“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


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St.Thomas living -First three months of 2017

Wow – we are now three months into 2017 and I haven’t written a blog post yet this year! Well, let’s fix that…

I feel like we have been on a bit of a roller coaster over the past couple months. In January, we were supposed to go to St. Maarten to see family, but the winds were honkin’ with sporadic gusts that churned up the seas during the exact time we had arranged to take off from our work obligations. Unfortunately, we had to cancel the trip. We were really bummed since we were looking forward to seeing our family for so long. I know it’s pretty far out, but we are already planning to make the trip next January when they are in St. Maarten again. Since we were already off from work, we decided to play tourist on St.Thomas. We rented a car and hit the popular tourist spots and went to all the beaches that you cannot get to by public transportation, including Magen’s Bay (where we got married 15 years ago).

Also in January, the pilot for Flying Fish Seaplane Tour quit and the company could not find a replacement. Unfortunately, since there were no more seaplane tours happening, there was no longer a need for a captain to bring guests to the seaplane, so Stacey no longer has a Captain job. And, now that it is high-season, all of the Captain-Crew jobs are filled; Stacey is currently working at a jewelry store. Jesse, on the other hand, has been busy sailing the 42-foot trimaran, Tribal, just about everyday.

We haven’t been out sailing much, my dad is in the hospital, and we have been busy working, in other words, we really needed a change. We did manage to sneak in a short trip to Christmas Cove to have pizza from the pizza boat, Pizza Pi. While there, we bumped into Lauren & Brian from Nightengale Tune – we had not seen them since the Bahamas. The next day, when we got back to our mooring after the night at Christmas Cove, I thought I heard a hail on the VHF calling Smitty. Odd, since we never have our VHF on when we are home (aka on our mooring), so who would try to hail us? ”Smitty, Smitty, Smitty, this is sailing vessel Wrightaway”. I was so excited to hear Deb’s voice! We had missed Deb, Keith, & Kai since we last saw them in the Bahamas. We knew they were making their way south but we didn’t expect them to be here so soon. Their timing was the real pick-me-up that we needed!

Over the past three months we have made new friends, but we have also watched as friends sailed away. We have recently learned that Jamie & Keith on Kookaburra are leaving St.Thomas to head to Long Island Sound. We wish them all the best but we will surely miss them! And lastly, Stacey said goodbye to her phone as it dove into the deep blue sea (a new one is on it’s way). 😦

And so, the boat projects continue on (we just completed the installation of a water maker!-WooHoo!) and we try to fit in sailing and fun. We are looking forward to a fun next couple of weeks: our friend Tim will be visiting, the St.Thomas Sailing Regatta, Carnival (think Mardi Gras) and Stacey’s family visiting in May.

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Magens Bay


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Puerto Rico

Arriving in Puerto Rico marked our first time clearing into an American controlled area. Since we left for the Bahamas in January we have been outside of the US.  Prior to leaving for the Bahamas, I researched what would be needed for our entry into Puerto Rico. The prime thing that is needed is a US Customs Decal.

To get the US Customs Decal you visit the website for US Customs and Border Protection [https://dtops.cbp.dhs.gov/main/#].  Its a relatively simple process to register as a user and then apply for a decal online.  Within 5 days our decal number was issued and it could be viewed online. The actual physical decal showed up at my farther’s house several weeks later. But all you really need is the decal number. The fee is $27.50 for a year for a private vessel and there was an online user fee of $5 as well.

When we arrived in Puerto Rico we flew the yellow Q flag, as you do when ever you enter a new country. But since this was an American controlled area and we already had our US Customs Decal the process got considerably easier for us.  We simply called into the local US Customs and Immigration office (the number was on Active Captain and in information the marina gave us when we arrived). We were able to check in over the phone following a 10 minute conversation that mostly covered spots not to miss while in Puerto Rico. Sea Frog and Last Tango didn’t have a US Customs Decal and had to rent a car the next day to go to the US Customs and Immigration office to get their decal. Party of Five are Canadians so all five of them had to go to the office to present and show valid passports.

The marina we choose to make our initial base for clearing in and provision was Marina Pescaderia in Port Real (Mayaguez) .  It was a medium sized marina with decent facilities. The best part of the marina was the little restaurant at the end of the dock. The people that worked there were great! Nelly, the young women who is the chef is great and creative. She even played dominos with us one night. The bar was cool and had great fresh cocktails. They introduced me to one of my favorite new island drinks: Scotch with coconut water and coconut water ice cubes.

