Panama to Jamaica

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There is a good reason that we didn’t name our boat Beat.  Not sure of the origin of that nautical term, but it does imply what will happen to your boat and your body when you sail into the wind.  Reach thrives on a reach at any angle but does not like to go hard to weather, as we just did on the first leg of our passage from Panama to Florida. 

When it comes to passage-making, we’ve learned that it’s all relative… to prevailing weather conditions…  to knowing your boat's performance…  to your expectations of comfort… and make decisions based on that understanding.  We saw a good opportunity to sail across the typically rough middle of the Caribbean Sea in favorable winds, veering to south of east, with atypical low seas.  

Prevailing winds at departure

The waters off of the coast of Central America are always sloshing with strong currents plus reverberations from prevailing easterly trade winds pushing the seas to the end of the road at the isthmus.  We’ve sailed most of that coast over recent years and know that current plays a big factor… not to mention our Fisher’s Island sound days.

Ocean currents at departure

There are two ways to head “north” from Panama (green circle); (1) East around Jamaica & Cuba to the Windward Passage and Old Bahama Channel and (2) West around Jamaica & Cuba towards the Florida Keys

Weather forecasts pointed us towards the first option, since there was an upcoming rare lull in the Windward Passage (aptly named) between Cuba and Haiti, thanks to a late-season cold-front moving off of the southern US and becalming the weather below it.  In addition option #2 predicted nasty weather near the Cayman Islands if we took that route.

We said goodbye to Panama, playing frogger amongst all of the boats going in and out of the canal.  In fact, we had "crossing situations" with ships all along the way made easy to visualize with AIS.  This was the first passage with our new Class B transponder, which we believe did its job of lighting us up on ships' bridges.  A few times we watched ships correct course to go behind us (~1 mile distance is comfortable) and another time a ship called us on VHF 16 by name to coordinate actions (we ducked them).

Heading NNE we struck a course of 25-30 degrees and winds were NE 5-8 kts upon departure so we knew we were facing a day or two of motor-sailing.  After a day winds increased to 10-12 kts and started to track east at around 80-90 degrees helping to fill the sails, right as we hit those huge gyres of current pushing us west at 2 kts!  

Reach was faced with a tough task.  We were asking her to sail a course of 25*, falling off as far as 0* to give her some more room without heading too far west. The westerly flowing 2 kt current set shaved-off a good chunk of our wind angle, as we had to point 25* further east to maintain course.  

Shave-off 10-15 more degrees due to apparent wind and we were still facing a motor-sail as we were here at the start.  

The math dictated that 90* east winds on a 25* course would give us a 65* wind-angle… subtract 25* for current set and 10-15* for apparent wind left us with a 25-30* sailing angle…  

That is asking a little too much from Reach, she’s not a J40 after all, which our friends on Infinity happen to have and were taking the same passage.  They nailed it!

The winds continued to build to 13-15 kts and shift to 110* as expected, yet we were disappointed that with current we didn’t have the wind angle yet to sail.  Falling off would take us to the Caymans and tacking the other way would take us to Colombia, so motor-sail it was.  At least we had a waxing, bright moon and beautiful sunsets & sunrises to admire.  Mornings were especially pink.

The seas were still down around 1-2 meters and we realized how fortunate this window was relative to the usual conditions faced doing this passage.  Nonetheless, they were still off the bow and we were beating into them, bruising bodies, finding new leaks and slowing the boat. 


When we finally got out of the 2 kt current we recovered our 25* deficit and Reach shined on a beam reach in those 13-15 kt 110* winds.   The next day the winds creeped up even more to 18-20 kts ~ Ahhh, how fun!  

This is how we like to sail.  We set out realizing that there are certain destinations from A-to-B where you are satisfied knowing that you got the best conditions you might ever see.

Our timing was a little behind where we wanted to be at this point and the forecast for the Windward Passage on the day we wanted to squeeze through called for strong 15-20 kt winds out of the NE.  Infinity was at least a half-day ahead of us and could continue the sail.  We decided to make a pit-stop at Jamaica and resume our passage when the Windward Passage lull would return in a few days time.  

… so here we are after a 5 day sail in lovely Jamaica!

© M&M 2016