Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   February 2011



Caribbean Cruising in the New Millennium:

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

by Frank Virgintino

There are dreams that cruisers share. A fair wind and a fair current to move us along the way. Beautiful islands with temperatures that neither freeze nor burn. White sand beaches and secure anchorages and exotic cultures. These are among our favorite things.
A very large part of sailing and cruising is our sense of freedom and wellbeing. We make a very large investment of time and money to make our dreams come true and, while sometimes we do not encounter the conditions that we want, we steadfastly pursue what we have conjured up in our minds.

The Good
Ask any sailor from New York, Montreal, London, Oslo or any point north what runs through his mind during those cold, bleak days of winter and he will tell you that visions of sailing in the Caribbean are the equivalent of sugar plums dancing in his head. What is it that is so compelling about cruising in warm climates? At its essence it is freedom, freedom to go where we please, when we please and to be out there as long as we please.
It has been more than 50 years since we have come to dream about the Caribbean as a place to escape to and, better yet, to escape to on a boat. The Andrews Sisters were singing “Rum and Coca Cola” in 1944:

If you ever go down Trinidad
They make you feel so very glad,
Calypso sing and make-up rhyme
Guarantee you one real good fine time!
Culturally, the Caribbean includes Native Americans, Africans, Europeans, East Indians, Chinese, and people from the Middle East and from the rest of all the Americas. Such a mix brings with it art, history, music, food and products so diverse as to boggle the mind. If what comes to your mind when you think of the Caribbean is only clear water, blue sky, a fair wind and coconut trees, think again.

Starting in Trinidad, we can celebrate East Indian culture and its food, music and art without traveling to India. As we continue north and west up the island chain, we can explore French culture in many different applications — from the subtle nuances of French Creole in Grenada to the “joie de vivre” of St. Barth’s. We can take note of the impact of English culture ranging from the islands where English is spoken to those islands that are still part of the English Commonwealth. Dutch influence shows up in St. Maarten and Saba. In the Greater Antilles we discover the two largest islands in the Caribbean, Hispaniola and Cuba — with Spanish-speaking cultures that mix Latino, African and Native American features into a very pleasant motif. We must not forget that the western third of Hispaniola is Haiti, which is decidedly French and West African.
Jamaica has a motto that reads “out of many, one people”. If you visit there it will not take you long to see that it is so, but at the same time you sense that Jamaica is the center of African-Caribbean culture. All you need do is listen to Reggae music and visit the Bob Marley Museum to understand what it means and the impact it has had around the world.

In fact, the cultural diversity of the Caribbean is not just good — it is excellent!
Another tick in the “good” category is the fact that there are places where we can really get away from the rat race and relax profoundly.
When we come to the Caribbean, if we want to see the good, we must get beyond our own definition of it. In most of the Caribbean, if it is raining hard people do not go out. Rain is a time for one to stay home, safe and dry. If someone is supposed to come to work on your boat, notwithstanding that the work may be inside in the cabin, if it is raining, do not get your hopes up that your contractor will show up.
 Another side of what is good in the Caribbean is socializing. It is perhaps best summed up in a Trinidadian concept: “liming”. You hang out with your friends, doing nothing more than having a good time, talking, eating, drinking and relaxing. And the best part of it is that you try to do it as often as the opportunity presents itself. No one considers it to be a waste of time, but rather the best application of time.
Add these insights to the constancy of the tradewinds and a very pleasant climate for most of the year, and you have the Caribbean. Add a boat that (supposedly) gets its power from the wind to the equation and you have a “ticket to ride”! Let the good times roll, but do not forget to go with the flow.

The Bad
What do you think the Caribbean countries really have to export? What do you think drives their economies and creates livelihoods? Manufacturing for export had a brief run in the Caribbean: there were free trade zones in many Caribbean countries up to just a decade ago, but those factory jobs have been lost to India and China. Venezuela and Trinidad have oil. But the main engine of the Caribbean economy today is Tourism with a capital T. Tourism is not just hotels, cruise ships and marinas; it is agriculture and food preparation, arts and crafts, car rentals, casinos, fishing expeditions, inland tours, and a plethora of interconnected jobs right down to the person who supplies the beach chairs. However, tourism is subject to economic fluctuation and in a worldwide recession, jobs are easily lost.
It is simply not easy to find a job in the Caribbean and even harder to find a career. Opportunities are few and far between. The majority of jobs are low paying and subject to seasonal fluctuation. Perhaps if the Wider Caribbean Basin organized itself like the European Common Market, it might have more leverage. Such organization has been attempted, but the hurdles of politics and economics have made it an impossible task to date.

