GEORGE TOWN to PUERTO RICO
16 March 2013 | Palmas Del Mar, Puerto Rico
We left The Bahamas to travel alone along the 603-mile rhumb line to Puerto Rico, on what sounded like a nice weather window - and it was! The opportunities to head East this time of year without bashing and crashing into the trade winds are few and far between. But an unusual, long window opened up so we took it, and our Eastern Caribbean Adventure began!
We left George Town at 3:30pm on a "spicy" day with 20 knots of wind out of the NW. The current was ebbing and we rode it out the cut from Elizabeth Harbor into Exuma Sound. We usually have the main up to execute a cut, and after we entered the sound all three sails were up. Crossing Exuma Sound was a great sail. That, five hours between Long Island and Samana, and about six or seven hours at the end turned out to be our only engine-off sailing of the trip!!! (Is that the engine still ringing in my ears???)
We had hoped for a little more wind, but this was what Michael calls an MBR - Motor Boat Ride - with sails up, so it was a motorsail. We took advantage of any wind boost (even 2k!) to help us make more miles and conserve fuel. We carry 106 gallons in the tanks and we had 15 on deck in jerry cans - and I cannot tell you how many times we calculated and recalculated and devised bail-out plans if we needed to stop for more diesel. WHEW!
So we thought it might be fun to describe a day at sea... We use a four-hour watch system in which the first night one person has watch from 6-10pm, sleeps from 10pm-2am, and stands watch again from 2-6am. So of course the other sleeps, has one watch and sleeps again. During the day, we trade off catnaps as needed. The next night we switch, so we trade 2-watch nights. Roberta actually likes the 2 watches better; she can sleep better in between. Michael's old fire-fighting nap anywhere anytime skill allows him to get more sleep in two segments than R is able to do.
A typical morning has the sleeping person waking up at 6. Coffee is made. At 6:15 we check in with the SSB radio net we have set up with dear and faithful friends to track our position and report how it is going. It is so great when you are out alone in the middle of the big blue to hear those voices from The Bahamas and Maryland! At 6:30 we listen to Chris Parker's Bahamas weather. At 8 am we listen to his Caribbean weather (since we are traveling between!). At 8:30 we check in to "Cruiseheimers" - a wonderful managed network of cruisers who communicate through this means - with emergency, medical or priority traffic (such as missing-boat watches), announcements about seminars or whatever, and then check-ins - a good way to find out where friends are and to report your position if traveling. If one boat wants to communicate with another, they just say "traffic" or "contact" and then are allowed to call another boat and move to another frequency to chat. If someone cannot be heard, there is a relay to make sure everyone gets connected. This net also sponsors a "tech net" so if you have boat repairs to do or need something, others will help work it through. We have located lots of friends and connected this way - over the air and in port. Anyway, during or after all the communication, Roberta makes breakfast. This trip it was easy to cook because we were not heeled over, and the seas were very smooth - we had about a 6-8' roll swelling out of the north at 11-second intervals - quite benign!
After breakfast is a day of recording log information every hour (lat/long, engine hours, course, speed, wind speed and direction, temp, visibility, seas, and comments). Our chart-plotter tells us how far we have traveled, how far we have to go, our average speed and how long it will take to reach our destination, among all the other info.
In between record-keeping and meals we fish, read, write emails to send over the SSB radio, nap, make lunch and dinner and clean up. And this trip we managed the sails a lot. "Genny" in out in out in out, pole up pole down, as the wind came and went (under 10k - actually, even under 5!). Roberta manages to get in an hour of cross stitch - maybe.
Between Samana and Mayaguana Islands, Michael caught a 20lb mahi! Well WE caught it! When the line he has out hooks a fish, Roberta slows the boat so he can reel the fish in, and while he plays the fish she runs about to fetch M's gloves, the waist pole-brace, the hook pliers, gin to spray in the gills (puts it to sleep), "fish towel" to cover the eyes and hold onto it once we have it on deck, mouth pliers and scale, filet knife, cutting board, camera, and lastly the gaff hook. When Michael has the fish next to the boat, Roberta gaffs it and lifts it aboard, covers it with the towel and sprays the gills, then hops back to the wheel to power up and return to course. All this has taken maybe 15-20 minutes. Michael filets the fish on the side deck, and completes trimming and portioning the filets in the galley. One of us cleans the deck and Roberta vacuum-seals the filets and freezes them - except for one pair that we eat for dinner!
Other entertainment underway: using Star Walk on the iPad at night to learn new constellations; dolphins near the Turks and Caicos leaping 10' out of the lapis-blue, gin-clear water on their way to come "play" with the boat - which means diving back and forth under the bow and swimming with us; a tropic bird flying out to greet us and circling the boat just off the Silver Banks above the Dominican Republic; watching for whales on Silver Banks (where "thousands come to breed Nov-March"); watching the AIS signal to identify and avoid ships...
