It was still dark-thirty when the alarm clock beeped us awake at 0550. We had planned an 0700 departure for our sail from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic, and the admiral insisted on perking some proper coffee before weighing anchor, despite the captain’s grumbling at what he deemed an unnecessary luxury. But the admiral considers her coffee to be one of the major food groups, so on went the Starbuck’s.
Our charted course included a transit of the infamous Mona Passage, which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. This 80-mile stretch of sea is bordered on the east by Puerto Rico, and on the west by the Dominican Republic. It’s considered to be one of the most difficult passages in the Caribbean, which is why, for days, Ken had been religiously studying the forecasts for a good weather window, and why we’d been lingering on PR’s west coast waiting for favorable conditions.
The topography of the ocean floor in the Mona is the reason for the flukey and challenging conditions. The Puerto Rican trench, lying off PR’s north coast, has a maximum charted depth of 5.3 miles, making it the deepest point in the Atlantic. The deep waters of this trench meet the Mona Passage, which, on the Dominican Republic side, has depths in some places as shallow as 200 feet or less. This abrupt and extreme change in depth can give birth to some very high seas in parts of the passage. Strong and variable tidal currents run through the passage, along with shoals and sandbars, and the high capes on the DR’s east coast can add sudden wind shears to the mix. The whole area, therefore, is subject to the caprices of oceanic and meteorological whimsy. (Makes you just want to sign on for a passage, doesn’t it?)
But on the morning of April 27, 2016, the ENE wind was a light 10 knots, the seas were about one foot, and we had an encouraging blue sky. We weighed anchor from Mayaguez, PR, and headed out into the Mona. We had 80 miles ahead of us to reach the east coast of the DR, and another 60 from the coast to our destination in Samana Bay.
The day passed in benign conditions, but at 11 pm, our approximate time for change of the watch, Ken woke Katie with the ominous news that we had heavy weather ahead. The radar screen was almost black with squall activity, and flickers of lightning illuminated a towering inky cloud mass in front of us.
We dropped the (already double-reefed) main, put a drop board in the companionway, and Ken took the helm, suited up in his foulies. For the next two and a half hours, Sand Dollar plowed into a white-out of driving rain, with lightning strikes every few seconds providing light but no visibility, and thunder claps adding sound effects to the drama. Thankfully, the sea state remained more or less benign.
By dawn we were entering Samana bay, located on the NE coast of the DR, under clear skies, and we tucked into a berth at Marina Puerto Bahia at 0815. The beautiful upscale marina was full of welcome amenities, and we took advantage of the luxurious (to us) conveniences like washing machines, showers, and a mini-market (with ice!). We topped up water, diesel, and gas, scrubbed the decks, and at night listened to the rumble of distant thunder as we lay safe and secure in the comfort of our bunks.
Two days later we joined fellow cruisers Eric and Anne (of S/V Kahuli) for happy hour drinks, and decided to buddy-boat for the 24-hour passage to Luperon on the DR’s north coast.
That trip proved to be quite pleasant, a combination of sailing and motor-sailing, clear during the day and squall-free after dark, with a star-studded night sky and Kahuli’s lights visible across the water.
Entering the channel to Luperon, we approached the starboard turn into the anchorage, closely following the recommended route through the shallow mangrove-lined channel. Kahuli was just ahead of us, and Ken noted that she’d suddenly stopped. As we neared the turn, Eric called out that they were aground, just as our depth sounder readings dropped from nine feet to 4.6 feet, and SD bumped to a halt. (We draw 5 feet.) The tide was near dead low, with the next high tide due many hours later. As we all mulled solutions to our predicament, a local fisherman motored over to assist. Kahuli popped free when Eric used her dinghy to push her off, but SD, in a shallower spot, was more firmly stuck. (Obviously, the bottom had shifted since our entry guide was written.)
