One of the Caribbean’s biggest catamaran builders is looking to expand its construction capacity and add a haul-out facility, creating a business model that pairs a new-build yard with a repair-focused operation, similar to the superyacht builders Royal Huisman and Feadship in the Netherlands.
Lucas Guessard, the 52-year-old founder of Aventura Boats in the Dominican Republic, is one of two men behind plans for LimeStone Park, which would include a shipyard and catamaran manufacturing facility on Luperon Bay on the country’s north coast. The company employs 30 to 50 people, and prior to the Covid-19 pandemic had eight boats in build, with another two on order, including from tourism centers that need dive vessels, ferries and floating party platforms. The new facility would let Aventura build boats larger than its current maximum length of 44 feet and would create a place to service the dozens of catamarans the brand has sold since it opened.
Guessard has partnered with a leading Dominican industrialist named Fernando Capellan. The 62-year-old textile factory owner is a passionate sailor who owns a Sunreef 62. Capellan says he wants to create good-paying jobs and decrease reliance on environmentally unsustainable ways of living — for example, the fishing industry working the depleted waters off Luperon. He is also a prime mover in the nonprofit Olitas Verdes (Little Green Waves), which organizes an annual cleanup of the mangroves that surround most of the bay.
Luperon is among the finest hurricane holes on Earth, despite its address along “Hurricane Alley.” Atmospheric physics and topography have practically immunized Luperon against hurricanes. The bay has barely been touched since tropical-storm tracking began in 1842.
Author Bruce Van Sant helped to popularize the anchorage, beginning in the 1980s with The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward. By 1999, when I first sailed my 30-foot ketch from Massachusetts into the bay, I found the usual complement of retired Americans on sailboats, but there were others as well. Luperon’s anchorage had become a veritable United Nations of ocean crossers, tossers, bull slingers and more. There was cheap beer, cheap rum, cheap lunch, cheap labor — and the anchoring, once virtually free, was pretty cheap, too.
But the Dominican Republic’s appeal goes beyond bargains. Researching this article brought me to Luperon several times in 2020, and the changes and pace of change since my residency were remarkable. Back in the day, the town’s economic engine was an all-inclusive seaside resort, but the owners abandoned it in 2011, leaving Luperon’s 17,000 or so residents with a rate of unemployment and underemployment even higher than usual. Nine years later, the cruising community represented just one among four major categories of stakeholders in Luperon Bay. The other three are the central government, the developers and, of course, the people of Luperon.
The development plans have come about during a rebranding campaign for the town. The new gate at the entrance to Luperon is topped with a stylized sailboat — call it the new logo for Luperon Inc. (In Latin America, most big-money projects begin optimistically with the construction of a fancy gate.)
Also, national legislation was introduced in 2020 to regulate the cruising community further, including a proposal to charge higher fees for a three-month cruising permit than boaters pay at other island destinations, such as the Bahamas. On the plus side, the same legislation would also end outdated vessel clearance and transit paperwork requirements.
Some locals are opposing any dramatic increase in fees; 80-year-old lobbyist Norman Whitzell, who sailed into Luperon in 1996, is among them as a co-founder of the Association of Sailors and Seafarers of Luperon.
“We will work to get the insurance actuaries to list Luperon as a safe hurricane hole [and] the tax department to take the road tax off fuel sold at a fuel dock,” Whitzell says. “We will urge the president to decree Luperon as a four-year pilot project in promoting nautical tourism, along with relaxing immigration laws with a one-page sign-in and a six-month, one-time entry fee.”
The project involving Aventura Boats is called LimeStone Park. Aventura’s new facility would be built on 20 percent of the 26 waterfront acres Capellan owns. The haul-out trailer would have the capacity to accommodate multihulls bigger than 60 feet, and vessels of all kinds up to 80 tons.
Capellan says the best way to create jobs is to attract a different demographic to the bay: bigger boats and people with more spending power. He estimates that LimeStone would create up to 250 jobs directly and indirectly.
The remaining 80 percent of LimeStone Park would be an actual park, open to the public and dedicated to the preservation of local flora and fauna. Capellan says 6,000 trees have already been planted, including fruit species that attract birds. LimeStone has received a government environmental permit for the shipyard, which, according to Capellan, does not require removal of any mangroves. He says the docks and ramp will occupy a section of the waterfront that consists of limestone, not trees.
An environmental organization has challenged the shipyard’s environmental permit in court, but Capellan and Guessard dismiss their opponents as minor players in the country’s multiparty political system. So 2021 begins with Luperon in a state of flux as the central government, local government, foreign sailors, entrepreneurs and the eco-conscious vie to exert influence over one of the world’s great hurricane holes. Efforts to turn the bay into a more upscale venue will change its character forever, but Guessard says the creation of a marine industry catering to yachts and big cats is the way forward.
“First of all, we have to make it good for everyone involved,” he says. “Second, we have to make it profitable so it can survive.”
This article was originally published in the February 2021 issue.