April 7, 2003
The Infamous Mona Passage
Tonight, Curt and I sit in Luperon harbor
in the Dominican Republic. We had a small and questionable
"weather window" to make it through the Mona Passage,
and we took it for better or worse. We're here unscathed,
and other than tired, no worse for wear. But nonetheless puzzled
at what it must be like to go the other direction. What a
tiresome experience it must be.
We have Bruce Van Sant's book, A Gentlemans'
Guide to Passages South. The Thornless Path to Windward,
aboard. It's just short of a bible for the cruiser headed
to, or cruising in, the Caribbean. It gives sailing directions
for the path from Florida to the Caribbean
laborious sail as it leads boats over four hundred miles of
water, sailing against the wind and sea. Van Sant has compiled
his knowledge of how to sail south and east most painlessly
using night lees and weather windows to one's advantage. Though
we're heading the more favorable direction, downwind and down
current, we are following the same instructions in reverse
to avoid unnecessarily choppy and uncomfortable sailing. Going
south, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is the Caribbean,
but Curt and I cheated. We bought our boat essentially in
the pot itself- in Saint Martin, so we were spared the hardship
of getting down here from Florida. We didn't realize how good
we'd had it until this last passage.
We had been waiting in Boqueron for favorable
conditions to cross over, and were growing restless to say
the least. Boqueron was fine for a day or two, but it didn't
have enough on either sea or land to keep us entertained for
a week. We were itching to head north. We'd debated skipping
the Dominican Republic and shooting straight for the Turks
and Caicos, but in the end realized we needed to come here
to re-provision on food, medical supplies, and beer. This
island is similar in economy to Venezuela, versus the Bahamas
chain which is similar in economy to downtown Manhattan. The
choice was really clear when viewed in those terms. We needed
to stop here. Our decision was reconfirmed when we later learned
that this is where the movie, Jurassic Park was filmed (or
parts at least), and so we knew were going to see a beautiful
country and dramatic landscape as well.
The passage from Boqueron was approximately
260 nautical miles, across the Mona Passage and along the north
coast of the Dominican Republic. We estimated it would take
us 48 hours more or less. We would leave Boqueron between 4
and 6am on Saturday, and had to be entering Luperon no later
than 9am Monday to avoid generally dangerous conditions entering
into a narrow pass on a rough coast, in a forecast of high winds
and seas. At 5:45 on Saturday morning I woke up in a tizzy.
We'd overslept. It was still dark out and there was no time
for coffee or sleepy eyed stretching to get the day started.
With hair all a mess and sleep in our eyes, we started the engine,
pulled the mainsail cover off, and weighed anchor. We slipped
out of the harbor alone, leaving behind the two handfuls of
boats that had begun to collect in their wait for weather to
cross. It gave me leave for pause. They didn't seem to see the
same window we had.
As we slipped further away from Puerto Rico
and into open sea, the conditions seemed great. We kept looking
around with a note of satisfaction as to our wise choice in
timing. The seas were biggish, with long but comfortable swells.
The winds were light, but we could still sail at a tolerable
pace without the help of our engine. The sun was out. Curt
and I agreed we would take these light conditions over a passage
fighting with winds and seas any day. I kept one eye on the
clock and the other on the charts. Bruce Van Sant forewarned
that storm cells built up off the north western coast of Puerto
Rico during the day and set out to sea with the cooling of
the large landmass as the day passed. If he was right, they
would be on our tail. Even with our late departure however,
at this mid-day hour, we had eight hours before they'd make
it this far west. I kept telling myself this as we watched
the line of dark gray clouds build up behind us. It was just
an isolated squall, not a full blown cell of unsettled weather.
We watched the squall build both in Technicolor
behind Force Five's stern and on her radar screen. I'd never
seen anything like it. Normally, we can see them in relation
to our boat and steer around them as we watch the wind direction,
but this one grew and grew, and then began to multiply into
little pockets of moisture and connectivity all around us.
The rain, winds, and lightening were upon us and we couldn't
seem to shake them. The cloud cells on the radar screen were
morphing like wax in a lava lamp. One would swell and shrink,
only to be replaced by three more. The periods of calm and
high winds were sporadic. We'd be sailing with a reefed main
for fifteen minutes, and then struggling along to make three
knots another. Again, I had time to reflect with wonder that
I wasn't terrified by this anymore. Uncomfortable, or perhaps
even wary- yes. But it felt manageable. Ironically, we were
even somewhat glad to have the wind. We were keeping up with
our intended average speed. Only the lightening unnerved me.
To make myself feel better, I reviewed the lightening strike
chapter of our Emergency Survival at Sea Handbook that Sean
left aboard. I know I'm a nut, but at least I knew we had
things under control.
Curt had kept watch
during the unsettled weather, and I made a warm batch of pasta
for his pruned body to imbibe as I took over. He was soaked
straight through his foulie coat and ball cap
and toes white and wrinkled as if he'd sat in the tub for
three hours rather than in Force Five's cockpit. Just as the
sun slipped below the horizon, I was zipping up my raincoat
and clipping into the lifelines: Skittles and Twix bar treats
in my pockets to help pass my time on watch (just as mandatory
as junk food on a long road trip on land). It was 7:00pm.
