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Old 08-28-2002
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John Kretschmer is on a distinguished road
The Other Man


Cruising guides can offer unique advantages when it comes to lesser known destinations, but it still pays to be deligent and utilize your own observations when navigating in foreign waters.
I was beginning to strongly dislike Nigel Calder. I admit that the guy writes incredibly well informed books and articles on boat systems and maintenance. My copy of his Boat Owner's Mechanical and Electrical Manual is dog-eared and smeared with grease from frequent, on-the-job use. His new Cruising Handbook is chock full of pertinent information, after all, what other book contains a 12-volt energy audit work form, a graph for calculating horsepower requirements as a function of speed-length ratio, and lovely photo sequences for whipping line ends? OK, the guy knows his stuff; still, he has no business interfering in my private life. Let me explain.

The Kretschmer clan has spent considerable time exploring the pristine but shallow, reef-strewn waters of the western Caribbean. The areas is not well charted and the few available government charts don't offer enough detail for accurate piloting, especially for Fortuna, our cumbersome 44-foot steel ketch with a handy seven-foot draft. Fortuna does not specialize in hasty evasive maneuvers, once we commit to a reef pass we had better be steering the right course or God help the coral. More often than the not, the vital navigational data that billions of tiny coelenterates are praying is accurate has been gleaned from a privately published, completely unofficial, cruising guide. Naturally, none other than Nigel Calder writes the most accurate cruising guide to the Western Caribbean.

Although experience has taught me that the best local navigational information is usually found in cruising guides, I am still reluctant put away my DMA or Admiralty charts and follow the advice of some self-appointed cartographer. A few years ago we spent several months cruising the area and although we had a couple of cruising guides aboard, including Nigel's, I continued to use my outdated Admiralty chart for the Belize coast to plot primary courses.


The author found that charts can often be in need of updates and therefore may not fully concur with what's published in cruising guides.
The chart, which was a new edition but obviously in need of updating, had numerous “imaginary islands,” islets and spits, some even had names, that didn't exist in the water. There were also a few “forgotten islands,” mangroves and overgrown reefs that were real enough, but nowhere to be found on paper. Time and again those noted in Nigel's guidebook contradicted my approach headings. Lesa, once a loyal and loving spouse, began to question my navigational skill, even I after I assured her that prudent navigators used real charts in conjunction with cruising guides. After all, I was an expert, a professional no less. But instead of dutifully following instructions shouted up from my perch at the nav center, she was clandestinely reading Nigel's Cruising Guide to the Northwest Caribbean and steering his headings. Nigel was undermining my authority and taking over our cruise. He had become the “other man” in my wife's life.

The situation reached a head as we crossed from Belize to the Bay Islands of Honduras. Nigel and I had a showdown as we approached Puerto Este, the main village on the island of Utila. The admiralty chart and a sketch chart from another cruising guide showed a fairly wide, straight forward approach on a heading of 020 true through well-spaced shoals and reefs to the anchorage off the settlement. Nigel was more cautious and suggested a heading of 038 to avoid a shoal that was larger than charted, and then a northerly hook once a few landmarks had been picked up. Alone on deck I climbed the ratlines and scanned the horizon, it looked clear, I couldn't see the shoal “the other man” mentioned. Although the morning sun was not ideal for spotting reefs, I steamed toward the anchorage on heading of 020.

By the time I spotted the dark patch it was too late. I slammed the throttle into reverse but Fortuna glanced off a coral head with a sickening screech. Luckily we didn't run aground, but I felt horrible for the coral, for the hull and for my pride as Lesa and the girls dashed into the cockpit. Once I worked the boat back into deep water Lesa picked up the cruising guide. “Nigel has that reef clearly marked,” she noted with the icy disgust of someone who put her trust in another man, “we're lucky we have a steel boat.” She didn't have to add, “because we have a bungling navigator.”