The marina also offered reasonable car rentals.  You could get a compact car for around $30 a day right there. Which was great because within a short drive there were all kinds of great options for provisions and supplies.  We hit a Home Depot, Walmart, Sam’s Club and a decent grocery store. The prices were really close to what we had in the States and that was a great break for the budget from the expensive Bahamas. We had a car with Travis and Daph from Party of Five.  We filled it to capacity twice!

Totally restocked and having our fill of marinas over the past week, it was time to head out on the hook again. We thought a short jump down to Boqueron would be a good way to get acclimated to being on the hook again. It was only 6 nm from the marina. One at a time we took turns moving from our slips to the fuel dock and then off towards the anchorage.  Party of Five was first, followed by Sea Frog and then us. Last Tango and Sea Squirrel would go last.

About halfway to the anchorage we started seeing some really dark clouds and hearing thunder. We called ahead to Party of Five. They were just about to anchor and thought the clouds would push south of the anchorage from their vantage point. We decided to speedup and try to anchor before any potential storm hit. We also called back to the other boats that they may want to wait at the marina for this storm to pass. We anchored just as it started to down pour, however, our anchor set didn’t feel right. We decided to set the anchor alarm and watch the GPS. We could reset after the storm passed if we still didn’t like our set.

Party of Five’s thoughts that the storm would pass south of us were wrong. We got a full brunt of the storm. We had winds around 35 knots with driving rain and lots of thunder and lightening.  The other two boats made it into the harbor and anchored before the storm really picked up.

We started to drag from high winds. I sat in the cockpit with the engine running ready to take action if we dragged too close to any other boats.  We were only slowly dragging, so our thoughts were to wait it out if possible and re-anchor after the storm passed.  While I was sitting in the cockpit, I was watching lightening strike all around us on land and out near the mouth of the harbor. The storm really resembled the “charging like bulls” description from the Thornless Path.

After about 30 minutes, the storm was starting to slow and it looked like the end was coming. Just then there was the loudest crack of thunder & lightening I have ever heard. The hair on my arms stood up from the electricity being so close. I immediately picked up the VHF and asked if everyone was ok.  Party of Five responded, “we were hit!” and then nothing…..

It took a few seconds for that to register and about a minute later they came back on their handheld VHF. Everyone was ok. Most of their electronics appeared to have been fried by the hit, including their primary VHF. They were beginning the analysis of what was damaged and what still worked.

With the storm subsiding we re-anchored. When we brought up the anchor we had a 10 foot piece of pipe and some old anchor chain caught under our anchor that prevented us from setting well.  We moved over to a better sand patch and set the anchor again.  Feeling more confident in our holding, I packed up all my electrical tools and supplies and headed over to Party of Five. Travis and I worked for several hours to figure out what was still operational.  Unfortunately, we didn’t find any of the electronics to still be working. After a few hours we called it for the night and planned to resume the next morning.

The next morning Stacey, Summer and I went over to Party of Five to resume working on the boat. Sea Frog offered to come over but they were both sick and didn’t want to expose us to their illness. Last Tango had offered to come over for moral support but didn’t have much in the way of technical skills to help.  Sea Squirrel had left at first light to maintain their schedule. Travis, Rhonda and I spent the day going through the boat while Stacey and Summer kept the kids entertained. Rhonda went up the mast to do an inspection for damage and to diagnose what was damaged by the strike. We also setup some backup navigation options (lap top running Open CPN, Navionics on a phone, etc.). Using Stacey’s cellphone as a hot spot, Travis was able to order new items to replace the damaged ones. We picked a marina on the southern coast of PR as base to stay at while repairs would be made and the parts were shipped there from Defender. (Side note on Defender, when they found out what happened Defender upgraded the shipping at no charge so that the parts would get to Party of Five sooner. Great people at Defender!)

You can read all about Party of Five’s experience with the lightening strike on their blog post, Shocking!

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We left at dawn to head to the next anchorage.  To get on the southern coast of PR, we first had to round a cape. The Thornless Path recommends a technique for attacking the southern coast.  You leave at dawn, sail as far as your can before noon and then tuck into a harbor before the afternoon breeze kicks up.  The trades are still going from east to west so heading east means heading into the wind. You can sail a little more here though.  You would sail southeast until around 10 am and then tack and head back towards land. 