And speaking of whales... our traversing of the Silver Banks was so awesome it is hard to describe. Everywhere we looked, in a 360 degree panorama, we saw humpback whales. None closer than about 50 yds and most about a mile or more away. But with creatures that big, when they come out of the water breeching, you can see them clearly from a distance - and we like a little distance from a frisky, breeding whale!!! We saw fin slaps - whomp, whomp, whomp - over and over and over, like the male was saying "get over here woman!" or "whoowhee that was good!" There were tail slaps, flukes, and mostly leaping breeching humpbacks by the dozens. WOW!!!
In the evening, at 5pm we check in to the "Doodah Net," which is kept for boats underway to report position. If we do not check in, they send out a boat watch until we report or are seen. Then comes dinner and sunset. At 6:30 we check in with our own faithful friend SSB radio net and after that, one of us goes to bed, and the other begins a long dark night. Moonrise this trip got later and later and the moon became smaller and smaller, but it is amazing how much bright light a "fingernail moon" puts out.
While we both wish we could have sailed more, the conditions made for a very easy, comfortable passage. We caught 5 fish, saw dozens of whales, some dolphins, a tropic bird, a frigate bird, lots of ships toward the Mona Passage and no other pleasure boats.
Close to Puerto Rico, we had a wonderful sunset sail to end the trip. Near Isla Desecheo we were spotlighted by a Coast Guard helicopter. We had an easy ride across the notorious Mona Passage and set anchor in Mayaguez. Traveled 605 miles in 103 hours. We arrived 2 hours after Banyan (Nova Scotians we met in Vero and saw again in George Town) and Blue Moose - also Canadians. Both boats left three days ahead of us but stopped in the D.R. and at Mayaguana.
Our Customs experience was a hoot. None of us could call in - no working phones. Our US Go Phone had expired, and our Bahamas phone WORKED (surprise!!!!) but was almost out of minutes. So here is the series of events:
Blue Moose was called on the VHF by the Coast Guard on the way in. The CG wanted to know who they were and what they were doing. When they got closer to Mayaguez, we could hear Banyan calling via VHF to a non-existent harbormaster, then to the Coast Guard to report in.
The Coast Guard gave Banyan a phone number to call customs. After discovering he could not call Customs, and neither could Blue Moose, Banyan called the Coasties back. They were very accommodating and took "preliminary" information and called Customs for both boats. Customs indicated they should anchor and report in person at 8 in the morning. We heard all this and tried the given number on our two phones. We actually got Customs on the Bahamas phone, and probably could have completed check in, but Roberta had to repeat everything at least three times and the agent could not get past that we did not have a Customs decal and then the phone ran out of minutes. So we called the Coast Guard on the VHF, told them we could not complete check-in with Customs, and then the Coasties tried to call, but the Customs office had shut down (this was all happening at about 10pm). So the CG told us to anchor and report in person at 8am.
We were ready to go before the other two boats, so at 7:50am we headed over to the ferry dock to climb over huge truck tires (just as Roger and Jane on Sereno 55 had indicated!) to wander around the terminal grounds and garage calling "hola" and "hello" and "good morning" after finding the front door locked and all lights dark. No answer. Hmmm... where we in the wrong place???
We scrambled back down the tires in a huge swell - no easy task - getting us and the dinghy all black and nasty, and went back to the boat to drop Roberta off to look at charts for a second indicated Customs office and make copies of the town map while Michael went ashore in a different place and started to ask around. Meanwhile, Blue Moose had got online, and was able to talk via Skype to Customs, who said they could see us in the harbor, gave us an address, and told us to head on over. But we could not figure out where the address was. So we all loaded into dinghies again and went back over on an exploratory trip to the ferry dock, thinking perhaps this office might now be open. And it was. Scrambled up tires again - more black - and met two VERY nice young Puerto Rican Customs officials, who said they had been open at 8:00! (They were not!)
We were escorted into a room where they meet hundreds from a weekly ferry from the D.R., and handed over our documents. One officer - a very personable, charming and handsome guy - stayed to chat with us while three others processed us all. Roberta asked about highlights and we had a fun talk about what to see in PR. We had to pay $27.50 because we did not have a Customs decal, but the cost will go towards getting one as soon as we can get online. Good thing we had some cash on hand! We didn't get a decal in Florida before leaving, because the Customs agent who gave us our Florida Boaters Option cards told us to wait (it was late Dec and they are only good for a calendar year) and that it wasn't totally necessary anyway, and then we forgot. It seems to be a big deal here... so we will get one, it will be mailed to my brother, and we will just use the number until we can have it in hand - which is ok according to these Customs guys. For any US boat heading here, we highly recommend a working phone and a customs decal.
