SPECIAL REPORT: Below the Hurricane Belt | Cruising World

SPECIAL REPORT: Below the Hurricane Belt

Guns in Venezuela, rising prices in Trinidad-with these drawbacks, it may take another powerful cyclone season to blow the big cruising fleet back south again

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Trinidad Cruiser Larry Rudnick reported uneven success with jobs he¿d hired out. Other cruisers cautioned against walking outside Trinidad marina and boatyard gates after dark.

Tim Murphy

Everyone’s animated and talking at once, so it’s difficult to unravel exactly what happened at the open-air Carnada del Pescador in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, on January 21. But a reasonably faithful summary runs like this: A couple of dozen cruisers had gathered to wish two departing boats a bon voyage, when three armed robbers entered the restaurant.

"We all just dove to the floor, except for one man," says Marla Linder, from the 31-foot wood ketch Apsara. "Then the owner of the restaurant came out of the kitchen with his gun in hand," and that’s when the bullets started flying. Someone interrupts Marla to remind her that in that moment she was thanking God the tables were made of concrete.

In the melee, the restaurant owner was shot in the gut--"He was lucky it was a side blow," somebody interjects--before a cruiser named Clive, using a chair to fight off one of the robbers, was able to make his way to the owner’s discarded gun, take aim, and begin clicking through its now-empty chamber. The robbers fled before anyone else was hit; the Guardia Nacional captured all three the next morning.

"Where did this happen?" I ask.

"At the place you’re going to dinner tonight," Marla says.

Two months have passed between the shootout and this telling, and every Thursday night the cruisers in Puerto La Cruz return to the scene, now dubbed the O.K. Corral, where for a couple of bucks you can eat your fill of delicious fresh fish and drink your fill of cold Polar beer. And at the end of every Thursday night, the restaurant owner, now recovered from his wounds, walks the cruisers back through the barrio called Paradise to the gates of Bahía Redonda Marina.

"He has a new gun now," says Marla. "It’s a bigger gun."

Roiled Waters
On many counts, it was a rough year in the traditional layover spots below the eastern Caribbean hurricane belt. If you follow the down-island sailing media--Caribbean Compass out of Bequia, The Boca from Trinidad, the Seven Seas Cruising Association newsletter, Jimmy Cornell’s Noonsite (www.noonsite.com), or the Caribbean Cruisers Net (www.caribcruisers. com)--you may recognize these recent headlines: "Worrying News from Trinidad and Venezuela," "Trinidad Urged to Clean Up Its Act After Complaints from Visiting Sailors," "Pirates in Venezuela," and "Another Armed Boarding off Venezuelan Coast." Yikes!

News in the mainstream press about riots and shortages during Venezuela’s general strike in December and January or about Trinidad’s record crime level in 2002 was hardly cheerier.

Off and on for the last decade, both countries have looked at times like the promised land to sailors who wished to stay year-round in the Caribbean. But are they still? Last March, I traveled to Chaguaramas, Trinidad, and to Puerto La Cruz and Porlamar, Venezuela, to pose that question. I met dozens of happy, satisfied travelers; I also discovered a whole mess of caveats.

When it comes to hosting long-term cruisers, Trinidad and Venezuela share a similar, competitive, and remarkably short history. Before 1990, there was virtually no marine industry in either country to accommodate transient boats; today, cruising boats represent the second biggest tourism sector in Trinidad’s economy, ahead of cruise-ship tourism. That said, the overall economies of both countries are based not primarily on tourism but on industry, so there’s been a workforce in place, at least indirectly, to take on the kinds of jobs sailors need done: welding, mechanics, woodworking, and refurbishing. The exchange rates of both countries favor good bargains against the U.S. dollar, though more so now in Venezuela than in Trinidad. Perhaps most important, both countries lie below 12 degrees 40 minutes north latitude, the magic hurricane line; according to leading insurance carriers, insured boats must either duck below this line between July and November or leave the eastern Caribbean altogether.

