It's been several months since our last posting from the Turks and Caicos in the spring of 2012. From there, we moved quickly through the Exumas, stopping in Georgetown just long enough to clear in to the Bahamas and spend a couple of days resting on the beach savouring that glorious Bahamian water. Northward bound again, we checked out Little Farmer's and Norman's Cays, which we had missed on our first trip. Norman's was cool: once owned by a big drug dealer, it has a colourful history complete with bullet holes in crumbling walls of ruins, a rather decrepit airstrip (still in use), and a sunken airplane. The eastern side is very protected, ringed with cays offering great snorkelling and fishing, and it was fun to poke around in there with the dinghy. We anchored off the western shore in a dead calm, in water so flat that it was indistinguishable from the mist. It was fascinating to watch approaching boats slowly materialise as though they floated in air rather than water.
Our last and best Bahamian stop was at the Berry Islands: a perfect conclusion to our second cruise. During a stretch of benign weather, this cluster of cays at the tip of the Great Bahama Bank must be the most gorgeous cruising grounds in the Bahamas. It's a good day's sail over deep water passages to either Grand Bahama Island (Freeport), the Abacos, Andros, New Providence (Nassau), or across the shallow Banks from Bimini. Their only drawback is that their waters are shallow with very little shelter, and when a bad blow is approaching, it's a challenge to find either shelter or a marina. Famous (and very rich) people have homes on private islands in the Berries, and we stayed away from places like Chub Cay where the big budget boats congregate.
The first night we tucked in behind private Frozen Cay. I highly doubt that anything was frozen there, except, perhaps, the margaritas and daquiries. The next day we wandered to a small anchorage behind Devil's Cay (a curious name for a place of such beauty), delighting in waters as clear and glowing a turquoise as I imagine heaven could be. With only one other sailboat in sight, down behind Little Harbour Cay, it was easy to imagine that we each had our own private islands too. The white sand sea floor was dotted with starfish and what looked exactly like the occasional pingpong ball just 5 feet below our keel. (See picture album). They had to be eggs of some sort, but turtles bury their eggs in the sand, not just lying there underwater where they could easily be eaten, buffeted by the tide, or smashed by a careless anchor.
Casting off in the dinghy, it was difficult to choose which little cay with sugar sand beach we should explore first. We headed out the narrow inlet between Devil's and Little Harbour Cays, thinking we might do some snorkelling on the ocean side, but were defeated by the crashing surf that pounded through the channel. (We don't do rough water snorkelling in strong currents.) Back into the circle of perfect little cays that ringed Altona, we randomly chose Little Gaulding to explore. Fantastic rock formations, porous and jagged, framed dazzling white beaches that you'd think are only real in dreams or travel posters. To complete the idyll, we landed near a single perfect conch shell washed up on the sand. What a find: it was even cleaned out and just waiting for me! On White Cay, we walked the path to the ocean side, finding tiny birds' eggs right on the path. The parents valiantly tried to lure us away with the broken wing trick, making me laugh aloud they were so cute.
After a couple of lazy days in paradise, we reluctantly heeded the bad weather warnings and sailed north and west around Great Stirrup and Little Stirrup Cays where the cruise boats ferry their passengers to play on the beaches. When we see the beaches crammed with blue plastic chairs, and hordes of people lined up for water sports, we know how lucky we are to be enjoying our kind of cruising, although I do admit the food would be far superior to what I serve up in my little galley. Then it was south and east again, down to the only deep water approach to the shelter of Bullock's Harbour and Great Harbour Cay Marina. Deep water is a relative term on the Great Bahama Bank, because the depths max out at around 2.5 metres.
We loved Great Harbour Marina, and met up again with Captain Ron and Andrea aboard S.V. Endurance, our distant neighbours when anchored down by Devil's. In the Berries, it seems, even bad weather brings opportunities. Ron and Andrea introduced us to the people and places that bring them back to the Berries every holiday: beaches 5 Miles long, colourful local characters, expatriate Americans, dinghy rides through the mangrove creeks, hikes along the ocean side, and Petanque (similar to bocce ball), played with great dedication at 5:00 at the beach bar every day. It was the very best of the cruising life: breathtaking landscapes, meeting wonderful new friends, tagged manatees up close and personal as they drank from the marina hose, and the Berry Island Festival (with Junkanoo, of course) thrown in for good measure. Enough with the words: the picture album says it better.
