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Building Steel Dreams In The Land Of The Trees

Row 17, seat C is about halfway back, seemingly ancient Boeing 727 that is American Airlines Flight 923, now boarding for a flight from Miami International to Guatemala City.

As I settle into my seat for the trip to Central America, I see it will be a full flight, along with the inevitable confusion of filled overheads and shortened tempers of the late-boarding passengers. The language barrier doesn't help, either, as I hear a mix of Spanish, English, and German among those lingering in the aisles.

I wonder why so many people are traveling to such a far-off, exotic land. Guatemala...even the name is exotic. Centrally located between Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Belize, it is a small country roughly the size of Tennessee, at the geographic center of the North and South American continents. Guatemala is known for its rich local culture, numerous volcanoes, and colonial cities from generations ago, and contains some of the world's most virgin jungles and breathtaking mountain lakes.

I know why I am there, sitting next to yacht broker Joe Johnson in this emergency exit row. Boat designer Jay Benford is also on the plane, seated by a window a few aisles ahead of us.

We three are headed to Mayan territory-an exotic land that brings to mind colorful local art, guerrilla fighters, and intense tropical scenery. Not exactly the place where one expects to see boat building.

But boat building is what we've come to see.

The aging aircraft gains altitude as it follows the chain of islands that make up the Florida Keys. I know the plane is vintage because the emergency card in the seat pocket in front of me shows a man and woman demonstrating the procedures who are clearly from another time: he has long sideburns, and her hair is a frightful, poofy thing I haven't seen for years. Their dress is also, well, let's just say it is from the era when flight attendants were known as "stewardesses."

Ocean Reef passes to the left as I gaze out the window. A short time later, the captain reports from the flight deck that we're soon to be passing over Cuba. Imagine that! I never realized that Americans fly routinely over airspace allegedly belonging to the "Bearded One."

As I contemplate this unexpected twist, Joe Johnson begins telling me about the man I'll meet once we arrive in the country. Aquiles Faillace is a very successful businessman, a trained engineer whose family has built a diverse business empire in Guatemala.

Aquiles (pronounced "Achilles") owns and operates, among other ventures, the steel boat yard started by his grandfather, located some 45 minutes outside of Guatemala City. The yard has a substantial background building ferry boats, commercial fishing boats, even a fleet of truck trailers for transporting sugar cane.

As Joe tells it, Aquiles fell in love with Jay Benford's Florida Bay Coaster, a salty minifreighter designed as the ultimate gunkholing liveaboard. Several were built in steel over the years, and they continue to cruise comfortably. A project well within the capability of his commercial boatyard, Aquiles decided to build himself a Coaster.

However, as so often happens with these personal projects, especially when driven by an accomplished, savvy businessman alert for new opportunities, the project grew in scope. It now represents another business effort of the Faillace corporate group, albeit a personal one: To build steel Coasters to the Benford design, as well as other capable motorboats for sale to the trawler market, particularly in the U.S.

Joe Johnson explained Aquiles represents the new businessmen of Guatemala, trying hard to move beyond the country's years of civil unrest in a nation that now enjoys, among those countries in the Caribbean Basin, a GNP second only to Mexico.

He continued to hit me with such information as the pilot prepared to land us, somewhere under all those thick, dark clouds.

Guatemala City

The Boeing 727 came in hot through the cloud cover, which Joe said was necessary as Guatemala City is located among 11 volcanoes, on a plateau situated at high elevation. A traditional descent in a slow, long glide path is just not an option coming in through these peaks.

The remains of Hurricane Keith provided a magnificent cloudscape in the late afternoon sun, as we corkscrewed down, finally breaking through to find a wide, green terrain coming up fast.

We bumped and ground our way down the runway to the terminal, where we effortlessly passed through immigration, collected our bags, and headed out through a crowd of beggars all set to work the arriving crowd. Aquiles' men were there to meet us and soon ushered us by minivan to the Hotel Stofella in downtown Guatemala City.

After checking in to this locally owned and quaint hotel, Joe Johnson and I scouted the nearby area for dinner. We had received a stern warning from the hotel manager to stay close by, and to stay together. An unfortunate aspect of change and growth in Central America is that local crime remains ever-present, as the economic abyss between the haves and the have-nots is as wide as ever. Armed hotel guards, armed policemen, and armed security are everywhere, not something one is used to in the U.S. It does give one pause.