Growing Pains in Trinidad
"After 10 months of ocean crossings, deserted coastlines in Brazil, and secluded anchorages, our yacht, Miz Mae, was going cold turkey for spare parts, new toys, and some TLC. So we headed for Chaguaramas, Trinidad. After all, it is said to be one of the best places in the world to repair and service your boat," wrote Tom Müller in an October Noonsite posting. Once there, aboard the 60-foot charter yacht, he said, he was baffled by the number of shops, suppliers, and chandlers. The tricky thing was "not whether we could find parts, but where to buy them," he said.

Chaguaramas nowadays is home to nine marinas, with half a dozen marine hoists ranging from 15 to 200 tons. The marinas can accommodate 975 transient boats on the hard and another 340 in slips--an important detail, because Chaguaramas is a commercial harbor with a fouled bottom, and many cruisers who typically anchor out come into the marinas here. It’s also home to more than 100 chandlery and contracting companies. The boatyards run the gamut from full-service to do-it-yourself arrangements. Monthly slip fees in Chaguaramas cost between 24 and 68 U.S. cents per foot per day; haulouts cost between $3.50 and $5 per foot; and long-term storage costs between 18 and 25 cents per foot per day at most places. Diesel costs about 75 cents per gallon. The Boater’s Directory to Trinidad and Tobago (www.BoatersEnterprise.com) is an excellent guide.

In just over a decade, this industry grew from almost nothing. A recent study by the UN-sponsored Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, www.eclac pos.org) recounts the history: "Until the beginning of the 1990s, the foreign yachting sector was limited to occasional visits, often during Carnival. In 1991, the first yacht-haulout facility was established in Chaguaramas when Power Boats commissioned a 50-ton marine hoist with a storage capacity for about 45 yachts on land. This was in part a response to the exodus of yachts from Venezuela following the imposition of a $50 boat fee, aided by other factors such as the increasing need for yachting hurricane shelters, the escalating cost of marine insurance for yachts north of the hurricane belt, good-quality workmanship, and availability of skilled and unemployed labor following the oil boom of the 1970s. Another facility soon followed, and from this first initiative the yachting sector took off."

Today, transient cruising boats contribute an estimated US$25 million to the Trinidad and Tobago economy and employ some 1,400 people.

Donald Stollmeyer, the man who brought that first marine hoist to Chaguaramas and managing director of Power Boats, a popular haulout spot, says the marine industry in Trinidad "grew very, very quickly--in some respects a little too quickly, because demand tended to outstrip supply. Especially after hurricanes Luis and Marilyn in 1995, there was a huge influx of boats down here to get work done."

Customs records show that 637 foreign boats came to Trinidad in 1990, an annual figure that increased steadily through 1994, when 1,459 arrived. That number spiked in 1995 to 2,307 and nearly hit 3,000 in 1999.

That kind of growth seldom proceeds smoothly, and according to the ECLAC study, Trinidad’s fortunes peaked in 2000. "Of concern is the decline in yacht arrivals since November 2000," the report reads. "The drop in arrivals, yacht population, and active yachts"--boats getting work done--"has been significant." It points to a 32-percent drop in active yachts from 2001 to 2002, and a 40-percent drop from 2000.

Today’s marine industry in Trinidad looks like an adolescent going through an awkward growth stage. The ECLAC study suggests several possible causes for the downturn in yacht arrivals. Some, like "the weakening economies or the fall of the stock markets" in the United States and Europe, affect the entire Caribbean. But Trinidad’s drop in arrivals was steeper than that of its neighbors; the study cites reasons "whether real or perceived" that push cruisers away: "crime, difficulty in sailing to and from the eastern Caribbean, increasing costs, problems in meeting deadlines, and shoddy workmanship."

In March, I met Tom Müller and his partner, Lilly Vedana, aboard Miz Mae in Chaguaramas. They’d spent three weeks there in October and another week around our meeting. Tom’s firsthand observations soon after arriving in Trinidad last October concur with ECLAC’s findings. "Even well-seasoned and reasonably wealthy fellow yachties reported a serious decrease in the quality of workmanship, a substantial price increase, and an attitude to go with it," he said. "And the lack of security here has become a serious worry."

