What Are Windward And Leeward Islands? How are They Different?

Caribbean map

The Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands are two terms you might hear often in the sailing world.

The Windward Islands, in french îles au Vent, in Spanish, Islas de Barlovento, usually refer to Caribbean islands from the southern arc of the Lesser Antilles, but not always.

Why are they called “windward”? What are the Windward Islands compared to the Leeward Islands? What are the differences between the windward and leeward islands in the Caribbean compared to the ones in Polynesia?

We’ll answer all your questions in this post.

Why do we call some islands Windward and some other Leeward ?

If you’ve been in the sailing world a bit, you’ll notice that some islands are defined as Windward, while other are called Leeward.

The concept behind it is actually quite simple and depends on one parameter: their geography compared to the (dominant) trade-wind.

Simply put, when you follow the trade-winds, thus when you sail downwind, you end up reaching islands called “windward”. On the other hand, when islands are reachable going downwind compared to the trade-winds, they are called “leeward”.

So if an sailor/explorer from the past was simply following the trade winds and luckily reached an island, chances are this was a windward island.

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The Caribbean Windward Islands

The Caribbean Windward Islands are the most famous Windward islands, and the ones people most refer to while talking about “windward islands”. They are located at the southern end of the Caribbean arc. They are the last link before Trinidad and South America.

British sailors called these islands “Windward Islands” because they had to beat to windward to get there from their other possessions.

The windward islands are exposed to the trade winds coming from the East, therefore navigation from north to south is facilitated there. Far enough apart from each other, the windward islands allow moments of navigation on the open sea before reaching the calm of the shore under the next wind.

The four main Windward Islands in the Caribbean are :

These islands are lush and tropical, with high mountains and rich vegetation. You will find beautiful rainforests, ideal for hiking enthusiasts.

Between St. Vincent and Grenada are the Grenadines, a swarm of small islands, 600 islands, and cays. They all have beautiful white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters, and colorful reefs.

These islands were colonized by the Arawaks more than two millennia ago. This oriental-looking people was later replaced by a more warlike tribe called the Caribbean. It is the latter who resided in the Windward Islands when Christopher Columbus discovered this part of the world.

Martinique, the northernmost Windward island, has a long colonial past and has always been under the possession of the French. Still belonging to France, today it is a member of the European Union.

Read also: Caribbean Yacht Charter: the price list


Emmanuel Pertuisot, President.

The Windward Islands in the Caribbean are a sailor’s paradise. The steady winds and trade winds ensure exhilarating sailing. The anchorages are calm and offer extraordinary sunsets. The climate is mild all year round, the inhabitants are friendly and the food extraordinary.

Martinique history
Diamond Rock, Martinique.

If you dream is sailing and enjoying some of the most beautiful islands in the world, the Windward Islands are for you!

windward leeward islands caribbeans

The Leeward Islands of the Caribbeans

The Leeward Islands are the northern islands of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean.

Here are the main Leeward Islands of the Caribbeans :

– The British Virgin Islands (BVI) and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI)
– Saint Kitts & Nevis
– Redonda
– Saint-Eustache
– Saba
Antigua & Barbuda
– Montserrat
Saint Martin & Saint Barthelemy
– Anguilla

Further away from the trade winds, they then inherit the name of “leeward” islands.

The Leeward islands were called that way for the same reasons as Windward islands : the direction of the wind.

While the wind is mostly blowing to (upwind) the windward islands when you are coming from the Atlantic Ocean, the wind is usually blowing the other way around (downwind) when you try to reach the Leeward islands by the sea. Hence, they were called the Leeward islands and are still called that way to this day.

The wind direction also partially explain why transatlantic vessels were usually seeing Dominica or Martinique upon arrival in the Caribbeans. The trade-winds they were following were usually bringing them here instead of the Leeward islands, that were harder to reach by chance.

Geological specificities of the Leeward and Windward islands in the Caribbean

The formation of the Lesser Antilles island arc is influenced by numerous events, particularly those related to tectonics plates. The Windward Islands enjoy a particular geological formation and follow the limit of the subduction zone between the oceanic crust and the Caribbean plate. The two plates converge at this precise level. The Atlantic plate is sinking, each year, 2 to 4 cm below the Caribbean plate by subduction.

These volcanic islands then consist of craters, hot springs and sulfuric releases.

Here are a few things not to be missed while visiting those islands:

  • The two peaks of Saint Lucia and the sulfuric water baths in the natural rivers.

  • Hiking around the Soufrière de Saint Vincent or the Soufrière de Guadeloupe.
  • Hiking around the Montagne Pelée in Martinique.

