I was singlehanding, bound for Ile à Vache, Haiti, 200 miles west along the south coast of Hispañola. Any break along the way would be welcome. So when I cleared out of the Dominican Republic in Las Salinas, I planned to stop over at remote Isla Beata off Hispañola’s southernmost cape. It was just a waypoint, a place to anchor for the night, or so I thought. But sometimes the happiest cruising discoveries are those you least expect.
I set sail before dawn to cover the 70 miles to the island. My Pearson 424 ketch, Silverheels, made good time, pushed along by 25- to 30-knot winter tradewinds and cresting 8- to 12-foot seas. It was rough going, a two-Bonine afternoon, but we fetched Cabo Beata in 10 hours, scooted through the channel and rounded up in the island’s lee well ahead of sunset.
What a sweet landfall it was! Transparent turquoise water lapped against a white sand beach flanked by palm trees and a string of fishermen’s huts, their painted skiffs bobbing on moorings along the shoreline or hauled up onto the beach. The concrete Marina de Guerra (DR Navy) outpost seemed out of place in this Gauguin-like setting, but I knew I could sleep easy here with them around.
As soon as I set an anchor, coiled lines and popped a cold Presidente, a couple of Marina de Guerra officials headed my way from the shore, chauffeured by one of the fishermen. As they came alongside and boarded Silverheels, I noted one of them had removed his shoes, the first Caribbean official I’d ever seen do that. The other younger one, incongruously toting an automatic rifle, wore flip-flops and a friendly smile. Like all officials I’d dealt with in the DR, these men were courteous and hospitable. Once they’d checked my despacho, Silverheels’s, clearance document from her last port, we sat in the cockpit and chatted a while. They said I was welcome to come ashore and stay as long as I like. Apparently it didn’t matter that I had officially cleared out of the Dominican Republic. Isla Beata, it seemed, is a world apart, a paradigmatic tropic isle.
The next day I dinghied ashore and strolled along the row of beachfront shacks. Most were pieced together from scraps of corrugated metal, a few were wood-planked, and all of them were shabby. These fishermen have homes and families on the mainland. They come here to work, often for weeks at a time, and their “camps” are ultra-basic. Yet while the huts were rough, the grounds were conspicuously free of the rubbish that so often blights mainland roads in the DR. I was surprised to find iguanas relaxing on the paths. Normally these great lizards are afraid of humans, since they’re a popular meal among rural natives. But on this island they’re protected by law and have no natural predators, so it’s up to you to not trip over them.
As I idled along the waterfront path exchanging greetings, I was invited several times to sit and join small groups of men for a visit. They were as curious about me as I was about them; it was a fun exchange that gave my “conversational” Spanish a good workout. As I headed back to my dinghy, the Marina de Guerra comandante drew me aside and asked if I had any medicines I could spare. The fishermen could use some antibiotic ointment, ibuprofen and (he added personally) a laxative.
Back on the boat I rummaged through my medical kit, bagged up what I could spare and brought it in the next day. I found the comandante and we sat in the shade and chatted a while. He told me that Isla Beata hasn’t always been so delightful. Fifty years ago it was a prison island garrisoned by the military and off-limits to civilians, including fishermen. In those days the soldiers stationed there harvested the abundant fish, storing them in a refrigerated bunker for transport to the mainland. All that remains of the prison is a tower and a few crumbling concrete outbuildings at the north end of the island.
Today, fishermen set out in their skiffs each morning to ply their trade, returning in the afternoon. Then they relax around their camps, mending nets, doing a little boat maintenance, enjoying a game of dominos, or just kicking back in a hammock and chatting with friends. When they work they work hard, but it’s a balanced, low-stress lifestyle that shows in their friendly smiles. Their needs are simple and few; their workplace is a genuine tropical paradise. I know a lot of people back home who wished they lived as well.
When I weighed anchor a few days later several fishermen and a couple of the Marina de Guerra guards waved farewell. I had been a welcome guest on their island, and Isla Beata had been a rare treat for me.
Photos by Tor Pinney