It’s been awhile since we have put anything up on our blog. Between the poor internet, being busy with work and a number of other excuses we could list, it’s been too long since our last post.
We have been busy spending our full-time wages on repairs and upgrades to Smitty. It will probably take several posts to get these caught up to where we are at the present.
The upgrades and repairs in this post are the result of Irma and Maria. We have found that a number of electronics have ended up toast as a result of salt spray or just increased salt in the air. Some, like the controls for our refer, went almost right away while others, like our Rogue solar controller, took months to manifest. But when you pull these items apart you can see salt and corrosion on the circuit boards and sometimes even find the area that shorted out. Our friends on land have had similar issues. If we ever end up going through another hurricane (let’s hope not!) the first thing I will do is wash down anything with a circuit board with fresh water followed by rubbing alcohol.
So lets talk about some repairs we have done. The first thing we lost after the storms was our refrigeration. We had failed to block our vent cowlings on the stern and water poured into them getting salt water all over the refrigeration compressor. The compressor its self was fine but the control module and the circuit board were toast.
Luckily I was able to salvage a control module from another boat. But that boat didn’t have the circuit boar. So I reproduced most of the function of that circuit board using wires and a terminal strip. It worked and we had refrigeration again but it wasn’t as efficient and didn’t have the diagnostic ability of the original.
When our friends Jamie and Keith on s/v Kookaburra arrived in November they brought a spare control module and circuit board with them. Jamie is a former marine refrigeration technician and an invaluable source for help in these maters. They arrived just in time as our refrigeration began acting up again just after they had settled in on their mooring in Elephant Bay.
With the spare parts in hand I began trying to get our refrigeration in proper working order. However after replacing the salvaged module and putting the new circuit board in the refer was still drawing more power then before and not staying as cold as it should. Jamie and I went through the system but couldn’t find the cause. Out came the trusty multi-meter and we started looking for issues. Sure enough we found a massive voltage drop at the compressor. With our batteries reading 12.55 volts (solar disconnected to help with the diagnostics) we were only seeing 12.35 volts at the compressor. Worse yet it would drop to under 10 volts when the compressor would kick on. This was likely trigger a voltage sensor on the compressor that is there to protect our batteries. Keeping with the multi-meter and using some 20 foot lengths of wire we eventually determined the issue was with the ground somewhere between the engine and the battery bank. We used the wire to jump the positive and negative connections to several locations around the boat to find were the voltage drop would be present and absent. For instance the voltage drop was still present when we put the wire in to feed the compressor from the battery selector switch and negative buss bar behind the electric panel but it was gone when we connected the compressor directly to the batteries. By this process of elimination we were able to determine where the voltage drop was occurring. So off I went to clean and check all of my ground connections in that run.
Several years ago I had installed a negative buss bar on the port engine bed to allow Smitty’s grounds to go to a buss bar connected to both the engine and the battery bank thus eliminating the potentially problematic “stacked” connections that come from corrosion that builds up on the block and causes more resistance in the connections. Well as it turns our I missed one connection that was on a different bolt on the block. This one was to ground the refer compressor and several other items. Once I removed this connection, cleaned up the connector with a wire brush and moved it to the negative buss bar everything was working perfect again.
Chalk one up for the multi-meter. And add a spare refrigeration module to the list of necessary spares for us to carry.
Our next area of corrosion issues was our engine instrument pod. Some of our alarm buzzers and gauges started acting funny. There were too many of them in one spot for it to be anything but the instrument pod for the engine. I took that apart and sure enough found some corrosion in the “European style connection strip” that Catalina used in the pod.
I removed the strip, cut back a few inches on the wires to eliminate any corrosion and terminated them with marine adhesive heat shrink ring terminals. I then used two 65 amp terminal strips to make the connections. The system is much more secure and resistant to corrosion.
The starting circuit was separated from the gauges on different terminal strips to allow for better spacing and easier diagnostics in the future.
Then we had a big dollar item succumb to the residual effects of Irmaria. This time it was our Rogue solar controller. This was a $400 piece of hardware that literally is irreplaceable as the company has stopped making these and is no longer in the business of making small solar controllers.
Again more corrosion then we would expect to see on an item only a few years old.
The one good thing that came out of this was that solar controller technology has come a long way since we did our research. After talking to a few cruising friends and doing some research we purchased two Victron BlueSolar MPPT 100/15 controllers (Should have bought the MPPT 75/15 but not a major difference) with the Bluetooth Dongles for programming and monitoring. (Note: Victron now makes the SmartSolar MPPT Controllers with the Bluetooth built in) We opted to go with two smaller controllers instead of the one large controller. Our array is a mix of panels; 500 watts coming from two 100 watt semiflexible panels, two 50 watt semiflexible panels and two 100 watt hard panels (more on these later). My research suggested that separating these onto different controllers would yield better results. Sure enough, these new controllers have about 15% better production than the single Rogue controller. Plus being able to monitor my panels through an app on my phone is really convenient.
