02/14/2013, Brewer Bay - St. Thomas
After spending over 2 weeks in Puerto Rico it was time to move on. Our next destination was Vieques the largest island of the Spanish Virgin Islands. The Spanish Virgin Islands are part of Puerto Rico and consist of 4 separated areas, Isla Palominos, the islands and reefs of La Cordillera, the islands of Culebra and the island of Vieques. After the US Navy stopped using Vieques in 2002 and Culebra in 1975 as bombing practice areas the islands completely depend on tourism. But this industry is developing very slowly and that makes it a paradise for cruisers and other visitors who are not looking for resorts with wining, dining and gambling. Walking over Flamenco Beach in Culebra you believe that you are back in the late 1960's with people camping in primitive tents and huts along the beach in the brush. These are the prime "Beach Bums" I always wanted to be.
We left Salinas at 6:30AM on our way to Puerto Patillas on the east coast of Puerto Rico. This was a short 16 miles hop using the philosophy from Bruce Van Sant in his very widely used book "The Thornless Path to Windward". The guidelines are based on the fact that the "Trade Winds" are reduced in strength during the late night till the early morning by the land winds created by the islands. However, when you meet a big squall coming off the islands that will not always create the smooth sailing you are aiming for. We had such a squall of this strength, some rough seas, the wind and waves on the nose. In Puerto Patillas we snuggled close to shore behind the reefs for a quiet day since we planned to leave at 12:00 midnight to sail to Vieques. Early in the morning when we came close to Vieques we did not see land. The east and west sides of the island were used for bombing range and ammunition storage and these parts are completely uninhabited which means absolutely no light on the west side of the island. With the moonless night we saw north of us the contours of the mountains that sometimes looked like the low clouds around us. It was very spooky. We arrived at 6:30AM in Vieques and anchored in Ensenada Sun Bay with one of the most beautiful beaches I have seen.
At the anchorage we did not have internet connection and for that we had to walk along the one mile beach to the next bay in front of the little town of Esperanza. We had lunch in the Trade Winds Restaurant with a great view of the bay and enjoyed the non-tourist like atmosphere of the Spanish Virgin Islands. This place is so close to the US and so far away from our typical life style in the US. We played on the beach, did a lot of swimming, and met a lot of cruisers and other visitors including a family from Vermont, visiting their daughter who is an intern, assisting with a program to monitor several turtle species coming on shore on the beaches. All this time we were the only boat in the bay, but suddenly late in the afternoon boats started coming in including a large charter catamaran with at least 10 people onboard that anchored just next to us with little room to spare. When we left the next morning at 5:00 AM, we had to maneuver a little in the dark to get away from this boat.
It is about 22 miles to Culebra our next destination, 11 miles along the coast of Vieques to the east and at the end of the island after a sharp turn to the north another 11 miles to Culebra. We estimated that this trip would take us about 4 to 5 hours. But an unexpected high easterly wind created very short and high waves and together with a 1 mile current against us we did not make more than 3 Kn and it took us 4 hours to get to the east point of Vieques. After making the turn to the north and passing Vieques it would be smooth sailing to Culebra. So I lost my patience, turned too early and consequently we came in the breakers on the east point of Vieques. The sea punished me directly, as for the first time since we have Island Girl a big wave came in the cockpit and I was soaked. After this it was a smooth sail to Culebra. We used a free mooring buoy in the large "Ensenada Honda" bay. We need to stay in this bay for a couple of days due to weather conditions with what Chris Parker our weather guru, described the seas as "Horrendous washing-machine of large North Swell and large and steep seas from the ENE".
To spend some time in Culebra is not bad at all. Culebra has some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean. The most famous one is "Flamenco Beach" that I described above and 5 others with Zoni Beach as our favorite. This beach is a little isolated compared to Flamenco Beach and is wide and long with pure white sand and the colors of the sea are really like in the commercials. The Spanish Virgin Islands are connected with Puerto Rico by a ferry system with ticket prices of $2.00 one way. In the weekend many people take the ferry and buses are waiting to transport the people to the beach. The ferry landing place is a very fun area with small restaurants with side walk cafés and a nice part with great benches. During the week it is a nice, quiet area where people are waiting for the ferry, eat something, sit and read a book or just sleep on the benches. It is our favorite lunch location. We used the dinghy to go around, walked in town and used the bike to do some exploring. We rented a brand new jeep for one day and drove all the roads on the island and visited every beach. Using a car on the island needs some skills to drive steep roads and I can tell you the roads are steep. Every hill has a different view with not only a view of the island but the surrounding islands such as Puerto Rico, Vieques, Culebrita and St. Thomas. The weather is great except for the day the storm blew in. We needed to use the dinghy to go back to Island Girl, the rain was coming down, the water in the bay was quite rough due to the wind and as a result we were wet and cold. The wind was blowing the entire night, but we slept like babies safely on the mooring buoy.
