WHAT'S ON MY MIND
Venezuela Ought to Be
by Alastair Buchan
By any reasonable argument Venezuela ought to be the preferred destination for yachts heading south for the hurricane season. There are over 1100 miles of coastline to cruise, 80 offshore islands to visit, and South America's third largest river, the Orinoco, to explore. If that is not enough to tempt you, then ashore Venezuela can offer a choice of 32 national parks, 15 percent of the world's bird species, 5000-metre-high mountains and the Angel Falls, the world's highest with an uninterrupted drop of 807 metres. With very little imagination you can picture Venezuela as being THE major, year-round yachting centre of the Caribbean with yachting there a multi-million dollar industry. But isn't, and it's not likely to be - unless some changes are made.
According to a friend who has the thankless task of clearing yachts in and out of Margarita, about 1200 yachts visit Porlamar each year. Most of the yachts visiting Venezuela call at Porlamar. It is a fraction of the number crowding Trinidad, which is a far less attractive but more popular cruising ground. Underlining Trinidad's pulling power is the fact that many of the yachts that do visit Venezuela are prepared to fight wind and current to return to Trinidad.
There are two reasons for Venezuela's failure to capitalise on a winning hand. The first is paperwork. The mix of clearing in internationally when you arrive, then nationally as you move from port to port, and finally clearing out internationally when you leave is quaint - but you pay each time. With prices starting at around US$20 and climbing fast, paperwork is very expensive.
It is also downright inconvenient. The sail from Las Aves to Bonaire is 35 miles, an easy day-sail, but clearing out internationally means sailing to either La Guaira or Puerto Cabello to clear out of the country, Once there, you must check-in nationally and then out internationally. By the time you reach Bonaire you will have sailed close to 250 miles, added a week to your schedule and around US$100 to your expenses. If you include buying a visa (do you really need one?), charges for visiting Los Roques, fines for failing to fly a courtesy ensign and "presents" to officials, then Venezuela is not cheap. The concept of "yacht stores in transit" is unknown. You pay taxes on everything brought in and then perhaps "a little extra" to persuade Customs to release your package. If the authorities wish to discourage visiting yachts, then they are on the ball.
Crime is another problem. Figures are hard to find, but those available indicate that Venezuela may be the boat crime capital of the Caribbean. Many yachts visiting Araya have been burglarised; there are so many cases of thieves boarding by night in Mochima National Park that the only safe anchorage is off Puerto Mochima: the Islas de Caracas are reckoned to be dodgy and the Golfo de Santa Fe is best avoided. Swathes of Venezuela's mainland coast are out of bounds to a prudent cruiser. Many of the near-shore islands are no-go areas, although the general view is that "the outer islands are safe".
More than anything else, bureaucratic pettiness, graft and crime are preventing Venezuela from becoming a major yachting centre. The solution lies with the Venezuelans. By the stroke of a pen, paperwork for yachts could be reduced to a simple clear-in-and-out at a one-stop shop. If the authorities want it to happen, then it is that easy. Once the clearance charges have been fixed, making sure that everyone - including visiting yachts - knows what these charges are will go a long way towards reducing the need for any "additional" payments.
Crime reduction is harder. Cutting crime depends on all Venezuelans understanding that stealing an outboard (or whatever) might mean bread for one or two families today, but a vigorous and vibrant yachting industry brings bread and jam every day, for everybody.
It will not be easy to improve matters. Amongst Venezuelans there is a sense if not of complacency then of acceptance: this is the way Venezuela is, and if you choose to visit Venezuela then you must accept it. Well, boaters do not like being hassled for no good reason, or robbed simply because they are there. The longer it takes to tackle these problems, the longer Venezuela will wonder why it remains the poor relation of Caribbean cruising.
Alastair Buchan is cruising the Caribbean aboard the yacht Margo.
Copyright© 2000 Compass Publishing