A tropical storm

Sam Fortescue recalls an exhilarating sail in the Caribbean.

Sam Fortescue recalls an exhilarating sail in the Caribbean.

Sailing is most fun, we are all told, when you stay warm and dry, the sea is benign and the wind a balmy Force 4-5. This I know to be untrue from previous cruises, but my view was confirmed once again during a recent sailing holiday out west.

OK, so it was a fair way west, and south too – Antigua, to be more precise. But even to a seasoned Caribbean sailor, the auguries were not good: leaden grey clouds marched over Green Island, where the rising surf was booming on the reef to windward. Every now and then the background would disappear entirely as a sheet of heavy rain swept through, deadening the dancing waters of the bay. Even the pelicans were tucked up in their roosts looking mournful.

No time to waste

But not us. We had a brief seven days in which to efface all signs of winter, top up on vitamin D, sailing-based adrenaline and achieve a half-decent suntan. There was no time to waste. A few baleful eyes watched us as we weighed anchor – fellow yachties no doubt assuming that we planned to scuttle back into Falmouth Harbour to prop up the bar at the Antigua Yacht Club. In fact, we had an 82nM passage south-southeast to the French dependency of Marie Galante.

We had to gun the throttle to breast the seas coming in over the shallow bar before unfurling the main and a scrap of genoa for the beat into about 20 knots of wind.

Heading offshore from this wilder end of Antigua feels not dissimilar to setting out across Biscay – at least until Guadeloupe, the next island to the south, finally hoves into view.

Long before that could happen, though, the radar was reporting a mile-deep, 10-mile long squall front which was only too clear to the naked eye in the form of a large wall of bruised grey up ahead. The wind dropped in front of the system and we took the opportunity to put a few more turns in the genoa and the main. Wiser members of the crew donned their sailing jackets. I’d left mine at home out of principle.

Whooping with delight

When the wind finally returned, it did so with a hearty downpour that whipped in under the bimini. It climbed to 35 knots across the deck; my pockets began to fill with rain (warm rain) and I found myself leaning to windward, squinting up at the telltales on the mainsail and whooping with delight. The boat – all 67ft and 50t of her – carved a steady line through the white-tops, rising up to shoulder aside each hump of swell, which had marched 3,000 miles from the coast of Africa to meet us. The motion was mesmeric; with only a light touch on the helm, the boat accelerated to 10 knots, 11.

When we finally popped out of the back wall of the squall, I was soaked to the skin and practically singing with delight. We caught our first glimpse of the north coast of Guadeloupe under fluffy clouds. Behind us, Antigua disappeared under the storm clouds like a small boat foundering among rocks.

Sailing, I thought once more, is very much about getting cold(ish) and wet.

Sam Fortescue, Editor Sailing Today