Due to the very high north/easterly swell we did not visit Culebrita but sailed this morning directly to St. Thomas were we are anchored in Brewer Bay in front of a nice beach and the runway of the airport and a very high mountain. But in our next blog we will describe St. Thomas.
02/05/2013, Salinas - Puerto Rico
We had some beautiful anchorages in Puerto Rico but Salinas beats them all. The anchorage is very well protected, with no boat movement at all during the night. We are in front of a nice marina with all the amenities, but we don't have a slip in the marina so no charge for all the stuff a marina can offer. Free internet, great restaurants and bars, a little town with a good grocery store etc. We used our bikes to go to town to do shopping for essentials and it was a nice ride. We are surrounded by mangroves with manatees in the water and in the background the mountains. This is the best an anchorage can offer. We arrived early on Thursday morning in Salinas after a night sail and we spent the rest of the day relaxing. We had work to do since after only running for a couple of hours our generator stopped working again and our solar and wind generator need some support to get us through the night (no sun and trade wind during the night). But the frustration took over and we decided to wait a couple of days and start to enjoy the most beautiful island first. Another good service of the marina is that an employee from Hertz is waiting with cars for people with reservations and has in many cases a car available without a reservation.
It was raining on Friday, that does not happen too often on the south coast and we took off to Ponce the second largest city in Puerto Rico some 25 miles east of Salinas. Besides the old town along the harbor with some buildings built from natural stone (see pictures) Ponce is just a large city and we did not care too much about this. So we took the route 123 into the mountains. This route is not a major road and soon we were driving on a very narrow, winding road with very sharps turns into the mountains. The road is complete surrounded by dense tropical jungle. However, due to the elevation it was very cold outside the car. That day it was 82 in the lower elevations but when we stepped out of the car on top of the mountain the car thermometer indicated a temperature of 56 with a very strong wind blowing through the valleys. The vegetation reminded us again of Indonesia and Suriname, countries we have lived in for such a long time. Dorothy and I agree again that we absolutely love Puerto Rico and we might consider moving here to a nice home in the mountains when we are done sailing and traveling. It is very difficult for me to describe the beauty of the island and the joy we had by driving around, but we hope that our pictures can do the talking.
We returned just in time to the marina to participate in the Friday night BBQ. The food was great, the atmosphere with a mixture of local people and cruisers and good music made it even more perfect. One of our posted pictures shows Dorothy with a rum punch; people, who know her, know that she rarely consumes alcohol, but she definitely enjoyed the rum punch. Although we were hungry it was impossible to finish our food so we took the leftovers with us for a great lunch the following day in our car in Old San Juan.
Yes, that is what we did the next day. We had a beautiful drive to San Juan over the mountains on a very good 4 lane highway. First we went to a West Marine store in San Juan where we did a lot of purchases for broken and needed parts and additions to our boat inventory. The store had the same inventory as the stores in Miami with similar prices. In Best Buy we purchased some computer stuff and a few DVD's for our evening entertainment.
We crossed the bridge to Old San Juan and a new world opened to us. Old San Juan is a designated World Heritage Site by the United Nations. This area was founded in 1510 to protect the Spanish interests from attacks of the Dutch, English and pirates. Old San Juan is partially surrounded by the old city wall and two forts, The Castillo de San Felipe del Moro and Fort San Cristobal. The Spanish culture in this area is so much alive and walking in the narrow streets with all the beautiful buildings, most of them restored is an adventure in itself. We visited both forts which had a special memory for me since I did contract work for a company in New Orleans with a contract for mapping work for the restoration efforts of both forts in 1988. We had only one day planned and that is clearly not sufficient to explore this area so we added it to our bucket list to come back without any strings attached but just explore.
