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May 19th Update

From Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands

After our guests left us in Provo, Turks & Caicos, we filled up our tanks with fuel and water and began to wait for a "weather window" to head south. This is a lot more work than it sounds like: every morning we wake up at 0600 in order to tune into Chris Parker's Caribbean Weather Net at 0630. In Provo, SSB radio reception is abysmally bad, so I would sit hunched over the radio with a notepad in hand and earphones on, "sssh"-ing everyone for an hour as I struggled to hear, perhaps, every 3rd word if I was lucky. If I had no copy at all, I would try the other broadcasts throughout the morning. This might take several hours, and might produce no legible forecast at all. In the Turks & Caicos, there is no local weather forecasting at all, so all knowledge had to come over our SSB radio. Our other sources included the NOAA offshore forecasts via SSB and "grib" files we downloaded with the radio. Sometimes we were also able to catch a bit of Herb Hilgenberg's (Southbound II's) weather routing net in the afternoons. By piecing together these and our local observations, we formed a picture of the weather at hand. For several days, there was no way to leave. The wind was blowing hard across the banks, from exactly the direction we'd need to go, and whipping the sea up into a frothy chop. On the shallow banks, where good visibility is essential so as not to plow into the numerous isolated and uncharted coral heads, it would have been foolish to set out in those conditions.

Finally the wind began to let up, and a period of sustained "light and variable" winds was forecast as a trough settled into the area and pushed the high pressure aside. It was not an ideal window, as it meant we were facing a long motorsail, but we were so very eager to leave that we took it. As we crossed the banks the first day, we pondered whether to take the more common route, a short overnight hop to Luperón in the Dominican Republic, or to take advantage of the several days of forecast light winds, and head further east. We'd been looking forward to seeing the Dominican Republic. On the other hand, it would cost us more than $100 to check in there, and that was a huge sum for our meager budget, especially since we would not be staying more than a week or so. We decided to keep on going. This was to be our longest passage yet: 3 days and 3 nights. We really enjoyed it. The long days were broken by small excitements such as hooking a huge Mahi Mahi off the Muchoir Banks (we lost him as we tried to gaff him, argh!); smelling the rich scents of land as we passed north of the Dominican Republic; nervously watching a tremendous lightning storm ahead of us off Puerto Rico; dodging rain/wind squalls off the NE end of the Dominican Republic, and, finally, approaching the notorious Mona Passage on the evening of our last night.

The Mona Passage has a bad reputation for having high winds, fierce currents and swells, and lots of squall activity. For us, it was fantastic. There was a bit of a moon illuminating the majestic steep hills of Puerto Rico and the DR on either side, lots of phosphorescence in the water, and we even got enough breeze to turn off the motor and sail on a lovely close reach across the passage. During my night watch we passed to leeward of little Isla Desecheo in the middle of the Mona, and I was bombarded with smells of lush vegetation and compost; so luxuriant and heady to my nose after months in the arid and odorless Bahamas!

When the sun rose over the steep green hills of Puerto Rico, we celebrated finally getting to the Caribbean. Our landfall, Boquerón, even had a palm-tree-lined beach that fit the bill. Unfortunately, just as we came into the harbor and were about to drop our anchor, our trusty engine died! We dropped anchor just where we were, at the outer edge of the anchorage, but could not do anything about it until later. Here's why: despite what all of our cruising guides said, you cannot check into Puerto Rico with a simple phone call from any port. You (and the entire crew) must go to Mayagüez to check in. If we'd known this, we simply would have stopped there, as it's just a few hours north. As it was, we had to shell out $36 for a van and spend an exhausting and hot afternoon going to Customs and Immigration in that industrial city. We were all pretty bleary-eyed by the end of the day. When we got back to Boquerón, Neil quickly determined that the water pump had gone bad. Considering that we'd spent 70-plus hours under power in the last week, we were lucky to have the breakage occur in port and not at sea. the next morning, after a sweaty 45 minutes removing the old part, Neil dug out the spare pump we had buried deep in the lockers. When it emerged from the locker we realized it was missing the pulley we needed. He set off into town to see if he could find a machine shop to press the old pulley off and put it on the good pump. After an hour and a half walking around, he lucked upon a gentleman named Luiz who owned the DoggieGas station directly across from Club Nautico. Luiz very kindly took Neil to his own garage, where he campaigns a Formula One "Funny Car" as a hobby and also raises land crabs and Soursop fruit. He gave Neil free run of his incredible machine shop while handing him beers and showing off his muscle cars. Needless to say, Neil had a very pleasant afternoon with him, and returned with the water pump as good as new. It was extremely lucky, since I'm not sure how else we would have fixed it! Thanks, Luiz!