After the Berries, the plan was to sail straight up to Jacksonville and leave Altona on the hard at Green Cove Springs for hurricane season. We had a great passage until thunderstorms drove us in at Cape Canaveral. After several days of motoring up the ICW, we put Altona to bed in 10 days of meltingly hard labour with temperatures close to 100F. Welcome back to life ashore.
After an uneventful 24 hour sail from the Dominican Republic, we arrived at French Cay on the edge of the Caicos Bank and headed off across the Banks to Sapodilla Bay. The stunning water, aglow with an unbelievable clarity and colour just on the blue side of turquoise, is shallow and littered with coral heads, but the GPS chartplotter has a handy magenta line marking the route and we had a relaxed motor across in dead calm. An interesting footnote: at one time not so long ago, an MP in Canada brought forth a proposal to make the T&C a Canadian territory. Unfortunately for us northerners, the T&C wasn't keen on the idea, and remains part of the British Commonwealth.
We knew we'd only have time for a quick taste of the Caicos, and anchored with just one other boat in Sapodilla Bay on Providenciales, known as Provo. After the obligatory check-in, we walked up Sapodillo Hill to take in the view and the flat rocks etched with names of shipwrecked sailors that date back to the 17 and 1800s. The view was lovely, but I couldn't help but wonder what it had been like for those sailors, imprisoned in paradise so far from home.
On lovely Sapodilla Beach, with its perfect crescent of pure white sand, we met a wonderful couple from Toronto who were vacationing on the island. The four of us went for a dinghy ride around the point to check out snorkelling possibilities at the Five Cays (a bust), and then had lunch together overlooking Chalk Sound, which is one of the six National Parks. Sometimes, you're lucky enough to meet people you feel an immediate connection with, and so it was with Lesley and Maurice. We found so many commonalities, the most impressive of which was that Lesley used to vacation at the same small lake in the Quebec Laurentians that we did. Considering the few English families in that area, and the fact that Lac Pilon is somewhat off the beaten track, it was an amazing coincidence. They kindly gave us a lift into town for provisions (Provo is a lot like being back on the mainland, with just about anything available.... for a hefty price) before going off for their scuba dive training.
Diving In the Turks and Caicos is world renowned (and expensive) because of the crystal clear water and spectacularly sudden drop off from the shallow Banks to ocean depths, which create amazing wall dives. The best snorkelling was reputed to be off West Caicos, so we sailed across and picked up a mooring there. Our first view of the north end of the island was of a huge but apparently abandoned resort or condo complex. We couldn't understand why such a blot on the landscape would have been permitted, particularly since West Caicos is a National Park. Rounding the coast to the west side, however, the vista was an uninterrupted coast of craggy coral-like rocks carved by the sea into fantastic shapes and caves. The only vessel around, we picked up a mooring ball between the forbidding shore and the sharp demarcation between turquoise and deep blue that marks the drop off to depths upwards of 6000-12000. Amazing! The snorkelling was intriguing and really different. Near the shore we could swim between rock formations as spectacular and lethally jagged as any we've seen. Fish were plentiful, but coral scarce. In one area, though, we came across an amazing field of nothing but fan coral in muted blues, mauves, pinks, yellows and oranges. Schools of fish drifted along as though winding their way through a forest of ferns. Just past the fan field, huge grouper and snappers lurked in clefts and caves of rock. Disaster of disasters, I had left my camera back at the boat! After our snorkel, we lazed around on deck in the sun with an icy beer/iced tea. We normally don't sunbathe because we get enough sun damage on our skin as it is, but the day was just too perfect to resist dragging cushions to the bow and lazing against the swell of the cabintop, admiring our own private slice of the world's beauty.
Day 3 we returned to Provo to try to meet up with Lesley and Maurice at Malcolm Roads, a long stretch of beach where we hoped to find more snorkelling before jumping north again. The beach turned out to be too long. The white sand, isolated and untouched, stretched for miles. We ended up grabbing a mooring ball close to the resort, figuring they'd have to come down that road. As it turned out, they weren't able to make it, so we connected by email and heard about their fabulous dive the day before. I am definitely going to try a dive somewhere, because even people who are a bit iffy about trying it (like me), say it's fantastic. Next year.
