01 March 2007 | Dominican Republic
We woke up at about 1 AM and started to get the boat ready for the long trek from Big Sand to Luperon. We try to have things ship shape well in advance of a passage but there are always things to do just prior such as closing hatches, stowing the anchor light and so forth.
We decided to raise the main on anchor this time out as many crews do. The wind was up a bit and we had two boats anchored behind us and the reef to one side. We had never raised the main in an anchorage before. The pros are: you are going to naturally face the wind, you won't be moving and the deck will be more stable. The cons are: you will have a big sail up while you try to make your, often delicate, anchorage exit. We had 15 knots gusting over Big Sand Cay, and some trepidation, but we went ahead and put up the main with one reef.
We always sail with at least one reef at night. Our boat sails just fine with one reef in the main and is safe up to 30 some knots with the shortened main. We don't go out sailing in winds greater than 20 knots if we can avoid it and try to keep things to around 15 knots in the forecast. So unless something really surprising takes place we are good all night with one reef. Going a little slower at night also tends to make things smoother which is nice for the off duty crew sleeping.
After going through our departure checklist and getting the main online with a loose sheet, Hideko went to the fore deck to bring up the anchor. As soon as the hook broke loose we began to move. The wind picked up. I had wanted to go between the two boats away from the reef but the wind had grabbed the main and started to make its own plans known. I was giving her a lot of throttle trying to coax the nose of the boat through the wind to starboard but she was away to port. Hideko came back and pointed out that we were rapidly blowing down onto the boat anchored behind us. I gave up my plan and subscribed to the wind's quickly. We fell off to port and sailed out of the anchorage through a gap between the reef and the boat behind us. We had plenty of room to work in this anchorage but I think I will restrict sail raising to anchorages with completely clear exits when the wind is up going forward.
We were sad to watch Big Sand fade away into the darkness. It was a spectacular anchorage and one of those special places you feel so lucky to have found. It is the unique privilege of folks on cruising yachts to see these truly out of the way places.
Once we cleared the rocks to the South of Big Sand and the Endymion shoal to the Southwest we set a course for Luperon. The moon was bright and waxing full but there were a lot of clouds in the sky. The wind was close but was supposed to back throughout the evening. The wind ran between 18 and 23 knots apparent during the trip and the seas stacked up a slammer every once in a while, but overall it was a nice crossing.
We settled in motor sailing on main alone with the wind about 30 degrees off of the bow. We could have fallen off to sail the whole way across and tacked up the coast of Hispaniola, but we didn't want to end up in Hati and we wanted to arrive in Luperon soon after dawn before the trades piped up. The North coast of Hispaniola can really get howling during prevailing conditions as the wind accelerates along the coast.
At 03:00 we picked up a vessel on radar. It was big and coming our way but not looking like an evasive maneuver exercise. As its lights came over the horizon the two mast head lights identified it as an over 50 meter ship. When it came abeam of us I hailed it. The watch captain came on and said hello. I asked him what we looked like on his radar to get an idea as to how our radar reflector was working. He responded that he did not have his radar on and had only just seen us! Having radar and not using it, especially on a vessel that is in no way power constrained, is a big strike in a collision hearing. I hope he fires it up in the future for the sake of all the cruisers out there.
We were running about a quarter mile right of Bruce Van Sants Big Sand to Luperon track. I never run right on top of the well known rhumb lines unless entering/exiting an intricate anchorage or pass. This is because so many other people do, and many of them are going slower than you, or the other direction.
At about 03:30 a faint green and red light pair appeared out of the darkness right in front of us. I had two opportunities to think and one to act. First I thought, "oh $#@%". Second I thought, "Andrea Doria". I steered off to starboard and watched a Dutch sail boat bounce along silently to port with no one on watch. We would not have hit them even if we had been asleep at the switch, but it would have been too close for me given the size ocean we were in. I hailed the vessel. No answer. I hailed a second time. After quite a while someone answered. I think I woke him up. I was going to ask if he was running between Van Sant's waypoints but we lost contact. I think I will change my policy to a half mile off track...
