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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Ponce is actually named after Ponce de Leon and his family crest, the Lion, can be seen everywhere.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Last week we had our first significant storm as liveaboards. A Nor’easter hit last Wednesday.
For those who have never had the pleasure of being in one, a Nor’easter is a strong winter storm that gets it’s name from the wind direction. A low pressure area will pass along the coast and the result will be a rotating storm that looks like a hurricane. These storms typically bring high winds and heavy rain or snow.
This one was kind of unexpected. We knew we were going to get a storm but no one was predicting anything like what we got. Typically we would strip all canvas and anything else on the outside of the boat, add extra dock lines and add extra fenders if we know they are coming. The same as we would do for a hurricane.
My Bride started to get an idea that this was going to be bad on Wednesday and asked if I could leave early to do some storm prep. So I left early and got down to the dock around 3PM. It was already blowing 25 kts and some boats were already having problems. Before I could even get down the dock I had to stop and help pull a friends boat off the dock. His Trojan 36 had stretched her lines in the wind and the swim platform was up over the dock and starting to hit a pole. Working together the three of us on the dock were able to slowly move the boat forward 6 inches and off of the dock. Our friend was then able to start up the engines and pull it forward another foot. I then continued up the dock to Smitty while doing a quick survey of other boats on the dock. I already say another half dozen boats that needed immediate help.
I got down to Smitty and it felt like it was blowing about 25 kts steady with gusts up to 35 kts. Too windy to even try pulling canvas. So I tied some lines around the furled headsail and checked to make sure it was cleated off well. I should have wrapped the spinnaker halyard around the sail but I didn’t think of that until later. We were in our slip alone (our boat neighbor had to come out early due to engine troubles) so I was able to have four lines pulling us to windward and off of the dock. I put Summer on the boat and then went to work on the other boats I saw in trouble.
Again working together, the three of us went about adding additional fenders, retying dock lines and taking down some loose pieces of canvas until all of the boats on our dock seemed to be doing well. I then went back to Smitty to get worm and wait for my Bride to get off the commuter ferry on her way home from work.
My Bride called and they had cancelled the 6:30PM boat most likely due to high winds. When she saw that large monohull with a lot of windage try to dock she wasn’t going to get on it anyways. The next boat was at 7PM and was a more modern fast cat style. When she got aboard they started telling people to remain in their seats as much as possible. They repeated this warning throughout the trip. A cruise home that normally takes 30 minutes on this boat took over an hour. It was rough and the boat was blown out of the channel a couple of times and they were lucky they didn’t end up aground.
After picking her up we went back down to the boat. Our intent was to hunker down in the warm cabin for the rest of the night. The wind had picked up significantly and I saw a couple of 45 kts. When we were sitting below watching the news the gusts would heel us so much in our slip that I would slide off the settee. We knew it was going to be a restless night. The boat was bucking in our slip worse than we had ever experienced. We had been through several hurricanes on our boat, Sandy, Arthur and Irene. But due to the wind direction, the lack of warning and the strength of the gusts this was worse. By the time the 10PM news came on it was consistently over 40 kts and gusting into the high 50 kts.
SNAP! A loud crack followed by a deafening thunder-like noise. The jib on the boat two slips down had been blown out. This boat is a planing-hull racer with a carbon fiber stick and synthetic rigging. We have a mixed past with the owner and currently we can’t stand each other. But I would never let my feelings for the person stop me from helping the boat. I immediately called the owner and told him what had happened. I then put on some shoes and a fowlie coat and headed out to see what I could do.
Once I was in my cockpit I knew this could go bad quickly. The jib was being held closed near the bottom by a single sail-tie. The jib sheets where not even rapped around the jib to hold it furled. I don’t even think the continuous line furler was cleated off. The boat was bow in, tied up to its starboard side in the double load slip next to us, while we were stern in tied on the starboard side. This meant we had an empty slip, a finder dock and another empty slip between us. Which was a good thing because standing in my cockpit I could almost touch the top of this mast when it was heeled over during the gusts. Gusts that were now as high as 63 kts. Looking at our inclinometer, we were heeling over to 35 degrees on gusts and that was with 4 dock lines holding us down from heeling.
Our friend Ken was the only other person on the dock. His power boat is on the end of the T-head which happens to be the other side of the finger from this boat. Ken was outside now also and we were trying to come up with a plan. The boat in trouble’s starboard stern line had now snapped and when the boat would heel over it was hitting the dock. A big gust came and I realized how close to a disaster we were, the bulb keel was hitting the finger that it shared with Ken’s boat. That was the only thing stopping this boat from going all the way over and hitting my boat with the mast. But with this boat bucking like it was I couldn’t see how we could get the sail down.
As we were trying to figure out how to get on board, the owner and his 18 year-old son showed up. We got lucky and there was a slight lull in the gusts. We got the owner’s son on board, I gave him my knife (ALWAYS have a knife, I initially forgot it and had to go back) and he was able to cut the halyard. The owner, Ken and I were then able to pull the jib down and sit on it on the dock. Even with 3 grown men it was trying to throw us off. We got it lashed down. I don’t know how much damage that sail took but I can’t imagine it will be cheap to repair as this is one of those expensive racing sails. We put some more lines on the boat and it was back to being secure in it’s slip.
Since I was out, I took another walk to check on the rest of the dock. I adjusted a few dock lines but for the most part everything was good. There was one boat that was going to loose it’s bimini but the boat was bucking wildly and one side was already snapped free so there wasn’t much I could do. I went back down below and tried to get some sleep.
Sleep didn’t come until well after 2AM. The boat kept bucking and heeling. I was awake again at 5:30AM when some more gusting had us moving around again. Soon after that the wind died down but it was supposed to pickup around noon. I got dressed and went to do some work stuff for the morning. We planned to work from the boat for the afternoon just in case it got bad again.
We drove around to check out some of the storm damage.
We stopped by and spoke with the dock master for a while. There was a lot of damage around the marina. Large power boats with their swim platforms ripped off by the waves. A sailboat broke free in the mooring field and ping-ponged off of boats as it bashed through until it eventually got hung-up on another boats anchor. Of course that boat didn’t have its anchor tied off so it paid out all of the rhode before the boat ended up smashing onto another boat repeatedly while being held at the end of the rhode. Many of the boats on the moorings had chaffed through one of the pendants and were being held on by a single, partially chaffed pendant. A lot of the small boats took punishment because their undersized dock lines broke and the boats were smashed against the concrete docks.
Back at the dock we were getting a pretty good storm surge. This was about an hour and a half before high tide.
As predicted the winds kicked back up again. However it was only around 30 kts with gusts into the low 40 kts. For the most part the second night was uneventful. While walking the dog before bed, I came across a 25-foot center counsel that was taking water over the stern. I got a battery pack and bilge pump from a friends boat and pumped out the boat so that it could make it through the night. Probably just too much rain that killed the battery and the bilge pump stopped working.
This weekend I came out of the boat to find a bag in our cockpit.
The owners of one of the boats on the dock left the makings for some Dark n’ Stormies and a nice thank you note for looking out for their boat during the storm. Our dock suffered the least amount of damage out of the all the docks in the marina. Also during the storm I was posting updates on a Facebook page we have for our dock so people didn’t have to wonder how their boats were doing. We are the only liveaboards at our marina. Coincidence? I think not. Just another benefit to being liveaboard friendly.