When we got our boat insurance, it had a clause prohibiting us from going to Haiti. Asking most cruisers about Haiti, we heard “you can’t go there!” The reasons ranged from crime, personal safety, health, lack of facilities for cruisers, and the simple fact that almost everyone heading to the Eastern Caribbean goes straight from the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos to the north coast of the Dominican Republic, completely bypassing Haiti. I was basically encountering one of my most hated phrases, “everyone does it that way!”
We were determined to explore and dive the beautiful southern coast of the Dominican Republic. That meant that if we took the “traditional” route east, we would have to go through the dreaded Mona Passage only to backtrack south of the island of Hispaniola. So we started researching. Through cruiser blogs and the amazing free cruising guides published by Frank Virgintino, we discovered a hidden gem, Île-à-Vache (Cow Island). This rural island is tucked under Haiti’s southwestern peninsula, and it is far removed from the troubles that scare most people away from visiting Haiti. There is a particular anchorage on the northwest corner of the island, at Port Morgan, that is ideally suited for the cruising sailboat to stop for a rest and explore the nearby villages and culture.
For me, visiting Haiti was more than a rest stop on the way to other Caribbean destinations, it was personal. I spent five months in Haiti living in a tent while working on a military task force dedicated to building schools and providing temporary medical clinics to alleviate some of the suffering after the devastating 2010 earthquake. I spent most of those five months in the hard-hit areas of Port-au-Prince, Gonaïves, and Saint Marc. I witnessed unimaginable suffering, devastation, and poverty. I also witnessed the extraordinary generosity of the Haitian people. I knew then that I would come back someday to see this country from a different perspective – to be not a provider of disaster relief, but a tourist, there solely to embrace the beauty of Haiti and its people.
After much planning, and having gained an exception to our insurance policy, we doused the Bahamian courtesy flag that had been flying aboard Pura Vida for eight months, through 72 islands/cays.
We set sail in mid-afternoon from Great Inagua for the two-night passage to Île-à-Vache. Based on weather forecasts, we were expecting to motor for most of the leg south and then face moderate (~15knot) winds on the nose when we rounded Cap Tiburon at the tip of Haiti’s southwest peninsula. What we got instead were great sailing winds on our beam (the side) most of the trip south, and traveled so much faster than expected that we anchored off the coast of Anse d’Hainault to wait for the trade winds to die down at night before making the turn toward the east.
This is not a recommended shore stop because it is a large town of 30,000 people with the potential for crime, but it is recommended as a short rest stop if needed to wait for weather to settle. We anchored well off the main town with hopes of getting some sleep. We soon realized this was not going to happen. Dozens of small boats – dugout canoes, wooden sailboats, small motor boats – all rushed to us and attached themselves to our sides. Nobody tried to board Pura Vida, but they were certainly aggressive in begging for handouts, and eyeballing everything aboard. Many just wanted water and we could not, in good conscious, turn them away. But a few stayed around far too long, and would point at stuff on board and then whisper to each other in Creole. We started getting an uneasy feeling when a young man in his twenties would not stop creepily staring at Kimberly. Then things got weirder when another young man approached the boat completely naked and started yelling to get our attention and pushing a sun shade aside with his hand. The local boys told us he was crazy, and we decided it was time to move. We cranked up the engine and pulled up the anchor as soon as we could, and motored away. Cruisers beware: You will not get much rest at this “rest stop.”
Just four miles down the coast were a couple of bays with small villages instead of a large town. We picked the one with the fewest local boats on the beach and dropped the hook. We could see several children on shore spring into action, with one of them climbing a palm tree at lightning speed and hurling coconuts down to the other children. We knew what was coming. A couple of men rowed out to sell us coconuts; this was a refreshing change in attitude from what we had just experienced, so we bought a couple and he went back ashore. After a few minutes, he was back with eight enormous, ripe, juicy mangoes. We also bought these, but asked him, in our best broken French, to please not bring us anything else, that we just needed to rest. He asked for food and water, but since we had no more containers, we sent him away with a few cans of fruit juice. The reaction of the kids on the beach when he shared the cans of juice was amazing. We watched through binoculars as the kids passed the juice around like it was something magical. If we wanted something different from the Bahamas, we definitely were getting it. The clash of cultures was palpable.
The man returned for a third time, this time dressed in jeans and a button down shirt. It seems that the people of the village had gathered for festivities and he slipped away to talk to us. This time he was not selling us anything, but asked for supplies. He did not speak English, so it became a game of gestures where he would point to something on the boat and ask if he could have it. He wanted our sails, lines, emergency beacon, radio, you name it. I tried to explain that we need all those things to make our boat work, but he was not dissuaded. After a frustrating twenty minutes of bad charades on both of our parts, he reluctantly left.
