03/07/2007, Puerto Rico
We didn't exactly get up first thing today. It was still morning though. We put the ships Coast Guard Documentation, our DR clearance papers and our passports in a zip lock and piled into the dinghy. It was a short trip to the dinghy dock in Boqueron. The dinghy dock is attached to a small courtyard with a shop or two and a little eatery with really good empanadillas. There is an inlet to the south with a draw bridge allowing all of the sport fishers (Puerto Rican's love their sport fishers and they own a lot of them!) to get into the residential marina. South of that is the public beach.
There were a few other cruisers hanging out at the tables in the court. It wasn't the cheery friendly group from the Bahamas. More of the type who have been in one place too long and sort of soured all together. We tried to be friendly but we didn't end up mixing with any of the cruisers in Boqueron.
Boqueron is not the cleanest place we've ever been but it is not bad. The Puerto Ricans are considered the richest of the Caribbean people and the infrastructure and development of the island makes it a lot like the US mainland. There are not too many untouched spots outside of the parks.
A local named Michael was hand painting tee shirts in the court and upon closer inspection he was pretty good. He offered to paint a tee shirt with our boat in the harbor on it. Are you kidding me? Sold. Twenty bucks for a custom tee shirt is pretty fair in my book. Michael also hooked us up with the only Taxi that does the Mayaguez run for cruisers. I can not recall his name but he is a great driver and knows exactly what to do to help cruisers out. When new boats come in he gets out his binoculars to look for Q flags.
Clearing in a Mayaguez was a breeze. Puerto Rico has a co-op with Florida now on the decal system and so they wanted us to buy a decal. Other than that no hitches and nice folks. We asked why you couldn't just call in any more and they gave us the 911 homeland security answer. So we got to see Mayaguez. Then we promptly left.
On the way back to Boqueron we hit a supermarket. It was just like the US except with a lot of Spanish signs. Hideko and I both went nuts and stocked up on lots of food and other stuff we hadn't seen in a while. Loaded down with groceries we returned to Swingin' on a Star promptly (mostly so the ice cream wouldn't melt). It was our one day to look around Boquron because tomorrow we needed to stage up for our departure from the west coast, continuing our journey east.
03/06/2007, Puerto Rico
It was fairly hot in Boqueron today and even though there was a nice breeze it was a little hard to sleep in the day time. We certainly did our best however.
After a nice long nap we rousted ourselves and tried to decide how to officially re-enter the US. Boqueron is the only real Yacht harbor on the West coast of Puerto Rico but Myaguez is the port of entry. You could sail into Myaguez but you'd be getting cozy with the cruise ships and commercial vessels not to mention the reported poor holding bottom and minimal protection. So a cab from Boqueron seems like the right answer.
My cell phone, a Sprint PCS model which pretty much only works in the US, was alive. So we called Mayaguez customs to see what we should do. It was getting on toward 4PM. They answered and were very polite and spoke Spanish and English fluently. They said that it was too close to the 5PM closing time to head in today and that we should just come in first thing in the morning. Good night.
As we got ready to cook up some dinner and settle in for a real sleep the Puerto Rico customs boat showed up. It was the standard monstrous looking Boston Whaler type deal with three 300 hp Mercurys on the back. They asked if we had cleared in. I looked up at the yellow Q flag flying from our starboard spreader and said, "nope". They were very friendly but seemed like they wanted to talk. I finally got tired of shouting over the idling Mercurys and said, "why don't you come aboard?". They conferred and after a moment said, "we're coming aboard". After a couple failed passed with the fenders out in the high winds they conferred again, then "are you under way?". "Why yes", I said. "Ok, make sure that you clear in first thing tomorrow", and off they went.
I was a little disappointed because the customs folks are interesting people. I was going to shoot the bull with them over a Coke for a bit. Failing that Hideko and I enjoyed dinner and a movie and hit the hay again.
03/05/2007, Puerto Rico
The Mona Passage is not one of your straight forward crossings. There are several gremlins to consider when putting a passage plan together. Islands in the trade winds stream, especially good sized ones with fairly high mountains like Puerto Rico, can spawn their own frontal conditions. As the trades blow over Puerto Rico late in the day the cooling affect of the island can create squalls and thunder storms that roll off into the Mona Passage. You also have wind driven waves during the day that build up in a nasty fashion along the pointy eastern coast of the DR. The hour glass bank produces very choppy seas over its shoals. Trying to take all of this into account while planning your trip to maximize the night lees on both coasts with a daylight arrival can be tricky.
