Ahoy and Happy Mother’s Day from Puerto Rico! Since we last checked in, we have experienced a whole new country, completed three of our longest passages yet, and spent a big ol’ pile of money.
About a month ago, after a stumble to replace a failed alternator regulator, we successfully departed the friendly South Side Marina in Provo, Turks & Caicos, on the second attempt. Now with a fully-operational charging system, we traversed the now-familiar Caicos Bank for the third time.
This time, we pressed on into the night, fully intending to make use of a particularly large weather window to make it to the Dominican Republic.
As the sun rose, we were excited to find the DR looming on the horizon, visible from quite a distance. Many have told us about the experience of first seeing and smelling the lush, volcanic geography of Hispaniola after so many months among the low, scrubby, coral islands of the Bahamas banks, but we were still taken aback. Trees! Mountains! Moist earth! Oh the fecundity!
Most cruisers on this route to the Caribbean island chain make their landfall in Luperon, a small hamlet adjacent a hurricane hole on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Its cheap eats (after the Bahamas and TCI), fetid harbor, excellent storm protection, and corrupt (or at least tip-friendly) officials are all part of cruising lore, likely exaggerated with each telling. Many cruisers spend entire seasons there, using it as a base from which to explore the country.
With this excellent weather window, we only intended to stop for a day to fuel up and clear in before pushing on to Samaná on the east coast. For this reason, as well as for cleaner diesel and a smoother clearing-in process, we opted to spend a couple bucks and enter at Ocean World Marina, a few miles to the east in Puerto Plata.
After a good night’s sleep, we were off again, ready for another overnight to Samaná. About a mile beyond the marina we started to hear a new and disturbing sound from the engine; not unlike marbles poured into a spinning blender. With visions of broken teeth caroming around inside the gearbox, we dropped the RPM and turned back to the marina.
For the first six months or so of this trip we have been blessed with largely operational boat systems. Other than a windlass failure (removed in South Carolina, sent back to the factory, rebuilt, returned and reinstalled in Florida), we’ve been free of expensive necessary repairs. We were even able to resurrect our long-lost autopilot into serviceable condition for the big passages south of the Turks and Caicos. This transmission problem, coming right on the heels of the expensive alternator regulator work, was a punch in the gut.
Still, if it had to happen, we were happy to be in a full service marina with its full-time mechanic on duty. Within hours of our return, Raul and his assistant Tommy had the transmission out and had diagnosed the problem; a failed bearing. Raul would have to drive to Santiago to get the replacement parts, so we had a few days of enforced idleness on our hands.
Deb quickly found the pool.
I mentioned that Ocean World is a full service marina. It is also a resort: a mini Las Vegas with its own mini Sea World adjacent. Three times a day, the same sequence of songs blasted out of the water park for the trained seal show: “Who Let the Dogs Out,” followed by The Pink Panther Theme, then some DJ’s mix of a diva belting disco over the backing track of Aha’s “Take On Me,” and closed with a reprise of the canine opener. After two days, we could mouth along with the emcee’s Spanglish narration.
Every night, the white exterior of its main building erupted in a blast of laser-guided color and roof-mounted spotlights swooped about in synch with the thumping music.
We needed to get beyond the resort gates. We walked out to the highway where we caught a 50-cent guagua (old minivan with extra seats added and the slider door removed) into the city of Puerto Plata.
We visited Puerto Plata each of the next two days, first just getting the lay of the land, then eating and provisioning. It was the first time we’d visited a proper city in a long while and we felt quite at home. At turns gritty and vibrant, at others proud and manicured, it vividly reminded Deb of our beloved Lower East Side (mostly the gritty and vibrant part).
Most folks get around on the backs of hired motorcycles, or motoconchos, an experience we chose to skip.
Instead we opted to stroll around town, bouncing between tourist sites like the main town square and the Malecón (oceanfront road) crisscrossing through the neighborhoods in between.
We admired street art and enjoyed a welcome lunch in a shaded outdoor café away from the aggressive tourist places on the Malecón.
We got more touristy the next day, when Deb signed us up to visit the 27 waterfalls of Damajagua. Although a short distance from Puerto Plata, the tour bus took the scenic route over dirt roads through tiny settlements, stopping often to disembark and experience a view, a local farm, meet artisans, or visit a cigar maker (and always to purchase a keepsake).