Then, Customs allowed us to leave our dinghies on their dock for a while, and told us how to find AT&T, etc., by walking about a mile, which we did. (YAY! We have an unlimited-use US phone again for another month or so!) Found a McDonalds "café" (trying to be like Starbucks), and by then we were all starving, so we had lunch - and a latte!
We eventually got back to the boats, and headed for Boqueron down the "inside" path. It was a somewhat wild ride. 15-20k wind behind, big swell bumping into shallows, but it was fun! We slid into Boqueron, and anchored with very few cruising boats and quite a few derelict sailboats, which it turns out have people living on some.
Cruising guides by Van Sant and Pavlidis have interesting descriptions of Boqueron - including information that "Bohemians" have moved in. We wondered what their definition of a Bohemian was... So of course, as soon as the anchor was down, we drove in to find out, despite being thoroughly exhausted.
The dinghy dock was quite decrepit, and a small breaking swell was rolling through it onto the beach. After much adjustment, we were able to tie off, throw an anchor line, and monitor that the dinghy could ride it out. At the town end of the dinghy dock, the Saturday night party began!
This is a narrow-streeted, college hangout, beach town (but the "young bucks and bikinis" were all up at Rincon for a surfing competition, according to our Customs guys). There were lots of families hanging out, kids playing in the surf, small kiosks selling art and homemade jewelry, others hawking clams, oysters, shrimp, octopus, lobster. Stores of beach wear - PR style. Sidewalk karaoke bars. Loud music blaring from taverns 'til 2am. And of course, the "bohemians" - which it turns out (we think) seems to be local code for "gay." What a scene!
On the way in to the dock, we passed an ARC boat (a boat who has crossed the Atlantic as part of a cruising rally) "JayJay," and at the dinghy dock we met the Brits, Debra and Paul, who sail her. Very nice people who are heading north and maybe to the Bahamas, we chatted with for a while and invited to join us. They did. Banyan and Blue Moose didn't like the look of the dinghy dock and headed for Club Nautica where they were allowed to tie up and illicitly access the road through the restaurant. On later trips in to town, we all tied up there - much nicer. We met up on the street and headed to Galloways for a cold one and dinner. It was a great evening with lots of stories and laughs. We were all tired from our passages, so headed back to the boats for a very roly night with the NW swell, which everyone kept saying was so unusual for this bay that is advertised as a calm, restful anchorage.
We spent a tired Sunday checking out an advertised but non-existent fuel dock (a gas station will loan you a jerry can if you leave an ID!), a non-existent laundry, searching for a grocery store (found a mini-mart), walking the pretty beach, transforming Celilo from passage boat to pretty, picked-up home, and making plans for where to go next and when.
After another VERY roly night and not enough sleep, we listened to Chris Parker's weather report on the SSB. Roberta called him to ask about rounding Cabo Rojo and was told "today is the best day to go," so within an hour, all three boats were anchor up and heading to La Parguera... which is where we are now, in a calm anchorage surrounded by mangroves.
Coming down, the wind was out of the N along with the swell until we rounded Cabo Rojo, a beautiful cape with bluffs and an old lighthouse. Once on the south shore we were in the lee from the swell and the wind shifted to southerly - the influence of the sea breeze dominating due to the mountains blocking the northerly.
The way in here was skinny but marked, we are in the US after all, and with the sun behind us the visibility was good. We are anchored in about 15 feet and got a good set. The diurnal pattern of the sea/land breeze means we will swing through a circle each day. May have to watch that anchor chain.
La Parguera provided a good night's sleep, the first since George Town. The town is small and there are colorful buildings, mostly weekend places it seems, built right out over the water. There are reefs and mangroves all around, a bioluminescent bay, and we had fun checking it all out. We snorkeled the reef, and Michael went swimming in the biolum bay. It was fun to see the water light up around his moving hands and feet!
After a couple of nights in La Parguera, and one at Gilligan's Island, we set out for Palmas Del Mar where we are now, on the east coast of Puerto Rico. We stopped overnight in Puerta Patillas, but didn't even get the dinghy down - it had been a long day (60 miles with a stop for fuel in Salinas), and we wanted to get going early. We arrived in Palmas about 10 a.m., and are in a marina, so we can rent a car and go see some of the country. We gave Celilo a bubble bath - she was very salt-crusted! - and then spent the afternoon at the marina tiki bar and pool. We are feeling like we are at the Ritz!
We are still with Banyan and Blue Moose, sharing dinners and happy hours with what Michael calls "The Canadian Navy" - and turns out that Dave, of Banyan, was actually in the Canadian Navy!
The Puerto Rican coastline is very beautiful. We northwesterners like to see a hill or two now and then, and after the flat Chesapeake and Bahamas, the mountainous Puerto Rican landscape is gorgeous and green. So far, everyone we have met in Puerto Rico has been fun, friendly, laughing. We are happy to be here and exploring a new place. It is still hard to believe that we have sailed ourselves here! If this is a dream, don't pinch me - I don't want to wake up!