Thursday, March 29, 2018

Crusing Puerto Rico: Mayaguez to La Parguera

Like I said in my last post, in retrospect I should have planned on landing at Boqueron and checking in by SVRS there, and arranging transportation to Mayaguez if the CBP agents requested we clear in person. The reason is that Mayaguez is a rather large, industrial and somewhat charmless city, the already somewhat neglected waterfront is pretty ugly post-Maria, and the storm destroyed the only decent places to land a dinghy. Now your choices boil down to one ragged dock that's just begging to puncture the dink, or a steep rocky beach with a shore break. Regardless, we stayed for a full day and night. The morning that we arrived, Judy's son Justin, wife Jo, and kids Ziggy (8 yrs old) and Coco (5 yrs old) drove down 45 minutes from their home in Rincón. The kids were quite excited to see Oma, but that wasn't enough to coax Coco into a dinghy ride to Windbird. She promised she'd get on the dinghy the next day, when we were taking the family sailing to Boqueron. In the meantime we visited at the skate park by the beach. When Justin and Jo took off to meet a friend for lunch, Ziggy decided to stay behind and visit. We played games aboard and I took a nap, and then we went back ashore for Dawn and I to get some US dollars and do some provisioning at the nearby Selectos supermarket (quite good, but I miss those DR prices!) and for Ziggy to do some more skating. Justin and Jo picked him up at sunset, and he was quite excited to go sailing the next day.

As it turned out, Coco still took some coaxing to get on the dinghy at 7am the next morning. She was frightened of the shore break, but readily agreed to swim 30 feet out to the dinghy, so Justin stripped down to his skivies to swim out with her! Kid logic, I dunno! The Sunday sail to Boqueron started as a motorsail in the night lee, then turned into a beautiful close reach, then a progressively rowdier beat as the day trades picked up. We had one reef in the main, soon put one in the yankee, and debated putting another in the main. By the time I was ready to do it, we were abeam the entrance to Boqueron harbor and it just made sense to douse the Yankee and motorsail in. Well, that's when it got a bit crazy. The wind howled through the harbor at 20, then 25, then 30 knots. We kept the main up and tacked back and forth at 3.5 knots, making steady progress for the last few miles to the anchorage. The kids didn't seem to mind one bit - I think Judy was more concerned than anyone else! In retrospect, yeah, should have thrown that second reef in. I know, I know - "the time to reef is the first time you think of it."

Boqueron is much smaller than Mayaguez and considerably more charming, if a little rowdy on the weekends. The party was in full swing on Sunday afternoon. We walked along the waterfront and found a little local place for some typical Puerto Rican food (e.g. everything fried!). Our good friend Leslie from S/V Texas Two Step turned out to be nearby, staying with Dave as he did a job placing new high-tension powerline towers (he's a longline helicopter pilot), so she dropped in to say hi and share a couple of Medallas. That was really an unexpected treat! Justin, Jo and family rather accidentally found themselves an unofficial taxi back up to their car in Mayaguez, and then Judy, Dawn and I lounged on the waterfront enjoying the party atmosphere and another beer or two. On the way back to the boat we stopped at our friends on S/V La Mischief for what turned into a 3-hour happy hour. Judy told a lot of her stories from her circumnavigation, and we heard some of Steve (the captain of La Mischief)'s interesting cruising stories too. Good times had by all.

The next morning we picked up Ashley from La Mischief, as she was leaving the boat for a week surfing in Rincón before heading home to New York City. She road to Mayaguez with us in Eddie's VW Jetty. Eddie is the same unofficial taxi driver that brought Justin/Jo/Et al there the previous day - a Puerto Rican who grew up in New York, quite an entertaining guy. He dropped us off at Hertz where both Judy and Ashley had reserved cars. We picked ours up, said goodbye to Ashley, and headed up to Rincón. Initially we went to Justin and Jo's place in the hills high above Rincón. They have several acres of land, a hobby farm of sorts with chickens and goats and a pig and a horse (plus five dogs and several cats), plus various fruit-bearing trees and a veggie garden. They were hit hard by Maria and have mostly been without water or electricity since, though a recently-installed solar array on their roof has helped out on the latter front. Ziggy gave us the tour around their place, and then we got back in the car and took a tour of Rincón's famous surf beaches. It was a gorgeous day, with just enough north swell to see the amateurs out surfing. As the sun set, Dawn and Piper and I checked into a nearby hotel - we weren't sure how all the animals would affect Dawn's allergies and we didn't want to cramp Justin & Jo with a full house - and then we rejoined the family for a fantastic sushi dinner at "Pool Bar," which is exactly what it sounds like, a sushi restaurant and bar with a pool on a deck overlooking the bay.

