Passage-making: Puerto Rico
Puerto Bahía Marina, Samaná, DR to Puerto Real, Cabo Rojo, PR
After recovering from a stomach bug, we settled on exploring more of Los Haitises National Park on Wednesday, February 26. We had some time to kill before a potential weather window coming up on February 28 for crossing over to Puerto Rico. Truly, though, we really wanted to ease our marina bills. So we got another despacho from El Comandante and sailed over to San Lorenzo Bay around lunchtime. This time we were looking to dinghy up a different mangrove waterway to check out Paraíso Caño Hondo. We had heard so many wonderful things about this place and it did not disappoint. Paraíso Caño Hondo is a quirky yet imposing eco-lodge, literally built in the hills of Sabana de la Mar, among natural spring water pools. It was pretty surreal once we started walking around the premises over to “Los Altos,” the top the of the hill, where we got some incredible views of the savannah and rice fields below.
The next morning we moved Sparidae back to the same anchorage we had shared with S/V Calypso, near the Dock Ruins, as we felt a little too exposed to the gusty trades in San Lorenzo Bay. Later in the afternoon, we noticed another sailboat approaching and realized it was S/V Cloud Shadow, a 54' ketch we had been keeping tabs on since the Bahamas (Cruiser's side note: whenever we listened to Chris Parker weather reports for the East Caribbean region over the SSB Radio, S/V Cloud Shadow would always pose weather questions in line with the route we were taking, so not only were we always looking forward to Chris Parker's report, we were also hoping they would ask some specific questions since we didn't have the ability to call or radio directly to him. Before arriving to the DR we had not signed up for his direct weather reports which he sends via email). We were eager to meet them and so we dinghied over and ended up picking their brains about the “dreaded” Mona Passage over a few drinks, of course. Similarly, they were looking for a window to cross over in the next couple of days. We ended up finalizing our plans with them, discussed the details of the route we had started planning over the past several days and decided to depart together as a way to keep checks on each other. That certainly eased our anxiety about the Mona Passage and the favorable weather forecast.
The next morning we headed bright and early back to the marina to wrap preparations for the upcoming passage: we refilled our tanks and jerrycans with diesel and water, bought all kinds of snacks and food to prep lunch and dinner, rechecked our planned route and timing, and of course took one last swim at the marina pool. We departed the just before 6pm with conditions looking relatively benign. We had planned for a 30-34 hour crossing. We were wanting to arrive in the break of dawn to Puerto Rico, hence the evening departure.
S/V Cloud Shadow left an hour earlier but we kept checking in on each other via radio. As we made our way to Cayo Levantado, we noticed conditions were deteriorating. Once past this island we were fighting some really gnarly currents while the seas continued building to around 5 to 7 feet. Every now and then we felt a rogue wave come in as high as 8 or 10 feet and they were coming at us head on. We started to get worried. According to our plan, we should have been by Michel Shoals (about 3/4 of the way to Cabo Engaño) by 9:30pm. But we were barely moving, clocking anywhere between 1 to 2 knots at times. Getting out of the bay of Samaná seemed impossible. We could see the lights on S/V Cloud Shadow, now pretty far away in the horizon, moving erratically in the distance. We called them over radio to get their opinion on conditions. They were barely moving as well and getting thrashed around and were considering turning around. It took another 45 minutes under pretty awful conditions for us to decide that if a +50' vessel could barely move forward, we, on our hobby-horsing loving 32' sloop, should probably abort our mission that evening...
We ended up making our way back to Bahía de Samaná that evening since it was too dark and too late to get back to the marina. While we had the swell now following us, it was still pretty big, and kept washing into our cockpit from the stern. The situation got pretty tense when we barely missed a fisherman in the middle of the night with nothing but a flashlight on him. Soon after, we dodged a green can that had no signal or reflective tape on at the very last minute... It was rugged. Texts messages from family members started pouring in that evening. Since everyone was up to date on our plans, and some were tracking us live, they had gotten worried when they saw us backtrack — “Why are they turning back?!” I remember my brother asking. We were able to quickly check in with everyone with whatever data was left on our Claro SIM card once we anchored in the town's protected bay. It took us a while to process everything we had just experienced. In this entire trip, we had yet to face such difficult conditions. We were both completely out of our comfort zones. It was rough. Adding to an overall stressful evening was the fact that we were anchoring right in the town of Samaná after having checked out of the country. We were worried we would have to deal with the Comandante but also weren’t sure as to how safe the area would be. But we were too exhausted and passed out a couple hours later. As soon as the first ray of sunshine hit us the next morning, we pulled up the anchor and motored back to the marina, tails between our legs, to avoid a check-in process in town. We preferred the expediency of the marina having gotten to know the staff there.
