Isla Beata and Ile a Vache, April-May 2008 photos
We left Boca Chica, Dominican Republic,
headed west toward Jamaica. Since the trip was over 350 miles, we
decided to break it up by stopping at Isla Beata, conveniently located
just south of the Pedernales peninsula of the DR. This island is part
of a national park and is protected. Incidentally, for a very poor
country, the DR has set aside quite a lot of land for preservation
as natural resources.
Isla Beata is not completely deserted: There is an encampment of
itinerant fisherman as well as a Marina de Guerra (Coast Guard)
station at the beautiful anchorage on its northwest corner.
We anchored in the lovely bay, facing the white sand beach fringed
by coconut palms. Soon, the sergeant in charge of the lonely Marina
de Guerra Station appeared alongside, having been ferried out on
one of the numerous wooden fishing boats. He welcomed us, examined
our paperwork, and offered a tour of the settlement, which we happily
took him up on.
We were surprised at how many fishermen there were, and amazed
at their lifestyle and living conditions. There were about 40 open
wooden fishing boats, powered by outboards, or occasionally oars.
The fishermen set out each morning (or each night) and return with
their catches around sunset (or sunrise). The water is steep-to
at the beach, so they drop an anchor or pick up a mooring, then
swim or wade a line to shore. The fishermen reminded us of our Labrador
retrievers with their blithe disregard as to whether they were on
land or in the water, wet or dry. According to the sergeant, the
fishermen belong to a cooperative based in Barahona, some 50 miles
away. A boat comes out from Barahona every 4 days or so, bringing
all the supplies they need to live and fish: gasoline for their
outboards and to power the generator they use to keep their batteries
charged; blocks of ice the size of picnic coolers to preserve their
catch; fresh water, because there is no source on the island; rice
and other foodstuffs. We watched the fishermen unloading 20 gallon
containers of gasoline from the supply boat, wading into the water
alongside it, taking a can onto a shoulder, walking up the beach
to the storage area to deposit it, then returning for another can.
The commercial activity centers around the pescaderia or fish market.
The size of the fish they had stored there astounded us -- many
were some kind of mackerel almost 3 feet long, and a fisherman told
us that these were only average sized! The men were gutting them
and storing them in chipped ice (not sure how they chipped it from
the blocks, but probably by hand) in large 4x6x4 thick wooden iceboxes.
A "tallyman" recorded in a small composition book which
fish came from which fisherman. There were also smaller flats filled
with conch (or "lambi" as it's called there). It was already
shelled, and we saw no shells around, so don't know how and where
that happened. We nearly stumbled on a large iguana, casually crawling
through the village. Then we noticed that there were quite a few
of them around. We asked if they were used for food and were told
that they were protected. One of them, over 8 years old and larger
than the cat it was crawling past (which was studiously ignoring
it), is a pet, and was coming for its evening meal.
There is no alcoholic beverage on the island. The sergeant reports
that there is never any fighting or troubles, maybe because of the
alcohol ban, but he attributes it to the fact that "they are
good people." The fishermen, and a half-dozen women and a few
children, live in very primitive huts made of corrugated metal,
some cinderblock, some small tree trunks or branches lashed or woven
together, woven palm branches, or some combination of all of these.
We counted at least 50 of these huts. Cooking is done over open
woodfires and is generally communal.
The fishermen were all very friendly and welcoming. They come to
the island for a period of time, ranging from one to six months,
then go back "home" for awhile, then return. They seemed
happy with their situation, despite the primitive living conditions.
At the far end of the beach, there was a small settlement of Haitian
fishermen. While there was no socializing between them and the Dominicans,
there didn't seem to be any antagonism, either. They were probably
illegal, but everyone turned a blind eye. The Dominican guys shrugged
and said "Haiti is so poor. What can they do?"
We left Isla Beata, heading west. When we started out there was
a nice southeast wind, and we enjoyed about two hours of fast spinnaker
running, but then t wind went light and we ended up eking out progress
at less than 3 knots. The SSB forecast was for more of the same,
so we decided to stop in at Ile a Vache, on Haiti's SW corner. Ile
a Vache is about 10 miles long and 4 miles wide and home to about
15,000 people, living in a half-dozen widely scattered villages.
We'd been told that one didn't have to actually check into Haiti
to stop there, which pleased us as we had no desire to visit that
sad and violent land. But Ile a Vache, it was said, was "not
really Haiti, and is like going back in time." How true this
proved to be!
We entered the large bay that separates the island from the mainland
in the early morning hours and immediately noticed lots of small
fishing sailboats -- at one point, we counted 25 within clear sight,
more in the distance. Called "bois fouyes," these are
heavy wooden vessels with slightly crooked tree limbs for masts
and booms, with large mainsails and small jibs and no winches, sails
made from tarps, canvas, old rice bags, plastic or whatever came
to hand. Each one we passed waved hello -- some sailed closer to
us for a better look and shouted greeting.
