Perceived Problems, But Solid Attractions
It’s that time of year when we pause to look back on the past sailing season and look forward to the next one, and take a look at “the big picture”.
Compass asked a representative sample of sailors currently cruising the Caribbean, ranging from “old salts” to relative newcomers, two crucial questions:
• What do you see as the single biggest problem facing cruising sailors in the Caribbean today?
• What do you see as the single biggest attraction of the Caribbean for cruising sailors today?
Here’s what they said.
The Biggest Problem Is:
CRIME & THE PERCEPTION OF CRIME
JoAnne and Bill Harris, who both hold 100-ton USCG Master Licenses and have been cruising the 53-foot trimaran Ultra through the Eastern and Western Caribbean for over seven years, tell us, “We must say that one of our greatest disappointments in our Caribbean cruising life is the increasing number of security issues that are being reported, and it appears to us that in the Eastern Caribbean incidents are definitely escalating. Yes, we recognize there is a much larger cruising community there and there is also a much larger population living on land. In the Western Caribbean, too, there have been several security incidents. Some of the incidents reported in both the Eastern and Western Caribbean are petty thefts, however other reports describe violent attacks on cruisers where the outcome is that someone is severely injured or is killed.
“We do not want to alarm anyone, but it is important to bring to your attention our own personal experiences: we have known 23 vessels that have had at least one of the aforementioned incidents happen to them in the past seven-plus years. Some of these vessels have even had multiple security incidents. We love our great life of cruising; unfortunately, it does come with the price of always being aware of security issues.”
Lindsay Bindman, who is in her first year of cruising, aboard the 47-foot ketch Vagabond, agrees: “The single biggest problem facing cruising sailors in the Caribbean today is theft-and-security. Being able to effectively lock one’s ship (and dinghy), as well as secure hiding places down below for valuables is a daily challenge.”
Christine and Kevin Gooch, experienced cruisers aboard the 38-foot cat Sweet Sensation, also weigh in: “In our opinion, the biggest problem is increasingly violent crime against cruisers — either real crimes or the perceived risk of them. We now think twice about anchoring overnight if we are the only boat in an anchorage and avoid certain anchorages where cruisers have been attacked previously.”
Awilda (Willie) and Mark Haskins, cruising for nearly a decade aboard the 60-foot ketch Liahona, sum it up: “Crimes against cruisers seem to be on the rise, particularly in areas considered safe in recent years. Learning how to protect yourself and your boat, without sacrificing enjoying the peace and beauty of remote locations, can be a challenge.”
See the sidebar for information on how cruisers are meeting that challenge.
Jennifer Simpson of the 44-foot sloop Three Sheets says that the biggest problem is overcrowded anchorages, especially in popular hurricane-season destinations at this time of year. “As the cruising population grows, it’s become a race to get to the best anchorages, especially in the summer months. Boats are often so tightly packed in certain anchorages that safe anchoring procedures are not followed. Inevitably someone drags when bad weather develops, putting all surrounding vessels in jeopardy.
“Additionally, overcrowding puts a strain on local resources. Since cruisers often buy in bulk, smaller markets are quickly emptied, leaving little left for the local population. Rather than accepting that some goods are unavailable or services may be slower because of crowds, many cruisers become demanding, complaining loudly and online, damaging the reputation of local businesses. Also, many cruisers don’t move their vessels for months on end, continually polluting the protected harbors with their waste. Should any country attempt to mitigate the issue with anchoring restrictions, fees, etcetera, cruisers fight back with a sense of entitlement, seemingly forgetting we are all simply guests in the countries we visit and compounding a growing negative stereotype of cruisers.”
Mike Lucivero of S/V Ciao Bella looks at it from a different tack: “The danger is the proliferation of state parks, reserves, or any protected or controlled areas. The parks and reserves are a good idea but the way in which they’re being managed does not benefit cruisers. The mooring balls… are too expensive for many cruisers to consider, and the more that the ideal anchorages are taken up with park or reserve mooring balls, the more difficult it is for cruisers to find protected bays for enjoyment and safe anchorage, especially when storms threaten. It seems the needs of commercial charter and luxury yachts are being met over the needs of cruisers.”
Long-time cruisers Angelika and Angelus Gruener on Angelos feel that “The single biggest problem is the charterers… They come with money in abundance, and think they can outweigh their behaviour with their money.”
