Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Puerto Rico: Motoring the South Coast

Boqueron: After our rides to Mayaguez to check into the country, we were ready for some well-deserved rest. The following day, we explored the little town with its quiet streets, empty food stalls (full of scallops during the weekend), friendly people and working high speed internet! Boqueron would become our favourite place along the South Coast, but that might have to do with the feeling of finally being back in civilization with all its conveniences, mixed with the relaxed atmosphere of a Latin American country. The town is clean, the bay calm and pretty. The park with palm trees and a big, yellow beach is attractive, but … dogs are not allowed. We realized later that Puerto Rico is not the greatest place for our “kids”. Stray dogs are aggressive, most beaches don’t allow dogs and in Ponce, we almost got a fine for not having muzzles on Kali and Darwin while walking them, on leash, through a pedestrian zone!

Cabo Rojo: The motor trip continued, since we were still headed into the wind. Before we rounded the cape on the south western corner of Puerto Rico, we saw a cute lighthouse on the top of a cliff and decided we were not in a hurry to get to La Parguera, our next destination. We knew going east would be slow and a bit uncomfortable as it was, but we also wanted to see a few things along the way. After a hot hike to the top of the cliff, where the lighthouse and a great view awaited, we found a surprisingly packed white beach in a pretty cove. Our dip in the clear water was very refreshing – it surely had been a while- and all four of us enjoyed the stop.


La Parguera: A lot of people rave about this town in the mangroves. We have no idea why… Everything on land is built in and out and on concrete. No grass to be found, let alone a beach. Mark and I explored different bays with our dinghy and followed a canal with a natural roof of mangroves, which was pretty cool. Some of the wooden houses on the water stand on stilts and are colourful. Very cute! We also did a little tour to a bioluminescent bay, but were not impressed. There is a lot of light pollution. Our experiences with the phosphorescent water in Luperon were more special. Weather kept us there for a couple of days, but right after that, we moved on.


Gilligan’s Island: We got pretty lucky with the benign winds while we travelled along the coast. Once again, for each leg, we needed to leave in the dark, to reach our next destination before the wind would pick up in early morning. On calm days, we decided to travel during the day without being beaten up too badly. One of those days, we arrived near Gilligan’s Island in the afternoon. The attraction there is a clear lagoon in the mangroves. It is located in a
National Park (no dogs allowed). When Mark and I checked it out, the prettiness was lost because of the dark clouds overhead.


Ponce: The anchorage in Ponce is nothing special. The water is deep; the shallower spots are taken by private mooring balls. The surroundings of the bay are industrial on one side, private on the other side with the Yacht Club, and a wooden board walk with kiosks on the third side. This area is busy during the weekends and quiet on other days. A lot of police is present any time. This is also the area where we could leave our dinghy at a public boat ramp. We had to walk passed the board walk to get to a run down public beach area, where at last, the dogs could run freely. The main reason we stopped in Ponce was to pick up a few packages and to rent a car to do grocery shopping and boat provisioning. The day we rented the car, we sneaked a short visit to the historic center in.


Isla Cajo de Muertos: This island on the way to Salinas has a gorgeous Bahama-like anchorage. We spent the night in beautiful blue and clear water, while we looked out over a lighthouse and an arid, deserted island. I walked the tricky and prickly trail, lined with brush and huge cacti, up the hill, where the neglected lighthouse was situated. Mark stayed low key on the beach. If we would have known no rangers resided on the island, we could have taken the dogs with us on the hike, because, of course, no dogs were allowed on the island.


Salinas: The best hurricane hole in Puerto Rico is near here. The bay next to Playa Salinas is also very protected and inhabited by manatees. We weren’t lucky enough to see these mellow clumsy creatures yet, but got a glimpse of them in our next anchorage. Salinas didn’t do it for us, either. People are still very friendly and we are very grateful that the marina lets cruisers use the dinghy dock, water and garbage cans. The real town is a bit of a walk and that’s were the post office and the big grocery store are located. Before we came to Puerto Rico, we expected it to be not too different than an American State. The postal system is the same, so it would be easy for us to order stuff online and pick it up. We thought! The hassle we had to go through to deal with all the packages was huge. Orders were sent to the wrong address, got delayed, weren’t allowed to be forwarded, were back ordered, or got sent the wrong way even though we requested them to go USPS (of course we didn’t have an address for all those FedEx and UPS packages), which caused us most of the trouble. It was a frustrating mess and might have to do with our less than happy moods while dealing with all this for a month. On top of that, we didn’t have a phone to call and check in on statuses or to fix the problems. We tried to get Mark’s American phone to work, but even that turned into a three week endeavour with no luck so we gave up.


