Photographer Richard Langdon sails the Eagle Class 53 high performance wingsail catamaran from the Dominican Republic to Florida
It was an experience I’ll never forget: blasting downwind across the Northeast Providence Channel, on a deep water passage from New Providence to Chub Cay. We were sailing inside the Bermuda Triangle, just a few hundred miles off the US coast but in a place that is uniquely wild and sparsely populated, fringed by mile upon mile of shallow turquoise waters.
We were not aboard your typical cruising cat. The Eagle Class 53 is a unique carbon catamaran with a hybrid wing and soft sail. It is super light, and super fast, and we took it on an early season northbound sprint from the Caribbean to the USA. The Eagle Class 53 is currently set up with C-foils, but the purpose of our trip was to safely send her on her way up to Bristol, Rhode Island, where the builder, Fast Forward Composites, will shortly be fitting T-foils for full-on flight.
Our trip began when we touched down at the end of our third flight, landing in monsoon rain in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. After a hair-raising taxi ride though the thousands of motorbikes and scooters that teem across the city, we wearily arrived at Ocean World Marina on the north coast.
My first impressions were that the country (which shares an island with Haiti) is more akin to Cuba than the Caribbean. Rather incongruously, the gleaming Eagle Class 53 awaited us in the marina, surrounded by slightly ageing architecture. Meanwhile, huge swells generated by the strong northerly winds broke over the breakwater.
My wife Rachel and I are in the photography business, but both of us have quite a few ocean passage miles under our belts. We knew the Eagle inside out from previous photoshoots, but those usually involved us going back to our hotel after dark.
This trip was going to be part photoshoot, part delivery, as we took what is essentially a high performance daysailer offshore. The end destination was Fort Lauderdale in Florida, and along the way we hoped to visit some of the best spots in the Turks and Caicos and Bahamas.
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We’d sailed the Eagle 53 many times in 20-plus knots over the previous season, and learnt that she is well behaved, if a little exciting at times. Unlike the America’s Cup flying winged cats, the Eagle’s hybrid wing stays permanently hoisted, and when not in use is freed to feather in the wind. The wing has a track running up its trailing edge, along which a soft mainsail can be raised for extra sail area and a more efficient shape.
However, the soft wingsail is easy to back off when needed, and with a total crew of four including Rachel and myself, captain Tommy and his crew, we were confident that we wouldn’t find any conditions we couldn’t handle. The 800-mile trip would be in passagemaking mode so we lashed fuel and water cans to the decks as we spent a couple of days preparing, while sheltering from the strong northerlies.
Unfortunately we’d have to miss out on the Turks and Caicos as a series of cold fronts were coming our way, promising strong headwinds for our trip north. We set off instead for Great Exuma, the southernmost Exuma in the Bahamas. In the early hours we slipped our lines and, with a slight push of the wing (a great stand-in bow thruster), glided sideways off our marina berth before heading out through the gap in the reef.
The first leg was to be our longest offshore stage of the trip: nearly 400 miles north-west to Great Exuma, non-stop. The four of us settled into our two hours on, two hours off routine, which would last for two nights and two days. With reasonably strong north-easterlies for the opening miles we averaged a relaxed 10 knots using the wing and jib, as we skirted to the south of the Turks and Caicos.
The Turks and Caicos islands are very low lying and shallow, surrounded by turquoise banks which kept us away. We glimpsed one spit of land about ten miles away but for most of the day saw no land at all, just a cyan hue in the sky reflected by the iridescent water.
The Eagle 53 is not necessarily designed for offshore passages, although she’s more than capable of handling them. The large central deck has a hard-topped bimini but is otherwise open to the elements. In the Caribbean weather it was a pleasure to be sailing outside, but chillier as we made miles to the north in early March.
The helm positions are forward of the cockpit, either side of the pit area that sits at the base of the mast. You quickly get used to steering in this forward position and it only really gets wet when sailing upwind in a chop.
The large open deck space is designed for outdoor living. A large ‘bar’ area abaft made of clear-coat carbon houses fridges, a sink, galley storage and a large microwave/convection oven. Without a hob, meals had to be carefully planned by Rachel, who doubled as our designated chef. Off watch there are two spacious cabins, one in each hull, both with full standing headroom, a 2.03m (6ft 8in) double bed, lounging chair and wet room.
We finally arrived in Great Exuma after two days, having motor-sailed the final stages in a weakening breeze. Our destination for the night was the Emerald Bay Marina, which we approached just after sunset. In benign conditions we dropped the jib and released the wing limiter (like a mainsheet control for the wing) on the hybrid wing, simply letting the wing feather as we entered the very narrow gap into the marina.
The first striking difference between the Caribbean and Bahamas is the topography. The Dominican Republic is hilly, almost mountainous, with its tallest peaks climbing to an altitude of over 3,000m (10,000ft). By contrast the highest point in the Bahamas reaches a dizzying height of just over 60m (200ft)!
Built on a foundation of fossil coral, Bahamian islands typically consist of rock, mangrove swamps and absolutely stunning white sand beaches. Just 30-odd islands of the 700 are inhabited; it is ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the tropical sun.