Luperon is a town of contrasts in every respect. Boasting a man-made hurricane harbour, it is reportedly the staging port of choice for south and north bound cruisers making the Bahamas / Caribbean trek. We heard that even though the anchorage is crowded and dirty, many cruisers choose to stay for months, forming a community that returns year after year. Given this, our expectations were completely different from the reality we found.
The first and most obvious contrast was the sudden, dramatic switch from the wild wind and waves off the northern DR coast into the placid waters of the harbour. No wonder some cruisers heave a sigh of relief and put down roots along with their anchors! There's not a breath of wind for several hours after dawn, and even when the trade winds or squalls hit in late morning and afternoon, the harbour waters remain relatively flat. It's heaven after a rocky night anchored or sailing off the north coast.
There's ample evidence of Luperon's former prosperity, but the town has probably suffered from the recession and subsequent decline in American cruising boats more than any other harbour we've visited in the Caribbean. The dinghy dock is new and strong, its handful of modern cruising inflatables and shiny outboards the polar opposite of the battered but sturdy fishing boats hauled up on the rocks or moored between posts made of tree branches. The concrete pier leading to town is an actual two lane road, long and deserted, and empty of garrulous tour guides or groups of young men checking out the new arrivals.
The town itself was a shock after the loveliness of Samana, which can still rely on a fairly lucrative high season for tourism. In Luperon, there are no roads taking advantage of the harbour view, and the single street into town was littered with garbage. An unprepossessing row of maimed stores and houses attached in a dirty line of sagging shacks propped each other up. Peeling, splintered wood on wobbly frames and rusted tin roofs were standard. So disreputable were many buildings that it was unclear if they were abandoned, or if the residents had simply given up. Laundry was draped in backyards, along the sidewalk, and over barbed wire fences: no clothespins needed there. Downtown Luperon had no loud music, no laughter in the air, no cheery hellos from the locals. We walked the streets in silence, humbled by the evidences of a struggle for subsistence. Why, we wondered, would cruisers come and stay? There were none of the prosperous markets we'd envisioned for provisioning, and only a few restaurants and bars still in business, two of them built by expatriate Americans who are both trying to sell and plan to close within a month. A worn woman of indeterminate age roasted cobs of corn over a giant coffee can on the sidewalk, and in another block a young man grilled chicken over a big metal drum. Shops were dingy, stacked with sacks of rice and beans, crates of eggs, and sad looking produce. A few prosperous looking houses, obviously new, stood side by side with disreputable shacks. The buildings straggled right up against the narrow sidewalks, their porches and sometimes the rooms themselves wide open to the street. Wrought iron grillwork protected doors, windows, carports and porches. An empty lot littered with junk was a block from a lovely park with new pagoda and benches. Motorcycles, trucks, and cars shared the streets with goats, cows, pigs, horses and dozens of stray dogs. Lots filled with banana trees, right downtown, were protected by iron fences. A cement wall was topped with rolls of vicous barbed wire. The Catholic church was beautiful and impeccably maintained. This was the face with which Luperon introduced itself, and even as we wandered the town, we were already looking forward to our departure.
But over the next few days, we began to see another Luperon. There's no Laundromat, but you can take your laundry several places and get it back a day later, fresh and neatly folded for less than you'd spend in a Laundromat elsewhere. Papo cruises the harbour and will deliver your diesel, water, or anything else you need. We ate ashore each day, enjoying wonderful meals at JR's and Steve's. The grouper at Steve's was the best fish we've ever had, moist and succulent, sautéed in lots of butter, olive oil, garlic, onion and peppers; their French fries were the best I've eaten outside of Quebec. It was so delicious we had to eat it again the next day. Sadly, by mid June Steve's Bar and Restaurant will be history, a casualty of the recession and rising crime rates. In the shops we trolled for produce, we began to see that the faces we'd thought were sullen were only tired and slightly defeated, but still quick to return a smile. I wish that I knew more Spanish, because I would have loved to be able to talk to the people we met, and to let them know how much we appreciate the opportunity to travel in their beautiful country. I would have loved to be able to spend something in every one of the shops we passed.