CUSTOMS & IMMIGRATION
Chelsea Pyne notes a problem that has confounded many other new Caribbean cruisers: “For a crew that is constantly on the move in the Caribbean, our biggest problem revolves around the local governments: dealing with unorganized authorities and forever-changing policies, regulations and rising fees.”
Jim Hutchins, a long-time cruiser on the 40-foot sloop Boldly Go, notes, however, that steps are being taken to make clearance easier: “The opportunity is with the proliferation of clearance places and systems. My personal favorite is Sea Services chandlery in Fort de France, Martinique. You walk in, enter your information at a computer and hit ‘print’. Voila. You’re done. Many island nations are making their clearance more user friendly and adding locations to make it more convenient for visiting yachts.” (Electronic pre-clearance is now also available in many Caribbean nations; see www.sailclear.com.)
ONE MORE THING
And finally, there’s the eternal problem of “man overboard!” — and yes, it happens here. Art Ross, USCG Auxiliary Officer and a Certified Vessel Safety examiner, says, “When we hear of mishaps, accidents, losses, breakdowns and other incidents that screw up a sailor’s day, we are hearing about something that may have been preventable. Wear your PFD (personal flotation device) in sketchy weather or at night. Your PFD should always have a flashing beacon attached, and a whistle. Another common mistake is not having a boarding ladder available — ever try to climb on board without one?”
In summary, although it’s hard to pinpoint an actual rate of crimes against a constantly fluctuating population, we’ve got a strong perception that crime is on the rise. We also hear about overcrowding, although this can be a matter of perspective: what seems crowded to a South Seas cruiser might seem normal to a sailor from a popular European port. Clearing in and out while island hopping is more problematic in some places than in others, but remains a hassle.
So, what’s on the other side of the scale that continues to draw sailors to the Caribbean?
And the Biggest Attraction Is:
WEATHER & SAILING CONDITIONS
Don Street, who has cruised and written about the Eastern Caribbean for half a century: “The biggest attraction of the Caribbean is the fact that it is the only great sailing area easily accessible from the States or Europe that is warm in the winter!”
Christine and Kevin Gooch: “The biggest attractions for us are the sailing conditions: steady tradewinds and warm weather — a welcome escape from UK winters!”
Awilda and Mark Haskins: “The weather!”
EASY PASSAGE MAKING
Jennifer Simpson says the biggest attraction is “Ease of passage making. The Caribbean cruising grounds are relatively easy to navigate, most islands in such short proximity to each other that passages between them are less daunting to new cruisers. There are incredible resources to plan a journey, whether through online forums, cruising guides, social media and Chris Parker’s weather reports, cruisers can easily find the information they need to get from one anchorage or island to the next. (Unfortunately, it’s the available resources that make Caribbean cruising easier that lead back to the problem of overcrowding.)”
Mike Lucivero adds: “Opportunity knocks with advanced GPS and the advancement of technology for weather forecasting to aid cruisers’ planning and navigation.”
Chelsea Pyne: We do not know why we picked the Caribbean over the Mediterranean or Indo-Pacific… We like to think the waves here are nicer and the islands are closer together allowing more “hopping”.
Lynn Kaak and Ken Goodings: “[The biggest attraction is] the ease of travelling from one island to another. It is all day trips if that is what you like, with your next destination often within sight! And each island has its own charm.”
Christine and Kevin Gooch: “[Another big attraction besides the weather is] the sense of community amongst cruisers. Each year brings the chance to catch up with old friends and meet new ones, and it is heartwarming to see the way cruisers reach out to help others — be it collecting funds for those needing medical help or for victims of crime or shipwreck, helping local children learn to read, or donating and taking supplies to countries hit by hurricanes.”
JoAnne and Bill Harris: “Okay, now for our most favorite part of cruising the Caribbean. It is the camaraderie amongst the cruisers. It is a magical thing! We all share a common bond, which is to make our life on the sea — and all of the good, the bad, and ugly that comes along with it. Whenever a cruiser has a problem, there is an immediate lineup of cruisers offering to assist, whether it is a boat issue, medical issue, or even if just plain ol’ moral support is needed. Furthermore, whenever there is a fun Happy Hour or Potluck Party that is organized by a cruiser, everyone attends and it is one big happy family. Over our past seven-plus years living aboard, we have had a blast entertaining old and new friends aboard Ultra, spending countless sundowners and potlucks with cruisers from around the globe. Yes, many of them are amazing friends for a lifetime!”
