Halfway to paradise - Luperon, Dominican Republic

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Portions of this article first appeared in Cruising World Magazine

Halfway to Paradise

Luperon: Sailors Sanctuary on the Thorny Path

by James Baldwin

The port of Luperon, on the north coast of Hispaniolas Dominican Republic, is located midway between Florida and the Windward Islands of the Caribbean. This puts it directly on the thorny path, that prickly route south and east from the Bahamas that takes you into the teeth of the prevailing trades. Sailors coming from the open, rolly anchorages of the low-lying southeastern Bahamas find a welcome contrast in this nearly land-locked bay, superbly protected by surrounding lush green mountains.

Marked on some charts as Puerto Blanco, the port of Luperon has since the late 1990's seen 100 or more cruising boats anchored within its spacious, fjord-like bay during peak migration months. While most cruisers stop here briefly on their dash to or from the eastern Caribbean, its become increasingly common for them to layover for months that sometimes turn into years. A refreshing lack of bureaucratic restrictions, the low cost of living, and genuinely friendly people are equally responsible for the ports growing popularity.

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Atom's course through the Caribbean

Located in the northern arm of the bay is the Puerto Blanco Marina, which has dockage for a handful of boats, a dinghy dock for those anchored out, a bar/restaurant, and a gift shop where you can arrange inland travel tours. The marina also hosts weekly potlucks and on Sunday a flea market for boaters. A new marina development, which seems inevitable wherever a popular sheltered anchorage exists these days, is planned for the opposite corner of the harbor closer to town.

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The perfectly protected harbor at Luperon, Dominican Republic. Dinghy dock, pier, and anchorage at Luperon.

Stand by on VHF channel 68 each Wednesday and Sunday morning and you may hear Keith The Voice aboard Nomad awaken you with, Good Morning! Hey, you barely breathing barnacled-bottomed buccaneers! The Luperon cruisers net welcomes you to the worlds largest outdoor insane asylum. After commercial announcements from boat sitters and tour guides, cruisers swap boat equipment or crew, and Keith issues futile reminders for folks to use longer dinghy painters at the crowded dinghy dock and to stop jamming the airwaves with SSB email transmissions during weatherfax broadcasts.

A mile into the western arm of the bay is the Luperon town pier, with public water tap and dinghy dock for direct access to town. Luperon is in the middle of a transformation from sleepy fishing village to an expanding town thats dependent on tourism from nearby resorts as well as the hordes of cash-carrying sailors passing through or taking up residence. On its bustling main street, simple wood and tin shacks belonging to fishermen's families stand alongside new restaurants, bars, hardware stores, tourist shops, and modern Internet cafes. Occasionally a herd of cattle or a farmer on horseback passes down the recently tarred main street. A favorite lunch spot for cruisers and locals is Louisas Chicken Shack, which serves plates heaped with fried chicken, rice and beans, and plantain chips for around US$2.

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Locals in Luperon

Luperon is now a port of entry. Clearing in at the immigration and commandancia offices near the pier is easy, but fees in 2002 tripled to $68 plus $10 per passport, simply because local officials learned about the Bahamas getting away with $100 ($150 in 2004) entry charges. Despite the increased costs, most officials in Luperon couldnt be more pleasant, and for a small visa extension fee you can stay pretty much as long as you want. On one of our early visits to Luperon the police chief was in the habit of asking for an extra $10 or so, depending on how wealthy you looked, for his take of the clearance fees. This outraged enough visitors that he was eventually removed from office with the help of local immigration officials.

In the center of town is the Luperon Marine Store owned by Margie and Brian, who first sailed into Luperon aboard their Lavranos 36, Pennywhistle, in 1994. The couple left their home port of Durban, South Africa, 12 years ago to circumnavigate. After cruising through the Caribbean and the US East Coast, they returned to settle in Luperon last year.

When we first stopped here in 94 there were only five yachts at anchor. Last year, about 50 boats stayed right through hurricane season, Margie says. We liked the place and the people so much that we gave up our plans to circumnavigate and came back here to stay. Besides the marine store, Margie and Brian have bought land nearby and are building a house. In their shop, Margie does all types of canvas work from awnings to cushion covers to courtesy flags. Aside from charts and some gear in stock they can import whatever you need in about ten days. Well, to be honest, thats ten Dominican days, which due to customs tie-ups, may sometimes be closer to one month, admits Brian with the resigned look of a man who has adjusted well to Latin American bureaucracy.