In Luperon, I fell in love with a charming little blond. She followed us for no apparent reason, even though we never fussed over her, petted her, or even talked to her, except for Ralph yelling, "Vamoose!" a couple of times. But she followed us all the way back to the dock, trying to tempt us to play with her. I didn't respond, knowing it wasn't fair to encourage her when I couldn't keep her.... even though she would have made a marvellous boat dog. She had the most lovely temperament, and when we headed for the dinghy dock, she jumped in the water and swam over dinghy lines, trying to clamber into Vorck. When we shoved off and started the motor, she followed us way out into the harbour until her head was just a dot, still trying to follow. I was terrified she'd drown, but Ralph said he saw her turn back and go in behind the boats. I looked for her every day after that, but never saw her. She was one the only dog we saw with a collar, and was obviously healthy and well fed. I hope she found her way back to someone who loves her, even though I couldn't help thinking she was meant to be mine. For many reasons, I'll be reluctant to leave Luperon.
That's the Dominican Republic, filled with people who steal a little bit of your heart. The Luperon photo album tells the story better than I can.
We departed Samana at 12:00 noon for a 30 mile trip around the Cape to one of the few possible spots to anchor on the north coast: El Valle. Chito was disappointed we weren't staying to take a trip to the big falls (so was I), and warned us that there would be wicked swells in El Valle that could tear our anchor loose and fling us against the rock walls. We also knew we should have departed early in the morning in order to get around Cape Samana and Cape Cabron before the winds picked up around 9 a.m. However, Revenue Canada would have been displeased had we not made the time to find Wifi ashore and file our taxes. I don't think I mentioned that as great as Samana is, we found only 1 Wi-Fi café where we could use our laptops. Most Internet places had dial-up using old desktop computers. Remember dial-up?
As a result, we had a rough ride out of the bay and around the Capes, and a brisk sail along the north coast to El Valle. I munched on Dramamine and we both kept a keen eye on the surf crashing ashore, while Altona weathered the rough ride like the game little trooper she is. El Valle is only 5 miles overland from Santa Barbara, but 30 miles around by boat. Once around the Capes, the ride smoothed out and we ran with the wind and waves. The north coast is forbiddingly grand, with steep, looming cliffs, high ridges with the jagged teeth of a few hardy palm trees, and a shore line gnawed by crashing surf. The overcast day added the final touch of menace, and we were uneasy sailing so close to such a vicious lee shore. You don't want to get into trouble along there, but we approached El Valle without incident.
There was only 1 boat waiting in the anchorage.... Windy Liz, and we could tell from afar that the swells were wicked. Her mast was arcing through a good 45 degrees, and she was showing her bottom paint as she rolled from side to side. Not a good sign, but the only other option was sailing through the night all the way to Luperon, and that would have put us in at very much the wrong time. So we anchored, and rolled and rocked relentlessly all night. I slept on the floor where the arc is less, and Ralph suffered a sleepless night in the V-berth.
Next morning, Windy Liz took off before us to accommodate her slower speed, while we watched the local boats. Despite the size of the bay, several fishing boats rowed out from the beach to the open ocean, and one rowed back in casting a large net. With 5 men, the boat was low in the water, and 3 men dove overboard, kicking along as they manoeuvered the net. A 6th man was on a rock much further inshore, hauling on a line attached to the net. Hard work indeed, especially after rowing all that way! This is subsistence living in the DR.
At 12:30 pm we set sail for Luperon, 130 miles distant. The entrance into the manmade, well protected harbour at Luperon is so tricky that it should only be attempted when the wind and sea is calm, i.e. never after 8:30 a.m. We sailed far enough out to pick up some wind and flew along on a broad reach at a good 7-8 knots... a fabulous speed for Altona. The winds didn't really die after dusk as anticipated, even further inshore, and we found ourselves in the unique position of trying to slow the boat down so we wouldn't arrive too early. We jibed back and forth all night, and deliberately went off course. Meanwhile, Windy Liz had lost her autopilot, and they were hand steering through a long, long night. In a grey dawn, with the winds and waves still high, we pulled the sails down outside Luperon and followed Windy Liz inside, gratefully dropping anchor in the dead calm harbour of Luperon.
