Into the Rain Forest: Dominica!

Our journey south continued with an overnight stop in Dominica. We had bought some extra-strong line in Guadeloupe to use as a tie-down for the clew (rear bottom attachment point) of our mainsail. It’s been breaking loose when we use the main, and every time it happens we have to drop the sail to fix it. So in The Saintes, when we had light wind, we hoisted it part-way and tied down that clew with the strongest line we could get our hands on.

And it worked! Too well, actually… about an hour into our ride to Dominica we felt a brisk gust and heard a loud “BOOM!” This time, the strong line and my knots held just fine… but the small aluminum bar on the boom, to which I had secured the clew, actually broke off. Grrrr! No matter what we do these days, we can’t get our mainsail in working order! Back to the drawing board…

Dominica is a young island, geologically; it has no significant beaches and 7 potentially active volcanoes. It doesn’t see much tourism except from cruise ships (we stopped here once in 2015) and cruising sailboats. But it gets a decent amount of both – there’s good snorkeling, diving, and hiking here.

Dominica, land of volcanoes

For a while Dominica had a reputation among sailors as a good place to get your dinghy stolen. It happens in some of the economically depressed isles; a stolen outboard engine can be sold for good money. But some of the river tour guides in Portsmouth, the northern port, were smart and came up with a good idea: PAYS, or the Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services. They set up good, strong mooring balls, organized regular 24-hour patrols in the bay, and now visiting cruisers are greeted by a PAYS member in his little wooden boat whenever they enter the harbor. The PAYS “boat boys” will help you moor your boat, collect the modest fee, offer to take your trash or bring you ice. Once you are helped by a boat boy, he’s “yours” for your stay. If you want to take a tour of the river or hike to a waterfall, he’ll take you himself or set it up with an associate. He’ll show you where to clear customs or find the best fried fish. It’s like having your own private concierge on the water. (And boy, does it make mooring easier.)

Our PAYS representative was Albert. He was courteous, professional, and competent in every way. Once he got us set up on our mooring ball, he asked us how long we’d be staying. We had originally thought we’d stay a couple of days, but with our loose mainsail, we decided to head as quickly as possible to Martinique. So we told Albert we’d only be there overnight. No problem, he assured us – if we wanted to take a tour of the Indian River with him, nearby, that was still an option as long as we left by around 3:30.

We were a little taxed and disheartened by our trip and our mainsail woes, but then we decided we would probably regret skipping the tour. So after lunch we called Albert and asked him to pick us up at 3:30. He showed up at 3:55 (island time, you know) and we got off our boat and into his. We packed cameras and rain jackets, because the sky kept spitting light rain. This was a good decision – we got rained on, but we truly didn’t mind. It showed us a different kind of beauty than we see on sunny days.

Rain-soaked but happy to be here!

The Indian River is a National Park in Dominica. They have many of these parks, because they care about preserving their natural resources, which are abundant. So a journey up the Indian River is an opportunity to see the landscape as Columbus might have seen it – palm trees, flowering vines, tangled roots with skittering crabs, slowly flowing water, birds and iguanas in the canopy overhead. It’s a peaceful ride – at least when you’re there in the off-season, as we were. As soon as we entered the mouth of the river, Albert turned off the outboard engine and began rowing us upstream.

I missed taking a photo of Albert… but here’s the front of his boat, on the beautiful river.

Along the way, Albert told us many things, including how he’d lost his leg, a year ago. We marveled at his strength – mentally as well as physically. He has adapted his boat and his lifestyle to accommodate his disability, and had no trouble with rowing us or with talking with us about his ordeal. (It wasn’t an accident, we learned, but we were unclear as to the actual cause; he had some sores that would not heal, and then began to spread, so he asked the doctors to remove the leg. He said he’d rather go on living than let one leg kill him.)

And he had a lot of knowledge about the flora and fauna we saw: what plants could be used as medicines, which trees were good for building vs. which ones were good for firewood, the best crabs for frying or for stew. When the vines would bloom and what the giant black nest in the tree was built by. (Termites! Yuck.) Where Hollywood had built a set for Pirates of the Caribbean II. (Part of it is still there.) We took a lot of photos and enjoyed the silence and stillness along the way.

It’s been too long since I’ve seen Pirates II – so I can’t tell you where this appeared in the movie. But doesn’t it look Disney?

After about a mile (an hour of rowing), we came to something unexpected – a little wooden dock, with a stone path up a hill to a lean-to kind of building surrounded by ginger lilies and tropical foliage. Albert instructed us to climb the path and take some refreshment – and when we did, we found the most remote and rustic bar you can imagine. The bartender told us that there used to be a sort of hotel there, with hammocks for sleeping, but the last hurricane damaged the shelter and it had been closed for a while. But the bar survived! We had a choice of 5 different flavors of rum punch: Andy chose coconut, while I took a risk on Dynamite (a blend of the other four). Delish! And so bizarre, to sit and enjoy our drinks with a young Dominican who walked to work just for us. He told us that in high season, he gets lots of customers from the cruise ships, but today we were lucky – we had him all to ourselves. Lucky indeed!

Waiting on my Dynamite!
Andy brought his good camera – and wow I love this shot!

The trip home was quicker, as our rowboat floated down the current. Albert returned us to Gratitude, and we paid his fee plus a little rum punch of our own making (Dominican rum with pineapple juice). The next morning we pulled up anchor around 8 a.m. and pointed the bow south, toward Martinique.

Pinots, Volcanoes, and Euros: Montserrat and Guadeloupe

Montserrat – by Andy

We left St. Maarten early on July 27 and set sail for St. Kitts. We had great sailing winds for this part of the trip, and we arrived around 3:30 p.m. We had plans of going ashore and helping the local economy, but we could not hail anyone at the marina on our VHF radio. Karen suggested we just phone them instead? Still no answer. We decided to stay put, and we anchored in the bay, and Karen cooked a beef roast. We opened a bottle of pinot noir and enjoyed a lovely dinner aboard ship.

The entire Caribbean seems to take an extended siesta in the afternoons through the “off season.”

This part of the world is better suited to day sailing due to the fish traps that are liberally strewn about. They consist of a floating round plastic buoy about the size of a shot put, and sometimes an empty white detergent bottle floating in the water (if you’re lucky). That’s all you can see from the surface. But a thick line runs from there down to the ocean floor to a trap set up to capture some kind of bottom feeder (lobster, red snapper, career politician, etc). If you catch that line with your propellor, you are in for some trouble. The 41-tons of Gratitude’s weight moving along at 8 kts would be too much for the line, but if it wraps around the prop, it could easily break off something expensive. And these traps are everywhere. It was not unusual for us to be able to count 15-20 at once, scattered haphazardly around – even miles offshore. It’s not the ones you see that worry you so much. Forward visibility is very limited when the sails are up, and when there are whitecaps on the ocean, it can be really difficult to pick them out until you are right on top of one.

Early Sunday, we struck out for Montserrat; about a six-hour passage. The winds were again, very friendly for sailing, and we made excellent time.

Montserrat had it going on, back in the day. The island was home to beautiful houses, restaurants, golf courses, a cruise ship dock, and AIR Studios which was used to record music by Dire Straits (Brothers in Arms), The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and Stevie Wonder. Jimmy Buffet was, perhaps, prescient when he wrote and recorded Volcano there “I don’t know where I’m a gonna go when the volcano blow” in 1979.

Then in 1989, Hurricane Hugo hit the island, damaged 90% of the infrastructure, and crippled their economy in one fell blow. The cruise ships stopped coming, and tourism dried up overnight.

But all of that was just a prelude to Mt. Soufrière, the volcano that looms over the island. The volcano that had been dormant for 16,000 years. In 1995 it awoke and erupted, and ⅔ of the population had to evacuate the island. It continued to erupt off and on for the next 16 years, occasionally spewing smoke and ash ten miles into the air. It covered the airport in its pyroclastic flow, virtually eliminated the capital city of Plymouth, and utterly ruined most everything. (Karen’s nerd-note: Pyroclastic flow is different than the molten-lava stream you see out of, say, Mt. Kilauea in Hawaii. It’s more like big glowing solid chunks of rock and billowing clouds of ash, creeping up on a town and destroying it over the course of weeks or months, rather than one explosive day. There are big explosive events – but they are not the only source of destruction.)

My. Soufrière Looms Large

We took a tour with Joe Phillip, a native who was here when it happened. It was amazing to ride through the exclusion zone and see buildings that were buried. Karen pointed out that it really is like a modern day Pompeii. Joe had photos of the town from before, and he would take us to a spot, show us a photo, then point out the corresponding ruins. Seeing the miles of burned-out or buried buildings, the scope of lives lost, ruined, or changed forever – it was sobering.

The pool at the volcano-ruined hotel. Swimming, anyone?

After that, we spent about an hour rigging a new outhaul to the sail’s clew. The outhaul is a line that puts horizontal tension on the bottom of the sail to keep it pulled back tightly when it is deployed. We had to get creative with getting it rigged and tied properly. That has been a big part of this journey since we started. Working together to repair things is a daily occurrence.

That evening, after dinner, I stepped out to the stern – The lights on the back of the boat looked wrong. something looked strange. I called Karen to come out and look. “I can’t. Something’s wrong” she replied.