The last (hopefully) item we are choking up to Irmaria is our Raritan Macerator Pump with Waste Valve. We purchased this as a Defender First sale item from Active Captain when they used to do weekly emails before the Garmin acquisition. Its more expensive but the idea of a macerator pump designed for a “clean” swap out or fix appealed to me.
Now while I am upset this failed, I am so glad I put this in. It worked exactly like advertised. I changed out to the new pump in 2 minutes with zero mess. I didn’t even have to use paper towels to cleanup the area after. And the pump failed with the holding tank 3/4 full. So this could have been ugly. But thanks to this well engineered pump it wasn’t.
So hopefully that ends the Irmaria related upgrades. We have also made a number of upgrades to the boat that where more geared towards making life on Smitty better. Oh, I lied. We also lost our windex and the directional portion of our Raymarine wind transducer from the mast head. In addition our RAM Mic for our VHF would no longer transmit. So these are some other items that got upgraded that we will discuss later as part of the electronics upgrade we did.
It’s November. And too easy to get caught up in the day to day aspects of earning a living and forget that we spent three hours in the water in just bathing suits. It’s 25 degrees in Boston today as Frank reminded us. We do prefer to live in paradise.
Its 5:30 in the morning, the four sailors and a dog sharing this condo are sitting nervously in the living room. Close at hand are our “ditch bags”, backpacks with bare necessities like a change of clothes, cash, water, protein bars, flashlights, VHF radios and a machete. It has been about 20 minutes since the condo started losing its roof. The first chunk of terra cotta tiles went in one loud crash. Now it sounds like someone is beating on the storm shutters with a sledge hammer. The front door is bowing in from the wind and pressure, you can feel it vibrating, pulsing, but we don’t want to brace anything against the door as it is the only way out if the roof gives.
ZING! There goes another section of roof, the terra cotta tiles sounding like out of tune piano keys being played as they slide against each other.
I heard the tiles smash on something across the street. I reassure myself that my ditch bag is close at hand and I put my dog’s leash on. I think the time to make a run for it may be close.
The wind outside is howling. My ears are popping from the pressure. Pressure that is forcing the water from the toilets. I have been through storms before but nothing like this. The last thing we saw on the news before the power went out was that Palmas Del Mar, Puerto Rico, the very spot where we were, was to get the northeast corner of the eye wall and receive the most destructive forces. Later we would learn that the winds topped 170 knots (about 200 miles per hour). The forecast put the pressure at 908 millibars, making Maria potentially stronger than Irma, the storm that brought us to Puerto Rico to begin this latest adventure.
In 2015, my bride, Summer our dog and myself set off to do something different. We had grown weary of our corporate jobs working in small boxes every day while spending ours commuting in and out of Boston. We had sold the house, the cars and almost everything we owned. We replaced our fancy Ridel wine glasses with tin cups. We had lived on our Catalina 310 for a few years as we payed off debt and saved some money to leave the cold northeast for someplace warmer. That quest for warmth brought us down the US east coast, through the Bahamas and settling in US Virgin Island. We now call a mooring field on the northwest side of Water Island home and work on St. Thomas.
Living in the Caribbean on a boat means you need to have a hurricane plan. Regardless of whether you carry insurance or not, you need a plan. We have insurance so our plan is also part of our insurance. Basically our plan consists of two options. First, RUN! Move the boat out of the path of the storm. Depending on timing and the storm’s path it can sometimes be possible to sail far enough out of the path to a different island or anchorage that won’t get as big of an impact from the storm. Running too late often results in serious loss of both life and boat.
The second option is to HIDE! There are two main places to hide: mangrove swamps and marinas. Both of these options have positives and negatives aspects. If done properly a boat gets pushed against the mangroves, which could result in some cosmetic damage, but the trees would act as a soft cushion to keep the boat from getting significantly damaged. The same can’t be said for hitting a concrete dock or pile. But being at a dock might allow you to get off the boat but while still being able to check and adjust lines during the storm.
Storm surge, wind direction and the changes in both as the storm passes are significant concern in finding a place to hide. However late arrivals, unprepared boaters and derelict vessels are the biggest risk to the able seaman during a storm event. Planning for this factor can be challenging and is usually best handled by hiding in a group of boaters you know will be prepared. For mangroves, go with those you know and treat the location of your hidey-holes like something you want to keep from WikiLeaks.
Some may have noticed that hauling out was not on our list. This option can be very expensive. We received quotes of $5,000 for our 31 foot boat to be on the hurricane haul out plan. Yes, just to be on list for a haul out, additional charges could apply if you actually needed to haul for a storm.
Also, sailboats stacked against each other with the masts up can topple like dominos. At least in the water the boat can heel in response to the wind. There are some places that have pits that a hauled out boat can be placed in and then secured with tie downs and fill around the hull. There are also some yards that have concrete pads with tie down anchors for strapping the boat down. But in this part of the Caribbean I was not comfortable with most of these locations. I felt they were too exposed and too low lying. We had also heard stories of the tie down anchors being old and rusted and being able to be pulled out by hand. The devastation of these storms showed that we made the correct decision in removing this option from our hurricane plan.
