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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
Great Harbor - Jost Van Dyke
Randy
03/11/2007, British Virgin Islands

We were up in the dark of the morning for hopefully the last time for a while. We had to weight anchor and work our way out of the harbor back the way we came in. The anchorage has a fair bit of shoal water around it and we were the deepest boat in. This is nice for getting to shore but not so nice when leaving the anchorage first thing.

We decided to motor out of the anchorage and up the cost a bit until we could clear Puerto Rico under sail. We were rounding the reef at about 5AM and raised the main. At 5:49 we fell off and pulled out the jib. We had 17 knots of wind and Swingin' on a Star was doing 8 knots. Off went the diesels. It was great to just sail again. The day was turning out to be quite a bit nicer than any over the last week.

We sailed up the east coast of Puerto Rico making for the 2 fathom bridge through Punta Arenas. Punta Arenas is a nasty reef running North West off the tip of Vieques. I had read up on this area and looked it over heavily in the charts. It always bothers me when the authorities say you can go here but there are numerous shallow coral heads.

The sun rose over Vieques in a blaze of reds and yellows. While beautiful this made it tough to make out much in the water as we sailed north east. As we closed in on Punta Arenas (something like "danger" in Spanish) I noticed disturbed water everywhere and even some breaks. I bucked up and prepared to follow my well worked out plan. Then at 100 feet out I threw the boat hard to port.

It was just too scary looking. In the end making it though would buy us a little time, but cracking into a reef would cause several complications. So I chickened out and rounded the safe water buoy.

Once round the buoy I tried to get as far up wind as possible, making for Virgin Island number two, Culebra. We had to tack Southeast around Cayo Lobo. The northwestern boundary between Puerto Rico and Culebra is scattered with many small islands and shoals. There is a cut just west of Lobo and the armada of Puerto Rican Sportfishers were often blasting through.

We tried to clear Vieques on the next tack but didn't make it. The wind had moved a little south of east and it was hard to make headway on this tack. The good thing was that we had a shot at making the lion's share of the voyage on the next starboard tack.

We sailed up toward Culebrita making for the Virgin passage and Saint Thomas. As we approached Culebra's Ensenada Honda we noticed that there was a sailboat race going on in the waters outside. The very waters we were trying to sail through.

I made a futile attempt to raise the race officials on the radio. Contrary to popular belief, most older Puerto Ricans don't speak much English. As noted our Spanish is awful. No headway on the radio.

Races courses aren't really on the charts so we had no way of knowing where the circuit ran. Sure there were packs of boats that were easy enough to avoid but as soon as you'd think you were out of the track some one would tack right at you. We tried to stay well clear of any buoys we saw but the course seemed to take up all of the good water between two reefs. It was pretty fun to see the race up close and I don't think we impaired anyone.

As we wove our way up through the islands it was interesting deciding whether to stand off of an island to get un obstructed wind and bigger seas it whether to get in close to ride local wind affects and avoid the bigger waves.

The channel between Saint Thomas and Saint John seemed to give us a lift and we were fetching Jost Van Dyke for a bit. As we got back into the gradient wind we ended up out side of Tobago. At this point it was clear that we were not going to make Trellis Bay by night fall.

After considering the matter a bit Hideko and I decided to head for great Harbor on Jost Van Dyke. JVD is a fun island in the BVI and a port of entry. We arrived near sunset and had to anchor a few times until we were comfortable with our spot. This harbor is packed in season and there are reefs all around the edges so you have to put out minimal scope and check your swinging room. You also need to consider the fact that there are a lot of inexperienced skippers on charter boats here.

We finally shut the boat down at 18:30 just after sunset. Hideko made a nice dinner and then she, Roq and I drifted off to sleep with the big noise of Foxy's rumbling through the bay.

The British Virgin Islands
Puerto Patillas
Randy
03/10/2007, Southeast Puerto Rico

We slept in today and didn't start prepping the boat until 03:30. We were on our standard "get as far east as you can and have lots of ditch anchorages prepped" plan. The Virgin Islands were within spitting distance and our goal was to make Vieques.

Half of the Vieques island had been a firing range for US military aircraft until recently. That half of the island is now open to cruisers as long as you don't go beyond the high tide mark. There are also many areas where you are advised not to anchor due to the possibility of unexploded ordinance on the bottom (I'd hate to get my anchor hung up on a few tons of TNT). The firing range is, oddly, one of the most pristine places in the Virgins.

We weighed anchor a little before 4AM and drifted slowly back from Caya de Muertos on a gentle breeze. As we motored around the Puerto Rico side of Muertos the wind pick up substantially as did the seas. We moved out as quickly as possible to make the most of the moderated pre-dawn conditions, such as they were.

Just as the day before conditions continued to deteriorate as the day advanced. It got rough enough by 7:00 that we decided give up on Vieques and start looking for an anchorage. It was a hazy morning and visibility wasn't great with spray was coming over the bow regularly now.

We were doing our best to press on because my parents were slated to arrive late tomorrow. The anchorage at Trellis Bay is a short walk from the main BVI airport on Beef Island. We were hoping to make it to Trellis Bay to pick them up when they arrived.

Sometime before 8AM we decided to get to cover. Things were just too unpleasant on the high seas. The Cruising Guide noted a nice anchorage in the Boca del Infierno area. We were just about to pass the entrance and we decided to make a hard left. This of course put the wind and seas on our beam which was even less fun. While I don't enjoy beating into the wind and waves at least things are nice and calm in the cockpit due to the hard bimini and wind screen.

As we approached the cut it was looking pretty rough. The chart showed a minimum of 12 feet on the way in and reefs on both side. As we got a bit closer we realized that the entire entrance was breaking. I like white water rafting and all but not with the house. So we turned back onto the wind and pounded our way up the coast for Punta Figueras.

As we approached the point we began to get a break in the seas from some of the outlying reefs. When we finally made the point we decided to move east for one more anchorage in the lee of Punta Viento. As we approached our target, Puerto Patillas things really settled down. The bay formed by the large reef and Punta Viento is very settled and if you were tucked in far enough would be decent in just about any wind, although seas from the south might be a bit rough.

We dropped anchor at 8:45 and put the boat away. We were settled in amongst 3 or 4 other cruisers, one boat of which we had met in Provo. It was still early so we decided to take Roq ashore and see if we could scare up some lunch.

Puerto Patillas is a small town with a public beach and several snack shops and bars. We tied Little Star up at the dock in front of the fisherman's co-op. A young man was cleaning some good looking Mahi Mahi as we walked into town.

It is always fun to explore new places and we enjoyed our outing. That said Purto Patillas is not the crown jewel of Puerto Rico. It is fairly dirty, in town and at the beach, and the food we sampled at a few of the eateries was fair. When we returned to the dock three kids were jumping around on our dingy. The kids spoke pretty good English and I asked them to stay off of the boat. No parents in sight, they more or less ignored me. When Hideko and Roq caught up we departed briskly.

When we got back aboard the big boat we prepared everything for another early departure. It was still possible to make Trellis by the time my parents arrived but it was going to be a long day with a lot of miles.

Puerto Rico
Caya de Muertos
Randy
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
Randy
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
Mayaguez
Randy
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
Boqueron
Randy
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
Randy
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

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