A First Passage

By Captain Dave Bello

This essay was extracted from the sailing diary of our 2007 roundtrip voyage from St Thomas, USVI to Marigot, St, Martin aboard Island Retreat, an Island Packet 40.  The trip was part of Fair Wind Sailing School’s Advanced Coastal Cruising and Coastal Navigation Certification instruction and for the students aboard was their first blue water passage.

The excitement was immediately felt as we gathered for the first time on board Island Retreat in Red Hook, St Thomas on Saturday.  While almost everyone had previously been aboard Island Retreat for beginning and bareboat lessons, this was different.  This was an open water passage. A 110 nautical mile journey from St Thomas across the blue water of the Caribbean Sea, out of sight of land and sailing all night – all firsts for everyone on board except Captain Dave.  As the realization of what lay ahead sunk in, the hugs and smiles quickly faded and the task of voyage preparation began.  Meal planning, provisioning and the boat safety check brought back memories from bareboat class and were completed efficiently with no issues.  

Next it was time for our first real navigation practice.  Our destination was set, Marigot, St Martin.  As we studied the charts, it appeared route planning was a breeze, head south off St John’s and then a straight line directly to Marigot --  doesn’t get too much easier then this we thought!  Then came the first challenge, the course was also straight upwind into the trades.  Another review of the charts showed our course to be directly into the Antilles Current the entire way too.  This was going to be tougher than planned, and our estimated time in transit grew from 15 hours to more than 25. 

With the trip now planned, there was a real feeling of accomplishment.  It was close to 9:00 PM and after traveling to the Caribbean and hours of sailing lessons and trip prep, it was time to relax.  With our days work complete, it was off to dinner at the legendary Duffy’s in Red Hook to get better acquainted and enjoy some island fun before we head out to sea.

Sunday began with a mix of excitement and anxiety as our thoughts turned toward the journey ahead.  The day’s work began with familiar tasks – filling the water tanks, checking fuel levels, pulling the dinghy onto the davits and a plan to set sail by early afternoon.  But there was one more new agenda item to cover before we left – offshore safety.  Life raft deployment, EPIRB operation, mayday calls, jack line running and safety harness requirements.  All the procedures were described, demonstrated and reviewed.  Sailing in shifts and duty watch schedules were discussed, and agreed upon – another new item.  As the day wore on, the advanced lessons were sinking in, as was another lesson -- there was significantly more planning involved with a passage than a simple hop around the islands.  We hadn’t even left the dock yet, and we had learned so much already. 

With all the preparation finally complete, it was time to set sail.  Unfortunately, the weather had other plans.  With towering clouds building and a forecast for potentially strong storms, we decided to spend one more night in port.  The final lesson of the day  had been delivered – safety first, if the forecast doesn’t cooperate don’t go. 

We rose early and received the new weather briefing.  With marked improvement in the forecast and the boat already prepped to go, we got an early start out of Red Hook.  As the sails went up, we swung around the south side of St John’s and entered into the open Caribbean Sea.   The swells were noticeably larger, rounder and further apart than what we saw on our last trip up the Francis Drake Channel.  No matter how much studying we had completed, there is no learning like actually seeing the swell and feeling the boat motion in open water.  Our fear of the unknown gradually gave way as we enjoyed a view not often seen by charterers in the VI – the south side of St John’s.  With winds light we had an easy beginning to our sail and we were having fun.

We cleared St John’s and got our first break in the weather.  The wind shifted further north than normal and was stronger then forecast.  We were all having a great time now as we sailed a glorious close reach to St Martin with our Island Packet truly at home moving close to hull speed.  We didn’t even mind the building swells that were now reaching six feet. 

Sunset came early.  While we still had a fair breeze, overcast had built and the sun was gone; it was going to be dark night.  Having passed to the South of Tortola, BVI we were now out in the Sombrero Passage - -a 50 mile stretch of open water.  Seas built to 7-8 feet and we were plodding directly into them as the rain started to fall.  Our first night at sea was no picnic and in near total darkness.  No one was feeling great or in the mood to eat as we continued onward into the waves and downpour.  Five hours later we were still pounding through waves in complete darkness, no one sleeping, most feeling ill and with rain continuing to fall.  Fatigue was setting in and the overwhelming thought was ‘why did we choose this for a vacation?’

Around 4:00 AM the rain ended and sky opened up to a beautiful display of stars.  Unfortunately, our favorable wind had veered and was back on the nose.  Making a VMG of just 2 knots with the wind, current and waves all on our nose, we put on the engine and motored the last few hours into Marigot.  After a long night, Marigot Harbor was a welcome sight.  The adrenaline was flowing and everyone was now on deck-- we’ve done it!  We dropped anchor, raised our “Q” Flag and headed to shore to clear customs.  We’re rewarded on island with a wonderful French meal and some great wine.  We’ll all sleep well tonight in the protected harbor.

It is now the fifth day of our journey and our plan is to stay on the hook tonight in Marigot.  As we rest up from our all night sail, we realize we still have more class work to do.  The day is spent completing the lessons for our navigation class.  We decide to take our final exam on Orient Beach and happily all pass our ASA 105 Navigation exam.  Time to celebrate with another delicious meal on St Martin, some island exploration and a restful night at anchor.

Our final day in St Martin, we enjoy fresh French pastry and espresso for breakfast before  one last site-seeing trip ashore on this beautiful island before clearing out of customs.  We plot our course back to the USVI and after a nice lunch weigh anchor for home.   Captain Dave has repeatedly assured us that the trip home, downwind and down current, we be much more comfortable, but no one believes him. 

Soon, we realize how much easier it is sailing downwind and with the current.  The wind builds from behind as we clear the lee of the island and we make great time heading back to St Thomas riding under cruising spinnaker alone and surfing down waves.  We’ve grown accustomed to the rhythmical rocking of the downwind sail and already feel much more comfortable then we did just a few days ago.  No one is ill, everyone is relieved and having fun.  As the sun sets and we prepare for our second night at sea, it is relaxing and enjoyable. 

Just before dawn we are off  Norman Island in the BVI when we awake to the cries of “Man Over Board!” Its time for the last of our practical tests – the night time man over board drill.  As the boat circles around to get our MOB pole, we realize why this is the advanced class – much tougher to spot the pole and strobe at night in the 6 foot swell then it was during the daytime. 

After completing are MOB drills, we rest and discuss the experience in the cockpit as the sun rises over Norman Island.   We are back in the friendly and comfortable confines of the Drake Channel.  There’s time for a new pot of coffee and fresh baked pound cake for breakfast before we clear back into customs on St Johns.  Welcome Home! 

Our journey sadly ends as we tie up to the dock in Red Hook.  We complete our final review and our Advanced Sailing exam.  More success!  Having completed 2 difficult exams, 2 all night sails and over 220 miles of open water sailing, we depart having made new friends, progress in our sailing skills and expanded our horizons to new lands.  We leave confidently knowing we’re sailors!!


Capt. Dave is President of Fair Wind Sailing School, an ASA affiliate sailing school offering sailing instruction in the Virgin Islands, Chesapeake Bay , Florida and on Lake Erie and Lake St Clair. (See Captain Bios page.)


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