We were seeing the same thing. Tiny black flies had descended on us in a swarm, and they were covering anything that was illuminated. It was a shock-and-awe number. Once we figured out they were attracted to the lights, we turned off everything we could and got out the small vacuum we keep aboard. We had bought some fly paper in Spanish Wells, Bahamas months ago that we had never used. We hung it up from the ceiling. By this time, it was evident that this was a full-scale invasion. It was like something out of Exodus, except these didn’t bite.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that cleanup took days. But mercifully, the flies did not return.

The next day we departed early for Guadeloupe. Our anchorage there was set deep in a harbor with mountains protecting on three sides. The wind howled over the mountains, making a low, hollow whistle like you were blowing over a giant Coke bottle.

But we were getting notifications about bad weather forming in the Atlantic. A tropical depression, called Invest 96, was forming and possibly headed straight for us, so we decided to make our way further south. I’ve never given much through to the National Hurricane Center, but I am so thankful to live in a time where people do this job. Thanks to these men and women, we have advanced notice and predictions that did not exist long ago. It saves lives and property.

Guadeloupe and Les Saints – by Karen

Wow, Guadeloupe! You stole my heart in Deshaies and you kept it at Terre de Haut. So much to love….

We left Montserrat in the early morning and made it to the northwestern coast of Guadeloupe by about 3 pm. I had originally thought we’d stay longer in Montserrat… but our taxi-tour of the island was thorough, and the only accessible restaurants by foot from the dock were quite touristy. Plus, you know, potential approaching storm. We decided to move on, knowing that our time in this region is limited and we can’t see it all.

It turned out to be a good decision. Deshaies, the first anchorage we visited, was utterly delightful. The boutique where check-in is offered was closed for lunch when we arrived, so we camped out at L’Amer bistro for a late lunch (linner? Dunch?) and free WiFi while we waited. Our stewed octopus was FABULOUS. Guadeloupe is a territory of France, and the cuisine is part French, part Creole. Mmmmmmmm… every meal was delectable. When Le Pelican, the boutique with the customs computer, reopened at 4 pm, we stopped by. Check-in was easy and cheap – a mere 4 Euros, paid to the boutique. We also found a cute little iguana wall-hanging to grace Gratitude’s saloon.

When we dinghied back to the boat, I had the bright idea to grab our full load of trash and go back ashore to find the dumpster. I thought I remembered the location from the guidebook map I’d studied, but turns out my memory is not very reliable. After about a half-mile of walking, mostly uphill, Andy was beginning to question my sanity, but I refused to stop – the trash had some rotten fruit and had been attracting flies, so I wanted it GONE. In desperation, I walked up the driveway of what looked like a guesthouse. The very nice lady of the house, who spoke a little English with the help of Google Translate, finally figured out what we were looking for. Her son, Max, grabbed his car keys and said, “Come with me!” Even though we were reluctant to impose, they were insistent, so we got in the car and he drove us 5 minutes to the public trash-pickup. (Which turned out to be a short walk from the dinghy dock, in the opposite direction I had taken us when we started walking. Oops.) Max and his mother were our heroes, showing kindness to strangers bearing smelly trash. Note to self: once you get home, be on the lookout for strangers who could use a helping hand!

The next day we got up early and went back ashore, grabbing breakfast at the patisserie (bakery) with luscious pastries and quiches, and Illy coffee. We could’ve been in Europe as we sipped our coffee at the sidewalk table. Then we burned off those calories with a mile-long hike, straight uphill, to the Jardin Botanique. This delightful little botanical garden offers a gorgeous array of tropical foliage, Caribbean lorikeets and parrots, a koi pond, arboretum, cactus garden, and man-made waterfall and river gushing over boulders. Every vista is lovely; we spent two hours meandering down the paths, admiring the beauty and resting in the shade along the way. A snack bar and gift shop at the end refreshed us for our walk back downhill to town.

Dinner that night was at another small French place called Mahina, where we met a German family who applauded our wine choice and conversed with us about Germany. We ordered tapas (yum!) and then shared an entrée of pork loin filets in a creamy sauce with pasta and salad on the side. All around us were French vacationers filling the balcony with their exotic words and exclamations; the sounds of the ocean and the little coqui frogs filled in the gaps. I will say that in Guadeloupe, every time we ordered food, we never knew what we would get. The menus were all in French, and nothing ever came out like we expected it would. Don’t get me wrong – it was all delicious! – but we had to stay flexible and open-minded when we ordered, ready for anything.

One of the many benefits of Deshaies is the free WiFi that is available all the way out into the bay, where we were anchored. We got the log-in instructions on our first day from L’Amer, and we used it both days to check email and weather, to monitor the aforementioned tropical depression. Although we are still within our insurance company’s location requirements for hurricane coverage, we have NO desire to weather even a tropical storm, much less a hurricane, aboard Gratitude. So we pay close attention to troubling weather forecasts.

This storm, “Invest 96”, had our attention, as it seemed to be headed straight for Guadeloupe. Not only that, but we were starting to get low on fuel. We generally tank up at every major port, but since leaving St. Thomas in early July, we’d not found a catamaran-friendly fuel dock. So between the impending foul weather and our fuel shortage, we reluctantly decided to keep moving south. Basseterre, a major port in the south of Guadeloupe, seemed our best bet for fuel, so we traveled 20 miles and hailed the fuel dock. No answer! What is it with these Caribbean bridges and docks? The further south we go, the less likely they are to monitor the VHF radio. No matter – we found the fuel dock anyway. Andy brought the boat alongside like a pro, and I threw out the lines and got us secured without a dock hand in sight. It made me proud – clearly, we’ve come a long way in our boat-handling skills.

After getting fuel, we decided to motor another hour or so and anchor overnight at The Saintes – a group of small islets just south of Guadeloupe, also belonging to France. Once again, we were charmed by the small village where we anchored. Bourg de Saintes, the town on the island of Terre de Haut, is beautiful and clean, teeming with French restaurants and cafes and ice-cream stands and French tourists. The water in the bay was clear and cool, full of other boats, and swimmers and snorkelers. We liked it so much that when we checked weather again and saw Invest 96 was losing energy, we decided to stay one more day.

A church being restored in Bourg des Saintes

There was a lot to see and do in Bourg de Saintes. They are incredibly cruiser-friendly. There’s a cruisers’ support office ashore that will do your laundry cheap. All the French-speaking people were – gasp – friendly! No, seriously, truly warm and welcoming. And patient with our extremely limited French. There are relatively few gas-powered vehicles on the island – walking was easy and the occasional scooter or delivery truck watched out for pedestrians. We rented some electric-assisted bikes and went exploring. You might scoff at the electric-assist thing… but the hills on Terre-de-Haut are no joke. The roads twist and turn and climb – even with the electric assist, we had to stop and hike the bikes up the hills.

A view of Gratitude from Ft. Napoleon, high above

The most interesting place we found was Fort Napoleon. (Yes, he had it built.) It had incredible views over the bay and rooms full of restored furniture, historic boat models, even taxidermied fish. (Those were a little gross, if I’m honest – they’d all turned brown and leathery.) And a cactus garden surrounded the buildings.

Mr. Iguana hanging out in the cactus garden

Then back down to town, for lunch and ice cream and siesta. Hey, when in Rome…

After seeing what Guadeloupe and The Saintes have to offer, I wonder why the Virgin Islands are so much more popular with Americans. The islands here have just as much to offer in water recreation, with better restaurants and amazing cultural diversity. It just doesn’t feel as touristy – it feels authentic. When we get ready to bring Gratitude back north again, I’m going to budget at least a couple of weeks to visit the rest of Guadeloupe.

And then there’s this…

An unwelcome update from the National Hurricane Center

As we prepare to turn in Wednesday night, the National Hurricane Center in Miami has given us some unwelcome news. Bad weather is probably headed our way. I used the word “probably” because they predict the above red cone as being 70% likely. We’ve been watching this for a few days now, and the likelihood has only gone up.

A lot has to happen for a tropical depression to form in the first place. Basically, a group of thunderstorms have to come together and “organize” into one large system. This is bad in and of itself, but when it develops any rotation, things will get much worse. In the North Atlantic, these systems always spin counterclockwise. Once its winds reach sustained speeds of 35-64 knots, it gets upgraded to a tropical storm, and it is given a name.

All of this is where things might be headed out in The Atlantic right now, and as you can see from the graphic, it is predicted to make its way straight for where we are. It’s early in hurricane season for a storm like this to develop this far south. If this becomes the next named storm, it will be named Chantal.

Which is why we are weighing anchor and high-tailing it south at first light. We are going south for a few reasons. One is that most tropical storms and hurricanes start off the coast of Africa around the equator and bend north as they traverse the Atlantic. Another reason is that things are significantly more dangerous on the north side of a rotating Atlantic storm than they are on the south side. And the other big reason is that our insurance requires us to be south by August 18. The only significant complication is that we are almost out of fuel right now. We’re going to sail 20 miles south to Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe (the nearest fuel dock) on Thursday morning and cross our fingers that there is not a run on diesel (think bread and milk before snow days in the south). But even if we are not able to get fuel there, we expect be able to move the boat well out of harm’s way using only sail power within the predicted time window.

So, say a prayer for us, and we’ll check in as soon as we are able.

Settling into Sint Maarten

Our journey from Virgin Gorda, BVI to Simpson Bay, Sint Maarten was pretty bumpy and uncomfortable. Some of that was because it was long and windward– about 80 miles southeast, nose straight into the trade winds. We did it overnight, so that we would not arrive in a new port in the dark. Also, the winds were a bit higher than we liked, which made it choppy – and turned an estimated 14 hour trip into a 17 hour one. Ugh. Those extra three hours are painful when you’ve been up all night.