Staying on our mooring also wasn’t an option. Elephant Bay is a great place during the prevailing conditions. But even 20 knots of wind from the southwest can make it rolly and bouncy in the mooring field. There is a lot of rock along both sides of the West Gregory Channel and concrete from the commercial port that cause the swell to reverberate making it feel like waves are crashing on your boat from all directions. With the clocking winds from a hurricane the seas and surge in this area would be too much for the mooring or the boat to handle. Following Irma, only three of the over twenty boats that tried to ride out the storm on their moorings were left.
This was our second year living in the Virgin Islands during hurricane season. After lots of fumbling and being over anxious in our first season, experience and friends helped me develop a better weather strategy. Now I have my routine down and reliable sources for storm related information. My two primary resources are Mike’s Weather Page (www.spaghettimodels.com) and Windy (www.windy.com).
Mike’s Weather Page is a great collection of the various resource for hurricanes include links to view the major models. A quick look at the page will show you if there is a potential system worth looking at further. Diving deeper you can view the GFS, EURO and CMC models with a simple click. In addition Mike provides some great insight into what trends he is seeing in the models and how to interpret the information available on his Facebook page.
Windy, formerly WindyTY, is a graphical representation of the GFS and EURO models with some additional factors. On Windy you can look at sustained wind, gusts, precipitation and waves as well as other options. The GFS, EURO and CMC models have large time jumps (6-12 hours) in between each graphical representation, Windy helps fill that gap to get a better idea of the hourly progression of the storm. Based on the times of model updates I had cut my weather watching down to twice a day; once with coffee in the morning and once in the evening during sundowners before dinner.
On Monday, August 21st, I started to become concerned. Both the EURO and GFS models were showing a potentially strong low pressure system developing that could signal a tropical storm or hurricane. The GFS model had this system turning north before impacting the eastern Caribbean. This is the typical pattern that most storms that develop in the eastern Atlantic follow. However the EURO model was showing a high pressure system north of the Caribbean that would push this system further south and west before it turned north. I watched this development over the next couple of days. The potential storm started to become a more frequent subject among cruisers and live-aboards while enjoying the local happy hours or meeting at the dingy dock. But most were not too worried and expected the system to turn north. After all the GFS, the USA’s premiere model and the one used by NOAA, showed the system making the typical turn.
Meanwhile, the EURO continued to show this system making a direct hit on the Virgin Islands and then moving along the northern coast of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. My wife and I had decided to take this storm seriously. On Tuesday, August 29th I began making preparations. I made sure our gasoline gerry cans were full so we had fuel for the generator and dinghy engine. I topped off the diesel in our tank and gerry cans. We made a list of supplies and provisions (missing one critical item that will come up later) and began acquiring the items on our list. Part of our hurricane plan is to always have several months worth of food on the boat. Since we are on a small boat that means most of those provisions are canned or dried food. I ran our watermaker to ensure our tank was filled along with our gerry cans on deck. I also topped off our two propane tanks.
On Saturday, September 2nd we headed for Culebra as part of a two day jump to Puerto Rico’s southeast coast. The winds didn’t cooperate and we were only able to sail part of the way and ended up motoring a large portion of what should have been a downwind trip. But something was off and we were not making a good speed under motor. Part of the issue was the equatorial currents were running in reverse of their typical direction and were against us. The other part was a yet to be realized issue with Smitty. After a nice dinner and some margaritas at Zaco’s Tacos we were off early the next morning to Puerto Rico.
A friend had mentioned we check out the Yacht Club at Palmas Del Mar. It was on the way to Salinas, our original destination. Based on the topography of the area, the mountains of Puerto Rico would be between us and the soon to be named storm Irma. The storm was not forecast to hit Puerto Rico until late afternoon into the evening on Wednesday, September 6th so we figured we could checkout the yacht club and if we didn’t like it we could head to Salinas on Monday with time to prepare the boats for the storm.
On the way to Palmas Del Mar Smitty began experiencing fuel issues. Several times we dipped in RPM but then it would resume running normally, although still slower than we typically motor. At first we had attributed the slow speed to a fouled bottom. But after the dips in RPMs we knew the issue was fuel related. I went below and checked the Racor filter. Sure enough the bowl was filled with water and debris (most likely microbial growth brought on by the water). Remember that critical item I mentioned above? It was the on engine fuel filter. I forgot to check my stock and I didn’t have any new filters. I had several of the Racor filters but none of the on engine ones. I began changing fuel filters but that would only buy about two hours of motoring per filter. The wind was now on our nose, probably affected by the hurricane behind us. We limped into Palmas Del Mar before the sunset but were down to one fuel filter in our inventory.
