When you sail the Thorny Path to the Caribbean Islands there are three passages that really give this trip it’s name. Turks & Caicos to the Dominican Republic, the north east coast of the Dominican Republic from Luperon to Samana and the Mona Passage from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico. These passages are the toughest to sail because you are trying to cover large distances into the trade winds, against the equatorial currents and with relatively large seas stealing your forward momentum.
Like most cruisers that travel this path we often consult Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward by Bruce Van Sant. Bruce is a sailor who has done this trip many times and now lives in the Dominican Republic. He does share some great information but as with all things cruising, everything depends on the weather.
After spending some time in Providenciales, we moved on to Cockburn Harbor in South Caicos to stage for the crossing and await our weather window. As we mentioned in our post on Turks and Caicos, we were now traveling with some new friends on s/v Sea Frog and s/v Party of Five. We were also joined by our friend Fabio on s/v Odoya and s/v Sea Squirrel. Sea Squirrel was buddy boating with s/v Notre Voyage who chose to stage in a slightly more south location. Sea Squirrel and Notre Voyage were looking to make the crossing on the next weather window as well.
The passage is about 110 nautical miles which should take approximately 22 hours traveling at an average of 5 knots. Waiting on weather is one of the things that cruising boats just have to get used to. You want to see a clear window for at least twice as long as you need. Ideally you want a window three times what you need. In this case that would be three days. The first day to let the seas calm down some, the second day to make the passage and the last day as a contingency incase something goes wrong or the window starts to collapse on you. In the US and even the Bahamas, checking weather was relatively easy. You use your phone for cellular data or a wifi network somewhere to get online and check weather. The sources we like to use are Wind Finder, Windyty, Passage Weather, NOAA offshore weather, Weather.com and Weather Underground. In Cockburn Harbor there were no real open WiFi networks and none of us had a cell phone that worked in Turks and Caicos. We did find a store that had WiFi in the store and we could get some internet while we were in the store.
There is also the weather guru: Chris Parker. Chris provides a paid weather routing service with several levels of subscription. He also does a broadcast every morning except Sundays on single side band radio (SSB). SSB is like HAM radio but on boats, its capable of broadcasting over long distances but requires specialized equipment. SSB radios can run as high as $3,000 for a complete system capable of receiving and sending transmissions. Our budget and space didn’t allow for a full system. Instead we opted for an SSB receiver only. It allows us to listen to Chris Parker in the morning and a few other weather broadcasts throughout the day. Sea Frog has a complete SSB system and a subscription to Chris Parker that allows her to ask specific routing questions over the SSB and she gets email updates a few times a day.
Herein lies our dilemma. The day we got into South Caicos was probably the best day to make the crossing. We should have just turned right after crossing the Caicos bank and just kept going to the Dominican Republic. But we hadn’t checked out with Customs from Turks and Caicos. So that wasn’t an option. So we dropped the hook in South Caicos and began the process to clear out. It took over 3 hours just to get the Customs officer to come and see us and then less than 10 minutes per boat to get cleared out. You had to fill out a form and pay a fee. Really it was all about the fee. But we were good to go and could leave on the next weather window.
Unfortunately our window wasn’t there. We had missed the good window. After waiting another day after clearing out, we decided to go for it on a less then ideal. The forecast was for 15-25 knots of wind, more or less on the nose or just off, and seas 4-6 feet with a shorter period. We decided to head out of the harbor at noon and if the conditions were too bad we could always head back to harbor and wait for the next window which was more than a week away. Fabio was under the weather and didn’t join us for this passage.
Notre Voyage and Sea Squirrel also decided to go on this window. Notre Voyage is an older Gemini catamaran and many people question this boat for offshore work. One of the flaws that people point out on this boat is the solid bridge deck between the bows instead of trampolines. This arrangement doesn’t allow the hulls to move as much as needed in heavy seas and can result in a lot of water being taken over the deck. About 5 hours into the passage Notre Voyage put out essentially a mayday call. One of their hulls was half full of water and they didn’t know why. At first Sea Frog, Party of Five and Smitty slowed down. After a new more radio communications Notre Voyage thought they may have to abandon ship. Our three boats turned around and started heading back to them as fast as we could travel. We were about 4-6 miles from them at this point.
We were in some kind of rough conditions. Winds were 18 knots with gusts up to 35 knots when we got near some squalls. Seas were very confused. We had 6-8 foot ocean swell on the port bow and 4-6 foot wind driven waves on the port stern. Sometimes they would meet and combine and you would end up with 8 to 12 foot waves breaking on your boat. We got pooped several times where the wave came right over the side of the boat and into the cockpit. We had the hatch boards in and the waves would just sweep right out the open stern. So no big deal for us.
We reached Notre Voyage and circled around their boat for an hour or two while they figured out what was going on. They don’t have a manual bilge pump on the boat and were waiting for the small electric bilge pump to get the water out. The rest of us advised them to use buckets to help drain the hull as quick as possible. After getting the hull partially drained they found the problem and had the hull mostly drain. The Gemini has sail lockers in the bow of each hull. The drain for the sail locker had gotten plugged with trash or debris and the locker was overflowing into the bilge of the hull. So much water was coming over the bows of the Gemini that it filled the sail lockers with water that then drained into the hull and over whelmed the bilge pump so the hull filled with water. But at first they didn’t know where it was coming from. They thought the hull had separated from the pounding and they were going to have to abandon ship.
Later we found out they were much closer to loosing the boat then any of us knew. A similar Gemini has the same issue last year and when one of the hulls go too full of water it flipped. Thankfully that didn’t happen here.
With the situation under control we started back towards Luperon. We had lost about 3 hours. Plus now we didn’t have the light to cross this shallow bank and get a better angle on the wind. So now we were motorsailing almost dead into the wind and waves.
About 2AM we started hitting squalls. We could see them forming on radar. We tried to avoid them and did for the most part but the cells that were forming were also joining together and making really large squalls. At one point we were about a half mile from Party of Five when a lightening bolt hit in between us.
We ended up making it into Luperon around 2PM. The passage had taken just over 26 hours. We had motor sailed the whole trip and averaged over 5 knots when you remove the time we were helping Notre Voyage and avoiding squalls.