New Found Friends in Golfito, Costa Rica

5/1/2012

By Tom Morkin

People often ask “Have you ever thought that you would like to settle in any of the countries you have visited?” For us, the answer is “Although we’ve loved most of the countries, and envision returning to some for prolonged visits e.g. Mexico, the idea of spending the rest of our days there just hasn’t appealed. We think we want to end up where we started.

That however, is not the case with all long distance sailors. Some in fact do find greener pastures while aboard their boats and are happy to drop the hook there (pardon the mixed metaphor). Tim Leachman and Katie Duncan are one such couple.

Eighteen years ago, Tim and Katie set off from Newport Beach California in an unassuming Islander 34 called Caribbe, to sail south. They weren’t exactly sure where, just somewhere south. Their break from mainstream America was not to be forever, in fact, after the first six months, they parked the boat in Mexico to return to California to re-stock the cruising kitty before beginning their second year’s adventure. They had caught the cruising bug.

During that second season they sailed Caribbe down the west coast of Mexico, then on to Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica.

They were bound for Panama but when they sailed into the small gulf called Golfito, located in the much bigger gulf, Golfo Dulce, Tim declared then and there they didn’t need to go any further. He just knew that this was the place for them: a safe, flat water harbour surrounded by impossibly verdant green mountains that almost run vertically from the shore in a hurricane free zone.

Having come from California where every square foot of waterfront was spoken for and at a premium, this lovely harbour with plenty of room for plenty more boats was like a dream come true. They could keep their boat there year round. The small town of Golfito had everything to meet their basic needs. The cost of living was low as was real estate.

One of the first things they did was spend $1,600 for waterfront property (nope, that’s not a typo, that’s U.S. $1,600) where they could moor their boat and construct a small home.

To support this new life Tim and Katie made themselves and their home available to the sailors that stopped in Golfito while cruising up and down the Central American coast.

This meant cleaning boat bottoms, babysitting boats when crews left their boats for other parts, doing boat maintenance, renting moorings, providing laundry and trash service, and local information.

Eventually they turned their home into a yachtie drop-in center/club house.

As cruisers, they knew what cruisers needed and they looked after those needs: dinghy dock, potable fresh water, laundry service, TV room, book exchange (probably the biggest and best in Central America), beer bar (honor bar no less).

They could and can answer all the inevitable questions one has when new to the area and organize social events like barbeques and happy hour get-togethers. In short, they made/make their home your home while in Golfito.

Needless to say, few sail past without spending time there and many spend more time than they imagine they will.

As time went on, their company, Land Sea Services began getting involved in property sales and property administration. This was clearly a wise decision because three years ago the Costa Rican government (Customs) introduced a law which insisted that yachts staying in Costa Rica in excess of three months need to pay importation tax on their boats.

Not surprisingly, boat owners that kept their boats in Costa Rica long term sailed off to more boat friendly countries like Panama, El Salvador, Ecuador and Mexico. This has had a dramatic impact not only on Tim and Katie’s marine venture, but on many others as well.

The yacht moving company Dockwise transports yachts all over the world. Until three years ago, they dropped off and picked up yachts in Costa Rica. Not anymore. They’ve discontinued their service because of a lack of demand. Other countries have at various times introduced similar misguided laws only to see that the overall marine business suffered as cruisers took their business elsewhere. Tim and Katie hope that the Costa Rican politicians will soon see the consequences of their importation tax policy. In the meantime, they are not going to starve and the place is still very much a going concern.

The upstairs Clubhouse functions as bar, TV room and internet access point. The adjoining balcony becomes the sunset viewing platform.

Rooms are tastefully furnished and even a couple of houses can be rented inexpensively, nightly, weekly or long term, to boat crews that want a little time ashore. Very cool place, very nice people

During our six day visit, we connected with boat crews from the U.S., Canada, France, Australia and Croatia. Here’s the crew of the Croatian Dora, a Beneteau 57- Captain Leo (43) along with his father Marino (63), and son Marino (21). It’s not often you get to meet and spend time with three generations sailing together, in fact, it was a first for us.

In the Clubhouse lounge while Liz was waiting for my return from town, she met Nancy from the San Francisco Westsail 32 Bag End. Over the course of a couple of hours they chatted and established some remarkable similarities between the lives of her and her husband Don, and Liz’s and mine:

  • Like us, they’ve been cruising for ‘yonks’. On their first offshore trip from San Francisco to Hawaii in the 80s, they relied on a sextant and celestial navigation, as we did when we set out in 1985. Here they are with granddaughter Lexa and Lord Jack their (beautiful) cat from Thailand.
  • They will complete their circumnavigation in Manzanillo Mexico and so will we, probably around the same time.
  • Don and Nancy have worked in various places around the world to support their lifestyle, as have Liz and I.
  • In 1991 Nancy taught 4th grade at South Pacific Academy in American Samoa. Liz taught 8th grade at the same school, four years earlier.
  • Nancy comes from a family of eight children, she being the eldest and Liz is the second eldest of a family of seven children.
  • They, like us, have one and only one residence, the boat.
  • They’ve chosen to ‘self-insure’ their boat and so have we (self-insuring sounds better than carrying no boat insurance).
  • They’ve visited 49 countries aboard their boat and so have we, different countries mind you, but same number.

Happily, Bag End will be on the same track over the next couple of months as both boats ply the Pacific coast of Central America. That’s a good thing because as kindred spirits, we’ve got a lot to talk about.