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 (, 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!

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