Emerald Bay Marina is a sleepy spot, so completing immigration and customs necessitated a short but very expensive taxi ride to Great Exuma’s airport, returning via a couple of small convenience stores (be warned, there are no big supermarkets for provisioning).
But once checked into the Bahamas it was back to the boat to start the more fun part of our trip: island hopping along the Exumas. While there are some stunning anchorages in the Exumas, anchoring here is not straightforward; we instead planned our trip around night stops in harbours.
Next stop was Staniel Cay and with a solid, chilly north-westerly we motorsailed along the eastern side of the Exuma chain of islands, passing absolutely stunning beaches. On this windward side we were in deep blue water, in stark contrast to the turquoise shallow banks to the west.
Staniel Cay Yacht Club marina is constructed out of piled jetties and lies on the north-west edge of the island. The current rips through this gap between the cays here, and with our destination exposed to the wind and a fading light, arriving at our berth was not going to be simple. To make matters worse our allocated spot on the leeward side of some piles proved too shallow to enter; we grounded our boards trying, before Tommy expertly backed us out with no damage done.
Our only option was to moor to windward of a piled jetty so fenders had to be carefully spaced out to coincide with each pile before we could attempt coming alongside, and the wind would be pressing us onto the dock. After 30 minutes of moving lines and shifting fenders, and another 30 minutes taking two lines to another jetty to windward, we were suspended a safe distance from the dock, and settled for the night.
We did have a reservation in the marina’s restaurant, but quickly realised we couldn’t safely leave the Eagle on its own. The whole crew were feeling a bit deflated, as our eagerly anticipated landfall felt steeped in disappointment. But a quick solo dash to the restaurant to collect our dinners in takeaway form (along with some rum…) restored spirits aboard.
The following morning we awoke to clear blue sunny skies, slightly less wind and a plan to visit the famous swimming pigs on Big Major Cay and swim with sharks at Compass Cay. The pigs hang out on so-called ‘Pig Beach’ on the next cay along, and do not disappoint! As we edged into the bay they strutted along the beach and played in the shore break.
But we didn’t stay long before setting off for Compass Cay, a hop of some 30 miles along the island chain. It turned out to the best sail of our trip; as the wind veered to the north and built, we blasted along to leeward of the islands on the Bahama Banks. Reaching speeds of over 20 knots with just wing and jib on absolutely flat water was a pleasure I’ll remember for a long time.
Ripping along at those speeds we covered the 30 miles quickly and by lunchtime we were tied up in the protected marina at Compass Cay, tucking into burgers cooked on the dock while tourists swam and paddled with schools of nurse sharks in the shallow water. Rachel went for a dip with the sharks and I was instructed to get in to film the occasion; I was definitely less brave than her!
We had one more Exuma island-hop to enjoy: a day sail of 60 miles to Highborne Cay. Known as the gateway to the Exumas, it lies at the northern end of the island chain. There we revelled in the relative luxury of a lovely little harbour complete with hot showers and a grocery store to restock before pushing north-west. Once fully refreshed, we set off in easterly winds on a slightly longer leg, sailing away from the Exumas and past New Providence (Nassau) to Chub Cay.
With a moderate easterly we made good ground on a broad reach, but after passing the tip of New Providence conditions became more lively for the second half of the leg as we had passed from the shallow 30ft waters of the Exumas into the ‘tongue of the ocean’, where depths plunged to around 6,000ft.
The waves increased, and we were able to enjoy a downwind sail in large swells that felt more like being out in the open Atlantic. Under just the wing and the jib the Eagle behaved extremely well, despite an 8ft following sea. The motion was smooth and relaxing – occasionally she dipped her bows into the next wave, but her piercing bows always popped up again.
It was dark as we pulled into Chub Cay, which was bland and semi-deserted apart from lines of towering sports fishing boats. There was no doubt that we were getting closer to America. Just 130 miles now separated us from the USA and we covered this in one hike on our last day. It was a full day’s sailing that began back in the shallow waters of the Bahama Banks for the first 70 miles to Bimini, before a final push across the Gulf Stream into Fort Lauderdale.
For the first time on our trip the temperatures began to rise nicely since arriving in the Bahamas, and we had a beautiful light sail across the Banks. In a gentle southerly breeze we crossed the Gulf Stream almost without noticing. We had arrived in the USA. The Eagle had landed.
The Exumas includes some 365 cays and islands spread over 130 miles, and are becoming increasingly popular among bareboat charter as well as bluewater cruising visitors. Highlights include:
Allen Cay: A horseshoe-shaped group of islets, where rock iguanas greet visitors on the beach.
Warderick Wells: Protected waters are home to some of the best diving in the Exumas. Ashore Boo Boo Hill is the highest point of the island and provides iconic views.
Highbourne Cay: Great snorkelling and nearby reefs to explore, with fuel and water facilities at the island’s marina.
Shroud Cay: An uninhabited island only accessible by dinghy, with mangroves, sand bars and fast-flowing channels known as the ‘washing machine’ to explore.
Big Major Cay: Home to the famous swimming pigs and Thunderball Grotto, an underwater cave that featured in the eponymous James Bond film.
About the author
Richard Langdon and his wife, Rachel Fallon-Langdon, are renowned marine photographers based on the south coast of England. They run the stock photo library Ocean Images.
First published in the June 2020 edition of Yachting World.