Nevertheless, we made it! It felt like an accomplishment, because the passage from the BVI to St. Martin/Sint Maarten is the last significant one – the last one that’s longer than a daylight island-hop. We’re not completely done with going east, but we’re done with night passages, which feels great!

Approaching the island, we knew that we had to go through a drawbridge with timed openings for entrance and egress. Our guidebook told us that there was an 11:30 inbound opening, which matched our 11:10 arrival to the coast outside Simpson Bay. Andy radioed the controller, letting him know we’d be waiting for the scheduled opening… and, silence. He tried twice more, with no response, so our only choice was to wait and hope that the guidebook’s schedule was accurate. It was. We discovered later, chatting up a local bartender, that the bridge operators spend all day at the bar in the St. Martin Yacht Club, next door to the bridge. At the scheduled opening times, they pop over to the control booth, push the button, then skedaddle back to the club. Tough work, right?

I actually took this photo upon leaving the harbor, when the bridge controller redeemed himself and answered our radio call. So maybe you can’t believe everything you hear from bartenders!

Sint Maarten is another island that, like Hispaniola, hosts two different countries. St. Martin is the somewhat larger French territory, and Sint Maarten is the southern Dutch version. The island is beautiful seen from sea – lush, mountainous, with a large calm lagoon in which to anchor or dock. Dock rates and car rentals are plentiful and cheap (at least in the off-season, as we were); there’s a huge European grocery store and shopping malls and a movie theater (we saw the new Spider-Man!); there are not one, but two HUGE marine-supply chain stores represented here, with every possible option for service and parts for any repair we might need to make.

Which was a good thing, because once we got here, we realized we’d be stuck, for a little while. The weather was not friendly for forward progress, and we had enough chop in the last passage to remind us to wait patiently for the right window.

The chocolate selection at Carrefour. Those prices are in guilders, not US Dollars, so I was not priced out of chocolate heaven.

So we settled in for a bit. We did some hard-core boat maintenance, which as you know by now is never-ending. One thing we had to do was the N.A.S.T.Y. job of cleaning out the water filters for the air conditioning and the generator. All of these units draw in ocean water as part of their cooling systems…. and the filters eventually get full of seaweed, gunk, and small critters. The smell! Ack! But I made the job even worse when I was rinsing out one of the filters and DROPPED part of it into the harbor! If you’ve never docked in a harbor, you cannot know how gross the water can be. I was not jumping in after it. Just. No. Luckily, the marine store had a fine (and inexpensive) replacement. We bought two. Just in case.

Note to self – remove insert before turning the cup upside down over the side of the boat.
SOMEONE had to be hoisted up the mast to rescue our courtesy-flag line. Because SOMEONE ELSE didn’t tie a sturdy-enough knot to secure it. That Someone has learned her lesson – it’s nerve-racking to hoist your spouse up the mast with the halyard! Always double-check your knots!

The biggest, most impressive (to me) fix Andy made was to our ice maker. Right as we were leaving the BVI, we found ourselves regularly mopping little puddles off the galley floor. At first we thought our filtered-water jug was leaking, but no – after some experimenting, we realized it had to be the ice maker.

Now, please know – I LOVE our ice maker. About as much as I love having air-conditioning. It is so freaking hot down in the Caribbean in the summer, I need every available resource to keep me from drowning in my own sweat. (If I expire down here, it won’t be because I go overboard or get eaten by a shark. It will be because I spontaneously combust in the blazing sunlight.) So I died a little inside when I realized that we might have to do without our ready-made ice. Noooo!

Never fear – Andy is tenacious when it comes to tackling something like this. Over the course of a few days, he removed the ice maker, and we made multiple excursions to the marine-supply and hardware stores, to buy (and then exchange) parts. We took off panels and pulled out hoses and wires and conducted test after test. But mostly, we kept mopping up water and hanging towels to dry – until, FINALLY, Andy not only isolated the leak, but rigged together a new supply line with the appropriate connectors. Voila! Ice in the bin and no water on the floor! He is a genius, I tell you.

In between repair days, we rented a car and did a little exploring. Did you know that there is, on St. Maarten, a YODA MUSEUM?! I can’t make this stuff up, people. A Brit, who fabricated the original Yoda, in Star Wars, has retired to a cruise-ship port in St. Maarten and opened a museum of movie memorabilia. It was only twelve bucks to tour it (including a photo with the movie guy!) so of course we had to check it out. And I really found it enjoyable. Life-sized replicas of various Star Wars costumes, copies of script rewrites, and Hans Solo’s carbonite tomb – all represented. Along with an actual Yoda puppet, of course. And some “death masks” of lots of historical figures and more recent celebrities. Quite interesting.

A less successful outing involved searching for a beach to lounge on. There are beaches here… but Irma definitely left her mark. We took the dinghy out one day to see what we could find, but several beaches looked washed away. We drove over to the French side of the island another day to look for a beach with chair rentals, only to find that the beach we’d researched had eroded and was full of trash and construction debris. It’ll probably be nice again a year from now. By the time we backtracked to Plan B on the Dutch side, it was lunchtime and all the chairs were taken. So we lunched by the ocean but did not get our toes in the sand.

We did, however, find multiple French restaurants over the course of the week to delight and wow our tastebuds. The best was La Cigale, where we celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary. Scallops for me, lobster for Andy, and a bottle of French Chardonnay. And an awesome dessert called “Almond Tiles,” which was like crushed almond brittle sprinkled over chocolate mousse. Mmmmm. Honorable mention meals were breakfasts at Zee Best (Omelettes! Pan au chocolat!), and the local cruisers’ bar, Lagoonies, with the best rum punch we’ve found.

Our fancy French anniversary meal

The weather finally looked like it would allow us to leave on Saturday, about nine days after we arrived. We spent our last day making one final grocery run, returning the rental car, and checking out of the country. The customs and immigration process was incredibly smooth and professional – soothing our ruffled feathers from our BVI experience. Also, while we were here, I checked into something called – an online system that several Caribbean nations participate in. You submit your boat and passport paperwork to the system, then you can apply for entrance to various countries in advance. I’m hopeful that it will make clearance a little easier in at least one of our upcoming ports.

The Virgin Islands, At Last!

Our trip from Puerto Rico to the east coast Saint Thomas took about seven hours. We had arrived in the Virgin Islands at long last, and since we were still in the in the USA, we didn’t have to jump through any hoops to go ashore.

The entire area of the US and British Virgin Islands was devastated by Hurricane Irma (Category 5!), which made landfall on September 6, 2017. Then Hurricane Maria (another Category 5 storm!) showed up two weeks later and mopped up what was left. The evidence is still apparent everywhere, with shipwrecks littering the shores and marinas. It’s a sobering and tangible reminder of why we are migrating south. Yes, hurricanes have hit Grenada, where we are headed, but they are very rare, and they have been much less powerful when they did hit.

Shipwrecks from the hurricanes of 2017 are everywhere

Our dear friends, Dan and Tracy joined us aboard Gratitude on July 3 for a week. It was particularly great to welcome friends from home, and we were all ready to celebrate our arrival/reunion in the beautiful Virgin Islands.

Dan brought me two grocery bags full of fishing lures, spools of line, hooks, beads, crimpers, sleeves, and other supplies, and one of the first orders of business was to replenish all that I had sacrificed to the barracuda. This was professional-grade stuff that the charter captains use. At least I will look like I know what I am doing now.

Learning a more cost-effective, DIY way of rigging lures

We provisioned early the next morning at Moe’s Fresh Market (a really cool, if expensive, grocery store), and headed out for our first short sail from Saint Thomas to Saint John.

Saint John is still in the USA, but it has a decidedly Caribbean flavor, including driving on the left side of the road. (This is where Karen and I chartered a boat and a captain two years ago and decided to learn to sail). Today, we sailed Gratitude into Little Lameshur Bay and snorkeled and then moved over to Coral Bay for the night. We went ashore, seeking dinner, but a lot of places were closed for the 4th of July. We lucked out when we happened upon Rhumb Lines. The food, drinks, and service were all outstanding (thanks Kiki)!

The next morning, we cruised over to the British Virgin Island of Jost Van Dyke, home of the Soggy Dollar Bar. This is the birthplace of the (in)famous BVI Painkiller, and it was quite the experience. We anchored our dinghy off shore and swam in for the sake of authenticity. The drinks and people watching were seriously not to be missed.

The Soggy Dollar – despite the apparent calm, it was a zoo that day

The next day we sailed southeast to Norman Island and caught a mooring ball. Mooring used to be a stressful activity for us early on, but after months of practice (not to mention having other able adults aboard to assist), it is no big deal. Anchoring is not allowed in this part of the world to help the nascent coral develop, so mooring is the only option in most places. Norman Island was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic book, Treasure Island, and it has some spectacular snorkeling, including The Caves and The Indians

…and then there was Willie T’s.

This is a destination that honestly deserves its own category. It is a restaurant, contained on a ship, and it is the equivalent of one big floating frat party that is only reachable by boat. There is a platform about 15’ high (right next to a sign that says “no jumping or diving”).

When we were back aboard Gratitude, we turned on the underwater blue lights, and this attracted small baitfish. Those, in turn, attracted bigger tarpon, which came up and circled the boat, looking for an easy dinner! We didn’t have the right bait to interest tarpon, or that would have quickly become a regular activity.

