“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

The Three Passages: Part 2 – Luperon to Samana in the Dominican Republic

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Continuing on our sail along the Thorny Path to the Caribbean Islands we went from Luperon to Samana in the Dominican Republic. For this passage we were traveling along the north east coast of the Dominican Republic. We were traveling in a general southeast direction which means we are going head on into the trades and equatorial currents.  That makes sailing difficult or near impossible at times. So we prepared for what we expected to be a motorsailing passage of around 130 nautical miles.

We also were hoping for a weather window that would allow us to just keep going right to Puerto Rico. This is not unheard of and often cruisers will get lucky and be able to keep going rather than turn into Samana Bay. That would make a motorsailing passage of 250 nautical miles. Being the small boat in the group this posed a small problem. A passage of 250 nautical miles at an average of 5 knots is a 50 hour passage.  We burn between 0.5 to 0.9 gallons an hour depending on how hard we push the motor; typically its around 0.6 gallons an hour at a comfortable cruising speed. That would mean we would use between 25 and 45 gallons of diesel for this passage (30 gallons based on our average). Our boat holds 26 gallons in her fuel tank.  We typically have one 5-gallon gerry can on deck of additional diesel. But you typically don’t want your tank to drop below 1/4 full because then you can suck up sediment, debris or biological growth from the tank and clog your fuel filters. So that meant we wanted to have 40-50 gallons of diesel on board to do this passage.  The larger boats we have been traveling with have much larger fuel tanks and a passage of this length is within their fuel tanks capacity. So to prepare for this passage we drained the gasoline from our two 5-gallon gerry cans we typically use for reserve fuel for the dinghy and the Honda generator. We let those sit open for a few days to volatilize off most of the residual gasoline. We also borrowed another 5-gallon can from Sea Frog.  We had Handy Andy fill up our tank and all the gerry cans. That gave us around 46 gallons of diesel (I say around because you can actually fit about 5.8 gallons in our two tall cans). So if the motor sailing went well, we would have plenty of fuel. If we had to fight high seas and strong currents we might be pulling in Puerto Rico on fumes. But we are a sailboat after all so it’s not like we would be without a means of propulsion. We would just have to watch our fuel usage and maybe sail some sections if we got too low on fuel.

This passage is made more difficult than it needs to be by the bureaucracy of the Dominican Republic. In most countries you check into the country once, typically purchase a cruising permit, and then are allowed to sail from harbor to harbor during your stay.  Sometimes you need to check out of the country before leaving. With the Dominican Republic you need to check out before leaving each harbor and then check into the next harbor. Often there is a fee for each check out and check in. The legitimacy of these fees is another matter and not to mention the “gifts” often requested.

To make matters more complicated you can only check out and in during certain hours. For instance, if you were to try and follow Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward Bruce Van Sant recommends you leave Luperon in the evening, around 10 PM. This lets you take advantage of the night lees that come about from the land breeze over powering the reduced trades that are often seen at night. The advantage of this is that you can sail relatively close to the coast with reduced seas and winds that will either help you on your journey or be a non-factor. However the Luperon Commandant will only allow check outs up to 6 PM.  You must clear the harbor by around 6 PM and radio in to him to confirm that you have left. Cruisers that have attempted to check out during the afternoon but not leave until 9-10 PM have reported being chased down by the local port authorities and made to turn around.

Another part of the bureaucracy is that if you request your Despacho, the name for the paper they give you when you check out, and give the Commandant a destination of Puerto Rico but then decide to stop due to weather, mechanical problems, or what ever, you will need to pay all of the check in fees again. But if you give the Commandant a destination of another port in the Dominican Republic and you stop at any port between where you requested the Despacho and the destination you gave the Commandant then you only have to pay the local port fees.  But what happens if you continue on to the Puerto Rico if you have a good weather window? Well as it turns out, the US Customs authorities don’t care about the Despacho. So the only risk you have is that if you return the Dominican Republic they may catch you for not checking out appropriately. But while there are computer records of the processing paperwork, it appears unlikely that there is a centralized system to comparing these records. So it seemed like a minor risk to us.  We even discussed this with the Commandant and he recommended we get our Despacho for Samana or a port further southeast.

So considering all these factors, Sea Frog, Party of Five and Smitty decided to get our Despacho from Luperon with a destination of Samana. After hearing of our plans two other vessels, Sea Squirrel and Last Tango, decided to head out as well. This meant heading out into the highest winds and seas of the day and hoping we could make some good progress until the night lees kicked in.

We cleared the harbor, radioed the Commandant and headed out into the Atlantic to begin our passage.  As soon as we headed east out of the protection of the harbor we were met with 20-25 knot winds and 4 to 6 foot seas on the nose. The wind was so dead on the nose that raising the mainsail would do nothing but flog.  This meant slow going.  Smitty can typically maintain around 3.5 to 4.5 knots in these conditions.  Sea Frog has the hardest time maintaining speed under these conditions and was making around 2.5 to 3.5 knots. So Smitty and Party of Five backed down our throttles to keep our group together. Sea Squirrel continued on at around 4.5 to 5.5 knots and Last Tango actually departed Luperon about 30 minutes behind the rest and were keeping a decent pace with the overall group.