After learning that one contractor wanted to charge $50 per hour for an electrical problem he couldn’t solve, Tom said, "What sets us off is that the prices in Trinidad are pretty much on the same level as you would see in the States or in Europe. But there you’re paying somebody who’s done an apprenticeship, who’s got a registered company, who probably works to ISO 9000 standards. In Germany, an electrician would have to serve three years as an apprentice, then a couple of years as a journeyman, then a couple of more before he’d be certified as a master electrician. If Trinidad wants to improve, they certainly have to come back to reasonable rates--not cheap, just reasonable."

Tom’s impressions are typical but not universally held. Dan Sehnal, from the Hylas 54 Dakare, reckons that compared with Fort Lauderdale, you can get comparable work done in Trinidad for half the price. He tells of superbly professional craftsmen he’s met in Trinidad: a rigger who accurately computed in his head the working loads and wire diameters needed to switch from a single to a split backstay, a boatyard that puts a diver under the boats it hauls to be sure the Travelift straps aren’t interfering with running gear.

Still, tales of frustration around the docks aren’t uncommon, either. When I met Larry Rudnick, from the Nordic 44 Destiny, he’d just received several stainless-steel backing plates he’d ordered from a local machine shop. He gave the shop one measurement; he got back four plates, each one a different size. When he said they weren’t acceptable, the shopkeeper told Larry an apprentice had done the job and willingly replaced them at no charge--except the cost of several more days before Larry could finish his installation.

Richard Johnson, who’s spent 14 months in Chaguaramas refitting his 1984 Slocum 43, Good Joss, said he has a love/hate relationship with Trinidad as a place to do boat work. "If people want a tropical climate, Caribbean culture, a slower pace, it’s here. But if they have the concept of coming to Trinidad to get inexpensive work done, they’re sadly mistaken."

Richard pointed out that there are two economies in Trinidad. The relatively stable Trinidad and Tobago dollar, or TT, was trading at 6.15 to the U.S. dollar in March. But many Chaguaramas businesses quote prices in U.S. dollars to cruisers. "If you go into the fishing community, you’ll find local prices. If you go into the yachting community, you’ll find U.S. prices."

For basic sanding labor, he said, you might pay TT$8 per hour, which comes to about US$10 per day. But to avoid the "collateral damage" that often comes with labor at those rates, he says, you really have to become a contractor yourself.

"We love these guys," he said. "They’re terrific people, and we want to support the local economy. But most people here have no concept of tomorrow, or saving, or how to run a business." He told of giving one contractor thousands of dollars for materials, only to learn that the contractor had spent the money on a family emergency.
"I can’t work for nothing," the contractor replied. "I need money for my family."

"Then come work it off," Richard told him.

Richard eventually chalked it up as a loss and said similar incidents had occurred four other times with other contractors.

As the ECLAC study concludes, "Customers in Trinidad have high expectations of the quality of work in the marine trades, an expectation which is not always met. Negative feedback indicates gaps in training, which need to be addressed."

Some cruisers who’ve spent several seasons in the Caribbean still find Trinidad the best mix of supplies and skills, and they caution against unfairly indicting one country for cultural differences that extend across the region.

The ECLAC study makes several recommendations to improve the overall quality of Trinidad’s marine industry. They include creating extension courses in small-business management and quality control, a system of part-time training, a four-year apprentice scheme, and a certification program for subcontractors.

One other topic--security--colors sailors’ impressions of Trinidad. It should be noted that no cases of armed boardings have occurred in Trinidad, as they have in Venezuela, and that none of Trinidad and Tobago’s record 171 homicides in 2002 (or in several years before that) were directed toward cruisers. The crimes that have occurred are more typically on the order of stolen dinghies, which is hardly unique to Trinidad. But muggings outside the gates of the boatyards have reportedly increased in the last two years.

Müller told of one mugging, involving the crew of the German boat Inouk, during his stay in October: "They were walking home to the yard from dinner in the early evening, when a car stopped just 30 meters away from the guards at Peakes’ gate. Three dark figures with pistols jumped out of the car, held the couple at gunpoint, and stripped them of their cash, credit cards, and a handbag. Still on our desk sit the reports from several other yachties who got mugged, some at gunpoint, some outside the yard gates."

