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Heading for the Caribbean: Crossing from Canada outside hurricane season

Updated: May 14

The call of the Caribbean is irresistible, with its turquoise waters, sandy beaches, and vibrant, colorful culture.

For many sailors, a descent to these paradise islands from Canada represents the realization of a dream.

We were lucky enough to spend 3 months in the turquoise waters of Guadeloupe during a stopover on our Tahiti-to-Quebec sail, and can't wait to return.

To see Venus sailing again in the warm waters of the West Indies would be the reward for all the hard work we've put in over the last two years on board!

Naviguer vers les caraïbes

A heavenly moment with Venus anchored off the reef.

 

However, it's crucial to consider the potential risks before embarking on a sail from Canada's east coast to the Caribbean. One of the major dangers is the possibility of hurricanes. The North Atlantic hurricane season, which officially runs from June to November, poses a major threat to navigation.

 

Why avoid hurricane season?

Hurricanes are tropical storms of unimaginable power. Categorized as such from a wind speed of 120 km/h, these storms can generate winds in excess of 250 km/h, torrential rains, and monstrous waves that can reach several dozen meters in height. Faced with such forces of nature, even the sturdiest boats are no match.

 

Sailing during hurricane season means..:

  • Sailing in extreme weather conditions, jeopardizing the safety of those on board and the integrity of the boat.

  • Facing gigantic waves and violent winds, which can submerge the boat, rip off sails and break equipment.

  • Facing port closures, limiting options for shelter and provisioning in case of danger.

  • Facing insurance difficulties, or even the impossibility of taking out insurance, as companies fear the risks associated with hurricanes.

In short, all good reasons not to find yourself in this situation. But when to get off?


 

Sailing to the Caribbean out of season

In principle, the period from December to May generally offers much more favorable sailing conditions, with calmer winds, more clement seas, and pleasant temperatures.


However, leaving Canada's cold waters in December is almost crazy.


From October-November onwards, you can expect to experience winter storms in this part of the North Atlantic, with violent gales and deformed seas.


As winter progresses, the temperature difference between air and water in the Gulf Stream increases. This temperature difference can cause extremely difficult conditions in this area, especially when a cold northerly wind meets a warm northerly current.


In short, still not ideal. So what to do?

 

The in-between: a possible compromise

When sailing to the Caribbean from Quebec, the window of opportunity is a compromise: not too late to avoid winter conditions, not too late to avoid hurricanes.

This period is often between October and November, depending on the year, the yacht and the itinerary.


There are several possible routes for this crossing:


Route 1: The East American coast.

Departing from Nova Scotia, you can sail along the Canadian coast, then along the U.S. East Coast before crossing the Gulf Stream to the West Indies.


Advantages:

Favorable current: Along the Canadian coast, the Gulf Stream can have a return arm running south along the coast, which can help cover the distance at a good speed. This favorable current can considerably reduce sailing time.

Multiple ports of call: You can make stops along the way, either at anchor or in the various ports. This allows you to stock up on food and water, and to rest.

Storm protection: In the event of a storm or hurricane, you can take refuge in one of the many harbors along the coast. This offers added safety for the crew and boat.


Disadvantages:

Longer distance: The distance between Canada and the West Indies is longer along the East American coast, around 2,000 nautical miles versus 1,500 nautical miles for the more direct routes.

Administrative formalities: Visas and customs formalities are required to enter the United States. This can be time-consuming and costly. U.S. maritime laws may also require modifications to boats (e.g. mandatory black water tanks).

Hurricane risk: During a hurricane, it can be dangerous to be “stuck” near the coast.

Route 2: Bermuda

Bermuda is practically halfway between Nova Scotia and the West Indies.


Advantages:

Direct route: The route via Bermuda offers a more direct route to the West Indies, reducing the total distance to be covered.

Possible stopover: Bermuda is an interesting stopover en route, allowing you to refuel and rest.

Weather flexibility: The route via Bermuda offers flexibility to sail in the best weather windows. This helps to avoid storms and optimize sailing time.