Punta Patillas: The trips from Salinas on were tricky and caused contradiction. We needed to leave in the dark to make progress, but… fish traps with floats on the water surface were spread all over the place. We needed enough light to be able to see and avoid them. Even then, they were hard to see because of the choppy seas. Since spotting them a few times unexpectedly, we never left before day break anymore. Our last stop on the South Coast, was the clear bay at Punta Patillas. We took advantage of the visibility of the water, to scrub the bottom of our boat once more. The amount of crap that had collected again was unbelievable! We also noticed a big chunk was missing out of one propeller and the other one was deteriorating as well. Our list of stuff to do on the boat was still growing! We counted on doing a lot of work on Irie, so it was no surprise that our visit to Puerto Rico would be one of pleasure ├índ work. How much work, would become clear, once we anchored on the East Coast of the country.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Crossing the Mona Passage

The area between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico is called the Mona Passage. It is a body of water getting squeezed between the two countries. All of a sudden the Caribbean Ocean narrows down into the Atlantic or visa versa. That’s a lot of turbulent water. Add some current and many shallow areas that need avoidance and that influence the surrounding water and you get interesting seas, only to be battled in times of decent weather conditions: low swells (waves) and little wind (less then 15 knots).


The day Irie left Punta Macao, our last stop in the Dominican Republic, the weather forecast was a little iffy. Once we were “out there”, the ocean and wind felt much better than the previous day. The water was still pretty choppy, but we decided to keep on going. Some people in Luperon had checked the weather online and this information got relayed to us by our friends Al and Gail from Chickadee. They were still in the anchorage and would leave around midnight. The wind came out of the North East, pretty rare and quite bothersome the first 9 hours, since we had to motor straight into it. After midnight, the hardest part was over. We heard later that Chicadee had to leave earlier because the anchorage in Punta Macao became dangerous in winds with a Northerly component. When Irie changed direction, the wind became our friend once again. It had been a long time! An almost full moon guided us through the passage and we managed to sail from here on, all the way past Isla Desechio, dodging a few rain clouds.




Once we passed this island, we decided to head for Boqueron. We read that you have to check into Puerto Rico in person, in the customs building of Mayaguez. This is a big and uncomfortable industrial harbour, where we didn’t want to stay or rest up. So we risked it and moved on, hoping we could check in by phone since we are both “Americans” and we had heard from others doing this and succeeding. We were sailing along and all of a sudden a police boat hovered over us. Mark had already talked to the Coast Guard who flew over us by plane before. The police were checking us out and following us. After a while, they made radio contact and we gave them all our information. For another 15 minutes, they followed us, close by. Then, they sped off, putting those four huge outboard engines to good use!


About three hours later, when we came closer to shore, another police boat showed up. Same scenario, but this one didn’t like using the radio, so the conversation happened with screaming voices in Spanish, while we were alongside each other. Luckily, this was the extend of it. Al and Gail arrived at night and they had a police boat sneak up behind them, all of a sudden shining a huge beam of light into their cockpit. Over the next few days, we had several boats checking us out in different anchorages. Once, we woke up from a light entering Irie. We ignored their presence and never had any other conversations with them anymore.


Around 1 pm, after 20 hours on the water, we arrived at our destination. The bay in Boqueron looked really nice. There were quite a few boats, but no other cruisers. A huge beach lined with palm trees took up part of the shoreline. From the moment we were settled, Mark got off and called US Customs. No luck… We had to go to Mayaguez in person. Now. All we wanted to do was take a nap, but we knew about the risk involved. Our bad. First, we did “sneak” the dogs ashore, though, to let them go potty. Kali has been really good about peeing on the trampoline, but Darwin still refuses if he can hold it.


There is a guy in Boqueron that can bring you to the Customs building and back fro $15 a person. The other options to get to Mayaguez are to wait around for one of the infrequent publicos or to hitch hike. We ended up using a combination of the two. We were hitch hiking, when a publico showed up and for $3 the two of us reached the next town. From there, a friendly mum and her crazy (literally!) son dropped us off at the pink Customs building. The formalities didn’t take very long (hey, I have a greencard now), the wait for a lift back unfortunately did. We had to walk a fair amount, before another crazy driver stopped and actually brought us all the way back to the harbour of Boqueron. That was very nice of him, so we paid him some money. By the time we arrived back on Irie, it was too late for a nap, so we just went to sleep…

Monday, December 1, 2008

Easting: Easy or not?

Sailing in the Caribbean can be a lot of fun, except when you want to go east. And, that’s exactly what you have to do to get there and around. The route to go east in this region is called the “thorny Path”. For most people this path starts in the Dominican Republic, the point where you want to start heading east to reach the beautiful islands. There is a way to make the trip “Thornless”, if you follow a certain procedure. We all know about this tactic, because of the author Bruce Van Sant (www.luperoncruising.com), who wrote the book “Passages South”. Mark and I met Bruce in Luperon, where he lives with his wife Rosa.

Going east is difficult, because this is the direction of the trade winds. They normally blow very steady, every day, between 15 and 20 knots, from an easterly direction. Sailing is impossible, unless you tack (zig zag) back and forth, going twice the distance and needing twice the amount of time to get somewhere. You also need a lot of sea room toward your destination to make the stretches back and forth worthwhile and the further you are off shore, the bigger the waves. The only solution is to motor or motor sail (with the main sail up, only possible when your course is not dead into the wind). Ideal circumstances to motor are no wind and no swell (waves from the sea, not from the wind). Since these conditions are very rare, especially together, one needs to wait until the wind is pretty light (under 15 knots) and the waves are benign (less than 5 feet). When this situation happens, we have a “weather window”, meaning: it’s time to GO! The longer the weather window, the longer (and further) you can go east.

