Tobago Cays – Palm Island
Salt Whistle Bay is the natural stepping stone to the Tobago Cays, the high spot of the cruise for pretty well everyone. It’s an easy 45-minute passage, and best is to motor or motor-sail as you’ll be against current and on the wind. From the entrance of Salt Whistle Bay, turn to the north-north-east and point at Glossy Hill. When Jondell Rock is right on your port beam, turn to the south-east and you’ll see the Tobago Cays right on your bow. You won’t be able to see the passage between Petit Bateau and Petit Rameau, so they’ll look like one island until you get to the entrance itself.
You’ll be heading down approximately 143 magnetic and what you’re looking for are the two transit markers – latticed pylons with spear shapes on the top – which you can usually pick up about a mile away. Baleine Rocks are visible right up to the entrance to the Cays and your route takes you about halfway between Mayreau and Baleine Rocks. This is an easy passage, about half a mile wide and I’ve never heard of anyone having a problem approaching the Cays from the north west.
A word of warning, however – don’t be surprised if you can see the bottom 30 or 40 feet down … the seabed consists of rocks and coral, which always look closer than they are. It’s what I call “Alarming Clarity Syndrome”. The passage between Petit Bateau and Petit Rameau is the “front door’ to the Cays. Astonishingly, the Imray charts mark this as an anchorage which seems to me to be pretty anti-social. There’s about 12 to 18 feet of water through the passage, so no depth constraints.
The best place to head for is south of Baradal – as you come through the passage, turn to the south east, cross the deep patch (drops down to about 50 feet) and then edge up towards Horseshoe Reef. You’ll be anchoring in about 8 to 10 feet of water in a sand bottom with excellent holding ground. The Tobago Cays are a marine park and are patrolled by Park Rangers. So no fishing, no removing anything from the water and be particularly careful not to touch coral. There’s an entrance fee of $EC 10 (about $US 3.85) per person per day and this may be paid directly to the Park Rangers who should properly identify themselves.
Note that close to Baradal is a protected green turtle breeding ground so stay well clear. In the Cays, you’re anchoring in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean – with nothing between you and Africa except Horseshoe Reef. But don’t worry – not only is it a safe overnight anchorage, but it’s also a great place, from the security point of view, to anchor if bad weather’s coming through. The sea rarely breaks over the reef into the anchorage and, thus, whilst it’s always wind-swept (makes for nice cool nights), it’s usually pretty comfortable. But because you’re exposed (2,400 miles of open ocean in front of you), and if it’s blowing up, I strongly recommend a second bow anchor – more for psychological reasons than for the quality of the holding. You’ll definitely sleep better knowing that you’ve got that extra ground tackle out.
Although they’re uninhabited, the price of progress means that you can get pretty well anything you need in the Cays – the fishermen come out daily from Clifton Harbour in Union Island, and vend from their open boats. You can find everything from fresh fish, to lobster (in season, 01 September through 30 April), ice, jewellery, t-shirts, post-cards, soft drinks – and one fellow will even come round and take your orders for fresh baguettes directly from Union Island’s
bakery for tomorrow’s breakfast. These fishermen are friendly, helpful and offer a great service – years ago one would have to sail down to Clifton to top up with essentials, but now you can have everything brought directly to you, and thus sit in the Cays for as long as you want. Striking up a rapport with these people is easy and worthwhile.
A cold drink will bring you a friend for life and, before you know it, they’ll be offering to clean the fish for you and even to barbecue it on the beach. You’ll pay a bit of a premium for anything you buy in the Cays since obviously the fishermen need to cover their fuel costs and earn a few dollars. For instance a bag of block ice can cost between $US 8 and $US 10 – but, on the other hand, if your beers are getting warm, it’s worth it. The snorkelling in the Cays is everywhere – right around the main Horseshoe Reef itself, one of the longest barrier reefs in the Western hemisphere, and close to the islands themselves. You can dinghy in and out of the coral heads, the seabed clearly visible, and pick up a dinghy mooring. Be aware that the strong breezes create current throughout the Cays, so it’s usually best to snorkel upwind of your dinghy and then drift back down onto it.
It’s worth finding the dinghy pass which runs parallel to the northern end of Baradal – great snorkelling here, though make sure you don’t get too close to the outside of the reef, as this area can break and there are also strong currents running down the windward side of the reef. For those who dive, it’s worth calling Glenroy Adams at Grenadines Dive in Clifton Harbour (VHF 68) – he operates rendezvous dives through this region and there’s excellent diving at Mayreau Gardens immediately east of Mayreau, and, if the weather conditions are right, at World’s End Reef.
It’s also worth taking your dinghy over to the beach at Petit Bateau – this is a great spot for a lunch-time picnic, and there’s a scenic reef just a few yards from the beach, with a drop-off down to about 35 feet. If you’re planning on a beach barbecue, check with the Park Rangers as there are nominated barbecue areas. Most people plan a half a day or so in the Cays, but end up spending most of their vacation there. I first sailed in there 25 years ago, and still find it hard to leave … but the time will come when you have to go …