West of the Trinidad and Tobago capital Port of Spain, a long peninsula reaches out towards Venezuela. Once occupied by American forces during World War II, and later chosen as the site of a new capital for the short-lived West Indies Federation (1958–62), the Chaguaramas peninsula is still largely empty: its wooded hills and cliffs, its beaches and wildlife, its offshore islands, are little known and used. Over the years, the Chaguaramas Development Authority has hatched ambitious development plans for the area, but they are still to come to fruition.
Which is why any visitor to Chaguaramas who hasn’t been there in the last ten years or so will be startled to find a city along the peninsula’s southern shore — a city of masts, a forest of yachts from all over the world, hauled up on land or berthed in a string of marinas. Yacht City has sprung up in less than a decade, and has spawned restaurants and shops, banks and repair yards, whatever a visiting crew might reasonably need.
This is now the largest yacht service centre in the Caribbean, with facilities for 3,000 boats. There are seven marinas, six boatyards, travelifts that can handle anything from 15 to 200 tonnes; and over 100 independent companies which will replenish your stores, replace your sails and even shrink-wrap your boat.
“The boats are here year-round,” says Carla Castagne of CrewsInn Marina. We are sitting in CrewsInn’s Lighthouse Restaurant, below its red-and-white landmark tower, eating crab soup and mahi-mahi in plantain sauce. The breeze off the water ruffles the map she’s explaining. “Even in the low season, CrewsInn has an average 60–70% occupancy,” she says. Unlike competitors further up the island chain.
One reason for the throng is the fact that Chaguaramas lies at latitude 10°40’N. To a yachtsman, that means it’s well south of the 12°40’N line beyond which Lloyds of London won’t insure boats against hurricane damage, especially since Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn in 1995 wrecked or damaged 3,000 boats further up the island chain. So for at least half the year, boats need an insurable refuge, which means Grenada with its much smaller facilities, Venezuela with its more distant ports, or Trinidad and Tobago.
Between 1990 and 2000, yacht arrivals in Trinidad grew from 600 to over 3,500. Many stay from June until Carnival in February or March the following year, venturing out only for the prime racing season. Many of the vessels are “live-aboards”, their crews sailing around the world or just wandering around the oceans. Some are crewed or charter boats; a few are opulent megayachts awaiting the pleasure of their absentee owners.
“The nice thing is that so many of the yachties get involved in local culture and local life,” Carla says. Apart from Carnival, they race into town in local “maxi-taxis” to sample theatre, music and food. There’s golf just down the road, and a fascinating military history museum nearby. Four of the country’s leading entertainment centres are within a mile of the marinas. The busy and ever-popular 67-year-old Trinidad and Tobago Yacht Club is just down the coast at Bayshore, halfway to town, and welcomes visitors to its restaurant and marina. The Trinidad and Tobago Sailing Association has been based in Chaguaramas since 1972 and runs its own sailing school as well as regular race days. The area already has four hotels, so there’s no problem with accommodation while boats are serviced and repaired; maintenance costs are less than Miami’s, with a more interesting culture to explore while you wait.
CrewsInn opened five years ago. It has a 68-slip marina, a huge covered boatyard (2.7 acres of it), the biggest travel lift in the Caribbean, a 46-room hotel on the waterfront, a deepwater port, and a cluster of marine supply shops and services. Further west are other well-established operations — Peake’s Marine, IMS Yacht Services, Power Boats, Tardieu Marine, Coral Cove, Tropical Marine. New projects surface regularly.
“What we need now,” Carla says, “is new facilities to meet the demand.” The entrepreneurs of Yacht City and their umbrella organisation, the Yacht Services Association of Trinidad and Tobago, are lobbying for a regatta and other events, a Marine Academy to train young people for every aspect of the marine business, more sophisticated yacht management services, and some energetic marketing. The water may not be as blue as it is further north, but the rest of the package is hard to beat.