I swear that I am not on the take for Van Sant, but you really should read his book if you are sailing this area. He does a great job of helping you understand the issues and provides many useful tactics for dealing with the issues. Our plan was our own but we tried to avoid as many of the well known hazards as possible. We needed to take advantage of the night lee on the DR side to get around Cabo Cabron and onto the East coast of the DR. We also needed to get off of the East coast of the DR before the trades kicked in and made the coastline untenable. We wanted to take advantage of the night lee on the Puerto Rico side. The tricky part was trying to fit our boat speed into a night departure from the DR and a dawn arrival in PR. I budgeted 7 knots which made the fit difficult. In the end we settled on a 5AM departure from Escondido with a target arrival of just after 6AM in Boqueron Puerto Rico.
We woke up around 4AM and started to get the boat in shape. We were anchor up before 5AM and motoring out of the anchorage. It was sad to sail away from our new friends, slumbering in their vessels amid the cliffs. The exit was easy however as there is plenty of water and room on the way out and the huge cliffs are easy to follow even in the dark of night.
The wind was up around 20 knots around the cape. Cabo Cabron is a huge feature on the DR coastline and it fades into several other promontories that make up the headland around the north side of the DR's Bay of Samana. We followed the coastline south until around 8AM and then headed off shore to avoid the acceleration affect the coastline has on the trades and seas during the day.
We had motored to stay on schedule, to get around the cape and ensure that the first part of our passage was teed up properly. Once off shore we raised the main with a reef and laid in a course of 120 true to move gradually into the channel. We were making about 7 knots in 15 knots of wind fairly close hauled. We had to battle to keep our speed down so that we didn't arrive at the reefed entrance to Boqueron in the dark.
The day passed quietly as log entry after log entry went by. We saw a few other cruising boats traveling the opposite way across the channel and a few tankers plying the coast but nothing close enough to wave at.
The sun set as it usually does but it struck me that we had never watched it do so while under way. We had logged a few hours of night sailing at this point but we had never sailing into the night. This would be our first trip over 24 hours long. It was a brilliant sunset scattered into rainbow by our wake.
Hideko had been napping a fair bit of the day as I (really the autopilot) tended the helm. So as the darkness fell about us I started to get a bit tired. I was considering a nap when the wind started to pick up again. As it climbed into the 20 knot range we began to get a bit too far over our target average speed. Swingin' on a Star wanted to do 8 - 9 knots in the conditions so we had to roll up almost all of the jib to get her back into the 7 knot range.
Once we were settled back in with good sail trim and speed I headed into the saloon to take a nap. I asked Hideko to wake me up in a couple of hours but she was determined to let me sleep until I naturally woke up.
Hideko woke me up at midnight and she looked concerned. Have you ever tried to wake up and function in a constructive fashion instantaneously. That's what I tried to do. Doesn't work. I walked around the bridge deck for a few minutes trying to figure out where I was and what was happening. As reality began to make its way into my sensory perimeter I realized that we were becalmed. Hmmm, not good. This typically happens right before you get wacked.
Hideko gave me and update and pointed out Isla Desecheo by moon light. It is an important land mark when you are doing a northern crossing. We were crossing to the north to avoid any thunder storms that might be rumbling off into the passage. It was at this point that Hideko pointed out Desecheo on the radar and then asked me what the huge black mass was just to the north and east of us. I informed her that it was my opinion that we were looking at a big hairy rain storm coming right at us.
We fired up both diesels and headed south southeast fast. The rain storm morphed and reshaped itself as the western edge dissipated and the eastern side was refueled by the Puerto Rican coast. It arced around us to the east and north and wrapped around us to the west yet steering away from it by radar we didn't see one drop of rain. As we continued toward Boqueron we eventually escaped the black clouds to the north, shut down the diesels and got back on course.
The west coast of Puerto Rico has several rocks and shoal areas but it is fairly well marked being an extension of the US. This was almost weird. We were so used to being in places that have no aids to navigation (and if you do see one you should assume it is untrustworthy) that when we came upon the first lit channel buoy I was almost startled. It was actually on the chart and in the right place.
We neared Boqueron as the sun began to rise. This was good because we could now see around us, but bad because the sun was blinding us to the east. I had hoped to arrive just before sun up so that we could make the east bound harbor entrance in light but not blinding light. We laid back a bit until the sun got some altitude and then entered by the north entrance.