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Margie and Brian at the Luperon Marine Store

Margie is a good source of information for sightseeing trips to the waterfalls or across the mountain border to Haiti. Recent turmoil in Haiti has scared away some cruisers, but friends in Luperon during the 2004 season report no problems. Margie can also help you find supplies in the nearby city of Puerto Plata which is about one hour away by shared taxi. Whatever you cant find there you may locate in the inland city of Santiago or four hours by bus to the capital city of Santo Domingo. Local travel can be done by jumping on the back of one of the ever-present motorcycle taxis for 10 pesos (55 cents US) or by renting one to drive yourself for about US$14 per day.

Luperons best known residents are Bruce Van Sant and his wife, Rosa, aboard Tidak Apa. Most cruisers whove made it this far south carry a well-thumbed copy of Bruces The Gentlemans Guide to Passages South now it its expanded 8th edition. In the book, he describes The Thornless Path to Windward, or techniques to follow for a safe and comfortable passage southeast through the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos to the Caribbean. Its a route thats strewn with the broken hulls and shattered dreams of those who ignored his sage advice.

In his previous boat, the 41-foot ketch, Jalan Jalan, Bruce plied the islands from the Bahamas to Venezuela dozens of times, often singlehanded. Used to voicing his strong opinions, Bruce defines the new generation of cruisers as anyone with a GPS and a credit card. Exasperated at times by novice cruisers who misinterpret his advice and then blame him for mishaps such as a misjudged weather window, Bruce says emphatically, The best advice I can give these credit-card cruisers is to follow the rules laid out in my book completely or dont use it at all.

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Bruce Van Sant aboard Tidak Apa in Luperon

Sailing purists might suggest he subtitle his book, Motoring to the Caribbean, because motoring, or at best motorsailing, in the night lees close to land, is what youll do for several hundred miles along the coasts of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. It would take a rare combination of good tactics, good windward ability, and an iron crew to make this trip in an engineless boat. For the rest, if you have a dependable and powerful engine and youre not interested in long offshore passages, this is the most practical way to get south.

Doctors in Indonesia told Bruce in 1979 that due to complications after a severe attack of blackwater fever he contracted while working in Indonesia, he had less than five years to live. It was the best thing that could have happened, Bruce says. It focused me on what I really wanted to do, and Im still doing it today. Sailing has certainly added life to his years, and probably added years to his life. Unfortunately, failing health is catching up with Bruce. Now, age and bouts of vertigo have forced him to trade in his ketch for Tidak Apa, a Shucker 440 motorsailor from which he removed the mast and that he can operate from belowdecks. Once theyve sold their house in Luperon, Bruce and Rosa plan to make at least one more cruise through the islands, then settle in Puerto Plata, Rosas hometown.

Despite all the guide books and charts available, sailboats from time to time still plow onto the reef in the narrow entrance to Luperon. Channel buoys regularly drift out of position, disappear, or get confused with trap markers. In 2002, one yacht pounded on the reef several hours before it was at last pulled off, minus his rudder. Arriving during the typical near calm of early morning during settled weather should present no problem to those with a copy of Bruces book and a detailed chart.

Winter trades can blow strong along this coast and funnel through the anchorage. By evening, the cooling mountain air usually descends to deflect the coastal winds, leaving only the muted thunder of distant rollers breaking on the seaward beach to waft over the calm anchorage. Because of the islands geography and the superb shelter of the harbor, hurricanes seldom have serious effect here. An extensive mountain range, the highest in the Caribbean, tends to break up and diminish hurricane force winds on this coast. In 2004 Hurricane Jeanne was reported to have passed directly over the port, yet one boat reported no winds over 35 knots in the harbor.

On some days, purple-black thunderstorms build over the interior mountains in late afternoon, bringing windless showers into the harbor. The anchored fleet was caught off guard in April 2002 when gusts of 50 knots from one squall caused boats to drag anchor. Strongest winds Ive seen here, says one four-year resident whose well dug in anchor held. On the VHF party line another guy said, Ive been anchored here for ten months without dragging, and now Im sitting way up in the mangroves.

