Where Everybody Knows Your Name - Hanging out in Trinidad

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Portions of this article appeared first as Where Everybody Knows Your Name in Cruising World Magazine

TRINIDAD: CARIBBEAN CROSSROADS

By James Baldwin

It seems like everyone who ever sailed 
eventually comes through Trinidad. 
Some of us find it difficult to leave.

Sailors who pop down to Trinidad for a week of Carnival hell-raising or a quick haulout and paint job are inevitably shocked when I tell them I’ve been here two years. “Two years?” they parrot back in shocked condemnation, making me feel as if I’d been caught spending two years living in a brothel or some other decadent waste of time. “Yes,” I admit, “I do love this place. I work on boats when I feel like it and enjoy the local sailing. It's a cheap place to live with friendly people and a wonderful climate and, well, what’s the hurry?”

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Atom's course to Trinidad

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Carnival reveler in Trinidad

It's been 15 years since I last sailed out of US waters and maybe I'm finding it too much of a culture shock to go home. After two circumnavigations my pace has slowed to a point that the present generation of frantic satellite-wired cruisers considers a dead stop. However, I’m not alone in being waylaid in Trinidad. Many others have gladly made a years-long halt in this beautiful hurricane-free isle after bashing their brains out against the trades for several months on the thorny, casualty-strewn path from Florida. Once they’ve made it this far they are literally at the end of the line. Now it's time to pause for a refit before turning back or to contemplate continuing south on the even thornier passage against wind and current to Brazil. The lucky ones approach Trinidad on a downwind run either across the Atlantic from Europe or, like me, from Africa and Brazil.

Wait in Trinidad long enough and you'll find nearly every person you ever met on the circumnavigator’s routes eventually turns up here on their way through the Caribbean. My Trinidadian friends, Harold and Kwailan La Borde, owners of Humming Bird Marine in the popular Trinidad yachting mecca of Chaguaramas, have befriended countless cruisers during their 40 years of sailing. In the past eight years since the La Bordes opened Humming Bird Marine, many of their old friends have popped in as they pass though the Caribbean. Along the counter of Voyager’s Bar at Humming Bird Marine is a photomontage of legendary ocean voyagers from Columbus to Joshua Slocum to Bernard Moitessier. At the end of the bar is a photo made by Harold of his boat Humming Bird III with the craggy peak of Cape Horn in the near background. Under it an excerpt from Harold’s book reads:

“Cape Horn lies at the very bottom of the world. My dream was to sail there in a boat that we would build in Trinidad. The Horn is a place of ultimate challenge, an altar of worship where some of usmust go to renew our faith in God and in ourselves.”

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Harold Laborde at Voyagers Bar

Harold has built three boats in Trinidad named Humming Bird. He and his wife Kwailan were awarded their country's highest honor - the Gold Trinity Cross – for their outstanding seamanship on two circumnavigations during an era of wooden boats and bronze sextants. Recently the devout La Borde family set out in Humming Bird III to visit the sailor’s shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. “For me this voyage is a pilgrimage to give thanks to our Lord for 40 years of successful voyaging,” Harold said.

During recent years, Trinidad has rapidly expanded its yacht service industry. Besides Humming Bird Marine, there are several storage yards, yacht clubs, and related industries concentrated around the northwest tip of Trinidad in Chaguaramas and Carenage Bay. Stories of increased crime in Venezuela have swelled the number of American yachts that came to Trinidad during 1999-2001 to repair or safely store their boats on the hard while they fly home for the summer. And who can blame them. I mean, where else in the English-speaking world can you hire a laborer for US$2 an hour, rent a car for $15 a day, have a good meal for $2.50 and find virtually any item for your boat in the local chandleries? If it’s not on the shelves, Marine Warehouse brings in a weekly container from Miami stuffed with duty-free orders from West Marine. Haulout rates seem reasonable at US$5 per foot including five days on the hard and launching, although the yard storage fees and marina dockage are steeper than Venezuela.

Those with bigger budgets or less experience at finding bargains, arrive in Trinidad, pull into a posh full service marina, pay top dollar for everything and then complain about the workmanship that they didn't think to supervise until it was too late. However, that's not the only way to live here. There are several attractive anchorages nearby when you want to get away from the crowds. And the entertainment provided by the Trinis is legendary. For many sailors this is a cruiser’s nirvana. Like anywhere, however, there is a downside. Shoreside discos running at mast-rattling volume several nights a week blast across the otherwise beautiful anchorage off the yacht clubs in Carenage Bay. During summer months, when winds set into the southeast, a short steep chop coming across the open gulf makes life aboard difficult. It’s quieter at night and less choppy during southeast winds anchored a couple miles away by the marinas in the main yacht ghetto of Chaguaramas, but the anchorage there is crowded, the holding ground uneven, and the currents fluky. Tucking into one of the coves along the peninsula south of Crews Inn marina is probably best on this side.

