Blue Crabs, Braying Burros and the Rare Hutia - Soundings Online

Blue Crabs, Braying Burros and the Rare Hutia

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Luperon, Dominican Republic

Young and tough, a Norwegian couple sailed into the harbor, rounding out Luperon’s already assembled trans-Atlantic vessels, including two German, two Dutch, two South African, several British, one Belgian, one French and an Argentine. Granted, U.S. and Canadian vessels predominate, often arriving in buddy-boat fleets from the Bahamas, but Luperon easily resists the Georgetown syndrome. Too many people in the harbor are skeptical and ornery — real sailors, that is.

Columbus and his men were the first ocean-crossers to anchor here, and he was the first European to describe what is now the Dominican Republic. Despite his considerable talent as a promoter, Columbus admitted being at a loss for words to fully describe what he beheld in early 1493. “Queen Isabella,” he wrote, “this place is so stunningly beautiful and so lush … you would have to see it for yourself to believe it.”

Much has happened over the intervening 514 years, but outside the cities the Dominican remains essentially as Columbus found it. Acre for acre, Thailand may be prettier — but maybe not.

With an area the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined, the country has dozens of beach resorts but also miles of empty beaches, seemingly endless stands of palm trees, cactus deserts, cattle ranches and farms as far as the eye can see. Talk about fertile; in some places the topsoil is more than 18 feet deep. Unbeknownst to many, 20 Dominican mountains stand taller than any on the East Coast of the United States. The tallest is Pico Duarte at 10,094 feet. The country also boasts the lowest point in the Caribbean, LakeEnriquillo with a population of crocodiles.

For the nautically inclined, a caveat: The Dominican Republic is a country best seen by land. Unlike Cuba, it is blessed with few natural harbors. Luperon on the north coast, however, is just about as good as it gets. Luperon is safe against both the malevolence of nature and predations of man, which is what cruisers need if they’re going to leave their boats and explore the countryside by car. Luperon itself has developed its own quirky gringo community of expatriates, many of whom first arrived by boat with the intention of staying a few weeks and never left.

Geography has made Luperon a great hurricane hole for several reasons: some that are obvious and some that are not. A narrow entrance opens into two basins, both of which are surrounded by hills and have sticky muck for holding. But it has a topographical advantage as well. The best shelter in the world isn’t much good if the location itself is a hurricane magnet. The opposite is demonstrably true in the case of Luperon, which has not had a direct hit since hurricane tracking began in 1851.

NOAA’s historical hurricane Web site (www.maps.csc.noaa.gov/hurricanes ) shows tracks up through the Turks and Caicos and on to the Bahamas and many tracks along the south side of the island, but Luperon sits with its back to a mountain range, one of four in the Dominican that tend to direct cyclones anywhere but here.

Shelter has an audible element as well. Should you wake in the hours before dawn — with only the cool, katabatic breeze drifting down the mountains, before the braying of burros, the crowing of roosters and the general clamor of a wakening village — you will hear something above the stillness that sounds like a 747. The roar is just a few hundred yards away, as the full weight of the North Atlantic crashes down onto beaches and rock just outside the harbor. (The Caribbean is on the opposite side of the island.)

Luperon is a little unkempt but is otherwise a typical seaside Dominican village, subsisting on fishing, agriculture and tourism from a single nearby all-inclusive resort. Over the years, however, several institutions and resources have established themselves in Luperon to serve the growing number of gringos arriving by boat. And while crime increases throughout the Caribbean, the harbor remains remarkably free from thieves and thuggery.

Puerto Blanco Marina, with dockage for about 20 boats and an open-air pub, was Luperon’s first real cruiser hangout, with a policy of extending its welcome to anyone in the anchorage. Sundays are currently the happening day, beginning with a nautical flea market. This is the best day to find spares and parts, beginning with a visit to “Junkman” Jack’s table. A barbecue begins at noon, with the inevitable segue into conversation and debate reminiscent of back-porch banter back in the States. At 5 o’clock, a musical group of moonlighting music teachers performs Spanish music in its many forms well into the evening.

Here you will often find cruising guide author Bruce Van Sant and his wife, Rosa, who now live on a hillside overlooking the harbor. Van Sant, author of “The Gentleman’s Guide to Passage’s South, The Thornless Path to Windward,” is the most knowledgeable guy about trade-wind conditions and seamanship hereabouts (and holds unique opinions on other matters as well). Rosa, being Dominican but speaking good English, is an excellent resource for questions about her native land, and she sells some quality tours.

