Discovering the thornless route to Windward

A review of Bruce Van Sant's The Gentleman's Guide to Passages South, 7th ed.

The Gentleman's Guide to Passages South, 7th ed. ISBN 0-944428-31-2    Bruce Van Sant & Cruising Guide Publications, Inc. P.O. Box 1017, Dunedin, Fl. 34697-1017. (727) 733-5322. 

     When you are out on the high seas, engaged in serious cruising, you can't carry a bunch of things with you. Everything must be compact, practical, timeless, waterproof and have as many uses as possible. The Gentleman's Guide to Passages South fulfills all of these requirements, except one.

     It's no mystery why there are seven editions of this book. Bruce Van Sant has managed to distill his many years of experience cruising the "Thorny Path" through the Caribbean and come up with a very useful, informative guide which reflects his no-nonsense, practical and effective approach to cruising the windward passage from Florida to Venezuela.

     As the author himself states, "Somewhere between quitting the job and casting off, many cruisers lose sight of their first principles of cruising: safety, comfort & pleasure." According to Van Sant, the windward passage southward through the Caribbean has long been notorious for its "thorns" but, if timing, patience, and careful observation are employed, the thorns can be avoided, and the entire voyage can seem like a day sail on Biscayne Bay. This book goes into great detail to give the cruiser all the information needed to prepare for & have a successful, & thornless, trip.

     First of all,  one entire section of this book is full of practical ideas and suggestions on what items to bring, what items to avoid, what to expect in the islands, how to cope with culture shock and other situations. One half of a trip's success relies upon preparation & planning, and Van Sant covers almost everything, from crew's necessities to a Spanish glossary, beerology to basic diesel maintenance. 

     Secondly, the dozens of times Van Sant has cruised the islands of the Caribbean has given him a lot of local knowledge of the islands, which he shares in his book. If you want to know where the best prices to provision are, where to get boat work done well, what ports allow you to check in with Customs, which ports don't, how to handle local authorities, as well as where to get that first drink or meal ashore, Passages South will tell you. 

     Thirdly, the important seamanship items are discussed in great detail and in terms a cruiser can understand. Using drawings & charts Van Sant outlines the best ways to approach the harbors & shores of each island. He also explains what winds to wait for, what conditions to expect, what tides and currents are like, once again, from his decades of experience in this area. He provides sailing directions, teaches you how to play the island lees, and how to make sense out of Offshore Weather Reports. 

     Surely there are enough cruising books out there that you can buy one for each island and have a veritable "Caribbean Cruising" library. In reality, though, books weigh a ton, cost a lot, and instead have a tendency to become dust collectors. Paring down to essentials is one of the things cruising is all about, which is why, if you are going to purchase one good book for the Caribbean, I recommend Passages South. For all intents and purposes, the only drawback this book has is that, for being such a valuable resource, it is not waterproof. The cover is a bit flimsy and hardly reflects the quality of information found inside. Plus, with all the use and abuse this book is bound to get on your next trip, the publishers should consider a stiffer, sturdier, laminated cover.