We found a sidewalk table at a club around the corner, and the European influence of the area was striking. We were obviously too early for serious dining, as the locals prefer a more continental schedule. But we ordered some hors d'oeuvres and enjoyed the local beer, Gallo (pronounced "Guy-oh"). Then we watched the growing crowd of young, upwardly mobile men and women join our ranks, arms flailing in discussion and laughter, wine glasses sharing table space with handheld computers and digital phones.

To add a little reality, a young beggar came by, no more than 12 years old, and hit each of the outdoor tables, a reminder of the harsh polar reality of Central America.

Further display of the recent civil unrest came later that night as I woke to the sound of gunfire, followed by laughter among friends, apparently also enjoying their Gallo.

On To The Coasters!

Jay Benford, Joe Johnson, and I met early the next morning assembling in the lobby for the start of our trek to see two just-launched Florida Bay Coasters. The trip would require a helicopter ride from Guatemala City east to the Gulf of Honduras in the Caribbean Sea, to the deepwater port of Puerto Barrios.

Aquiles' men arrived to transport us to the airport, where we were introduced to his helicopter pilot, a retired Guatemalan Air Force officer commanding great respect from all we met during the next few days.

I learned the helicopter is the vehicle of choice to reach across a land of mountains, forests, and an undeveloped infrastructure. This Bell Jet Ranger was just big enough for the four of us and our luggage, and as we strapped ourselves in the pilot started the mechanical, noisy beast.

I could verify on his instruments that our altitude on the ground at Guatemala City was already a mile above sea level. Once we lifted off we would head east, down across the mountains and rich valleys to reach Puerto Barrios, a deepwater port on the Bay of Amatique in the Caribbean Sea. That was where the two Florida Bay Coasters now were. On e was a completed 42-footer, the other a 60-foot Coaster still under construction.

At 200 feet above the ground, we crossed the sweeping streets of Guatemala City, a huge metropolis of several million people and thousands of buildings, sprawling outward for miles from the colonial heart of the city.

Row after row of buildings and warehouses soon dropped behind us, as we now flew over dense forest-hills so thick with vegetation that no road or house could possibly take root. (The name Guatemala comes from a Mayan word for "Land of the Trees.")

The swirling beat of the copter's blades shook furiously as we moved through patches of colder air, the variation in air density causing a great shudder inside the airframe. Looking out the thin plexiglass window, I watched as we rode among the clouds at high altitude, even though we remained only several hundred feet above the mountainous terrain below.

I noted our airspeed at 94 knots on the GPS, and recorded that the altitude of both our helicopter and the terrain below dropped a thousand feet or so every 20 minutes. And the terrain changed considerably as we journeyed eastward, thick-forested mountains and hills dipping up and down, an occasional hamlet or road cutting a path through the open landscape.

These highlands gradually gave way to sweeping valleys, and the pilot eventually picked up the mud-reddened Montagua River, over which we continued our journey at an altitude of now just 3,000 feet. Joe Johnson pointed out the two-lane road that runs parallel to the river and told Jay and I that Aquiles must truck each boat down this road to reach the sea at Puerto Barrios. It is the downside of building boats at 5,200 feet above sea level. (Come to think of it, this must be some kind of world record, building boats at the same altitude as Denver, Colorado.)

We soon crossed fields of tobacco, watermelon, and lemon. Our altitude steadily dropped as we flew over the southern shore of Lake Izabel and a shoreline dotted with thatched-roof buildings and homes. The lake is 30 miles long and surrounded by tropical growth. It is the largest lake in the country, and its fresh water connects to the sea via the Rio Dulce, a winding river running through high gorges carved over endless centuries.

At the narrow eastern entrance of the lake is Castillo de San Felipe, a classic Spanish fort whose occupants fought regularly with British pirates. We flew circles around this landmark, markedly conspicuous among the surrounding wilderness. Now fully restored, the fort is a stark reminder of the notorious history of this land.

The famed Rio Dulce was next under us, a gorgeous river connecting Lake Izabel to the Caribbean Sea at the town of Livingston. It is no surprise that the Rio Dulce is a popular cruising ground for sailors and trawlermen alike, and we flew over dozens of cruisers living the good life, in marinas along the shore or at anchor nearby.

The pilot brought the chopper down below the steep walls lining the river, and we skimmed the river as we flew over Mayan fishermen in long, skinny boats. These brightly colored boats are modern interpretations of the dugout canoe, but many are now powered by outboard.

Mile after mile our remarkable ride continued, until around one sweeping bend of the river we passed directly over the Florida Bay Coasters, heading upriver to greet us among the gorges of the Rio Dulce. It was quite a sight from the air, and after we circled the boats a few times, the pilot took us a few miles farther to land at the town of Livingston, at the edge of the Caribbean Sea.

It's Coaster Time

Aquiles Faillace greeted us in Livingston as Jay Benford, Joe Johnson, and I extricated ourselves from the Jet Ranger, and we were quickly transferred to a waiting launch for the short ride back to the Coasters.

The owners of the 42-foot Coaster planned to leave for Florida immediately after our visit. They were onboard, provisioned, and ready to go. The 60-foot Coaster would stay in Puerto Barrios until its interior was completed. Then it, too, would come to the U.S. for inspection.

As we headed upriver Aquiles told us Livingston is the only black community in Guatemala, a result of the British colonial effort. When the British left, it is told, the people were given the choice to stay, which they did. They went on to create their own special community, complete with their own version of Catholicism and language. Livingston is a quiet town, a perfect place to relax, as the only access to it is by boat...or helicopter, in our case.

As we sped up the Rio Dulce, Aquiles, who has traveled the world and speaks five languages, remarked that north of the river was once the domain of the British Empire, and the southern part of his country was occupied by the Spanish. His lips drew tight as he commented that the British came to stay, building roads, buildings, bridges-while the Spanish came to Guatemala to loot, plunder, and destroy. The history of Central America includes a bitter and sometimes bloody phase of exploitation by Europeans.

We boarded the 60-foot Coaster and enjoyed breakfast on the upper deck of the trawler, while our host told of the rich history of the Guatemalan and Mayan culture. The backdrop of miles of tropical splendor filled the soul as the Coaster continued past the steep cliffs bordering our passage on the Rio Dulce.

Once far from Livingston, we passed Mayan huts on the the riverbank, the Mayan people leading a simple existence of fishing and...just living. No outboards, just simple paddles and dugout. Time stands still for these people.

The sun danced on the cliffs as we viewed them from the water, sometimes exploding with bright white contrast to the rich green vegetation clinging to the steep sides of the river.

We later reboarded the small boat for some further exploration at high speed. As we got close to the developed and populated areas near the El Relleno Bridge, I learned the Rio Dulce is a favorite vacation getaway for Guatemalans from the city. Seems they all have large, fast motoryachts docked behind their weekend homes, and the riverbank started looking more like Fort Lauderdale to me than Fort Lauderdale...and cleaner.

"They like them big, white, and fast," Aquiles said with a smile as we passed the weekend residences, gliding by dozens of white express yachts tied behind impressive shoreside homes.

The fresh water of the river is home for alligators and snakes, but it seemed more inviting somehow than Floridian waters, which have those critters but lack the South Pacific feel of thatched-roof gazebos and boat houses, all tended to perfection.

The day trip up the Rio Dulce offered a unique view of Guatemala's cultural diversity, contrasting the simple existence of the Mayans and their canoes with the polished white speedboats and modern sophistication of people from the city.

One Unique 42-Footer

I later spent some time aboard the 42-foot Florida Bay Coaster. Jay Benford's design is a funky, rugged, three-stateroom boat that offers incredible living accommodations in a boat only 42 feet long.

The purpose of the series, according to Joe Johnson, American representative of Florida Bay Boat Works, is to create a rugged, shoal draft, liveaboard coastal cruiser.

"Most people interested in these boats," Joe said, "want to spend lots of time on the boat and the water. They think of it more as a movable home and a great way to explore rivers and protected waterways."

The design shape includes a flat bottom in the center of the hull to give a stable, almost bargelike motion. This shape gives great initial stability, and the boat lifts in moderate beam seas rather than rolling.

The hull form is beachable and, since it is constructed in steel, makes for safe running in rivers and marshes where junk and other debris may come in contact with the hull.

(Joe Johnson tells of another steel boat he sold a couple who ran it up the Mississippi River at flood tide to get it home on the Arkansas River. The couple saw tops of houses, even abandoned cars, come downriver, as well as all kinds of flotsam they tried to avoid but could not always do so. But they never worried about their steel hull.)

Steel or not, beachable or not, there is no doubt whatsoever the Florida Bay Coaster stands out, with a profile reminiscent of straw hats and African Queen adventure.

Aboard The 42-Footer

Normal entry is via port and starboard gates onto the aft deck, the sole of which is 14 inches above the water. This makes for perfect access from a dinghy or floating dock but is less convenient from a taller pier. There are also side gates on the upper boat deck, but they are quite a bit higher.