For those trying to do topsides painting, the weather is the biggest enemy. As far as I can tell, everywhere I go the weather is usually unusual. The day I arrived in South Africa, massive flooding broke a seven-year drought. In Trinidad last year, the dry season turned out wetter than the rainy season. “Very unusual,” the local marina owners said, often with a knowing smile in the corner of their mouths. Sailors painting their boats cursed the rain and wind and wished they'd hauled in Venezuela instead.

I felt particularly sorry for my old friend Theo Bodmer on Islander, whom I had been meeting up with many times since we departed Hong Kong together in 1993. Theo had always harbored a fear of finding osmosis on his hull. At times he sounded downright paranoid - like the healthy patient who tries to convince his doctor he is dying of some rare disease – and like a reassuring doctor I’d repeatedly told him everything was okay and not to worry about it. Then, hauled out at a marina in Brazil, he had an expert in fiberglass neomancy go over his boat with a moisture meter. The results of the tests showed the 28-foot Islander was thoroughly saturated with water from the keel nearly up to the base of the mast! Theo was now inconsolable and frantic with worry. I had to admit those bulges below the waterline looked suspicious, but I reassured him by taking him aside and whispering, “Faulty meter - can’t be trusted.”

Sitting in the corner of the haul-out yard at Trinidad Yachting Association last year, Theo chiseled into those bulges and found what every passerby felt obliged to tell him was the worse case of osmosis they’d ever seen. I had to agree. As Islander shamefully displayed her rotted underside to the world, the Swiss sailor was unkindly nicknamed The King of Osmosis. Being a boat builder and his good friend, Theo naturally roped me in to assist in Islander’s yearlong resurrection.

What worried Theo almost as much as his rot-riddled hull was the effect of so many rich North Americans and Europeans on the island’s culture. When he first arrived here, Theo asked the retired American couple anchored next to him for the best way to get to town. Theo, who was used to solo sailing on a micro-budget through the remotest parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, listened in horror as the lady responded: “You have to sign up.”

It’s undeniable the cruisers in Trinidad are as well organized as the summer military school camp my parents enrolled me in during my teenage rebellion in the 70’s. The day begins with the morning roll call on the cruiser’s VHF radio net. Everything from local weather and crime reports to island tours to charity work to swapping crew and boat equipment is discussed in excruciating detail. Then there's the well-meaning and mildly entertaining Caribbean Safety and Security Net on the SSB where they catalog an unending stream of thefts of cruiser's new high-powered inflatable dinghies. A friend of mine parodied this show in his poem The Paranoia Net. There’s even a weekly writer’s group and sewing club and an AA group to join – all put on by visiting yacht folk. 

Many are here just because their insurance agent told them to stay below 12 degrees north in the hurricane season. Did I say Trinidad was hurricane-free? Well, it does average one every 36 years according to the met office: the last one being about 37 years ago. Of course, not the slightest precautions are taken by the yacht owners or the marinas until the last possible moment, so when the next big hurricane comes it will bring utter devastation. When a hurricane did threaten Trinidad in October 2000, the yards worked double shifts hauling and stacking yachts up like cord wood, but were saved from having them topple over like dominoes when the storm weakened and turned north just before striking the island. Mild earthquakes also happen from time to time, sending yard workers running from boat to boat tightening up jackstands that have vibrated loose. The last one shook me up as I was under my boat in the IMS yard scrapping some barnacles from the bottom of my keel. At least so far we've been spared serious floods or plague!

Because they’ve become such an insular group, Carnival is about the only time most of the newly launched well-moneyed cruising herd mingle with the locals, except when berating boat workers for shoddy work or lodging complaints with every official in sight for one thing or another. Some of their complaints actually work, such as when a gang of irate yachties were paid for damages to their awlgripped topsides and rubber dinghies during last years harbor oil spill. (It is a commercial harbor by the way.) Those who didn't get cash settlements could at least attend the seminars on how to remove oil from topsides and dinghies. 

Carnival is a week when locals and sailors cut loose with wild costumes and wilder behavior. A few days before Carnival, Theo and I jumped into a taxi in downtown Port-of-Spain. The driver asks if we mind if he picks up another passenger. “Only if she’s good looking’” Theo replies. The driver laughs and says we should go to church to meet good girls. We pick up another passenger and he says, “Trinidad is a horny society. Just wait till Carnival and you can have many women!” The driver counters by warning us: "Carnival is EVIL! I’m a Christian and I’m getting out of town before the debauchery begins." I suggest he do as most Christian Trinis do by enjoying Carnival and asking forgiveness later. As we stepped out of the car, he handed us a religious pamphlet.

God knows these people know how to have fun. That’s proven by the high rates of ‘Carnival Babies’, or people born in October/November, which is nine months after Carnival. During the masquerade night of Carnival, anyone going near town gets painted head to toe in colored mud. For a couple dollars, vendors paint passersby in a rainbow of colors. Women are painted free. The morning after, it's amusing to see hungover yachties appear Martian-like from their hatches with skin dyed green.