After one more quick stop at Willie T’s, we sailed back to Cruz Bay in the USA, but we ran into difficulty checking in with Customs and Immigration with their ROAM app, and their local office had already closed for the day, so we had to delay the start of our planned fishing trip in order to report in person the next morning.

After that delay, Dan and I chartered a fishing boat to “The Northern Drop” to hunt for blue marlin. These are serious gamefish, and if you are lucky enough to hook one you will likely have a multi-hour fight on your hands. We trolled a spread of lures back and forth over key areas all day to no avail. We did land a beautiful black fin tuna for dinner, though! About 6:00 p.m., we told the captain we were ready to return to Gratitude with our catch. The ride was about 20 nautical miles back, and after one more stop, he told us to “buckle in” as he gunned the engines for home… but something felt wrong, and it was more than the feeling; you could smell it, and you could see it in the thick blueish smoke that billowed from the boat’s stern. The captain idled the boat and disappeared into the engine well for about 10 minutes. When he eventually surfaced, he looked defeated as he reported that we had blown some part of the transmission on the starboard side. He commented that “this is going to be a fun ride home”, and we realized that we were only going to be able to travel about ¼ of the speed we would have with two engines. Our return to shore had just mushroomed from a 40-minute trip to a three-hour+ trip.

I seem to have an undesirable effect on starboard engines.

The ride home was beautiful even if it was long

While we were fishing, the girls went shopping at Mongoose Junction (note: they were invited to fish). The silver lining is that they bought ingredients for a tuna tataki glaze, and once we finally made it back (after nine-o’clock), we cooked and enjoyed a delicious meal. The best-tasting fish is the one you just caught… right?

The next day, we sailed back to St. Thomas and bade our friends goodbye.

But as sad as that was, the very next day, we welcomed Kyle and his girlfriend, Rachael, aboard.

We repeated some of the same circuit with them. This is an amazingly beautiful part of the world. I could do it again and again.

Andy and Kyle jumping at Willie T’s

When we arrived back in the BVIs in Tortola, we had to clear back through customs and immigration. To our surprise, the welcome mat was abruptly rolled up. Just wow. I’ve never encountered anything quite like that. We were interrogated, sent from window to window, passed from clerk to clerk, assessed fee after fee, and handed lengthy form after form to fill out. About 45 minutes in, I decided this was a contest of wills that I intended to win. One clerk castigated us and said that the previous clerk (same office) had filled out one form incorrectly and that we needed to go back and tell her and have her correct this. Just imagine the fun.

To complicate things, you cannot just sail into a marina in order to visit customs in the BVIs like you can at most countries. No, no. You have to drop an anchor or grab a mooring ball and take your dinghy straight to the customs dock to clear in. If you deviate from this process, you can be subjected to a whopping $10,000 fine.

…and to further complicate things, we didn’t know exactly where the customs office was, so we took our best guess, taking our dinghy to the nearby cruise ship dock. Then we figured out we might be at the wrong place since there was a locked gate, but we were feeling adventurous and climbed the fence and set out to locate the customs office.

After a 10-minute walk, we were there, and three stern, humorless faces seated behind thick glass “welcomed” us. Selected conversational highlights follow:

Customs Agent “Yes?”
Andy: “Hello. We are here to clear in.”
Agent (squinting suspiciously) “And where is your boat?”
Andy: “Right around the corner there.”
Agent: (half standing to look out the window) “Why can’t I see it?”
Andy: “Um… it’s just around the corner. I suppose it’s out of sight.”
Agent: “It is supposed to be right there where I can see it. Is it anchored?”
Karen: “It’s moored”
Agent: “What makes you think you’re tied to a mooring?”
Karen (politely): “Because I tied the bow of our ship to a mooring ball about 30 minutes ago.”
Agent: “Did you charter?”
Andy: “No, ma’am.”
Agent: “You didn’t charter?”
Andy: “No, ma’am.”
Agent: “So you aren’t on a charter boat?”
Andy: “No.”
A little later, another woman shouted at me from the back of the room…
Agent: “Are you clearing in or out?”
Andy: “We are clearing in.”
Agent: “You are clearing in?”
Andy: “Yes, ma’am. We are clearing in.”
Agent: “You are not clearing out?”
Andy “No ma’am. We are clearing in.”
Agent “Well – you are going to have to come back here to clear out!”
This, she repeated three times for emphasis, kinda like Dora la Exploradora, I suppose. (Side note: – there is no way I will ever set foot back in the Road Town customs office if I can help it. There are other places to clear into and out of the BVIs. This was beyond ridiculous.)

We departed early the next morning for The Baths on Virgin Gorda Island. All of these islands were dubbed “The Virgins” by Columbus, and this one got the name “Virgin Gorda” (translated “Fat Virgin”) due to the shape of the island. It looks like a large woman reclining. The Baths are part of a national park on this island and are defined by enormous, granite boulders that are partially submerged. You can snorkel around them with the fish. It creates a labyrinth of pathways, and it is a really stunning effect. After that, we had a comfortable downwind sail (something Karen and I still aren’t used to) to Trellis Bay and visited the very cool Aragorn Art Studio. (Note from Karen – all this happened on my birthday! It was beyond awesome to have family visiting, and Kyle and Rachael bought me a pretty little ceramic starfish from Aragorn’s.)

The Baths at Virgin Gorda
The natural outcropping of granite boulders creates underwater pathways to explore
Karen with her raku starfish birthday present

Sunday morning we snorkeled at nearby Diamond Reef and then sailed along the scenic north shore of Tortola back to Jost Van Dyke. We hugged the coastline about a quarter mile off, and this leg of the trip was utterly blissful. It was a lovely morning with high, wispy white clouds and a nice breeze. We switched the engines off and operated completely under sail power. The wind and the seas were at our back, and the boat cut through the water beautifully. There is little I know as peaceful as sailing downwind. We visited both Foxy’s and Soggy Dollar this time. The food at Foxy’s was especially good.

The food at Foxy’s was “all dat”

With hurricane season here, I’ve been reading the excellent resource, Storm Tactics Handbook. This is all about the technique of “heaving to”, which is a way of parking the boat on the water without dropping an anchor, and it’s especially useful in storms. Most tropical storms move along at eight to nine knots, and being “hove to” allows you to basically stay in one place while a storm passes. You essentially stall the boat out by causing the water force on the keel and the wind force on the sails to counteract each other. We learned and practiced this technique in sailing school, but we haven’t done much with it since then. With all of the visible hurricane carnage here and Atlantic storm activity ramping up, it’s time for us to get this technique down pat. (Note – we have zero intentions of riding out a hurricane aboard Gratitude, but this is the season for storms of all kinds, so it’s best to be prepared for being caught out in bad weather).

The stories in this book are making a believer out of me

On Tuesday, we said goodbye to Kyle and Rachael and got them aboard the ferry back to St. Thomas for their flight. Then we prepared for our last big jump on the Thorny Path to Windward: the 100-mile trip east from Tortola to Sint Maarten. After Sint Maarten it should be nothing but pleasant day-hops down to Grenada.

On a closing note, I’m not quite ready to “spike the football” just yet, but I think I have run down the starboard engine/impeller problem that has been hectoring me for months. I believe it may have been caused by the raw water cooling system running dry overnight. That, in turn, introduced too much friction, and burned out the impeller. Well… I may have identified and solved the root cause of it going dry. I am monitoring that very carefully. So far it’s run perfectly for over a week. Stay tuned…

Puerto Rico, You Breakin’ My Heart

One set of trade-offs we are constantly having to weigh is the desire to explore our destinations deeply vs. the risk of being in the Caribbean hurricane zone during the summer months. We worked out a deal with Gratitude’s insurer in which they pay for any hurricane damage as long as we keep the boat below a certain latitude (12° 40’, by August 18, to be exact). Now, in order to hold up our end of the deal, we have to make some tough choices. We can’t spend weeks at every island! Oh, this is heartbreaking, I tell you.

I had really looked forward to savoring Puerto Rico. We visited for the first time about 4 years ago, just to San Juan and a day trip to El Yunque Rain Forest. That was enough to whet my appetite – and I choose that phrase deliberately, because the food here is – ahhhhh, scrumptious! So when we started our planning for this venture, I envisioned exploring all kinds of little towns and islets – Ponce, Salinas, Fajardo, Culebra, Vieques. There are colonial squares! Bioluminescent bays! Golden beaches! Reefs to dive!

Alas, we experienced only a smattering of the above. Our time in Puerto Rico was mostly utilitarian: provisioning (Costco!), tracking down engine parts (West Marine!), locating technicians, and getting sail and rigging repairs done. We were warned, a while back, that the cruising life consisted of “Repairing your boat in exotic locations.” So far that’s been accurate. Plus, there are only so many weeks left before August 18, and so many islands left to discover. We haven’t even reached the US or British Virgin Islands yet! And those have been high on my bucket list.

That said, there were a few highlights to our limited shore time in Puerto Rico. One pleasant surprise occurred when we anchored at Puerto Patillas, on the southeastern shore. We’d read about it on Active Captain, which is kind of like Trip Advisor for sailors, with reviews of anchorages and ports. Other sailors reported that there were restaurants within walking distance of the shore, if you can find a place to leave your dinghy. That’s no small thing, as many of the docks and boardwalks on the southern coast were destroyed by Irma and have yet to be replaced. So we decided to try it with full knowledge that we might just have to return to the boat and throw together a quick dinner instead.

