Nigel North
Thu 23 Apr 2015 21:48

POSITION N18:12.95  W067:09.64

Monday 23 March 2015



The best bits are usually setting off for somewhere new.  I like that a lot.  But not this time.  I had had a very pleasant time in Puerto Bahia Marina, had met quite a few people – and the staff were really great.  And all at half price with the Regatta deal. 

But it was time to go, the weather looking good for the next few days, and with 150nm to sail to Mayaguez on the west coast of Puerto Rico Pinball needed to take full advantage of the mild conditions to cross the infamous Mona Passage.   This 80nm strait between the mountainous Dominican Republic and smaller US island, both Spanish speaking, has a reputation for handing out thorough slappings to unwary boaters, and I had no desire to be slapped. 

Several factors need consideration:  first the islands funnel the wind, doubling the gradient wind.  Then there is the Equatorial Current that runs up on its Northwest setting journey, which when opposed by the wind can whip up some vicious seas.   There are also strange eddies, counter-currents, and rough water caused by the undersea landscape in the Strait, causing unpredictable turbulence.    Just to the North lies the Puerto Rico Trench, one of the deepest on the planet.  Then again there are extensive shoals off the NE corner of the Dominican Republic over which flows the powerful Equatorial Current, causing considerable unhappiness to those who might venture over them feeling safe because they are deep at several hundred feet or more.  Not so! 

But the forecast was for winds of less than 15kts, mainly Easterly, and I would avoid the shoals by heading out to sea to go round them.  But first I had to get out of the marina, and the best time to do that without scraping the boat on the concrete docks was before the wind got up, ie after breakfast.   So paid up, said my goodbyes and slipped out, assisted on the lines by Carlton and Aggie of KNOT DREAMIN – who I hoped to meet up with again.   

An hour east up the Samaná Bay lies a small cay – Cayo Levantado – a good place to drop anchor and await the best time to leave for the crossing - 1600.  The basic plan was to spend 2 nights and a day doing the crossing to take advantage of the mitigating effects on the gradient wind you get at night from the two islands.  

The Cayo looked nice, great beach, lots of small boats ferrying people in and out, worth a visit another time maybe.  By mid afternoon it was getting pretty rough as the sea breeze  funnelled, and the first few hours after getting the hook up were a hard motor into wind against a fair old sea.  But gradually as the bay opened up, and the sun went down, conditions improved, helped by a gradual turn southeast to follow the coast. 

But on the way I met my first whale!  He came up and blew, I got the camera ready and….never saw him again.   VERY happy about this event though, as everyone else has seen hundreds it seems, annoyingly.  

The wind was on the nose but not very strong, so it was a motorsail, tacking a bit to make the mainsail do some work.  By dawn it was time to head out to sea in a NE’ly direction to avoid the Hourglass Shoal, allowing some sailing to be done in light airs, later turning back SE when clear of the shoals to head for Mayagüez on the west coast of Puerto Rico – the official Port of Entry.  It all went to plan, day became night again, the seas behaved themselves mostly and Pinball arrived exactly on time at dawn off the ugly commercial port where I was to clear Customs.  

But the sea had still had a go.  That night as Pinball motorsailed, then just motored as the wind died, the almost flat sea would deliver one single ‘gotcha’ wave right out of the blue, sufficient to bury the nose deep and send things crashing down below. 

‘Where did THAT come from?!’  

Other things that happened….well once we just stopped, wind was still blowing but made no difference.  Then the wind veered ninety degrees just like that, right onto the nose.  Yes, I can see how you can get into trouble here if you’re out in the wrong conditions, or wrong place. 

Mayagüez is a commercial port, and not pretty.  It has a reef with an entrance, a long rambling dock, factory buildings to the North and a large Customs shed for ferries.   There was one other boat at anchor off the dock, a small double-ender flying the South African flag, and I anchored Pinball a hundred yards behind WILD BLUE.  By then it was 0730, and Customs opened at 0800 so timing couldn’t have been better.  By the time I’d unlashed and splashed the dinghy it was time to go in, armed with the usual paperwork. 

But where to park the dinghy?  There was nowhere obvious.  I had hoped to get a hint form WILD BLUE, but I’d missed the moment – their dinghy was now nowhere to be seen.   So set off along the dock until I found an indent where it wouldn’t be crushed if a big ship came in.  Its always hard to climb out of a dinghy without showing your age, and with a 5’ crumbling dock to ascend this was no exception, but there was no one about.  I had arrived in the vehicle marshalling area, and walked down to the smart looking Custom shed.  

But it was locked.  Went round the side, nothing.  No one.  I finally found a gate guard alive round the far side and stood there on the wrong side of the fence in a silent gesture of helplessness, and he ambled across, soon to be joined by a female police officer.  I explained my predicament – how to get in to Customs?   In broken English I learnt I was in the wrong place, they don’t use it anymore.  I would have to go into town to visit Customs.  Well that explained the deserted dock..

US Customs require alien boats to ring in to announce their arrival before reporting in person.  I had hoped to circumvent this requirement by arriving at opening time, but you can’t do that if you’re in the wrong place.  I rang in, using a US sim card that miraculously still worked, and gave my details.  Well at least this now gave me 24 hours to pitch up in person.

‘Welcome to Puerto Rico’, said the Customs guy.  ‘Hope you have a pleasant stay’

Corr...  Don’t get that very often. 

WILD BLUE’s dinghy was now back.  I gathered Pinball’s paperwork once more and rowed across to do some intelligence gathering on the location of Customs, and how to get there, and met Darryl and Lyndsey.

Although Lyndsey had beached the dinghy nearby and walked in, Darryl suggested I take the dinghy round the small headland and save a walk.

‘Aim for the flags’ he advised, smiling.  It was good advice. By now the wind was picking up, and beach landing Percy in the swell got me pretty well soaked.  Ah, the Cruising Life. Never mind, the sun shines..The Customs building in town is an impressive Colonial affair of Spanish origin, high ceilings, pillars, a magnificent entrance but us erks have to go through the gate at the side like the rat that you are, and be searched.  Then, stand in front of one of those old fashioned grills  they used to have in banks and post offices, and be interrogated by the bloke on the other side. 

‘Have you any fruit?’ he asked.

‘No.  No fruit. Got veg, potatoes and onions.  Oh wait a minute.  I have tomatoes, if they count as fruit?’ 

‘TomAYtoes’ he repeated, looking deeply offended, before disappearing for some time to discuss this disturbing piece of news.  I had already admitted to owning tomatoes on the phone, and had after some teeth sucking been allowed to keep them without ‘a visit’ by a US Health Official provided I didn’t bring them ashore. So I stood at the grill and waited whilst the future of my impeccable Dominican toms was debated out of sight. 

Darryl had said they were ‘a really laid back bunch’, not so with me!  But, they relented, and eased up when he learned I’d sailed from UK.  I don’t think they get too busy here. 

On the way back found a good store and loaded up with ‘nice’ food like yoghurt, stuff that doesn’t come in a tin, dragged the dinghy back to the water’s edge, got soaked again launching and arrived back at Pinball in a pretty strong old onshore wind.  Little BLUE WILD, 4’ shorter than Pinball and anchored much closer to the shore, was bucking around like at a rodeo in the short steep seas, and with the guide saying that ‘holding was poor’ in the anchorage, this was not a good place to stay long.  But stay we did, overnight, as this was no time to be setting sail either, and the wind and sea would soon die back overnight.