We had to go back to the boat with a list of chores to do. We did most of them on Sunday and finally I started working on the generator. When I found the problem it was a very easy solution; a relay that controls the fuel pump was loose and needed a band to keep it in place. The band was gone and the fuel pump only worked once in a while. With all the investigations why the pump did not work in an area only accessible to dwarfs it took me the entire day and bike ride into town since I dropped a fuel line washer. Hurray, the generator works and we are ready to move on.
01/31/2013, Salinas - Puerto Rico
Last week on Tuesday morning we arrived in Boquerón on the South West coast of Puerto Rico. Stories told not to expect too much of the location and town. This was maybe the cause that we liked it so much and stayed in the beautiful bay until Sunday morning. The town is small but it has everything we needed for food and parts. It has the reputation of a party town for students of the University of Mayaguez that is close by and bohemians, but it reminded us of Key West before the tourists took over. We enjoyed our beer in one of the sidewalk cafes and watched the world go by. We even got invited to a strip (from the waist up) domino game. However, this crossed the line for Dorothy. We made beautiful beach walks, but did a lot of work on the boat as well. We had a broken fresh water pump, a replacement of the fuel filter of the generator which was more difficult than expected and with no fuel dock we had to fill the tank with dinghy rides with 2 jerry cans at a time. We met a Dutch couple Ria Sprenger and Jan Huls from The Netherlands on board of their boat Kismet, who were on their way from Turkey, Brazil, Suriname, Curacao, and Puerto Rico to West Palm Beach and we had a great time sharing stories. The anchorage was great and we slept very well except the last night when a north westerly swell caused Island Girl to roll.
We left the bay at 6:15 AM and had a good motor sail to La Parguera. We found a great anchorage and enjoyed our dinghy rides along the beautiful houses partly built over the water and the mangrove islands. We visited Isla Cueva, home to some 400 monkeys related to those on Cayo Santiago on the east coast of Puerto Rico imported from India for research. On the map Isla Cueva looks like a peninsula, but there is an absolutely gorgeous mangrove lined channel between the island and the mainland which we passed paddling the dinghy under a canopy of mangroves. La Parguera is best known for its bioluminescent lagoon called Bahia Fosforescente. Here millions of tiny luminescent dinoflagellates (a microscopic plankton) light up the surrounding water due to any sort of disturbance. Because there was a huge rainless thunderstorm coming from the mountains we did not want to leave Island Girl and we missed this show.
On 01/29/13 we left La Parguera at 6:30 AM for a short motor sail to Cayos de Cana Gordo or better known as Gilligan's Island. The island was originally called Cayo Aurora after a woman who escaped from a nearby farm and swam to the island where she lived free for many years as a female Robinson Crusoe. Currently it is a very well maintained state park with a lot of weekend visitors, but during the week it is very quiet. We played in the water on a small but very private beach, met some people who are staying in a very nice beach resort on the mainland and used a ferry to Gilligan's Island. The reefs and the mangroves protect the knee deep water and with a clear sandy bottom, an ideal place to play in the water.
We wanted to move further east but the weather prediction did not give good news until Sunday afternoon. We checked about a night sail and it turned out that Wednesday night after the trade wind diminished that we had an opportunity. We checked with Chris Parker, the Caribbean weather guru and it was a go. However, when we went to bed at 7:30 PM the wind was still in the low 20th knots and the water was still very rough. At 10:30 PM when we woke up it looked a lot better and we left at 11:00 PM. Since at night we did not want to pass through the reefs we had to make a one hour detour and so actually we started our 35 miles trip at 12:00 midnight. During the first part when we had to stay outside the reefs we had very nice 6 to 8 feet but long swells. A big part of the trip we could stay behind the reefs in relatively flat water. The coast line east of Gilligan's Island is very developed and it gave us a great view of all the lights up high in the mountains. Very soon after we left we saw a long row of blinking red lights on the horizon and we started guessing what those could be: a channel, an airport and we had many other ideas. It also seemed that we never came closer to the strip of lights. Finally just before the channel to our destination we saw an endless row of very high wind 'mills' each of them with a red blinking light.