This volcanic arc is still active, so since December 27, 2020, the alert level in Saint Vincent has been raised to orange with access to the crater prohibited. It is an effusive eruption, the lava is viscous and does not flow, it accumulates and forms a dome in the crater. Its evolution is monitored by the Saint Vincent UWI seismic seismic research center.

Saint Vincent Soufriere
Credit photo: Desert Fox Photography, follow @capt_defreitas

In Martinique, the Pelée mountain which usually makes the joy of the hikers, is, passed under yellow vigilance. The scientific experts want to reinforce the monitoring of the volcano after an upsurge of earthquakes and gas rises. The observatory of volcanology and seismology issues a weekly report. The last eruption of Mount Pelée caused more than 30,000 deaths and dates from May 8, 1902, it is one of the most destructive episodes of modern times. The Pelee is characterized by explosive eruptions, rare but violent.

Montagne pelée Martinique
Credit photo: Stephanie Lacordelle photography

The Windward and Leeward Islands outside the Caribbean

As soon as there are islands and wind, there is a “windward” and a “leeward” coast. Although the terms are usually used for the Caribbean islands, we also speak of the Windward and Leeward Islands in Polynesia, Cape Verde or even in Hawaii.

The Windwards and Leeward Islands of Polynesia

In French Polynesia, the islands of the society are spread over 720 kilometers in the Pacific Ocean and 1680 km2 of land. They are divided into two, the Windward Islands (Windward) and the Leeward Islands (Leeward).

To the east, the Windward Islands protect the Leeward Islands from the trade winds coming from the southeast. The Windward Islands consist of 4 high islands and an atoll: Tahiti, the main island, Moorea, Maiao, Mehetia and Tetiaroa atoll.

windward leeward islands polynesia

The Leeward Islands of Polynesia consist of the mountainous volcanic islands of Raiatea, Tahaa, Huahine and Bora Bora, as well as the atolls of Maupiti, Maupihaa, Tupai, Manuae and Motu One.

The Windward and Leeward islands of Cape Verde

Cape Verde, located off the African coast, consists of a group of 9 inhabited islands, one uninhabited island, and islets.

These islands are divided into two groups: the “Islas de barlovento” (windward islands), in the North, and the “Islas de sotavento” (leeward islands), in the South.

These last ones are protected from the trade winds coming from the North-East thanks to the windward islands “in the wind” (Barlovento).

The Windward Islands of Cape Verde consist of the islands of Santo Antão, São Vicente, Santa Luzia (uninhabited), São Nicolau, Sal, and Boa Vista, and the islets Branco and Raso.

The Leeward Islands or Sotavento include Maio, Santiago, Fogo, and Bravo, as well as the islets Grande, Luis Carneiro, and Cima, the Rombos.

windward leeward islands cabo verde

Read also: BVI Hurricane Season – Everything You Have To Know

Want more information about the Windward and Leeward Islands?

You will have understood it, from the Bahamas to Venezuela we have traveled the Caribbean arc from north to south. We sailed in the Saint Lucia channel, from Dominica to Los Roques, crossed whales, turtles, and The pirate of the Caribbean. Do you want to discover these fantastic places? We recommend it! Contact us now to get the best advice.

What is the difference between windward and leeward islands?

Windward islands are islands you can reach by boat following the trade-winds. Leeward islands are islands located the opposite direction of the trade-winds.

Where are the windward and leeward islands?

Any archipelago can have windward and leeward islands. However, the most famous windward and leeward islands are in the Caribbean, in Polynesia and in Cabo Verde.

What are the Windward Islands in the Caribbean?

The Windward islands in the Caribbean are Martinique, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and Grenada.

What are the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean?

The Leeward islands of the Caribbeans are the virgin islands (BVI and USVI), Saint-Kitts & Nevis, Antigua & Bermuda, Montserrat, Saint Martin, Saint Barthelemy and Guadeloupe for the most famous.

What are the Windward Islands of Polynesia?

The Windward Islands of Polynesia are Tahiti, Moorea, Maiao and Mehetia, along with Tetiaroa atoll.

What are the Leeward Islands of Polynesia?

The Leeward Islands of Polynesia include Bora Bora, Raiatea, Tahaa and Huanine, along with atolls such as Maupiti, Maupihaa, Tupai, Manuae or Motu One.

What are the Winward Islands of Cabo Verde?

The Windward Islands of Cabo Verde are called the “islas de Barlovento”. They include : Santo Antão, São Vicente, Santa Luzia, São Nicolau, Sal, and Boa Vista, along with the islets Branco and Raso.

What are the Leeward Islands of Cabo Verde?

The Leeward Islands of Cabo Verde are called the “islas de Sotavento”. They include: Maio, Santiago, Fogo, and Bravo, as well as the islets Grande, Luis Carneiro, Cima and the Rombos.