Even in the most developed islands with the greatest infrastructure, the average income is often still no higher than the minimum wage in the United States. Yet the cost of living in many respects is not very different from what it is in more developed countries.
When cruising sailboats made their debut in the Caribbean, life was simpler. People made do with less and the expectation level was lower. Cruising boats, still a rarity, were accorded a place of honor and respect. At that time bananas were still being exported and fishing in local waters yielded an abundant harvest. Today the banana economy has been lost and fish are no longer abundant. When today’s cruiser calls at most Caribbean countries, he is arriving on what appears to be a floating palace supported by an income (even if a retirement income) that is, in most cases, far greater than what entire local working families earn. It is little wonder that reports of thefts have increased so dramatically over the last 20 years. The crime rate is exacerbated by the loss of jobs caused by the worldwide recession and compounded by the illegal drug trade. Whereas one once could put an anchor down and sleep with the hatches wide open, today there are many areas of the Caribbean where strict security measures must be taken. Dinghies and outboard motors are most prized on the theft scale. Beyond that there are items of boat gear and personal property that are often seen as a month’s wages, if not more.

Theft is the mainstay of “the bad” in the Caribbean and cruisers need to be conscious of this. We must be aware of the risks and reputations of each country in the Caribbean, just as we are aware of weather patterns and the value of a secure anchorage. We must cruise through the Caribbean with the same focus that we have when we prepare our boat for a voyage. The old axiom that an “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” can make all the difference in what we experience.

The Ugly
It is never easy to speak of the ugly. No one wants to go to a gathering and discuss in any detail events that strike fear in our hearts. There are, however, always examples of such events, and websites such as and are excellent sources of information.
On December 21st, 2009 the yacht Triton, a 56-foot sloop with three German nationals on board, was en route from Trinidad to Grenada. At around noon, approximately 40 miles north of Trinidad (position 11°27N 61°52W), it was approached from the south by a pirogue. The seven or eight Spanish-speaking men aboard the pirogue fired shots at the yacht and commanded the crew to stop. Four or five of these men boarded Triton. Although no one was harmed, the boat was stripped of its equipment and the possessions of the crew.
On April 3rd,, 2010 a German couple aboard the sailing vessel Spirit of Cologne II were attacked by assailants one mile off the north coast of Venezuela along the Paria Peninsula. Mr. Ropke was shot and killed; his wife, Angelica was left unharmed and eventually rescued.
On June 28th, 2010, singlehanded American sailor Mike Harker was anchored in Simpson Bay Lagoon, St. Martin. Two assailants swam out, boarded the boat and robbed Harker, whom they beat unconscious and left for dead.
This list can go on and on but the point is that there are incidents of piracy and murder. Acts of this type are not frequent, but one must take note of where they occur and what conditions might provoke such an attack.

It takes work to separate fact from fiction, truth from gossip, but the work is worthwhile and will significantly improve your enjoyment and safety while cruising. Do the research and do it in detail. For example, it is no secret that the northeastern coast of Venezuela, especially the Paria Peninsula, is not secure and incidents are now spreading to include the waters around some offshore islands, such as Los Testigos, formerly considered “safe”. We should avoid sailing within “pirogue distance”, or about 50 miles, from such coastlines. On the other hand, Jamaica has the worst reputation for crime in the Caribbean, yet my experience of cruising Jamaica is one of reasonable safety. Most of the crime in that country is in the ghettos of Kingston, and tourists are not often involved.

We must avoid anchorages with a proven bad history. We must also avoid dangerous spots in “good anchorages”: in all large anchorages there are areas that are less secure than others. Anchor in an area that does not single your boat out as being vulnerable.
Always be polite to those who come alongside to sell something or offer a service. Rudeness may well incur someone’s anger and you may find yourself at 2:00AM in a tough situation. Being reactive and judgmental serves no purpose, and can increase your risk. Never criticize a country or the people of a country openly. If you make fun of the locals or their country, you may get laughs from your friends but the last laugh will most often be on you.
Act sensibly and responsibly and you will improve your chances of avoiding “the ugly”.
Being prepared for “the bad” or “the ugly” is important and should be taken into account in all ways possible. Remember: we have the power to actually “grow the good” when we go cruising, by the way we go about it.

Frank Virgintino is the author of Free Cruising Guides (


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