These two incidents caused me to sit back and consider matters. It is not really a lonely planet anymore. Not even at night between Big Sand Cay and Hispaniola. One of the worst things that could happen to you while sailing is a collision at sea. The Dominican Navy is not going to come get you (although you may have a shot with the Caicos Navy/Police).
We love our radar. Hideko and I use guard bands to alarm us to traffic entering a 6 mile perimeter and we use MARPA tracking to predict target trajectories. Unfortunately small sailboats coming right at you often don't show up on radar. You must stay alert and scan the horizon for lights regularly.
The jib presents a challenge at night. It can be tough to see around a large genoa. I might not have seen the oncoming boat when I did if our jib had been up. When the jib is flying we have to have a watch on the opposite side of the boat and/or look under the jib every so often to check for traffic. In the daytime this is not a problem. At night you might check but not see traffic headed for you due to limited visibility. When it becomes visible it may be blanketed until your next scan.
I suppose that you're less likely to hit a small sailboat statistically, although in our example the other boat had fairly weak lights. The good thing was that it was a tricolor on the top of his mast. When I finally caught sight of it I had a good idea what it was, however it was closer than I would have liked at that point. With us going 7-8 knots and their boat doing 5-6 we were closing at around 13 knots. I later met an Italian skipper who could only run an anchor light while sailing at night due to power constraints. I have talked to others who run dark. A boat sailing with no lights is going to be just about impossible to detect until it is too late. Not only do sailboats fail to show up well on radar but they do not run active AIS (Automated Information System which is a squawk type VHF ID transmitted by virtually all commercial shipping these days). Commercial shipping vessels, while fast moving, are pretty hard to miss at night due to the presence of several highly placed lights, radar visibility, and the clincher: AIS transmitters.
You must keep watch while underway and you must use every tool at your disposal to identify other traffic and avoid collisions. This is basically international law and yet frequently disregarded. I am certain that I am paranoid as a new cruiser but I hope I don't slip past the middle as we gain experience as some of our peers seem to have done.
The balance of the morning was less eventful. We were motor sailing on just the port auxiliary and doing 8 plus knots with the wind between 20 and 30 degrees off to port. As the sun rose and the wind slowly backed around, allowing us to sail. As soon as the jib engaged we sped up. After killing the diesel she piped up to 9 knots and hit 10 a couple of times running 30 to 35 degrees off of the wind. Not bad close hauled with a reef in. We made Luperon at about 10:00, a little late but in good order.
One of the first things that we did when we moved aboard was to set up Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Our departure SOP has been particularly valuable. In order to ready ourselves for a crossing we plan our route on paper first. We take into account weather, currents, land affects, sunrise, sunset, tides, etceteras. On this particular passage we were operating off of the Wavy Line chart of Hispaniola. It is a superb chart and has great graphics which makes it even easier to gather information. We were using Bruce Van Sant's, Gentleman's Guide to Passages South, as the cruising/passage guide, which is also indispensable. After plotting the course on the paper chart we then duplicate it on the PC and ship the route over to the E120 at the helm. I don't typically plot the route all the way up to the anchorage. This is largely due to the fact that we anchor where we find the best spot for the current conditions, not exactly where the anchor appears on the chart. I have now changed this habit, read on.
We came in on the Wavy Line Chart Luperon waypoint, just outside of the harbor, and everything looked good. I knew I had coral and rock reefs on both sides of the entrance. We had dropped the sails just off shore and were now motoring slowly through the cut watching the water and the sounder. Everything matched up. As we entered the outer harbor I began to grow concerned about the chart plotter. The chart on the plotter didn't look much like what I was seeing. Hideko was on the bow but the water in Luperon harbor is opaque and kind of a mud green color. I decided that the Navionics chart that the chart plotter was showing me, though advertised as WGS84, had nothing to due with reality inside Luperon harbor.