Separate fences encircle each of the yards around Chaguaramas Bay, with guarded gates at the entrance to each. To walk from one boatyard to another, you have to exit the gates. Conventional wisdom among cruisers when I visited in March was that you should never walk along the road outside the fences at night. While you can still travel safely among the yards by dinghy, it wasn’t uncommon to hear cruisers declining evening invitations at another yard because they didn’t want to walk outside the fence after dark.

Attempts to get more surveillance from Trinidad’s police have reportedly been fruitless. Donald Stollmeyer said that that the Yacht Services Association of Trinidad and Tobago (YSATT) had sponsored an evening shuttle between the boatyards for a while but later abandoned it because it was too expensive. For next season, he said, YSATT plans to commission a water taxi for the same purpose.

Growing pains aside, Trinidad offers one of the most complete selections of supplies and services in the Caribbean, provided that you take the time to ask around. Two recent web postings, from Anna and Clyff Huggett at Noonsite (August 19, 2002) and from Dan Sehnal (www.dakare.com), offer personal lists of recommended contractors.

The Robin Hood Syndrome in Venezuela
Seven miles separate Trinidad from Venezuela, yet in many ways they’re a world apart. Cruisers’ reactions toward Venezuela as a place to carry out a refit during hurricane season followed the same themes as in Trinidad--price, quality, attitude, security--but their responses to each theme were very different.

From a distance, the news about Venezuela could hardly have been worse. "U.S. citizens should be aware of a recent increase in acts of piracy off the coast of Venezuela," read a January 27 consular-information sheet from the State Department. "There have been five cases of confirmed incidents of piracy in the past few months, two involving U.S. citizens. In all five cases, a group of five armed men boarded yachts, bound the crew, and robbed them of their possessions. Although there have been no reported fatalities, these incidents have involved an unusual degree of violence, including the beatings and shootings of several of the victims. U.S. citizen yachters [sic] should exercise a heightened level of caution when selecting a place to moor their boats and should not attempt to resist these robbers."

Government advisories always sound shrill--let’s not forget last winter’s orange alerts and the corollary runs on duct tape and plastic sheeting--yet the accumulating details leave a deep impression. Here’s a summary:

Aug. 1, 2002, Guanta: The Austrian catamaran Jonathan was boarded by five or six armed men who intended to steal electronics and other gear; the crew defended the boat, and no one was injured seriously.

Aug. 29, 2002, Carenero: The U.S. Gulfstar 47 Miss P was boarded by five armed men who stole the dinghy and outboard, tied up the crew, and pistol-whipped the skipper.

Oct. 12, 2002, Isla Coche: The U.S. boat Panacea was boarded by five men wearing ski masks; they ransacked the boat, took jewelry and electronics, and shot the skipper in the leg.

Dec. 14, 2002, Isla Coche: The British boat Fat Chance was boarded and its skipper shot and wounded.

Jan. 8, 2003, Cabo Tres Puntas: The Spanish boat Illusion was boarded by masked men with pistols and one machine gun; they stole cash and credit cards.

In the same period, other armed boardings and assaults were reported farther west, near Punta Morro Hermosa in Colombia: Morning Dew and Asylum in September, and Malaika in March.

For my part, I was having second thoughts in March about traveling to Venezuela at all, so when a grandmotherly woman from Houston I met in Puerto La Cruz said, "We wish we could stay here forever," I was more than a little surprised.

"Once you get down here," said Mary Lou Sartore, from the Tayana 37 Starlight Dancer, "it’s just hard to leave. The people of Venezuela are wonderful, and we love it here."

One after another, as I spoke to cruisers in Puerto La Cruz--Weedie and Janice Underwood from Plenum, Bob and Susan Franklin from Pipe Dream, Marla Linder and Kaj Huld from Apsara, John and Ale Ward from Little Mermaid, Don and Diane Chatman from Lady Diane, Bente Cooney from Side by Side, Lon Matlock from Liberation, Karl and Mary Lou Sartore from Starlight Dancer--I heard the same sentiment.

Interestingly, of the cruisers I met in Trinidad, those who’d never been to Venezuela but planned to go were avoiding it until things become more stable; those who’d been there before were planning to return this season.