Restaurants catering to ex-pats and sailors come and go, so recommending them can be foolhardy. But Captain Steve’s Place in the village has provided meals, rental motorcycles and provisions to visiting mariners for four years — a huge accomplishment in the Dominican’s challenging business environment.

Dockage also is available at the Luperon Marina Yacht Club, which enjoys the best view of the harbor from its restaurant and lounge on a bluff above the mangroves. The club has a big-screen satellite television for stateside news and sports. A third marina is under construction at this writing, and its German developer has plans for a small boatyard with out-of-water storage.

To all of the above add the sinful pleasures of local rum, beer and Dominican “chicas,” and you have the formula for “Luperon glue.” Blame it on the glue, say the old salts, and there are many who’ve swallowed the anchor for life on Dominican soil.

Morgan’s Bluff, Andros, Bahamas

For slow boats, the challenge of getting to Nassau and points south in the Bahamas has never solely been the Gulf Stream crossing, which requires only a 12-hour weather window. The challenge has been shelter once across the 80 miles of shallow banks past Bimini. Traditionally Chub Cay was the place, but it has become so upscale that some cruisers are deterred. An alternative — and one that has its own rewards — is Morgan’s Bluff, the northernmost port of Andros, the biggest of the Bahamian islands.

Morgan’s Bluff, named for the pirate on the rum bottle, consists of an outer harbor with a well-marked entrance; that’s for the tankers calling to take on water for Nassau. The outer anchorage is fine in prevailing easterlies, particularly if there’s a tanker on the wharf, but it’s no place to be when a norther rolls through.

The alternative is the port’s tiny inner basin with room for maybe a half-dozen pleasure boats, tied off to commercial wharves, Med-moored to the banks or secured in various ad hoc ways. Customs and immigration can clear you into the Bahamas here, and while the facilities may be rough, protection is superb.

Spend a few days in the inner harbor and you will get to see some sizable cargo vessels come and go bringing the necessities of life to “The Big Yard,” as Andros is called. You may be surprised to learn that the island exports some of the finest grapefruit on the planet, shipped on a converted landing craft to distributors in Florida. Fuel is available, and unlike anywhere else in the Bahamas, water is free. The only on-site entertainment is a Bahamian joint, Willie’s Water Lounge, which gets exciting at times.

Despite the commercial nature of the place, the locals do not discourage yachts from calling. There is now talk of putting in some modest docks for transients, both in the outer harbor and inner basin.

Crisfield, Md.

Southbound for the islands one year, I decided to outflank Long Island Sound and the Jersey shore by having my boat trucked to Chesapeake Bay. Crisfield was the southernmost port on the Eastern Shore that could handle a bit of draft, as befits a place that once shipped more crabmeat than any other location in history. I came for a launch, you might say, but it was the blue crab that has kept me coming back.

At the restaurants, plain paper is spread on rustic tables. Then come mallets, butter and Old Bay seasoning. The crabs arrive steaming hot in a bucket. The idea is to smash, pick, dip and enjoy. It is a feast sublime and worth the effort. Leave the bigger ones for last as an incentive to leave no crab intact and uneaten.

As a seaport, Crisfield was once a wild place — tough guys, saloons and bordellos. The town has seen its share of decline, but you would have to travel as far as Jonesport, Maine, before you get the same whiff of a true waterman’s culture. Dockage is available at Somers Cove Marina, a large modern facility. To learn more, read William Warner’s “Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay.”

Fernandina Beach, Fla.

For many of the New England farm boys fighting in the Civil War, life in a warm climate produced an epiphany: You mean there are places you don’t have to plow rocky soil for half the year, then shiver in darkness the rest? Fernandina Beach was settled by former Union soldiers “not goin’ back,” and it shows. Take away the palm trees and shady canopied streets, and the place could be a harborside town in Maine. Fernandina lies alongside one of the best inlets on the East Coast, and the Intracoastal Waterway runs right past its waterfront. Southbound, the city marina is to port, the big anchorage to starboard. Ask a shrimper where to find the cheapest diesel, and he’ll point to the Florida Fuels dock just north of the marina.

Shoreside, downtown has a half-dozen restaurants better than nearly anything you’ll find outside of the Sunshine State’s major cities and, most noteworthy, the oldest tavern in Florida, the Palace Saloon. Here you can enjoy an international selection of beer or wine at the bar or venture into the back room to shoot pool like Billy Yank. Bookstores and boutique shopping round out the picture. (Caveat: The city’s annual Shrimp Festival draws a horde on the first weekend of May.)