Another important effect is called the “lee of the land”. At night, when the land cools off, the wind along the shores stops. Sometimes, when it was a very calm day, the breeze can come from the land instead of the sea. The less wind during the day, the bigger the chances of a “lee of the land”-effect and the further out to sea this effect takes place. Confusing enough? It basically comes down to waiting until the wind and the swell subside and travelling at night, because motoring into the wind and waves is very uncomfortable for humans and dogs (getting thrown up and down, left and right, getting sea sick), takes a beating on the boat (things will brake) and requires a lot of fuel (expensive). That’s why we all try to follow Bruce’s advice…

Irie left Luperon on November 5th around 6 pm, when the sun just set. Luckily, there was still enough light for us to see the fish traps near the entrance of the harbour. Our first night trip was very tiring, since we were not used to this new rhythm yet. I had a hard time keeping my eyes open during the three hour shifts. We reached Rio San Juan before daylight and steered towards the ocean for half an hour. By the time we turned back, there was enough light to enter the anchorage. The place was a bit tricky, since it is surrounded by reefs and we didn’t have a good chart (map) of the area. The swell coming into the anchorage made it a bit hard to do things on the boat and to take the dogs to shore. Luckily, it all worked out fine. We all got some rest, Kali and Darwin did there business and around 5pm, we packed up again.

This time, our destination was Samana, the last big port of importance in the Dominican Republic. We hoped to be far enough off shore to avoid fish traps, but yet be close enough to stay clear of the “garbage line” and benefit from the land effect. The sea was very calm and we made good progress towards our destination. During Mark’s first shift, he had a pretty good scare. At one point, he thought he heard an engine, but he couldn’t see anything. He ended up just missing a little fishing boat, without any lights on. That experience made me very alert during my shift. If only we had some moon that night!

We arrived in Samana, arranged all the “check-in procedures” ($15 harbour fee) and decided to treat ourselves with a real night of sleep in the harbour. The weather window when we left Luperon had called for at least a week of good conditions. Mark checked it all again in Samana, we explored town a bit and had our last meal out to spend the rest of our pesos. The next afternoon, we checked out of the country ($20) and left for a small bay, called Punta Macao. This is still in the Dominican Republic, but not much is there. Al and Gail, people we knew from Luperon, went the same way in their sailboat “Our Lil’ Chickadee”.

When we entered the “harbour” of Punta Macao, Bruce’s book had us go over a few shallower areas. It wasn’t a problem… that day. The bay was pretty rolly and not really a good place to be for an extended period of time. The scenery and the water were beautiful, though, making this one of our favourite places in the country. Mark and I had planned to let the dogs off the boat for a while (the reason of this stop) and rest up for a few hours, before leaving again the same day. Al and Gail convinced us to wait until the next morning, which is also recommended in the book. The crossing to Puerto Rico would take between 16 and 24 hours in good conditions, basically a day and a night. Because of the swell coming into the anchorage, it was a challenge to take the dogs (and ourselves; we witnessed Al and Gail capsize during their try) to shore, but we managed.

The next morning, our adrenaline got going. We took the dogs to shore at 5 am, not being able to estimate the waves crashing on the high tide and disappearing beach in front of the rocks, because it was pitch black. We got lucky and not too soaked. The dogs were very obedient, doing their business quickly on command. We rushed back out into the waves, took the engine of the dinghy and hauled both onto the bopping boat. Then, we waited a bit for a shiver of light. At 6 am, we lifted anchor and headed out of the bay. Where the water was shallower, the waves were breaking! We pushed through and crashed into them. Irie banged up and down and wasn’t happy. This was the first sign of a rough sea and a heavy wind out in the open. We stuck our nose into the ocean, to find high waves and confused seas. What to do? This was not predicted!

For another hour, we ploughed through the water, hoping it would get better soon. The wind was blowing 17 knots, the waves were about 7 feet high. This was the Mona Passage. You want to cross it in “ideal” conditions, because the area is already tricky without adding weather features to it. In our situation, the conditions were just slightly off and a bit uncomfortable. We’ve had this happen before and managed to deal with it, but now we were talking about being uncomfortable for 20 hours, wasting a lot of fuel and beating up the boat. It was our choice, and a difficult one. “Chickadee” had already turned back. We followed their example and sailed quickly, with the wind behind us, back to Punta Macao. It took us half the time! Of course, we had to pass the shallow areas again. This time with the waves behind us. One of the breakers picked us up and pushed us way into the bay. Irie was surfing! Exhilarating for me, frightening for Mark. We did 12 knots! Luckily, our bow didn’t dig into the water (we could have flipped) and the area got deeper again, so we didn’t run into a reef or the beach and the wave mellowed out. Al and Gail asked later how the hell we got in so quickly behind them…