Roger Wilson and Judy Souviney have bucked the winds to reach Luperon all the way from Brunswick, Maine, in their beautifully restored 32-foot 1965 Pearson Vanguard, Hanoah. Though Roger has built or refitted six boats since the 1970s, the trip south with Judy was their first extended cruise. For two years Hanoah underwent her complete refit under a shed next to their home in Brunswick. Among their many improvement projects, Roger and Judy replaced the cabin windows with large opening ports for increased ventilation, constructed a propane bottle locker into the aft end of the cockpit footwell, and sealed the entire hull exterior against moisture with a layer of fiberglass and epoxy resin.

Making the transition from boatbuilder to full-time cruiser has been an extraordinary learning experience, Roger says, pointing out several new items on his job list, such as adding windvane self-steering and a couple of solar panels. Judy, who works as a nurse practitioner when not assisting Roger on boat projects, says, Well probably stay right here through hurricane season. Were taking Spanish lessons so we can get the most out of our travels inland and participate more in the local scene. We kept in touch by email and I heard they did spend that year in Luperon and then slowly moved on to the south coast of Puerto Rico in 2004.

Another couple who stopped in Luperon that spring, who are now disciples of the Van Sant way to windward, are Marla Linder and Kaj Huld. Their 31-foot Geiger-designed wooden cruising ketch Apsara, built in Denmark in 1960 is surely one of the prettiest boats in every harbor she enters. Kaj, a mechanical engineer, and Marla, an IT projects manager, bought Apsara in 1996 in Boston to replace their Cape Dory 25. Since then Kaj has worked nearly nonstop refitting the boat, adding a new bowsprit, deck hatches, galley, wood stove and a 27-HP Yanmar diesel. As we drooled over their impeccably finished eight-foot Acorn wooden sailing dinghy, Marla stated the obvious: Kaj is a perfectionist.

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Marla Linder and Kaj Huld with Apsara

Kaj and Marla originally sailed for the Caribbean via the offshore route until a broken bobstay en route to Bermuda forced them back to Boston. After making repairs, they decided to follow the coast and pick up the thorny path in the Bahamas. We've followed Van Sant's guide, and it really works, Marla says. We hope to sail as far as Venezuela before returning to work in Boston a year or two later - or maybe three.

Twenty-seven-year-old Michael Riley, from Maine, stopped in Luperon briefly this April aboard Ballybreen, a 27-foot ODay. Like us, Michael was one of the fortunate ones making the easy downwind run back to the US East Coast as part of a circle cruise around the North Atlantic. He departed Maine with his father aboard on June 6, 2001, bound for Ireland. Ballybreen is minimally equipped, lacking even a radio to receive weather forecasts. Our view is the boat doesn't go fast enough to avoid bad weather so why worry about it, Michael says. In hindsight, Michael admits that staying well above 40 degrees north latitude on their crossing was a mistake. For 30 days, he and his dad hand-steered Ballybreen four hours on and four off through a series of gale-force depressions. Five hundred miles west of Ireland, the ODays skeg-hung rudder snapped off where the hollow rudderstock passes through the hull. After watching in disbelief as the rudder floated away, they jury-rigged a new one out of a dismantled plywood bunkboard and a whisker pole lashed to the transom ladder. To add to their misery, they narrowly escaped dismasting during three separate incidents of broken mast stays.

Michael's sister accompanied him on the next leg of the voyage to Spain, and then his dad returned for the passage from Portugal to St. Lucia. It was my dads dream to sail across the Atlantic, but I think Im benefiting more, Michael says. On our return Atlantic crossing, dad seemed anxious as we neared our destination. He kept scanning the horizon and with his pipe dangling from the corner of his mouth, repeated, Yep, if she just holds together a bit longer we should be alright.

Assisted by an electric autopilot, Michael has sailed alone through the islands since St. Lucia. I feel obliged to warn all future visitors that to charge Ballybreens batteries, he has a wind charger that's mounted lethally low on the afterdeck. Pointing to a three-inch scar on the side of his head, Michael says, I should put it on a higher pole before it kills someone. Im sure the Dominican customs officer who left Ballybreen with a similar scar would heartily agree. Ballybreen is headed next to Cuba and then to Maine to complete her Atlantic circuit. Stop by and say hi if you see him, but keep your head down.