Halfway the trip is an island called Caja de Muertos or Coffin Island. The island has a very nice pirate history and on top of the hill is a historic Spanish lighthouse built in 1887. Due to strong North/East winds we could not use the anchorage close to the island and we put a visit to Caja Muertos on our bucket list.
We arrived still in the dark in Salinas and waited in front of the channel for some daylight and had the anchor down at 7:00AM. We will stay in Salinas until the weather improves and our next destination will be Las Palmas del Mar on the east coast of Puerto Rico.
Yesterday, January 22, 2013 we arrived in Boquerón in Puerto Rico after crossing the Mona Pass between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and by that we arrived in the Caribbean Sea. Although we saw the Caribbean Sea during our land trip to Santo Domingo a week ago, arriving with Island Girl is for some reason more special. I lived and worked in the Caribbean in the seventies and beginning of the eighties and visited nearly all the Caribbean Islands but never by boat like we are planning to do now. After Dorothy arrived from Indonesia in Suriname I took her on several trips to the Caribbean islands and of course we spent our honeymoon in Curacao and Aruba. That was actually our last Caribbean trip and we are so excited to be back.
We were a little over 2 weeks in the Dominican Republic and with the beauty of the island we could have spent more time over there. While sailing along the north and east coast of the island we saw many beautiful locations that are worth visiting. But we had a plan to go as fast as possible to the Caribbean and to have completed the difficult crossings to get there. The Mona Pass is considered the most difficult one after completing the Gulf Stream between Florida and the Bahamas, the Tongue of the Ocean between the Great Bahamas Bank and Nassau, the Atlantic Ocean passage from Long Island to Provo in the Turks and Caicos and the Turks Channel from Cockburn Harbor in South Caicos to Luperon in the Dominican Republic. We watched the weather windows and it did not look very good until last week Thursday. Then 3 boats arrived in the Ocean World Marina from the Caribbean all with professional delivery crews and all with very bad weather stories. An Island Packet 38, similar to Island Girl, came in with broken equipment in the mast. According to the captain this happened in the Mona Pass by rolling of the boat in over 20 ft. waves. The professional delivery crew had a young lady on board who had no sailing experience and she was so afraid that she was ready to 'jump ship' and never go back on board anymore. This made us even more careful to select a favorable weather window. We left on Sunday and the first part of the trip along the north coast of the Dominican Republic was fine. The trade wind, although on the nose, was not too bad. This changed going into the night after we made our first turn to the south/east coast line of the DR. To put it mildly, it was not very comfortable. The next day sailing with just the engine and still wind on the nose was better but still very rough. But then we had the scare of our lives. Something big came out of the ocean very close to the boat and made an enormous splash. We both screamed: "What was that?".
A humpback whale started a great performance for us around boat. It jumped 6 times next to our boat; dove after each jump under water came up with a big fountain of spray out of its blow hole and made the next jump. Then it moved to the north and started making big splashes with its tail and we saw it doing this until it disappeared over the horizon. In San Antonio, Texas we lived next to Sea World and since our son Robert was employed at Sea World as a water skier, the park was almost our second home and we watched many whale shows in the park with the killer wales. But seeing a humpback whale up close in the wild was absolutely the highlight of our trip so far. Humpbacks come south to give birth just north of Hispaniola, but I did not know they also go as far as into the Caribbean Sea. A comment from any whale experts about this in our blog would be appreciated. We talked on the radio with another sailor who passed us on his way to the north; he saw the whale too and had the same experience we had.
The Mona Pass was basically the easiest part of the trip. When we passed the so called "Hourglass Shoal" we made our turn into the Mona Pass and the wind gave us an opportunity to set the sails and we had a very nice sail to the Mona Island. The "Hourglass Shoal" is relatively shallow part in the ocean, but is still hundreds of feet deep, but the waters these shoals try to contain comes from the Equatorial Current and this means a lot of water and a lot of energy for the shoals to dissipate and you do not want to be in it. After we passed the "Hourglass Shoal" we had to go back to the engine but until 3.00 AM the half moon was out without any clouds in the sky and it was beautiful. After the moon went under it was suddenly pitch black again, but the stars were sparkling everywhere. We arrived in Boquerón, Puerto Rico at 10:00 AM just before the trade wind started to blow.