Our friends the GPS and water proof flashlight were at hand.
Curt was going below to sleep. It was me and Force Five against
whatever Mother Nature and the Mona Passage dished up.
The rain continued its deluge, pelting me
and the boat relentlessly. In my scratchy, elastic waistband
waterproof pants and my rubber raincoat with the hood tightened
around the small oval of my face peeking through, I sat in
the wet and the pitch dark. The wind had disappeared for the
foreseeable future, and we were motoring. Even our American
flag didn't make a flutter as the engine clackety-clacked
its way over the waves. I resumed my usual watch routine:
flashlight on the knot meter, flashlight on the wind indicator,
flashlight on the sail shape. Scan the horizon for boats and
lights. Eat a coupla Skittles noting their color and assessing
the relative flavor. Think about life. Think about what happens
when we come home. Wonder if I'll get hit with some horrible
squall on my watch. Which reminds me to look at the horizon,
and the sails, and the wind indicator. And then I'm back to
I'm finding that my nighttime watches are
often marked by certain characteristics that give them a persona
and a flavor of their own in my memory. Sometimes it's the
stars I marvel over, sometimes it's the silver outline of
the cumulous clouds. This first watch of the next 48 hours,
was full of new sites. For instance, the flashlight's beam
against the stark white sails in the dark with white strikes
of rain cutting through the shaft of light and landing on
my face. Or the utter darkness around the boat in the middle
of the sea, broken with flashes from a far off lightening
storm that lent light to an otherwise blind world. For barely
the blink of an eye I could see the swells and clouds from
their light and I'm strangely grateful for the phenomena.
I saw strange lights that reminded me of Tinkerbell in Peter
a sparkling sporadic streamer of twinkling that
I was puzzled over until they come closer. Helicopters. Between
my regular business of sailing the boat and taking inventory
of my life, my mind was occupied with the sites in store that
night. As I sat there, not necessarily doing much of anything,
I nonetheless felt busy and wasn't tired. I stood an extra
hour on my watch to give Curt more time to sleep.
The first night passed and gave way to
a generally gray sunrise, and later, a generally gray day. The
winds were still non-existent and we motored. The clackety-clackety
was driving Curt mad like hearing someone continue to turn the
key after the engine's already started in your car. As mid-afternoon
approached, both seas and wind picked up, for which we were
grateful. The dreary gray reluctantly gave way to blue sky.
Both Curt and I were too wary about this to be too excited.
We didn't want to jinx things and so merely exchanged a look,
knowing what the other was thinking. When we could finally turn
the engine off, the quiet swish of the boat silently making
her way over the water without the help of the engine seemed
as decadent as a chocolate cream puff. Curt took the opportunity
to check the engine since we could finally make way without
running it. He filled our fuel tanks. I had a shower in the
warm sun outside. Like two cats in a patch of sun streaming
through a windowpane, we curled up on the sunny side of the
cockpit and read our books while Force Five sailed herself along.
When the sun went down, I unceremoniously stood my watch while
Curt took his turn for sleep and we got on with our usual exchange
of managing the boat.
The winds held for the rest of our passage.
In fact, around two in the morning, the winds had built to
an exhilarating speed. It was somewhere in that precarious
place between being a thrill or terrifying. It was too dark
to see the swells, but we were running downwind and down current
and I could feel the boat being rolled dramatically. As I
watched the dim horizon, the boat would lift from a swell,
and I'd see its black outline move away, barreling its way
towards shore. They were big enough they would block the lights
on the coastline from my view. Before I knew it, I was seeing
intermittent speeds of 9 knots over the ground. And 8-8.2
continually. Our little boat just doesn't go that fast! At
least not for more than a second to exclaim over it. I shortened
sail, but it didn't slow us down enough. Luckily, Curt was
due to take over and I handed it over to him. As I lay below
trying to sleep, I felt myself getting frustrated that he
seemed to still be running the boat with so much sail out.
We were really rolling now and still seemingly blazing along.
We didn't need to go this fast.
When I finally made my way topsides again,
I was surprised to learn Curt had taken in the sails. The
jib was down entirely, and the main was double reefed. We
were still booking along at 7-7.5 knots. As he handed the
watch over to me, we opted to take down the main and sail
with only a drastically reefed jib. We'd reduced it to the
size of a handkerchief, and still I was making way in the
range of 6.5 knots. I changed our course slightly to try to
put more time between us and Luperon. While we wanted to arrive
before 9am when the seas started to build after the night
calms, we couldn't arrive before sunrise either and try to
enter in the dark. The timing had to be just right.
If things hadn't been before, they were
getting hairy when Curt resumed his final watch at 04:00, and
I was grateful to be able to pass Force Five back to his care
at last. Boat traffic in the area was increasing, and the winds
and seas were only building. I laid below and tried to sleep.