As a place to do boat work, Venezuela’s mainland stands out for its mix of low prices and dry climate. "A lot of people come here to have their vessels worked on or painted," said Bob Franklin. "We just had our boat painted from the bottom to the top. The quality is excellent, and the price is one quarter of the United States." Stainless-steel work, canvas work, and the galvanizing of anchors and chain were other jobs that cruisers extolled.

Puerto La Cruz is Venezuela’s main spot for transients to haul out or lay over during hurricane season. A 10-mile Venicelike system of canals that run through golf courses and town houses and shopping malls is home to five marinas, some of them flat-out luxurious. Monthly slip rates, which are said to be negotiable, range from 14 to 32 cents per foot per day; long-term storage on the hard ranges from 19 to 25 cents per foot per day. Haulouts range from $4 to $6 per foot.

It wasn’t just the boats that were getting refits in Venezuela. "For $3,000, you can have an amazing face lift," said Bente Cooney. Several had had LASIK eye surgery, dental work, and emergency procedures done there. "The price is so much less than in the United States, and the quality is as good or better," said Diane Chatman. Another cruiser, who carries health insurance, said she doesn’t submit claims for doctor visits she’s had in Venezuela because "it’s so reasonable, submitting them isn’t cost-effective."

And even basic necessities are inexpensive, provided they’re locally produced. A gallon of diesel costs 20 cents.

There’s a somber reason for the great bargains: For much of the last year, Venezuela’s economy has been in a tailspin. In January 2002, one U.S. dollar traded for 750 bolivars. In January 2003, it traded at 1,400; by early February, 1,800. On February 5, the government placed controls on foreign exchange, fixing the rate at 1,600. A black market has formed since then; the street rate in March ranged from 2,000 to 2,600 bolivars. The downside is a 10-year prison penalty for getting caught.

The big news last season, apart from the piracy reports, was Venezuela’s general strike, which began in early December. "Due to the deteriorating political and security situation and the severe shortages of fuel and food supplies," read a December 10 State Department travel warning, "U.S. citizens in Venezuela are urged to consider departing."

President Hugo Chavez Frias was elected in 1998 on a leftist platform that, among other goals, aims to redistribute Venezuela’s wealth in favor of the nation’s poor. A coup nearly deposed him on April 11, 2002, and an attempt by his government to reorganize the board of the state-owned petroleum company led to a national strike that began on December 2. "Resulting conflicts have led to some deaths and injuries," read the warning. "There is potential for further violence. Fuel and basic food supplies are critically low, and transportation throughout the country is operating on a very limited basis."

Dozens of cruisers heeded that warning. Luis Sanchez, manager of Centro Marine Oriente (CMO), called it the "Chavez Regatta," a mass exodus of boats filing out of Puerto La Cruz in December. His yard, he said, had a four-month backlog for work in November; when I met him in March, it was at 25-percent capacity. Granted, March is never PLC’s big season--June through November is; still, the sudden depopulation was severe.

But the cruisers who stayed through the strike reported no serious hardship. "People worry about our safety," said Diane Chatman, from the Panoceanic 46 Lady Diane, "but, hey, we’re reaping the good stuff here. We’ve had a few inconveniences during the strike, and some items have been unavailable. But I feel almost guilty because we’ve been so unaffected by it."

The biggest complaint I heard was that for a couple of weeks you couldn’t buy beer.

"The whole issue of political strife here isn’t about foreigners," said Don Chatman. "Whether they’re loyalists or opposition, Venezuelans are unfailingly friendly to foreigners."

I asked Don how they reckoned with the piracy reports. "There have been boardings, and there have been shootings," he said. "In every case, it was about theft. Basically, if people were truly traveling en masse, they haven’t had a problem. But many boaters think that traveling en masse means they get together in the evening." It’s typical, he said, for boats traveling together to separate throughout a passage. "When you’re six miles away, you might as well not even be there."