We were a little late coming in so the trades had started to come to life. I had 15 knots on the port beam and neither the paper chart nor Bruce Van Sants bible handy. We needed to head down the west harbor where we could see many cruising boats at anchor. This harbor is famous for its various shoal areas, tricky entrance and lack of any nav aids. Some friends of ours had run aground here just a few weeks ago, as supposedly 1 in 3 boats do. Unfortunately I had grown to trust our Navionics electronic charts (my IYT instructor would not be pleased). The Explorer charts were of course better than the electronic charts in the Bahamas, but the electronic charts were certainly functional and accurate enough. I had switched from the East Coast/Bahamas/TCI chip to the Caribbean chip on the way over, and the Caribbean chip appeared to be a horse of a different color.
Tired and ready to be at rest on anchor I shut off the chart plotter and got back to basics. There was a brown sand beach on the right gradually sloping into the water and mangroves on the left. I deduced that the deep water was on the left. I was wrong. As I crept up on the left side of the west arm of the harbor the depth alarm went off. It is set to 10 feet and we had a minus tide rising so I shut down the alarm. Then 8 feet. Then 6. I stopped the boat at 4 something and backed up. Hmmm. Next I tried further to port, closer to shore. Worse. This while Hideko continued to suggest transiting near the beach to starboard. After a couple of passes and no prayer of reading the water we decided to head back to the outer channel and anchor so that I could survey the entrance with the dingy and a lead line.
Just then Hideko noticed a guy on a dinghy coming our way. He made the universal "the channel is here stupid" gesture. Hideko and I looked at each other and decided to give it a try. I moved slowly so that I could back off again if need be. A very nice thing about our boat is that I have great control in reverse with two auxiliaries 26 feet apart. Also our bows draw only a foot or so and that's where the transducer is. This makes it easy to nose over the skinny stuff with plenty of time to back out. On the down side the boat is 26 feet wide and I only have a transducer in the port bow.
Our new friend, Michael, had indeed led us through the channel, which, un-intuitively to my mind, was right next to what looked to be a gradually sloping beach. He pointed us to a spot with 5 meters of water near his boat and indicated that the boat next door would be leaving later that afternoon. The anchorage was replete with sailboats anchored in no discernable pattern whatsoever. If there was a track to the government dock left open, I couldn't see it.
The bottom here is famous for moderate holding mangrove mud. We dropped the big Rocna to see how we faired. It was a bit of work getting the hook out in a spot that gave us enough room to pay out a good 150 feet of chain with the wind whistling through the anchorage in the teens. Once Hideko had the bridle set up we let the wind blow us off. When the bridle picked up we watched some marks on the shore to see if we were holding. So far so good. Going through our routine; I reversed the auxiliaries, pause, 1,000 RPMs, pause. Still holding. 1,200 RPMS, pause. Still holding. 1,400 RPMs, pause. Still holding. At this point you usually have a set. 1,600, pause. Still holding. The final test, 1,800 RPMs. We started to drag. Once loose, you'll build up quite a head of steam at 1,800 RPMS if you don't shut down quick, especially with the wind helping out.
Hideko and I had a crew meeting. Try to set it again as is? Pay out more chain and try to set it again? Do over? It was a unanimous do over, largely because of the limited space. The last thing we wanted to do after our all nighter was reanchor. But we did, and this time it held. In retrospect I think our first try would have set, indeed I believe that we had not straightened the chain out all the way.
Anchoring in Mud
I have since heard all sorts of ludicrous folk lore about anchoring in Luperon. Some say you need to watch your anchor for two days to give it a chance to sink down into the mud. Boats drag all the time in Luperon on their first day. During the afternoon the trades come through the anchorage like a Banshee. Folks drop anchor in the calm of evening or morning, don't set up to the east and then all hell breaks loose at 3PM. The restaurant owner that we chatted with later that afternoon thought we were crazy for leaving our boat on our first day in the anchorage.
