Thursday 27th February – Wednesday 12th March, Jamaica
We arrived in Jamaica after an uneventful overnight crossing from Cuba. So uneventful that we had to motor most of the way due to lack of wind. Montego Bay is on the north coast of this ex-British colony and is an easy port of entry. Customs, Immigration and Health officials come to the yacht club and formalities are dealt with quickly. Having finished formalities we retired to the yacht club bar for lunch. Welcome back to the real world (after Cuba), beer $4.50US rather than $1!
My over riding impression of Jamaica was one of a country struggling with serious economic problems. This is evidenced by a somewhat disaffected population and poorly maintained infrastructure. The Jamaican dollar was introduced in 1969 at a conversion rate of $0.77J to $1US. Today it is more like $80J to $1US! i.e. the local currency has devalued by over 100 times. The national debt exceeds 125% of GDP, unemployment is around 13% and inflation often hits double digits. Still, there is light on the horizon and the Jamaican Government is currently negotiating with China to make this country the fourth hub in a global logistic network, joining Rotterdam, Dubai and Singapore. Geography favours Jamaica positioned as it is on sea routes crossing the Caribbean from both north to south and east to west.
Economics aside we enjoyed our brief stay here. We visited one of the few surviving sugar plantation homes, Rose Hall, which was restored by a wealthy American industrialist in the late 1960s. The house is reputedly haunted and the local tour guides offer “proof” to this effect. Whether you believe in ghosts or not its well worth the visit.
From Montego Bay we cruised the north coast eastwards stopping at Falmouth, Discovery Bay, Ocho Rios and Port Antonio from where we left for Ile a Vache. In Port Antonio we hired a car for 24 hours and took a drive up into the Blue Mountains to learn about coffee production. A fellow cruiser, Harry from S/V MALUA, came with us. Needless to say we got lost on the way back and ended up driving through the outskirts of Kingston in the rush hour, not a great experience!
We weren’t exactly sorry to leave Jamaica, overall I’d only give it three out of five.
Friday 14th – Sunday 16th March, Ile a Vache
Haiti was not on our list of places to go. Too many stories of bad things happening because of the grinding poverty the Haitians endure. However, many cruisers we met have visited Ile a Vache, an island on Haiti’s south coast, and spoken in warm tones about it. As a result two nights after leaving Port Antonio we arrived at Isle a Vache about 0800 on Friday morning.
Top tip for anyone visiting this wonderful place – bring plenty of small denomination bills. US Dollars are preferred but we found that Euros and even Sterling are acceptable. The lasting impression we will take from here is the friendliness of the people and there determination, almost desperation, to work for a better existence. The boat boys exemplify this attitude. It costs $10US a month to go to school and if they can’t pay they don’t go. One of the boys we talked to was about 18 and his education was about five years behind his contemporaries in the UK or North America. Nevertheless he was determined to keep working and earn enough to finish school so he could go to college and learn to be a mechanic.
On Saturday night we ate at Jean-Jean’s new enterprise. This is a “Cafe-Cine” with some funding provided by a French organisation. More details here http://www.noukapab.fr/html/fichcafcin.html. The site is in French but even I can understand most of it. How difficult could it be to open a small Cafe-Cine here? Well, for a start there is no mains electric so the large, flat screen TV they use to show DVDs has to be powered from batteries which in turn are charged by solar panels. No big deal to us yachties but even a modest installation like this would cost at least $1000US. This place isn’t very much above a $1/day economy – $10/month for school, remember.
If you are planning to visit in a yacht keep hold of your old sails and rope. They will be gratefully received. We had Henri, the “mayor” on board collecting our harbour fee of $5US, and asked him if he’d like our old, leaking, inflatable dinghy as he didn’t have his own boat. The next day it was in the water, still leaking but providing valuable service. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure!
The kids value pens, paper and anything else that will help at school. AA batteries are popular and don’t be surprised if you get asked to charge a mobile phone. Surprisingly internet is available via the cell network and one of the more enterprising boat boys sold us time on his data dongle for only a few dollars.
We were sorry to leave as we sailed away on Sunday morning.
Sunday 16th – Monday 24th March Ile a Vache – Puerto Rico
Having rounded the western end of Cuba on 24th January we have been making our way slowly and laboriously eastwards and windwards. With no intention of stopping elsewhere in Haiti or the Dominican we now faced almost 400 Nms of bashing into the wind to reach the western end of Puerto Rico. At this time of the year the easterly trade winds are well established and 20-25 Kts of wind is the norm. This is fine when its behind you but makes for tough going when you are tacking into it.
For 48 hours after leaving Ile a Vache we beat to windward. With a contrary current of 1-2 Kts our easterly progress was slow and we were sailing two miles to get one mile east. Various small problems built up and so we decided to take shelter in the Bahia de las Aquiles (bay of the eagles), on the south coast of the Dominican Republic (DR). We anchored there about 0800 on Tuesday morning. Early in the afternoon we were visited by two members of the DR Navy. They were ferried to us by an elderly fisherman. Two more polite and courteous members of any armed force would be difficult to imagine. Although they didn’t speak English and my Spanish is only basic we communicated fine and they were happy for us to shelter for as long as we liked. They did a perfunctory search of the boat, noted our details and went on their way delighted after I presented them with three Cuban cigars. I’ve heard horror stories of corrupt DR officials, I don’t think they have many in the navy.
We stayed in Bahia de las Aguiles until Friday 21st and then set off again eastward. The weather forecast was for the wind to slacken over the next few days and so it proved as we motored the last 24 hours, crossed the feared Mona Passage in virtually no wind and arrived in Mayaguez late afternoon on Monday 24th March. Our total mileage from Ils a Vache was 634.
For an account of our time in Puerto Rico go to April’s entry.