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.

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