The weather had turned on us. We listened carefully to all the predictions and it seemed to get worse and worse the longer we waited. The swell would also come from the north later on, making Punta Macao a dangerous place to be. We had to make a decision soon… The next day, Irie left in the afternoon, taking a little bit of a risk with the weather and hoping the NWS (NOAA) weather men were wrong. Al got in touch via the SSB radio with people in Luperon, who came back –after checking on the internet and talking to Bruce- with the positive news of the Mona Passage being “open”, meaning decent crossing conditions for another 36 hours. We called Al on our VHF radio right before we were getting gout of reach. When he told us the news, a big sigh of relief was heard on Irie. We would keep going this time. The weather men were wrong (for now). Chickadee planned on leaving the next morning. Later, we found out they left six hours after us. The wind and swell had turned north east, waves were breaking profusely over the shallows and reefs and soon after, it would have been impossible to even leave the anchorage of Punta Macao. We made the right decision!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Time Had Come… to Leave Luperon!

It was November 5th, my brother’s birthday, when Irie left Luperon Harbour. After four and a half months of sitting stationary (except for the short hops to and from the mangroves during hurricane Ike), she finally got some action under her hulls again. Boat and crew were ready for new scenery and different adventures. Mark and I felt sad and happy to leave this special hurricane hole and wondered whether we’d ever see it and its people again. Time for some reflections…


The active social scene was what made our summer stay in Luperon so memorable. We met wonderful people and experienced great events. Who would forget Dave from “Tatia”, so smart and talented he didn’t know what to do with himself? His dry humour was right up my alley and each time we saw him play the guitar, we were in awe. And, speaking of Daves, we had another one: Karaoke Dave. He provided entertainment whenever and wherever he was to be found. His wife Liz looks like she could be my sister and we have a lot in common. For the Halloween party we were actually going to dress up as twins, but for an unfortunate reason, she had to go back to the States. Many times I was walking around or sitting somewhere and somebody would approach me from behind, calling “Liz! Lizzy, how are ya?” I’d turn around with a smile on my face and saw the other person’s expression change. When my name happened to be Liesbet – or Lizbet to the English speaking – things became even more confusing. Of course by the time people started to get to know me as well, they were happy to greet me from afar, whether I would be Liz or Liesbet.


Kay, a former model in the US, wanted to be a mother to all of us, young cruisers. Not that there were many of us (most cruisers are above 50), but she wanted to take care of our little group and teach us one and another. She kind of introduced make-up to me and probably frowned more than once, while watching me try the stuff. Her husband Lou is a painter (http://jorgl-art.com/mainpage/mainpage.htm) and a character. I’ll always remember him as the cigar smoking, coffee drinking, cup holding man that strolls in and out of the marina area in his underpants. I got the honour of receiving some paint dots (one of his trademarks) on my left arm just before we left. Too bad it wore off so quickly. I could have been worth thousands of dollars!


Steve from “La Vie Dansante” became a good friend of the family. We watched a real love (and hate) story from close-by, when he was together with Davi, a Dominican woman, who was very involved in Luperon. She has a thirteen year old daughter, who I helped with schoolwork. A few weeks ago, Steve’s crew Emily (also from England) showed up. This 25-year old blonde, changed the dynamics a bit amongst the crowd of mostly single man. All of a sudden, I got some competition! I enjoyed her company a lot, since her presence made my life more fun and interesting. Together with another guy under 40, the South African Ed, Em and I spend a relaxing afternoon and fun night in Cabarete, the infamous wind and kite surfing town along the North Coast of the Dominican Republic. Ed (sometimes scruffy looking –the way we like him- and sometimes real clean and dressy looking) lives on his small, scruffy looking, cement boat “Nini”. That boat had the most comfortable spot in the harbour: a cloth hammock in the shade and breeze. Ed cooks the best curry ever and we enjoyed hanging out with him.


Frik (“Desire”) was another neighbour from South Africa, always friendly, soft spoken and very interested in the local women. Being a handsome doctor, volunteering in the local clinic, didn’t hurt his popularity. He brought me yammie fresh yoghurt one day and treated a whole bunch of us to breakfast on his luxurious sailboat. Jeff, an older, very sweet, but a bit rough on the edges, gentleman from England proved to be a good cook as well. For every event, on Irie or somewhere else, he provided tasty dishes. He was good company and we are touched by his fondness for us. He bought his boat “Hispaniola”, an Islander Freeport 36 (yep, the exact same kind we had as our first boat) here in Luperon.


Then there were Gene and Wilma from “GeWil’, who would always show up with a cocktail in their hands. They were involved in a terrible accident near Luperon last year and are still stuck there, waiting for the court case. Before the evening started, and we were ready for a drink, they seemed to be reaching the tipsy stage already. They are good fun and make the best mango daiquiris. We expect to see them along the way.


Of course there were many more characters that played an important role in our Luperon lives, like the amazingly friendly South African couple Margie and Brian, who invited everybody over for parties at their wonderful house up the hill. The view from there was awesome. Our little group of friends even got treated to an extra pool party with a tasty BBQ at their house “Fair Return”. They have been living in Luperon for a long time and make their money doing canvas work for us, cruisers. Everybody got used to Margie’s cheerful“Pennywhistle Canvas!” on the VHF-radio and could probably recognize her voice forever.


