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Caribbean Charter: Hints for Carefree Smooth Sailing
Whether you are looking for peace and quiet or an exotic adventure, a pristine sandy beach to relax on or the ultimate spot to snorkel or scuba dive, you will find it somewhere in the Caribbean. You will also find exciting activities, unique places to explore, unusual shopping opportunities and an array of dining options, not to mention plenty of friendly and welcoming locals. All these options make the Caribbean an ideal sailing vacation destination. Planning your sailing vacation easy, following are some helpful hints to ensure you have a carefree Caribbean charter experience on whatever island you explore.
Entry and Exit Requirements. Every island in the Caribbean has its own entry requirements. Most require that you have a valid passport. Effective January 23, 2007, all US citizens traveling by air to and from the Caribbean are required to have a valid passport to enter the United States. By January 1, 2008, US citizens traveling between the US and the Caribbean by land or sea (including ferries) will be required to present a valid US passport. If you are taking a sailing vacation with children, special rules may apply. In an effort to prevent international child abduction, most of the Caribbean (other than the BVI) has initiated procedures at entry/exit points. This includes requiring documentary evidence (like a notarized letter) of relationship and permission for the child’s travel from the parent(s) or legal guardian not present. If you are planning a Caribbean charter do not wait until last minute to get a passport or letters of permission from former spouses.
Sleep Aboards. If the charter base allows it, it is a great idea to sleep aboard your sailing vessel the night before you depart on your charter. This not only allows you time to settle in and get acquainted with your temporary “home on the water”, but also gives you an opportunity to provision the night before. Thus, the next day, after your chart briefing and onboard vessel review with the charter company, you are ready to set a course for your first anchorage rather than waste part of the first day shopping for food and drinks. Be advised, however, that not all boats have a generator for air conditioning and it can get warm at the dock in the summer. In fact, if your vessel does not have a generator, you definitely do not want to stay at the dock overnight in mid summer.
Time Zones. All of the Caribbean islands, except Trinidad and Tobago, are in the Atlantic Time Zone, which is one hour later than Eastern Standard Time. When the US goes into Daylight Savings Time, the islands do not change- so during this time of the year time in the Eastern part of the US is identical to island time. The reality is, however, unless you have a plane to catch at the end of the trip – who really cares what time it is on your Caribbean charter? You are in paradise, Mon!
Health Issues. In general, traveling to the Caribbean will not raise many health concerns. You can count on food being well and hygienically prepared. No specific inoculations are required to enter any of the Caribbean islands, although it is worth making sure you are up to date with tetanus protection (every ten years). Be aware that even on islands with good medical facilities, you may not be able to find the exact medication you take at home. To be safe, bring any prescribed medicine in its original prescription container and make sure you have enough for the length of your Caribbean charter.
Drinking Water. Most of the water in the Caribbean is rain water collected in cisterns and than heavily chlorinated. It is best to avoid drinking tap water, especially after hurricanes, when the water supply can become contaminated. Stick to drinking bottled water during your Caribbean Charter.
Currency. A range of currencies is used in the islands. Whatever the official currency, the US dollar is widely accepted in the Caribbean. In addition, major credit cards (usually Visa and Master Card – only occasionally American Express) and traveler’s checks are accepted, especially in the major hotels, restaurants and stores of more developed areas. ATMs accept debit and credit cards linked to the Cirrus, Plus and Visa networks. In less developed areas, it is best to carry local currency as few establishments will take credit cards and ATMs are rare. This is especially true if you are shopping in local markets and stalls where cash is a necessity – preferably in small denominations. On French islands, the euro is the preferred currency, while in the Dutch islands, the Antilles Florin or Guilder is the preferred currency. You might also see the Eastern Caribbean dollar in use.
Checking Into Customs. If you plan to island hop during your Caribbean charter, you will need to check into the customs/immigration office for each country you visit. (The islands that make up the British Virgin Islands are considered one country). Once you have settled into the anchorage, stop at the office before you begin exploring the island. Trust me- they know you are there! Most offices are located near the harbor, but some, like on St. Kitts, require somewhat of a hike. Some islands have both immigration and customs in the same office, others require several stops. Do not worry – the agents will guide you. Some countries – like Dominica- even have young men in dinghies that will meet your boat and for a small fee, escort you through the whole process. It is worth the fee because they often cut through some of the red tape and save you time. When you go to check in, make sure to have your passports as well as a crew list with names, addresses, birth dates and passport numbers. It is a good idea to prepare the list ahead of time and have several photocopies with you so that you do not have to write it all out each time to report in. You will also need to have the title of ownership and proof of insurance coverage of your particular sailing vessel. These last two documents are usually in the charter manual located in the navigation station and will be pointed out to you during the Charter company briefing. Always have money with you because there will usually be a nominal “customs” fee.
