering in the hurricane belt any longer than necessary.

Tuesday morning found us near the north end of Dominica, though it was already a given we wouldn’t stop there. Having just been demolished by Maria, the island was in no condition to receive transient boats. Sadly, looting had also broken out, to the point that men in pirogues were attacking some yachts that ventured to Dominica carrying relief supplies. What a black mark for their country, perpetrated by a small number of evil people, when the rest of the population was suffering horribly. Troops from other nations were said to be arriving to take control of the situation.

As it happened, sailing ten miles offshore, we couldn’t even see mountainous Dominica, thanks to another day of gauzy haze. As if in sympathy with the island’s misery, the wind died as well, and Corroboree began to roll in place. Except, not in place. We now discovered a contrary current was setting us off course. Frustrated and infuriated, we coaxed the sails this way and that, trying to catch the least puff of air. Finally, we threw in the towel, turned on the engine, and motorsailed for the next four hours. Gradually, the wind reappeared a tad more to the east and our speed resumed, though still mostly a beat.

At which point, I made a stupid mistake. Not having been seasick during the first 24 hours, I assumed my stomach was now well adjusted to the boat’s motion. We ate lunch—bread with hummus and tomato slices and some fruit juice—and I went below for a nap while Eric steered. Better to have stayed in the open air till the meal digested. Ten minutes later I had to bolt back up to the cockpit and puke into a bucket. Later that afternoon, a second bout of barfing hit. Now I had to sail the rest of the day and overnight on an empty stomach, tired and restricted to a diet of water and soda crackers. Eric, by the way, has never once gotten seasick on either of our voyages in even the worst conditions. You can imagine how I envy him that.

Meanwhile, we passed Martinique, also invisible in the haze, and approached St. Lucia as night fell. The haze lifted, and once again reefed and making good speed, we glided along under a three-quarter moon. Ashore, lights climbed up the mountainside, white and golden yellow with a sprinkling of other colors, red, blue, green. I love this part of sailing. The Caribbean islands at night are like giant geodes, cracked open and sparkling under Nature’s own black light.

By Wednesday morning, Corroboree was skipping past St. Vincent when Eric yelled, “A whale!” And there it was, not 20’ off our port side, the black dorsal fin of a humpback, our first whale sighting of the voyage. Eric had assumed it was a floating log until he saw the head come out of the water and saw the whale spray. Heading north, the whale crested once more, then flipped up its tail and disappeared. With our spirits now in the stratosphere—a whale!—we had every reason to believe our last stretch on the Thorny Path would be rosy after all.

Bequia Video for Computer

No such luck. With only 65 miles to go, we had already determined to take a rest stop at Bequia to avoid making a night landfall at Grenada. In the channel between St. Vincent and Bequia, a squall hit. We saw it coming and donned our foul weather jackets but weren’t quick enough to lower the jib before it struck. The wind and rain gave us a whacking, bending the jib boom and ripping out a batten pocket. Eric finally wrestled the jib down, and when the squall passed we motorsailed into Bequia’s Admiralty Bay. After clearing in with Customs, we took a quick stroll around town. We had spent a boisterous New Year’s Eve 1977 in Bequia, partying with the other cruisers, and we eagerly promised ourselves a full exploration the next day.

It was not to be. We awoke Thursday morning to drenching rain. Worse, we had somehow neglected to close the porthole over the navigation station before hitting the sack. Now that area was soaked—seat cushions, equipment, papers—and since it was pouring outside, we couldn’t spread the wet items in the cockpit to dry. Nor could we charge our batteries via the solar panels—a rare instance of no sun all day—limiting our power supply. To add injury to insult, the gusty wind had blown the tied-down solar panels just far enough over the back of the bimini frame to inflict a surface crack on one of them. It took more lines and a new tie-down scheme to re-secure them, devised and enacted in the still unrelenting rain.

Misery! Cooped up in a damp boat in an all-day downpour with wet gear strewn around us and a growing list of new boat repairs. We did the only thing we could think of to cheer ourselves up—turned on our phone and called our dear friends, longtime cruising sailors Bob and Joan back in Florida. It’s amazing what a bit of camaraderie can do for your spirits. That, and a little bit of Mount Gay rum.

On Friday the weather cleared, and in the afternoon, Corroboree dried out at last, we went ashore. Though Bequia has naturally changed since our previous visit, the pace of development has been slower than elsewhere, and the town and waterfront felt familiar. A nice surprise was finding the Friendship Rose, the old wood schooner that served as the ferry to St. Vincent forty years ago, still moored in the harbor. Now replaced by several modern ferries, she takes visitors on day trips and charters. We also followed signs to a museum dedicated to Bequia’s maritime heritage but found the small building closed and For Rent sign on the locked gate. From about 1875 on, Bequia had been a whaling center and some whaling is still practiced there. I’m glad the humpback we saw has escaped, so far.

Scenes from Bequia:

We sailed out of Admiralty Bay that evening on a beautiful sunset. Surely, surely, this last 65 miles to Grenada would give us a break. Instead, ten minutes later we were in another squall and, long story short, we and the sails were up and down all night and the motor was off and on. This being sunup on Saturday morning, we needed to get into port at St. George’s, Grenada, before noon when Customs/Immigration closes for the rest of the weekend.

Make it we did, and after a long day of cleaning up ourselves and Corroboree, we celebrated with a delicious mushroom fettucine al fredo at the marina restaurant. I’m sure there will be more tough sailing ahead. But for the moment we are safe and dry on the beautiful island of Grenada. Now 2,000 miles from our starting point in St. Augustine, we toasted our arrival at the end of the Thorny Path.