“It was brutal.”
“Worst day-sails I’ve ever been on.”
“It took us three months just to get from the Bahamas to St. Maarten.”
These are just a few of the not-so-encouraging things we heard from cruises who had chosen to take what is known as the “Thorny Path” from the Bahamas down to the BVIs.
November, 2019 – Spanish Wells, Bahamas:
Phillip and I had been poking at this debate for years: taking the offshore “I65” route from the Bahamas down to the BVIs versus the “Thorny Path.” While many of you are likely familiar with these two routes, to put it very curtly, the I65 route is essentially an 8-9 day offshore run (on our boat) heading directly east the first few days out into the Atlantic, and then turning around the I65 longitude to ride the trade winds down to the BVIs, whereas the Thorny Path is a series of day hops along the coasts of Turks and Caicos, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the USVIs on the way to the BVIs.
While Bruce Van Sant (and his infamous G&Ts!) might claim a gentleman can sail a thornless path to windward along the Thorny Path, the many reports we received from cruisers who had actually done it did not agree, calling it “brutal,” “awful,” “a bad idea” even. There were several reasons, in addition to what we had heard from fellow trusted cruisers, the Thorny Path did not appeal to Phillip and me:
- We like to sail offshore. It’s not foreign or frightening to us. With the right weather window and good working systems, offshore passages have by far been some of our more memorable and rewarding voyages. However, we can completely understand for couples or cruisers who have not done much offshore or overnight sailing, the thought of their first 8-9 day passage completely offshore could be frightening. We could see how the Thorny Path could have more appeal for cruisers who fit that bracket; that’s just not us.
- We do NOT like to sail to windward. Period. Even if it is just a day hop. Beating to weather is just not fun. It’s not good for the boat or crew, and it always increases the risk of gear failure or breakage. I’ve written before about sails I have just wanted to end, even though it was just a short day-hop to weather. Phillip and I would take a downwind—or simply any wind more favorable than a head-wind—offshore any day over beating to windward.
- Entering new ports and trying to make dicey daytime arrivals stresses us out. I’ll take days on end in comfortable conditions in the Atlantic any day over continually navigating new inlets, anchorages, or marinas, potentially in a headwind. For us, passage-making is like flying—the hardest part is usually the takeoff and the landing. Once you’re up in the air (or out in the ocean), you just cruise.
For this reason, Phillip and I set our sights on the trusted “I65 route” offshore. In preparation for the passage, we contacted Nanny Cay Marina to reserve a slip when we expected to arrive in the BVIs in early December.
We chose this marina in Tortola because we had heard great things about it from fellow cruisers, particularly Brittany with Windtraveler, an inspiring mother, sailor, and writer whose blog Phillip and I have been following for years. If you’re on Instagram, check out Brittany’s frequent posts from Nanny Cay, which are just stunning!
With our destination and reservation secured, our next task was to prep the boat and start looking for a weather window.
As this was the longest offshore passage Phillip and I were about to undertake—just the two of us on our boat—one thing we decided to do differently was to increase our diesel provisions by adding three more five-gallon jerry cans on starboard, in addition to our standard three on port. We moved the whisker pole (which usually rides on the stanchions on starboard near the bow) back near the cockpit (to move the weight of the diesel aft to offset our chain on the bow) and strapped the diesels to it.
Also, our ability to purchase and add these last-minute jerry cans was attributable to one of the many great aspects of Spanish Wells, which I touched on last time during the virtual tour: numerous marine vendors on the island who offer a wealth of supplies, tools, even repair services.
It is a common rule on our boat, that if you pack the spare, that just ensures you won’t need it. Our hope was, if we packed extra diesel that would just ensure we’d be doing more sailing than motoring.
As lawyers, we should have read the fine print of that bargain. The promise wasn’t sailing over motoring; it was diesel you wouldn’t end up needing. That is, in fact, what we got. Just wait …
The extra diesel was also just one item on our list of offshore prep. For those of you curious, this is a rough bullet-point of what Phillip and I usually do to convert our boat from comfy floating-home to offshore-thoroughbred:
- Break-down the dinghy and stow it below
- Install the jack lines and pull out the harnesses and tethers
- Change the oil on “Westie” (our 27A Westerbeke) if necessary, and top all fluids
- Fill the diesel and water tanks, water bags, gallon jugs, solar shower, and all Jerries
- Tie and secure the Jerry cans on deck
- Swap the genoa for the working jib (if applicable)
- Install the inner forestay for the storm sail (if it’s not already installed)
- Set up the lee cloths
- Unpack the foulies
- Wash the boat
Washing the boat is almost always followed by a beer!
Oh, and then we throw a little below-decks party (complete with disco ball)! It’s good for the offshore mojo.
Once all of that is accomplished, we are ready to go! All we have to do is watch the weather and pick a window. For the I65 route, Phillip and I were hoping for good winds on the beam or following to let us sail several days directly east, with an anticipated few days of motoring in the middle as we made our way toward longitude 65, with the hope the traditional trade winds would then kick in and allow us a nice beam reach south all the way down to Tortola. Here is what we were seeing on the GRIBS at the time.
In addition to our own weather routing, Phillip and I also decided to experiment with another new tactic for this voyage. We had heard good things about Weather Routing, Inc. We also had the opportunity to speak with them at the Annapolis Boat Show back in 2019 and were impressed with what they could offer. (They also offered a discount at the show, so … lots of benefits to purchasing marine items at a boat show, I’ll tell you!)
When we learned about the scope and quality of their services at the show, we decided we wanted to give them a try when we began routing our I65 trip in November, 2019. Guys, the data they sent us is still the most impressive weather routing I have ever seen. I am a very visual person, so I found the Meteogram they put together for us—showing the exact amount of wind and how it would quarter or beam on the boat for each day of the anticipated passage—was a stellar product in my opinion. I mean, check this out!
While Phillip and I have stared at many GRIBs, this visual just instantly “clicked” for me. It’s like I could then see the passage playing out in my mind. (And it looked like a mighty fine passage!) We were definitely pleased with the WRI service. Not to mention they were pretty near spot-on with the wind speed and direction. WRI even advised we push our departure date back one day for a better window, advice we followed and which served us well. But, that was a bit of a tough decision, just because we were SOOOooooo excited to go!
I always start singing a certain John Denver tune right about now. “Our Jerries are packed, we’re ready to go. Standing here, by the galley stove … “ Phillip loves traveling with me! : ) Next up, we’ll take you along with us on our I65 voyage followers, out into the big blue! Please leave a comment below if you’ve ever had to make the decision between the I65 route or the Thorny Passage, which one you chose and why, and how the voyage turned out for you. In the meantime, we’ll be …
“Leeeea-vin’ on a small boat. Don’t know quite where we’ll up and float. Leeeea-vin’ … ”