AN 1170 Key West AN 1171 Tortuga 24'33'N, 81 °48'W 24'25'N, 83'00'W
AN1170 Key West AN1173 Antonio 2r50'N, 85'05'W AN1174 Serrana 14I20'N,80°40,W
AN1176 Augustine AN1177 29'55'N. 81'16'W 26WN, 74'40'W
AN1172 Yucatan NW Mujeres 349
Belize City / 588
17'30'N, 88"10'W Livingston 694
15'49'N, 88'45'W Guanaja 640
AN1175 Panama Cristobal 1062
AN1178 Mira 22:05'N. 74'24'W
AN1179 Maisi N 739
Many American sailors use Florida as a convenient springboard to reach destinations south and while this may work out well for some, for others it may prove to be counterproductive. Mainly for those sailing from northern states, who are bound for Central America, getting there via the Bahamas and Windward Passage makes more sense than fighting one's way past Florida and across the Gulf of Mexico.
In the summer the prevailing winds in Florida are from the SE and the weather is rainy with heavy squalls and calm periods. The Gulf of Mexico is one of the areas most affected by hurricanes between June and November, not only by those forming in the Gulf itself but also by those travelling from other areas of the Caribbean. From September to November hurricanes spawned in the Western Caribbean are most likely to pass through the Yucatan Channel and then curve around north and east towards Cuba and Florida. Tornadoes, waterspouts, and squalls are also a feature of the hurricane season.
The greatest dilemma faced by anyone planning a voyage from Florida to any of the countries bordering on the Caribbean Sea is whether to sail east or west of Cuba. The situation will undoubtedly change once that country's doors are fully opened to cruising boats and visiting sailors will be able to enjoy its many attractions. In the meantime, boats setting off from Northern Florida are probably better off sailing through the Bahamas and Windward Passage to reach Central America. The answer is not so simple for boats leaving from Southern Florida, for which both alternatives have certain attractions. Although Mexico itself is more easily reached by a direct route through the Yucatan Channel, a voyage to Belize, Guatemala, or Honduras by the same route is shorter but tougher, mainly because of the contrary current. In contrast, the roundabout route via the Bahamas and Windward Passage is considerably longer, but benefits from mostly favourable winds and current, and also offers the chance of several interesting stops en route.
The time of year when the passage is made will have a major bearing on the choice of route. In winter, when strong E and NE winds can be expected, a direct route through the Yucatan Channel is to be preferred, not just for destinations in Guatemala, Belize, or Honduras, but even as far as Panama. However, this may mean waiting until favourable conditions set in. In winter, the recommended time to leave is immediately after a norther has blown itself out. The best time for a southbound passage, at least as far south as the Yucatan Peninsula, is from mid-April to the end of June. At this time, winds may be light and one has to be prepared to motor. To avoid the full strength of the current, which can be as high as 2.5 knots, it is recommended to either sail a route which stays close to the Dry Tortugas, or cross over towards Cuba and follow that country's NW coast, but making sure one does not stray into its territorial waters. A good departure point from the US is Key West. The northern route (AN117A) stays just outside the 100 fathom line to WP AN1171,14 miles south of the Dry Tortugas. From there a direct course can be set to pass through the Yucatan Channel to WP AN1172, two miles north of Isla Mujeres, a convenient place to clear into Mexico. From there one is in easy reach of the best cruising grounds in Central America, whether in Belize, Guatemala, or Honduras.
If not intending to stop in Mexico or carry on to Belize and Guatemala, it is probably better to cross over from Key West to the Cuban side (AN117B) and sail along its coast to WP AN1173, eight miles off Cape San Antonio. A weak but favourable countercurrent may be experienced along Cuba's north coast. Having passed through the Yucatan Channel, a direct course leads to WP AN1174 between Sueno and Serrana Banks, both of which have lights. From there, course is altered for WP AN1175, the landfall buoy marking the entrance into the Panama Canal.
Increasingly boats stop in Cuba and a convenient place to clear into that country is Marina Hemingway, west of Havana. The marina is sometimes confusingly referred to as Barlovento and the easiest way to find the entrance through the reef is to identify the outer marker, whose GPS coordinates are reported as 23°05.3'N, 82°29.3'W. The entrance should not be attempted in strong onshore winds when big rollers break all around the narrow pass through the reef. Guarda Frontera should be contacted on VHF channel 16 when entering Cuban territorial waters. Hemingway Marina monitors channel 72.
At the change of seasons, or in early summer, a route via the Windward Passage (AN117C) may be more attractive than the one through the Yucatan Channel described above. From a port in North Florida, such as St Augustine (AN1176), the Windward Passage is best reached by sailing on a SE course which avoids the Abacos to WP AN1177. There the route turns south to pass west of San Salvador, Crooked and Acklins Island to WP AN1178, in Mira-Por-Vos Passage. A slight course alteration will be needed to reach WP AN1179, eight miles NE of Cuba's Cape Maisi. From there on, the route south of the Windward Passage is described in AN114. The southbound route across the Caribbean Sea is also joined in the Windward Passage by boats coming from ports in South Florida, either via the Bahamas or through the Old Bahama Channel.
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