After arriving at Yacht Club we checked the weather again. The EURO still showed the path of the storm heading directly over the Virgin Islands and then along the northern coast of Puerto Rico. Using Windy we predicted that we would be in a good wind shield thanks to the mountains. Further the strongest winds were to come from the north clocking to the west then southwest. Palmas Del Mar is exposed to the southeast but fairly well protected from all other directions. Salinas was most exposed from the southwest to south. Also, the strongest part of the hurricane is the northeast portion of the eye wall. We would be southwest of the eye, in the most favorable area of a hurricane. Given the forecasted track of the storm and the wind directions we were likely to see, we opted to stay in Palmas Del Mar for Irma. Our friend Kendra had made the run on her boat Sea Frog and decided to stay as well.
We spent the next couple of days prepping the boat. We stripped the canvas and anything else on deck. Spread out lines in different directions. We rented a hotel room with Kendra and moved many of our valuables and important things up to the hotel and we waited. In the end most of our preparations and worry would be unneeded.
In the afternoon on Wednesday, September 6th, Irma began being felt on Puerto Rico. The hotel was less than a half mile from the Yacht Club. There was satellite television and we saw some of the awful footage coming out of the eastern Caribbean and the Virgin Islands. Through Facebook we began to see pictures and observations posted by our friends. The reported damage was horrific. The islands we had come to call home were devastated. Irma was the strongest Atlantic storm in recorded history and likely one of the most damaging ever to pass through the Caribbean with winds over 230 knots (265 miles per hour).
By the late evening the majority of the storm had passed by us. I walked down to the Yacht Club and there was little to no real damage observed. I doubt we saw winds beyond 70 knots. Our run strategy had worked and we had picked a spot that was safe for our boat.
In the days following Irma we began to put our boat back together. We rented a car and went around Puerto Rico looking for fuel filters and sourcing parts to build a fuel polishing system. This took way longer than it should have because many of the parts I needed had been bought up by people with generators before the storm. About a quarter of Puerto Rico (from Fajado to San Juan) was without power. It took many stops and many fruitless attempts over two days to finally get all the parts I need. I was never able to find a replacement on engine filter. I constructed the polisher and spent several days polishing the fuel that was in the tank.
This whole time we were watching hurricane Jose. The models showed it turning north and avoiding the islands but it was still a concern. And all of our friends back in the Virgin Islands had no way to get weather reports. So we watched the weather and texting people about the storm.
With the fuel problem fixed, we put the headsail, bimini and solar panels back on. Long hot days working in record setting heat in Puerto Rico. We began collecting lists of needed supplies from friends on the islands. The requested items were things you would expect like generators, chainsaws, pressure washers, mosquito netting, etc. We also joined the group Sailors Helping formed by several cruisers in Puerto Rico and other islands to help bring relief supplies to the islands hit impacted by Irma. Sailors Helping had already been organizing donations and getting them on boats heading for the Virgin Islands. Our plan was to stuff Smitty full of supplies and sail back to St. Thomas to help our friends. We setup a rental car and then I checked the weather as I always do….
So this is where Maria came into the mix. Instead of getting almost two weeks of warning like we did with Irma, we only had five days notice. It was Friday night, September 15th. The EURO had the track going just to the south of us with landfall near Salinas. The GFS had the track going just to the north of us with landfall near Fajado. If you split the middle you would hit us dead on.
We wanted to run but where?
Based on the track, Virgin Gorda would have been a good option. Tuck in close to the island in North Gorda Sound and we would have some good elevation between us and the storm. But there was floating debris from Irma: roofs, docks, damaged boats, etc. All that made transiting that area risky and there would be no support once we arrived in the Virgins Island. No water, electricity, food, fuel or internet to get information on the storm. The rest of the Virgin Islands were out for the same reason. We didn’t want to run to Salinas or Fajado because it looked like they might get more of the storm.
It was five days out. A run to the Dominican Republic would take two days. Bonair would be three to four days. We hadn’t been out to test the motor since we polished the fuel. And Summer’s international health certificate expired on September 3rd, so we could possibly get turned away at either of those ports. In addition, Kendra is sailing solo, so a multiple day run is something she has not done and would be extremely difficult on her.
So we stayed…
We spent the next few days redoing the work we had just undone. Sails and canvas were taken off, lines were put back out and all steps were made to try and keep Smitty safe. Some how I found more places to tie lines. Including making sure our guardian Wonder Woman was well secured to face Maria.
Each successive run of the hurricane models changed the projected track. First it would go further west away from us, then it would go right over us. Then back west. This was all EURO. The GFS had it going north still with its own variations. All of the model changes gave me a bad feeling. We were still dead in the middle between the two. I felt it in my gut that we would get a direct hit.
As we walked away from Smitty to head towards our shelter for the storm I felt as confident as I could. Maria would be our seventh hurricane since owning Smitty. However, most of those were in the northeast where we typically didn’t see actual hurricane force winds in the protected harbors. The forecast now had us getting winds well over 100 knots. After seeing all of the devastation in the Virgin Islands from Irma it was really hard to have a positive feeling about what would come next.
