10 Tips for Cruising the Caribbean

By Chuck and Barb Shipley, Tusen Takk II

Chuck and Barb Shipley, formerly of Richmond Hill, Georgia — just south of Savannah, hope more trawlers continue to make the Caribbean Islands a part of their cruising plans. A decade ago, Tusen Takk II, the Shipley’s Krogen 48’ North Sea, was a trawler among many sail boats. Today, more Krogens and power boats of many kinds join them in the epic adventure. Barb retired in 2004 and while she waited for Chuck to “get free” a year later, she became a captain and earned a 50-ton master’s license. They sold their home and cars 10 years ago and are happily living aboard their yacht, taking National Geographic-quality pictures (this issue’s cover photo courtesy of Chuck), and cruising where they will. Below, in Q & A format, the Shipley’s dish their sage advice.


If you don’t have a home address, how and where do you receive mail?

When we retired and sold everything in Georgia, we changed our residence to a mailing service in Florida. This not only solved the problem of having a place for our mail to be sent, but also freed us from state income tax and yearly property tax on our trawler. The service forwards mail on request and also scans the outside of envelopes/packages so you can view them when you have an Internet connection. If you want to see the contents of an envelope, it is available for viewing and printing the next day. And, when guests come to visit, we have our mail sent to them before they depart so they can bring it with them.


What planning is involved when having two couples (or more) stay on board?

We have had guests a number of times and have thoroughly enjoyed the experiences. Our Krogen 48’ is quite commodious as our guests have their own bedroom (stateroom) and their own shower and bathroom (head). One has to be careful about making commitments to be somewhere on a specific date to pick-up or drop-off people, but Barb and I have always avoided problems by building in a cushion in the timeline. You certainly don’t want to get into a situation where you feel obligated to travel when the weather conditions would suggest otherwise. If you and your cruising partner enjoy guests on land, chances are you will enjoy your guests on the water! If a short visit is all you enjoy with friends and family at your house, you will want to tactfully ensure that their visit on board will be of similar duration.


Do you have a medical kit stocked with non-prescription and prescription-strength medicines?

We do have such a kit! Most of its contents are common sense, but it also includes some prescription painkillers and antibiotics—some for “above the waist” and some for “below the waist”. It is amazingly easy and cheap to buy prescription-type drugs in the Caribbean, but not the French islands because their standards are similar to those in the U.S. We also have a copy of the book, “A Comprehensive Guide to Marine Medicine”, by Weiss and Jacobs, for quick reference.


How do you provision? At local markets? What do you look for in regard to food safety?

On many of the islands, there are surprisingly great supermarkets. We usually get our fresh fruits and vegetables from local markets, as do most of our cruising acquaintances. We wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly when we return to the boat, and doing so, we’ve never had stomach problems. Nor have we ever had concerns after buying prepared foods at local restaurants or from street vendors. In general, it is unnecessary to pack large amounts of food from home. Many first-time cruisers pack way too many canned goods and extras. If you don’t eat it at home, you probably won’t eat it on the boat. Plus, it’s more fun to try local foods and cook with local products and recipes.


Is it best to have cash, credit cards, or traveler’s checks? Or, a combination of all?

Thankfully, ATMs are widely available. We use them almost exclusively as a source of cash (in the currency accepted on that island). However, please note, many banks charge fees to withdraw cash from an ATM not affiliated with their bank; we skirt around those fees by using a VISA card tied to our Schwab account that refunds any fees applied. We pay by credit card for groceries at the larger stores, and also for marine supplies, bottom painting, etc. We haven’t used traveler’s checks in years, and we don’t know of any cruisers who still use them. When choosing credit cards, we recommend that you shop around. Additionally, many cards charge a three percent to five percent fee for foreign transactions.


When traveling in the Caribbean, is there a language barrier?

In the eastern region of the Caribbean, a few islands are French. Not just French-speaking, but have all the privileges and responsibilities thereto appertaining (such as the right to vote in national elections). Barb and I don’t speak more than a few words of French, but have always managed to get by—either because we dealt with multi-lingual locals or because we are sufficiently adept with gesturing! And, the delicious French food makes the effort well worth it. The rest of the eastern Caribbean islands are former English or Dutch territories, and English is the predominant language. The Dominican Republic is Spanish-speaking, but we got by just fine speaking English. All of South America (except Brazil, of course) and Central America are Spanish-speaking; though we have met folks who can’t speak a word of Spanish who said they experienced no problems making themselves understood. Off the northern coast of Venezuela are the ABCs (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao). Their official language is Dutch (and Papiamento), but English is widely spoken and we had no trouble communicating.


Is there a book or another resource that rates and ranks Caribbean marinas?

We don’t use marinas much, as we mostly anchor out. However, we occasionally pop into one briefly, just to equalize our batteries. But in Trinidad, where we spend the active hurricane months, we do stay at marinas because there are no decent anchorages for large trawlers. Also, we’ve come to know, that many of the Caribbean Islands really don’t have appropriate marinas. But there are excellent published sources that describe anchorages, marinas, and more.


Are there places in the Caribbean and along the Central America coastline that you would not go to, and why?

Mainland Venezuela has become increasingly unstable and dangerous—and only the foolhardy get anywhere near its northern shores. There have been too many acts of violent piracy to tread there. When we cruised from Curacao to Bonaire in December 2014, we traveled along an arc that kept us far north of the Los Roques and Las Aves Islands that are far enough from the mainland to have been formerly considered safe, but now are also mostly avoided. Furthermore, there are anchorages in St. Vincent that have a horrible reputation for break-ins and robberies, including Wallilabou and Chateaubelair, in particular.


What mechanical services, if any, can you find while cruising?

We expect to do most lighter maintenance and repairs ourselves. Some islands have excellent mechanical services, while others have virtually none. Some particularly good places for services are Puerto Rico, St. Martin, Martinique, Curacao and Trinidad—and to a lesser extent, St. Lucia and Grenada.


Based on your experiences, what would you do differently?

  • Start earlier (when we were younger)!
  • Equip the vessel with a pair of flopper-stoppers and appropriate arms (for at-anchor stabilization) before leaving the United States.
  • We wish we had a less energy-consuming refrigerator. However, we love its size and the ability to keep, say, ice cream, in the freezer. This makes us immensely popular with our friends on sail boats with small inefficient refrigerators.
  • You cannot have too much storage space for spare parts, lubricants, and tools. I should have built even more storage racks down in the engine room.
  • I would not wait so long to install solar panels. We now have three panels on the pilothouse roof and two more on our “constructed-for-the- purpose” T-top. They keep our batteries so much happier and they greatly reduce the frequency and duration of our generator use.
  • I would not have waited so long to replace our 17 gallon-per-hour water maker with our 50 gallon-per-hour unit. Rinsing off dive gear and soaking underwater cameras takes lots of water, as does keeping salt and dust off the exterior of the boat.