The next day Dawn and I ate breakfast at a bakery and picked up Judy's decaf coffee before heading up to Justin & Jo's place. We had plans to get out into the country by finding the Gozalandia waterfalls with Ziggy and Coco in tow. It took a little under two hours to get there as we stopped in Aguadilla to pick up a picnic lunch, which put us at the falls just after noon. It was a short hike up to the upper falls, where we spent about 90 minutes wading, swimming (even Piper swam!), swinging off of a rope swing into the natural pool under the falls, and jumping in from short rocks. Then we went to the lower falls, where there were several higher leaps culminating with one three-quarters of the way up the falls, about 35 feet or so. I did that one twice (the second when Judy failed to snap a shot of me going the first time!). Lots of fun and a great way to cool off in the Puerto Rican heat and humidity. We dropped off Judy, Ziggy and Coco back at the house at 3pm; this was the end of Judy's short stay on Windbird as she wanted to spend some more time with her grandkids. They all planned to meet us again in a few days at Gilligan's Island, however.

We dropped off the car in Mayaguez and took an Uber back to Boqueron. Both Windbird and our dinghy did fine being unattended overnight - the former at anchor and the latter locked to the dinghy dock. We had dinner at one of the local restaurants when we got back, our first time trying the famous Puerto Rican dish Mofongo, which is basically like shephard's pie but using plantains instead of mashed potatoes. I had it with carne frita & calda (fried beef and soup) and it was ok, but Dawn had one with flank steak that was fantastic. Once back at the boat, it was early to bed for a 3am wakeup.

The next morning we were anchor up at 4am for our 20nm sail around Cabo Rojo, the southwestern tip of Puerto Rico, to La Parguera. When cruising the south coast of Puerto Rico, as when coasting the northern Dominican Republic, you make use of the night lees. The difference is that while the DR only has a few marginal anchorages, Puerto Rico's southern anchorages are fairly close together, so you just depart in the morning in time to be in by 8 or 9am. It was dead still leaving Boqueron, but the night lee didn't do much good rounding Cabo Rojo, which accelerated the wind and waves just like Bruce Van Sant said it would. We pounded into the short, steep Caribbean chop, making less than 4 knots headway. Consequently we didn't get into La Parguera until 9am, anchoring behind Cayo Caracoles. Fortunately this was the last real trouble we'd have getting east on the Puerto Rican coast as we fell in the habit of leaving early and getting in early, and we had some really nice light wind for motorsailing...and motorsailing...and motorsailing some more!

Next Post: Cruising Puerto Rico from La Parguera to Fajardo

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Across the Mona

Dawn has been dreading the Mona Passage all season, largely due to several bouts of seasickness she's suffered this year as well as a handful of cruisers (mostly Georgetown types) who told her it was the roughest sail they'd ever had. I don't doubt that the Mona can be truly miserable under the right conditions and in the wrong areas, but I told Dawn we'd stick to Bruce Van Sant's recommendations that have served us so well on our way down the Thorny Path and wait for the perfect weather window to cross, even if that meant staying in the Dominican Republic for an extra week or two.

As it turned out, we did get a perfect weather window, but it came about a week before we really wanted to leave the DR. We actually considered staying the extra week because it looked like another good window would follow (and it did, about 8 days later), but decided to take the bird in hand over the two in the bush. Besides, Judy Handley had flown in to do the Mona with us, and while I know she would have enjoyed more time in the DR, she also wanted time to spend with her son, daughter-in-law and grandkids who live in Puerto Rico. So when the Mid-Atlantic High moved unusually far south (N15°) and killed the trade winds, we took advantage and motored right on across the Mona from the night of 8 March to the early morning of 10 Mar. The 145nm from Samaná to Mayaguez took 30 hours.

The morning of the 8th, it actually looked like we might not be able to go. There was some lingering big north swell from the huge Nor'easter that pummeled New England the previous weekend. While it was forecast to be down to 6-7' with a huge 14" interval for our passage, the Samaná commandante told me that until further notice they were not issuing international despachos. But then he conferred with his superior later in the morning, they decided it was safe, and he let me know we were free to go. We checked out with customs and immigration at 2pm, and the commandante was at the dock at 4pm as promised to issue our despacho. It was all quite quick and easy at Puerto Bahia Marina, considerably more streamlined than in Luperon. Had we used the Samaná town anchorage it would have been a different set of officials, and I suspect not quite as easy or streamlined.