Set your anchor for Pete's sake! If you set your anchor and it keeps 108 horsepower from budging your boat, short of a gale, you're going to stay right there. I doubt the aluminum Danforths folks are using are sinking into anything. If you drop your anchor over the rail, dump 30 feet of nylon on it and go to the bar you deserve to drag. If gravity can set your anchor, a progressive application of reverse power can set it a lot faster and with more certainty. You must have a good anchor with chain rode if you're cruising and you must know how to set it.
Once anchored we got to meet our channel pilot, Michael, aboard Queenie II. Michael was a kindly single hander from Quebec making his way through the Caribbean just as we were. We shared a drink and talked for a bit before he had to dinghy over to customs.
The Navy and Police came to call shortly thereafter. The Navy officer was professionally dressed in a DR navy uniform and there were three other men with him, all dressed in street clothes. Two were local handy men, Handy Andy and Papo. The third was announced as the head of Police. They approached in Handy Andy's hardwood skiff with little in the way of fenders. I invited them aboard. After tying up in a way that concerned me they walked onto our boat with shoes, though we were wearing none, and not boat friendly shoes at that. I offered them a seat in our cockpit and they said, "no inside". So I let them have a seat in the saloon.
The officer from the police department sat deep into the saloon and stretched his arms out to both sides, resting his hands on the tops of the saloon back rest. He took up a full third of the settee in his repose. This was obviously the chief's show. Other than Handy Andy translating, no one but the Police Officer did much talking. His words indicated he was our servant; his gestures indicated that he was the heavy around here and that respect was a one way street. He had obviously been handed a script with the necessary disclaimers which he dutifully intoned. "If there are any problems you just call me 24 hours a day", followed by, "If you are going inland and want someone to watch your boat we will do that for a small fee". Why do I need to pay someone to watch my boat if the cops are on duty 24/7? "There is no fee for the navy visit", followed by "if you should want to give us some money for gas that is welcomed". This as the four of them sit in our saloon with no indication of rousting themselves until business was complete. If there's no fee, why aren't they leaving?
I finally gave them a twenty (because I didn't have a five or any ones) and they collected themselves and filed off of the boat with endless petitions for further business dealings. Handy Andy announced several times that only he and Papo were licensed to do business with the yachts in the harbor. Licensed by who? Perhaps the head of police?
To be fair, Handy Andy and Papo were very friendly and although a little over selling (in a Tijuana kind of way) seemed like nice guys. The Navy officer was very respectful and reserved and seemed to be just the kind of guy you wanted in that position. If the group had left the chief of police at home, respected our boat and taken their shoes off (anyone who's ever been around cruising boats knows to do this), I would have been very impressed by the Dominican Republics first contact. As it was I was nonplussed.
We had a very different experience at customs later in the day. The guys there were really very accommodating and focused on the business of getting us cleared in. No bribe undercurrents, no pretension, no overbearing personalities, just nice local folks. We saw a poster in Spanish inside the customs office stating that none of the DR officials accept bribes or tips and that you should notify the higher ups if they request such. This is a wise move by the government.
No one I know want's to have to pay off rinky-dink officials abusing the one power they have. On the other hand, an up front fee that everyone understands and knows about in advance is no problem for most. The Bahamas charge $300 for a cruising/fishing permit for heavens sake. Charge what's fair and people will pay, or skip your country if they think the fees are oppressive. Don't lure them in and then force them to pay arbitrary fees out of fear of repercussions.
Some (the DR Navy included) suggest that you give the DR Navy gas money for their dinghy ride to allow them to pay the fisherman (or Handy Andy as the case may be) for bringing them to your boat. It's fine to have a clear fee for fuel costs, but charging fees for a navy that has to borrow a skiff to even visit my cruising boat? What good does it do them to know I'm here? They don't have a boat to use even if navel activity were called for. The money I handed the boat owner (Handy Andy) was rapidly passed over to the "Chief of Police". It was clear who was going to divide up the booty. This activity is known as extortion in the US, using a threat, spoken or unspoken, to gain financial rewards.