In Boquerón we reunited with our friends on Galadriel and were reintroduced to Sangaela. Liv had a great time playing with her friends and I was thrilled to finally be able to but local produce after so long in the barren Bahamas. Also in Boquerón, Liv decided to get her hair cut short. We'd been having horrendous daily battles with the snarls and she'd rejected the best solution, braids, as being too "babyish". It's really very cute!

 

The classic guidebook to this route from the Bahamas to the Caribbean is Van Sant's, "The Gentleman's Guide to Passages South." In it he describes the strategy for moving east, which of course is directly into the strong easterly tradewinds. Because the tradewinds die down close to shore at night due to the cooling land mass (creating a "night lee") the idea is to move east in short hops each day, leaving at around 3 or 4 in the morning and motorsailing into light headwinds until about 0830 when the trades pick up again. Since the trades were blowing strongly, this seemed our best course of action. After leaving Boquerón, the next obstacle is rounding the southwest corner of Puerto Rico at Cabo Rojo. The cruising guide describes a "snug mangrove anchorage" at which to wait until 3:00 AM when you check to see if the tradewinds have died down enough to venture around. When we arrived at said anchorage, we couldn't believe it. There was barely an anchorage at all, and Galadriel and Sangaela, who's arrived ahead of us, were rolling badly in the big swell wrapping around the cape. It was time to try rigging a bridle! This proved a lot easier than it sounded, and soon we had our bow pointed into the swell rather than the wind (which was at 90 degrees to the swell). The boat was still moving, but the motion was fore-and-aft rather than side-to-side, and a bit more comfortable. Unfortunately, that morning when we awoke in the pre-dawn dark, the wind had not dropped at all, and it was still too rough to go around the cape. That meant another day and night in the rolly boat. There was no place to go ashore, as it was all mangroves, so it wasn't the most fun day we've had! The next morning we decided we had to leave, no matter what, and, luckily, the wind had dropped just a little. We made it around the point and into Las Pargueras before the winds started blowing really hard again. We spent the day in Las Pargueras and then moved to the "staging" anchorage described in our guide, where we had to endure another rolly night at anchor.

We got very lucky, then, and the weather pattern changed to a period of very light and variable winds. This allowed us to move at any time during the day, in easy conditions, but it also had the effect of hurrying us along. We knew that once we passed the west coast of Puerto Rico, the toughest "easting" would be behind us, and we were eager for that ease. So, instead of lingering and exploring the interesting castles and towns in Puerto Rico, we did some quick provisioning in Ponce (where there is a Wal-Mart, Sears, and big grocery stores), went for a swim at the park at Isla Caja De Muertos (Coffin Island), spent a quiet night in the mangrove lagoon at Salinas, and then staged at Puerto Patillas for the last leg around the dreaded Punta Tuna. The weather pattern that was giving us our light winds was also producing some scattered squalls, and we had a gorgeous show of clouds and rainbows there.

Our trip around Punta Tuna was calm and uneventful. We went out of our way to try to catch fish (Punta TUNA, after all!!) and the track on our chartplotter shows funny loop-de-loops as we circled flocks of feeding sea birds, but we had no luck. Nevertheless, it was a lovely day, with some actual sailing, even, and we went all the way to Culebra in the Spanish Virgin Islands.

Next:  Virgin Islands...