Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Wise Cruiser Has No "Sea Stories"

Our Mona Crossing
Everyone wants to know about The Mona.  The Mona Passage has been chewing up sailors and spitting them out for as long as stories have been told.  Everyone who plans on sailing the Caribbean fears the Mighty Mona.  We were no different.  In fact... I was kind of stupid about it.  We left the Bahamas weeks (months?) ago and snuck around the south side of Hispaniola in the Windward Passage and I thought THAT was our Mona-Equivalent...  I had not cast my eyes far enough ahead at the time to know that we still had to Do-The-Mona.  (I know... that makes me sound really stupid... but it's the truth)

Motoring past our sleeping neighbors as we left at dawn
Well for all of you who are holding your breath waiting to hear how we were massacred by Mona... you might as well move on... because our Mona Crossing was a cake-walk!  I can't tell you how lucky we've been while traveling our chosen route... The waters at their worst have hardly been more scary than what we experienced every week back home doing the Wednesday-Night-Races on Corpus Christi Bay.  That's no lie!

The problem with the southern route was timing. When I plotted our course I took all of the information I could find about crossing this fearsome body of water and mulled it over for days.

Most of the published information for crossing the Mona Passage assumes you are crossing from Samaná.  "Everybody" goes the route along the North Coast of the DR...  But it seems that few do the southern route.  I had to read and re-read the resources at hand to try to come up with the best route almost by reading between the lines.

All of the information I could find - as well as listening to Chris Parker Weather... made it sound like the "Southern Route" of the Mona Passage crossing was typically more kindly.  You don't have to worry about the storms rolling off of Puerto Rico, they pass to the north of us.

Approaching Isla Mona - going "under"
Looking at information about the scary Hourglass Shoals which were also to the north of us... I tried to apply that information to choosing how to round Isla Mona.  Over or Under?  There isn't much information available that specifically addresses Isla Mona.  We chose to go Under...

We actually had considered stopping in at Isla Mona.  There are caves there and mooring balls...  But again, the timing wasn't right.  If we stopped there, we would want to spend an extra day exploring... That would require that we leave before the calm weather came and risk seas of 5-6 ft.  or we could wait for the calm winds and arrive in Puerto Rico after the arrival of the forecast Norther.  It just didn't work...

We had a LOT of time for mulling while we waited at Isla Saona and we flip-flopped repeatedly...  Finally our weather window solidified and we had choices.  We could leave on Sunday with winds 12-17 knots and seas up to 5 ft.... or we could wait until Tuesday and have a nearly flat-calm crossing.  We were tempted to take a chance on the former but we always expect the winds to be stronger than forecast... and we were REALLY READY to leave the Dominican Republic and all of their restrictions behind.

Heading for the Mona around Isla Saona
Oh yeah... let me back up a bit here...  What about Samaná??? We had to make a tough judgement call.  We wanted to visit Samaná... had every intention of it.... But after waiting for over a week for a weather-appropriate opportunity to venture out onto the east side of Hispaniola, we just didn't have time left...

AND, when we heard the forecast we decided that we could not pass up this one last chance for a "good" crossing.  There may not be another norther coming this far down again this year!  Not wishing to "look a gift-horse in the mouth" (where does that come from?) we decided to leave Samaná for the return trip and head for Puerto Rico!

So... back to the timing issue.  Best Practices say to leave the DR in the night while the island cuts the tradewinds...  It would take us 3-6 hours to get past the Island Effects of the DR and out into the Mona.  That's score one for leaving at night.  But...  If we leave at night and the passage takes the 18 hours estimated by our chart plotter, that puts us approaching Puerto Rico late in the day with no room for error before nightfall.

The weather window had winds progressively lighter during the daylight hours but blowing STRONGER at night in the Mona.  That's strike two against leaving at night.  So, lets look at a daytime departure...  If we left early morning to mid afternoon and our trip took much longer than estimated, we could still be arriving in PR at night....  So what does that leave us?

She missed her morning nap...
We decided to leave in the morning and purposefully take longer than our estimated trip time.  We would slow the boat down and take 24 hours to cross.  Leaving at dawn allowed us to take advantage of most of the night lee effect, plus the winds weren't forecast to be very strong anyway.