We headed to our rented condo. We were again joined by Kendra from Sea Frog. We also invited another sailor to join us. Todd had been nicked named “Spider Man” by the other boaters in the Yacht Club. Somehow Todd had managed to get 38 lines on the Lagoon 37 to hold The Cool Change in place.
As we all settled in at the condo I opened a bottle of Cruzan Single Barrel Estate Rum and we toasted to our boats that they be strong in the face of Maria. Several more toasts followed with chants of “Fuck Maria!”
Nervous anticipation kept most of us from sleeping. By four in the morning the wind was howling and no one could sleep.
It was 8:30 in the mooring on Wednesday, September 20th, and we were about to come out of the worst of it. The roof had held for the most part; more terra cotta tiles had gone flying but the roof sheathing below had held. We had water dripping from the ceilings in several locations and it was coming under ever door including the sliders behind the storm shutters. By 10 in the morning the wind was still blowing and it was raining but it was not as fierce as before.
Todd and I ventured outside for a look. From the top floor of the condo building you could see part of the marina. Todd’s boat, The Cool Change, was perfectly center in the view between two buildings that partially obscured the Yacht Club. She was floating with her mast up. The same could not be said for other boats. We saw masts gone, boats out in the middle of the fairway barely hanging on by one or two lines and masts tipped in a way that could only result from a sunken boat. One of those tipped masts was in the area of Smitty and Sea Frog but the buildings blocked too much of the view to know if it was one of our boats.
At one in the afternoon we felt it was ok to venture out. We put on fowlies, grabbed a few supplies and started to head for the Yacht Club. Upon stepping out of the condo the seen was chaotic. Trees were down everywhere you looked. Pieces of terra cotta tiles were thrown about. The roads were impassible to cars and barely walkable in some locations. The stucco had been stripped from the buildings by the winds. All of the palm fronds had been removed from the tops of the palm trees giving them a look of a tree that had been decapitated.
Continuing to make our way we found flooded streets and more carnage. Eventually we made it to the Yacht Club and we could see that both Smitty and Sea Flog were still floating! The tipped mast was from a boat that had been next to Sea Frog.
The Yacht Club building had been pummeled with water and flooded by a storm surge that appeared to be 10 feet or more based on the damage to the building. This would have put the fixed concrete docks six feet under water during the height of the surge. A small rental car building that had been in the parking lot was completely gone and only remnants of the building would later be found in drainage ditch. One vehicle, a Hummer H2, that was left in the parking lot was pushed several parking spots over until it had come to rest against a light pole. Several boats had been dismasted. Many of the boats that didn’t remove their sails had them blow out and were shredded by the wind. Other boats had bashed against the docks or piles and some were holed. And several boats had sank in their slips. It didn’t appear that many boats escaped damage.
It was still blowing about 70-80 knots with gusts up to 100 knots. Todd and I cautiously made our way down the dock and out to our boats. The gusts were so strong that at times we had to drop to a knee and make ourselves into a tight ball to avoid being blown off the dock. We first passed Todd’s boat and there did not appear to be anything wrong or any lines broken. Next week came to Sea Frog’s former neighbor, he had broken free, smashed two piles until they toppled and sank in the fairway.
Unfortunately this caused some damage to Sea Frog. Sea Frog was tied to one of the piles that he smashed and the loss of those lines let Sea Frog rub against the dock. In addition, the tilted mast had hit Sea Frogs forestay damaging the foil to her roller furler.
Smitty appeared fine. She had lost several lines, all of which were double braided lines that appeared to have exploded in the middle of the line! We had lost six out of eight stern lines and a couple of springer lines.
We reappropriated (fancy pirate word for steal) as much line as we could find. Todd climbed aboard Sea Flog and secured several of the newly acquired lines to cleats, winches or any place he could find. Together and slowly we moved Sea Frog away from the dock. Todd would “pump” the line and when he let go I would pull in the slack and secure the line to the cleat or bollard. Inch by inch we moved Sea Frog against the wind. Eventually we had here five feet off of the dock and firmly secured by several lines. We used some of the new to us lines to add some stern lines to Smitty. We used the same technique to move Smitty further from the dock. With nothing left to do we returned to the condo to wait out the rest of the storm.
In the morning we headed back down to the Yacht Club. We started looking around at the damage and talking to the others boaters about how they faired during the storm. There were 40 boats in the Yacht Club for Maria. Of the 40, six had sunk, six had been dismasted and 25 others had some damage ranging from cosemtic gelcoat scuffs, bows missing from pounding on the dock, damaged sails and rigging and holes through the hull that put the boat at risk of sinking if quick repairs aren’t made.
Getting in the dingy and traveling out into the private docks in Palmas del Mar the damage only got worse. As the surge pushed into the canals it became concentrated and more destructive energy was present. Large Viking cabin cruisers were lifted up and but down on top of piles. Sailboats were pushed up onto docks and left resting on their rudders. Boats were sunk in tangled masses. Out riggers were bent and broken from the force of the wind. There was no pattern or reason to the damage. One boat was damaged and sunk while the boat at the next dock was untouched with canvas carelessly left up still intact.