Our guide, Elvis, kept the conversation going in multiple languages as we made our way through the countryside to the falls.
We finally arrived and suited up.
Although there are indeed 27 falls, we chose the most popular option and only visited the lowest seven. Guides led our group upstream like ungainly salmon through narrow canyons in the increasingly capacious river, identifying hand-holds to hoist trekkers up through the falls.
The swim/hike terminated at the base of the seventh fall, which poured through a slit of light into a dim half-cave carved by eddies into the rock. Here, the group paused for photographs (for sale on the trip back) and then made the return trip the easy way, by sliding and jumping our way down the sluice-like falls back to the entrance, all the while wishing we’d signed up for the full 27.
We returned to Ocean World and a repaired and reassembled transmission. The weather forecast called for favorable conditions for the overnight to Samaná, so we paid up, got our despacio (clearance papers allowing you to move on to another port in the DR), and prepped easy-to-eat, one-hand grub for the passage.
Early the next morning, one week after our first attempt, we were again on our way to Samaná. About an hour into the passage we received a hail on the VHF from Crystal and Rob aboard S/V Kairos. We’d met Crystal and Rob and their sweet boat dogs Jaela and Baxter during our second stay at South Side Marina in the TCI. When they took off for Luperon, we agreed to stay in touch as we were both intending to continue on to Puerto Rico. Happy to reconnect, we motorsailed in company all that calm night, arriving early the next morning in Samaná.
Entering Samaná bay, we were again faced with a question similar to that we faced approaching Luperon and Ocean World: we could anchor for free in Samaná harbor or take a slip at the Puerto Bahia resort marina. In general, the idea of anchoring out is a bit of an anathema to boaters in the DR. Here, one is expected to transit from marina to marina, each with their own navy officials to provide clearance in and out. The officials that visit cruisers’ boats at anchor aren’t always sure of what to make of the situation, suspecting something nefarious. In addition, Samaná harbor has earned a reputation of late as a great place to get your dinghy or outboard stolen. Since we were planning on using Samaná as a base to visit further inland, we opted for the marina.
S/V Kairos came to a similar conclusion and before lunchtime we were all tied up, safe and tired, in our slips. After a day’s rest, Deb and I made our way into the town of Samaná to catch an inexpensive cross-country bus to Santo Domingo. We booked our hotel using the air-conditioned bus’ wifi as we crossed the central mountains heading south.
We arrived in loud, chaotic Santo Domingo just after lunchtime. I reminded myself that similar visitors to New York City must first experience the famously unpleasant Port Authority Bus Terminal and its immediate environs before getting to the good stuff. After a few blocks, we were backpacking through the quieter government center toward the Zona Colonial.
After checking into the hotel and changing into the first ironed clothes we’d worn in months, we stepped out to see the town. Zona Colonial, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the oldest section of this oldest city in the western hemisphere, the heart of which is a heavily-touristed pedestrian street complete with aggressively helpful amateur concierges ready to provide an exclusive tour, find you a taxi, or show you the way to the best restaurant in the area. For a change, we let ourselves be seduced by Tomas, a 50-something native we met in front of the Catedral de Santa María la Menor (the first cathedral in the Americas), eager to show us his city. Tomas’ clearly evident civic pride showed in his command of local facts and lore (often a blurry combination of the two) encompassing everything from the arrival of Christopher Columbus to life under dictator Rafael Trujillo. We were most thankful for his lack of compunction, barreling past guards with a wave and a smile to take us behind entry gates and courtyard walls we would never have seen on our own.
The following day we strolled around the quieter streets of the Zona until it was time to get back on the bus for Samaná.
Once on the boat, we got back into the rhythm of tracking weather and saw that the latest reports moved a favorable window earlier than previously forecast. Both S/V Delancey and S/V Kairos spent the next two days scrambling to fill tanks, clear out, and prepare for the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico.
The Mona is feared for its rough waves caused by the flow of water between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Drastic changes in the depth of the seabed cause confused, boiling seas in any kind of wind. These conditions only heighten the trade-off inherent to offshore passages: when the wind is up for good sailing, you’ve also got pretty big seas. When seas are calm, you’ve got no wind. Having spent a number of unhappy nights at the helm bashing through rough seas, we will happily start up the engine to take advantage of a relatively flat ocean.