I could write a book or at least a short story about all the intrigues that take/took place in Luperon harbour, from love stories to funny gossip, to drunken events, blackmailing and hooker encounters. Maybe I will, one day, but for now this blog will have to do. A positive side effect of having all these different people together was the birth, more spontaneous than not, of many events. On Irie, we had a few “happy hour” moments, starting a tradition of gathering people on our boats instead of in the more boring and expensive marina. “La Vie Dansante” became the place for a drink after hours, “Wako” opened its doors for us and threw a “goodbye” party before we left and Mark and I even managed to get invited on “Nini”, a real honour!

We joined pot lucks at the Yacht Club, beach parties near the harbour entrance, a cultural dance night and a fun Halloween Party (Emily and I dressed up as dumb blondes) in the marina, several Karaoke evenings and lots of small gatherings on people’s boats. The cruising community in Luperon is alive, indeed!


During our summer in Luperon, we made a little land tour of a week and the two of us visited the amazing waterfalls nearby. Here, you swim through the cool river and climb on and over rocks and waterfalls until you get to the jump off point for the real adventure: following the river back by jumping off cliffs or sliding through waterfalls and pools. It was an awesome experience and the scenery was pristine and beautiful. Highly recommended! The dogs kept Mark on the boat during periods I wanted to see more of the country. Other than my trip to Belgium and Cabarete, I wanted to see the capital. I got a ride to Santo Domingo, where I looked at the sights and walked through the colonial zone for a couple of days before taking public transportation back to the boat.


So, even though we were stuck in a hurricane hole for a few months with little in the way of luxury, the availability of boat parts and beautiful water, we managed to have a great time and have fond memories of the country and its people, whether they were locals, temporary residents or transients. Keep an eye out for my book!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Change of Scenery and Air

When I was still in Belgium, Mark suggested a trip to the mountains in the interior of the Dominican Republic, once I returned to Luperon. He and the dogs had been suffering from the heat for months. The week after my arrival filled up quickly with re-settling Irie in the harbour, cleaning up, running errands, and the usual social encounters. When the weather turned hot and humid again after hurricane Ike passed through, our company was ready for a break. I had had one of those recently, but I was ready for a change of scenery again.


Together with Steve (from the sailboat “La Vie Dansante”) and his then girlfriend Davi, we rented a jeep big enough for the four of us, our luggage and the two dogs. Once everything got stuffed inside, we started our little vacation of one week. That Sunday, we followed some tricky dirt roads to the small fishing village of Punta Rusia, along the North Coast. We joined the many locals into the shallow bay. Finally some clean, blue and refreshing water! After a cheap and filling lunch, we continued on towards the border with Haiti for our first night off the boat in Hotel Bonanza ($15 for the cheapest room).


Dagabon is famous for its Haitian market every Monday and Friday morning. Mark and I left the dogs in our room and joined Steve and Davi outside for an early start. Two grim faces welcomed us… A light problem had appeared. Davi had seen our room keys sticking outside our door the previous night and had put them in their room, together with the car keys and their room keys. Now, they stood on the other side of that room, staring at a locked door. The hotel did not have spare keys, a weird habit we found to be common sense everywhere in the Dominican Republic. So, we had to wait for the locksmith before we could go anywhere or do anything. When the door was forced, of course the room wasn’t safe anymore. Kali and Darwin took over the protection of everybody’s stuff in our room.


The Haitian market was an interesting sight. Busy, loud, hectic. One chaotic mess of black Haitians, some more aggressive than others, trying to sell their goods, and tan Dominicans, trying to get the best bargain. Davi, Steve, Mark, and I were the only white people to be seen. Clothes, shoes, kitchen ware, vegetables, fruit and useless gadgets were stacked into piles along the narrow alleyways. Plastic tarps hung just low enough for us tall westerners, so we had to bend our heads constantly. An array of pushy vendors on foot completed the cacophony.


All of a sudden, we spotted the Dominican-Haitian border. Hopping over was easy, since nobody checked any formalities on market day. As a result, a horde of Haitians with all kinds of wares went back and forth between the two countries. Our little group peeked into Haiti and passed some UN troops. From the moment we crossed the border, we felt the air change. People looked funny at us, the only language to be heard was Creole, the muddy streets were dirty and for some reason we felt less safe. Whether it was prejudice, the stories about all the kidnappings, or just the change in scenery and people, we don’t really know. Fact was that after five minutes in this new country, we decided to head back to the other side. Once there, a sigh of relief could be heard and we continued our shopping. Before getting in the car, Davi and Steve showed us the back of their shorts. Somebody had cut the pockets to steal wallets or money. Luckily, earlier that morning, we decided to keep our wallets in our front pockets. Nevertheless, two pairs of good shorts got ruined and we were more than ready to leave. Border towns are never a good place to stick around for too long.