As night approached we were all in radio range with most boats in visual contact with each other. We eagerly anticipated the onset of the night lee. It never really came. As we approach Puerto Plata around 10-11 PM the winds and seas were still much higher than we anticipated and progress was slow. Following recommendations from Bruce Van Sant, we tried going closer to shore. The theory is that since the trades were higher than expected we would need to get closer to shore to see the night lee affect. Bruce recommends sailing in 80 to 120 foot deep water to best see the night lee while avoiding the flotsam that accumulates a little further offshore. We found that if we got much closer we could see some improvements in the conditions. This meant operating at night in 40 feet of water. For us this is a little shallow for comfort when operating at night in unfamiliar waters.  We prefer our night passages to be in hundreds, if not thousands, of feet of water. But the conditions were better so we continued on closer to shore.

We were making slightly better speed, around 4 knots.  We were monitoring the other boats in our armada and unknown boats by radar. Sea Frog, Party of Five, Sea Squirrel and Last Tango also have AIS. The chart plotters were watch diligently as we were close to areas with reefs and rocks that could force us further from shore to avoid running aground. Everything was beginning to proceed as planned with this passage until Party of Five almost hit a fishing boat. This is not the US and many of the small fishing boats don’t follow lighting regulations. These small fishing boats are also too small to give a radar signal in these conditions. If it were flat calm we might have been able to see them on radar but not in 3 to 5 foot seas. They just blend in with the nose of the waves and spray. So while we were all using the technology available to us, we still had one of the boats in our group come within 20 feet of another vessel that they didn’t know was there until they were passing it. Scary stuff!  Enough so that Smitty went back to the 100 foot deep waters to reduce the chances of a similar incident or worse.

We continued to proceed down the coast of the Dominican Republic.  By around 1AM it became clear to all of us that the window we thought we had for crossing all the way to Puerto Rico wasn’t there.  The forecasts were slightly off and the conditions were making our passage too slow to reliably go for the full trip. So we set our sights on Samana. Around 4 AM we started looking at our progress and it appeared we would round Cabo Frances around 6-7 AM and that we would be traveling towards Cabo Samana when the mid day to afternoon trades would be starting to kick up.  In Bruce Van Sant’s words this was suicide.

Instead of trying to continue on to Samana, we decided to anchor at Rio San Juan to wait for the next night’s lee to round Cabo Frances and Cabo Samana. The anchorage at Rio San Juan was behind a reef that was poorly charted. So we slowed our speed to ensure we would enter the cut in the reef after sunrise so we could see the reef if possible. Smitty lead the way to scope out the anchorage for the deeper draft vessels. Normally we leave this duty to Party of Five because they are a catamaran with the shallowest draft of all of us but we decided to give them a break on this anchorage. We used Bruce Van Sant’s waypoints and descriptions to enter the anchorage. While we couldn’t see the actual reef, there were some indications of its locations on the surface of the water. We made our way in and set the hook in 15 feet.  Securely anchored it was time for a nap.

Around 2 PM my nap was disturbed by the local Commandant. Lacking any boats of his own at this port, he used a local fisherman to bring him out to talk to the boats anchored in his harbor. He checked our paperwork and was very courteous and professional. When he was done, he did ask for a gift for the fisherman. The navy does not provide the Commandant with a boat but they expect him to perform this duty. They also don’t give him a stipend to pay the local fisherman to give him a lift out to the boats anchored in his harbor. So the fisherman give him rides out of their sense of obligation to their country. So a small gift for these fisherman is not out of line. We gave them some cans of cold Coke and some cookies.

That afternoon we had a weather discussion based on VHF radio. Our access to weather data was significantly reduced since there were no open wifi networks within range of Party of Five’s wifi antenna.  We used sources like SSB transmissions, InReach weather texts and texts from other cruisers over the InReach to get the weather. Based on what we were getting for weather reports it looked like it would be similar to the previous night. We decided we would head out just after sunset before we lost light to work our way out of the cut. 

One good difference for the second night’s passage was that the wind would be slightly off the bow making motor sailing more of an option. So once we cleared the reef, we hoisted the mainsail with the first reef in. We rounded the lee of Cabo Frances and the conditions were similar to the previous evening. We continue on, staying relatively close to land in the 80-120 feet of water area.  Once we fully rounded the cape and started heading south, the conditions improved greatly.  It was still more wind and seas then the forecast said but it was much more comfortable. We were able to let the autopilot steer and just make up some time and distance. 

For much of the passage from Cabo Frances to Cabo Samana, Smitty lead the pack. We had taken a more favorable angle that let us motorsail at around 6 to 6.5 knots while the engine was only running at 1,700 RPMs (below our cruising range of 2,200 to 2,600 RPMs).  As we approached dawn, Sea Squirrel passed us and kept going around the Cabo Samana.  We further backed off our throttle to keep the rest of the group close and within sight. We even deployed a fishing line, not that we had any bites.

We were docked at a first class resort marina by noon.  Passage two of three over with and it was time to soak in one of the infinity pools and look for our weather window for crossing the Mona Passage.

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