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Attack of the yacht devils at Carnival Fun Race

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Chaguaramas harbor viewed from Crews Inn Marina

Last year Trinidad hosted the Miss Universe pageant, which was held in a specially refurbished auditorium right next to where my boat was anchored in Carenage Bay. High ticket prices insured few sailors would get a seat, so many watched the show live on TV from their boats. The reigning Miss Universe was a heavenly, seemingly 7-foot tall gazelle-like lady from Trinidad. Trinis are understandably proud of their racially mixed population, which has mingled to create the highest per capita incidence of drop-dead beautiful women in the world. It's also true that Trinis are also some of the most pleasant people I’ve met in the Caribbean.

Donald Trump, who brought this Miss Universe circus to Trinidad, promised to bring millions of dollars of investment to the country. Instead, he left Trinidad with a multi-million dollar debt on the specially refurbished auditorium and show-related costs. The only people I could see who benefited from the fiasco was the murderous gang of 11 men who had their scheduled mass hangings delayed a few weeks by the image-conscious government until the foreign beauties had finished their show. Once the sensitive liberal-minded foreigners had returned home, the criminals were strung up in a low-key casual private ceremony. This drew more local applause than the Miss Universe show received.

Wolfgang Bunjes on his 31-foot catamaran Double Trouble was one of many past friends I ran into again in Trinidad. The 42-year-old German was crushed when a handsome French singlehander on a big flashy catamaran anchored next to Double Trouble and promptly made off with Wolfgang's Brazilian girlfriend. The betrayed sailor saw red and, unable to catch the fast catamaran, went out that night to drown his sorrows at the marina bar. “I guess I had a little too much to drink that night,” Wolfgang admitted when asked how it was possible that he had disappeared in his dinghy that night and was found near death three days later 60 miles away on a Venezuelan beach. 

For two days he’d drifted downwind in his plywood dinghy, driven helplessly across the Gulf of Paria by strong northeast trades. Then he spent a night treading water when large waves overturned and swept away his dinghy. Exhaustion and dehydration caused him to hallucinate. When he attempted to drown himself, a miracle happened. As he dropped under water with his last breath about to expire, his toe touched the sandy bottom! The next day he was found unconscious on a remote beach and returned by cargo boat five days later to Trinidad. “I feel like I’ve been granted a second life,” Wolfgang said as he belted back a line of beers at the marina bar. It was somehow reassuring to see Wolfgang was not about to let a little thing like being granted a second life interfere with his determination to kill himself with alcohol. Wolfgang's full story is covered in the Blown Away article.

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Atom alongside the Zulu cargo schooner in Carenage

As I looked across the crowded anchorage in Carenage Bay one morning I saw a peculiar looking vessel newly arrived. The big wooden schooner Lela Zoraida, skippered by American artist and naval architect Doug Tyson, was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Doug had walked into the jungle of Guyana with a seabag over his shoulder and an idea in his head and sailed out a year later on his new 60-foot schooner. With two friends Doug sailed the boat engineless and without any electrics whatsoever, directly to Trinidad. “I’m flat broke and she’s now up for sale,” Doug said. 

Zoraida’s design is based on the Zulu class herring luggers of 1870’s Scotland, characterized by a plumb stem, deeply raked sternpost and rounded stern with long overhang. The boat is massively constructed of tropical hardwoods. Her schooner rig carries four loose-footed sails including gaff main. Under sail she is an impressive sight – some 90 feet long from bowsprit to sternsprit. Doug’s dream was to build a boat that represented his vision of a classic design. Having spent his last dollar building it, he now wanted to move on to something else. Doug returned to work as a sailing instructor in the Chesapeake while friends agreed to help look after Zoraida until she could be sold. I never guessed then that I'd let myself be sucked into buying and rescuing the sinking boat myself when Doug and his friends abandoned her a few months later. The story of that fiasco is in the article Saga of a Jungle Schooner

In May 2000, my friend Mei Huang from Taiwan joined Atom for a two-week cruise around the western end of Trinidad and its off-lying islands. Mei and I poked around the small islands and bays on Trinidad’s western peninsula and finally secluded ourselves for several days deep within a narrow gap in the mountains called Scotland Bay. We sailed in under the lightest sea breeze at sunset to anchor off the beach in 8 feet of clear water. As a full moon sparkled on the water, Mei was inspired to write a poem about the place in Chinese that we roughly translated to English.

White moon shines over ocean bay and green mountain,
its slopes shaped like sleeping woman lying back in tranquil water.
A pure wind murmurs as it spills down the breast of sleeping beauty,
lightly kisses the sea and rolls pink poui tree leaves along the beach.
Above, pelicans fly in shooting arrow form away from setting sun,
while below, the sea turtle sends flying fish dancing on air.
Hearing howler monkeys, frogs and birds singing in mountain woods,
is like Ba-Ha Orchestra playing for my lover and I.

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Mei and Atom in Scotland Bay