We could make out one obvious dock at a distance, but we couldn’t tell whether it belonged to a restaurant or a residence. As we got closer, we saw a porch and some people sitting on it, but then it was suddenly clear – this was someone’s home, not a public place. So we kept going. But then we heard a guy calling from that dock, and waving, so we turned back – maybe he could tell us where we could find a place to tie up.

Turned out the guy (and his friends/family on the porch) was a fellow cruiser, house sitting for friends! They kindly offered to let us use their dock, and invited us to sit and visit a while. We had a delightful time trading sailing stories and getting advice; our hosts were 13 years into their live-aboard adventure, and full of wisdom! We felt like we’d stumbled into a gold mine. After our visit, we left them to their dinner while we walked into town to find our own. But we traded contact info, and I made a new Facebook friend. We hope to link back up with these nice folks when we’re all down in Grenada later this year.

Just down the road from the friendly fellow cruisers we found a bar-n-grill with good cheap eats.
Recycled tires on the side of the road by the bar. Beauty shows up in unexpected places!

The other really nice thing that happened in P.R. was that Andy found us one of the BEST RESTAURANTS EVER. Seriously. We’d been in Fajardo several days, eating on the boat or at the marina restaurant, when he took it upon himself to look up some other dining options. So the last night we had our rental car, he didn’t tell me where we were going.

We ended up at an old gas station off the side of a winding road, with nothing else around it. It looked, at first, like the rain forest had overtaken it. But as we walked up, we realized that this was going to be an ultra-cool place. La Estacion is a barbecue joint of sorts with a multilevel outdoor deck, tropical plants scattered around, and the menu scrawled on a giant moveable blackboard. Our server was one of the owners, and he described (with passion!) all of the menu options – how long they were smoked, how they were spiced, how big the portions. This was a man who cared about food! He steered us toward some custom cocktails and then we ordered a big sampler platter of chicken, beef brisket, ribs, and pork belly. OH. MY. GOODNESS. If I lived in Puerto Rico I would eat there every day and grow as big as a house. But I would be very happy.

The very glorious BBQ sampler. Clockwise from top: Cole slaw, chicken, some kind of fried bread, beef brisket, pork belly (with a fried pork rind), ribs, corn bread, and potato salad.

It was nice to have a special last evening, because the following day was all work! The sail riggers returned “first thing in the morning” (translation – “lunchtime”) to put up our restitched jib and Code Zero and to rig the reefing lines on our mainsail. The factory engine tech (for whom we’d been waiting almost a week) finally was able to squeeze us in to take a look at our starboard engine. (You may have noticed by now that we keep blowing out impellers; he helped us figure out some of the problem, but we still have more issues to resolve.)

Daniel and Jose, our sail riggers, with our restitched jib

Finally, about 2:30 p.m., the work was complete and we could get underway. We knew we did not have time to get all the way to St. Thomas, where we had friends flying in the next day. So we used our remaining hours of daylight to shoot east to an anchorage off the coast of Culebra, a part of Puerto Rico also known as one of the “Spanish Virgin Islands.” I had really hoped we could linger on Culebra a few days and check out the quiet beaches and awesome snorkeling. But we resolved that we’d hit it on the way back in a few months. Not too disappointing, especially when you consider we’d be spending the next two weeks, with friends and then family, in the US and British Virgin Islands.

Sunset over Culebra. Next time we WILL visit the bioluminescent bay at night!

The Thorny Path, Part 4: The Mona Passage

As a refresher, the big picture of what we are doing is sailing from Florida to the Caribbean. There is more than one way to do this, but the one we’ve chosen is known as “The Thorny Path to Windward”. It’s essentially 1,200+ miles of beating directly into the wind, which is not fun to do in a sailboat. It requires lots of planning, lots of waiting, and some tenacity. We had finally arrived at the most notorious stretch of the Thorny Path: The Mona Passage.

The Mona Passage stretches between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and there has been a lot written about it. We were glued to the weather for several days. Bruce Van Sant, the author of the go-to book on this passage says that the weather patterns periodically switch back and forth like a cat’s tail. You wait for that slack moment where the wind is shifting and is below 15 knots. Then you make the crossing. It looked like our weather window was opening Sunday night and Monday, which was just what we needed to shoot across to Puerto Rico.

We notified the Puerto Bahia harbormaster that we would be leaving Sunday at 6:00 p.m. He assured us that this was ”no problema.” Customs and Immigration and the Commandante from the Dominican Navy would come to give us “un despacho” (a dispatch). You have to have one of these for every port in the DR that you enter and exit, and the DR is very serious about it. They also inspect your boat to make sure you don’t have any stowaways or contraband. I reminded him again early Sunday of our impending departure, and the harbormaster assured me they would all be there around 5:00 or 5:30 to check us out. For fun, I asked him “¿Que pasa si alguien no viene?” (What happens if someone is a no show?). His answer was immediate and serious – “Todos estaran aqui.” (Everyone will be here). Well, the lady from immigration did show up as promised and stamped our passports, but then we figured out that no one could get the Navy Commandante to answer his phone. I asked what we should do, and the universal answer was, “You’ll just have to wait.” So we did… until everyone agreed that the Commandante was not coming Sunday night. The harbormaster went home. The immigration official went home. It looked like we were stranded…

Negative, Star Command. We’ve been planning and waiting for over a week for this, and our weather window is here! We have absolutely no idea when the next window will be open. It’s time to be moving on. One person, whom I shall not identify, told me “Es muy ilegal, pero si el Comandante no está aquí después de las seis, ¡vayan con Dios!” (“It’s quite illegal, but if the Commandante isn’t here after six o’clock, Godspeed to you.”). At six-fifteen, we left.

Now, sneaking out of the country was not as trivial as one might think. For starters, the dock hands had secured our boat with a whopping nine dock lines when we arrived (four is a typical number). These spidered out in every conceivable direction, and no one was around to help release them, so we had to untie a line, keep the boat in position, untie another line, maneuver the boat just a bit to relieve the tension, etc for several minutes. We couldn’t reach some of them without a long boat hook. We high-fived each other when we were finally free.

We got underway and started the long trip to Puerto Rico, planning for 30 straight hours of sailing. The first ten hours or so you hug the north and west coast of the DR so that the night lees (cooling winds coming from shore) help you. The next 20 hours would be crossing open ocean. On long passages, we generally take three or four hour shifts where one takes the helm while one sleeps or rests. But about an hour into our trip, we were both at the helm when we saw a power boat speeding toward us on our port flank.

Then it changed its angle to intercept us.

Oh boy.

The pilot stepped out to the side and motioned for us to stop. It looked like it was time for a reckoning for our misdeeds. We were both very tense.

But it wasn’t the Navy! Two friends we had made in the marina, Nelson and Ramon, saw us leaving and wanted to wish us goodbye and a good trip. Ramon had taken to coming over in the mornings to have coffee with me. It was a good chance to practice Dominican Spanish, which can sometimes seem like its own language.

It took some time for my adrenaline level to come down. I was certain the Navy was after us for skipping town. (We’d heard stories – they will straight-up run you down for trying to leave without a dispatch and will make you turn back, earning you a hefty fine and the ringing of the shame bell).

We made it to Punta Macao, still on the coast of the DR, just before 5:00 a.m. That is where sailors traversing the Mona Passage traditionally make their “go/no go” decision for the crossing. If the weather or the seas are too rough, you simply hole up here or sail a bit further south to Punta Cana to hang out and wait for better conditions. We decided everything looked good (not great) to continue to Puerto Rico. Besides, we were eager to put some distance between us and the Dominican Navy, so we turned east-southeast and headed across 100 nautical miles of open water for the western edge of Puerto Rico.

The wind was blowing strong from the direction we were headed, but it gave us just enough of an angle to use the sails. We raised the main and unfurled the jib, and Gratitude sat up and took notice! She took off, making better than eight knots most of the trip. This put us comfortably ahead of our planned schedule. As first light broke, I ran fishing lines out port and starboard, and just after sunrise, we paralleled a long weed line and saw birds flying excitedly over the water. That is a good sign that there might be a big fish nearby, and just like that, I heard an excited lure strike on the port side, and line started spooling out… fast! I ran over and adjusted the drag to start tiring him out. I had a fight on my hands. Then the fish burst straight up out of the water and shook its tail. This was no barracuda; it was a big mahi mahi!

He was right there… .

My adrenaline was going once again. By now, Karen and I have a whole coordinated routine when we hook a fish:
• Put engines in neutral (to slow the boat and so the line doesn’t get tangled in the propellor)
• Adjust the drag on the reel to begin tiring the fish out
• Get the gaff hook and fish billy close by
• Get the pliers handy to dehook the fish
• Disconnect the lifelines that prevent you from falling in the water so you can properly do battle
• Get the fillet knife and cutting board ready
• Ice the cooler in anticipation
• Fight the fish

This mahi shot under the boat and did its best to remain there, but I stayed with it and tired it out and maneuvered it back where I could see it. I brought it up to the sugar scoop (the back step of the boat), and just when I reached to grab the leader, his fin nicked the line, and everything was over as suddenly as it started. This mahi escaped to fight another day and took a very good lure with it.

I should have used the gaff.

I will admit I was very unpleasant company for the next hour, but I licked my wounds, rigged both lines again, and ran them out. The only fish I caught the rest of the day was a small tuna a little bigger than my hand, which I promptly released.

Shortly after that, something got wrapped around the starboard propeller. I stopped the boat and dove in to see what was going on, but the waves were just too rough to do anything useful. It looked like fishing line, and I was able to cut some of it off, but I had to get back aboard before I could get most of it.