In the end Smitty’s damaged was limited to a shorted out control module for our refrigeration. The compressor is located below a vent that was installed to allow the heat to escape. But salt water spread into the vent soaking the control module that subsequently failed.
There was a lot of luck and a lot of preparation that went into keeping Smitty safe through these storms. Its hard to say which was the bigger influence in surviving the storm. But we are proud of our tough little boat.
Continuing on our sail along the Thorny Path to the Caribbean Islands we went from Samana in the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico. The Mona Passage is considered by many to be the worst passage on the Thorny Path. There are shoals where deep, strong currents get forced up on to shallower waters. Thunder storms are knows to “charge like bulls” down the peaks of Puerto Rico and wash onto vessels with little notice (we will unfortunately learn more on this in the coming days). Most of the passage is in the lee of Puerto Rico, which could give you a break from the trades on your nose but could also give you shifty wind patterns that are hard to predict. This passage was plotted to be approximately 150 nautical miles and to take around 30 hours.
As we previously wrote, the first thing you must do to prepare to leave Dom Rep is get your Despachio. At Samana there is a port official station right at the marina but he typically doesn’t get until 9-10 AM. We spoke with him the day before we wanted to leave, as he had asked us to do when we checked in. We told him that our little armada was looking to leave as early as we could the next morning. He said he would handle our paperwork and come in a little early to get us on our way. We paid our marina bill and prepared the boat for departure. Sure enough he showed up early, around 7 am, and was over to our boat around 7:30 with the paperwork and his small security force. He boarded Smitty and just wanted to take a quick look below before he actually stood there and watched us leave the dock. He was efficient and our whole group was off the dock by 8:30 am.
We were the first out of the marina. We set a course out of Samana Harbor at a slow pace to let the rest of the group catch. Once we were all clear we headed towards the eastern coast of the Dominican Republic. As has been typical with these passages, the winds and seas were higher than forecasted. It wasn’t too bad at this point but we did have 10-15 knots of wind on the bow and the sea state was choppy at about 3 feet. We headed south east and hugged the coast as we approached Hour Glass Shoal.
Hour Glass Shoal is a large shallow area for the area. The depths go from several thousand feet around the shoal and in the middle of the Mona Passage to less than 200 feet on the shoal. So while this is not a shoal where you risk grounding your boat you still need to treat it as such. The equatorial currents will run along the southern coast of Puerto Rico and then wrap up into the Mona Passage. When those currents and ocean swells heading north hit the shoal they stack up and the sea state can go from some benign like 10 foot ocean swell at a long period but steep, high waves that rob you of momentum and can damage your boat. There are two major routes around the Hour Glass Shoal. You can continue to hug the coast and travel more due south, keeping the shoal on your port (left) side until you are in the deep water again. Then you turn east and head towards Isla de Mona. In the lee of Isla de Mona you head northeast towards your chosen harbor for making landfall. This is the path taken by motor boats typically. The course is to go north of Hour Glass Shoals by 5-10 miles, traveling a due east or slightly northeast course until you are safely in deep water and then continuing southeast in the lee of Puerto Rico. This was the course we chose. We continued southeast until we approaches the Isla Desecheo and then headed a little more south to head towards Puerto Real.
After all of the planning and hand wringing over the weather window, the Mona ended up being good to us. We had 15-25 knots of wind just off the nose most of the passage and the sea state didn’t interfere with direction or speed. It was calm enough that we trolled a line all through the Mona, with no luck unfortunately. We covered 157 nautical miles in 28 hours and were tied up at a marina in Puerto Real by around noon.
We were able to clear in over the phone since we were American citizens and already had our US Custom decal for the boat (something we learned about and ordered in the Bahamas). The others had to rent cars and go to the US Customs and Immigration office. The office was nice enough to let them do the initial checkin by phone and then go the office the next day after getting a night’s rest. Soon we would be in Caribbean Sea and on our way to St. Thomas, our ultimate destination for this year. But first there would be some major drama that would shape the next month of cruising….
Two big thanks on making this post happen. Travis on s/v Party of Five helped me put together the list of components and the basic installation and setup. Huge thanks to Jay on s/v Doctor’s Orders, fellow C310 sailor, who purchased these components for us. The support we have gotten from the C310 owners is unbelievable but Jay took it to a new level. Thanks again.
The list of components is as follows:
- Bullet Titanium (2.4 GHz)
- iCreatin Passive POE Injector or Gigabit POE Injector (B0135STO2S)
- Trendnet 8dBi Outdoor Omni or Amped Wireless High Powered Outdoor 8dBi (he said 8 dBi is better than the higher powered ones for this use, so don’t go bigger)
- TPLink AC1200 wireless router (you can just cut off the power cord at the inverter box and wire direct to the 12 volt system on the boat with a fuse in line)
- ethernet cable (length depends on install but a 100 foot cord would be fine with all the components)
All can be purchased from Amazon for under $250.