While S/V Cloud Shadow ended up crossing successfully, we were glad we didn’t attempt to keep going. Once they described their passage as 'harrowing' via e-mail we realized we had made the right decision. We had been choosing safety above it all through this entire journey. An optimal window for a crossing wouldn’t develop until Wednesday, March 6. Over the following week we continued studying the weather carefully and listened in on the radio for Chris Parker’s updates back at the marina. We of course used our time wisely and proceeded to work on boat projects, dialing in Sparidae in preparation for the crossing. By the morning of Tuesday, March 5 we had a window. We went over our route and fine-tuned our previously plotted course once again. This time, we planned to head towards Cayo Levantado in the early afternoon, since we never got a chance to check it out. We also thought it would be a good place to keep an eye on conditions being closer to the mouth of the bay. From there we would decide early whether to go on to Puerto Rico or stay. We weren’t risking repeating a night like the week before. Unfortunately, the drama was far from over...
We said our goodbyes, this time for real, to other fellow cruisers we had the pleasure of meeting while at the marina and headed to Cayo Levantado after lunchtime. As we were nearing the island, we noticed a sailboat moving around in a somewhat erratic manner. Keeping an eye on it, we approached carefully and found a perfect sandy spot to anchor. As we were anchoring we were finally able to tell that the vessel was actually drifting — and in our direction! While Tom kept the anchor rode in his hands, it didn’t look like we‘d have the time time to pull up the anchor and get out of the way. When collision seemed imminent, Tom let all the chain out as he directed me to set the boat in reverse, STAT. And so I did, while Tom yelled at the guy (like I’ve NEVER heard him before) to either drop a second anchor or put his sail up and divert. The man on the wheel simply shrugged and said there’s nothing he could do because he had gotten a line caught in the propeller and was having some other guy diving under to cut it... SAY WHAT?! The sailboat grazed right in front of us by maybe 10’ after we backed Sparidae as far as our rode allowed us... What a complete nightmare.
Thankfully, there was no collision and the guy diving on the boat was able to successfully complete his task. They started the engine again and went on about the course back to Samaná Bay. We, on the other hand, were furious. Feeling already anxious for our departure the whole incident was completely frustrating. We tried hard to forget about it and focused on enjoying our new anchorage by taking a dip in the beautiful crystal clear waters around us. Tom did a hull cleaning while I snorkeled around to check out the underwater scene. We had read there were some nice reefs nearby, but given all the hoopla and our upcoming departure we decided against venturing further. We took things easy and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon.
Come evening, we checked and rechecked the weather conditions, and made our way through the bay in darkness of the night, close to 9pm. This time around, we could still feel some strong currents, but nothing like the week before. Getting out of the bay still proved to be a sporty passage under motor all they way to Cabo San Rafael. Once we were hugging the coast near Punta Macao, conditions improved significantly and remained calm well into the following day. We were able to cook scrambled eggs and toast in the serene morning. Fishermen dotted the horizon as they went about their day in the vast ocean around us. Around lunchtime as we turned South, past Cabo Engaño, the wind hit us at the right angle and were able to hoist the sails for a couple of hours before turning East towards Mona where we went back to motor-sailing. Late in the afternoon, the sunset was one of the most memorable yet -- the sky lit up in perfect synchrony of blue hues and golden rays. We would be waking the next day in our lovely Puerto Rico and were ecstatic!
During the course of the evening, conditions were relatively benign until the wind started picking up and the swell building to 4-6 feet past Mona Island. We decided to get the sails out, reefed, and set up Mr. Fleming to keep Sparidae better balanced. When that didn't quite work out, we motor-sailed for the rest of the way until nearing the western coast of Puerto Rico around 4am, a little earlier than planned. With flashlights in hand, we started looking out for the green and red cans to make our way to Puerto Real. On Thursday, March 7 at 5am we dropped anchor and happily passed away to get some much needed rest. We had completed our last planned overnight passage. We were HOME.
The following morning, after a seamless check-in into U.S. territory through the Customs and Border Protection Roam app, which we had no idea was even an option (thanks Facebook cruiser forums!), we pulled up the anchor and made our way to a slip in Marina Pescaderia and to my parents who were anxiously waiting at the dock. By the 10am, the parents and us were drunk off the one bottle of champagne we had travelled with since leaving Boston on October 21, 2018, hoping to open exactly for this moment #noshame. We were finally able to fully celebrate what felt like a major accomplishment in our lives, a goal we had both entertained for several years, but never knew how to quite complete given our demanding jobs and lifestyle back in Boston. I (Cynthia) had joked with my grandparents for so many years that someday we would be bringing the sailboat to Puerto Rico. They would laugh. It always felt it was just a simple joke, something very far-fetched. Having it become a reality was quite extraordinary.