Sunday, April 7, 2013

Back in the USA (Kind Of)

While the weather wasn't particularly conducive to sailing the direction we wanted to go (it rarely is), we decided we needed to keep moving and departed Ocean World at precisely 6:00pm. We didn't want to depart at precisely 6:00pm, but the Navy Intelligence (Remember the guys who checked us for any illegal cruise missiles?) came down the boat and checked us out of the county, literally untying the boat and pushes us off the dock. Adios! We wanted to leave later when the winds where less, but that's the deal.

Departing Ocean World at 6:00pm wasn't the best of ideas.
The minute we rounded the breakwater we wish we hadn't left. Large waves on the nose plunged the bow underwater and rollers washed down the deck in the 18-knot winds. Not a great way to start a long passage. The winds continued strong all night as we hugged the coast trying to take advantage of the night "lee effect." We could see Field Trip pitching up and down ahead of us and knew it was going to be a long night. To make things worse, Field Trip would radio back to us "Did you see those nets straight ahead" or "Did you see that small fishing boat?" Well, with the dodger covered with spray and with the total darkness we couldn't see a thing. Thank God we had them ahead of us (they have an elevated helm seat with glass windows, windshield wipers, and eyes 30 years younger than ours.

We cleared our first cape, Cabo Macoris, in the dark. This was a long 95-mile leg and we needed to be around the next cape, Cabo Frances Viejo, by 8:00 am before the winds funneled around it and made passage difficult. Trading off watches Meryl and I made it through the night without t-boning any small fishing boats or getting caught in their buoyed nets which were extremely difficult to see in the best of conditions.

As we rounded Cabo Frances Viejo Field Trip and Flying Cloud took photos and videos of each other with the dramatic steep-sided cape basking in the orange morning light.

Our original plan was to stop just short of the cape at Rio San Juan, but we decided to just go for it and get this tough piece of coastline over with. The way things work in the Dominican Republic is you have to check in and out of every port. That's a huge hassle and we didn't want to do it if we didn't have to, so our plan was to just stop when we needed rest and not get off the boat until we were in Puerto Rico.

The Dominican Republic is quite spectacular from the sea with towering mountains covered in a verdant green cloak of tropical vegetation. As we approached Escondido (also know as El Valle on the chart) at 1:30 pm we marveled at the beautiful, secluded little bay. It looked like something you'd see in Tahiti or Bora Bora. There were a number of fisherman's huts on the shore and Field Trip radioed back that the fisherman would like us to anchor down the beach a ways since they were fishing right out in front of their village that day. Fishing was a community effort, a small boat manned by five or six fisherman would put long nets into the water a distance off the shore then circle back to the beach and pull the nets in with, hopefully, their catch.

Keeping a look out in the dim light was not easy.
After the long passage we took a well-deserved nap, had dinner, and then began planning for our next leg to Playa de la Cana in the Bay of Samana. The "Thornless Path" book recommends boats go to the port of Samana, but we'd heard it was a hassle and we'd have to deal with customs and port officials once again. Plus it was about 10 miles out of our way. Mark on Field Trip had found a neat little protected cove on the chart called Les Miches (Playa de la Cana) that was more on a rumb line course for us, so we set that as our destination.

Once again we left at o'dark thirty for the 34-mile leg south by southeast down the coast. We had to round two major capes, Cabo Cabron and Cabo Samana, before a short open water passage to Les Miches. The wind was on our nose so we motor sailed a good portion of the trip. During Meryl's watch, Sarah called to warn us of a diver along our course to starboard. We soon passed a solo diver in waters over 40 feet at least a mile or so off the coast with no flags or boat nearby. He simply waved as we motored by. Maybe a half-mile later we came across a small boat with a person just sitting & looking around. We surmised he was with the diver, but not safely nearby by in any means. This gave additional impetus to keeping a good watch along the DR coastline.