Later that morning, we made the long drive to Jarabacoa, in the middle, mountainous part of the country. The temperature dropped immediately and finally we enjoyed breathing and doing stuff again. It took us the rest of the day to find a decent place to spend the night, and the next morning to make a deal on a beautiful house in the mountains with a gorgeous view. Davi, Steve, Kali, Darwin and the two of us moved into the classy place for fours nights. The first day, a huge storm came through, messing up the electrical system. We also ran out of propane gas, the showers only had cold water, and the grill was broken, but other than that, all went smoothly. Some of the problems also got fixed over the next couple of days.


The four of us cooked gourmet meals in the kitchen, relaxed on the roomy porch, enjoyed many cocktails, gazed at the splendid views and saw some of the sights. Three interesting waterfalls can be found in Jarabacoa’s surroundings. One of them requires a long walk steep down hill and –obviously- a strenuous one back up. The second one is the most popular one and to see it, we just followed paths and suspension bridges over the river. Because of all the recent rain, the colour of the water was brown everywhere. The last waterfall, Salto Baiguete, is a bit off the beaten track and became our most favourite one. There was no charge and the path to get to the bottom was easy and well maintained. Once down by the river, we observed a few local teenagers enjoy themselves. We walked around in the sandy pool at the bottom. The water was too cold for a swim, but at least it was an option at this fall. Davi and I put some natural mud on our faces. After cleaning the mess back off, our faces were unbelievably smooth. A miracle!


On our last day, our friends convinced us to join them for a white water rafting trip. Mark and I have done this before and really enjoy it each time, but it is an expensive activity. Davi used her bargaining talent, and the price became right enough for us to go again. Everybody loved it. Rafting, on challenging rivers, is one of the most fun experiences in my opinion. This time, the previous rainstorms were in our favour, since the water ran very fast (we barely had to paddle), and we floated from one exciting rapid into the next one, getting soaked over and over again. Awesome!


Our vacation had been a success and soon enough we all returned to our sweaty (boat) life in Luperon Harbour for the last month and a half of hurricane season.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Just in Time


It came as a surprise. A pleasant one, an unexpected one and, most of all, an important one. My plane from Belgium landed in time! And, what’s more, all my bags and important cargo made it quickly and completely into the Dominican Republic. All the beer, chocolate, waffles, mosquito rackets, and miscellaneous stuff for the boat survived the long trip and the several check points. What a relief! It was almost worth all the hassle, suffering and bad luck I experienced on other flights. Almost…

Once outside the airport of P
uerto Plata, my big smile melted in the hot sun. Mark was nowhere to be seen. My happiness turned into disappointment and I wondered what had happened. What could be so hard about being in time to see your girlfriend after five weeks? I had visions of trying to make it back to Luperon by public transportation with five heavy pieces of luggage, sweating like mad, and thought about all my precious chocolate that would most definitely melt on the long, three legged trip back. In the midst of my contemplations, a tall guy with a scruffy beard and a huge smile on his face ran towards me. I received him with open arms and lots of kisses. After one big hug, it was time to get back to reality. Mark urged me towards the car. The wind was blowing hard already and the amount of clouds increased with the minute. We had to get going. Quickly… In all my excitement, I had forgotten about hurricane Ike. My bags got stuffed in with the groceries in the trunk and onto our laps.

Mark had re
nted a car and driver (Nino) with our friends Cindy and Gray. They’d done some sightseeing and shopping before picking me up. Because it was a Saturday, the check out lines in the supermarket had been extremely long, hence their frustrating delay. On the 1.5 hour ride back to Luperon, we exchanged stories. I told my friends about my wonderful stay in Belgium and they filled me in with the details about the Luperon life and hurricane preparations. Most of the boats were tied off in the mangroves and a whole bunch of big fishing boats had arrived, taking up temporary residence in another part of the mangrove rich bay. Supposedly, Luperon Harbour was a chaotic mess, never seen before… Nino rushed us towards our destination, as safely as possible. He knew the importance of getting there before Ike did.

From the moment we arrived at Puerto Blanco Marina, Mark took all my luggage to the boat. I had no idea where Irie was located and wouldn’t find out till later that night. It took a while for my boyfriend to
get back and I worried about my valuable stuff having fallen in the water. I was still in the weird state of mind that something had to go terribly wrong. That feeling had been with me since I got up in Belgium earlier that long day. Luckily, nothing happened to my bags, which even stayed dry during the dinghy ride to Irie, because the wind came out of the west instead of its normal easterly direction. The hurricane was good for one thing!

The wind got stron
ger and the clouds darker. In a hurry, Mark brought the groceries to the boat. Within minutes, the storm was here. A torrential downpour followed. I took shelter under the thatched roof of the marina restaurant, together with a group of other sailors. Gusts of wind blew the rain “inside” and we had to move inwards. While I talked with some friends, Mark showed up, totally drenched. He’d been helping a friend secure his boat. It was just amazing how everybody had been lending hands to everybody the precious days. Mark looked exhausted. I was tired as well, for other reasons, and couldn’t wait to get to our house on hulls. We were trapped in the marina, however, until the first break in the rain. When that came, we rushed ourselves and the dogs to the boat. Kali, who was very happy when she first saw me (Darwin was ecstatic), was totally “out of it” now, because of all the thunder and lightning.

