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Island Time

Breathing in the Dominican potpourri

Cruisers revisit the aroma of earth and stench of bureaucracy, but this time mixed with a whiff of intrigue

Breathing in the Dominican potpourri

Cruisers revisit the aroma of earth and stench of bureaucracy, but this time mixed with a whiff of intrigue

The sun had risen well above the horizon and Lena the Sailor Cat was not only awake and still on deck but also exceptionally alert.

The sails of our ketch-rigged Morgan Out Island 41, Rio, were furled as she glided southward over glassy dark waters, powered by her faithful Perkins engine. Early April is always one of the best months to move from the Bahamas to the Caribbean, with calms such as this one interrupting what otherwise are relentlessly contrary conditions. The penalty comes in the price of fuel, and we had been forced by the prospect of calm to detour to Cockburn Harbour on East Caicos to take on 30 gallons of diesel at $4.50 per. Our destination: Luperon in the Dominican Republic.

Now the layered, bold shores of the Dominican Republic lay before us, and Lena the Cat was sniffing the air like a beagle in the back of a pickup truck. His orange striped tail was twitching with excitement. Lena smelled dirt, as did we. Not just dirt, but extreme dirt. The D.R. is among the most lush and fecund places on the planet, and we three had spent months among the salt-scrubbed Bahamas and island deserts otherwise known as the Turks and Caicos. We had been deprived scentually.

Sensual, primal: Hispaniola’s odor of rot, regeneration and a whiff of charcoal were enhanced by the briny air, the same way that salt enhances the flavor of food, and the effect was both intense and welcome.

The last time I approached Luperon from the north was early in 1999 aboard my old Cheoy Lee ketch, Hong Kong Maiden. I spent 18 months aboard her there, living and working among Dominicans, a fascinating collection of expatriates and assorted fugitives. I continued southward on the Maiden, but eventually brought her back to Luperon to sell (a story for another time).

So our impending arrival at “my village” would constitute a homecoming. I had heard about the changes slowly transforming the harbor, and I wondered if the place was holding on to its funny, funky charm.

Too many witnesses

We aimed Rio at the headland just inside the mouth of the bay, the exact place where Christopher Columbus caught up with wayward captain Martin Pinzon of the Pinta in early 1493. Having lost the Santa Maria to reef, Columbus thought it wise to forgive Pinzon’s desertion for the sake of the mission, and to this day Luperon Harbor’s traditional name reflects Columbus magnanimity: Bay of Grace.

Gracefully, we steamed inshore, keeping the compass on a 190-degree course to the headland, which took us safely between the reefs flanking the entrance. As we neared the head, the west lobe of the harbor revealed itself to starboard and we made a gradual turn inside, trying to stay out of the mud shallows.

Inside, more than a hundred cruising boats from all over the Atlantic world lay before us — more than I had ever seen here before. Word of this hurricane hideout has obviously spread. We took a turn around the harbor and dropped the hook into the thick gelatinous mud. I picked a spot between two boats I knew well, one of them belonging to cruising guide author and raconteur Bruce Van Sant.

This leads me to recount one of my most embarrassing moments, which I confess in self-defense before the anecdote finds its way into one of Van Sant’s books. Hong Kong Maiden spent a total of two years anchored in Luperon without ever dragging, but I must have missed a trick the first time I dug Rio’s hook into the muck.

Bruce wasn’t spending much time aboard these days, but he was on board when Rio dragged. I was doing something at Puerto Blanco Marina when Papo, a Dominican who has made a career of meeting the needs of cruisers in Luperon, handed me his handheld VHF. “It’s for you,” he said.

“Peter,” I heard Van Sant say, with forced patience. “Your boat has just T-boned me.”

I answered, “Be right there,” and sped off in my dinghy. Van Sant’s description wasn’t strictly accurate. Rio had dragged and impaled herself on Van Sant’s Tidak Apa, a Schucker trawler. Kelly, my cruising mate, had been in the shower when Tidak Apa’s bow pulpit had poked through my lifeline boarding gate with a crunch-thud. She responded wearing only a kimono, much to Bruce’s amusement.

