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The Dominican Republic: A More Than Passable Passage

Smelling the roses along "the Thorny Path to Windward."

August 28, 2008
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Forever, the worst part of any passage from Florida to the Virgin Islands has been transiting the North Coast of the Dominican Republic, where eastbound yachts face 300 miles of relentlessly contrary winds, waves, and current, and almost no attractive refueling options. Old salts called this southern route to the islands “the Thorny Path to Windward” and recognized the North Coast as the thorniest briar patch of all.

Money is changing the game, however. The opening of Ocean World Marina in Puerto Plata in late 2006, combined with Puerto Bah’a Marina, on Samaná Bay, and Cap Cana Marina, will make these voyages tremendously easier for smaller vessels, while providing safe berths for larger yachts whose owners seek to enjoy the unique attractions of the Dominican Republic.

The North Coast is bereft of natural shelter, with the notable exception of Luperon Harbor just 13 nautical miles west of Ocean World. For years, motor vessels coming from Florida with sufficient range would refuel at Nassau and Great Exuma in the Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos, and then continue on to Puerto Rico, skipping the Dominican Republic altogether.

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Enter Ludwig Meister. After making his first fortune building a supermarket empire in his native Germany, Meister headed to the islands. The Treasure Cay development in the Abacos and Dolphin Encounters in Nassau are just two of his Bahamian enterprises. “Old Man” Meister’s expansion to the Dominican Republic was in part based on his observation that the Western Hemisphere’s two greatest-island cruising grounds-the Bahamas and the lesser Antilles-lacked a high-end way station for yachts transiting between them.

But 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.

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Meister is a man with the wherewithal to move mountains, and based on the massive stone breakwaters enclosing the aquarium and marina, he appears to have done just that. The complex cost $100 million to build, and its 104-slip marina provides berths for vessels of up to 250 feet in a spot that wasn’t a natural harbor.

However appealing Ocean World may be, particularly if there are children aboard, it is only a partial solution to the thorny-path dilemma. Between the marina and Puerto Rico there still lies a big chunk of unfriendly ocean, including the formidable Mona Passage. Rather than challenge the contrary trade winds, prudent mariners wait for periods of relative calm before beginning the 225-mile passage from Puerto Plata to the first port of entry in Puerto Rico.

An ideal place for a marina to break up the trip is in Samaná Bay near the port city of Santa Barbara de Samaná, or Samaná for short. From here, the last leg to Puerto Rico is reduced to 140 nautical miles.

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Puerto Bahia, a new development in Samaná, is protected from the elements, secure in every sense, and will feature world-class amenities. This luxury villa complex with on-site restaurants and boutiques is a partnership between developer José Garcia Armenteros and landowner Juan Bancalari Brugal.

The marina portion of the project will cost $10.5 million and is set to open in March 2009. Armenteros wants to promote the Puerto Bah’a marina not just as a way station but as a base from which to explore Samaná Bay.

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

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“With the opening of Puerto Bahia, there will be a base to explore more than 12 anchorages of pristine Caribbean white-sand beaches with quaint little towns or small shacks, where locals will serve exquisite yellowtail lunches cooked right on the beach,” Armenteros said.

Puerto Bahia is 140 nautical miles from Mayaguez, the closest port of entry in Puerto Rico, but another new marina, Cap Cana, on the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic, is well sited to divide the trip into two passages and offer all the attractions of a major international resort.

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.

In May, Boswell said, the marina hosted 40 boats competing in the 68th Annual ILTTA White Marlin Tournament. Besides fishing pelagics in the Mona Passage, Cap Cana is also a golf destination with three Jack Nicklaus courses that will offer all the luxuries-spas, casinos, boutiques-that the world has come to associate with Donald Trump’s projects.

One more point: A persistent complaint about the Dominican Republic centers on vessel clearance procedures. Captains say that the variety of fees is confusing and that naval officers and other officials ask for payoffs. While corrupt officials are surely in the minority, their behavior has damaged the Dominican Republic’s reputation among cruisers. In recognition of the problem, each of these high-end marinas features on-site Customs and Immigration and other clearance assistance. Trust me, their tolerance for official shenanigans is zero.

Individually, marinas at Ocean World, Puerto Bahia, and Cap Cana share many attractive features, such as casinos, natural beauty, access to fine dining or choice of golf courses, and can assuage the pain of a thorny passage to windward. Taken together, however, these marinas suggest a cruising strategy for captains who wish to avoid the briars altogether.

For more information, check out: www.oceanworldmarina.com_;_ www.puertobahiasamana.com_;_ _www.capcana.com_

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