01/16/2013, Ocean World Marina
From the coast it is already clear The Dominican Republic is a beautiful country. As a flatlander born and raised in The Netherlands everything higher than a sand hill is a mountain. So I call The Dominican Republic a rugged country with 4 mountain chains and 3 large fertile valleys running roughly east-west. The Cordillera Septentrional backs up the north coast, the Cordillera Central runs in the middle of the country and 2 smaller mountain systems called Sierra de Neiba and Sierra de Baoruco lie in the south west. The valleys are very fertile and very suitable for agriculture. Although the tropical trade winds, the surrounding ocean and the high elevation produce a climate far from tropics. Many times we found it quite cold, especially at night. These climate conditions give the DR the richest flora in the Caribbean. In many cases it reminds us of Indonesia, the country which we believe is the most beautiful in the world. So we put the DR in that same category and could live here forever. However, this describes the country side and not the cities and villages. The cities and villages are dirty, stinking and full of trash. It seems that the people in the DR do not realize that they are destroying one of the most beautiful countries in the world. At the same time the people are very friendly, helpful, and gracious and are very hospitable. Please start cleaning the streets and stop throwing trash out on the streets. The main highways are in excellent condition and in many cases are 4 lane highways. The smaller and city streets are okay, but have many potholes. The sidewalks are horrible and for people like Dorothy and I who like to experience a city by walking through it, this is quite dangerous, especially at night. This is of course due to the problem in any developing country; the politicians find money for new projects but never for maintenance. We found beautiful parks in Santo Domingo just for exercising, walking and biking. In other words we love the DR and the people, not so much the cities.
Puerto Plata is just 5 miles east of the Ocean World Marina and is a very interesting city with a great history. It is the second oldest town in the New World but except Fort San Felipe, the oldest European fort in the New World nothing can be found about the history. After the Spaniards abandoned the north coast of Hispaniola they burned all the cities and forced all the people living in this area to move. This is all the fault of the Dutch since they had the 80 year long war with Spain and started using the harbors along the north coast of Hispaniola. Fort San Felipe is wonderfully restored and we had a great time to visit it. The other main attraction is top of Mount Isabel Torres. You can reach the top of this mountain with a cable car. The mountain is part of the national forest and the vegetation is beautiful with flowers and ferns, but you also find pine trees. The view over the city and the ocean is breath taking. The city has a very wonderful boulevard along the coast starting from Fort San Felipe to the east. Puerto Plata is a tourist town with many good hotels and resorts along the coast.
Santiago is just 65 km south from Puerto Plata connected with a very nice road over the mountains. The city is in the middle of the Cibao Valley with a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. The city has a lot of history but the buildings are not maintained and have nothing attractive anymore except The Monument. It was originally built during the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in 1944 as "Trujillo's Monument to Peace." He ordered its construction in his own honor. Yet, symbolically the monument was built for the centennial of the Dominican War of Independence, which was fought in 1844 to gain sovereignty from Haiti. After Trujillo's assassination in 1961, the government changed the name of the monument to, "Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración" (Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration). So it is now dedicated to the heroes of the Dominican Restoration War, fought from 1863 to 1865 against Dominican Colonist and Spanish forces. The monument is located on a hill in the middle of Santiago, with spectacular views of the city and surrounding mountains. It also has a surrounding park and it is an attractive place at night where people go to relax. We visited the monument on Sunday and many families spend time in the park that surrounds the monument.
Continuing south through the valley and over the mountains for 135 km. we came in Santo Domingo. Santo Domingo is the capital of the Dominican Republic and is its largest city. It is the oldest European city in the Americas where people have been living since it was founded at the end of the 15th century.
Santo Domingo was the first capital of the Spanish colonies in the Américas. It became the starting point of most of the Spanish expeditions of exploration and conquest of the other Caribbean islands and the adjacent lands in the continent. There are still many buildings from that time (16th century) and part of the old walls. The city is big, noisy and in many places very dirty. The traffic is very crowded and the taxis make it very difficult to drive. Taxis are just junk cars that have no lights, fenders or any other parts that can be destroyed and due to that they make their own traffic rules. We did a lot of walking and found many nice places and we loved the parks and the boulevard along the coast.