Ken had put out a kedge anchor, and Eric brought Kahuli’s dinghy to SD’s bow. With the dinghy pushing like a tugboat, our fisherman friend pulling with a tow line, Katie winching the kedge anchor, and Ken gunning the engine, our ship was afloat in short order. We all proceeded to the anchorage without further drama, where we picked up a mooring for the bargain price of two dollars a day.
We dinghied ashore the following morning to check in with the assorted officials - Comandante (Navy), Imigracion, and Aduano (Customs), bleeding money here and there along the way. Strolling through the little town we passed cows tethered beside the main streets, chickens skittering along the sidewalk, and local toddlers, who apparently found us fascinating. We stopped for a cold beer at the funky outdoor Lazy Ass Bistro, a popular watering hole for ex-patriates, who number quite a few. It reminded us of Key West as we first saw it 40 years ago. A family sitting nearby, who said they’d stopped here five years ago and never got underway again, likened Luperon to the Eagles’ “Hotel California” – “You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave”.
A few days later, jonesing for a pizza, we stopped in at “d’La France Pizza Restaurant”, which proved to have nothing to do with France and very little to do with pizza. The only other occupant of the place was an apparently self-appointed greeter who introduced himself as “Happy Jose”. He did indeed appear quite happy, grinning broadly as he pointed to his camouflage cap emblazoned with the words “God’s Army’. We ordered a plain cheese pizza and a couple of Cokes, and invited Happy Jose to select a drink from the cooler, our treat. Our pizza arrived fairly quickly, and while it was essentially edible, it bore little resemblance to any prior pizza we’d eaten. We gave up after a slice or two and donated the remainder to Happy Jose, who was delighted with this largesse. He parked himself at a small table with his pizza and Coke and tucked in with enthusiasm, oblivious to the considerable attention he was drawing from a handful of local guys who stood by, grinning good-naturedly.
On a couple of evenings we joined friends from the anchorage at the Marina Puerto Blanco across from the mooring field, for happy hour drinks and final pre-departure dinners. Included in our group were a couple of colorful ex-pat good ole’ boys (one of whom was an Okie from Muskogee) with the nicknames “Southern Breeze”and “Loose Marbles”.
We checked out with the officials on a Friday, citing our departure day as the following evening (Saturday), even though we hoped to sneak out early Sunday morning. With the immigration officer’s non-existent English, and our attempts at Spanish (it’s possible we used some words that don’t exist in either language), we weren’t exactly sure what we’d said to each other, but the official seemed satisfied, so we were good to go.
As luck would have it, Saturday was a dark, miserable day with heavy rain, and to our immense surprise, the Comandante himself called us on the VHF to say that weather conditions were too dangerous for sailing, and we should delay our departure until Sunday morning. What a country! Aye, aye, Senor Comandante!
So on Sunday morning, May 8, 2016, we weighed anchor for the last time in a foreign country and pointed SD’s bow westward, setting a course toward America, and home. Our first night out saw us flying wing-and-wing under full main and poled-out headsail, zipping along at 7-plus knots. We sighted a couple of ships on the horizon, including a distant cruise ship, merrily lit up like a carnival in the moonless night.
The morning brought squally conditions and 8-9 foot cresting seas, so Ken double-reefed the main and shortened the jib. By the next day, Tuesday, things had moderated, and with the east wind blowing 20 knots, the seas had dropped to 5-6 feet and we were sailing under headsail alone, making 5-7 knots.
Wednesday and Thursday saw conditions continue to settle a bit, as we transited the Old Bahama Channel, north of Cuba, and at one point, a tiny little bird appeared in the cockpit. He flew through the cabin and out the forward hatch a few times, in no apparent fear or distress, before eventually taking off again, much to our disappointment. At one point during his inspection tour, he perched for a while on the steering wheel, and as the wheel pilot steered the boat, turning the wheel left and right, he gamely hung on as if he were on a ride at an amusement park.
Early Friday morning, we were in the bumpy seas and brisk north-setting current of the Gulf Stream, and at 1000 we were making 8-9 knots, with the Miami skyline off the port bow. By 1400 we were passing Port Everglades, where our AIS reported 145 targets! (We turned the thing off.) We were abeam our old home town of Pompano Beach at 1600, and three hours later we entered Lake Worth Inlet, dropping our hook in the Intracoastal Waterway and opening a bottle of wine to toast each other and our beloved, sturdy little ship.
