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Island Time - A long, circuitous route to the water

Start-up Dominican boatbuilder overcomes numerous hurdles to build, then launch a boat

Start-up Dominican boatbuilder overcomes numerous hurdles to build, then launch a boat

Nunca! Never before had anything such as this happened along the road from La Culebra to El Castillo — a wonderful new boat was being hauled to the sea for launching. Nothing formal, but folks from the Dominican villages had turned out to enjoy the parade.

Brown children skipped alongside, and mothers lifted their naked babies to see. “Luca!” the men shouted, rum on their breath, cheering the boatbuilder at the wheel of the trailing flatbed. The boatbuilder, Luc Guessard, bantered back at the crowd, trying to conceal the dread that had established residence in that most important of French organs, his belly.

The catamaran that Guessard was shepherding to the water was the first Spice 42, bound for the resort town of Samana, where it was to ferry up to 45 people at a time from the mainland to an island hotel. Like boatbuilders everywhere Guessard had underpriced his first model, but at $100,000 it represented the most wealth ever created in the tiny roadside settlement of La Culebra (in English, “The Snake”). To the Dominican campesinos, it was as if the home team had just swept the World Series.

For Guessard, 39, the triumph was twofold. Start-up boatbuilding is a tough business anywhere in the world no matter how good the product, but for a foreigner to succeed at bootstrapping any enterprise in the Dominican Republic — that is a truly remarkable achievement. The sheer numbers of entrepreneurs who have been bested by various combinations of employee lethargy, official corruption and imaginative skullduggery boggle the mind.

“Wanna make a million bucks in the Dominican Republic?” begins the joke. The answer: “Start out with 10 million.”

Local legend

His story has been exaggerated, Guessard complains, particularly the sack of rice bit. When he and his brother Frank sailed their trimaran from Brazil to Luperon 11 years earlier, they were not down to their last sack of rice, he says, they just did not have a whole lot of cash.

The brothers had flown from their native France to Brazil and built their trimaran of strip-planking and epoxy. It was a childhood dream made real. The boys from Montpelier had spent their childhood cheering for France’s elite multihull racers the way American boys follow the heroes of NASCAR. They named their little tri Guara and, if I look out from my cockpit today, I can see her across the bay, sitting on the water like a tethered bird of prey.

Sent by his father to run the Puerto Blanco Marina on LuperonBay, Lenin Fernandez was the same age as the brothers. He admired their pluck and sense of decency, and offered Luc a shady corner of his marina to build boats, while Frank took hotel guests on trips aboard Guara. Eventually Frank moved on, but Luc put down roots, crafting a living one hull at a time, or should I say, two. He developed a 30-foot catamaran that a major dive company said was perfect for ferrying 14 tourists and their gear to the dive sites. Guessard hired local teenagers to help with the building.

He made molds for the hulls and used fiber-reinforced polyester resin construction just like the big boys back in France and in the States. He got better at reading in English so he could keep up on boatbuilding trends in the trade magazines. He tooled up for greater efficiency by building more and more molds for the smaller parts of his boats. He would eventually build 22 of his dive boats, but along the way he came to realize, his little corner of the marina wasn’t big enough. He reinvested his profits in the company, Spice Catamarans, and built a factory on a hillside eight miles inland in the farming village known as “The Snake.”

The teenagers who had apprenticed with him at the marina were now in the 20s and their ranks had grown to a dozen or so, all highly skilled tradesmen. Guessard’s office staff consists of George the German, an accounting whiz cross-trained in computer-assisted design.

To the sea

On the day the 42 went to the water, every man in this tight-knit crew burst with pride at having created something so valuable and so pleasing to the eye. I know for a fact any boatbuilder in the United States — an industry starving for good help — would kill to have the Spice Guys at his shop.

But before the celebrations, and the customer’s final payment, the boat would have to get to the water and on to Samana. The boat had to travel six miles on a narrow road through hill country, but the Spice 42 has a key advantage for a vessel its size; it’s built light as well as strong, weighing a mere 4 tons empty. Guessard bought a trailer you might use to haul your center console and fitted it with cross beams to support the cat. He hired a farmer and his tractor to do the hauling. Guessard’s truck followed behind with all of us paparazzi riding on the flatbed.

The procession crawled through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, but the scenery was not our friend. Several of his crew rode atop the vessel — named Lucia II — and swung their machetes against overhead branches to achieve road clearance. I’d never seen a boat bushwhacked to its launching. The crew had been given baseball-bat-sized sections of PVC pipe for another contingency.

The rural electrification of the Dominican Republic is a study in jury-rigging, and the road was criss-crossed with low-hanging wires, cobbled together with indifference to gauge, insulation or method of connection. The crew was supposed to use the PVC to raise the wires as the boat passed under, but to Guessard’s chagrin they just used their hands, proof of the fact that Dominicans are by nature both optimistic and fatalistic. Besides, they know as well as anyone that the villages are without power more than half the day.

At the beach, finally, the farmer backed the rig until the water was just below the tractor’s starter motor and Lucia II found her buoyancy.

“That was too easy,” I said to Guessard as we shared a cold Presidente beer. “Don’t ever say that it was too easy. It cannot be easy enough,” said Guessard, his dread banished by the sight of Lucia II floating as the sun set behind her.

The next day Guessard would pilot the boat to Samana with most of his crew aboard. Despite their chosen occupations, the Spice Guys know more about cows than they do of the sea. The trip would be a reward for them as most had never been to Samana, which was about 120 nautical miles away, but there would be a lesson in the journey. “When I tell them how to build,” Guessard said, “I do not want them to do it just because the boss says so. I want them to see why it is necessary to build how I tell them to.”

Traveling east along the NorthCoast of the Dominican Republic can be a rough ride, but the voyage started out in calm with Lucia II thundering along at 30 knots. After dark, rain squalls stirred the sea into a froth and some of the Spice Guys got their first taste of mal de mer and later experienced the joy at arriving at a new port for the first time. But with four more Spice 42s on order, their break from routine was to be short-lived.

Later I joked with Luc that he would someday populate the Caribbean with Spice boats. “With so many, you’ll have to be more specific,” I said, putting on my marketing hat. “I can see it now: the Cinnamon 44, the Paprika 50.”

“I will make a red boat with a thousand- horsepower engine,” he smiled. “I will call it the Chili Pepper.”

’Til next time.

Peter Swanson, 51, is sailing southern waters aboard his ketch-rigged MorganOutIsland 41. Besides his journalism credentials, he holds a 50-tonCoast 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: