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Costa Rica--Keeping the fleet's electronics on the bite

For many sport fishermen who target marlin, sailfish and other pelagics, the sea off Costa Rica’s west coast is the holy grail. Fishing magazines and websites routinely run great stories about the boats and enthusiasts who spend large chunks of time chasing the prize. The story Lenny Rudow put together for Marine Electronics Journal takes a different tack. An avid angler himself, Lenny came at the topic from the perspective of the technicians that keep the electronics aboard the Vikings and other offshore fishing machines working at peak performance. Our thanks to Scott Kerrigan and Andrew Lafferty for supplying some of the photos.

By Lenny Rudow

A mere 30 years ago, Costa Rica wasn’t even on the radar of most American anglers. Sure, people who had fished Central America knew the coast held plenty of opportunity. But a lack of infrastructure, modern amenities, and modern charter fleets meant that few people were exposed to just how incredible the winter season could be along the central and southern Pacific coast of this nation. The country sports coastlines along both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean.

Still, word got out. A few mothership operations (including the famed Madam and Hooker, probed these waters, small charter outfits survived in ports like Quepos and Golfito, and as banana exports were affected by blight, tourism and sport fishing became important forms of income. 
The real breakthrough came in 1991, when Californian William Royster purchased a cattle ranch that he would develop into Los Suenos Resort and Marina, in Herradura. The marina opened in 2001 with 200 slips for sportfishing boats and yachts up to 180 feet, as well as dry storage for another 100-plus boats up to 35 feet. At about the same time that the first phase of construction of Los Suenos was completed, hotels began springing up some 45 miles to the north in Quepos and construction began on Marina Pez Vela. Today a third megamarine facility, Golfito Marina Village, is open for business. 
All of these ports share one thing in common: they have the infrastructure and the amenities to cater to the demands of American yacht owners. Add to that the fact that the government is stable and the locals are friendly, and it’s no wonder that ever since Los Suenos opened, American sport fishing boats began heading south during the winter months.

Better all the time

Costa Rica seems a long way off, but shipping a 50-footer there from south Florida only takes about a week and costs less than $30,000. In the grand scheme of things, if you own a 50-footer in the first place this probably isn’t going to be a crippling expense. But sportfishermen this far from home have to plan for a number of contingencies, not the least of which is making sure their marine electronics are in prime condition. And if something breaks while your boat’s in Costa Rica, what’s next?

 "Today it’s not a problem,” says Captain Josh Ruskey, captain of the 50 foot Viking Live Wire, who’s spent many winter seasons in Costa Rica. "In the first years we were going down there it was different. I remember having to pull a Northstar 6000 out of the helm, put it in a carry-on bag, and fly it home to get it fixed when the screen blanked out. But now there are several companies working down there. Honestly, running a boat in places like Los Suenos or Quepos, it’s become just like being in Palm Beach.” 

Captain Joe Riley, who started going to Costa Rica in the early 90s, agrees. "The Costa Ricans were always ingenious about fixing things,” he says, "but when something broke you used to have to go to San Jose [the nation’s capital, a three-hour drive from Quepos] to get basic supplies. But a lot has changed since then. Places like Quepos and Los Suenos, they’ve become a mecca for American millionaires—you can get pretty much anything you need.”

Aside from the prospect of needing service, Ruskey says that these days all of the electronics used to support sportfishing, including sea surface temperature services like Hilton’s Realtime Navigator and the satellite imagery on your digital cartography, is no different than it is at home. "Just get a Central American chip and roll with it,” he says. 

He also points out that damage to electronics may actually be less likely to occur in Costa Rica than it is when fishing out of North America. "It’s always calm,” he explains. "Stuff just doesn’t break as much. And a few feet off the rocks you’re in deep water, so running aground isn’t the same problem it is in most other places.”

In fact, Ruskey can only identify one difference he’s had to contend with while fishing in Costa Rican waters as opposed to at home. "Down there everyone speaks in lat/long,” he says. "It may just be an East Coast thing, but at home most of us still talk in TDs. Even though we’re using GPS we still use TDs as reference points for fishing spots. But down there it’s a different story.”

Service on the road

Many of the boats heading to these ports are Vikings, so many in fact that Todd Tally, Sales Manager at Atlantic Marine Electronics, which is owned by Viking Yachts, says by mid-year they had already visited Costa Rica five times to work on a dozen boats between Quepos and Los Suenos.

 "We prioritize the importance of an issue starting with navigation and safety to navigation, so if your cockpit speaker is blown, that’s going to be a much lower priority than an issue with a plotter or an autopilot,” Tally says. "Our goal when planning a trip is to get a list of as many boats as possible that may be in need of service or requiring additions and upgrades, and to combine them into one trip. International travel is not covered under warranty, so when we can line up multiple boats it works out best for everyone. We also have relationships with some local companies that will help us out when they can.”

Not only are there local service abilities and companies willing to send techs to Costa Rica to provide service, there are even distributors now firmly established in the country. Garmin’s Carly Hysell echoes that the sportfishing industry is booming in Central America these days, and says that Garmin, which has locations in over 30 countries, has made it a goal to provide the same level of service to customers there as they expect in the US. "We have certified dealers and installers in Costa Rica,” she says. "We even have an OEM, Maverick Yachts/Sportfishing, right in Los Suenos Marina.”

Navico has two dealers in country, one in Los Suenos for customers on the Pacific Coast and another in San Jose for inland and Caribbean fishermen, according to Latin American Territory Manager Alejandro De Santos. He says their commitment is to offer the same service and sales as "throughout the continent.” 

West Palm Beach, FL-based Marine Electronics Solutions has a Costa Rica location, and International Marine Electronics, owned by NMEA member Kerry Monteleone, is based in Los Suenos. 

Value added

In addition to the usual electronics used stateside, many owners also like to equip their boats with remote monitoring systems before sending their pride and joy so far from home. "This can be via remote video, or systems monitoring,” Tally says. "It gives people the comfort level they want when having their boat out of the country.”

Tally also says that the pre-trip planning phase is just as important as adding any specific equipment. "The biggest challenge when servicing boats overseas is often the level of preparation. Getting parts you need quickly is simply not an option sometimes. The more information you can get in the preparation phase the bigger a help it is, and it’s important for the captain and crew to be thorough prior to the trip.”

Steve Katz, of Steve’s Marine Service in Stevensville, MD, sees the same desire for remote monitoring in owners taking their boats to Costa Rica. "Most of our customers’ boats have tracking and monitoring systems using satellite, GSM or both, to monitor the boat year round,” he says. "The motioning systems have been very popular, allowing a distant owner or crew who is temporarily away to monitor the vessel’s statistics from afar, alerting them instantly if anything is out of the ordinary.”

Katz adds that, like Tally, he believes that making some other pre-trip preparations can be a good move. "We take additional steps for our customers who travel to distant ports,” he says, "such as fully documenting the electronic equipment we work with and even other associated equipment that the customer has on the vessel. That way we can pull up their file and provide remote assistance via phone or Internet if trouble arises. It’s a great idea for a stateside dealer to fully document all of a vessel’s electronics systems [and other systems, for that matter] with photos, videos, drawings, and/or blueprints of all the areas that may be informative if troubleshooting becomes necessary.”

Katz also says that bringing a "crash kit” with extra parts and equipment that can be stored on site is a good idea. "Having multiple units operating on a network is nice,” Katz says, "but in the event of a vessel-wide issue, having a small spare system that’s preconfigured, with your waypoints already loaded, is a great way to prepare for unexpected failures and remain operational until qualified help arrives.”

The bottom line: While there may be exceptions with uncommon gear and electronics manufactured by companies that don’t regularly do business in Costa Rica, when it comes to dealing with modern marine electronics in this country, the words of Captain Ruskey ring true— it’s more or less just like being in Palm Beach. Well, except maybe for the fishing.

Pelagic magic

What is such a huge draw that brings sportfishing yachts all the way down to Costa Rica? It’s all about the billfish. From December through April, blue, black, and striped marlin are all potential catches—with average weights of several hundred pounds and the potential for blues and blacks all the way up into the 800 pound range. Sailfish, meanwhile, are present all winter and are concentrated in such huge numbers that 20 to 30 shots in a single day are not unusual, with February providing the peak opportunities.
Standard bait-and-switch techniques are generally employed for the marlin, and trolling circle hook ballyhoo rigs is standard practice when sailfish are the target. In both cases daisy-chains and dredges are used extensively to draw fish up to the boat. Along with the billfish, yellowfin tuna, mahi-mahi, and wahoo are common catches. And when anglers want a change of pace, the inshore fishery for roosterfish in Costa Rica is second to none.(Sailfish leap photo) Enhancing Costa Rica’s appeal is its calm ocean, which has an average one- to three-foot wave height and is relatively reliable and easy to predict through the peak season.
Mountain ranges shield central and southern Costa Rica from the winter "Christmas Winds,” which roil the waters to the north and south. Plus the runs from popular ports like Los Suenos and Quepos to the fishing grounds are relatively short and rarely take more than an hour, because the Continental Shelf drops off around 20 miles from the coastline. Those with a bolder attitude who are willing to run farther can head 80 or more miles out and visit offshore seamounts (often a multi-day trip), where they can experience some of the hands-down best marlin fishing in the world.

About the author

Lenny Rudow has been a boating writer for more than 20 years. He writes regularly for several marine publications and websites, including Rudow’s FishTalk, BoatUS, Texas Fish & Game, and Lenny owns Marine Editorial Services based in Edgewater, MD, and is immediate past president of Boating Writers International.

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