Taxis. Taxis are plentiful throughout the Caribbean and are perhaps the most common means of transportation for visitors to the islands. Do not expect to find a typical New York yellow-style cab. Taxis may be privately owned sedans, vans or open trolleys. Sometimes, the only way to identify a taxi is by checking the number plate for a designated letter or color. Usually taxis are not metered and fares are regulated by the various island governments, although some taxi drivers may ignore the official rates and set their own, especially for longer trips. By US standards, the fares are quite inexpensive. Always agree to a rate before you start your journey, and do not be afraid to negotiate as this is often customary. Drivers are often very knowledgeable and act as tour guides and advisors. In some places, the drivers are specially trained to do this. If you find a driver you like, ask for his or her card. They will then serve as your personal chauffer during your island stay. If you receive good service, tip between 15-20%.
Business Hours. The siesta is alive and well in the Caribbean. Small stores often close for a couple of hours in the early afternoon when the tropical sun is at its hottest. Stores usually open early, between 8am -9am, and begin closing around noon. Business resumes about 2 hours later (2 pm) in most places, with stores remaining open until 6 pm. Remember, however, all hours are subject to change based on the whim of the owners – it is island time! On Saturday, most stores are open in the morning, as are most street markets. Sunday is traditionally a day for church and family, thus many businesses are closed.
Tipping. Most restaurants will add a 10-15% service charge to the bill. If this is the case, tipping is unnecessary; although a small gratuity given directly to your server is always appreciated. If you are not sure whether or not service has been included in your bill, ask. When service is not included, a tip of 15-20% is appropriate.
Etiquette. Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Aboard, about the “ugly American”. Impressions say it all. As a visitor on a Caribbean charter, you can and should serve as a goodwill ambassador. Common politeness is as desirable on the islands as anywhere else. If you need to ask directions or advice, always greet the person before asking a question. Do not take anyone’s picture without first asking permission- it is often seen as invasive. And, do not walk around town in a swim suit. It is considered rude. Shorts and a tee shirt are appropriate onshore attire.
Sun Protection. The typical 80°-90° F temperatures in the Caribbean may sound just like summer temperatures back home, but do not be fooled. The Caribbean’s position near the equator means that the sun’s rays are much more direct and thus very strong! A high factor sunscreen is a must for any Caribbean charter. Apply it liberally at least every two hours and after swimming or exercising. The sun’s intensity is the greatest between 11am and 4pm. Also wear a hat and a good pair of sunglasses. Drinking plenty of water is essential. If you do burn, it is worth getting hold of a couple leaves of aloe vera which grows throughout the region. It is incredibly soothing and reduces the likelihood of peeling. To use it, split open the leaf and spread the gel liberally over your skin. Take care not to let it touch your clothes until dry because it leaves a yellow or purple stain. You can also purchase aloe gel in bottles at a grocery store or pharmacy. If you begin to feel dizzy, nauseous, or get a headache, you may be having symptoms of dehydration. Lie down in a shaded place and sip water or other hydrating fluids (not alcohol or sodas which actually dehydrate you) until you are feeling better.
Bites and Stings. It is inevitable that you will get some bites during your Caribbean charter, especially from dusk to dawn. Sand flies are often present on beaches at dusk and are so small that they are practically impossible to see – hence their nickname, “no-see-ums.” They have an incredibly itchy and long-lasting bite. They ignore most repellant, but can typically be avoided if you use a heavy duty insect repellant containing DEET on exposed areas of the skin. If you are snorkeling or diving, you will encounter many spiny black sea urchins that inhabit reefs and bays. If you step on one, it will sting. Remove as much of the spine as possible and douse the area in vinegar or urine and see a doctor. It is best to just avoid them completely. Similarly, never touch coral. You will kill the organism on contact and some will cause a painful, slow-healing rash.