A couple of hours later, we were making great time into the wind when I heard a very loud “bang!” from somewhere above me. When I looked up, I saw that the main sail had gone noticeably slack, and we quickly worked to determine what had happened. As it turns out, one of the knots we had tied when we put the sailbag back on had come loose. This one is the outhaul line, which connects the back foot of the sail, known as the clew, to the boom. It keeps proper vertical tension on the sail, which is necessary for the sail to work, and when the sail is up, this line comes under a lot of strain. We both climbed on top of the cockpit and did our best to retie while we were underway (no small feat), and the boat picked up speed and was happy once again.

About 4:00 p.m., we were approaching the western edge of Puerto Rico, but there was one more challenge to face. The last big difficulty sailors deal with in the Mona Passage is the thunderstorms that roll off of the western coast and into the Mona Passage every afternoon and evening. They spit off in rapid succession, and some of them get quite nasty. This is a daily occurrence, and it presents a real hazard to mariners. In Van Sant’s aforementioned book, he says that the worst weather he has encountered anywhere in the world has been right there, including the Mediterranean and the notorious North Sea. We had read about this, but it’s really something to experience. It reminded me of the last level of a video game where everything gets super-intense. We powered up our radar (what a really cool piece of equipment, BTW), which located and displayed the dimensions of each of the storm cells, and we did our best to determine which way they were moving and to thread our way through and around them. We made it through the gauntlet with only a slight bit of rain.

Gratitude is the + in the center, and each ring is two nautical miles. All of the colored areas are active storm cells.

We anchored at Puerto Real around 8:00 p.m. It’s already dark at that hour at this latitude.

Ultimately, we made the Mona Passage in 26 hours, which is great time. The first 13 hours of the passage were pretty bouncy and rough, but the next 13 were more comfortable. (Thank you, weather window!) We anchored at Puerto Real and it was as calm and serene an anchorage as you could hope for. A quick call to US Customs Border Protection using their app, and we were properly back in the USA.

Sunrise at anchor at Puerto Real. The calm water was a welcome relief.
Back in the USA – no despacho required!

Although we were tired, and Puerto Rico is beautiful, on Tuesday and Wednesday, we continued east. Each day got up stinkin’ early and sailed/motored about ten hours. We had to tack (zig zag) with the wind to get the right angle to sail, but by Wednesday, we were almost to the east coast of Puerto Rico – about 80 miles. This was very good progress. Thursday, we turned and headed north along the coast to the marina at Puerto del Rey in Fajardo, getting caught in a series of storms (squalls) that lasted for hours and played havoc with the wind. It made this leg of the trip a real challenge. But now we have great positioning to make the short hop east to the US Virgin Islands, with a few days to spare for some provisioning (Costco!), boat maintenance, and rest, Puerto-Rico-style.

Costco! How we have missed you! While we like the little islands grocery stores, Karen is still a Costco girl. She did a little happy dance as we walked in. We won’t be back this way again for several months, so of course we stocked up.

And one final note, from Karen: WE DID IT! The Thorny Path is a tough route. Many sailors in the U.S. never go farther south than the Bahamas. We were intimidated by the distance and the stories we’d heard… but we decided it was worth a try, and now we’re so glad we did. Virgin Islands, here we come!

Stories from the DR, and The Thorny Path, Part 3

This is a long post, so I’ve divided into sections. We spent about two weeks in the Dominican Republic, and they were full! It is truly a beautiful country, full of warm people, lush landscapes, and stunning beaches.

Meeting Friends

Our first full day in the Dominican Republic was blessed by a visit with two friends of Andy’s (and now mine!): Miriam and Angie. He met both of them several years ago when he came to the DR to give a speech to the project management community. Before we arrived, he got in touch with Miriam, who has a brother who is a sailboat captain; we thought it might be nice to know a fellow sailor in this country. Miriam then realized that our arrival into Puerto Plata coincided with her departure from Puerto Plata a day later (she and Angie were already booked on flights to Florida). So they came into town a day early, picked us up at our marina, and took us out for lunch.

Miriam, Andy, Angie, Karen. Andy loves being flanked by beautiful women! 😎

After lunch, they took us to Fort San Felipe, built in the sixteenth century by the Spanish to defend their coast. The view was beautiful. It was a pleasant way to take in a little history of the area. Angie and Miriam dropped us back off at the marina and we thanked them sincerely. It was very nice to see/make friends, and also to drive around town with people who knew the area.

Road Trips

Speaking of driving – it’s a madhouse in the DR! There are lanes, but I’m not sure why – no one stays in them. Motor scooters, with two or three or five passengers (some of them children) zip in, out, around, and toward all the cars. Cars turn and change direction with no warning! Trucks will park in the right-hand lane of the highway to unload cargo. Vans (gua-guas), a form of public transportation, will likewise stop in the midst of all other traffic to pick up pedestrians looking for a ride. It is CRAZY.

So what did we decide to do? That’s right – RENT A CAR AND JOIN THE MADNESS! It required a little courage to pull out on the main road the first time – but once I took the plunge, I started to get the hang of it. The basic rule is “Might makes right.” Smaller vehicles yield to bigger ones. So if a truck is coming toward you – you swerve. If you are bearing down on a motor scooter – they swerve. Somehow the whole thing works… we never saw any accidents.

Renting a car gave us the freedom to go explore. We visited Sosua, a lovely little resort town, and walked along Playa Alicia. On the way home we stopped at La Sirena, which is the DR’s equivalent of WalMart. We browsed the clothing and school supplies and sporting goods, but our real aim was groceries. There was NOTHING we could not find. I even got to restock my LaCroix supply! (“Basic white-girl water,” Andy calls it. I don’t care – it’s a treat for me.) Gorgeous fruits and vegetables here – MASSIVE! Big heavy avocados for a dollar. Stacks of mangoes, piles of tomatoes, fruits I’ve never heard of. All of them beautiful – not several days past their prime, as we often found in the Bahamas. And so affordable. I can see why some North Americans retire here. Your money will go a long way. We spent less than half of what it would have cost us at previous stops.

Lovely Playa Alicia, in Sosua. There is a mountain visible from every beach we visited in the DR.

The next day we wanted to go to Isabel de Torres, a steep hill with a cable car to the top and a statue of Christ the Redeemer. But when we got to the park entrance, the gates were down and several dudes sitting on motor scooters were hanging out on the side of the road. One of them came up to us and told us that the “teleferico” (tramway) was closed, but he could lead us up another road to the top for a mere $20. We passed. I didn’t think he wanted to harm us, but I had read that the drive up to the top was best done with four-wheel drive, as the road is not in great shape.

So we made a new plan – let’s go see Luperon! It’s a port where many cruisers spend all of hurricane season. The drive was manageable, in spite of the extensive highway construction. Once we were there, it was a whole different world, away from the city and the resorts. Cows and horses and chickens wandered into the road randomly. Laundry was strewn over shrubs to dry. Sometimes the road became dirt and gravel before returning to pavement. The downtown area was a mix of people, animals, cinderblock buildings, and telephone wires.

Getting hungry now, we did like the locals and parked in the right lane on a quiet street. Then we went walking, looking for a restaurant I’d read about in our cruising guide. We stumbled into it rather quickly (Google Maps was not an option, but that turned out to be okay – Luperon is small). It was tiny, maybe four tables in the open-air dining room and a kitchen behind a counter in the back. At first we thought we needed to order at the counter, but an elderly lady behind it pointed to a table and said, “Toma asiento.” (“Take a seat.”) So we picked out a table.

There was no menu. A lovely younger woman (perhaps the older woman’s daughter?) approached, put her hand on my shoulder in welcome, and explained that today’s choices were beef, pork, or fried chicken. Andy chose the pork, and I could not resist fried chicken. We asked for bottled water, but our hostess indicated a big blue jug of “agua purificada” on the counter, so we assented. A few minutes later we had a little pitcher of it, with ice and two plastic cups.

About ten minutes later, our plates arrived – a smallish (not Ameri-super-sized) portion of meat, with a big mound of white rice and a side of beans. Andy’s plate had peppers and onions with stewed pork; mine had a portion of a chicken breast, a wing, and a leg, perfectly crispy and deep brown. They were small pieces – I could imagine the chicken that had given its life for my meal, and it was clearly one that had lived free-range on the side of the road. The food was absolutely delicious, and we ate almost every bite.

When we finished, Andy went to the counter and asked for the check. Our hostess told him we owed 250 pesos. He was startled, and asked her, “¿Estas segura?” (“Are you sure?”) She reassured him that 250 was the price. Folks, that’s all of FIVE U.S. DOLLARS. For BOTH OUR MEALS. AND WATER. We’d been enjoying the lower food prices up to now – but that one set a record. Rest assured that we left a generous tip.

Boat Maintenance

We spent about six days at Ocean World, waiting for a weather window that would allow us to traverse the rough seas of the DR’s northern coast and continue the Thorny Path to Windward. Besides our car adventures, we also set about making some needed repairs. We found a guy who would repair our sail bag – a giant canvas cover for Gratitude’s mainsail. Andy checked both engines and their impellers – after our difficulty coming from the Turks and Caicos, we didn’t want any surprises on the next leg of the trip. He also replaced a float switch for one of the bilge pumps; this is a device that detects when water has washed into the below-decks area of the boat and sets off an automatic pump to drain it. He hates having to work in the bilge, as it’s a very tight space for him to wriggle into.