Once we rounded Cape Rojo we were official in the Caribbean Sea! Our little 31 foot sailboat has now traveled as far north as Maine and as far south as the Caribbean. 🙂

With a pieced together Party of Five, we decided to motor sail due east and stay as close to the coast as we could rather than sail following the directions in the Thornless Path.  This let us stay within the protection of some of the points of land and islands along the coast.  Using this coverage we were able to make good progress well into the early afternoon.  We made it to our chosen anchorage by Gunica, also known as Gilligan’s Island by the locals.

Gilligan’s Island had a great lagoon in the middle of the island.  It was where two channels through the mostly mangrove island cut through the islands and form a wide, shallow lagoon.  The current runs from the ocean side to the lagoon.  Using the mangroves to assist, you make your way against the current to the southern end of the island to where the two channels join on that side of the islands.  Then you can float back down either channel like a lazy river. You can also climb up the mangroves and jump off into the channels. We stayed a couple of nights until we had confirmation that Party of Five’s new electronics had been delivered to Ponce Yacht and Fishing Club.

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We made our way to Ponce.  The Yacht and Fishing Club was expensive for a night but had a great weekly rate. At first Party of Five took a slip while the rest of us anchored. But after a couple of nights in the rolly anchorage, we moved into a slip as well.  We all took advantage of being at the club. There were a couple of pools, showers, a grill, tables for socializing, and an address where we could have packages shipped from Amazon. We played dominos and Cards Against Humanity and had a pot luck dinner with some other cruisers that were staying at the club.

The marina proved to be a great location to get Party of Five repaired. Once the packages were in we were able to get almost all of the broken electronics replaced within the first couple of days of repairs. Unfortunately, one of the things we discovered about lightening strikes is that more things will break after time.  Alternators caught fire, computers were found to be broken, plastic bushings were melted from the heat, ignition switches broke. There was little rhyme or reason to what had broke and what didn’t.

A happy coincidence of our little armada was that three of us had birthdays within a week of each other.  Not just a birthday but we were all born within days of each other. Kendra, Rhonda and myself were all the exact same age.  So for a week we were celebrating a birthday every other day. I just wanted a beer and some steak. Kendra wanted sushi. Rhonda wanted a girls day at the mall. We had a lot of fun.

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We also took a cab ride into Ponce and hung out in the city for the day. We toured the old fire station. We also did a walking tour of the historic parts of the city. Ponce was a great place with lots of history. Unfortunately, we timed it wrong and the art museum wasn’t open. We still got to see a lot of great things in Ponce.

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Ponce is actually named after Ponce de Leon and his family crest, the Lion, can be seen everywhere.

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We kept hearing that the must do attraction for the area was Coffin Island. It was only about 5 nautical miles off the coast of Ponce. We thought this would make a perfect shakedown trip for Party of Five. So all of us, including Summer, piled onto Party of Five and headed out to the island. The wind was about 20 knots on the nose with some steep chop.  It was a good test for the repaired boat. It was also our first time being on a cruising catamaran. I have to say we were shocked by how loud the banging on the hulls was from the waves as we powered into it. Travis said this wasn’t bad and they had far worse on some of the crossings we had recently. I can tell you Summer didn’t like it and has been a little shy on visiting catamarans since.

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After a few weeks in Ponce Party of Five was mostly repaired and it was time to start heading east again. We intended to leave at first light.  At 6 AM, I was up and walking Summer when the rising sun illuminated large, dark gray thunderheads. A quick check of the radar confirmed the ominous clouds had some squalls heading our way. After a quick conversation on the VHF we all decided not to leave. By 9 AM, the squalls seemed to have passed us by and we were off for Salinas. It was a short, uneventful motor sail into the wind. Shortly after lunch time we had our anchor down in an anchorage surrounded by mangroves.

Salinas was chock full of manatees. We haven’t seen so many of these sea cows in one spot since we left Florida. We had lots of fun watching them surface for air while feeding on the marine vegetation. True to form these guys were not spooked by engines or boats and we could get pretty close to them in dinghies or kayaks. Of course we never got any good photos or videos of them.

salinas-001Salinas has a great cruisers bar named Sal Pa’Dentro run by Janus and his wife. In November 2015, they had suffered a fire that destroyed their bar. However, you would never know it by their great attitude and the current condition of the bar. They have worked hard to reopen the bar as quick as possible.  The one thing they lost that they couldn’t replace were all the gifts from passing cruisers. We helped add to the rebuilding by leaving a burgee from our home port marina.

Sea Frog rented a car for the day and we tagged along on a trip to Old San Juan. We walked all around the island and checked out the historic fortifications and buildings. The architecture in this area is truly unique. Old world with some Caribbean flare.

