Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Thorny Path Part II - Bemoaning the Mona

The prospect of sailing against the trade winds and current for 250 nautical miles is a daunting one, add the crossing of the notorious Mona Passage between Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and this passage will test us and Bristol Rose.

Out of this world avacados and papayas.

Luperon provides safe harbour for Bristol Rose as well as provisioning and social interactions. The Dominican Republic is a poor country by western standards however people seem to live contentedly in the truly beautiful island. The people of Luperon are wonderful, smiling faces greet us will “hola”, men and women play dominos, children play outdoors, dogs sleep in the streets, and chickens and goats free range. We purchase the Dominican coffee for just over $2 per pound! We can understand why some cruisers make it to Luperon and go no further.

Bruce Van Sant is without question The Expert on sailing this passage. His book A Gentlemen’s Guide to Passages South is packed full of useful information for the east bound cruiser. However, he is no travel guide writer. Information is often conflicting or so it seems and layout is "loose" resulting in the reader having to flick backward and forward through the text to plan a passage. We find planning our passage is close to impossible. In defense of the book, the author is attempting to accommodate various routes in limited space.

Each morning Robert listens to Chris Parker’s weather forecast on the SSB Radio, downloads Offshore Weather Reports and GRIB files. Bruce Van Sant provides weather forecasts on Wednesday and Sunday on VHF in Luperon, where he resides. Robert is becoming a weather junkie.

There was movement in the harbor for the word had got around that Monday is the night for cruisers to get away (apologies to A.B. (Banjo) Paterson, borrowing from his poem The Man From Snowy River). We prepare to leave with last minute provisioning, checking-out with Immigration and Port Authority, getting our despacho or permission to leave harbour from the Commandancia, stowing the dinghy and securing the outboard on the stern.
As the sun sets radio chatter builds along with our anticipation and excitement. The first boats leave harbour, radioing back reports of 25 knt winds and high seas. A familiar voice booms over the VHF radio “do not leave harbour until the wind dies, period!” Sunny on Slow Mocean asks “who is this?" Another voice responds “God”. We heed Bruce's warning and decide to sleep for a few hours.

11:00pm, the winds have dropped to below 5 knts, Slow Mocean is on the move. We join them and leave Luperon harbour. Buddy decides to hang tight until 4:00am.

Buddy is a Trimaran designed and built by owner John. We first met John in Provo. He is legally blind yet led us into Luperon Harbour like the expert he is.

Buddy is a remarkable sailboat capable of speeds well over 20 knts, John has sailed Buddy through these waters many times and we are all comforted to have such experience traveling with us. We are seeing a pattern with Buddy; last to leave and first to arrive!

Leaving Luperon we head east, into the wind and short high seas created by the cape effect of Punta Patilla. This is an uncomfortable start on our 50 mile journey to Rio San Juan. As the night progresses the conditions improve however we are wondering where are the calm seas and night lee winds that enable you to sail, as claimed by Bruce Van Sant and how is it that Bruce never misses his Sundowner Gin and Tonic? We are starting to believe that there is a connection between the SG&T and the perception of smooth seas and sailing.

You gotta watch for these guys after the sun goes down.

In the early hours of the morning, Buddy is hailing the group of boats heading East. Buddy is on the move.

The approach to Rio San Juan, DR
By early morning we anchor out, off Rio San Juan, to rest while the trade winds build. We will leave latter this evening for another 50 nm trip to Escondido when the winds have died down again. As we doze off we are awakened by the now familiar visits by the Dominican Republic Navy/Coast Guard. We now know the drill and complete the necessary formalities and get back to sleeping. We are thankful we followed Van Sant's tip of buying a case of rum to help ease our passage with the DR Authorities.

11:00 pm we depart, dodging small fishing boats in the dark and turn to round the cape Cabo Frances Viejo. Strong winds and short high seas make for another uncomfortable start to our passage. Buddy decides sleeping is the better option and is last to leave anchor.

Bowl shaped rocks mark the enterance to Escondido

Early Morning Arrival At Escondido, DR

Slow Mocean

Escondido emerges from the clouds in the early morning light. Wow how quickly we forget, 100 nm of motoring into pounding waves and winds all through the night. We are in awe and excited by the spectacular view before us. The rising cliffs of Escondido reveal themselves through cloud and rain. Robert is sure there are Dinosaurs roaming the land and one of those caves has to be the home of the Phantom. We anchor off a rain-drenched beach lined with coconut palms.

Suddenly three men appear from the tree line and walk towards some caves just as one of our fellow cruisers lands his dinghy on the beach to walk his dog. Given the warnings of potential difficulties with authorities at points along the coast and the US and DR concerns about drug and people smuggling between these countries and Puerto Rico, the appearance of the three men carrying bags and a machete raises our curiosity. Their presence is still a mystery to us.

True to form, as I take the picture, the donkey turns his butt to me. Elliot and Owen will appreciate the joke with memories of bison in Montana!

Small fishing hut on an idyllic beach.


Robert is concerned about our timing and feels we need to move on very soon if we are to get to Puerto Rico in daylight. However leaving now will mean missing the night lee effects of the Dominican Republic. Conflicted, we pore over charts and guidebooks, plan routes and alternate routes, discuss options with fellow cruisers.