We rounded a headland and entered the small Feret Bay on Isle a
Vache. It's one of those picture-book bays, with one tree-covered
headland and one rocky one, enclosing a white sand beach fringed
in coconut palms. Scattered under the palms was the village of Ca-coq,
population under 1,000. Ca-coq has no electricity and no running
water. It is said to have a car or two; we never saw any. No sooner
had we dropped anchor than we were greeted by a half-dozen dugout
canoes, most paddled (using coconut branches as oars) by adolescent
boys, but some by mature men. These folks are commonly referred
to as "boat boys" no matter their age. Most had at least
minimal English, enough to say "Hello! Welcome! What's your
name?" and to offer to do work or to sell us mangoes, coconuts
and bananas, to run errands, to show us their village, to do anything
for a little cash. We were pretty overwhelmed and tired from a 24
hour passage, so we asked them to go away for a while. But first,
we did buy the smallest courtesy flag in the world from one of them,
overpaying extravagantly with $2 US. The flag measures 2" by
3" and looked more than a little silly flying from our starboard
Later, the dugouts came back and we began to compile a list of
the boat boys and what they were offering. Several of the more enterprising
ones had gotten letters of recommendation from other cruisers, which
they presented in plastic sheet protectors. Since we were low on
diesel, we contracted with Vildor, one of the older men, for him
to take the ferry (which they call a "taxi") across the
bay 6 miles to the city of La Caye and buy us 5 gallons of diesel.
This he did the next morning at 8 a.m., joining the dozens of islanders
crowded into the ferry: an open boat, much like the supply boat
on Isla Beata, powered by an ancient outboard. Vildor returned by
ferry at 5 p.m., with the diesel fuel. We gave him $30: $23 for
the diesel, $3 for the ferry and $4 for the day's labor.
The anchorage was perfectly safe. Two of the other cruisers there
hired boat boys to do work on their boats, and then left them unattended
while the cruisers went for a tour of La Caye. On the other hand,
Vildor scolded us for leaving our dinghy in the water unlocked overnight.
"Bad Haitians may come on their bois fouyes," he said
-- we loved his distinction between Haitians and islanders -- and
added, with sad insight, "If they steal your dinghy, that would
be bad for you, but also bad for me."
The boat boys overwhelmed us a bit, especially after school let
out each day, when they swarmed around us in their dugout canoes.
Sometimes, a few kids in canoes would just come out and hang onto
our boat (and to the other 2 boats in the anchorage). They didn't
ask for anything -- they were just there. We gradually realized
that, with no TV or DVDs on the island, we were their entertainment,
or akin to celebrities. They were so poor and needed so much, but
we had little need for services and really didn't want to just hand
out gifts. They weren't exactly begging, because they all had something
to offer, so we tried to come up with trades or chores. We hired
Kiki to finish cleaning our hull bottom -- we'd done the rudder
and the waterline -- he did the rest of the hull, the keel and prop
for $6.50, snorkeling with Rob's gear. Rob told Kiki he'd inspect
it before paying for the work, and when Rob looked at it and said
he was very happy, Kiki giggled and giggled with pleasure. The other
kids shared his pleasure at the praise. We hired Daniel to clean
some stubborn stains in our gelcoat, using 400-grit sandpaper; he
Casco, a 13 year old with a charming smile, kept repeating his
offer for a tour of his village, so we finally took him up on it.
First, we went to his house to meet his mother and 3 younger brothers.
Like most Caribbean houses, it was quite small, had unglazed, unscreened
windows and a dirt floor. It, as well as the yard, were swept clean
and clear. A separate lean-to served as the kitchen. Casco then
led us through the tiny village, proudly pointing out the school
and library. The librarian invited us to take advantage of the cruiser-oriented
book exchange, and showed us the table where he used to read to
little children -- one leg had rotted away and he had no money to
buy more lumber to make a new table. We stopped to watch the village
boatbuilder hand-sawing "knees" from a bent log for a
fishing boat. We were told that a fishing boat is a 3 month project.
In contrast, a dugout canoe takes less than a week to build. We
asked to meet Casco's teachers, so he led us to a little house behind
the school, which clearly served as a teachers' dormitory. Two teachers
appeared, pulling out chairs so we could all sit in the shade of
a nearby tree, where we discussed their school, their lives (they
both come from mainland Haiti and stay for the contract year, returning
home in the summer), and life in Ca Coq. They seemed happy to be
on Ile a Vache rather than on the mainland, and we'd have to agree!
We gave them a half-dozen pencils, for which they seemed grateful;
there are essentially no school supplies. The school in Ca-Coq is
a grade school. Next year, Casco will go to the unified high school
in another village on the island. He'll walk there on Monday - 2
to 3 hours -- then will board there through Thursday, when he'll
walk back home for the weekend. We gave Casco $2 for the tour, and
also gave his mother some lentils and UHT milk for the children.
In contrast to the poverty and primitive lifestyle of the general
population is the lovely Port Morgan Hotel, its buildings meandering
from the bay shore up a terraced and groomed hill. It's a cool and
lovely mixture of the Caribbean and Provence France, run by an ex-pat
French couple. It has the quietest generator we've never heard and
lights itself up like a Christmas tree (literally, with fairy lights)
each night. It also offers free wi-fi internet access, which we
took advantage of while sipping yummy cinnamon-laced rum punches.
We also sprung for a nice French dinner of red snapper, which was
not cheap by our standards (about $20 per person) and we would have
thought it completely out of range of Haitians -- yet while we were
eating a group of eight Haitian women came in and ordered dinner!
In a later conversation, the proprietor told us what he said was
the key fact of Haiti: 10,000 people own literally all the property
and all the wealth. This, in a country of some 10 million souls!
By the way, the hotel rates are quite reasonable. If you're interested
in a vacation in a remote paradise where literally none of your
friends have ever been, go to their website, http://portmorgan.com.
You can locate Isla Beata and Ile a Vache on Google Earth, and
zoom in to see the boats!