Around 10 pm, we finally settled at home. It was long dark by now, and my impression of the area would have to wait till morning. Mark kept checking our lines, while I unpacked my bags, showed all the goodies and told a few more stories. Our VHF radio stayed on through the night, a distraction, but a good precaution, in case something happened. While the rain was pounding on the decks and the wind was shrieking through the rigging, we fell asleep, knowing that we were well-secured and making lots of electricity with the newly installed wind generator.

We woke up to a quiet and calm morning. The water was very mucky, even darker than normally, and full of debris. We were surrounded by sticks, leaves, pieces of tree trunks and garbage. The air was crisp, the strength of the sun bearable. All the sailboats around us were still where they were supposed to be. I took a little dinghy ride around the harbour, to get a feel for what was going on. In two places, a whole group of colourful fishing boats was tied to the mangroves. Not much else was going on. We heard the wind had peaked to 50 knots that night, but we didn’t believe it, since our wind generator never turned off. Something it would do when the wind reaches a speed of 35 knots. We might have been a bit more protected than the other boats, but still… The fortunate thing was that we had been situated out of Ike’s path. He turned south over Cuba, next door, which got devastated. It could have been this area, if Ike would have altered course just a bit.

So, we survived hurricane Ike (which had the force of a tropical storm over the Dominican Republic) without any problems. It was a lot of hassle for Mark and friends to move our boat to the mangroves and secure her with five lines and three anchors. It also took us a couple of days to get re-anchored elsewhere in the bay and deal with all the muddy lines, anchor chain and anchors. But, with the storm came a few days of cooler weather, something we all craved. That was almost worth all the time, effort and bug bites accompanying the move to the mangroves. Almost!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Splurging in Belgium

Last June, while we were in the Turks and Caicos, I checked the internet to see what my chances were to go to Belgium this summer. I searched many websites and the result was always the same: plane tickets from the Dominican Republic to Belgium (through the US) were extremely expensive. For the first time ever, it downed on me that a visit to Belgium might be out of the question this year. It had been over a year since I saw my family and friends. They would have to do without me for a bit longer…

Irie brought us safely to Luperon, where we settled for hurricane season. One day, a friend of mine had stumbled across the website of Jet Air and asked me whether I would be interested in a direct flight to Belgium for around $600… Do-oh! What do you think? I checked into the matter and a few hours later, I got my flight booked. I would fly non-stop from Puerto Plata (1,5 hours away) to Brussels in about 9 hours. The plane back would stop in Jamaica, before returning to the Dominican Republic. The price: 420 euros, all inclusive, with booking fee, taxes and tourist card. I would not go through the United States, a tremendous advantage, since I always get in trouble there.

The weeks in Luperon passed by quickly with lots of events and chores on and off the boat. The high temperature and humidity made it hard for everybody to breathe, get things done and enjoy the boat life and the environment. When August 2nd arrived, I was happy to leave Luperon and was more than ready for my break on land, in a Western country… The overnight flight went smooth and once in Brussels, my parents were waiting for me in the airport. They had been there the day before as well, because they thought I’d arrive on Saturday, the only day I ever mentioned to them in emails. Miscommunications!

It didn’t take long before I adjusted to the luxuries of a house. Five weeks long, I enjoyed every single shower I took, every toilet visit I made, a comfortable bed to sleep in, not bumping my head on anything, being able to just walk outside and take a bike or a hike, taking my time to open the fridge and grab whatever I felt for, picking up the phone when it rang or to call people myself, trying out all the comfortable chairs in the house, using electricity as I pleased and sitting behind the computer to do some writing or to check the web. Awesome!

The weather was cold, grey and rainy. Three days it was above 75 degrees and I think I saw the sun maybe 10 days for a few hours. It was the worst August ever and a terrible summer, but… I didn’t care. The only thing I didn’t want to do was sweating while doing nothing and getting a headache from the heat every day. No worries here. The temperature was about half of what I was used to in the Dominican Republic and I actually enjoyed wearing socks, shoes, trousers and sweaters and sleeping with a flannel duvet cover.

Living in my parents’ place was a spoil. The food was delicious and I had company whenever I wanted. Because my stay lasted five weeks, I found a healthy balance between visiting people and just doing stuff at home. What a difference with my two week stay from last year, when I ran and drove from here to there, telling the same stories over and over again. This time, I managed to write and read some, work on photo albums, surf the web, run errands, go for walks with my parents and shop by bike.

