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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.