Friday, July 6, 2018

Last Port of Call

As you may have guessed by the recent lack of blogging, Dawn and Piper and I are off the boat for hurricane season; Windbird is high and dry in the Puerto del Rey boatyard in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. But we’ll get to that. In the meantime, backtracking to late May....

Our downwind sail to Vieques was just as pleasant as hoped, six knots speed over ground in 15-17 kts E wind. The day was marred only by losing a very large bull Mahi just as we were lifting him into the boat! Our only other catches were a big barracuda and a smaller female Mahi we released. Our first anchorage was on the east side of Ensenada Honda. It was beautiful, peaceful (had the place to ourselves) and perfectly protected though the breeze came through uninterrupted via a low spot in the mangroves. There is a nice mangrove river we explored by dinghy; it would make an excellent hurricane hole, and there was one relatively undamaged but still apparently abandoned sailboat yet tied into the mangroves from Maria. Unfortunately there was no place to land Piper, we had to take the dinghy 2-3 miles west to the nearest beach (somewhat unprotected from swell wrapping in), so we left after one night.

We went just around the corner to Bahia de la Chiva, which looks unprotected from the south but actually has good protection for two or three boats if you scootch up in behind a small key and reef on the SE corner. Again, we had the place to ourselves. We only saw one other cruising boat our entire time on Vieques, which I attributed to the lateness of the season - all the Thorny Path folks had scooted down island on their way to Grenada or Trinidad by now. We really liked La Chiva and spent two nights there. There’s a gorgeous mile-long crescent white beach that Piper loved running on, beach shelters for picnics (currently storm damaged), semi-wild horses (Vieques is known for them), and some short hiking paths though your options are limited as much of the surrounding land is closed due to unexplored ordinance. The US Navy used the east end of Vieques as a bombing range for 60 years, which ironically kept it nicely undeveloped - but cleanup will take a long time. The second afternoon, we were approached by a park ranger and informed that La Chiva beach is actually still closed for hurricane cleanup. The road is blocked off, but we didn’t know since we came by boat from the east. No wonder such a nice beach was so deserted!

Next we repositioned over to Puerto Ferro, which has a narrow and shallow entrance that makes the inside quite placid. The pretty bay is surrounded by mangroves, but also has several small beaches on which we were able to land Piper. Our original plan was to take the dinghy over to nearby Puerto Mosquito, Vieques’ famed bioluminescent bay, just after dark but before the nearly-full moon rose. However an afternoon test run in big SE swell showed this to be a bad idea. Anyways, we later found out from the locals that there’s been very little bioluminescence since Maria. We certainly didn’t see any in Puerto Ferro, which previously had it.

For Memorial Day weekend we sailed on over to Ensenada Sun Bay, a gorgeous half moon bay with a beautiful white sand beach that is a popular municipal park. It was pleasantly busy the whole weekend, but not crowded. Six or seven powerboats came over from Puerto Rico and rafted up for several days, along with one sailboat out of Palmas Del Mar on PR’s southeast corner. We tucked up into the easternmost corner of the bay but a little swell was still wrapping in; we set up a swell bridle and it made the anchorage perfectly comfortable. We took the dinghy over to the small town of Esperanza twice, and the boats anchored there appeared to be having a much rougher ride. The short, somewhat wet dinghy ride was worth the good sleep, in my book. I wish we’d tried the swell bridle in St. Croix, although there was enough chop there that we would have still been hobby-horsing.

The reef on the SE corner of Sun Bay yielded the last lobster of the season, a medium-sized tasty dude. The only other real event of our time there was that we coaxed Piper into swimming, with no small help from ample treats. He’s a really good swimmer but has hated the water ever since we started cruising, at least anything deeper than splashing depth.

After two nights in Sun Bay we sailed to Green Beach on the west side of Vieques, which is beautiful and deserted, at least once the last Memorial Day boaters headed back across the five-mile channel to the “mainland.” We got out to the beach and had Piper swimming a few more times, but I didn’t get in any snorkeling which I later heard is quite good there. The next morning we took off fairly early for Isabel Segunda on the north side of the island, which involved a couple hours of upwind bashing for the first time in several weeks. The anchorage at Isabel Segunda was deserted except for some fishing boats moored close to the dinghy dock and one local sailboat further out in the mooring field. There was enough room among the unoccupied private moorings for us to anchor quite close to the beach, completely out of the swell coming around the point to the north. The anchorage here is notoriously rolly but we found it perfectly comfortable with ESE to E wind of around 20 kts.

Isabel Segunda has a bit of a reputation for dinghy theft and petty crime but we didn’t see any sign of it. Of course we locked up the dinghy at the public dock and put it on the davits at night, our usual practice in any populated area with a history of dinghy theft (e.g. almost everywhere we’ll be going next season). But overall we ended up liking Isabel Segunda quite a bit more than Esperanza, though the latter is known as more of a cruiser hangout. We have a friend - or rather a friend of a friend - with a rental property two miles east of Isabel Segunda, and he had invited us to use his Jeep Wrangler during our stay. So the second morning we walked to his place, picked up the Jeep, and set off exploring the island. Actually it turns out that a large portion of the island is closed to the public, and even theoretically public tracks were chained off due to storm damage. It was too bad because there were some really interesting looking trails I would have loved to take the Jeep on. Still, we had a nice day exploring, and particularly enjoyed the beautiful little trail that follows a small stream and canyon to Playa Negra, a black sand beach a couple miles west of Esperanza.

Our third day in Isabel Segunda, I did a two tank dive / scuba refresher with Black Beard Watersports. It had been three years since my last dive but I hit the books beforehand and everything came back almost immediately. It was a nice dive around a WW2-era causeway and pier now mostly used for fishing. There was quite a bit of sea life including a lot of large sea turtles, but I think the highlight was discovering the large tentacles of what must have been a huge octopus snaking out of a crevice. I wasn’t tempted to reach in and rouse the beast (they’ve been known to attach themselves to divers’s heads and even rip out their reg). It felt great to get back underwater blowing bubbles, and I’m tempted to get my own gear before next season despite my lack of a diving partner on board. I’d continue to dive with dive shops, but it’s just easier having your own kit.

The next day we left Isabel Segunda and motored a mile southwest to a great little snorkel spot my dive instructor told me about, Cayo Blanco. The sizable reef there was somewhat damaged by debris from Maria but was still pretty spectacular, with a ton of fish. I’d put it in the top three or four snorkels of the year. After we got out of the water we had lunch and then set out on what had to be one of the nicest daysails of the year, a 12 mile beam reach in steady 15 kt trades to Isla Palominos. Only a couple miles away from Puerto del Rey, Palominos would make a nice spot to begin the long and exhausting process of getting Windbird ready to come out of the water for hurricane season.

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