Once off the dock we motored 5 miles into the stiff afternoon chop, to our staging anchorage at Cayo Leventado. We initially tried the south anchorage just off of the hotel dock, but it was rolly with a nasty ground swell wrapping in, plus very tentative holding in rocky ground with a reef just behind us. Not a good place to rest. So we relocated to the much better west anchorage, had dinner, and took a short nap. At 8pm the wind had started dying down, so we started the engine, weighed anchor, and set course to the ESE, across the mouth of Samaná Bay and then along the eastern DR coast to Punta Macau.

Because there were three of us to stand watch, we had a 3 on - 6 off schedule. It was quite restful! I was on watch from 8pm to 10pm, and then off watch until 4am. Judy took the watch after me, and Dawn enjoyed her usual "Dog Watch" (1am to 4am). For the first portion of the night we were motoring directly into the wind and left the main furled; it wasn't terribly rolly as the predicted north swell ended up being almost unnoticeable. At 2am the wind had finally shifted far enough inland that we could raise the main, and by the time we tacked offshore from Punta Macau into the Mona proper at 7am, the wind had veered all the way to SSE-S, putting us on a close reach of about 50° apparent (70° true).

The wind was forecast to be 120 at 6 knots early in the Mona and 030 at 10 knots late Friday. I planned our course from Punta Macau to be straight E for 30nm, taking us north of the famously rough "Hourglass Shoals," then ESE to a point just north of Isla Desecheo, and then SSE along the Puerto Rican coast to Mayaguez. In reality the wind speed increased to 15 knots by 9am, but the direction stayed almost due S though I kept expecting it to fully back ESE as we moved away from the influence of land. We could have unfurled the headsail and killed the engine and pure sailed close-hauled all morning long, and it would have taken us only a few miles north of our planned course. But because I kept expecting the wind to back as forecast, we just motorsailed right along the planned course, bashing into the chop, until 1pm. Then the wind slacked a bit but returned to S-SSW rather than backing to ESE; I realized this would likely stay the case until the north wind took over, and we enjoyed several hours of sailing on a close reach. Finally the wind went light and fluky in the late afternoon and we again motorsailed for an hour, until the north wind abruptly filled in at sunset. From there we were able to sail on a progressively broader reach as we turned ESE and then SSE, until the wind died in the night lee of Puerto Rico and we again motorsailed the last few hours to Mayaguez.

I belatedly put out the fishing lines on Friday afternoon but we only had one strong strike on the handline that spit the lure after I got it about 2/3 of the way to the boat. After that, nothing. The main highlight of the passage was seeing a Humpback whale breaching about a half mile off our port side. Judy saw the first two breaches and then woke Dawn and I up from our naps in time to see two more leaps out of the water. Really spectacular! The late evening motorsail along the lights of the Puerto Rican coast was really nice too. I had the 10pm to 1am shift, then Judy took over for the last hour into the harbor while I napped in the cockpit. Mayaguez is a really straightforward, wide open and well-lit approach, which is why I chose it for our nighttime landfall instead of going around Tourmaline Reef to Boqueron. At 2am Judy woke me to walk to the bow and drop the anchor, 1/3 of a mile from the beach in 11 feet of dead still water. Talk about an anti-climactic arrival!

The next morning I checked in with customs by telephone; we didn't have to visit them in person as both the boat and all three of us are registered with the U.S. Customs & Border Patrol's Small Vessel Reporting System (SVRS, formerly Local Boater Option). It was our first time using the system, and it was really, really slick. We easily could have done it from Boqueron, and after seeing the lack of cruiser amenities in post-Maria Mayaguez as well as the relative ease of a nighttime approach to Boqueron, that is what I would do next time. But, our exploration of Puerto Rico's west coast is best left to another post. All in all, our Mona Passage crossing was super easy, almost a non-event. If there was any downside, it was all the motoring and motorsailing with only five or six hours of pure sailing. But that's a small price to pay for a mostly smooth crossing of a famously rough patch of the ocean.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

We Love the DR!

Surprise, surprise - I'm writing this from Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, having just crossed the Mona Passage over the last two days. We had a really good weather window and decided to take it, even though it meant we spent only three weeks in the Dominican Republic instead of the month we originally intended. Nevertheless we took full advantage of our time there, I felt like we saw quite a bit, and ended up really enjoying the country. We'll definitely be back. In my last post I wrote about some of the things we did during our eleven days in Luperon; here are some of the things we did after leaving there on March 1st:

 --Motorsailing the North Coast. We got our despacho on the afternoon of the 1st, a fairly painless process that took about an hour including visits to inmigración, Aduanas, & Port Authority. No charge for the despacho, just $20 for the Port Authority (7-30 days in the anchorage). We left at 4pm to clear the channel in daylight & avoid the fishing net bouys, which meant our first few hours were a bit rough until the night lee established itself about 9pm. Otherwise it was a gorgeous motorsail. We passed Rio San Juan around daybreak and kept going past Scottish Bay with a nice counter-current on our tail; there was no east gradient wind and only a little seabreeze to buck. Rounding the Samaná Peninsula in the late afternoon and early evening was absolutely stunning. We got into the Samaná town anchorage at 9pm Friday, and pulled up anchor early the next morning to move to the Puerto Bahia Marina.