Although we stayed anchored for eight hours, we did not get a minute of rest. Shortly after 10pm, when our friends aboard s/v Mamo caught up with us, we pulled up anchor and motored around the peninsula to head into the trade winds for the most challenging part of the passage. Once again, the forecast proved inaccurate. Instead of 15 knots of wind, it was howling gusts up to 30 knots on our nose as soon as we turned east.
The high winds churned the sea into a washing machine-like mess and our forward speed would drop to less than 3 nautical miles per hour when we would hit a large wave straight on. Our average in good conditions is 6. This was in the middle of a moonless and overcast night, so we were sailing blind in this heaving mass of water. We skirted the coast just a mile offshore for the entire eastern leg, trying to find milder seas and winds; this helped a little, and Pura Vida plowed through with engine on and a little sail for balance. Dawn arrived just as we were ready to round the final bit of mainland before turning north towards our destination. When we entered the bay at Port Morgan by the village of Cacor, the roiling waters transformed to a flat calm. We were enveloped in lush greenery and embraced by the scent of mangoes, wood-burning hearths, and wet soil.
We were exhausted and sweaty, ready to drop the hook and hit the sack. But we realized upon entering the bay that we would be up for a little while longer. We were not even to the anchorage spot when several boys and young men rushed towards us in dugout canoes, a kayak, and a surfboard. As soon as they reached the boat they would stand up on their rather unstable little boats and hang on to our railing. They were all smiles as they welcomed us to Haiti, each one asking how our passage had been. To our surprise, in this tiny village in a very remote part of a French/Creole-speaking country, most of these boys spoke perfect English. I dare say, some better than many kids back home in Louisiana.
We slowly motored to the anchorage in the inner bay, surrounded by a dozen bobbing heads with smiling faces floating along with us at the edge of our railing. We had read about these “boat boys” so we were somewhat prepared.
They were extremely polite and understood that we needed rest. They just wanted to make sure we got their names on our list for boat jobs the next day. Kimberly wrote down the names of the first eight boys and told the rest that we probably had too many workers already. They were not asking for handouts, they wanted to work so they could earn money to pay for school in the nearby city of Les Cayes where they can get a better education, including learning English, which they’ve learned is a ticket to paying jobs. Sadly, school is not free in Haiti. We had agreed to have two young men take us to market in the morning and told the “workers” to come to our boat in the afternoon. Tomorrow was lining up to be a hectic day. After all the negotiations subsided, they respected our desire to get some sleep and left our boat. We were asleep within seconds.
When we awoke, the heat inside our boat was overwhelming, so we climbed outside to cool off in the cockpit, and realized almost immediately we were being watched. Within seconds the boys were back, confirming they were on the list, and to ask if we needed mangoes, coconuts, bananas, eggs, cashews, almonds, bread, cooked meals, paintings, trash disposal, laundry washed, and more. This continued all afternoon, with only sunset providing a break from the visitations. As mentioned earlier, they we very polite, but also very persistent.
The next morning brought them back to confirm the start time of their two-hour work day. After making the final arrangements, we went ashore to meet Villeme and Jasmin, the two young men who were to be our guides to the market in the “big” town of Madame Bernard. We were told it would be a four-mile hike. What we weren’t expecting was for that hike to be up very steep hills, over sometimes very rocky terrain, and other times deep sand. After almost three days of not stepping foot on land, our legs were ill prepared for such an arduous walk. Along the way we encountered the aromas of sweet mangoes hanging by the hundreds from tress, and sometimes rotting on the road; fresh mountain air and smoky cooking fires; cow dung and human waste; and finally, clean, salty sea air as we approached the shore side market.
The market was teeming with people, all who gather twice a week to do their shopping. There are no grocery stores of any size. If you need fruits, vegetables, bread, meat, grains, canned goods, drinks, toiletries, etc., this is where you go to buy it on Île-à-Vache. Our guides also acted as our interpreters and negotiators for our purchases of melon, papaya, passionfruit, and eggplant. All got for a few cents each.
After shopping, Villeme and Jasmin arranged for us to get chauffeured rides on the back of motorbikes to our boat. What a relief! The idea of walking the four miles back was exhausting to even think about. Clinging to the backs of our seats, we made our bouncy way back through the hills. Along the way we passed large numbers of goats, sheep, horses and cows, all tethered to stakes, fence posts or shrubs; donkeys, pigs, chickens and dogs; houses built of straw (palmetto fronds), sticks or brightly colored stones, like scenes out of a children’s story. We also passed by several small groups of kids waving frantically when they saw us zooming by, screaming with excitement, “BLANS!”— their descriptive but not pejorative word for white people. It was exhilarating, and possibly our favorite day of cruising, so far.
As soon as we returned, the crew of boys swarmed our boat eager to get working. A few came that we had not agreed to hire, so we sadly had to turn them away; we just did not have enough work to be done aboard, or room for so many workers at the same time.
Two hours later, our hull was clean, our cabin sides were waxed, our cockpit plastic windows were spotless, and our rusty bicycles were shining in the sun. The boys worked their butts off and did a great job. Kimberly made them all peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that they devoured with some juice, and they were happily on their way.
