Ship's Log

November 2nd, 2009- La Parguera, Puerto Rico:

A fellow sailor, braver than we are, heads out to sea.

Well, it wasn’t easy but SARABANDE is back on the move!  After a fabulous farewell cave barbecue with our good friends Keli, Stuart, Tom and Mike, we finally stole away under cover of darkness from Luperon harbor on October 15th.  It was about 3:30 AM when we’d worked the boat past the shoals at the harbor entrance, and bid our sleeping friends and our home for almost 5 months a silent blessing.  We’re very happy we chose Luperon as our hurricane hole.  That murky little mangrove harbor was very good to us.  We learned a great many things, and our lives are richer with the friendships made and the experiences had there.

Some of the friends we left behind.  Happily, we know we'll be seeing some of them again soon in the Virgin Islands.  
For others, we cross our fingers and hope to make it happen before too long!

The particular night we chose to use for creeping down the coast was moonless but clear, so stars and meteor showers stood out sharply and lit our way as we trundled along close to shore.  We hit our stride and it felt good to be sailing the boat again and off to see what we could see.  SARABANDE strutted along and the ocean, whipped by day into a washing machine of froth, was smooth and calm in the dark.  A couple of hours after dawn, we’d listen to the weather report and quietly anchor in a sheltered spot to nap and prepare for the next night.  The morning sun, rising out of the ocean and lighting up the green Dominican mountains, was an extraordinary sight to behold.

Off the coast at dawn.

We continued along in this way from Sosua to Rio San Juan until we came to a stretch of coast where there were no friendly little coves to be had for about 60 miles, and we had to sail through the night and cross the Bahia Escocesa in the daytime, howling trade winds and all.  To make matters more interesting, our guidebook warned that the bay was haunted!  The day dawned grey and gloomy, and we gritted our teeth as SARABANDE bashed into the building wind and waves.  Dodging to outrun an angry black squall, we reefed our sails and were thankful as always for SARABANDE’s powerful engine.  Still, we definitely took a beating! 

This squall was a real jerk and followed us for quite a while.  

SARABANDE outrunning the nonsense.  

We’d forgotten in our months at anchor just how nasty things can get out on the water sometimes.  But our luck changed late in the afternoon:   first we caught a very well-behaved mahi-mahi that all but jumped into our cockpit, and then our anchorage for the night turned out to be the most gorgeous place we’ve seen yet.  Curvy high hills dotted with palm trees rise straight out of deep water and in between them is a perfect crescent-shaped beach called El Valle ("the valley").

Hooray for delicious free food!

Awed by the panoramic beauty and stuffed with fresh fish, we set the alarm clock for 3AM and hit the sack, doubting that the raging conditions we’d seen earlier in the day would ever calm down enough for us to continue on.  We were thoroughly prepared to make a happy life fishing and eating coconuts on the beach of El Valle.  Forever, if necessary. 

And what a fine life it would've been.

But when we woke up and stuck our groggy heads out of the hatch, there was not a breath of wind and the previously vicious bay was still and quiet.  Regretfully, we left gorgeous El Valle and motorsailed in the eery calm.  As we progressed along our course, the names on our charts made it clear that whoever first named this coast had tried to transit it during the daytime rage.  We could sympathize with their anger as we sailed past rocky Puerto Malo (“Bad Port”), and then rounded imposing Cabo Cabròn (“Cape A**hole”).  To give Cabo Cabròn credit, it didn’t give us any trouble that night.

In the middle of the morning, we dropped anchor in Samana and were immediately put off by the sketchy feel of the place.  When we presented customs officials with our clearance papers from Luperon, they warned us to lock up anything that we didn’t want to have stolen.  We’d heard from other cruisers that theft was definitely a problem, especially outboard engines.  We took the officials’ advice to heart and even took our fishing rods down below and out of sight. 

Even though we originally wanted to spend some time there, in the end we didn’t feel comfortable leaving the boat unattended in Samanà.  Instead, we took a couple of short jaunts into the little town by day, and at night we slept outside in the cockpit with clubs and machetes at the ready.  We’ve had outboard trouble enough as it is!  Being on guard like that is no fun, so we agreed to throw in the towel and leave for Puerto Rico as soon as possible.

We were in the final stages of passage preparation - Brian was hunched over our charts making GPS waypoints while Alicia was wrapping up several different types of sandwiches - when some familiar-looking boats pulled up and dropped anchor next to us.  TE OIGO, LALA and SANDY ANNIE were all neighbor boats from Luperon who’d been following on our heels.  They too were unimpressed with Samanà.  The weather report checked out, and we all decided to leave that evening to cross the notorious Mona Passage.  We agreed to check in with each other on the VHF or SSB every few hours, and so as the sun went down our small armada sailed out into the Mona Passage.

