Cruising in the Caribbean has been a real eye-opener in many ways. Since we left the Canary Islands we’ve been sailing largely off the beaten track, and now we find ourselves back amongst a less nomadic tribe of sailors in a region that caters largely for the charter set.
This of course has good and bad sides. Services are far more available than they were in Senegal or Brazil, which is good, but the human dynamic that exists between the local people and the cruising crews is far more complicated. This is obvious when talking to regular cruisers of the area, when one subject always seems to rear its head above others—boat boys.
To listen to some people, you’d be led to believe that these guys are the lowest of the low, a mob of aggressive, abusive vermin who are out to damage your boat and rob you blind. Somehow the possibility that the vast majority of them are just poor people trying to survive in a harsh world becomes swept away in an unstoppable tide of vitriol, against which any plea to reason is doomed to be repulsed.
There’s no doubt that there are bad guys amongst them, but some sort of balance in the debate should surely be kept, that might in turn lead to a better understanding on both sides.
How do we appear to them?
We’ve often wondered what the local people make of us. To the solo fisherman incessantly bailing his dugout off Dakar, to the Brazilian sailor on a Saveiro up a river, or a simple fruit seller in St. Vincent, we must seem unbelievably rich. We arrive in our yachts, with no visible means of support, cameras at the ready, never doing a day’s work (as they would know it) and enjoying cold beer and good food in the local bars by night.
We once spent the best part of an hour trying to explain to a couple of elderly Brazilian fishermen a little about our lives, by the end of which it was clear that they were far more mystified than they had been at the beginning! To a guy who’s never known anything but hard physical work every day of his life just to survive, we must seem like big time lottery winners, every one of us. And so it should therefore come as no surprise to discover that many of them decide that a far easier way to make some sort of a living would be to trade with us.
But the rules are different
Which is where things start to become complicated. Many of us have never been exposed to what passes as ‘trading’ in other cultures; at home we simply turn up, fill up, and pay up. But from your first encounter with a Moroccan rug merchant or a Bequian fruit seller you’re being introduced to the dark art of haggling, which takes time to learn and ultimately enjoy.
Louise is a natural, and it’s a pleasure to watch how she enters negotiations, at the end of which both parties have parted on good terms, honour intact. But equally we’ve watched crews engaged in haggling get out of their depth pretty quickly and end up in bitter recrimination, generally over a simple loss of face.
Two things stand out here—the first is to accept that haggling is largely a game, and there are no real winners or losers, just satisfied players. The second is that it doesn’t represent the most awful loss to pay a few pennies over the odds for some nice ripe mangoes—especially if the seller is in a leaky boat, has no shoes and there are six kids at home hoping for supper tonight—a sense of perspective is a necessary asset in the cruising life.
It’s also hard to get your head around the local politics. In Wallilabou Bay, St. Vincent, we were approached well out to sea by a couple of younger guys in a pirogue with a decent sized outboard, far more capable of intercepting a yacht at a distance than the little one-paddle sufferahs in their dugouts inside the Bay.
We followed the recommended protocol of refusing any help until we were right up in the anchorage before negotiating a deal to take our line ashore. This rapidly developed into a slanging match between the new style boat boys and the more traditional ones, which did nothing for our nerves and as far as we were concerned firmly rolled up the welcome mat.
Even after we were safely installed, loud recriminations rolled around the anchorage, as long-term grievances were amply and colourfully aired. Even though things never got worse than that, leaving next day was an easy decision to make.
And of course it doesn’t stop on the water. Going ashore can leave you feeling besieged, too, as most places have at least a few hangers on (colourfully called ‘bumsters’ in west Africa) who will attach themselves to you the second you set foot on the beach.
Sometimes these characters can be useful, especially in remote places where they can be a lifeline if you’re trying to locate supplies, the only damage being a small gift to thank them for their help.
But I’m more wary of them than the waterborne guys, not least after one in St. Vincent asked me how many of us were aboard, which seemed to me like information that he really didn’t need to know at all. Always be a little wary of your new best friend, especially if you only met him five minutes ago.
What’s the scale of the problem?
In some places there is no problem—witness Bequia where a small, efficient armada of boats service the fleet very well, from fresh bread and fruit to laundry and wine.
In others, previously regarded as boat boy problem spots such as Roseau and Portsmouth in Dominica, sensible agreements between the locals have lead to an increasing number of yachts visiting and staying over longer periods. Now that the various operators are working more or less as a cooperative and are taking an interest in providing services and moorings, there’s more reason to go there. Competition has also been reduced and so a far more relaxed and polite dialogue exists between boat boys and yacht crews, to everyone’s benefit.
None of this should gloss over the fact that in some places there have been far more serious issues of theft and even attacks on yacht crews, or that at least some of those incidents have been attributed to boat boys, whether that has any foundation in reality or not. The tragic event that occurred this season in Vieux Fort, St. Lucia, with the boarding, assault and murder of a British skipper, can attest to that.