We also visited the most famous beach east of Santo Domingo, Boca Chica. It is the largest reef protected bay in the Caribbean. The short distance from the capital city, the crystalline waters and the white sands turned Boca Chica into the most crowded beach of the Dominican Republic, especially on weekends and holidays. Boca Chica has two small islands and two marinas. Boca Chica beach has immaculate fine white sand. You can walk in the water and the depth will barely change, the water will be higher than your waist (or a little bit over) all the time. It is too crowded for our taste and the tourist guides won't leave you alone and keep offering you unwanted advice and try to take you to every store and/or restaurant.
Back in the marina with improved weather we are waiting for an opportunity to continue our sail to Puerto Rico.
Chris Parker the weather guru for the Caribbean wrote in his e-mail yesterday morning that the expected moderation in the trade winds did not fully come through and that his advice was not to plan or make any sails or crossings to the Dominican Republic or east along the coast line of the DR until at least next week Thursday, January 17, 2013. But we left Luperon yesterday morning at 6.00 AM, an hour before sunrise for a 13 miles sail east to Ocean World Marina.
Sailing conditions on the north coast of The Dominican Republic is based on the trade winds strength and directions. At the same time there is a strong current from east to west along the coast. The typical trade wind is from 15 to 20 kn. from the south/east. But other weather factors can influence this and the wind can go up to 25 to 30 kn. and any direction from east/north/east. But the large Caribbean islands have an enormous amount on influence on the trade wind and can make them completely or close to completely disappear up to 30 miles of the coast. This effect starts in the evening and can last to the next morning. The island, with its mountains loses its heath developed during the day faster than the sea. This creates a land breeze the together with the wind that comes down from the mountains pushes the trade wind on the coast. So the best time to sail this coast line is at night or early in the morning,
We stayed for one week in Luperon and planned to use this beautiful protected bay to leave Island Girl and make some land trips across the island. However, we came to the conclusion that this would not work out because of problems to keep our batteries full during the night when the trade wind dies down and the fact that the bay water is too muddy for the water maker and the water supply is non-potable water. So we obtained a "Despacho" from the "Navy Commandante" to leave Luperon and sail to Ocean World Marina. After a weather delay of one day we took yesterday morning the chance and left.
In preparation we changed 2 days ago from an anchorage to a mooring buoy. The Luperon bay is very muddy with thick blue clay and when you pull out your anchor you have to thoroughly clean the chain to prevent that all the mud gets in the anchor hole and the bilge. With 100 ft. of anchor rode that is a long process that you don't want to do early in the morning in the dark. So we waited yesterday morning until we had sufficient daylight to circle around all the other boats in the bay. Most of the boats do not use an anchor light and subsequently this was a challenge. We made it safely out of the bay and into the ocean, but as soon we came in the ocean we encountered a big squall with up to 45 kn. wind and the waves seemed to tower over us. The good thing was that it lasted only for about 15 minutes and although the rest of the trip was very rough with 25 to 30 kn. wind on the nose we made it in less to 3.5 hours and arrived at 10.00 AM in the marina.
The marina is protected from the ocean by a sea wall and Island Girl is in a slip just next to the sea wall and there is a constant water vapor on the boat from the waves slamming against the sea wall. The noise from the waves braking on the sea wall sounds like thunder. Next to the marina is a water park and Adventure Park, a casino with Las Vegas style shows (see www.oceanworldmarina.com). The marina is on the west side of the bay and the remainder of the bay has many resort hotels, bars, shops and restaurants along the beach. One of the bars looks like Nikki Beach in Miami Beach. Close to the marina is Puerto Plata the second oldest city in the new world with Fort San Felipe, the oldest European Fort in the new world. From Puerto Plata you can take a cable car ride to Isabel de Torres Mountain with a large statue of Christ on the top. We will stay in this marina for some time so we can visit Santo Domingo and Santiago and our first 'stop' will be Puerto Plata.
Luperon was fun and we had a great time in the bay and in town. People start to recognize you when you walk around and everybody is extremely friendly. On Sunday afternoon we went to a dance hall and although Dorothy did not want to dance, we had a great time watching. Dorothy was so impressed with the dance moves of the ladies that she felt that we would make fools of ourselves, forgetting that I spent many years in Latin America. As mentioned before, we have the time of our lives and hope to continue to enjoy our trip.