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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
Caya de Muertos
03/09/2007, South Coast of Puerto Rico

We got up at 02:30 and started to get the boat ready for the early morning run across the south Puerto Rican coast. The wind had settled down to around 12 knots but there were some threatening cumulus clouds making it a dark night. We didn't bother to raise the main as we were looking at an east run dead into the wind. I doubt tacking up the coast would have been much fun anyway with the prevailing conditions. The right way to do Puerto Rico in the Winter is to make small 5-20 nm hops sailing from 5AM to 8AM during the morning lee. We had to get our boat to the British Virgin Islands where the boat and Roq could be baby sat by my parents. We were on a bit of a mission at this point.

The seas were up a bit by the time we got around Cabo Rojo and started to head east. We stayed off shore a bit to stay well clear of Margarita Reef. We were doing 7-8 knots motoring into the wind and seas. As the day progressed the breeze and the waves continued to eek their way higher and higher. The wind would settle a little and you'd wonder if it was going to lighten up and then it would pick back up to a little more than it was before. It wasn't long before we were in the 20 knot range again. There was also a kind of haze building in the sky that made the day a little darker. Reminded me of Los Angeles.

Things began to get fairly uncomfortable and we started to think about anchorages. A neat sounding place called Gilligan's island was coming up. We considered it but decided to press on. As we got into the intra-anchorage zone we wondered what we were thinking. It was pretty heavy going. We saw a ketch sail out from the coast. It looked like he was trying to go the same direction we were going but he was under sail. On his ear, he disappeared behind us on the first tack. A good day for adventure sailing, but not pleasure sailing.

As we pounded our way east we decided to try for Caya de Muertos a small island off shore about half way along the south coast. As we came into sight of the island I tried to maximize the use of any lee the island might be providing. We had to get in fairly close before the wind abated but the seas came down some progressively a good ways out. The island is like a gentle arc circumscribed in a north/south orientation with a large hill on the north side. The hill has an old Spanish lighthouse at the top and there's a nice new dock for the weekend ferry to drop off at. The entire island is a park and it is pretty well maintained.

We dropped anchor at around 10:30 right behind the big hill to get as much protection as possible. Oddly enough there were two other cruising boats anchored off of the flats to the south with very little cover from the wind (maybe they were watching the snow fall outside?). It seemed like we had been going for a full day but it was still too early for a beer.

Hideko Roq and I hiked around the island and took in the stunning vistas from the top of the hill by the old light house. The light house was locked up and unavailable for inspection but you could walk around it. The ranger station had a ranger, a worker and a biologist on duty. We had a chat with the biologist and he told us that the haze was particulate from the volcano erupting on Montserrat. Later I looked at a small scale chart and sure enough the volcano was east-southeast of us, dead upwind. The sea turtles use one of the eastern beaches here for laying eggs. We saw some iguanas and lots of interesting birds on our walks.

We made our way back to the boat and did a little snorkeling to wrap up the day. It had been a long one but we had another to go before we could finally end the relentless beat up wind we had been on since Luperon. We turned in early and set the alarm for 3AM.

Puerto Rico
Punta Aguila
03/08/2007, West Coast of Puerto Rico

Our plan for getting around the south coast of Puerto Rico was pretty straight forward. Get up really early and go until you are no longer interested in going, then stop. We had setup ditch anchorages all along the coast so that we'd never be more than 5-10 nm from a resting place.

It had been blowing pretty good for most of the time we'd been in Boqueron and the forecast was for more of the same. The south coast of Puerto Rico, much like the North coast of the DR, creates an acceleration affect to the trades during the day but offers some lee at night.

We didn't want to leave Boqueron in the dark but we did want to start our journey east in the dark of the morning. To prep for the journey we picked an open, easy to exit, anchorage near the southern most point on the west coast of Puerto Rico, Punta Aguila. The actual southern tip is Punta Rojo, which has a nice light house on it.

We spent the day walking Roq ashore and resting up. In the late afternoon we got the boat in shape and headed out of Boqueron. We exited through the marked channel to the south this time without any drama even though the sun was starting to get low and a little in our faces.

We headed south toward the point as the sun began to boil into the water. There's a little hotel with a dinghy dock on the coast and we targeted the general area here for our anchorage. It got very shallow as we moved in toward the coast. The shelf must have been no more than five feet deep for a couple hundred yards off shore. We anchored in 7 feet pretty far from the coast. I was not particularly happy being this far out as we had little protection from the winds, which were whipping up into the high teens again, and there was enough fetch to make a bit of a chop.

Once on the hook we settled in and watched the colors in the sky fade away. It was a windy choppy anchorage but sometimes that can be enjoyable. Hideko, Roq and I went into the cabin, turned on some lights and snuggled up in the saloon to watch a movie and have some Ramen. It's the same sort of enjoyable comfort you get when sitting by a fire in the mountains watching the snow fall through the window.

Puerto Rico
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.

Puerto Rico
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.

Puerto Rico
The Mona Passage
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.

Puerto Rico
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.

Dominican Republic
Rio San Juan
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.

Dominican Republic

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