--Staying at Puerto Bahia Marina / The Bannister Hotel. This place was kinda nuts, in a good way. Imagine a nice marina with gorgeous views across Samaná Bay, next to a 4-star hotel and a ton of vacation homes and condominiums strewn up the hillside, all inside a secure gate that keeps the usual pandemonium of the DR at bay. There are 2 pools, 3 restaurants, 3 bars, a gym, hot showers, a spa - all of which are open to marina guests. Everything is well staffed and immaculately maintained - and there is nobody around. Like seriously, other than the marina guests, employees and armed guards, the place is deserted. It's quite eerie. Maybe I've been watching too much Ozark lately, but my personal theory is that it's a money laundering scheme. Anyways it's a fantastic deal at $1/ft/night. The check-in and despacho process is significantly easier here than Luperon or especially (so I hear) the Samaná town anchorage. The commandante is particularly friendly and speaks good English. That said, this is definitely not the "real DR" - it's a vacation from it.

--Catching up with S/V Vela and S/V O'ceananigans and meeting the friendly crews of S/Vs La Mischief and Follow Me and M/V Mercator. After having significantly trailed us all season, our friends Erin and Kara on Vela abruptly caught up to us with a giant 500nm leap from Georgetown to Samaná, using the same giant weather window we used to move east. Catamarans La Mischief and Follow Me made the same passage in about the same time. We had met David and Joanna on O'ceananigans in Luperon, they had gone to Samaná a few days before us, and came into the marina the day after us. We tried to rent a car for a few days but the car rental agency only had a 12-passenger Hyundai van, so we ended up playing tour guide for several days of exploring in company with the other cruisers.

--Daytrip to Las Galeras. We had seven people from Windbird, Vela, and La Mischief for this one. We drove east along the Samaná Peninsula, checked out the town of Las Galenas, played on the beach a bit, moved over to La Playita for lunch, and then did a bit of bushwhacking out to the Boca de Diablo blowhole on our return. It was a really nice day to a gorgeous area.

--Daytrip to El Limón and Las Terrenas. We had nine people from Windbird, Vela, La Mischief, Follow Me, and O'ceananigans for this one. We procured horses and guides for the trek to the spectacular El Limón waterfall, then drove to Las Terrenas for a fantastic lunch, walking on the beach, and drinking and shooting pool in a beach bar. On the way back we hit up a produce truck in Samaná.

--Overnight trip to Boca Chica / Santo Domingo. On Monday night Judy Handley emailed me that Delta had notified her there was another possible Nor'easter inbound to Boston on her planned travel date of Wednesday, Mar 7 and offered to move her travel forward a day, which she decided to do. So that changed our plans slightly. We left Samaná an hour or two earlier than planned and drove directly to Santo Domingo Airport to pick Judy up around 5:30pm, then drove to Boca Chica where she had reserved a room at a beachfront hotel. We found a cheap option only a few blocks away in a place over a Spanish restaurant. We walked the beach and had a nice dinner, then retired fairly early in preparation for our early start the next day. On Wednesday we drove to Santo Domingo's Colonial Zone, got breakfast at a cafe, and did a self-guided walking tour for the next 5 hours or so. Santo Domingo was considerably cleaner and more orderly than I was expecting, even the driving wasn't that bad compared to the nuttiness of the rest of the DR. The colonial zone was pretty fascinating, oozing history from every street corner. We had a late lunch in a convenient cafeteria, did some provisioning at the nearby Supermercado Nacional, and drove back to Samaná before nightfall. One major surprise from the drive: finding Rogue Brewing's Dead Guy Ale, in cans, at a gas station along the way! We got a sixer for the boat's beer stores.

I'll cover our Mona crossing in another post, but for now suffice it to say it was about as smooth of a Mona crossing as one can hope for. After getting stuck in Turks and Caicos for 3 weeks, we've been lucking out on weather ever since. Here's hoping that trend continues as we explore Puerto Rico's south coast and head onward to the Virgin Islands!