But there’s another wrinkle: these conditions; light and variable winds and a calm sea state; are usually caused by a stalled frontal system or two that blocks the prevailing eastern trade winds. Stalled fronts bring squalls of rain, wind, and lighting. It was into just such a system that we departed Samaná early the next morning, motoring in company.
The next 30-hours delivered on the forecast’s promise: calm seas, little wind, occasional rain, and lighting; always lighting. Sitting in an ungrounded tub fitted with the tallest metal thing for miles around, lighting is of particular concern for sailors and the constant flashes kept up a mild tension among the crews of Delancey and Kairos throughout the night. Happily, the lighting was mostly kept to the upper atmosphere, with only distant vertical forks touching ground on the horizon.
Sunrise delivered us to the small fishing village of Puerto Real on the southwest cost of Puerto Rico just as the eastern trades were kicking in. Once in the little bay, we tied up at Marina Pescaderia for the now-familiar triumvirate of fuel, check-in, and bed.
We pulled into wide, inviting Boqueron Bay the following afternoon. Happy to be away from marinas and at anchor again for the first time in over a month, we looked forward to catching the tail end of the raucous weekend Boqueron street scene we’d heard about. We immediately dropped the dink and got all ready for an evening ashore. The outboard motor had stiffened up during its month clamped to the stern rail, and while (too forcefully) attempting to loosen the sticky tiller arm, I quickly snapped a throttle cable. A jury-rig repair wouldn’t hold and we realized that we’d have to order a new part. The wind was up and rowing the half-mile to the dock was not really an option. It looked like no shore leave for the crew of Delancey.
Just as we were resigning ourselves to a fairly depressing evening in the cockpit, taunted by the sounds of revelry just out of reach, Rob and Crystal of S/V Kairos dinked over and offered us a lift. We jumped into their dinghy for a wet ride ashore, overflowing with thanks. We walked the little main drag, stopping at the open-air bars and food stands for occasional refills, delighting in the live band and expert salsa dancers in the street, and supremely grateful to our friends for their generosity.
Rob and Crystal’s freehanded ways continued the next day anchored off Cabo Rojo, when they trundled us ashore with Jaela and Baxter for a hike up to the Los Morillos lighthouse. The 1882 lighthouse sits atop crescent limestone cliffs marking the extreme southwest corner of the island. Once at the top, we were blasted by the strong tradewinds we knew we’d experience once we left the shelter of the cape.
Our short jump to Cabo Rojo was marred by yet another mechanical issue. While motorsailing under main and shouldering the open seas aiming for the crook of the cape, we noticed a burning smell from below. I jumped down to find smoke coming from the transmission. We put the boat in neutral, flashed out the jib, trimmed for close-hauled sailing, and entered the bay in two tacks. After things in the engine room had cooled down, we siphoned out and replaced the burned transmission fluid. We went to bed hoping for calm seas until the south coast city of Poncé, which has facilities to address all our mechanical woes.
The next morning found strong trades up earlier than usual and we elected to abort further progress against wind and seas. We bid temporary farewell to S/V Kairos and turned back for Puerto Real. We are now again in Marina Pescaderia, again with the transmission out of the boat. It turns out the slipping clutch had burned out (possibly due to imperfect reassembly in the DR?). While here, we’ve also brought the outboard to a shop for servicing, reprovisioned, replaced an unreliable bilge pump, and enjoyed roadside empanadas and freshly-caught mahi. I also got my first haircut in six months.
We’re also getting nervous about the future. With the Mona Passage complete, we’ve put all the really hard stuff behind us and are looking forward to the remainder of the trip south consisting of short hops between new and interesting islands and cultures. But hurricane season starts in about three weeks (although isn’t taken seriously until late July). We either want to be in Grenada, below the zone, or hauled out and tied down in Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands by then. Also, between the marinas and boat repairs, these past six weeks have been super expensive. We’re going to have to get jobs, either here or back in the states, to rebuild the kitty for the return trip.
So in one way, April has been the cruelest month. On the other hand, it’s also been the coolest month, with new friends and cities and waterfalls. When we worry (and we do, a lot) we allow ourselves to get deep into our heads with plans and we don’t fully experience the stuff that is right in front of us. So we’ve vowed to make sure that the time we have is well spent; that we embrace the fun/interesting/adventurous opportunities and not get overly concerned with the future. We’ll just take things as they come.