I came back up at 05:30 and was truly taken
aback by the conditions. The wind was screaming by, even as
we were sailing the same direction. As the sun started to
break through, I could see the seas were the biggest we've
been in since we've set out cruising. Curt was flying barely
anything to speak of for a front sail. It was practically
the size of a triangle shaped tortilla chip- but this at last,
had slowed us down to 4 knots. The entrance to Luperon was
only four miles or so ahead of us. I couldn't help but wonder
if we were nuts to try to make it in.
The final hour approach to our destination
seemed insane. Though it was daylight and both of us were
in the cockpit, we were both in our harnesses and clipped
in to the lifelines. Force Five was getting smacked and rolled
from her port side like toddler being picked on by a high
school bully. The swells were curling with white caps, sending
her reeling down their faces as they passed. One especially
rough brute came crashing over the decks, washing seawater
into the cabin below, all over our charts. I wiped them dry
and studied them again, and studied Curt. I had the distinct
thought that this could be the day we lose our boat if we
tried to make it in. I said as much. He disagreed and wanted
to get closer to look at the entrance. I deferred to his judgment
and kept my mouth shut.
Curt was right and I was wrong. When we
got just outside the mouth of Luperon harbor, the seas were
more mild. We could site the small entrance among the waves
breaking on the reefs around it. As the charts and guidebooks
said, a short cliff lay immediately off our port side, with
mangrove trees to starboard. Curt made a range between the
cliff and a tree on the hill behind to help him keep our course.
Despite the swells rolling the boat, he was making his way
true to our intended course.
As we drew closer, and closer still,
the seas subsided to a tolerable 4 foot wave height. I sighed
with relief. With faith that we could do this okay, I took the
time to look around. I found this spot to be nothing short of
majestic. It was one of the most beautiful things I've seen
over the past year. The dawn sky was filled with billowing gray
clouds, and slivers of wakening sun stretched from behind them
to cast a soft light. Behind us, the seas were steel gray and
covered with white caps. Before us by contrast, the seas were
gently rolling with a shimmer. Fisherman were speckled throughout
the mouth of the entrance to Luperon, casting their nets all
along the shore. Their boats are the most rustic we've seen-
boxy and roughened with hard wear. A rainbow spilled down to
where they were working. Behind the entrance to the harbor,
huge mountains overlook the ocean. They're the perfect color
of an emerald gemstone and dotted with lush forest and palm
trees. Flocks of white birds were flushing into the mangroves
as one man slowly and deliberately rowed his boat back in. I
waved. He paused for a moment to wave back and then resumed
We entered as slowly as we could, leaving
the breaking waves to both sides of us as we slid into a mangrove
bay as still the reflection of a mirror. We edged our way
in and slipped around a corner where the channel opened up
to a sleeping harbor brimming with sailboats at anchor. The
flocks of white birds we'd seen were decorating the surrounding
trees that trimmed the cascading mountainside surrounding
the inlet. We smelled damp earth and the lushness of fertile
land. We picked our way around for far too long for how exhausted
we were, abut after our third attempt at laying anchor, were
happy enough to settle in after an exhausting two days. Force
Five seemed tired too as she sat perfectly still in the water.
It was a markedly stark contrast to how she'd been getting
beaten up for the last 12 hours.
We hoisted our "Q" flag to let
customs know we hadn't cleared in yet, dropped the dinghy,
properly flaked and bound the mainsail, and coiled all the
lines before collapsing below. And then customs showed up
at noon. The customs procedures in the Dominican Republic
are often the topic of discussion among Caribbean cruisers,
as they're somewhat unorthodox with rumors of them boarding
your boat and demanding bribes, but we were mentally prepared.
An entourage of men showed up by wooden
boat, and clamored aboard Force Five in their heavy black
shoes. There were five of them crammed into the cockpit. The
Commandancia (he calls himself the "navy"), a representative
of the department of agriculture, an arms inspection man,
a translator, and one other man who
well I'm not sure
why he was there. There were introductions in Spanish, a flurry
of clipboards, and name badges, and hand shaking. The "translator"
handed us fliers for his restaurant and market. Forms were
passed around and questions were being presented. Did we have
meat in our freezer? "No meat- no freezer," Curt
replied. Fruits, vegetables? Where did we come from, where
are we going? Do we have guns aboard? How long will we stay?
There was money to be paid per passport, money to be paid
per boat. A man came downstairs to inspect things, and when
out of sight of his friends, told Curt he had to pay $10 for
a certification he'd found no guns. Curt said he'd need a
receipt. The man dropped the issue. The attempted bribe aside,
they were friendly and smiling men who warmly welcomed us
to their country. No harm, no foul. Somehow it all seemed
to fit in with the scenery. It made it all feel like a real
Our checklist of things to do for
the day had been done: don't wreck boat, clear-in to country.
We crashed in the cockpit too tired to keep our eyelids open
any longer. We slept the rest of the afternoon and enjoyed
the traffic of the fisherman straight out of a different century
come and go out of the harbor. We were glad to be seeing another