One of the boys laughed at the bill we gave him in payment because he had “never seen such money.” This was one of the older ten dollar bills with the smaller presidential photograph. All the boys laughed hysterically at the funny-looking guy in the picture. One more reminder about just how visually unattractive U.S. currency really is, especially compared to the colorful works of art that grace other countries’ bills. About an hour later, the boy returned saying the man in town would not exchange this strange-looking bill for local currency. Fortunately, we had a newer style bill, and we traded it for him.
We had earlier made arrangements with Jean Jean, who approached our boat as the boys had, to eat at his “restaurant and bar.” We dinghied ashore with our friends Paula, Paulo, and their daughter Zoe from s/v Mamo for a fantastic local meal prepared in their home. We ate at a table set up for us on the house patio. I find it funny that this budding entrepreneur is inadvertently doing what is one of the newest dining trends in the U.S., in-home micro restaurants. Making the night even more special was watching three-year-old Zoe, desperate for “niños” to play with, giggling non-stop with Jean Jean’s two children like they were lifelong buddies, not letting the cultural and language barriers bother them one bit. We highly recommend visiting the Kaliko Restaurant and Bar if you are in the area. Kimberly even received an impromptu and complimentary after-dinner hair braiding by four-year-old Kati.
The next day, we had our stainless steel polished to a brilliant shine by Villeme and Jasmin. More boat boys continued to visit our boat to ask for work or offer us goods. We bought bananas, freshly roasted cashews and almonds, and twenty fresh and unrefrigerated eggs. We even had a delicious dinner of fried fish, rice and beans, and sautéed squash delivered right to our boat. Compared to the Bahamas, the price for everything was ridiculously low.
Two very young boys, Jesua and (another) Jean-Jean spent a good part of the afternoon just hanging on to our boat and talking to us. They were not part of the previous day’s work crew and we started feeling like we should do something for them too. Although our dinghy did not really need cleaning, we hired them to scrub it so they could earn a little money. Their smiles beamed when we told them we needed them to work. Surprisingly, later that evening they brought us a thank you gift of candied almonds. The kindness and generosity of these hardworking kids is humbling.
The highlight of the day was a sail in a true Haitian boat. The boat was handmade by Captain “Petit Rouge” from roughhewn local wood, and he was proud to take us out on the bay for a sunset sail. These are the same types of boats used throughout Haiti for fishing, transport, and moving supplies. When I got a turn at the tiller, I was amazed at how responsive the boat was and how fast it sailed in light winds with worn out, patched sails. This is real old-school sailing; no winches, batteries, electronics, or even blocks!
On our last day at Île-à-Vache, we went for a stroll through the village of Cacor (also spelled Cay Coq, Kay Kok and many other variations) adjacent to the anchorage. Although we had only been there for three days, it felt like walking in a neighborhood where we had lived for years. Everyone waved, and many of the locals we had already met greeted us with hugs and kisses. This is definitely one of the warmest communities we have encountered in our travels. The houses in this village add a beautiful and varied color and texture to the already magnificent lush coast.
After our stroll we prepared the boat for departure and went ashore one last time to dine at the Villeme’s house. His girlfriend prepared a dinner of Creole chicken, rice and beans, fried plantains, and salad for us and served it in their back yard. The bayside table was even set with tablecloths and a vase of fresh flowers. We ate al fresco in the company of our new friends Jasmin and Villeme, and Villeme’s beautiful family. This was the perfect ending to our time in Haiti.
We returned to Pura Vida, hoisted Lagniappe aboard and secured her, pulled up anchor at 8pm, and sailed out of the harbor heading east on an overnight passage to the Dominican Republic. Our visit to Haiti was way too brief and we agree we might likely come back again to this picturesque village that welcomed us like family.
NOTE FOR CRUISERS: If you choose to cruise the south coast of Haiti when the eastern trade winds are strong and steady, be prepared to motorsail a lot beating into rough seas, especially when rounding Cap Tiburon on Haiti’s SW Peninsula. Once you turn east, there is no shelter until Île-à-Vache. Skirting the coast provides a little relief from the heavy seas, but you will encounter countless floating fishing lines in depths of 150 feet and shallower. From Île-à-Vache to the Dominican Republic, there is also no shelter from the trades and no feasible anchorages to duck in if needed. Jacmel may offer an emergency stop, but it does not seem to be adequate shelter from the easterly trade winds. Timing weather windows when the trades drop a little in speed is essential. If you are planning to hire or purchase items from the boat boys, make sure you have LOTS of one and five dollar bills. It is also nice to be able to offer them food and drink (bring cups). PB&J goes a long way, as does a package or two of cookies. Some of the things they asked for the most are closed-toed shoes for school, clothing, basketballs (or other balls), headphones, pens and pencils, fishing supplies, and diving masks. The adults mostly need rope and old sails.