Night Hawk

We seek Chris Parker's advice on moving forward for an overnight crossing of the Mona Passage; he gives us the thumbs up forecasting E winds at 10 to 12 knts with mild sea conditions at 2ft. Encouraging news as he had previously described the conditions for traveling east along the north coast of the Dominican Republic as marginal. The sea and wind conditions over the past two nights could not be described as ideal. Sounds like it's improving.

Crossing the Mona Passage is a 150 nm mile trip south east from Escondido. The prevailing trade winds from the east, and a west bound Equatorial Current moving massive volumes of water across the passage, all together make for a challenging passage in any weather conditions.

Critical to the passage is to make a way point north east of the Hourglass Shoals, known to create exceptionally rough sea conditions as the current pushes water from the second deepest hole in the oceans (Puerto Rico Trench) over a 200 ft shoal. John from Buddy has warned everyone numerous times, no matter what, do not be tempted to cross the Hourglass Shoals. He is speaking from personal experience.

This baby flying fish hitched a ride with us overnight.

2:30pm, we decide to chance a potentially wild ride around Cabo Samana to ensure we can arrive in Puerto Rico at a reasonable hour and depart one of the most beautiful anchorages we have experienced in the Dominican Republic. This time Bristol Rose is the first boat to leave. Predictably Buddy will be waiting and has no plan to leave just yet.

Spectra with Annie II under tow after she lost her mast.

We set sail along the 8 nm coast to Cabo Cabron. Steep mountains drop into deep blue waters. Palm trees go on forever skywards. Blow holes boil along the water's edge and numerous caves reveal themselves. This is the land of Jurassic Park! In a protected bay we see fishermen's huts and a small fishing boat.

Robert hooks a fish, a rush for the rod, but no fight with this fish? When the line is retrieved all that is left is the head. Sharks have to eat too I guess.

When we clear the cape predictably the winds pick up and so do the seas. A Cruise liner passes us off the cape. The first few miles don’t seem too bad. The other boats decide to follow and are on the move. Buddy is still resting.

The winds shift to the ESE, not good as this is our rhumb line to the Hourglass shoal. The swell builds with short steep waves from the east. As Bristol Rose powers up the face of one wave she pounds into the face of the next. With each pound a shudder is felt thoughout the boat. We know she is tough but still worry about the punishing conditions facing her.

Our progress is slow and the 75 hp diesel is working overtime to push us across the Mona. The night is long. The crew of Spectra keeps tabs on all 10 vessels in our group. Radio chatter between vessels keeps the night watch alert, and each takes a keen interest in the safety and security of the others.

Many of the sail boats become concerned about fuel. We all are using more fuel than expected as we pound into 20knt winds and 4 ft seas. Bristol Rose has emptied the main tank and is now running on her smaller starboard tank, with the port tank in reserve.

In the early morning light Bristol Rose’s engine starts losing power and winds down to a stop. We have emptied our starboard tank. We switch over to our final Port tank and the engine roars to life. We are now very close to the Hourglass shoal and 50 nm from Puerto Rico. We don’t have enough fuel to get us home if these sea conditions persist.

The early morning light also reveals the identity of the sail boat tacking behind us for the last few hours. The now all too familiar outline of Buddy is clear. She is gaining on us. We hail Buddy on the radio, John is busy preparing breakfast and tells us he has torn his mainsail during the night and has had to resort to using the engine. Buddy flies past us!

The plan is to clear the Hourglass shoal, than fall off the wind so we can sail some of the way to Puerto Rico and save fuel to ensure we can make safe harbor.

At long last we are clear of the Hourglass shoal. 100nm of beating to weather under power, all attempts to get any assistance from our sails have failed.

We set our sails for a close haul, falling off the wind and rhumb line and give the engine a well earned rest. We keep adjusting our sail trim and course. After passing the Hourglass shoal the swell direction is on our beam, we are able to sail the rhumb line. This is good news we may be able to sail the final 50nm to Puerto Rico.

Conditions continue to improve, Bristol Rose is sailing at 7 knts with our friends Slow Mocean and Night Hawk on either side of us. Isla Desceheo is clearly visible, the mountains of Puerto Rico can be seen in the distance and the sun is shining.

John from Buddy tells us that the lee effects of Puerto Rico create flat seas and light winds for many miles west of the island. We anticipate these lighter conditions, our speed builds and we start to bury the rail. Seeing our Genoa dip into the water, Blake from Slow Mocean calls to tell us it looks like we have found the island lee conditions that Buddy was telling us about.

Eventually the winds and seas abate, we continue to conserve our precious fuel supply and sail all the way. The sailing is exhilarating, making for a great finish to a difficult 3 day passage from Luperon.

8:30 pm, we drop anchor in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. Already anchored is Spectra with Annie II in tow, Inspiration Lady, Night Hawk, Slow Mocean and of course Buddy. Still underway was Double Dutch and Anthem who arrived safely later in the evening.

We have crossed the Mona Passage and enjoy a well-earned celebration with our fellow cruisers!

Daisie is exhausted after three nights at sea. She's a great night watch dog!

1 comment:

  1. Please tell John Patterson, Bill Scott and John Wikle said hello and to stop at River Dunes in Oriential, NC if he is heading north. williamcscottjr@hotmail.com