Bruce Van Sant's guide discusses unofficial fees a bit and I don't think I agree with him on the matter. He lives in Luperon and understandably takes the part of the locals. He is a legend there and offers the only resource, A Gentleman's Guide to Passages South, for cruisers wanting to visit the DR. The DR owes him much, as do we cruisers. Also at the levels we're talking about there is no economic harm done.
Yet there is an important issue at stake which causes the DR great damage. A tourist must feel as if they are safe in a country they visit and that the rule of law holds sway. If petty officials can demand, or even request, random fees (which they pocket), one wonders what else they can/will do? We are not talking about a bum looking for a hand out, we are talking about a government official who could quickly decide that you are a smuggler and need to be jailed while your boat is stripped. What if you don't pay, or they ask too much because they think you have a nice boat? The rules of the game must be understood by all up front, not handed down by one local official, if tourists are to feel safe. Want a booming tourist industry?
• Be up front with the fees
• Charge enough to support your infrastructure (so that your officials aren't pandering)
• Make people feel safe
This means no bribes and no unofficial fees pocketed by officials. Courtesy and respect must flow both ways between officials and tourists. Tips, by definition, are optional and offered in exchange for good courteous service. Tourists will come and spend more than you can imagine if they feel safe, and they will feel safe if the rules of the game are stated up front and adhered to by all.
After wrapping up with the final bit of entry proceedings we asked one of the customs guys where to get some good food. "Donde esta bueno comida?", I said. Woefully lame I know, but the best my LA Spanglish could muster at the time. The guy dressed in street clothes suggested Los Almedros, the Almond Trees. The most professional and friendly officer of the bunch offered us a ride in his truck as customs was wrapping up for the day.
The cruise through town really had an impact on us. It was like going back to old Cuba from the movies. The town is haphazardly put together and consists of maybe 15 blocks along three main streets. There are houses and shops oddly constructed of various bits of tin and wood blending together along the gritty sidewalks, and people walking about or riding motor cycles everywhere. Luperon is a small out of the way town even by DR standards. My understanding is that power and water run for only part of the day. There are several restaurants and bars in town along with the restaurant at the Marina (which actually has Wifi!). I really felt like I was somewhere else and far from home for the first time on our journey.
Shortly after we arrived at Los Almedros we met Andre the owner. We enjoyed chatting with Andre who is an ex-Quebec-er cruiser. He seems to have found his own slice of paradise here in Luperon. If you need help getting oriented and Spanish is not your long suit, Andre is always ready to help the cruisers. The restaurant has a cool vibe and overlooks the cross roads of town. We ordered the chicken special which was a good amount of food but very plain in style. The local beer, Presidente, was quite refreshing. We met various folks while dining offering services ranging from haircuts to acquisition of illicit consumables. It was surreal.
Hideko and I walked back down the main street to the dinghy dock saying hola to all of the friendly smiling folks we passed by. Everyone in the DR seems a lot happier than the folks you pass on the street back home. The living conditions are very different and take a minute to get used to. This makes the ubiquitous happiness seem surprising. In the end I think you have the same cast of characters here that you do anywhere, yet most people are less fettered by the rat race and thus generally more congenial and happy.
We wondered if our dinghy would be there when we got back. Like country bumpkins we have been tying it up since Florida with out any chains or locks whatsoever. Dinghy security is one of the many things on my project list. Little Star was there however, happily bobbing right where we left him.
When we returned to the boat we both felt as if we had really had one of our first real adventures. I took Roq to the beach and then we settled in for the night. The Luperon harbor has a nice breeze through it in the evening. Just enough to make for perfect sleeping conditions. Somewhere around midnight the water goes dead calm and you feel as if you are on land. The gentle whir of the creatures in the surrounding mangrove jungle whisk you off to dreamland amidst the silence of the anchorage.