And if that were not enough, he also replaced yet another of the blue step lights. I guess they are all determined to go out around the same time. At least this one didn’t blow any fuses. (Andy has a thing about blown bulbs – they make him a little nuts). All that, plus a good country scrubbing, inside and out. We accumulate a coating of salt on Gratitude’s exterior that turns into a sort of slurry. You can feel it everywhere.

The view from our slip at Ocean World Marina. The white building is the casino.

Sailing East: Not for the Fainthearted

Finally, what looked like a good weather window for sailing the northeastern coast looked like it was approaching. We knew it would take us at least three days to sail this next leg of the Thorny Path. We were on the fence about when to start; knowing we wanted to meet friends in St. Thomas by July 3rd, and that we still had a few hundred miles to go, we were feeling some pressure. So we took an optimistic view of the weather forecast and reasoned that setting off first thing in the morning – before 6 a.m. – would help us take advantage of “the night lees” – a coastal weather pattern in which cool air rolls off the mountains towards the sea at night, counteracting the strong easterly trade winds. (Winds blowing east are right on your nose when you’re traveling east, making for a rough ride.)

We said as we started that this Sunday was an experiment. And yes, it was certainly a learning process. We wanted to go forty miles, a roughly eight-hour trip into the wind. But the night lees were gone by 11 a.m., and the winds were no joke. They got stronger as the day progressed – gusting up to 28 knots, at times. (10-15 is ideal; above 20 you pay attention to; 30+ requires you to take action.) The boat, we found, could handle that – but our Code Zero sail could not. It was furled (rolled up), but just before lunch we heard something flapping loudly. The top part of the sail had whipped loose! That, my friends, is a sight and sound you dread hearing. Sails that flap loosely in the wind get shredded.

We tried letting it out a bit and refurling, but that actually made things worse. We got an hourglass effect: the top needed to rotate in one direction, the middle was cinched, and the lower third needed to rotate in the opposite direction to the top. We truly did not know what to do – we couldn’t make the wind stop blowing, and we could not furl the sail (wind it back up into a neat little roll).

We finally figured out how to lower the Code Zero from the top, even though it was partially unfurled. Once it was down, we still had a messy bundle of lines and yards of loose sail that wanted to blow away (and perhaps take one of us with it, if we weren’t careful). Our nightmare scenario was one of us, plus the sail (still attached to several lines on the boat), going into the water and getting dragged or tangled or caught in an engine prop.

Don’t worry. That didn’t happen.

Still, it took us an hour and a half of wrestling and yelling and running around the deck like madmen to get that sail stowed in the forward cockpit. We figured we’d get it safely situated, then figure out what to do with it once we were at anchor. Andy remarked that this was like wrestling a bear for 90 straight minutes.

I’m beginning to appreciate long, boring, uneventful days at sea.

Waking up earlier gives you better conditions AND the sunrise!

It took us two more days to reach our next marina, but we had learned our lesson. On both of them we set the alarm to wake up at 3:30 a.m. and departed our anchorages by moonlight so that we didn’t have to do battle with the afternoon winds. And even though we were tired, the strategy worked – we arrived in Samana midday on Tuesday with no other major incidents.

We stayed at the Puerto Bahia Marina – a truly beautiful resort with a seaside pool and friendly locals. We had to make another repair to our sail bag (YES – the one we had JUST HAD REPAIRED THREE DAYS AGO). But the guy who did it also repaired some small tears in our Code Zero sail, so there was that. We enjoyed the restaurants and took a gua-gua (public transportation minivan) into the town of Samana. Not much to see, but as we were looking for a ride back a guy with a motor-scooter-rickshaw-thingy offered us a ride. It was cheap, so we decided why not? THAT was the way to travel, friends – faster than walking, but slower than riding in a van, so we could take in all the local color – the families selling fruit by the side of the road, the stray dogs and children running around, makeshift cafes set up on the side porches of homes. Pretty cool.

In Cambodia, these are called “tuk-tuks”. We forgot to ask what they are called here.

The Thorny Path Part 2: Turks & Caicos to the Dominican Republic

June 7 – Providenciales to French Cay

We left the dock at Turtle Cove Marina around 8:30 a.m. and were met with glassy seas and very light winds. Once again, we seemed to have the ocean to ourselves. We departed at low tide, and I was very happy to have a pilot boat guiding Gratitude out of the twisty channel. Many of the channel markers were missing, and dangerous reefs were abundant.

The pilot boat leading us out of Seller’s Cut – the captain kept radioing me to tell me to follow and not to deviate from the course even a little. No pressure.

Just after noon, a few dolphins came and paid Gratitude a visit. (Karen here: DOLPHINS! SWIMMING WITH US! My life might now be complete.) I saw them about a half-mile off to our starboard, and they made a beeline to intercept us. When they reached us, they turned 90 degrees and matched our speed at about seven knots, jumping and criss-crossing just in front of us, leading us along. It was thrilling to watch. (Karen again: THRILLING, I TELL YOU! They were every bit as graceful and beautiful and playful as I had heard.) {

Dolphins came to visit Gratitude on our sail to French Cay, Turks & Caicos
Dolphins swimming with our Leopard 48 in glassy seas in Turks and Caicos

Shortly after that, we passed the island of West Caicos on our port side. It’s a beautiful dive site off the western side, but on land there are the remnants of an elaborate real estate development that utterly imploded. The islands we’ve visited have no shortage of abandoned building projects, but our interest in this one was personal. A colleague had invited us to invest in this property sometime around 2001, and I seriously thought about it. It had the Lehman Brothers backing it and Ritz Carlton was the anchor, so it had all of the markings of a no-brainer. They even developed a private air strip and a marina to draw high-end clientele. But there was something about the structure of the deal I didn’t like, and it would have required us to put a lot of money at risk, so we opted not to buy in. A few years later, well into the project, the financial crisis of 2008 struck. That was the first big blow, but Hurricane Irma delivered the right hook that took them completely down. Now, this is a ghost town of empty husks on a practically deserted island, and the Lehman Brothers no longer exist (biggest bankruptcy in US history!). You can see all the way through these buildings when the light hits it right.

(Karen: We were in no way glad to see this development fail; we knew some people who likely lost a lot of money, and dreams, through no direct fault of their own. But I am sobered by the reality that taking a risk does not always pay off, and I remain grateful that Andy listened to his gut on this one.)

Passing the failed development at West Caicos

Once we turned south, the winds became more favorable for us to fly our Code Zero sail, so Karen went back and consulted the photos we had taken the one and only time it was deployed. It was described to me as being a “turbo charger” for the boat, but we had never used it on our own. Another couple we met much earlier on had something go wrong with their similar sail on a very similar boat, and the entire thing had blown away and was lost. We took this as a cautionary tale; this is not a sail to be trifled with. I was trained on ours once, for about 10 minutes back in January, immediately after crossing the Gulf Stream the first time, but I had forgotten most everything I was shown. Besides, it was at 5:00 a.m., and I had been up for a while. But we quickly realized that although this sail is different than the jib, it’s not entirely different. We took our time, studied the photos, worked through the kinks, and brought it out. I was really happy to see it unfurled, and we made very good speed the rest of the trip to French Cay with it.

The Code Zero is a truly massive foresail that stretches up over six-and-a-half stories high. It’s great for light winds

…and yes, of course I caught another barracuda. Of course. I’m just going to laugh about it. At least this one did not destroy my lure. He was safely released to go harass someone else. 

If there is ever a barracuda tournament, get me on your team.

We arrived at French Cay about 4:30 p.m. and anchored to the northwest of the island, and we went for a swim in the ocean to cool off and to inspect the anchor. Everything looked just the way we wanted it to. 

We celebrated a successful first day of this trip by mixing up some margaritas and some chips and guacamole, and Karen cooked some amazing beef short ribs in the Ninja Foodi. 

Saturday, June 8 – French Cay to Big Sand Cay

Saturday, we sailed about 60 miles to Big Sand Cay in the Turks and Caicos islands. The winds were favorable for sailing and the seas were mild. We weighed anchor at 6:00 a.m. and headed east-southeast. 

Our water tanks were just about dry, so one of the first orders of business was to desalinate and store enough fresh water to last us until the Dominican Republic for laundry, fresh-water showers, washing down the boat, and cooking. 

But before making for the D.R., we needed to cross the Caicos Bank. 

The Caicos Bank is a shallow stretch of ocean with depths of only five to seven feet below our keel, and it took us the entire morning to traverse it. Occasionally there were charted obstacles to dodge, but generally, it was a straight shot. I couldn’t really relax in such shallow water, so I stayed planted at the helm, monitoring the depth finder and the map, while scanning the water for anything dangerous. At least the path through the Caicos bank, formally known as the “Sir Cloudesley Shovell Passage”, is well charted, so it’s not all white-knuckles.

Also, I outdid myself today. While I was reeling in one barracuda on the port side, a second one took the lure I had rigged on the starboard side. I had two of these fish on my hands at once! The second was big and put up a long and impressive fight on much lighter tackle. In all fairness, I knew this was a risk when I started trolling in such shallow water. Later, I caught one in water that was over a mile deep. I can’t figure this out. 

Three barracuda today. The middle one put up a real fight

(Karen: Really? Three barracuda in one day? I am over this fishing thing. Bah, humbug.)

After the Caicos Bank, the ocean floor plunges down suddenly to depths of over a mile. You transition from about 20 feet deep to 6,000+ ft deep over a short distance. Welcome back to the Atlantic Ocean. Later in the trip, the water drops to over two miles deep. We turned from heading east to following a southeast route known as the Columbus Passage to get to our destination. 