We were nervous but excited.  Our decision had been made, come what may, we were headed for our homeland.  We were headed for the USA.  We were on our way to Puerto Rico!!!

Tacking to get out of the lee of the island
The waters were calm and the winds were light.  We started out sailing slowly  but as we came out of the lee of Isla Saona, we encountered winds stronger than we had expected (see... I told you so!!!).  Ok, they weren't really strong... but enough to give us a little trouble making it directly upwind to get around.  We were going REALLY slowly, too slow to FISH!!! So we motorsailed for a while until the tacking was done.

And... we fished.  It wasn't long after we set the sails and got the engine going and the fishing gear out... when we heard that sound we long to hear... ZZZZZZZZ.  We had a fish on!

What is it this time?  Will it be another stupid Barracuda?  When I first saw that it was a long fish and it flashed silver in the water, I was deflated.  It WAS another Barracuda...

But when we got it closer to the boat hope grew again.  It was NOT a Barracuda!  It was a WAHOO!  Bruce worked the fish while I stopped the boat and backwinded the sails.

This is the first Wahoo we've caught and we were ecstatic!  Please don't let it get away!!!

Bruce got the thing onto the boat without even using a net.  He gaffed it and hefted this big boy up.

Apply a little tequila and there is less violence...
Now what???  I wasn't inclined to bring this fish into the shower stall like we had done with the last fish for cleaning...  After pouring tequila-fish into the gills, (to-KILL-a Fish - get it?) we decided that this mess would be handled on the low side while I got the boat back under way.


Giant Filets!
Lots of Frigate Birds around this area
Excitement over... we got going again and put two gallon freezer bags full of wonderful fish into the freezer.  We settled in for a long ride again and enjoyed the tacking and the easy motion of the boat.  It seemed like it took us a long time to round the point of Isla Saona, but hey... we would have 24 hours at least so what difference did it make?

I was anxious about getting out of Dominican Republic's territorial waters.  We left the flag up until we were 12 miles offshore and finally dropped the flag.  We were FREE!

It really is a shame that the overwhelming emotion upon leaving the Dominican Republic is relief...  Really it was good.  We enjoyed our time there, but the Despacho thing was just so predominant in our minds and in governing our movement... It's a cryin' shame...

But the elation we felt at being free from the chains of oppressions is huge.  As we moved into the open waters it really made me think a lot about the freedoms we enjoy as US Citizens and how lucky we are.

Adding to the elation we felt was this!  You can't have too many dolphin pictures, can you?  I heard a sound... that distinctive sound of a dolphin's breath and a splash.  Suddenly there were a dozen or more of them racing along at our bow!

I left Bruce at the wheel and grabbed the camera as the dolphin converged at our bow.  They were speeding along turning aside and going from one side to the other.  The bow was bounding up and down with water spraying out as I hung my feet down and watched.  This is the longest we've ever had dolphin stay with us and certainly the most in number!  It was like having everything you ever wanted all rolled up in those few minutes.

I snapped picture after picture and took several videos that I've combined above.  Finally when I began to make noise they scattered.  It was like they had forgotten I was there until I began to yell! Dolphin are very camera shy and it's usually difficult to get good pictures of them... so this was very special.  We felt like they were escorting us out of the DR and we took it as an omen of a good passage to come.

See the curve of our track as we approached Isla Mona?
Shortly after the dolphin left us we made our last tack and shut the engine down.  We had escaped from the winds blowing around Isla Saona and were able to point off the wind enough to take us out into the Mona Passage.  We were going too fast and needed to slow the boat down in order to reach Puerto Rico in the morning light.

 The winds would continue to moderate and the waves followed. The currents that are reportedly very unpredictable in the Mona Passage were against us but it was a GOOD thing!

Why?  Because we could sail to the wind and the current carried us right around so that we could pass just below Isla Mona without touching the sails.  No more tacking.  No trimming of sails of any kind.  We just sat back and watched with huge grins as the Mona took us right where she wanted us.  Could we make it?  Could we be this lucky?  What a hoot it was to see that line just curve perfectly for us as we sat back and enjoyed the ride.

Isla Mona in the sunset
Land Ho! We tried to wait dinner until after we passed Isla Mona in case we needed to perform any evasive tactics... but once we realized that we would slip by effortlessly, we had dinner and began to prepare for the approaching night.