Disadvantages:

Limited protection: As a low-lying island, Bermuda offers limited shelter in the event of a hurricane.

Administrative formalities: Visas and customs formalities are required to enter Bermuda. This can be time-consuming and costly.

Potential cost: A stopover in Bermuda may entail additional costs for anchorage, marinas and provisions.

Route 3: The direct route

The direct route is approximately 1,500 nautical miles and offers a complete offshore experience, allowing total immersion in the beauty and power of the ocean.


Advantages:

Shortest route: The direct route is the shortest route between Canada and the West Indies, approximately 1,500 nautical miles.

Possible stopovers: Although the direct route has no scheduled stopovers, it is always possible to stop in Bermuda if necessary, for example for repairs or a medical emergency.

Time savings: The direct route saves time compared with longer routes, which can be important for sailors with tight schedules.


Disadvantages:

Narrow weather window: The direct route offers a narrower weather window for sailing in good conditions.

Risk of hurricanes at sea: On the direct route, the risk of encountering a hurricane at sea is higher than on coastal routes. It's crucial to have a well-equipped boat and to know how to react in the event of a storm.

Less flexibility: The direct route offers less flexibility to change itinerary in the event of unforeseen circumstances. If adverse weather conditions occur, it can be difficult to find shelter along the direct route.

My first ocean experience was as a crew member on a Volvo 60 on a delivery trip from Halifax to Antigua, with a stopover in Bermuda. The start was at the end of November, and although I only sailed the section from Bermuda to Antigua, conditions were far from easy. We were buffeted by waves and strong winds for over 60 hours, wet to the skin by incessant rain as we raced south at nearly 20 knots.


This crossing from Bermuda to Antigua was an unforgettable experience that will stay with me forever! It was a sailing experience that forced me to push my physical and mental limits, and I still remember it as a mixture of adrenalin, admiration, and exhaustion.

Preparing for sailing

To sail safely to the Caribbean, careful preparation is essential, as it is for all sailing.

  • Choose the right date: The ideal time to sail to the Caribbean is generally between October and November.

  • Keep a close eye on the weather: Keep abreast of weather forecasts and potential storm warnings.

  • Select a suitable route: Choose a route that suits your yacht, your crew's experience, the time available and the forecasted weather conditions.

  • Prepare the boat: Make sure your boat is in perfect condition and equipped to cope with strong winds. Check that the rigging, electrical system and engine are sound. Don't forget to take along and check safety equipment such as life jackets, distress flares, life raft and communication system to ensure that everything is reliable.

  • Have the necessary navigation skills: In the face of potentially rough conditions, make sure you've mastered the techniques of navigation in difficult conditions and know how to react in an emergency.


A particularly active 2024 hurricane season?

It's always difficult to predict the hurricane season with any certainty in advance. However, a number of indicators suggest that your seasons will be more or less active.


  • La Niña or El Niño: The state of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle in the equatorial Pacific Ocean influences cyclonic activity in the Atlantic. The presence of a La Niña phenomenon tends to be correlated with increased cyclonic activity in the Atlantic, while El Niño generally has the opposite effect.

  • Warm sea surface temperatures: Sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic are currently above average. Warmer waters provide more energy for hurricane formation and intensification.

  • Weak vertical wind shear: Vertical wind shear - winds changing direction or speed with altitude - can disrupt and weaken tropical storms.

Taking these various indicators into account, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts an “above-normal” 2024 hurricane season, with 13 to 20 named storms, 6 to 8 hurricanes, and 3 to 4 major hurricanes!


Sailing from Canada to the Caribbean is a dream come true, but it must be done in complete safety. By choosing a sailing period outside hurricane season and not delaying your departure too long, you'll enjoy a safer and more enjoyable experience.


Always remember to prepare thoroughly, keep a close eye on the weather forecast, and exercise caution in all circumstances.

Godspeed on your next Caribbean adventure!


 

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