While I was in Puerto La Cruz, armed men reportedly stopped city buses in the middle of the day in nearby Barcelona, robbing everyone aboard. Many of the cruisers I met in Puerto La Cruz had been present during the January incident at the O.K. Corral. On security outside the fenced marinas in Puerto La Cruz, cruisers liken it to being in any big city. "People who are walking the streets here have to be aware of where they are and what they’re doing at all times. If you don’t, you’re obviously a stranger and you’ll get picked on."

Several cruisers I met in Puerto La Cruz had bags snatched or pockets picked, but for every one of those stories, I heard several more about locals coming to a cruiser’s aid. Stephanie Martin, from the Gulfstar CSY 50 Mima, was held up just outside the marina gates early last winter by a man with a screwdriver. He knocked her down and took her bag. When she got up and started yelling, the locals responded immediately. They not only caught the man who attacked her and retrieved her bag; several of them walked with her to the chandlery and back.

Juan Baro is the agent who clears cruisers in and out of Isla de Margarita, a duty-free island that’s a popular spot for cruisers en route from Trinidad and the rest of the Caribbean chain. For several years, the Caribbean Security Net (www.carib cruisers.com) has reported a high number of stolen dinghies and outboards there. "Security is a problem in this land and everywhere," Juan Baro said. Having spent 20 years traveling around the Caribbean and the rest of the world, he said, "I have a theory about this. I discovered that the people who looked at the boats from the beach, they’re never going to believe that the people on the sailing vessels aren’t rich. They also believe that the people on boats have insurance. The people think, ’They have too much, and we have nothing.’ That creates what I call the Robin Hood Syndrome. To steal for these people isn’t so illegal, isn’t so immoral."

Juan recognized that in some places in the States, people leave their car with the keys in it. "Here you cannot do that," he said. "If you leave your dinghy in the water, even with a chain or security line on it, you’re going to lose it."

He tells the Margarita cruising community that the government authorities have overextended missions and limited budgets, and he advises cruisers as a group to look after their own security. "We had a little problem with swimmers this season," he said. "They’d get into the boats and take anything that was in the cockpit, even with people sleeping aboard. Sometimes it was old shoes and a towel or a bottle of shampoo. Sometimes it was $2,000 in diving equipment or a fishing rod with a Penn Senator reel.

"So we tried something that works pretty good. We organized the cruisers here to keep a radio watch during the night with collaboration of the Vigilancia Costera. One day this watch gave a result. One person on the boat turned on all the lights, which was the signal, and started screaming, ’Bandito, bandito!’ Four or five dinghies got into the water, and with spotlights and flare guns they finally found the guy."

He said that according to Venezuelan laws, it’s very difficult to put somebody in jail. "You almost have to have a public attorney present when the crime occurs." Juan doesn’t provide much detail about what treatment the swimmer received, first from the cruisers or later during his stay for a couple of days with the Guardia Nacional, except to say, "They gave him a good one." The Guardia officers then took him back to where he lives and left the message, ’Talk to this guy. He has some funny things to tell about people who swim during the night.’"

Of the swimmers, Juan said, "Never more again."

To improve security, Juan has several plans for next year. In addition to continuing the watch system among cruisers, he wants to put an SSB tower on Margarita and establish a Venezuela net, and he would like to establish a chapter of Venezuela’s volunteer lifeboat and security service, ONSA (www.onsa.com). Already, the ONSA site keeps a list of piracy reports.

On the topic of armed boardings, he said, "Last year, the Caribbean Security Net reported seven proved incidents on the Península de Paria. We have 1,000 boats, more or less, crossing through that area. Still, the mentality of most people says, ’Seven on 1,000, yes, but I don’t want to be number eight.’"

While he’s committed to improving communication for cruisers on Margarita, Juan Baro distrusts the noise that the media makes, whether about the strike or about crime.

"You see I work in a very, very nice place," he said. "I’ve been all around the world, and I know few places like this one, so peaceful, so friendly."

On the subject of Venezuela’s outer islands--particularly Islas de Aves and Islas Los Roques--Mary Lou Sartore couldn’t agree more. "They’re probably the best-kept secrets in the Caribbean. There’s beautiful water and nobody around.

"It’s what you go cruising for."

Tim Murphy is Cruising World’s executive editor.

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