Bruce brought up our life jackets and made sure we had flashlights at hand.  We passed within a mile of the Island, which I thought was close until we saw that another sailboat was sailing the other direction well inside our track.

Shortly after sundown I went below to have the first sleep.  We were doing 3 hour watches with the first watch starting at 8pm.  I went down at 7 in hopes of getting a head start as I don't usually sleep very well the first time down.

As usual... I hardly slept at all.  As soon as I got past the "what's that sound" stage... Bruce started making noises.  It's not his fault, they were normal noises, but for some reason I was tuned in and kept starting awake as soon as I drifted off.

Then he decided to roll in the jib to slow the boat down because even without the engine we were going to reach the coast before light.  Then he started the engine because the winds became so light the boat was hardly moving.  Then the mainsail made noises as the winds, light as they were, moved around to come right on the nose...  I was doomed.

All too soon it was my turn on watch.  To say that I was grumpy would be an understatement.  I had not slept and knew that the next three hours would be long!  I was cold going up into the cockpit and had to mentally talk myself out of being bitchy about Bruce going down to sleep...  If I was a mean girl I would  have made all kinds of noise to keep him up but I'm not... So, after we dropped the mainsail  I settled with my blanket, my iPad for music and navigation app... and I began to enjoy the feel of the warm breeze on my face as we motored on toward Puerto Rico and our next adventure.

There was a bit of phosphorescent sparkle on our wake.  Watching it never gets old.  Once I saw something about 30 ft from our boat make a sparkly splash.  It was dark so I couldn't see what disrupted the water, just the glowing sparkles.  It's very strange.  I strained my eyes to see if it would happen again but never saw it after that one time.  I moved to the companionway where I could see ahead better and moving around kept me awake.

The last bit
We didn't have much of a moon, but the increasing glow from Puerto Rico was enough to see by.  I could easily scan the distance between us and the island to see anything that might be looming silently ahead.  I'm actually beginning to like overnight passages because those dark hours can be so peaceful and beautiful.  I was even going to let Bruce sleep past 2 am when he was due back up on watch... but he woke up and came out ready to go back to work.  Gratefully I crawled back into the bed with Jezabelle and slept very well until Bruce woke me up from a dead sleep at 5 am.

I stumbled back up into the cockpit and took a look around.  We were much closer to the Island now and the lights looked so close I thought we were almost there.  But we were still about two hours out at least.  The water was almost flat and there was hardly any wind.  My watch was a busy one as I tried making sense of the many lights I could see.

I kept checking the chart to see what lights should be there and how many seconds their flashes should last.  I could see the lighthouse on the point at Cabo Rojo.  It was pretty neat.  I saw a looming light and consulted the AIS to find that it was a luxury speed boat that would cross in front of us.  I watched as it did.

It seemed like only minutes until the first glow of the coming morning stifled the lights of Puerto Rico.  This is the moment that I like best.  We made it.  We are approaching our destination and morning is here.

Eagerly my eyes searched the shoreline trying to see our future.  From all of the lights I had seen in the dark I expected the shore to be lined with luxury hotels.  But as the sun came up and gently lit the coast I saw that it was not.

Almost dawn
I was relieved.  It was actually just what I had hoped it would be.  Palm lined beaches and misty hills sprinkled with homes.  It was beautiful.

I can't choose which pictures to show you of the coming morning... so I will show you all of them!

Another Frigate bird...

Coming into the harbor at Puerto Real
The sun was up and it was almost 8 am as we motored into the harbour.  We were hailed by Moorame (Facebook friends) and one other boat as we motored past.  It seems that we have mutual friends who told them we were coming.  What a wonderful welcome!

We pulled up to the vacant fuel dock at Marina Pescaderia where we hoped to be staying for a few days to get some boat projects done.  They were not yet open but Angel came out and helped us fuel up and he called Jose, the owner about getting us a slip.  Within an hour of our arrival we were snug as bugs in a nice comfy slip and that was it.

We're here!  Our Mona Passage wasn't worthy of a "Sea Story"... at least not the exciting kind.  But you know what?  That's fine with us.  You see... the wise Cruiser HAS no Sea Stories.  No near death experiences, no drama, no fanfare even...The wise Cruiser waits until the right weather brings peaceful easy passages on calm seas... and who wants to hear about that?

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