Lynn Kaak and Ken Goodings, living aboard the 35-foot sloop Silverheels 3 since 2003, share a caveat: “It seems many cruisers ‘ghettoize’ themselves, and just stay within the cruiser hangouts, or go to ‘local’ events, but then just stay with other cruisers. Meet people! Strike up conversations!”
Which brings us to…
Lindsay Bindman: “The single biggest attraction of the Caribbean for cruising sailors today continues to be the variety of places to visit within a small geographic region. It’s a beautifully diverse experience in which there is something for everyone. There’s a blend of so many cultures, languages, foods and people.”
Art Ross seconds that: “Diversity of culture has always trumped everything else for me. Each island presents itself in unique ways. The lovely faces of the children, the friendliness of the vendors, the helpfulness at a boatyard (well, mostly), the food, the beaches. It is the culture that we seek, I think, after all — that which is different and excites our imaginations and offers us special possibilities.”
In balance, are the perceived problems of crime and overcrowding outweighed by the attractions of warm weather and good sailing conditions, easy passage making, cultural diversity and great cruising camaraderie? It seems so, but only time will tell.
Tackling crime against yachts will be key, as a bad incident in one spot tends to tarnish the reputation of the whole region. Christine and Kevin Gooch point out, “The issue appears to be taken more seriously by the Governments of some countries than others; in some places crimes against cruisers are jumped on immediately and every effort made to secure an arrest and conviction so as not to adversely affect tourism, while others appear to do nothing or very little.”
As for overcrowding, zoning looms on the horizon to control over-use of popular harbors in some locations.
Meanwhile, the ease of passage making, the weather (climate change aside), the cultural diversity and the cruising community spirit itself are constants, attracting new boats to the Caribbean every year, and Bill and JoAnne Harris speak for many who linger here when they say, “We love this Caribbean cruising life and have been truly blessed to have done it for so long. We look forward to many more adventurous years to come!”
Cruisers’ Tips On
Lindsay Bindman: “Sometimes security means not leaving the ship after dark. Some danger can be avoided by reading other sailor’s reviews of locations on applications such as Active Captain. This is an excellent way to stay informed and stay safe as you navigate the islands.”
JoAnne and Bill Harris: “We have encountered numerous cruisers who leave their boat open at night while they sleep or when they go ashore. For us this is not an option, we lock up Ultra every time we leave her, even if it is just a quick trip to visit a fellow boat. We also lock up as though Ultra is Fort Knox — every night. Yes, we sweat at night, due to poor ventilation with only one or two hatches open that are very near to us. But then again, this is the tropics, so we also sweat during the day when everything is open!
“We have implemented several security measures aboard Ultra and also have created and practiced several security drills. Furthermore, we have conducted several security seminars for other cruisers aboard Ultra as well as at happy hours. Some might say, ‘I do not want to live that way,’ and we agree that it would be so great to be more carefree in regard to security, but the number one goal is to be safe and secure while living aboard. Security aboard for us is not unlike living on land as we did in Texas, where we would always have the house locked up during the day and at night.
“To get more information on marine security issues, go to www.noonsite.com. You can also sign up, as we have, to get free security alerts at www.safetyandsecuritynet.com.”
Don Street: “Regarding the stealing of dinghies, the only solution is hoist it or lose it. Do this every night! Make a four-point hoisting bridle attaching to four points on the dinghy, tie the lines together to a big ring, attach the ring to the main halyard and hoist the dinghy clear of the water.”
Ellen Birrell on Boldly Go presents a broader outlook: “A growing danger for cruisers is the diminishing number of tranquil, safe and pristine anchorages in island societies where inequality flourishes and guns are proliferating.
“During European conquest and colonization, ‘affluence’ (power, money, guns) meeting ‘poverty’ (living simply in oneness with the land) was disastrous for indigenous Caribbean peoples. Western culture considered living in unity with one’s natural environment heathen and deserving of enslavement or decimation. Importing Africans and keeping them in slavery for more than 200 years, and then emancipating them without rehabilitation or training added to the debacle.