This is another Van Sant trick. There are two harbor entrances to Boqueron. The south entrance is the primary entrance and is clearly marked. That said it has reef on the north and south so with the sun rising in front of you it can be difficult to make out the buoys and there may be some current running you off track. The north entrance simply requires that you stay south of the shore line a safe distance. Using the north coast of the harbor as a guide we had no problem entering.
Boqueron is a big deep harbor and it takes a while to get all the way back to the anchorage proper. Hideko and I were both pretty tiered at this point but we took the time to anchor well and put the boat away reasonably. By 6AM we were on the hook and by 6:30 we were fast asleep with the Q flag flying once again.
03/04/2007, Dominican Republic
We got up in the dark again this morning, as we were getting used to doing. The only way to make comfortable progress on the north coast of the DR in winter is during the lee created by the island cooling off at night. The DR has large high mountains and the cold night air sinks down to the coast keeping the trades off shore during the dark in most conditions.
We had to get around Cabo Frances Viejo and we definitely didn't want to tackle it during the day. The capes on the north coast of Hispaniola create wind on the nose at every point of sail. The wind is already accelerated along the coastline, adding a big cape into the mix makes for even stronger conditions. What's worse, if you stick to the coast in your attempt to head east, as you turn north to follow the cape out the wind will have bent around the cape, coming at you from he north. As you start to round the cape you will see the east trades honking on your nose. Finally as you head back south into the coast, if you make it that far, the wind will again have bent off the coast to get around the cape and blast right at you from the south. You need to head out to sea and deal with the gradient conditions or round the big capes at night.
Our goal was to get around CFV by 8AM as recommended by Van Sant. We made the time window with the wind blowing around 12 knots out of Rio San Juan and in the 15 - 17 zone around the cape. It was some work motor sailing around the cape in the early morning, I can't imagine what it would have been like during the day. Once we got down into the Bahia Escocesa, behind Cabo Cabron (direct translation is "Cape Son of a Bitch") things settled down a bit. The wind dropped from 20 to 19 and then finally settled in around 15 knots as we headed up the coast.
We dropped the sails and started into the area of the anchorage not knowing what to expect. The north coast had been devoid of deep bays once we left Luperon. Rio San Juan was basically an anchorage out in the Atlantic Ocean slightly behind a point and with an island on one side and an invisible reef on the other. Escondido was very different.
Escondido, also known as El Valle, is a deep cut lying well back into the vertical saddle of two towering cliffs. The liquid ravine ends in a beautiful brown sand beach with lush vegetation growing up the black rock faces. The water is the semi-opaque Amazon green found elsewhere along the coast of the DR but it has a beauty all its own. It was one of the most impressive anchorages we have seen. In fact it is on our top three list (Atwood harbor in Acklins Island Bahamas and Big Sand Cay in the TCI are the other two).
The swell comes around the cape and can produce some serious breakers on the beach but the anchorage is set back in 20 feet of water with great holding. You'll get an up/down elevator ride on the hook if the seas are running, and a lot of beautiful surf sounds as well.
We landed the dinghy on the beach with just the oars to avoid problems with the outboard if things went awry. Sorry, but nothing entertaining to report, Roq, Hideko and I effectively stormed the beach on the first shot. I did help our new friends on Blue Jay bail out their dingy after a rough one later that day.
The DR is basically Spanish speaking. If you're not talking to someone who needs English for their gig or an ex-pat you're speaking Spanish. That means we don't do a lot of talking in the DR. There are two or three little bar/restaurants on the West part of the Escondido beach and one lady was particularly avid in soliciting business from everyone who came ashore. The fishermen actually use nets and a dug out canoe to haul in fish. It was fascinating to watch them. The DR is like another world for us, as I imagine it would be for many.
Blue Jay, a 40ish foot Jay Boat, was one of the boats in the Rio San Juan anchorage last night and was anchored in Escondido when we arrived. It is a British flagged boat with a German skipper, Spanish girlfriend and Italian crew mate. Talk about the EU. Mathius, the skipper, hailed us as we entered the harbor to see if we knew the whereabouts of the other boat from Rio San Juan, Alma. They had left RSJ at 10PM the night before (we left at 4:30AM that day) and were unaccounted for. Alma was a stout classic mono hull skippered by Johnny, also an Italian.
Shortly after we settled back in on the boat Alma arrived and anchored nearby. It was good to see them. Apparently they had headed off shore to pass all of the capes and got outside of the night lee, thence taking a bit of a beating. They sailed the whole way though!
