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Cruising Guides are a Sailors Best Friend

There isn’t likely a yacht sailing to or around the Caribbean that doesn’t have a cruising guide onboard. New-comers want a heads up on passages, anchorages and shore side facilities and old-salts like to keep up with what’s new. While researching and writing such a guide might sound like an idyllic pleasure cruise, in reality it takes hard work and diligence to produce something that can really be trusted.

Chris Doyle, who’s penned four guides that span from the Leeward Islands to Venezuela, started his guide-writing career in order to fill a need. “I was a charter boat skipper grumbling about all the bareboaters who would arrive in port and want to know where everything was,” says Doyle. “I said they needed a better cruising guide and my friend George, who owned a boat called Tor Helga in Bequia at the time, said, ‘why don’t you write one?'”

What essential information should a good cruising guide offer?

“Something that keeps oldster and newbie ocean cruisers safe, comfortable and enjoying their cruises,” says Bruce Van Sant, who’s written four books including the Gentlemen’s Guide to Passages South. “Topics include whatever no one else tells them and might bite them in the behind if they don’t know it.”

Frank Virgintino, who has authored five guides covering Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, the Cayman Islands and Dominican Republic, agrees and adds, “In my opinion, the heart of a good guide addresses cruisers concerns and anxieties as to the cultural and political implications of the Caribbean country they will visit in a practical relevant way followed by an accurate review of rocks, reefs and idiosyncrasies that will be encountered.”

Writing and researching a cruising guide starts with a detailed project plan, says
Simon Scott, who with wife Nancy, own Dunedin, Florida-based Cruising Guide Publications. “Writing a guide is time consuming and you need to have a strong focus. We were fortunate to have lived and worked in the Virgin Islands for nearly ten years and therefore we knew the area intimately prior to developing the first guide.”

Just a few points in the Scott’s comprehensive project plan include developing a table of contents, budget, key agency contacts and route. From there, research entails, for example, physically visiting and surveying every anchorage (a large anchorage can take up to three days to survey!) and visiting all shore-side facilities. Some of the key resources the Scott’s use is a GPS plotter aboard their vessel supplemented with a hand held GPS for dinghy and ashore use, a depth sounder, Adobe Illustrator for developing sketch charts and the time, patience and money for aerial photography.

Local folks are also an invaluable asset. Doyle found this out when researching Barbuda, which has numerous reefs that are hard to distinguish from grass beds. “I asked George Jeffrey, a local fisherman and good friend, to take me around in his fishing boat and show me every reef he knew around the south coast (and he knew all of them). I took waypoints on each one and plotted them to produce a chart. This south coast area was later more properly surveyed by Hasko from Nautical Publications and it was gratifying to see how similar our charts looked.”

Then, there’s the actual writing.

“One edition’s ‘desk time’ reached well over 3000 hours in less than three calendar years,” shares Van Sant. “The same edition’s sea miles ran over 6500 nautical miles and that was mostly gunkholing miles, not just passage making.”

The work doesn’t end once the guide is completed. There’s the updating.

“To keep the guides updated is a 52-week-per-year job that involves sailing, gunkholing, visiting and all forms of research,” says Virgintino.

Of course, spending this much time and attention on a project is bound to provide a few interesting stories along the way. One of the best happened when Virgintino was researching one Caribbean country, diligently shooting photos and writing notes, when the island’s Coast Guard arrived, boarded fully armed, and escorted him and his vessel into port.

“It turns out that someone had called and indicated that we were mapping the coastline for illegal immigration and that we were now suspects,” Virgintino tells. “It took three hours to explain that we were researching and writing a cruising guide, and even after we got that out of the way, the question was, by whose license? They wanted to know what government agency in their country had approved our research. While everyone remained courteous, the situation was not one that was being taken lightly. Subsequently a still higher ranking officer was called in, who was a sailor himself and understood what a cruising guide was, after which we were allowed to depart.”

Finally, the best way to use a cruising guide is in preparation.

Pre-cruise, Scott recommends, “Use the planning chart to help plan distances and sailing itineraries. On the water, plan the days sailing and read up on the appropriate navigation and anchorage detail. Keep the guide handy while making your approach. Check out shore-side services or the resource section for local contact information, hiking trails, snorkelling spots and safety information.”

Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

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