Some Caribbean cruisers make their plans while thinking of only the curving chain from the Leeward to the Windward Islands. An avid cruiser, cruising guide author and marina designer and builder named Frank Virgintino wants them to remember to visit the northern Caribbean – especially the Dominican Republic.
"I've always loved sailboats and cruising," says Virgintino, a native New Yorker who, as he recounts, grew up frugally and was always captivated by tales of famous mariners who chased the horizon and visited far off lands.
Virgintino graduated from Bernard Baruch College with a degree in finance. One of his first jobs, in addition to teaching college-level finance, was handling the accounting for a small boatyard in the Bronx. He eventually bought out the owner and went on to build and own more than 20 marinas, mostly in the Northeastern U.S. One of these was the Minneford Yacht Yard, in City Island, NY, a facility famous for building several America's Cup Yachts.
Sailing has long been one of Virgintino's passions. He bought his first boat at the age of 23, a 35-foot Pearson yawl, and taught himself to sail. His cruising grounds over the last forty years have ranged from the Canadian Maritimes to the southern Caribbean.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, Virgintino first visited the Dominican Republic at the invitation of a friend. He fell in love with the island, its people and its culture, and bought a second home up near Pico Duarte, the highest mountain in all of the Caribbean. Down at sea level, his friendship with a businessman, Sr. Rafael Baez, sparked the idea for the construction of a new marina at Boca Chica.
"There was no marina facility to speak of on the south coast of the island," says Virgintino, "and no marina dedicated to cruisers. Many of the other marinas on the island are beautiful, but they are part of mixed use developments."
Baez, the principal owner of the 2008-opened Marina Zar Par, located 10 to 15 miles east of Santo Domingo, gave Virgintino a blank canvas and free reign to design the facility.
"I set it up for cruisers," he says. "He has everything I always looked for in a marina." This translates, for example, into finger piers with rounded rather than square edges and soft wood strips on the pilings to prevent scrapes and scratches. Ample dock carts, clean showers and restrooms, a captain's lounge, do-it-yourself laundry, an on-site restaurant (think fresh fish, homestyle rice and beans, and cold beer), WiFi, a courtesy vehicle and complimentary rides to the airport round out the picture for cruising sailors. The marina is an official Seven Seas Cruising Association cruising station.
Marina ZarPar recently commissioned its 70 Ton Travelift Marine hoist, and the location of the new pit will allow boats with drafts of up to 10' to be hauled.
Once the design was drawn and meetings with planners and engineers were well underway, Virgintino moved onto his next project, writing a first-ever cruising guide to the Dominican Republic.
"Many cruisers will make a pit stop in Luperon to the north and then immediately head east," he says. "I wanted to let people know there is a northern and western Caribbean and to realize it's a beautiful virgin cruising ground."
Virgintino provisioned his 67' William Gordon ketch and embarked six crewmembers that hailed from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Grenada and England, all bringing different talents. Together they cast off on a six-week circumnavigation of Hispanola to research his "Dominican Republic Cruising Guide" (free downloads in English or Spanish are available at: dominicanrepubliccruisingguide.com).
The route took the sailors from Boca Chica north to Cap Cana, down the northern shore past Luperon to Monte Cristi to the west, then south to Haiti with a stop at ÃŽle Ã Vache (Cow Island; a popular tourist destination) before returning back to Marina Zar Par.
"You think you know, but in writing this guide I got to be the student and learned just how extraordinary a cruising ground the Dominican Republic is," says Virgintino. "In many places, it's like being back in the 1960s. There are long stretches of white sand beaches with nobody around."
The first fifty pages of the Dominican Republic Cruising Guide are designed to put cruisers' misperceptions about the country to rest, Virgintino says. "I deal with the issues of bribes, tips, the military influence and tell cruisers how to navigate culturally, that is, how to smile, be gracious, how to say 'no' and what are the important 'code' words."
Virgintino isn't stopping in his quest to acquaint cruisers with the northern Caribbean. He set sail in May for a month-long circumnavigation of Jamaica and will soon come out with a cruising guide to this Caribbean country.