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After several days exploring Salinas we were anxious to get to the Spanish Virgin Islands. Going on advice from Janus and other locals, we chose to skip Vieques. Unfortunately, they are having an issue with crime right now with stolen dinghies and anchored boats being broken into.  Instead we chose to follow some local knowledge from Janus and head out at midnight with the intent of making it all the way to Culebra.


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The Three Passages: Part 3 – The Mona Passage

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. 

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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….


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

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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Dominican Republic

DR1

As the sun was rising, we began to see the breathtaking views of the Dominican Republic (DR or DomRep).  Our first stop was Luperon.  The bay here is stunning – picture the mountains of New England with a line of mangroves at the foothills that roll right into the water.  Everything here is so lush and green.  The bay is an ideal hurricane hole for boats of all sizes and the food and beverages are shockingly cheap.  I can see why so many people end up moving here permanently.  If it wasn’t for the poor water-quality (definitely no swimming!), we would have spent much longer here.

DR2

Luperon – Puerto Plata

I cannot say that it is easy to check in at this port of call.  First of all, my Spanish es no bueno, or shall I say my Spanglish, so dealing with several different officials (whom speak/understand very little or no english) was a bit of a challenge. 

Step one:  The Marina Guerra (Coast Guard) will board your boat as soon as you are anchored or moored. No $ is required to give to them but be ready with copies of passports, vessel documentation, departure form from last port of call, and ice cold beers (yes, they absolutely will ask for beer!)

Step two:  The Captain goes to shore with all of the same documents and tries to figure out which of the three rooms in a very hot, not air-conditioned trailer to go to first and what fees are actually due.  The fees that are required to be paid are not clearly documented, so when you go to check-in by boat be sure to bring lots of pesos or USD.  The cost for our 31-foot vessel with two adults and one dog was as follows (amounts in USD):    Cruising Permit/Other Fee $60,  Tourist Card- $10 per person,  Harbor Charge $25 (for a 10-day stay)

Step Three: When you are ready to leave, you play a similar game in order to get your despacho (exit permit).  However, no fees are required to leave.

DR3

We decided to make a day-trip to Damajaqua Cascades (27 waterfalls) with the crews of sv Sea Frog and sv Party of Five.  So, trying to figure out how to get nine people there was a bit of a challenge.  Travel choices in the DR are as follows:  car rental, guagua*, donkey/horse, or motoconchos**.

*Guagua is a small car or van that is overstuffed with people (you will literally see people overflowing from the vehicle), far exceeding their recommended (safe) capacity.

**Motoconcho is a motorbike that is used for public transportation.  You will see as many as four adults + children on one bike.  You will also see furniture and other large items being moved on these bikes.

DR TRAVEL

As we had a former local resident in our mix (thank you Darren!), he hooked us up with a rental….which turned out to be someone’s personal SUV (not the van that we were expecting)…thank god we were traveling with three skinny kids!

DR WATERALLS

We spent another day touring Puerto Plata.  We took in the sites,  made & smoked cigars at the Cigar Factory, drank rum on the Brugal Rum Factory tour, ate chocolate on the tour at the Del Oro Chocolate Factory, and of course had beers on the beach.

DR PUERTO PLATA

DR RUM

DR FORT

DR CIGARS

After leaving Luperon, we stayed a couple nights in Samana in order to wait out weather before making our way across the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico.

SAMANA

DSC SUNSET


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The Three Passages: Part 1 – Turks & Caicos to the Dominican Republic

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.


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Cost to Cruise – May 2016

May marks the month we finally left the Bahamas;  so our costs for this month includes entry fees for Turks & Caicos and Dominican Republic.  We also got a bit overzealous when we went to a ‘real’ grocery store – we definitely bought some pricey items and treated ourselves.

May 2016  TOTAL $ 2,413.27

$  245.00     CUSTOMS – ENTRY FEES

$  340.80     MARINA

$  861.55     GROCERIES

$  491.24     ENTERTAINMENT (eating out, alcohol, and excursions)

$    42.00     BOAT PARTS & OTHER

$  219.68     FUEL (Diesel & Gasoline)

$  170.00     COMMUNICATION

$    30.00     LAUNDRY

$    13.00     PROPANE

         Summary of previous months’ Totals*:

April 2016         $ 1,956.78

March 2016      $ 3,149.20

February 2016  $ 1,851.99

*previous month’s are detailed in prior posts