Around noon we arrived in Playa de la Cana, a beautiful curving beach with a point stretching out to the southeast that provided protection from the tradewinds. We didn't realize it at the time but may have anchored right in front of some sort of military base with white walls and barbed wire fences. A boat with some guys in uniform started out to where Field Trip was anchored, but saw the kids playing on the foredeck and turned around. As usual after a long night passage, we took a long needed nap during a strong rain storm, then had a leisurely dinner in the cockpit watching the beautiful scenery as the rain cleared out.

Route across the Mono Passage from Les Miches to Mayaguez.
Once again, up at 4 am for the 120-mile passage across the Mono Passage to Puerto Rico. This is one of those passages that southbound sailors dread. Essentially the entire Atlantic Ocean wants to go through the narrow passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The prevailing winds are easterly, the exact direction we wanted to travel. At the top of the Mono Passage is the feared Hourglass Shoals, a large area of relatively shallow water that causes waves to "stand up" as the cross over. On top of all this is a constant 1-knot current that flows mostly south to north through the passage. There's no easy way to do this one. We'd heard of one sailboat being dismasted when it was hit by a ferry in the middle of the night and the Coast Guard had an alert out for a 58-ft. sailboat with six people that was missing while crossing the Mono Passage (later found OK).

All the expert advice is don't try to cross in any wind more than 20 knots. As we started out early in the morning it looked like we'd have somewhat decent wind 10 - 15 from the northeast. We paralleled the coast as far south as Punta Macao, the last "bail out" port. The sailing was brisk, but controllable.

Abandoned resort complex looks like some sort of modern Mayan ruin.
As the dawn broke across the Atlantic Ocean the shoreline was bathed in a languid orange flow. We passed by what looked like a large university or resort complex that was about ¾ finished, but now standing empty. You see a lot of that down here.

Right before the Hourglass Shoals we hung a left and began the crossing the Mona. The winds increased to about 18 - 20 knots and we reefed the genoa and sheeted the staysail in tight. The most difficult thing was keeping the bow from being slammed down to leeward when the bigger waves hit. Field Trip had left one-half hour earlier but was doing a horizon job o us as the wind angle seemed to favor the big cat. It was basically a day of attrition, trying to hang on as the waves hit the boat and getting some much needed sleep for our upcoming night watches. As night fell we keep an eye on the radar and once called Field Trip when we saw what looked like a huge spaceship on the water straight ahead, only to find it was two large cruise ships, one heading south and one heading north, that were right next to one another. It looked like a brightly lit football field at night in the middle of the Mona Passage. We weren't in a huge hurry as we wanted to arrive in Mayaguez around 6:00 am so we could navigate the harbor entrance in the morning light. Turns out Field Trip arrived around 2:00 am, anchored, and took a long nap.

Field Trip at anchor in Mayaguez while the crew clears US Customs.
Once we arrived and took a short nap, around 8 am I began calling on our costly satphone trying to contact US Customs. None of the numbers I called answered or I got some sort of message in Spanish. After a very frustrating ½ hour I finally called a US Customs number in the States and they gave me a fifth number to try in Mayaguez that finally answered. Since we were enrolled in the Small Vessel Reporting System, we just had to give them our float plan number, answer a few questions, then it was "Welcome back to the US." Field Trip, on the other hand, had to dinghy in with the whole family and go through the Customs / Immigration dance, including taking in a bunch of vegetables and meat they'd purchased in the Dominican Republic to turn in to the Agriculture officials.

We decided to just stay on the boat and veg out. We had hoped to go ashore and get new SIM cards for our phones, but since it was Sunday we didn't think anything would be open. We'd had a continual problem not having working cell phones (with the exception of the satphone) and limited Internet and hoped that was something we could correct in Puerto Rico. We had ordered a new WiFi antenna and amplifier to be shipped to Ponce, but that was still about a week away. The new plan was to try and find SIM cards in Boquerón the next day. We had been traveling at night for almost a week on and off and the erratic sleep schedules where taking their toll on us. It was time to slow down and as Bruce Van Sant recommends in his Passages South guide book, have a SG&T. (Sundowner Gin & Tonic). We just need to follow all of his good advice.

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