Almost ten hours after we started, we anchored off of the beautiful, uninhabited Big Sand Cay. It is the closest approach to the Dominican Republic from the Turks and Caicos Islands, and I am hopeful that it will give us a friendly wind angle to sail south. We both went for a swim, and I took a look at the anchor. It had dug in perfectly, so I slept a bit more soundly. 

Later on, two dolphins swam by the boat at sunset, and that made the evening just about perfect. 

We stayed here Saturday night and Sunday during the day.  

Big Salt Cay – these dolphins, at sunset, are harder to see

Sunday, June 9 – Big Sand Cay to the Dominican Republic

We took the dinghy (now named “Patience”) to shore to explore Big Sand Cay Sunday morning. Then we both tried to nap as much as possible during the day, and just before 7:00 p.m., we weighed anchor and started heading south for the overnight run to Hispaniola, the island that is home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. 

Maybe our trip had been a bit too ideal up to this point, but it was finally time to pay the piper.

I pushed the power button to the KVH (satellite phone and internet) to check weather before we left, and I was immediately greeted with a loud “POP!” that sounded like a small firecracker. Whatever the root cause (still investigating), we were going to be incommunicado for this stretch of sailing (note, we still had our VHF radio, which is our medium-range means of ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communication).

Next, as soon as we had the anchor up and were underway, I could tell from the sound the starboard engine was making that it was not circulating water. I suspected we had blown another impeller. Bad news. Really bad news. I verified that it was not working properly and promptly shut it down to avoid a more serious development.

There may be a bigger problem that needs solving here

We had a strong headwind of about 22 knots (25+ mph), and progress with one engine was punishingly slow, so we raised the mainsail and unfurled the jib and diverted due south to improve our angle to the wind. That cheered Gratitude right up, and she started making great time. The waves were high, however, so this was not to be a smooth ride. When things cooled down enough, I climbed into the engine compartment and replaced the impeller while we were underway. I think this should have earned me some kind of sailing merit badge if only such things existed. 

Now we had two working engines (whew!), but we didn’t need engines at this point. We were flying south and would simply tack more easterly as we got closer to our destination. 

Around midnight, I was having my watch at the helm while Karen tried to catch some sleep, when the winds shifted. I turned on the engines to motorsail and give us a boost, when I felt the starboard engine shudder violently before stopping altogether. My brain ran through all of the possibilities, and none of them were good. We were down to one engine again with unfavorable winds. This was destined to be a long trip after all.

Then, about 3:00 a.m., Gratitude’s touch-bashed navigation screen stopped responding to touch. Fortunately, it still showed our position, but we couldn’t change the view, alter our course, or zoom in or out. This was a most unwelcome development, but I remembered that I could use my iPad to connect to it wirelessly, and that workaround returned full functionality. 

The challenges kept coming, though. Just before 4:30 a.m., three images appeared on the ship’s radar. It was raining softly, and visibility was really low. I thought they might be storm cells, but as I watched them draw closer, I realized they were much larger ships headed directly into our path from west to east. I tried (repeatedly) to hail them on the VHF as they approached, but there was only radio silence in return. When we got close, I could make out the illuminated outline of the nearest one, looming directly in front of us. I diverted hard to the southwest to avoid the possibility of a collision – so fun to do in the rain – in the dark. The winds were ideal for sailing at that new angle, but staying on that heading would have deposited us in Haiti in a few hours, which was not the plan.

The three radar blips on the right were three ships. The nearest one came far too close for comfort.

At 4:55 a.m., after a long night, the sky started lightening a bit in the east. I knew it would not be long before the sun came up, making the rest of our trip easier. The winds shifted again, this time to a more favorable direction, and as the sun rose, we could see The Dominican Republic. Land Ho!

The Dominican Republic is a truly beautiful country

We were able to sail again without needing any engine, and as we approached the northern shore, the winds bent around the island, allowing us to turn and keep sailing southeast to our destination. When we got close to the marina where we were planning to dock, we found a spot away from shore where the depth was only about 20 feet and deployed the anchor. The seas were quite rough, and the winds were 18 knots. I jumped in the water to see what was going on with the starboard side engine below the boat. There was no way I wanted to try to dock this boat with only one engine. 

It really could have been much worse

As expected, we had caught a line that had wrapped tightly around the starboard propellor. I was actually very relieved. It’s not unusual for boats to catch a net, fishing line, or a stray rope (although it was a first for us), and sometimes these can be very tough to disentangle or cut free. This one didn’t look so bad, so I swam down, held my breath, and unwound the line with one hand while using my other hand to make sure the hull didn’t conk me in the head as it bucked up and down in the surf. Now we could use both engines again! 

(Karen: And I sat nervously on the edge of the boat, silently praying that Andy did not hit his head and the boat did not drag too far back into the reef behind us. It was a relief when he found and disentangled the line around the prop, but a much bigger relief when he was finally back aboard Gratitude.)

Time to get back underway, except… not so fast. The starboard engine acted most unhappy from this experience, and it stubbornly refused to restart. We tried for several tense minutes to get it going. It did not sound like it was even considering starting. I was coming to grips with the fact that we would still only have our port engine to use, when finally, the starboard engine coughed and sputtered to life, and we were back in business. I cannot adequately convey the relief I felt.

Amazingly, all of these challenges only added one more hour to our trip. We made the entire run in 16 hours rather than the expected 15, and we only used our engines for a couple of those hours. We docked cleanly, had the drug enforcement police inspect our boat and cleared immigration and customs smoothly. 

(Karen: One final note that clearing customs and immigration in the DR is reported by many to be difficult and unpredictable… but we followed some good advice and did so at our marina. We encountered no difficulties whatsoever, making our welcome to this beautiful country very warm, indeed.)

Turks and Caicos: Diving Paradise

I am writing this post as Gratitude cruises EXTREMELY calm seas. There’s the barest of swells and maybe 2 knots of wind, making it possible for me to sit in the forward cockpit with no fear of getting splashed. We are off the northern coast of the Turks and Caicos, about to turn south once we get to the western edge, so that we can sail to French Cay tonight; in the morning we’ll start crossing the Caicos Bank, heading for Big Sand Cay, our last anchorage in the T&C. We hope to leave from there late on Sunday, June 9, for an overnight sail to the Dominican Republic.

But before we leave this beautiful country, we want to share a little taste of our week here.

The Turks and Caicos used to be a part of the Bahamas, and geographically that makes sense. But they’ve been separate countries for over a hundred years now, and the differences show. T&C is a British colony with more development and more infrastructure than most of the places we visited in the Bahamas. The grocery stores are outstanding, there are dozens of good restaurants, and car rental is easy and cheaper than a round-trip taxi ride.

The Graceway Gourmet in Providenciales – most of the comforts of home

The beaches and the water are gorgeous! Same beautiful range of blues and greens that you see in the Exumas, with many many good reefs just begging to be snorkeled or dived. (Dove? I never know.)

Andy has some company for his 3-minute safety stop at the end of our first dive

We took some time while in Providenciales (not the capital, but definitely the largest town and the center of tourism here) to go diving again. I really wanted to do some more training, and found a dive shop, Aqua TCI, that could help us. Alas, it would have required some online coursework, and we did not have reliable-enough internet to make that feasible. (Not just internet, it turned out – there were a few power outages during our week here, as well. Provo was a victim of Hurricane Irma, and while it has recovered nicely, there are still some hitches in their systems.)

So we “settled” for pleasure dives, and boy were they pleasurable! The variety of reef life was truly amazing. We did four dives over two separate days, and on both days we saw reef sharks, turtles, eels, lobsters, hogfish, and all the wrasses and angelfish you could hope for. We even spotted a juvenile trunkfish – a tiny little spotted thing! – that is apparently somewhat rare. The corals were bright and healthy – rock corals, brain corals, sponges, fans. Andy got some nice videos of the sharks and I managed to get some still shots of a lot of the fish.

A curious Caribbean Reef Shark came to check us out on our dive
Sharks are friends! Not food!
Juvenile Spotted Drum
Juvenile trunk fish – they’re pretty rare to spot. Our guide found this one – it’s the little black blob with the white polka dots.

Diving is SO MUCH FUN!

A view of our marina (Turtle Cove), from the lovely Magnolia Wine Bar on our last night.

We did a lot of eating out AND grocery shopping, too. Eating out, because the variety of cuisine here was a nice change from what we had grown used to in the Exumas. We had some nice Italian, some paella, and grilled fish with risottos and pastas, beyond the peas-n-rice and mac-n-cheese that was so prevalent earlier in our journey. I was delighted with the creativity and skill of the chefs, even at the casual bars we visited. I didn’t do any cooking while we were docked, but we made two grocery runs to get restocked. I had heard that the grocery stores were good here, and they did not disappoint. For the next few days every meal will be prepared here on board, so I wanted to be sure and get everything we’d need.

What’s our menu for the next few days? Well, I’m planning to cook up a big pot of BBQ beef short ribs with cole slaw for dinner tonight, that will give us plenty of leftovers for quick reheating. I found a rotisserie chicken that I’ll use to make curried chicken salad, and I have a new recipe for a Mediterranean quinoa salad I want to try. Between that and the cheese and crackers, apples and peanut butter, and Rx Bars we have onboard, I’d say we won’t go hungry. In fact, it’s calm enough that I might try doing some food prep today while we’re underway. We haven’t had good enough conditions for me to try it before – I’ll let you know how it goes.