Mooring Balls. Some anchorages, particularly in the British Virgin Islands, use mooring balls to protect the coral reefs from damage caused by anchors. For those anchorages that have them, it is not only convenient, but it also ensures that you will not be dragging an anchor in the middle of the night. The only problem with mooring balls is that there are usually only a limited number of them in each anchorage- all on a first come first secured basis. It is a good idea to plan your daily itinerary so that you can arrive in a new anchorage preferably by early afternoon. This allows you plenty of choices to select the perfect spot to enjoy the day and also allows you the opportunity to witness the, “snooze you lose” spectacle. Invariably around 4-5pm, cruisers around the anchorage will find their way to their cockpits – often with a cold drink in hand and perhaps some cool jazz, calypso or Jimmy Buffet playing softly over the speakers. They settle in to watch as the last stragglers enter the anchorage in search of a mooring ball or even a place to anchor, circling frantically as the sun slips closer to the horizon. Although fun to watch, it is not a good idea feeling if you happen to be that desperate sailor. Avoid the situation of being stressed out on your sailing vacation and arrive early.
Dinghies. When it comes to joyriding, kids will be kids and the same holds true in the Caribbean. The difference is that rather than your car, it could be your dinghy. There is nothing more frustrating than returning to the dinghy dock after an excursion ashore only to find that your dinghy is not where you left it. Sometimes it may be found just a few spaces down the dock or, in rare cases, it could be on the other end of the anchorage. To avoid a cheap thrill at your expense, use a lock to secure the painter line that leads from the front of the dinghy and ties to the dock. Most charter bases will point out the location of the lock in your navigation station just for such use. Provided you remember where you put the key – especially after a night of festivities- it makes life much simpler than worrying how you will get back to your boat.
Night Trips Most charter bases in the Caribbean do not allow sailing at night. Once you are anchored, however, there is nothing to stop you from taking your dinghy ashore at night. The two things you need to remember are that the anchorages are very dark – even with a night filled with stars- and, especially after a few rum drinks, all sailboat silhouettes look alike. Bring a flashlight along in the dinghy for your return trip home.If the person sitting up front holds it, it can alert other dinghy drivers of your presence (somewhat like a headlight), and it assists in avoiding otherwise unseen obstacles like mooring balls and fish pots. To identify your own sailing vessel, attach a glow stick to the bow spirit or onto a lifeline. Often, the iridescent glow can be seen from shore and give you a direction to aim for. This small light is much less annoying to your fellow anchorage neighbors than leaving a bright deck light on.
Phones and E-mails. You should be able to telephone home from most islands in the Caribbean without any problems. Islands usually have both pay phones that accept coins and those that require phone cards. Phone cards are usually available from most shops. You can phone home using a telephone charge card (from AT&T, MCI, Sprint, etc.), but the rates will not be cheap. Prepaid cards will allow you to make international calls at a discounted rate. If you want to use your cell phone in the Caribbean, check with your provider to see whether it will work there and what the call charges will be. Most dual-band digital phones that are primed for roaming can work on most Caribbean mobile networks. Blackberries will also work if they are set up for international roaming. If you do have a cell phone that works in the region, the cheapest way to make calls is to pay a nominal fee for a local SIM card or chip which you can insert into a phone brought from home and use it to make local and international calls. SIM cards are available from independent mobile phone stores and Cable and Wireless/Digicel outlets throughout the region. Note that if you are sailing in the British Virgin Islands, and you have a good line of site to St. Thomas, you can access through St. Thomas which is part of the United States network for most wireless companies. Another option is to rent a phone through the charter company. Many of the larger charter bases have them available to use for the duration of your Caribbean charter. One of the best ways to keep in touch while traveling in the Caribbean is using a free internet e-mail account that can be accessed from anywhere, such as Yahoo, Hotmail or Gmail. Many of the islands have internet cafes that allow you access for a nominal fee.
Duty Free Purchases. For US travelers returning to the United States from the Caribbean, each individual can bring back up to $1,200.00 worth of purchases duty free. If you exceed that limit, the first $600.00 worth of merchandise in excess is assessed a flat duty rate of 10%. Since the Homeland Security clamp down on flying with liquids, many travelers have had their duty free alcohol and perfume confiscated when they try to carry it aboard on the return flight. I recently even saw a young honeymoon couple frantically eating a jar of French preserves outside of the x-ray rather than throwing it away. If you do buy these items, they must be checked like any other baggage.
Departure Tax. When it is time to leave the islands, you will be charged a departure tax. Fees vary from island to island. These fees are usually payable at the airport upon departure, although they are sometimes included in the cost of your airline ticket. Remember to keep enough cash to pay the departure tax as some islands only accept payment in local currency.
You cannot beat a Caribbean charter for fun and excitement. The experience you are about to have will create memories that will last a lifetime. By keeping in mind the above hints, you will have a sailing vacation that is safe and hassle-free. There is no better way to keep everyone smiling than smooth sailing in paradise!
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