Pulling out of Samana for Puerto Rico.  The DR sure does dish out a lot of rainbows!

The stretch of water between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico can serve up all the classic ingredients for a horror-at-sea story:  breaking waves, crazy currents, vicious thunderstorms.  Modern-day pirates, dangerously overloading tiny boats with drugs and seasick illegal immigrants dash towards secret ports in Puerto Rico, and the Mona is littered with the souls of those who don’t make it.  Lots of boats have been lost there. 

The chaos comes from the features deep down on the ocean floor:  the Puerto Rican trench, one of the deepest pits on the planet, lies near several big shoals, creating a sort of gargantuan sand bar hundreds of feet below the surface.  The Equatorial Current pushes the water along these features and the flow goes haywire, causing big, confused waves and all sorts of countercurrents.  Toss in some high winds and the huge, snarling thunderstorms that blow westward from Puerto Rico every evening, and a boat trying to cross between these two islands as the crow flies could have some real trouble.  It's not a happy place to be.

Our track on the Mona Passage, skirting well above the turbulent nonsense below.

We’d been anxiously anticipating this passage for months, and put all our faith in our trusty guidebook, Bruce Van Sant's "The Gentleman's Guide to Passages South", which hadn’t steered us wrong yet.  Incidentally, we were lucky enough to meet the author in Luperon; he and his wife are marvelous people.  Following the guide's advice, our weather window was a period of very light prevailing winds, 5-10 knots, and instead of heading to Puerto Rico in a straight line, across the shoals and into the thunderstorms, we tacked well north of these until clear of them, then safely tacked south again in a beeline to Mayaguez, low on Puerto Rico’s western coast.  This route also gave us a better angle on the wind for sailing.  The trip took us two nights and a day, about 40 hours, and after the first night of wet, wimpy squalls, we had clear skies and smooth seas the rest of the way.  

Louie and Steve take in the Puerto Rican coast after a long passage.

Pulling into Puerto Rico, signs that we were back in US territory slowly revealed themselves.  On the VHF, we could hear the authoritative announcements of the US Coast Guard, and the computerized voice of Perfect Paul giving marine weather reports. On our cab ride to check in with customs, we passed a Toys R Us, a Little Caesar’s, a Burger King, even an honest-to-God mall.  And after the tiny, one-room shacks that function as stores in Luperon, we were completely unprepared when we ventured into a Wal-Mart.  The tinny whining of the singing seasonal decorations, the flashing TVs, the aisle after aisle of stuff we’d forgotten all about, thousands and thousands of products - it was culture shock and sensory overload packed into one place!  Our brains completely shut down and we wandered around slowly like Hansel and Gretel, picking things up, staring at them, and putting them back on the shelf, shivering in the air conditioning.  Twice, we got lost.

Recovering from the megamart.

We appreciated the quiet of our boat and our simple style of living like never before that night as we bobbed peacefully in the harbor.  But we’re still Americans, and that’s why as we relaxed in our cockpit, Steve was chasing around the dot of a plastic laser pointer shaped like a mouse - a distinctly American product, high-tech and utterly unnecessary, and a total steal at only $3.89!

In the DR, cats catch rats.  In America, cats chase "lasers".

So far, Puerto Rico has far exceeded our expectations.  We’re slowly making our way along the southern coast, and we’ve found the waterfront towns to be really friendly, inexpensive and fun. 

The pretty beach at Boqueron, a cool weekend barrio.

The Spanish here seems enunciated a little more clearly than in the DR, so we understand it better, and the English we’ve heard so far is spoken with a perfect Jersey accent.  Everyone we meet here seems to have spent time in the NYC metro area, one fellow even lived two blocks away from our old Brooklyn apartment in Windsor Terrace! 

The view from What's Her Face on our expedition into La Parguara's mangrove creeks.  
Our guide told us there'd be manatees, but they eluded us.

We spent Halloween in a bar owned by a nice guy our age who grew up on the Jersey Shore.  While we happily watched the Yankees beat the Phillies, a bloody zombie gracefully danced merengue with an obese man in drag.  Next to us, the grim reaper, the villain from the Scream movies, and Zorro sat with their eyes glued to the screen, taunting the Phillies in Spanish.  It sort of felt like we were home.

Happy birthday to Brian’s dad Lindel, and everyone enjoy all the pleasures of fall that we’re nostalgic about right now:  red hooded sweatshirts, smoking fireplaces, changing leaves, apples, leeks, and pumpkin patches.

Alicia & Brian


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