“We all have the opportunity, however, of seeing ourselves as part of the same human race and seeking to end poverty. Poverty is a manmade condition. Only humans can rid themselves of this problem they created. Caribbean nations can build a strong middle class. A middle class that is educated and equipped to care for themselves and their marine environment bodes well for visitors and residents alike. Be a voice for equality through purchasing choices and supporting programs that build literacy, women’s empowerment, vocational training and youth development.”
A Few Words from Panama
Ray Jason says, “I am about as expert as anyone when it comes to discussing the southwestern Caribbean and in particular the Bocas del Toro archipelago in Panama.
“Those of us who have gravitated here consider it ‘the Undiscovered Caribbean’. And many of us here have sampled the Eastern Caribbean extensively; and can thus make a fairly accurate assessment — at least on a personal basis.
“I spent considerable time aboard Aventura in the US and British Virgin Islands and a couple of years in the Windwards, from St. Vincent down to Grenada. I have been a full-time cruiser since 1992 and I still love this mode of living. As a result, I try to pay attention to various improvements or degradations. I did my West Indies cruising before I discovered Bocas del Toro, so my very favorable opinion of this area is not a result of arriving here first.
“As I island-hopped down the chain, these were the less favorable aspects that I noticed. This litany is fairly standard, and I am surely not alone in being disappointed by these things:
• Vast numbers of bareboat charterers with a lesser skill-set than genuine cruisers. Being there on a one- or two-week junket make their financial considerations far different from those of the full-time cruiser. This increases the cost of shoreside necessities and luxuries.
• Pay-by-the-day mooring fields dominating so many anchorages. Aside from the cost issues, this also makes it tougher for those trying to drop the hook, since the scope issues become complicated and because the moorings usually take up the best positions.
• Aggressive ‘boat boys’ practically requiring you to pay them to do chores that you prefer to handle on your own.
• Crowded anchorages — either with or without retail moorings.
• Tourism fatigue. So many decades of catering to visitors can take a toll on the local community. This expresses itself in a latent tension that sometimes surfaces and becomes more overt.
• The ubiquitous cacophony of boom boxes. It is hard to savor the tranquility of the tropics when it is difficult to sleep.
“Bocas del Toro does not suffer from any of those difficulties. However, lest I portray Bocas as a cruisers’ Shangri-la, I should mention the one downside. In recent years Panama has had a reputation for being an expensive country to clear into. And indeed the fees have been near the high end of the spectrum. However, the owner of the Bocas Marina has been lobbying tirelessly, at his own expense, to get that resolved. The effort has gone all the way to the National Congress where a bill is now working its way through the approval process. When it is ratified, Panama will go from being an expensive cruising destination to a very inexpensive one.
“And as a bonus, there is no Hurricane Season — because there are no hurricanes.
Another experienced cruiser, who prefers to be Anonymous, says, “Since we have been cruising only in Panama and to a lesser extent in Colombia since 2010 it is impossible for me to render an accurate opinion to your questions outside of the small world we presently occupy. I will comment on what I have personally experienced.
“The single biggest problem in the San Blas is exploitation.
• Exploitation of visiting cruisers ranging from unrealistic fees such as the proposal for a US$5,000 a month fee to sail in the San Blas, to the exclusion of yachts completely by nationalistic elements in the leadership who have effectively scared away many of the folks that wanted to visit the San Blas.
• Exploitation of the environment, with no system of garbage disposal, except throwing all waste, including plastic, into the sea.
• Exploitation of all sizes of gastropods, something I have never seen anywhere else, where whole conch beds are decimated by four guys with an ulu wading the flats, punching our the bodies from all the shells they find, till the area has been emptied. The magnificent reefs are fast turning into dead rock and rising sea surface levels are killing the coconut trees on the periphery of many of the islands.
• Unchecked population growth by a people that seem not to practice any method of population limitation, now that infant mortality is at the lowest point in their history thanks to modern birthing practices.
“Your second question is easy. [The biggest attraction in the San Blas is] postcard-perfect beauty in the form of high mountains to the south and islands ringed with white sand beaches; some amazingly happy, friendly people living in a subsidence world we really can’t appreciate as westerners coming from a developed countries; and empty anchorages you can remain in without being visited by another boat for weeks.”
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