March 12th, 1998
Luperon, Dominican Republic
I vaguely remember from back in high school seeing a play called "Waiting for Godot". Though I know I was to have found great social significance in this work all I really remember is that after a short while I too was anxious for the fellow 'