Where to Refit in the Caribbean
by Todd Duff
After spending the better part of the previous year cruising down and back through most of the Eastern Caribbean islands, plus Venezuela and as far west as Curaçao, last summer we were faced with the need for a haul-out. Where in the Caribbean could we do a substantial amount of work on our steel brigantine, in a place that would allow us to have skilled help when it was needed, but also be left alone to do our work without unnecessary interruptions or distractions, that would allow us to have pleasant surroundings and to live aboard in safety and relative comfort?
Having sailed all over the Caribbean since the early 1990s and being fairly familiar with most of the boatyards from Puerto Rico to Curaçao and west to Honduras and Mexico, when the brigantine One World was in need of some paintwork and interior renovations, we gave a lot of thought as to where would be the ideal place to take on these projects.
Always being conscious of the relative costs involved in a haul-out, we were happy to discover that the boatyards in southern Grenada were very likely the best deals in the whole of the Eastern Caribbean. With a Budget Marine and Island Water World, and several very skilled and accommodating contractors on island, willing to work in any part of the island, we very nearly decided to do our haul-out there. Quite a bit south and considered to be fairly safe from hurricanes, Grenada was definitely in the running.
Trinidad also was in the running until we thought about the frequent rainfall that could make getting exterior paintwork done very difficult. Trinidad has also been ‘discovered’ and prices there are no longer the bargain they were back in the ’90s. From our recent research, we could have spent the same amount of money for a haul-out there as we would have if we had taken the boat up to New England! The general hustle and bustle of Trinidad was also unattractive to us, so in the end, last year’s reports of crime, the rainfall and the prices kept us from choosing Trinidad.
Some of the smaller islands like Carriacou, St. Vincent and St. Kitts offered inexpensive haul-outs at charming boatyards, but parts availability would have made the unexpected little things that always seem to come up on a refit with a boat like ours a bit more troublesome. The peaceful settings, though, would have been a possible tradeoff.
We considered Venezuela, where the haul-out and labor prices are very good. Puerto La Cruz and Cumaná have modern facilities. Parts availability for specialized items is a real problem, though, and security is also a concern, although the bigger yards boast armed guards. Still, the very high duty on marine parts and the safety concerns sent us elsewhere.
We looked at the boatyards in St. Thomas and Puerto Rico where there is instant access to a wide variety of supplies at good prices, but the facilities seemed crowded, overregulated and overpriced to us. One boatyard manager in St. Thomas had no interest in taking the time to talk to us after finding out that we needed to be out for over a month. Apparently they need to keep boats coming in and out; keeping the lift crew busy was a major consideration for them.
We seriously considered the boatyards in St. Martin. We’ve always liked Bobby’s on the Dutch side and Time Out in Sandy Ground on the French side, and had a very good exchange with JMC’s knowledgeable manager as well. Even though in the middle of the hurricane belt, St. Martin is in an ideal location central to the main cruising grounds and easily accessible from most major airports in the US and Europe. The friendly and cordial way our inquiries were treated, and the overall ambiance of the yards on the French side in particular made it almost worth going. What turned us away was the insistence that we take our masts down. One World is a brigantine and rigging or de-rigging takes the better part of three days to accomplish, so we didn’t really want to do that. When I asked why this was a requirement, I was told that some boats had lost their masts in previous hurricanes. I tried to explain that sloops or catamarans were much more likely to lose their masts than we were; that the chance of us losing our masts, which would quite likely stand in a hurricane even without the rigging, was so remote that it was not even worth considering, I was met with somewhat colloquial French indifference and a small concession: “Well, if you insist, you can leave your masts up but if they fall on the boats next to you, the people who took their masts out will be quite incensed.” Indeed... But with 28 shrouds, ratlines and a yardarm to contend with, this was enough to turn us away from St Martin.
We also considered going back to Curaçao, as we had found the boatyards there very accommodating. There are two Budget Marine stores and a new Island Water World recently opened, and there are many skilled workers available plus a bustling yet enticing island lifestyle. All this made Curaçao a very viable choice. What turned us away from doing our haul-out there was that we intended to live aboard while accomplishing the refit. One of the two yards in Curaçao is located in an industrial area of Willemstad, far from pleasant surroundings, and the other is far out of town. Either location would have made it necessary to have a car.
We also rejected the very nice boatyard at Rodney Bay in St. Lucia because they did not allow living aboard on the hard.
In the end we turned our eyes back towards the BVI. With several very good boatyards and a multitude of services and skilled craftsmen available, thanks to the world’s largest permanent bareboat and crewed charter trade, one can get virtually any kind of work done in the BVI. We decided against Nanny Cay, even though it is a world-class facility and very well known to us, mainly because we know too many people there and would have been often distracted by social visits and other activities! Ultimately we decided on the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour. I had done refits there in the past and had enjoyed good experiences. Virgin Gorda is very safe, has a beautiful boatyard setting with a nice swimming beach just a few metres from where we ultimately hauled out. The facilities were clean and tidy and the management very accommodating. The Workbench carpentry shop and CRC engine and machine shop were right next-door and the people there were always ready to offer help whenever needed. The rainfall in the BVI is typically light and sporadic in the summer and the waters around are beautiful. True, the BVI is in the middle of the Atlantic hurricane belt. But despite a close call with Hurricane Earl, whose eyewall passed 30 miles to the north of us, thanks to good preparation no boat in the yard was damaged aside from one whose owner elected to leave the bimini top up, which ripped a seam, and one boat that was hit by a piece of roofing material.
From a security viewpoint, Virgin Gorda is so safe that theft is of virtually no concern. We never locked the boat, left our bicycle unlocked every night, sometimes left our tools out and never once had any concerns. The BVI is by far, from our experiences, the safest place in the Caribbean and just a glance at their flag gives you a hint as to why: the crest on it is of a traditionally robed lady, St. Ursula, holding a candelabra high with her eyes wide open, and the Latin word “Vigalate” below. In the BVI, everyone is watching and noticing. The entire country only has 30,000 citizens and another 8,000 or so expats. Almost everyone knows each other, or knows your neighbor. While the BVI as a whole is safe, Virgin Gorda in particular is exceptional. The pace of life is slow, like down island, but the people all seem to be doing well and nowhere do you feel the hustling or insistent bargaining that you find in some places. There is a quiet, laid back sophistication here. Not the sophistication one associates with a major First World metropolitan area, but a worldliness and general well-informed consciousness, mixed with the world-renowned Caribbean openness and warmth.
Of course, for cruising and variety, all of the Caribbean islands have their charms, but for me, doing a haul-out on Virgin Gorda is the best of all worlds: you can get anything you want done, from simple jobs to complex rebuilding, and yet the place retains its small-island charm and hospitality. At the end of a long workday, a beautiful swimming beach is only a short walk away.
While there are many good choices for boatyards in the Caribbean Basin, each captain must choose the one that fits his or her own requirements. My eldest son has accomplished very inexpensive and quite acceptable refits in Cienfuegos, Cuba and La Ceiba, Honduras. Not long ago I did a ‘short haul’ at one of the new boatyards at Fronteras on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala and recent reports are that this area is becoming more viable each year as a place to accomplish a refit. While the facilities in Jamaica are unknown to me, friends have reported Port Antonio to be worth considering. I have also heard good reports of some of the yards in and around Cartagena, Colombia. Of course, Guadeloupe and Martinique have major boatyards and, although we found them to be pricey by our standards, the workmanship available appears to be first rate.
I welcome comments by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org from other captains and crews regarding their own experiences in Caribbean yards. As we all know, each yacht and crew has different requirements and expectations. Ours were met in the BVI, while I expect others might well find satisfaction elsewhere.
Enjoy the remainder of this year’s sailing and have a great haul-out at the end of the season!
Todd Duff has been living aboard various sailing craft since 1987 and cruising Caribbean waters since the early ’90s. After a six-year stint working in the BVI, he is currently in Panama with his fiancée, Gayle Suhich, son Alex Duff and various crewmembers. He is on his way to the Pacific aboard his schooner One World (www.schooneradventures.com) for an open-ended sailing adventure.
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