Having spent six months or so in the Caribbean and several years in the
Mediterranean, I thought I should venture a comparison between these two premier cruising grounds. Not an easy undertaking as they both offer beautiful scenery, crystal clear water, lots to explore and a near perfect climate if you are in either place at the right time of year. I am so happy to have experienced them both but they do offer different things to a cruiser. I thought I should focus on the differences in this piece.
Let’s start with sailing conditions. In season, the Caribbean benefits from a constant easterly breeze. With the East Caribbean island chain running north to south this means that you are likely to experience near perfect conditions with 15 to 25 knots on the beam, one or two reefs in the main and a full genoa, and 7 to 8 knots of boat speed. And there are very few gusts unless the wind gets funnelled between islands or there is a tropical squall approaching. The weather is predictable and any change in wind angle is generally limited to something like 30 degrees north of east to 30 degrees south of east. This also means that it if you anchor west of the islands you are likely to sleep well at night. And you can stay as long as you want in the same anchorage.
The Mediterranean is essentially a large lake. With only a small opening to the west, at the Straight of Gibraltar. And with a mountain chain to the north and a desert to the south, wind conditions are very unpredictable. Winds often change both direction and strength several times a day and as most of the islands are mountainous you often get katabatic winds on the leeward side as the winds ‘slide’ down the side of the mountains. This, combined with the fact that the anchorages in the Mediterranean tend to be smaller and much more crowded, makes it hard to anchor. A spot that was perfect during the day may very well be outright dangerous at night. I find that you rarely stay more than a few nights at the same place and that you often leave because you have to rather than because you want to. I would go as far as saying that if you know how to anchor safely in the Med, you can do it almost anywhere.
Every fortnight, you can also expect really strong winds that usually last for three days or so. Locals affectionately call these things like Bora, Meltemi, Mistral, Khamsin and Sirocco depending on where you are and what direction they come from.
The water is usually very clear in both places. Maybe even more so in the Med, where you often see your anchor at the bottom even if it is 20 meters deep. But while the Caribbean still has a lot of life under the surface, the Med feels almost dead. You will see dolphins, turtles and swordfish in places, mostly as they come up to the surface, but it doesn’t compare with what you can experience snorkelling or diving around a Caribbean reef.
If what you find below the surface appears dead in the Med, it is quite the opposite on land. There is an abundance of life, culture and history. Every island has quaint villages with cobble stoned streets, town squares with cafés, bars and restaurants, and they are littered with historical sites to explore. I found myself eating out almost every night when I was in the Med whereas here in the Caribbean I often cook myself or eat on a buddy boat (I would not generally expose others to my cooking, I have other qualities). There is of course culture and history here too, but nothing can be compared with the islands in the Mediterranean.
The make up of the cruising community is also a little different. In the Med the typical cruiser is generally older. Often a retired couple that sail half of the year and go home or stay in a marina during the winter. You find all sorts over here. Solo sailors, adventurers that are on their way to the Panama Canal, backpackers that hitchhike, young couples or friends, couples with young children on a career break before their kids start schooling, early retirees and a pretty special category of characters that have fled the real world and live outside any sort of social norms (I hope people put me in the adventure category rather than the latter one!). And most sail all year around, dodging hurricanes during the off-season. I guess you could say that the average Caribbean cruiser appears more committed to the lifestyle. Or more lost to society in general. Depending on how you look at it.
I guess the commitment part has something to do with that it is a lot easier to fly ‘home’ or get people to visit you when you are in the Med. You are almost always reasonably close to a major airport which also makes it is easier get things fixed or to get spare parts. Out here you need to be a lot more self-sufficient. And this difference will only get more apparent as I start to move west.
At the end of the day, I guess it is a choice between what you are looking for. If you like culture, history, food and still want to be connected to the real world, go for the Mediterranean. If you on the other hand want to go more off grid, snorkel and dive and get a little taste of what to expect if you get further west, come to the Caribbean. I can do both. And feel fortunate that I have.