It seemed like a mixer was in order so we called them all over for a sundowner and snacks. I mixed up a selection of rum drinks and Hideko kept bringing out snacks until we all decided to pass on supper. It was an interesting and wonderful group. Both of the other boats had decided to stay for a second night due to the charm of the anchorage. We unfortunately were on a mission and need to be moving on pre dawn.
Hideko and I had been working on our plan for the Mona Passage for several days. The Mona is infamous and it is a long way from Escondido to Boqueron, Puerto Rico. It would be our longest voyage yet. Using all of the information in the Van Sant book (again, don't do the DR without it), our DMA and MapTech charts, help from Chris Parker on the SSB, and all of the weather fax, GRIB and spot forecast data we could collect, we were ready. My only trepidation was leaving such a beautiful place with a strong feeling that I would never see it again.
03/03/2007, Dominican Republic
We were up at 4AM to get the boat ready. I was not looking forward to driving out of Luperon in the dark but there wasn't really anywhere to stage up outside of the harbor and we were pretty much at the back of the anchorage with only two boats behind us. I suppose we could have anchored out by the entrance to the basin but that just didn't seem like a great idea. Besides I really wanted to sleep in our exact spot one more night. Or at least part of a night.
We weighed anchor at 5AM and followed our track line carefully back the way we came in, creeping along with the depth gauge front and center. Every once in a while I glanced at the chart plotter to see our track line and saw our little digital boat traveling across the hillside a half mile away from where we really were. Did I mention that the Navionics electronic charts of the DR are useless?
When we got out into the real wind it was already 20 knots and Swingin' on a Star piped right up to 8 knots with a reef in the main. Oddly enough the wind calmed down around sun up and we had an hour or two of 15 knot wind. Our plan was to go as far as we could stand to go and then pull in to the nearest port. With our fairly small scale Wavy Line chart of Hispaniola, bogus electronic charts, a Small Scale US Gov chart and the Van Sant cruising guide, we were overly dependant on Van Sant. Fortunately his guide for the DR and Puerto Rico is dynamite and spot on.
We passed Ocean World and Puerto Plata as the wind began to pick up. Before long I was seeing 27 knots and watching the kids on the kite boards just off shore literally launching themselves into the air 30 or 50 feet. White horses everywhere, you know the drill. Time to tuck in for the day.
We had to slog along for another hour or so to get to Rio San Juan. Hideko was taking a nap and so I was trying to stay somewhat near the coast to get a little bit of lee from the cape ahead of us. As I tacked toward shore however I found myself going from no bottom to 200 feet to 100 feet to 40 feet in a matter of moments. I bore off, more and more until I had almost done a 180 to get back into deep water. The low depth was 20 feet and well off shore. Plenty of water sure, but left a stain in my pants all the same. We stayed a bit further out on the final approach.
We used the Van Sant guide to enter the invisible reef outside of the anchorage. This reef is impossible to see unless it is breaking or you have great light. There are some really beat fishing boats anchored to one side and you can not approach them directly even though it looks like good water all the way up. The Van Sant guide puts you right in the anchorage with no fuss.
Rio San Juan looks quaint but we didn't go ashore so I don't really know what it is like. They did play loud music until late in the night. The wind buried it most of the time though so it was fine. As we got ready to shut down for the night we met a nice Italian sailor who was departing with the only other cruising boat in the anchorage in the middle of the night. We bade them well and hit the sack with our own target of 4AM.
03/02/2007, Dominican Republic
We were slightly burned out after the all night sail, hectic entrance and long day with officials and exploring yesterday. Fortunately the Luperon harbor is the most amazing place to sleep I think we've ever anchored. Flat calm and cool breeze at night. Just fantastic. So good it called for another night.
We spent our second day having a nice chat with two more officials who came aboard. One person from the health department making sure we didn't have any dangerous plants, and one person from the department in charge of pets (can't recall). It cost us $10 for Roq and all of the folks were very nice and courteous.
After they left I set about looking into a problem we had discovered with the Genset. Only a few days after a 250 hour service our genset was not pumping raw water. I took the pump apart and voila, a mangled impeller. I was fairly clear that the crew installing it took the picture in the instructions literally and put the impeller in backwards. If you read the instructions it is clear which way it should go but the example shows an install on a genset with the water flowing in the other direction. Thus on second use the impellor was chewed to shreds. I am now down to one spare, yikes. Our genset is cranking out the raw water again however so all is well for now.
It was an otherwise lazy day in Luperon. Hideko and I both couldn't wait to sleep another night away in the calm waters. Alas we would be up at 4AM to get down the coast in the morning lee before the trades begin to honk.
03/01/2007, 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.