Features August 1, 1998 Issue

Offshore Log:
South to Trinidad - A Different Kind of Paradise

The crew of Calypso duck below the hurricane belt to make repairs before heading west toward the Panama Canal.

In June, Calypso made her way south from Grenada to Trinidad, wrapping up more than six months of cruising in the brilliantly clear, wind-swept waters of the windward islands of the Caribbean. Although only 80 miles separate Trinidad from Grenada, it is a very different world.

Grenada is quiet, friendly, and charmingly old-fashioned. Trinidad is bustling, friendly, and struggling—sometimes successfully, sometimes less so—to become a very modern society. Trinidad has rice paddies similar to southeast Asia, and enclosed shopping malls that would be at home in any small American city. It is the home of the current Miss Universe, has cable television and the Internet, but it struggles with poverty, violence, and racial division.

Yes, they speak English in Trinidad, and they drive on the left, just as in other former outposts of the British Empire. But Trinidad is really part of South America, rather than the West Indies. The island of Trinidad lies just off the northeast coast of Venezuela, and the high land of Venezuela’s Peninsula of Paria shows up clearly on most days, just a few miles across the Dragon’s Mouth from Trinidad’s Chaguaramas Bay, where Calypso is sitting out the first part of the Caribbean hurricane season.

With its population almost equally divided between the descendants of African slaves and those of East Indian indentured servants, Trinidad is a cultural mix unlike any other in the world. There are as many radio stations playing modern Indian music as there are pumping out the reggae typical of Caribbean islands. South American-tinged Soca creeps in as well, and the Spanish-speaking stations of the north coast of South America can be clearly heard.

In the last five years, Trinidad has become a summer haven for cruising boats. Its location south of the hurricane belt, combined with the development of a major marine industry centered around the old US Navy base at Chaguaramas, has resulted in phenomenal and barely controlled growth. There are more yacht hauling facilities located in Chaguaramas than in any single place south of Miami.

What Trinidad still lacks is a large, highly skilled workforce. Yes, there are skilled tradesmen here. There are also, unfortunately, a large number of less skilled persons, and differentiating between them is not always easy.

Most of the boatyards provide labor on a sub-contract basis, once you get beyond the basics of hauling and blocking a boat. Although yards try to vet subcontractors, there is still plenty of opportunity for misunderstanding and customer dissatisfaction. There is also the possibility of getting very good work done for much less money than you would pay in the US or Europe.

If you are patient, do your homework, and are knowledgeable enough to serve as your own on-site general contractor, the probability of a satisfactory outcome is high. If you simply hire the first person who claims to know what he’s doing, then fly off home for the summer, there is a substantial risk of disappointment.

Within a few hundred yards of Calypso’s berth at Crew’s Inn (which rivals the best US marinas) there are a half-dozen yards capable of hauling boats up to 200 metric tons. Crew’s Inn itself has a single work building covering more than 2-1/2 acres, with inside vertical clearance of up to 80'. Calypso could be placed in this shed with her mast still stepped.

Antiquated, basic yard facilities along the shores of Chaguaramas are rapidly giving way to new concrete docks and fenced, level storage areas ashore with water and power available alongside each carefully blocked boat. Because the available skilled labor force lags behind demand, do-it-yourself facilities are the rule rather than the exception.

The owners of established yards formed the Yacht Services Association of Trinidad and Tobago, an umbrella organization that seeks to control and regulate growth, solve disputes and provide referrals.

You can get virtually any marine gear or service you want in Trinidad, but it isn’t always cheap. Virtually all gear and service is socked with a 15% VAT, and only legitimate spare parts imported directly by a yacht in transit are exempt from duty and VAT. Most parts are much more expensive here than the same item purchased in the US, but at least you can find them.

The exception to the generally high cost of marine equipment is inflatable dinghies. Both AB and Caribe dinghies are manufactured in nearby Venezuela, and Trinidad’s marine industry has negotiated an arrangement with the local government that allows Venezuelan-manufactured dinghies to be imported duty-free.

Budget Marine, the Sint Maarten-based chandlery which is expanding throughout the Caribbean, has opened a branch in Chaguaramas, and offers competition to the more traditional yard-based chandleries. Peake Marine, the largest local chandlery, has an inventory comparable to better US stores. There are specialty stores for electrics and electronics, canvas shops, sailmakers, welders and woodworkers—nearly every service you would expect to find in a major marine center.

We came here almost as an afterthought. Our insurance requires us to be south of Grenada for the hurricane season. Traditionally, cruising boats have used Venezuela as a summer refuge, but the deluge of cruisers has taxed its facilities, and rare but serious crimes against yachts reduce its appeal.

It would take months to explore Trinidad. Somehow, that sounds like a pretty good plan for the hurricane season.

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