Almost Perfect Hurricane Holes
Part 1: Luperon
by Julia Bartlett
I feel as though I'm in the middle of a computer game. There are rising violent-crime rates to left, pirates to the right, diminishing insurance zones in front and inflating prices behind me, and the object of the game is to find The Secret Harbour where it is warm, affordable and comparatively safe from hurricanes and thugs for your average, non-combat model, female. I wasn't doing too well so I cheated, jumped on a plane and squished the Caribbean Sea into a few hours from east to west and north to south. The fact that I'm "sans boat" at the moment has enabled an emotional detachment and freedom that I don't have when lumbered with a cherished and imperfect vessel to consider.
I have come up with a couple ideas to share with you. The first is Luperon on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Study the aerial photo of the harbour and I needn't say any more about the protection. Study the hurricane statistics on the Internet and you'll get the other half of the picture. Luperon has an amazing safety record when it comes to hurricanes and violent crime. Over the years there have been some bouts of thievery and boaters zooming around in dinghies saying things like "Red alert all sectors, red alert all sectors" on a secret channel and culminating in chases through the mangroves. Yes, it was a nuisance, but it also added a touch of spice and a feeling of camaraderie and there was no actual violence, or threats of violence, that I have managed to dig up. And that makes a big difference to how safe I feel as a woman on my own.
The topography of Hispaniola means that hurricanes coming from the south have had nearly all the stuffing knocked out of them by the time they have puffed their way over the mountains to the north coast so they just bring rain - a lot. It's those moving north towards the Bahamas that have everyone rushing into the mangroves just to float gently out again, breathing a sigh of relief after winds of 40 or 50 knots if anything at all. So right in the middle of the hurricane belt there is this sanctuary from the worst the hurricane season has to offer, act of God or act of man. The main problem with Luperon is that the insurance companies do not recognise the figures. Perhaps it's a little too much paperwork to make an exception to the rules of latitude based on hard facts? Perhaps a little well-informed pressure from their clients might help? After all they can only gain from their customers' yachts being in a safe harbour. But Luperon and the Dominican Republic have more than a sanctuary to offer. There is no need to sweat it out on the boat all season.
Just a few minutes away by foot is the Luperon Beach Resort where you can book in for an all-inclusive few days, at a very reasonable price, but be close to the boat should the unexpected happen. And I promise I won't split on you should I bump into you there. Any guide book will tell you the details of the mountains, waterfalls, five national parks including a marine park where humpback whales give birth, five distinct climate zones, a saltwater lake with crocs, cave with Taino hieroglyphics, golf course, windsurfing, horse riding, the Haitian market and so on. Social life? Well there's the whole gamut from the socially well-adjusted attending church, run by an ex-boater, on Sundays, through to hardened bar-flies, strumming guitars and playing with the local ladies of the evening.
Condoms are freely available and necessary; health care is inexpensive and good. There's always spicy gossip and intrigue, weddings and divorces, love triangles and the odd jealous husband with a gun. Occasionally somebody decides to make money by running an illegal boat trip to Puerto Rico. I don't know how many go undetected, but not all of them - and that's when it gets interesting from the spectators' point of view. The Dominicans see us as spectators, visitors who are not involved in the nitty-gritty of their lives. I have walked past drug busts and demonstrations with burning car tires as though I am invisible.
The Dominican Republic is the only country I have been to so far where I have argued with the officials and got a compromise. If a new charge comes in for the boaters and it's unreasonable, the boaters get together and argue it out with the authorities with the help of local business owners and the Tourist Board - and the authorities actually listen. There is a variety of places to eat and drink, ranging from Laisa's El Tipico chicken shack, which is as popular as it was back in 1994 and where shining pans hang from the smoke-blackened wooden rafters, to Steve's Place which offers gringo food just as you like it, literally, plus laundry, internet and cane rocking chairs, just to make sure you relax.
Lenin, the owner of Puerto Blanco Marina, has one criterion: he wants people to have fun, that's what he enjoys, and the more fun they have the happier he is. Lenin and Freddy, his cousin and manager, offer their facilities to events like the Sunday Flea Market, fancy dress balls, fashion shows, charity auctions, pot luck suppers or anything else the boaters want to organise. Let me tell you, the marina has seen some wild times. I might lose friends if I talk about them in print but if you want to buy me a drink. There are another half a dozen restaurants well worth visiting too, just ask around.
These days many locals speak enough English to help you order or shop, so there's no need end up with a plateful of something that is intimidating. Luperon does not have a full service marina yet but you can have fuel delivered to the boat by Papo or you jug it yourself, for slightly less, from the service station. There's always at least one person offering bottom cleaning and Margo and Brian will do your canvas repairs. Boat spares can take time to find so it saves a hassle if you bring any with you that you have a sneaking suspicion you'll need. Wi-fi is emerging and there is a variety of Internet cafés.
There are inexpensive, luxury buses to the capital, Santo Domingo, and the old colonial zone, and motorcycle hire for the truly adventurous. By the way, the harbour was used by the Mariposa sisters and their fellow revolutionaries in the days of Rafael Trujillo; sometimes it's still called the Bahia de Mariposas and it seems to me that they've left an inspirational spirit in the air behind them. In my experience people somehow become more while they are in Luperon.
Luperon is the home of the Caribbean cruising authority Bruce van Sant. You probably have his book The Gentleman's Guide to Passages South on board; if not, it's available at many chandlers and Amazon. He has a website (www.thornlesspath.com) and if you have particular questions you'll find his e-mail address there. You are also welcome to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A useful chart is HIS017 published by Wavey Line, which has details of the harbour entrance and it can be ordered on line. If you are feeling diffident when entering the harbour put a call out on VHF Channel 68 and I can guarantee a friendly voice, unless it's the middle of the night. The down side of Luperon, apart from the challenge of finding spares and the insurance issue? There aren't many places to sail to keep you and the boat in shape, but an hour to the east there's Cambiaso and a few hours to the west there's Manzanillo, both fun for a couple of days. Another safe harbour is Bocas Del Toro in Panama; you can read about that next month.
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