To visit friends, I mostly used public transportation and to see family, the car was available in the weekends. I got treated to a few fun concerts, good meals, great conversations, rides on motorbikes, walks in nature and playtime with kids and dogs. I had a wonderful time with everybody and can’t wait to come “home” again, next year. Then, the food will still be fantastic and the company interesting, but the existing kids will have changed once more and new ones will have appeared. But first, I had to get back to the boat in safety and experience hurricane Ike…




















Pictures:

- Oma and I
- Ine and Lore
- Showing pictures and telling stories to family
- Walking with Peter and Rosy in the Flamish Ardens
- Eating mussles at home
- Rosy and I drinking mojitos
- Hanging out with Argus, the dog of Ellen and Davy
- Macy Gray on the Lokerse Feesten

Friday, July 18, 2008

Life in Luperon

The water is calm. Very brownish, dirty and with a lot of stuff growing in it, but as flat as we like it. Soon enough, the first ripples will appear, then those turn into chop and before anybody realizes it, white capped and almost breaking waves will take over Luperon Bay. But, not yet. It’s 7 o’clock in the morning. We have a little bit of time left to move about the water without getting wet. This is also the perfect time to do work on the higher parts of the catamaran or under it. Early starts are very important here…

At a slow pace, our dinghy moves toward town. We have to save some gas. Even in this part of the world, a gallon costs about $6. The same price as a bottle of rum or a small Taino painting. The sun is already beating upon us. She and/or her friend Humidity make us sweat from the moment we get up, sometimes even at night. We swat some mosquitoes and no-see-ums – the wind is good for some things – and enjoy the sight of the green hills around us. Then, we tie the dinghy to the crooked floating dock near the concrete pier and walk a few minutes before reaching the gate. We greet the group of people, officials and others, that always seem to hang out here, and continue on.

The town is slowly coming to life. Some stray dogs are up and about, while others are still sleeping, comfortably spread out, dotting the sidewalks. A group of short haired sheep wander by in search of something to eat. A little girl approaches one of the dogs. A guy comes out of his shack and brushes his teeth above the gutter. He’s not totally dressed yet. The tooth paste joins the waste water, garbage, oil and dog droppings sitting stagnant along the street. Further up the road, we notice a stream of blood on its way to join the other substances. Fresh chickens are now ready to be sold. We hear some cows in the distance. A baby cries. A couple of people leave their modest houses. With a big smile, we wish them a good day. Their response: “Bueno dia!” They don’t like to pronounce the last “s” here.

Most of the restaurants and stores (about every other building) are still closed, but the vegetable truck is in town. We join the chaos of locals and browse the merchandise on the ground. A couple of pineapples, a melon, a pound of tomatoes, some local peppers, onions and potatoes, a head of lettuce, and –hey- broccoli. It all gets weighed, some extra stuff gets thrown in and we pay. Six dollars.

We hang around for a bit, talk to a few fellow cruisers, and try to find some other stuff in the stores. This activity always proves to be a little tough and time consuming, especially when things to fix boat parts are needed. We walk along the noisy traffic, get offered rides by the moto concho drivers (these are motorcycle taxis), and avoid potholes and broken sidewalks. Smiley, the town’s friendliest dog, approaches us with a smile, a wagging tail and a personal greeting that sounds somewhat like a bark, yawn and cry combined. She deserves all the loving she can get. Villagers are now roaming the streets or sitting in the shade in front of their houses. Later on some will go play dominoes, visit neighbours or get groceries. By the time we return to the dinghy, our clothes are drenched in sweat and the wind has picked up substantially. To get home, we have to head straight into wind and waves, with wet clothes as a result.

The most beautiful and special event of the bay – and the day – happens at night, when it’s dark. The water is full of phosphorescent, creating a wonderful and colourful display when disturbed. Driving the dinghy, for example, illuminates the area under and behind the engine in such a way that it almost blinds the eye! As if we’re a space shuttle getting launched. All around us, fish shoot in all directions and become little yellow stripes and flashes. Our own private fireworks. The tops of the wind waves glisten and glow. Amazing! With a rope or stick you can draw bright figures in the water and the men love to create their own artwork with body fluids.

The other thing Luperon has to offer is its immense social scene. Being a hurricane hole, it brings in a fair amount of cruisers, which whom to share your boat adventures, plans and experiences. A whole bunch of expats provides useful information and offers their services. Then there is the group “in between” that lives here semi-permanently and organizes all kinds of activities, while figuring out whether to stay or to continue on. If they ever get their anchors out of the sticky, claiming mud of the bay. And, naturally, there is the local community. By visiting the small businesses, sitting at a loud bar, trying the chicken, rice and beans in the comedores, watching a baseball game or joining one on Saturdays, or just taking in the village scene, you get to know the Dominican people and its culture.

From Luperon it’s also possible to visit some of the sights in the area. With a guagua (small bus) or caro publico (car jam packed with passengers) you can go run errands in Santiago, shop and stroll in Puerto Plata and visit the nearby waterfalls. Renting a moped will let you explore places beyond the reach of other transportation. If you dare to join the other mad drivers...

Of course, there is much more to say about this place, but now I’m going to find a spot in the shade, observe the lush scenery and let the wind cool me down. If only I could jump off the boat without being covered in grossness. Poor Irie. Her bottom is turning into a slimy forest of barnacles, shells, and green hairy things. I gotta say – and I speak for the four of us - we do miss the clear waters and sandy beaches…