We took a berth at the Riviera Beach Marina the following morning, and were picked up by our generous good friend Roy for the long drive to Palm Beach Airport to check into America. After three leisurely marina days, putting SD and ourselves in order after the passage, we moved up five miles to the North Lake Worth anchorage, where we were held hostage for two more days by a series of ferocious electrical storms. We finally got underway for the trip up the ICW, anchoring each night along the way. After one night at the Vero Beach Marina, we were motoring through a narrow exit channel between the mangroves when the bottom suddenly shoaled up, immediately bringing SD to a halt and prompting the captain to say some bad words. Happily, the breeze had come up, so we raised the headsail, and she immediately heeled over and extricated herself.
Our ICW passage provided a smorgasbord of scenery. Huge waterfront homes lined the shores in Palm Beach County, with an occasional Old Florida cracker house tucked in among the McMansions. Further north, our favorite areas were the stretches of undeveloped subtropical coastal habitat that once covered all of SE Florida. Osprey (aka sea eagles, or fish hawks) apparently favor the ICW channel markers as nesting sites, and we passed several nests occupied by bewildered-looking chicks, apparently waiting for mom and dad to bring home some chow.
On our last night we anchored behind the Eau Gallie Library, near a restaurant where a live band provided happy hour entertainment. At one point the music seemed to be fading, and when Ken climbed into the cockpit to investigate, he discovered that we’d dragged anchor some thirty yards. He hauled it up, and found that the bottom was like oatmeal – soft sand and marl, so we moved off a bit and re-set the hook.
We inadvertently almost ended our last day with a bang – literally. Nearing our destination of Titusville, we were stripping off our cockpit sunshade when one zipper refused to budge. Minutes passed while Ken struggled with the zipper, as we approached a channel marker ahead. Katie recommended a course correction on the wheel pilot, but she didn’t actually do it. (Why not? Nobody knows.) Ken was totally absorbed and very irritated in his battle with the zipper, so Katie joined in to try and help, as SD motored obediently along on the last course we’d set for her. Moments later, we both looked up in horror to find that we were practically on top of the mark, and we held our breath (right after we said, “Holy Shit!”) as we slid by, with the pointy corner of the mark inches from SD’s rigging. Having narrowly escaped an expensive and embarrassing end to our voyage around the planet, we entered Titusville City Marina at last, and tucked SD into her new home berth.
All three of us will spend the hot summer months of hurricane season idling in Florida. We’ve totally enjoyed all our travels, but it’s great to be back in America, where we have ice, A/C, unlimited water, and most of the people speak English. The future offers multiple cruising choices…….Bahamas, Florida Keys, Chesapeake Bay, and more.
In the meantime, it ‘s fun to look back and recall the ports and passages of the past eight years:
2008: (Pacific Ocean Crossing) Hawaiian Islands, Johnston Atoll, Marshall Islands
2009: Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Lamotrek in the Federated States of Micronesia
2010: Pulau (Koror and Peleliu), Philippines, Malaysian Borneo
2011: Brunei, Miri (Borneo), Tioman Island, Singapore, Peninsular Malaysia
2012: Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia
2013: Turkey, Greece
2014: Italy, Spain, Gibraltar, Morocco, the Canary Islands
2015: (Atlantic Ocean Crossing) Caribbean Islands
2016: Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic
Sand Dollar has sailed the Pacific Ocean, Philippine Sea, South China Sea, Sulu Sea, Singapore Strait, Malacca Strait (to the edge of the Andaman Sea), the Aegean, Ionian, and Mediterranean Seas, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Caribbean Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean. She also “sailed” the Red Sea and Suez Canal without us, as a passenger on a big ship.
Well done, our good and faithful, indefatigable little ship!
Until we meet again, Cheers!
Katie and Ken