Sailing in the Caribbean offers a seemingly endless panoply of delights. Cruising guru Chris Doyle shares some hidden gems with Erin Carey
Chris Doyle’s is a name familiar to all Caribbean cruisers, as the author of best-selling cruising guides of the region. Having explored the Caribbean for more than 40 years, there is barely an anchorage he hasn’t visited or a harbour he hasn’t surveyed. His knowledge of the eastern Caribbean is second to none, and his cruising guides can be found on the shelves and chart tables of thousands of boats.
Now in his late 70s, Doyle has no plans of slowing down. His custom-built 40ft catamaran, Ti Kanot, can be found zipping from one anchorage to the next each cruising season, and he spends half of each year aboard.
“As a cruising guide author, I sit between two places: the yachting community, and the community ashore,” he explains. “I help people get on better ashore, as well as on the navigational side of things. I find what I do very rewarding because I’m not only helping cruisers but I’m also helping the local communities.
“I do my best to visit every anchorage that we cover. There are about 60 for the book I’m doing right now. I can’t update each book each year, so I update books on alternate years.”
Only in the last two years has he hired the help of a business partner, Lexi Fisher. Fisher now covers the islands between Anguilla and Montserrat, leaving Doyle to cover the 16 islands between Antigua and Grenada. While his guides should not be used in place of navigational charts, they are an indispensable aid for yachtsmen or charterers visiting these islands and provide practical and up to date advice.
Doyle confesses that he doesn’t work in any logical order – yet it works for him. He rides around on his bicycle and takes notes by hand, just as he has always done. His small desk, located in an aft cabin of Ti Kanot, was buried in paper and hand-scribed records.
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Doyle tries to visit each and every business in his guides, and enjoys the interaction. From laundry services to chandleries, sail lofts to refrigeration mechanics, Doyle provides his readers with everything they need to make their stay as enjoyable as possible. He also visits every customs and immigration office along the way to ensure his guides contain the latest fees and legal requirements for entry into each country.
Doyle knows the waters surrounding each island so well; he barely has to refer to charts. After all, he surveyed many of the popular anchorages with a lead line before the acquisition of his Humminbird Helix 5 echo sounder, which revolutionised the way he now works.
By drawing his own charts for the guides, Doyle provides the knowledge and advice needed to make safe entry into many anchorages that would otherwise be difficult. Having originally produced colour sketch charts by hand, Doyle has now computerised the process. His guides also provide GPS waypoints, star charts, fishing information, local customs and information on major sailing events.
He tells me he feels lucky skippers still buy guides, despite a wealth of information on social media and the availability of cheap digital charts. “Social media can sometimes be spot on, and very up to date. But it is hard to beat the reliability of professionals who have been at it for years noting every change along the way.
“For example, there was an area off Canouan that was charted as being 20ft but there was one row of rocks that was at 15ft and a superyacht ripped off its keel there, so I took a diver along and paid close attention to that area.”
A keen photographer, Doyle also takes all of the aerial photographs himself. In the days before drones, this would involve commissioning a helicopter to fly over the islands, Doyle hanging out the door to capture the perfect angle. Today he has become a proficient drone pilot.
Besides such advances in technology over the 40 years his books have been in production, Doyle’s readership has also changed substantially. Although his audience was originally mostly charter sailors, he now caters to bluewater cruisers and superyachts.
Doyle also runs a comprehensive website where he records details and information that simply won’t fit in his books. “If I included everything I knew about the islands, my books would need wheels,” he laughed.
As an expert on the eastern Caribbean, what are Chris Doyle’s own island recommendations? Like a father with several children, Doyle finds it hard to narrow down his favourite.
“I love everywhere, it’s the truth. I am very comfortable in some places, I guess because they are so familiar. I am a resident of Grenada and have spent a lot of time there. The people are very nice, and the island is lovely with waterfalls, lovely hikes in agricultural land and rainforest; there is a lot to see and do.
“St Vincent and the Grenadines is a delightful archipelago, very popular with cruisers. We all love Bequia, it’s a charming little island with a great atmosphere.
“Dominica is a favourite because of its natural beauty, and despite being devastated by hurricane Maria in 2017, they are rebuilding, and they absolutely love having cruisers visit the island,” he remarked. He adds that Martinique and Guadeloupe are delightful with their distinctive French flavour, large islands with rainforests, beaches and many lovely bays.
But what of the hidden gems, the islands that cruisers often skip right by? Doyle cites Barbuda, an island 30 miles north of Antigua, as a destination not to be missed for its pink, secluded beaches, clear aqua water and thriving Frigate bird colony.
“It’s the last sizeable inhabited island that has hardly changed since I visited it 45 years ago, and I suspect it has not changed a lot going back further still. People live simply, and it’s the only island in the Eastern Caribbean that has a really rich mangrove lagoon.
“Barbudans reluctantly entered into independence with Antigua. They have always maintained the land is theirs to hold and look after communally, and it is one of the few places in the Caribbean that has adhered to the concept of communal rather than private ownership (the Carib territory in Dominica is another). Since the beach-rich real estate is valuable, governments in Antigua have often coveted it. Hurricane Irma gave them an opportunity to push that agenda.
“Barbudans have taken the matter to court, and it is not the first time. I wish them well as they have been excellent environmental stewards of a unique island, since the times of slavery, and any major change will end Barbuda as we have known it. It’s also the only island that leaves me with a palpable feeling of loss when I sail away.”