The aft cockpit is more than eight feet long and fully covered by the overhead boat deck. Headroom is a minimum of 6' 8", but closer to seven feet in most places. Bulwarks are 42 inches high on the aft cockpit for protection, and a 34-inch-wide transom door lowers to form a swim platform.

A fixed vertical ladder goes up to the boat deck and its own covered lounge area.

There are no side decks on the Coaster from the aft cockpit forward, but there are side decks on the upper deck. These upper side decks are more than 28 inches wide, and one can walk to the foredeck or aft deck at this level, which is also entirely covered.

And there's more. Stairs built into the starboard side of the upper house lead from the upper deck up to yet another deck level-a third deck-which is the real boat deck. It might be considered a roof in anything other than a boat, and is where the dinghy is stored, antennas are located, and where one finds the dry stack for the exhausts.

The boat is a real triple-decker.

On the foredeck, I measured 10 feet from the front of the pilothouse windows to the bow, which is 9' 6" from the water. The water seems a long way off from the bow, so the anchor is fitted close to the water. The traditional bow roller arrangement would wreak havoc on the anchoring scope calculation!


Open the 30-inch-wide saloon door on the aft cockpit and the first thing one notices is Honduran mahogany, with tongue-and-groove overhead of lighter Central American hardwood. Initial impression is that of an old-world yacht or gentlemen's study. The dark feel is only momentary, as one's eyes adjust to the light, and light-colored carpeting helps to brighten the otherwise dark treatment.

The saloon measures 8 feet long by 15 feet wide, as there are no side decks at this level to rob from the interior. Headroom is at least 6' 6" in the boat.

To port is an L-shaped settee, and rich built-in cabinets on the saloon's aft bulkhead provide storage for an entertainment center, books, artwork, and all kinds of liveaboard essentials- such as the Director's Cut video of the classic film of 2000, The Chad That Ate Palm Beach.

On the saloon's starboard side is a fixed dining table with free-standing chairs. Forward of the table is a locker that houses a stacked washer and dryer.

Four opening windows (all windows and ports on the Florida Bay Coaster are either Diamond SeaGlaze or Freeman) bring light into the saloon, but it remains a bit darker than most contemporary interior treatments, even all-teak interiors of years past.

"I'll have my Scotch neat, thank you," your gentleman friend requests, as he sits back in his swim trunks and robe...and ascot.

The galley is U-shaped and includes a large single sink, domestic electric stove and oven, microwave, dishwasher, and full-sized refrigerator and freezer.

(Designer Benford has long been an advocate of liveaboard cruising boats that make no pretense at offshore voyaging. His boats typically trade seaworthy, knockdown-ready interiors for full-sized domestic appliances and systems. Considering the liveaboard, gunkholing intent of the Coaster design, I believe his philosophy fits this boat just fine.)

Forward Accommodations

There is a complete head just forward of the galley on the port side, and it includes an enclosed, tiled stall shower, toilet, and vanity. The granite vanity countertop is a nice touch.

Opposite the head is a guest cabin and the door down to the engine room.

This guest cabin is small by any standards, but offers two 6-foot-long by 26-inch-wide bunks. The cabin should be fine for weekend guests, but that's it.

The forward stateroom is in the forepeak, but with the Florida Bay Coaster emphasis on maximum accommodations, the cabin is large and spacious. Four opening, 10-inch ports and a large overhead hatch bring in light and ventilation.

The queen-sized island bed (using a domestic queen mattress) allows walkaround on both sides. The lower portion of the platform has wide drawers for clothes storage.

I counted no fewer than 20 drawers and cabinets in this stateroom, and living aboard here will never approach camping. Even the 30- inch-wide hanging locker is full height.

Some nits: Cabinet doors throughout the Coaster are held closed by magnetic or spring clips, as one finds at home. But this is a boat, and boats move. If the Coaster were to roll deeply, for any reason, there would be all hell to pay. Doors and lockers would open by simple gravity, or the weight of the locker contents.

Engine Room

Located just forward of the galley but on the starboard side, a large door opens to spiral stairs down into the engine room space. At the bottom of the steps, one can stand up, then sit down on the last step to work. This space serves as the main electrical control area, with panels for the ship's 12VDC and 120VAC service. Headroom is 52 inches.

Forward of this space is the boat's utility room, with pumps, workbench and seat, tool storage, parts locker, and plenty of room for heaters, filters, inspections ports, and waster and water valves and plumbing.