Marina Hemingway, Havana

You know you live in politically distorted times when Havana — just 90 miles from Key West — is considered “off the beaten path.” Cuba’s capital was already 300 years old with a population in the hundreds of thousands when Miami and Fort Lauderdale were just stockades in the wilderness.

Nevertheless, Havana’s signature marina is off limits to U.S. cruisers by order of the U.S. President himself; so let me describe it to you from my two visits as a journalist. To begin with, the marina offers more than three miles of side-tie dockage (none of that butt-end “Med-moor” stuff common in Latin America), complete with water and whatever electricity your boat needs. On the grounds are several restaurants, bars, discotheques, rental car agencies, swimming pools, marine stores, food markets and gift shops. There is a full-service boatyard on site.

But really, who cares? The best part of the marina is that it is a secure staging point from which to get out and explore Havana and the entire island nation. European countries with a “so what?” attitude toward the regime of Fidel Castro are funding the building-by-building restoration of Old Havana. Many of the thousands of 1950s American automobiles on the road also have been beautifully restored lately, making for some fantastic sights.

For boaters, a trip to the Hemingway Museum earns them a look at the late novelist’s beloved Wheeler Playmate, Pilar. Surely one of the five most important vessels in U.S. history, she sits on what once were the tennis courts of the novelist’s old house. You may also pay homage to Papa himself by imbibing a mojito cocktail at the Floridita. A life-size bronze of the author sits in his usual seat at the end of the bar. Posture and expression suggest a portrayal from an early evening, prealcoholic funk. The place is usually packed with visitors getting as stiff as their hero in the corner.

Onset, Mass.

OK, it’s my hometown, but not only was Onset a fine place to raise a sailor, it also enjoys a strategic location beside the Buzzards Bay entrance to the Cape Cod Canal. For most sailboats and slow trawlers, transiting the canal means waiting for a favorable tide. And if that means an overnight at Onset, all the better.

Onset’s appeal transcends time and culture. Rimmed by white beach set beneath grassy bluffs, the bay was once a summer camp for the Wampanoag Indians, who came to cavort and feast on the bountiful seafood. Now the shores are lined with the late Victorian cottages built in the days when trolleys shuttled a new kind of reveler from the state’s industrial interior. Though fully developed, Onset Bay remains one of the prettiest in New England.

There is ample room to swing on a hook on the backside of Wicketts Island, and nearby Onset Bay Marina has transient dockage, moorings, fuel and a complete line of marine services. For today’s cruiser, there’s a bit of everything, all scaled to the needs of a small town. Within walking distance of the town pier, which also offers dockage, is a small supermarket, hardware and liquor stores, and a selection of small restaurants and taverns, including as good a pizza joint as you will find anywhere in the United States: Marc Anthony’s. Truly. Check out the life-size bronze statue in the waterfront park. The topless Indian maiden’s unveiling caused quite a stir among the Puritanically inclined, but historical accuracy won the day.

Warderick Wells, Exumas, Bahamas

As the “villa-fication” of the Bahamas reaches ever downward through the archipelago, cruisers will always be able to find refuge from PWC and the party-hearty crowd in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, specifically the island of Warderick Wells.

Warderick Wells is simply glorious, bursting with fish and wildlife, though none for the taking. It is the centerpiece and headquarters for the pristine 175 square miles of cays and reefs that comprise the park. Warderick’s only human inhabitants are the warden andDefense Force staff. Cruisershave three anchorages from which to choose, and with dozens of excellent sandscrew moorings, it is also a safe place to wait out a blow.

Though less than three miles from tip to tip, the island has 19 beaches on which to land a dinghy. From any beach, follow a well-marked craggy trail to the park’s main features, including the intact skeleton of a whale and the ruins of an 18th-century Loyalist settlement. On our last visit we sighted a hutia, the rare guinea pig-like rodent native to the Bahamas. Cresting the island’s peaks you’ll be rewarded doubly with a stunning view of the gently lapping aqua waters on the Bahamas Banks side and the churning and crashing cobalt waves seaward.

Snorkeling the surrounding reefs is superb, and the lemon sharks are said to have grown comfortable with the presence of humans. And you don’t even to have to get wet to enjoy the little carnivals of corals and fish. Dinghy through the channel that leads to the park headquarters and simply look down into the gin-clear water. Can’t miss the giant starfish.

Freelance writer Peter Swanson has cruised extensively from New England to the Caribbean aboard his ketch-rigged Morgan Out Island 41, and lived in the Dominican Republic for two years.