Boat Men of the Caribbean

How to Work with These Island Entrepreneurs

When you make landfall on many Caribbean islands, before you've reached the harbor, set your anchor, or gotten settled in, one or more small boats may come out to greet you. It might be a powered skiff, a plastic kayak or some unrecognizable aquatic conveyance that barely floats. Each of those boats carries someone offering to help you with almost every aspect of your visit, from finding a mooring to obtaining fresh provisions to making the most of your time ashore.

Depending on who you talk to, these “boat men” are a fantastic help or a terrible scourge. There's a little truth to both positions. With a friendly approach and the right attitude, you can benefit from what they offer. 

What are Boat Men?

Most boat men are local people with an entrepreneurial streak who make an honest living offering goods and services to visiting yachts. 

Your experience with boat men will vary depending on which island you visit. The islands with the most boat men tend to have weak economies and limited work opportunities. In some harbors, you may be mobbed by an unorganized parade of vendors who stop by your boat in the hours after you arrive. 

This approach sometimes feels pushy because you get many visits to your boat. The boat men can be aggressive and competitive. Small boats milling near your bows vying for your attention while you anchor, is a distraction. It's important to be politely firm in your interactions. It's also a good idea to have some fenders out. 

In other cases, a well-organized group of boat men, like Dominica P.A.Y.S. (Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services), may offer safe moorings, security patrols, and a single point of contact for the best local services. The Dominican model is one of the most successful and helpful boat man cultures. Instead of dealing with a swarm of boats jostling for position, you're met by a single boat; P.A.Y.S. Boat men take turns and divide the incoming boats fairly. The approach is organized, simple and low-stress for visitors. P.A.Y.S. members are typically polite, friendly, and very well-informed.

Your Local Concierge

In many places, your boat man becomes like a concierge for your stay. He can arrange almost anything you want, from dinner recommendations and reservations ashore to arranging tours to getting your laundry done. If you want fresh fruit or commemorative t-shirts, let him know, and he'll bring something out to you, find the right guy to get it, or give you tips on the best market days and stalls to find what you want.

In a place like Dominica, the boat men work through an extensive network of family, friends and business contacts to meet your needs. They've got excellent local knowledge and can make your stay nicer. For example, some boat men can arrange fantastic eco-tours of the island, sometimes leading the expedition themselves. 

The boat men usually collect payment for the goods and services they deliver. They rarely mark up those costs and fees because, like a travel agent, a boat man typically makes money on the other end. It's customary, however, to give one good-sized tip before you leave.

Best Practices

So, as you can see, working with a boat man has many potential upsides, if you properly manage the relationship. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your experience:

  • Talk to other sailors before you head to the next island to get the lay of the anchorage for boat men and yacht services. Recommendations for the best boat men and insight into how the local system works are invaluable.
  • Always get the complete price for a service upfront. If something makes little sense, ask for clarification on time, transportation and prices to see what they include. You don't want to be surprised by unexpected tips, side trips, or cash-only policies at restaurants.
  • Be fair in negotiations. You can push back a little, but don't forget the economic disparity between a visiting yachtsman and an island resident.
  • Once you have settled on your boat man, share your decision with others who may stop by your boat. They will usually accept your decision and move on to other prospects. 
  • When picking a mooring, make sure that the boat man who helped you find it actually owns the mooring or represents the owner. Also, inspect the mooring yourself with your snorkeling gear.
  • Make plans and discuss boat men with your buddy boats in person or over the phone, not on VHF radio. Your contact with boat men will take place on VHF, so they monitor hailing channels. Therefore, what you say over the air is not private. If you must use VHF, use DSC calling for privacy.
  • Some of the worst looking local fruit is actually some of the best tasting. Companies can’t export ugly fruit, but the boat men know what's good. Don't be put off by looks, and try it!

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