Because of America’s troubled yet intense relationship with Vietnam during the war years, we think an unusually high number of American sailors think they would like to cruise the waters of that Socialist Republic. Indeed, a couple of years ago there was an article in one of the sailing slicks that called Vietnam a "virgin cruising ground." And while we’ve been in Asia and haven’t seen a copy, apparently there is an article in the current Cruising World saying that Vietnam is a great place to cruise.
Having travelled much of the length of Vietnam, we can tell you that it’s a fascinating and dynamic country, and the people we met were wonderful. Nonetheless, we have it from three excellent sources that cruising Vietnam would not only be a nightmare, but at this time it’s absolutely impossible.
The most devastating indictment comes from Frank and Lisa Coale of Portland, who spent five months in Vietnam taking delivery of their Saigon-built Corsair 50 catamaran Mango Moon. Lisa broke her ankle the first time she set foot on the Reichel-Pugh design, and having a boat in Vietnam didn’t get any better after that.
Frank listed three main problems. The first is weather. He notes that the northern part of Vietnam, including beautiful Halong Bay, is subject to typhoons. Further, the trades in the South China Sea regularly blow at 25 to 30 knots. Second, there are no boating facilities or boat gear in Vietnam. For example, not once were the Coales able to pull their cat up to a fuel dock. As a result, they’ve had to fill their 200-liter fuel tanks five gallons at a time from transported fuel jugs. And when it came to trying to find something as common as a cooler to keep cold drinks in, it took three weeks of diligently searching Saigon, a city of seven million people.
But the real cruising killer in Vietnam is the bureaucracy, which has weird regulations, and demands so much paperwork and so much money in bribes. How bad can it be, you might wonder. Consider that it took the Coales 3.5 days of dealing with paperwork when they wanted to go for a daysail! And then they were required to have two Vietnamese captains and a Vietnamese engineer along! Further, they were given specific lat-long positions of where they could anchor, usually in 70 feet of water with no protection from the howling trades. One time they got caught using their dinghy. "We were told dinghies were only to be used in emergencies," says Frank, "and we were told that we’d be jailed if we ever used ours again!" Then there were the bribes and fines. According to Frank, each official wanted about $100 U.S. whenever they wanted to do anything with the boat, and that the money was to go to "a party." When you want to go anywhere on your boat in Vietnam, you have to file a complete list of all the gear and food and drinks you have on your boat. When one official found that the Coales didn’t have the case or two of beer they’d listed as part of their stores, Frank explained they were going to buy it before they cast off the next day. The official would have none of it. He insisted on a $500 U.S. fine! After a very long and trying discussion, the fine was reduced to $38 U.S.
But didn’t Sunsail have a charter operation in Vietnam? They did, past tense. The base manager told the Coales that in the early going, the Vietnamese government would only allow charter guests to anchor in five places. The next year they only allowed them to anchor in four places. And the paperwork just kept getting worse. The base manager told Frank that things got so bad about a year ago, that the small staff loaded everything on their boats — and fled the country under cover of darkness. The manager now runs a Sunsail base in the Gulf of Thailand — which, unlike the west coast of Thailand, also has some Vietnam-like problems for cruisers — and has proved to be a great friend and tremendous help to the Coales.
We’ll have more facts and details on why you absolutely cannot cruise Vietnam in the March issue, but trust us, it’s just not possible. The better alternative is to put your boat in a marina in Singapore or Langkawi, Malaysia, and visit Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia by land. Oddly enough, of these three, the Vietnamese see the Americans — not the Chinese or the Russians — as their hope for the future. By the way, forget cruising the coast of Cambodia. They don’t have any facilities either, the regulations are probably just as bad, but the real problem is that there are still landmines on the beaches.
The historic Colombian port of Cartegena has long been a favorite stopover for cruisers transiting the north coast of South America. And the recent construction of the highly praised Club Nautico Marina has made layovers there more pleasant than ever. But its management’s bitterly contentious struggle with the local mayor has deteriorated to the point where the property is said to be in danger of being bulldozed soon — as was the fate of the Panama Canal YC in Colon, Panama, last February.
"There are currently over 100 boats here from at least 10 different countries," reports Marlene Verdery of the Sausalito-based Manta 42 cat Damiana. "Just when everyone feels very good about being in Colombia — feeling very welcome by the locals, and also feeling that is very safe to travel throughout the country — we are now hoping that we won’t be forced out of the bay due to not having shore access."
John Halley of Club Nautico explains, "I think that marinas, wherever they are located, live in an uncertain world. It took this marina nearly 10 years to battle for a new public concession which was given two years ago. . . Seven months into the project, the local mayor responsible for the Historic and Tourist district paid a visit requesting that the work be halted due to non-compliance of some ‘act’ on his books." After construction continued, the mayor eventually sent in a police riot squad to shut it down.
From our distant perspective, this messy situation seems to be a sort of turf battle, with the marina operators insisting that their site is on national — rather than city — property (tidal waters). In any case, the battleground has now moved into the courtrooms, where we can only hope a reasonable compromise can be reached. Closure of Club Nautico would be a devastating shock to westbound cruisers heading to the Canal, as well as for eastbound sailors heading for the islands of the Eastern Caribbean. (See the website for more info.)
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We’re full of good gossip this week. First it was Brad Pitt in Sausalito, now the word on the docks is that Paul Cayard’s Santa Cruz 50 Hula Girl may soon be sold into a very active local sailing school program for participation in events to Hawaii and Mexico. Of course, nothing’s final but it wouldn’t be surprising if it happened.
Awards season isn’t just for movies, and while the ISAF and the Rolex US Sailing awards usually garner the lion’s share of the press, they aren’t the only ones out there. Here are a few with an established pedigree and some established recipients.
On the the 40th anniversary of winning the Golden Globe, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston became only the seventh person in the 85-year history of the Cruising Club of America‘s Blue Water Medal to win the award "for a lifetime devoted to the advancement of sailing, sail training and youth development."
The club’s Far Horizons Award fittingly went to Lin and Larry Pardey, whose first circumnavigation consumed some 47,000 miles. They’ve racked up a combined 400,000 sea miles aboard their now iconic, engineless Lyle Hess-designed Seraffyn and Taliesin. The Pardeys hold the record for the smallest boat to have circumnavigated contrary to the prevailing winds around all the great southern capes and are the only couple to have circumnavigated both east-about and west-about on boats they built themselves, using traditional means of navigation and having no engine or sponsorship.
Former Bay Area sailors Maurice and Sophie Conti received the Rod Stephens Trophy for their 2008 rescue of the crew of the 32-ft ketch Timella. The Conti family — including two young children — were sailing near Suva, Fiji, aboard their Catana 471 Océalys when they heard Timella‘s mayday call that they’d hit a reef and their boat was sinking. The Contis upped anchor and sailed for several hours to reach the site, with Maurice taking a dinghy through a treacherous reef to effect the successful rescue of all three crewmembers. (Read the full story in last Februrary’s edition of Latitude 38.)
Beth Leonard and Evans Starzinger were awarded the Ocean Cruising Club‘s Vasey Vase award, given to a club member who has carried out a "a voyage of an unusual or exploratory nature." The pair have been cruising at high latitudes since building their Van De Stadt 47 Hawk in 1997, and won the award — their second — for their passage to South Georgia Island last year.
Congratulations to them all for their well-deserved recognition.