Assembly is fairly straight forward. For the Bullet, open the box and only remove the Bullet. There are other components in there but you will not need them for the assembly as a wifi antenna on a boat. Attach the antenna to the top of the Bullet. Next attach the ethernet cable to the bottom of the Bullet using the waterproof housing on the Bullet. You could put up the Bullet and antenna assembly as is or you could add some additional weather proofing. For instance many boaters will use electrical tape or Rescue tape on their VHF antenna connections to make them more weather proof. You could do the same here. Personally I like Rescue tape because it doesn’t leave an adhesive residue when you remove it.
Now you have a choice to make: do you fix mount the Bullet and antenna or do you have it go up on a halyard? Fix mounting has the advantage of being always out and ready to use. But if you put it on a halyard you can adjust the height. Travis on s/v Party of Five describes wifi signals like a cone. So as they progress out from the source they have different heights that will offer the best signal strength. So being able to adjust the height will give you the best possible signal strength. I went for the halyard style install but I did run a second ethernet cable to the stern so that I could actually have the ability to install it on the stern rail and then take it down to put on a halyard for a better signal when needed.
The next big install question is 12 volt or 120 volt for the power over ethernet (POE) point and router. Both the POE point and the router in the list above are actually 12 volt units. There is a converter in the boxy plug that converts the 120 volt wall outlet power to 12 volt. You can see that by looking at the writing on the plug. So if you are only going to use the antenna on the dock you could just plug into an outlet. But if you want to use it at anchor or you just like having everything on 12 volt like me, you simply cut off the plug end and wire the ends into your 12 volt system. The tricky part of this approach is knowing which side is the positive and which is the negative. Luckily the manufacturers of these two pieces made it easy. There are white/gray dashes on one of the lines going into the plug. That is the positive wire. There are a couple of ways you can test this to find out which is which but thankfully the manufactures made it easy here. So I cut off the plugs, added ring terminals to each end and then connected them into a Blue Sea System terminal block. I often use the terminal blocks to put multiple lines together for one power run to the panel.
Next I had to find a location to mount the router. I chose to mount it upside down on the underside of the decks above the port settee. I used 3M double sided tape to mount the router. I cleaned the surfaces with isopropanol and let it try for 30-60 minutes before applying the tape. Then I ran some 12-2 tinned copper wire from the terminal buss to the electrical panel. The 12-2 wire is actually a bit of an overkill. The router draws 2 amps and the POE point 1 amp (you can get that info from the plugs that I cut off to make them 12 volt) and the run from the panel is approximately 20 feet so a total of 40 feet of distance there and back. Using a wire sizing chart, like the Blue Seas Systems one here (large PDF), you only needed 16 gauge wire. But 12-2 wire is what I had on the boat so I used that.
Final assembly is to plug the ethernet cable from the Bullet into the POE point, plug the POE point into router and power up the system. An important thing to note here is that the POE point actually comes with two pieces. One is for the router end and the other for the Bullet end. You don’t need the Bullet end, just throw that away. When you plug the POE point into the router, use one of the spots labeled “1-4”. Don’t use the spot for internet source. Seems a little wrong but trust me.
Now that you have it assembled, the hard part starts: you need to configure the Bullet and the router. I am going to give this in the easy way, which involves plugging the Bullet directly into your computer first. I actually couldn’t do this because we have a MacBook Air and those don’t have ethernet ports. So I did mine through wifi and the router which is harder. If anyone needs this breakdown I can give that later, just email or PM me.
The first step is to set you computer to have a Static IP address. This is different than how your computer will be setup for most people. Here is how to do it on a Mac and here is how to do it on a Windows computer.
Once that is done, connect the POE point to your computer’s ethernet port. Now open up your favorite web browser (I prefer Google Chrome but IE, Firefox, etc. will do). In the address bar type in “192.168.20.1” and hit enter. This is the factor address setting for the Bullet. That will bring you to an address screen that will ask for your username and password. The factory setting is “ubnt” for both. Once you enter that in and gain access to the Bullet the first thing you should do is change the username and password. Click on the “System” tab and change the username and password.
This is the first place you will hit the quirk of working with the Bullet. After you have changed the username and password you will need to go to bottom of the page and click the “Change” button (bottom arrow above). Once you hit “Change” a new line will appear at the top of the screen asking if you want to apply the changes. You need to hit “Apply” before moving on to the next step.
This will come up often and was a big source of frustration to me when I would forget to hit “Change” then “Apply” after making some programing errors and I couldn’t figure out why my programing wasn’t working.
Next step is to click on the “Network” tab. There are several changes that need to be made on this tab.
First, under “Network Role” change the “Network Mode” to “Router”.
Second, under “WAN Network Settings” change the IP Address to “DHCP”. Also, make sure the “NAT” is enabled.