This is a great feature on a 42-foot boat, and if only there were a few more inches of headroom I'd be ecstatic. The flat bottom is quite evident here, and useful given the headroom. If I could trade an inch or two of saloon headroom, I'd spend hours putzing in this work room.

Back at the bottom of the stairs, one finds a large dogged door into the engine space.

Power for the boat is supplied by a pair of Deere PowerTech 4045 diesel engines. The fourcylinder engines are rated at 85 horsepower each, connected to ZF Hurth marine gears.

A 20 kW Mack Boring diesel generator (a Stamford NewAge unit driven by a Yanmar fourcylinder diesel) sits between the Deere main engines.

There is 45/46 inches of headroom in the engine space. It is open enough for good access around the systems, but one is required to crabwalk around the space-fine for checking filters and fluids.

Pilothouse...And More

Directly across from the galley are steps up to the pilothouse. The wheelhouse on the Florida Bay Coaster is-no surprise here-the central location of the boat, totally in keeping with the tuggish look of the boat. (Speaking of tugs, Joe tells me commercial guys love the Coasters, and the VHF radio is never silent when work boats pass by.)

The pilothouse is 10 feet wide, and the center helm location gives storage and work space on both sides of the wheel. Paper chart storage is found in drawers under the six-foot settee behind the helm.

here are two opening mahogany doors out to the side decks, which, if you recall, are on the upper deck.

I suggest the top of the stairs up from the galley would benefit from a railing of some sort to keep crew from accidentally falling down into them.

Also, visibility is good forward and to the sides, but not so good to the stern.

Why? Well, aft of the pilothouse is the master stateroom!

Room With A View

Directly above the saloon is the master stateroom, aft of the pilothouse and on the same level.

The cabin is large- almost 10 feet wide by nine feet long-and features a standard queen island bed with storage on one side and at the foot.

Three opening windows provide great ventilation and visibility from the master cabin, and a large, 30-inch-wide door opens onto the covered, upper aft deck. What a marvelous place to spend the waking hours, with a cup of coffee and either the morning paper or fresh biscuits...or both.

The master stateroom has its own head, complete with separate tiled shower. It is located just behind the pilothouse settee so is convenient from the helm as well.

Overall, quite a layout for a 42-foot cruising boat. Joe Johnson mentioned that a completed 42-footer can be built and equipped for liveaboard gunkholing for less than US$500,000. This first 42 Coaster, Mary E, is a custom boat built for its American owners, who will bring her up to the Great Lakes and cruise out of their home in Michigan.

On To The Yard

Rio Dulce exploration completed, we returned to Guatemala City the next day.

We got a chance to tour the yard where Aquiles builds the Coasters. There we also saw an almost-complete 39-foot Benford tug, a really cool boat that should be quite a looker when she's done.

A 52-foot, Chuck Neville-designed steel passagemaker was also coming together and had just been painted. Neither boat had received much interior work, so it was hard to visualize how they would be laid out. But both looked great, despite the fact that we were seeing these bluewater boats being built at 5,200 feet in the mountains.

The 39-foot tug and 52-foot passagemaker are intended for offshore voyagi ng, Alaskan travel, and the type of serious cruising to which many aspire. They are the other side of the coin, and I can't wait to see them. The Coaster may be the ticket for those with inshore dreams, but those of us looking to the distant horizon lust for voyagers capable of handling the big stuff.

Both boats should fit that bill.

An Eye To The Future...From The Past

Aquiles Faillace plans great things for his Florida Bay Boat Works. He has the talent and resources to build proper steel cruising boats for customers around the world.

During our visit in Guatemala, he showed us other products from his companies.

I especially fell in love with the carved hardwood doors he creates for sale in Europe. Such woodworking and carving skills come from talent evolved from generations of Guatemalans. This woodworking could add a special touch on each of his boats, at least in trim if not the full Mayan warrior treatment.

Another company produces hand-painted tiles, as beautiful as they are practical. Perhaps a good touch in galley and head.

I think both should be signature trademarks on all boats coming out of Florida Bay Boat Works.

A Bright Future

It is clear that Guatemala is more than an exotic Central American experience. Its people are working hard to develop the country's resources.

Aquiles Faillace is one of the movers and shakers of this new energy. Boat building is just one venture in his total corporate program, but it does show how much can be accomplished with purpose and vision.

If you're considering a steel cruising boat, and are intrigued by the exotic, but financially energetic economy of Guatemala, perhaps you ought to consider deal-ing with a boatyard with lofty ideas.

After all, when you're already a mile high, the sky's the limit!