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Caribbean Trade Winds: A Closer Look

One of the reasons why chartering in the Caribbean is so popular is the weather, especially in winter, when sailors from northern climes delight in the balmy breezes and warm temperatures. The (mostly) reliable trade winds blow between 15 and 25 knots from the northeast, and a steady temperature in the low to mid 80s provide great sailing and comfortable nights.

The reliable and balmy trade winds of the Caribbean make it a favorite destination for sailors.

The trade winds originate off the coast of Africa, and have been known to carry dust from the Sahara desert all the way across the southern North Atlantic to the Caribbean Islands. They have a huge impact on the Caribbean Islands from Hispaniola all the way down to the ABC’s (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao), and their influence affects different parts of the Caribbean in different ways. Because they are further south, the Windward Islands (Dominica, Grenada, Martinique, and St. Vincent and The Grenadines) see milder temperatures during winter than the Leeward Islands (Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and U.S. Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Nevis, Saba, Sint Maarten/St. Martin, St. Kitts and Nevis). The Windwards also have a more reliable breeze.

With their more northerly location, the Leeward Islands are more influenced by fronts drifting down from the mainland U.S., and can be slightly cooler and less windy, especially in the winter months. Because the trades are so reliable other effects can be noted as well. On mountainous islands the warm air is shunted up into cooler air, which produces rain. On islands such as Dominica, Nevis, and St. Lucia rain forests can be found, especially on their windward sides.

One drawback to chartering in winter can be the sheer number of fellow charterers who have all decided the same thing; that two weeks in the BVI in January is far better than two weeks in Chicago. Prices are higher, reservations are more difficult to get, and popular destinations are overcrowded.

Is there another time of year when the Caribbean is less crowded, less expensive, but still delightful? The simple answer is yes, and that time is in the summer, though you need to plan carefully so you don’t end up hunkered down in a hotel room watching palm trees get blown down and praying the power stays on as a hurricane roars overhead.

The two main worries of off-season in the Caribbean are hurricanes and the rainy season. Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30, with the most active period running from mid August through the end of October. From May to July and October through December, the odds are definitely with you.

Hurricane probabliites for different Caribbean islands, from USA Today.

The hurricane probability table shown at left reveals the odds for individual islands. The best odds for a major hurricane strike in any given year in the Caribbean belongs to Antigua, which has a 6.7-percent chance. The lowest is Bonaire, with a 0.6-percent chance. Puerto Rico rings in at 4.2-percent, with the USVI scoring a 5.9-percent. In contrast, Miami scores an impressive 11.1-percent, and Cape Hatteras checks in with a 5.3-percent. See the rest of the list of hurricane probabilities for the continental USA.

Another way to virtually assure that hurricanes won’t mess with your charter, even at the height of the season, is to head “down island,” to islands such as Aruba, Curacao, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada and Barbados. Those lucky few who live on boats in the Caribbean year round often head to those islands in hurricane season for that very reason.

The rainiest months of the year are May to June and September to October, but again, location is everything. The ocean temperature is cooler in the southern parts of the Caribbean due to upwelling (in which cold water rises to the surface as the wind pushes the warmer water south and west) and this helps prevent cloud formation, which means less rain and less likelihood of hurricane activity. The Caribbean islands which most benefit from this are Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao.

A common misconception is the summer temperatures, which one would imagine would be much hotter than those in winter. But thankfully that’s not the case, and that, again, is due to those oh-so-helpful trade winds. The average temperature in Antigua in January is 83 degrees, but in August it’s only 88. The chance of seeing 100-degree temperatures is far more likely in the mainland U.S. than it is in the Caribbean, where such temperatures are mostly unheard of.

I’ve successfully delivered boats across the Caribbean Basin from Florida to Panama in August, from Tortola to New England in September, and from Sint Maarten to Panama in June, all safely and without worries, thanks to good forecasting and a firm grasp of the odds.

For more information about the Caribbean, or to find a yacht to charter, visit the Caribbean page.

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