Now under the “LAN Network Settings” is where things can get a little tricky. Start by enabling the “DHCP Server” (red box in the middle of the screen shot). Next go to the “IP Address”. You need to choose your new IP address for your network. This could be almost any numbers. Most networking gear comes with 192.168.1.1, or some small variation on this number, as standard. I am sure there is a reason for this but I am not a computer guy enough to know why that is. But you will need to set the number for the Bullet and later the router to similar numbers. You can see I used 192.168.50.1 while doing this write up. I did change it after I did all these screen shots. Someone could conceivably crack into your network if they knew these numbers (not sure how as this is way above my head). My recommendation is to keep with the 192.168.XX.1 where the “XX” could be any number from 1-99. This will just make things easier. The “Netmask” can stay with the default of 255.255.255.0.
Next you need to set the “Range Start” and “Range Finish”. These are the numbers that are available to be assigned to your computer latter when you actually log onto the internet. It needs to have the same first 3 sets of numbers you used for the IP address above. Keeping with the numbers I used for this setup that was 192.168.50. The last sets of numbers actually defines the range. For ease of programing just use 100 to 200 here. So the start is 192.168.50.100 and the finish is 192.168.50.200. Remember to change the 50 to what ever number you choose for the IP address above.
****Now make sure to hit “Change” then “Apply”.
That completes the programing of the Bullet. Now go back to the beginning and change your computers IP Address from Static back to automatic.
Next step is to program a Static IP address into the router. You need to give your router a static IP address in the same range as what you gave the Bullet. So using the address of 192.168.50.1 for the Bullet, I used 192.168.50.2 for the router. For the TP Link here is a link on how to do this programing.
Once you have programmed the router, now you can plug the Bullet into the router. Remember, you don’t use the “Internet” source ethernet port but any of the ports labeled 1-4. Doesn’t matter which one. And its the POE point that gets plugged into the router, the Bullet is plugged into the POE point and you have power to the POE Point and the router. Now power up. Give everything about 5 minutes to startup and get ready for use.
Log into the Bullet by opening a web browser and typing the IP address into the top bar (i.e. 192.168.50.1). Then put in your new username and password. Now click on the “Wireless” tab. This is how you will go to use the WiFi antenna anytime you want to use the internet from your boat.
Click the “Select” button next to “SSID”. This will bring up a list of available networks.
The two columns on this page that I pay the most attention to are the “Encryption” and “SSID”. If you find “None” under “Encryption” that means this is an open network and you can join without a password. Unfortunately you can see that there are no open networks near Maho Bay on St. John. This is one of our favorite spots but unfortunately when we are here I have no communication. No WiFi and no cell signal. That means very little ability to check weather or hear if I have a new charter coming in that I have to get back to St. Thomas for. But such is the price to pay to swim with hawksbill turtles and catch lobster for dinner along some iconic beaches.
If there where an open network you simply click on the little circle next to the MAC address for the network and then hit “Select” at the bottom of the screen. You will then go back to the programing screen and need to hit “Change” and “Apply” again like we discussed above. Give the antenna a few seconds and you should be online.
To verify that you are online you can check the “Main” tab. If you go down near the bottom and click on “DHCP Client” you should have an IP address listed and the status should be connected. Also there is a “Signal Strength” bar that will tell you how good of a signal you have. If you opted for the halyard installation you can move the antenna up and down on the halyard and see where you get a getter signal strength. It will change with height and higher is not always better.
Now sometimes you might have a specific network you want to connect to. This could be your marina or a local bar. We will sometimes put up the antenna and see what bars have a good signal. Then we go over to that bar and have a drink and ask them for the network password. Most of the time they have no problem giving the password to a customer but don’t want an open network. Some places have caught on to this and will take your phone to put in the password so you can’t log on from a WiFi antenna. Once you have a network name and password you log in a little different. You go to the “Wireless” tab and hit “Select” next to SSID, but now you are looking for the network name. Note the security type “WPA” or “WPA2”. Select the network and connect. But you have an additional step on the “Wireless” tab before hitting “Change” and “Apply”. Down at the bottom of the screen you should see a section for “Wireless Security”.
In the “Wireless Security” section, select the correct security type and put in the password. Now hit “Change” and “Apply”. You should be connected and can check it the same as described above.
Now I will have to admit, the programing side of this was a little harder than I expected when we started this project. The very first time we set up everything I had Travis from s/v Party of Five with me. But the original Bullet I got from Amazon was defective. So by the time I got the replacement Bullet, we were in St. Thomas and Party of Five had moved on to Grenada. So I had to spend some time researching how to do all the programing. But once you get through it once the operation becomes pretty simple.
Here is another downside, I have had this post in draft for almost two weeks. But in the USVI finding an open wifi or even a bar’s wifi that can work for posting pictures was nearly impossible. Everyone is shutting down their networks and a lot of bars are figuring out ways around making their network available to cruisers. But in the US you will likely have much better luck.
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.