And so did a number of Luperon’s regulars — not in kimonos, but inflatables. Mike from Seacomber, the harbor’s diesel mechanic, responded. So did Jim from Hellenbac, the harbor’s electronics tech. The boats were soon separated with only a broken lifeline terminal on Rio. From Van Sant’s point of view it was the perfect mishap. No damage to his boat, but an unlimited license for future commentary. “You know my book has a section on anchoring,” he has periodically reminded me since.

More of everything

Besides being a hurricane hole, Luperon’s location rarely gets anything close to a direct hit from hurricanes. Because of the island’s mountain ranges, hurricanes tend to drive northward to the east of the Dominican Republic or to track along the island’s south coast. There were 70 boats in the harbor when Hong Kong Maiden was here. Now it’s not unusual to see 130 boats in the harbor at any one time. Many of them are there without owners, on the hook or tied to mangroves.

Guys like Papo and Handy Andy now work full time in the harbor delivering fuel and water and cleaning bottoms. It is truly amazing how quickly Luperon’s nutrient-rich waters will turn a clean bottom into a budding coral reef.

Puerto Blanco Marina, with berths for 15 or so vessels, is usually full. Owner Lenin Fernandez tells me he is adding Travelift and converting some of his property to a small working yard. Another marina — Luperon Yacht Club Marina — is open for business with Cuban-American owner Manolo Fernandez (no relation to Lenin) at the helm. The marina’s new restaurant clubhouse stands high on a bluff over the docks with a spectacular view of the bay. The marina had just added a diesel pump at the service dock.

A third marina is planned for the other side of the west bay. And while the Atlantica megayacht-villa complex planned for the rarely visited east bay has stumbled — as big projects in Latin America often do — people here expect that its completion in some form is inevitable because both the land and government permissions have been secured.

The bureaucracy blues

The village itself is more prosperous than I remember, and a little cleaner as the villagers become more litter-conscious. The area is experiencing a building boom, encouraged, no doubt, by the election of president Leonel Fernandez (now in his second term), who has increased the confidence of the international community, especially the bankers.

I’m hoping his administration will get around to simplifying entry procedures for voyagers. When I first arrived we needed to clear in with the navy and an immigration officer. Sometimes a drug agent would come aboard and sniff around the boat (literally). The navy still wants to see you and so does immigration, but now you have to visit or be visited by representatives of the Port Authority, Customs and the country’s Agriculture Department. Most of them ask that some kind of fee be paid. Many cruisers find this kind of process hugely intimidating and believe they are being held up for bribes even when they are not.

In my mind it’s clear the Dominican Republic needs to follow the lead of the Bahamas. A visit to Customs, a visit to Immigration and a set entrance fee based on the length of the vessel. In fact, why not let one agency — such as Luperon’s Port Authority — do it all? One stop, one fee: Yippee! And the piece of paper they issue should be a “cruising permit” allowing a foreign vessel to come and go to ports and anchorages throughout the country without asking the navy’s permission to depart, until the vessel is leaving the country altogether.

Artists and spies

Now to answer the question I posed at the beginning: Does Luperon still possess its funny, funky charm? Absolutely.

In our short stay we were constantly amused by events and people. Part of this is due to the international nature of the place. Like the Bahamas, most are from the United States and Canada, but a far higher percentage of boats come from places such as South Africa, Britain, France and New Zealand. One fellow — a fine watercolorist — had single-handed his 60-year-old sloop up from Argentina.

I think I sniffed out one man who was working for an agency of the U.S. government. He was likeable — they have to be when they work alone gathering information.

Spies, of course, are always fascinating. And when you’re having a beer with people who crossed an ocean or two to get to the table, you know you’re sharing the camaraderie of true mariners. I would urge anyone who cruises the Bahamas to continue on to Luperon and then beyond. Why did you buy that boat if not to escape?

’Til next time.

Peter Swanson, 51, grew up on Cape Cod never wearing shoes in summer until he shipped off to college. Besides his journalism credentials, he holds a 50-ton Coast Guard master’s license. His ambition to cruise the coast of Cuba is so premature that he founded a Web site dedicated to this virtually non-existent pastime: .