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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… an infamously 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… fingers 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 my thoughts.

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 Pan… 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 his rowing.

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 adventure!

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 new world.

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