“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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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. 

mona_passage

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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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.