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. Whew!

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 shroud.

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 got $3.

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!