"Cruising guides are an eclectic body of literature...they often have skifully wrought charts and useful aerial photos."
The following year I had a journalistic assignment to interview my friend, Gregorio Fuentes, Ernest Hemingway's 101-year old former captain. We spent a month exploring the northwest coast of Cuba, visiting Papa's old haunts. In preparation for the trip I purchased both US and Cuban charts at Bluewater Books and Charts in Ft. Lauderdale and a cruising guide by Simon Charles. Just before we shoved off Lesa and I made one last quick trip to the chandlery. I can't remember what we needed, but I do remember the look in her eyes when she met me at the cashier. She had a book in her hand. “Why didn't you pick up this?” she asked, barely controlling her irritation. I knew exactly what book it was, but feigned ignorance. “Oh, I didn't know Nigel had a new cruising guide to Cuba, I guess we should pick it up.”

Cruising guides are an eclectic body of literature, and one of the fastest growing segments of the marine publishing industry. Some guides are hardback editions, published by companies we've all heard of, and incredibly detailed. They often have skillfully wrought charts and useful aerial photos. Others are self-published pamphlets, with crude sketch charts and clipped prose and you should use them with caution. Still, this body of literature is amazing for its completeness. You can close eyes, spin the globe and let your finger come to rest on the most remote archipelago imaginable, and I'll bet you a cold one there is a least one, and maybe several cruising guides offering navigational information and tips about local customs and food.

“No doubt about it,” says Vivien Godfrey, co-owner of Bluewater Books and Charts, “cruising guides represent a sizable part of our business.” Her store is a treasure trove for the traveling sailor. “Our perennial bestseller is, The Yachtsmen's Guide to the Bahamas, which was one of the first guides published and has been around for 40 years. It is updated every year and just gone to a larger format.”  I can understand the economics of publishing a guide to the Bahamas, it's 50 miles from Florida and visited by thousands of sailors. It makes sense to publish cruising guides to the Greater and Lesser Antilles, I cherish my out of print copies of Donald Street's chatty guides. (By the way, Street's guides are now back in print, and although they are slightly out of date, nobody knows the Eastern Caribe like Don.) Stone and Hays' Cruising Guide to the Caribbean covers the entire the basin and has been aboard Fortuna since we've owned her. But what about, The Panama Guide?


According to the author, if you close your eyes, spin the globe, and poke your finger at it arbitrarily, wherever your digit lands, if there's navigable water, a cruising guide for that area is probably available.
I recently purchased this beautiful and thorough cruising guide by Tom and Nancy Zydler. They cover both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts including the magical San Blas Islands, and include many sketch charts and even color photos. While a good number of yachts transit the Panama Canal each year, how many cruise the Panamanian coasts?  Like so many guides to faraway places this books seems wonderfully altruistic, motivated by the desire to share local knowledge with other sailors, not to get rich off them. “You'd be surprised,” says Joe Jackins, President of Seaworthy Publications in Port Washington, WI. “The Panama Guide is already in its second edition. Unlike a general trade book, cruising guides continue to sell year after year and they're naturals for updated editions.”

Seaworthy also publishes a series of Bahamas cruising guides by Steven Pavlidis. These books represent years of nosing about the islands, sounding harbors and jawing with locals. Instead of combining all the islands into a singe book, Pavlidis breaks the islands into sub groups and describes them in four volumes in the painstaking detail that cruisers love. In fact, his guides have been so successful he has moved further south. “We are just about to publish Steven's guide to Puerto Rico,” says Jackins, “and that will be the first of five Caribbean volumes.”

It makes sense to have all the pertinent information you can get your hands on when you're planning a voyage. I have already purchased a chart for our January passage from Ft. Lauderdale to Bocas del Toros, a broad bay near the Panama, Costa Rica border. My only hope is that Nigel Calder doesn't decide to write and publish a guidebook to this part of the world before we shove off. I don't think my marriage can survive it.



Suggested Reading:

An Island in the Stream by John Kretschmer

Cruising Beautiful Belize by Liza Copeland

Cruising Guides on Board Safari by Sue & Larry

SailNet Store Section: Cruising Guides -- Caribbean

 

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