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More Grog and Less Slog – Cruising the DR

How money and marine infrastructure in the Dominican Republic is taking the pain out of Florida-Caribbean passages

Since Christopher Columbus first transited the North Coast of the Dominican Republic in 1493, mariners have dreaded its 300 miles of relentlessly contrary winds, waves and currents. Twentieth century yachtsmen, also facing a near total absence of attractive refueling options, dubbed the route from the Bahamas to the Virgin Islands “the thorny path to windward.”

The opening of Ocean World Marina in Puerto Plata in late 2006 marked the beginning of a new era. With two additional marinas coming on line in the D.R. between Ocean World and Puerto Rico, voyages will be easier and safer for smaller vessels. For the first time, the big boat crowd will have secure berths from which to explore the D.R.’s growing list of attractions.

Until Ocean World, the only shelter on the North Coast was Luperon Harbor, an excellent hurricane hole sheltering between 70 and 120 foreign vessels on any given day of the year. Luperon has two rustic marinas, but refueling must be accomplished either through a small-capacity fuel barge or by truck at the concrete commercial wharf. The area’s restaurants and attractions are modest; the harbor’s social life revolves around sailboat cruisers with their predisposition for happy hours, potluck suppers and movie nights at the bar.

Coming from Florida, most megayachts have the range to reach Puerto Rico, so they skip the D.R. altogether.

Ludwig Meister and his money have begun to change that. Ocean World, near the city of Puerto Plata, is a destination in itself with a world-class marine theme park—including Meister’s signature swim-with-the-dolphins attraction—and an exotic Vegas-style casino and floorshow.

Whatever logic lay behind Meister’s choice of a site, it did not include a natural harbor, so Meister moved mountains to make one, if you consider the massive stone breakwaters enclosing the aquarium and marina. The complex cost $100 million to build, and its 104-slip marina provides berths for vessels of up to 250 feet.

Ocean World was only a partial solution to the thorny-path dilemma, however. Between there and Puerto Rico lie 225 miles of unfriendly ocean, including the formidable Mona Passage. The smaller and slower the boat, the bigger the “weather window” required to make that passage, which explains why so many sailboats sit for weeks in Luperon waiting for a lull. Additional marinas along the route will allow mariners to take advantage of short periods of calm and keep moving, not mention giving them options for refueling.

One of the most ideally suited places for another marina is at Samana Bay near the port city of Santa Barbara de Samana. Samana, with its sheltered harbor, is only 140 miles from Puerto Rico, but as a stopover it is a mixed blessing. Local fishing craft fill Samana’s concrete docks, so vessels in transit usually anchor out.

Puerto Bahia, a marina scheduled to open in March, promises an entirely different atmosphere—protected from the elements, secure in every sense and featuring world-class amenities. Puerto Bahia is a luxury villa complex with on-site restaurants and boutiques, now under construction on a hillside overlooking Samana Bay, just a few miles from the city of Samana.

The project is a partnership between developer Jose Garcia Armenteros and landowner Juan Bancalari Brugal. (If the name seems familiar, it is because Brugal is the Dominican Republic’s biggest rum distillery.)  The marina portion of the Puerto Bahia project will cost $10.5 million

Armenteros said he wants to promote the Puerto Bahia marina not just as a way-station but a base from which to explore the Samana Bay by water. With its dearth of natural harbors, the Dominican Republic is best seen by land, but Armenteros believes Samana Bay may well prove an exception to the rule; he sees the bay becoming a self-contained cruising ground like the Virgin Islands.

Indeed, the 1,000-square-mile body of water has all the right stuff. Reasonably protected from ocean swell, it is ringed with sugar beaches and the shore at Los Haitises national park is a gunkholer’s paradise of islands and creeks. Humpback whales winter in Samana Bay to mate and give birth—one of the greatest shows on earth.

Puerto Bahia’s location includes a couple bonuses. Samana used to be the D.R.’s most isolated region but a just-opened highway to Santo Domingo means the capital is just two hours away. It is also just a 40-minute ride to Las Terranas, a beachside village that has become a virtual French colony—Parisian cuisine in a Tahitian setting.

A third new marina on the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic is well sited to divide the Samana-Puerto Rico passage into two easy trips, while offering all the attractions of a major international resort. It’s 80 miles from Samana to Cap Cana Marina; and from Cap Cana to Mayaguez, it is just 65 miles further. This is about the narrowest crossing of the Mona Passage, a notoriously rough body of water. From here even slow power can wait for calm and make the crossing in a single day.

Cap Cana’s marina is in its first phase—81 slips from 30 to 250 feet. Transient vessels with drafts of up to 7 feet are currently being accepted, according to Marina Manager Lawrence Boswell. After dredging, Boswell said, the finished channel will be 200 feet wide and 18 feet deep. Plans call for the marina’s eventual expansion to 1,000 slips, which would make it the biggest in the Caribbean.

One more point: A persistent Captain’s complaint about the Dominican Republic centers on vessel clearance procedures—that the variety of fees is confusing and officials ask for payoffs. While corrupt officials are surely in the minority, in recognition of the problem, each of these high-end marinas features on-site Customs and Immigration and other clearance procedures.

Suggested reading if you make this passage: “The Thornless Path: A Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South” by Bruce Van Sant.  Marinas at Ocean World, Puerto Bahia and Cap Cana offer attractive features—and taken together, they dare finally letting us cruise this daunting coast like gentlemen.

Peter Swanson is a marine journalist that usually writes about the Greater Antilles. He operates a website www.cubacruising.net, anticipating that the ban that prevents U.S. citizens and their yachts from visiting Cuba will soon end.

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