And while some places in the Caribbean do seem to be viewed more positively in terms of security, others are sliding down the reputational ladder (St. Lucia once again). But, as always, a sense of perspective needs to be kept, too, if you’re ever planning to sail anywhere except in the safest cruising grounds.
Crime exists everywhere, and we need look no further than our own inner cities to be reminded of that. And ultimately we do need to ensure that we know who the culprits are and whether there are underlying causes that need to be addressed before we fall into the trap of assigning guilt.
We’ve been told on many occasions that the Caribbean has changed dramatically over the last thirty years, not least because of tourism, which has made a huge difference to many people’s standard of living.
On the other hand, many traditional ways of making a living have suffered dramatically. Free Trade decisions made on the other side of the world wrecked the banana growers’ livelihood in many islands, and overfishing to meet the demand of the tourist trade and feed a growing population has closed many fish markets—just two obvious examples.
Farmers who can no longer profitably grow bananas may well turn to other more profitable crops such as cannabis, and fishermen trying to eke a living out of heavily depleted seas might easily be persuaded to transport more lucrative produce instead—and where the drug trade goes, trouble follows, usually more for the local communities themselves than for visitors.
Add to that the simple fact that these islands remain poor places subject to terrifying natural forces—hurricanes, tropical storms and volcanic activity being but a few examples.
Whilst we were in Carriacou over Christmas, a major tropical depression passed through the islands, leaving a trail of destruction. The awe inspiring display of thunder and lightning, coupled with torrential rain caused major damage through most of the windward islands, with St. Vincent taking a huge hit that left many dead. A state of emergency was declared as a result, but clearly it will take years to put right the infrastructure that was destroyed, or the livelihoods disrupted.
And finally there’s good old-fashioned desire, as the internet age reaches into every last corner of the globe spreading want where there was only previously need. In Africa it’s mobile phones—if the sight of a Maasai warrior way out in the bush chatting into his mobile doesn’t strike you as incongruous, nothing will.
In the Caribbean it’s the iPhone that is the latest must have accessory, whatever your social standing. What we have and take for granted, others want too, and there’s seemingly nothing we can do about it.
Do we need to learn anything ourselves?
There’s no doubt that the activities of some boat boys are at least a nuisance, but that’s about the limit of it in most cases. Yes, there are cases where local boats have been carelessly handled alongside yachts, leading to heated arguments. But equally, we’ve witnessed some acts of staggering rudeness and inconsiderate behaviour by yacht crews as well.
One charter crew anchored near us fouled a local boat’s mooring, dragged it around a little, and then when they finally got it to the surface went to cut it free, even though I had rowed over and offered to rig a slip line through it. Just how do you reach people who think that’s acceptable?
In Chateaubelair, St. Vincent, a place that formerly had a bad reputation, there’s a young guy called George who paddles faithfully out to meet every single yacht that comes in, day or night, and helps them to anchor. He hasn’t got his hand out all the time, although most people will be more than happy to give him something for his troubles. In our case he simply wanted some batteries for his head torch so he could help others enter in the dark! How can you say no to that? Yet it was clear from the attitude of some of the crews that came in, and who blatantly ignored him, that even that was too much to ask.
Constant attention from boat boys can be a nuisance, and we won’t pretend that there haven’t been times (usually at around 7 a.m.) that we haven’t fervently wished that they’d go away.
But on the other hand, we’ve had some really enjoyable dialogues, learned a lot about the places and the communities we’re in, and had some of the best mangoes in the world for next to nothing as a result of their presence.
And it’s worth remembering that, for the most part, these guys are engaged in trying to make a legitimate living in a poor place with very little in the way of the kind of social safety net that we in the west take for granted. Money is made round to go around, after all.
Our top tips for dealing with boat boys:
- Put some fenders out as soon as you’re in
- Decide in advance what (if any) services you require
- Don’t necessarily take the first offer
- Make it clear what would you would like in terms of services
- Negotiate a fair fee for any service in advance
- Be honest and polite in all your dealings
- If you pick up a mooring, check whom it belongs to, and pay for its use
- Check that the person you pay is the owner or person responsible for the mooring—not just some chancer
- It’s a good policy to dive on any mooring to check its condition—what you can see at the surface may not be representative of what’s down below
- If they take your line ashore to tie-up, do go and check it as soon as you can. It may be subject to chafe, tied up to a weedy looking sapling or secured with an icicle knot—which will melt in the sun…
And if you’d like to become part of the solution, consider joining one of the sailing and conservation charities that work with local communities such as Oceanswatch.
As a Bermudian I am well aware that the word “Boy” has a terrible usage history throughout the Islands and much of the North American continent. However, its use in “Boat Boy” has become, rightly or wrongly, general usage in the western Caribbean, which is the reason Colin used that designation for the men that practice that trade. We mean no disrespect.