Samana is a beautiful big bay on the east coast of the Dominican Republic, and Santa Barbara de Samana (aka Samana) is a lovely a town with just the right balance of amenities, tourism, and colourful local flavour. Top 10 things we've discovered about the DR: 1) The people are wonderfully friendly and helpful. They love to laugh, dance, and play their music loudly. 2) The food is great, eating out is cheap, and fresh fruit from the market delicious. 3) Samana is a clean, busy, industrious town where you can find just about anything you need, and what you can't find someone will get for you. 4) Local products are very reasonable. 5) Tipping is customary and expected and there are lots of people just waiting to help you with everything. 6) The highest mountains in the Caribbean provide a beautiful backdrop to Samana, and excursions inland are well worth the effort. 7) Whale watching is huge here, but unfortunately we just missed the season. The whales went north without us. 8) Licensed tour guides will be waiting for you at the Samana dock. They speak English and have local knowledge that's well worth the modest fee/tip. 9) Side by side with cellphones, satellite dishes and motorcycles, you see ancient methods of fishing and farming, and labour saving devices are the exception rather than the norm. 10) We need to learn some basic Spanish. Most locals don't speak English, but they're delighted with our pathetic efforts to make ourselves understood.
The harbour in Santa Barbara is relatively protected but can be subject to moderate swells. They usually die down at night, so sleeping isn't a problem. The waterfront is lovely, and the view out towards the bay always interesting: there are lots of boats coming and going (even though the tourist season is past its peak), there are picturesque rock formations and the Bridge to Nowhere with local kids jumping off from an unbelievable height. There's an election next month, and the music is always blaring from the trucks and buses advertising for one candidate or the other. We spent a week here and visited the market almost every day. I could have eaten nothing but sweet, juicy pineapple every day, and the bananas were loaded with flavour.
Our guide and translator, Chito (aka Martin), was invaluable. He took us around town the first morning: dentist for Wendy's broken tooth, barbershop for Ralph, money exchange, and the market for the best produce. The town is absolutely hopping with activity all the time: noise, music, motorcycles by the hundreds, baseball, boats, colours, kids. It's wonderful!
Our trip to the waterfall and plantation with Gail and Ray was a great day. Chito's friend John owns and drives the van that took us into the mountains, past the reservoir, and onto a very rough road. We stopped at Gina's plantation where Chito toured us around and showed us all the fruit, coffee and chocolate trees. Gina also has an open air shop with local crafts and jewellery, again at very reasonable prices. Much better than in town, and the buffet lunch she served us was delicious!
The final destination, Lulu Falls, was an easy walk, pretty, and it was nice to have a swim in fresh water under the falls. Unfortunately, we had to rush off a little early due to an unexpected tropical downfall which can make the road impassable if you wait too long. (The plus is that we finally used the rain catcher I made and it didn't take long to top up Altona's water tank with 45 gallons of water.) Next time, Chito and John will take us to the BIG falls by van and horseback. Or maybe we'll hike it. Either way, it'll be another terrific day.
It's been a while since my last update, but life has been busy. After a month spent with family in Chicago while Ralph lived aboard in Culebra, I returned "home" to Altona in San Juan mid April. After the usual provisioning run, we scurried rapidly to Boqueron in the west end of the island.
The highlight of the south coast sail along Puerto Rico was the company that visited Altona in the anchorage at Puerto Patilla... a family of manatees. At least 4 of them spent a leisurely 15 minutes or so swimming under and around our hull, checking us out, and it was wonderful! I was tempted to grab my snorkel and submerge to swim with them, but was afraid I'd scare them away. It was a wonderful experience, though, even from the deck. What marvellously curious and gentle mammals these are, and they seemed to have a white juvenile with them, which I'd never seen before.
The south coast is lush, mountainous, and beautiful. We stopped briefly in Ponce, but the anchorage was really noisy, with revelry from the bars clearly audible well into the early hours of the morning. I was desperate for some peace and quiet, so we didn't stay to do any sightseeing.
Boqueron, a west end staging area, is a nice tourist town with a pretty waterfront and a lot of young travellers. Apparently it's a spring break destination for students, with the requisite number of bars and friendly places to eat, but the noise seemed to stop at a reasonable hour. The beach is gorgeous and the downtown waterfront is lined with shops and food stalls, with piles of oysters and clams. The bay is spacious but adequately protected from every direction except west, which was fine as the prevailing winds are from the east and we enjoyed some marvellous sunsets. We met the crew of Windy Liz, Gail and Ray, and decided to make the crossing to the Dominican Republic together. The crossing was uneventful, although we did have to motor sail part of it due to light winds. We sailed into Samana Bay in the Dominican Republic and dropped anchor in Santa Barbara de Samana, commonly known simply as Samana. Total time: 23 hours of smooth sailing, excellent for a 151 mile nautical mile crossing (with a little help from the iron sail.)