Known as the ‘nature island’ Dominica defies the Caribbean cliché on many levels. With a distinct lack of white sandy beaches, luxury resorts and mass tourism, the island lures eco-adventurers and those who appreciate nature with its Boiling Lake, rainforest-shrouded volcano, Champagne Reef and sulphurous hot waterfalls and springs.
“It is physically the most dramatic of islands with steep mountains that have limited development, and the saying is that if Columbus returned today, it is the only island he would recognise,” Doyle says. “Dominicans have embraced the image and created the Waitukubuli trail, the first long distance trail in the eastern Caribbean, that runs from one end of the island to the other. It would take a week or more to do the whole trail, but it crosses a few roads, so it is easy to take a break.
“The northern anchorage off Portsmouth in Prince Rupert Bay is a favourite with cruisers, as local guides have welcomed them very warmly and look after everything they need, from security to laundry, under a group called PAYS.”
Saba, an island in the north-eastern Caribbean some 28 miles due south of St Maarten, and the fellow Dutch island of St Eustatius, are Doyle’s other lesser known recommendations. They are both very small, and their anchorages are weather dependent.
Saba is an imposing island like no other in the eastern Caribbean. It rises from the ocean, its rock faces scarred from falling boulders, with a brown exterior void of any beaches, yet its lush interior is mountainous and green. Hiking up Saba’s active volcano, Mount Scenery, is a must-do according to Doyle. The island in the clouds falls almost as dramatically under the water as it rises above, creating some of the most fantastic diving grounds in the Caribbean.
St Eustatius is a small island with a tremendous history. “They welcome visitors with genuine warmth, and it’s so far off the beaten track that the very few visitors you meet are likely to be interesting,” he keenly remarked. “Hiking the Quill volcano is fun and, to put the icing on the cake, the scuba diving is impressive, and there is a selection of enjoyable restaurants.”
Other less visited islands Doyle recommends include Montserrat. “Montserrat is the only island in the eastern Caribbean with a volcano that has been continuously active since it erupted in 1995. It is off the beaten track as the anchorage is fairly exposed and weather dependent, but a view of the town buried in ash and the view of the volcano from the observatory are amazing.”
Other areas that are becoming more popular include the Saintes and Marie Galante part of Guadeloupe. “They are dry, sunny, and picturesque. The Saintes is a small archipelago with several tiny islands; Marie Galante is larger and very rural with fields of sugar cane. Many day tourists visit, and they are deservedly popular with yachts, so not exactly off the beaten track.
“St Kitts and Nevis are also picturesque, and are now moving from have a few casual yachting visitors to being a major yachting destination. This comes with the recent opening of Port Christophe in the southern part of St Kitts. Both have pleasant, gentle scenery along the coastal fringes that rises to a mountain in the centre; Mount Nevis in Nevis and Mount Liamuiga in St Kitts.”
Things to consider
Besides using his guides. Doyle strongly advises that any visiting sailors spend time familiarising themselves with the local weather, which is generally very reliable out of the hurricane season. Winds are nearly always in the easterly quadrant between 5-25 knots.
The stronger winds are called Christmas winds and often happen December to February. Swells are a factor that need to be watched, especially in remote islands like Barbuda, Saba and Statia, where anchorages can become dangerous. Several forecasting websites like Wind Guru offer a ten-day prediction.
“They should also be aware of the fact that the Caribbean is not cheap, though you can live simply without spending too much. Breadfruit and coconuts are abundant,” Doyle adds. “Security is another issue people need to consider. It is still pretty safe. The Caribbean Safety and Security Net (CSSN) details all the reports sent to them and gives an overview of what is happening.
“For many years I slept with hatches wide open and never gave it a thought. With the advent of social media and warnings, I thought about it, and decided the risk of something happening was probably equivalent to having a fire on board, and as I had a fire extinguisher I also installed an alarm. It has never gone off, and neither has the fire extinguisher. But I hoist my dinghy at night and lock it onto a dock.”
While cruisers will need at least one season to cover most of the eastern Caribbean, those on a charter will often have no more than a week or two. Doyle advises: “Don’t try to do too much and try to arrange with the charter company to sail one way if you can.
Wherever you go, Doyle’s advice is simple: “Get out, get ashore, hike, climb, take buses, talk to the locals and get involved. Stay until you’re not enjoying it as much as you should be and then move on, but don’t rush!”
Chris Doyle’s top tips for sailing in the Caribbean
Plan your arrival times so you don’t have to pay overtime. In general, customs and immigration charge overtime if vessels arrive after hours or on weekends. Depending on the country, some overtime fees can cost more than actually checking into the country.
The French islands are the cheapest countries to check into. Martinique, Guadeloupe, St Maarten and St Barts cost no more than a euro or two to enter the country and the process can be carried out by the cruiser on a computer, generally found in a café or shop.
Martinique is the best island for provisions. With a vast range or French cheeses, wines and other delicacies, cruisers can stock their boat for months, saving money when travelling to more expensive islands such as Antigua, St Barts and Saba.
Chris Parker’s Marine Weather Centre is popular among cruisers. He sends a daily weather forecast, specific to the area in which you are cruising.
For the latest information on Caribbean Safety and Security visit: safetyandsecuritynet.org
First published in the January 2020 edition of Yachting World.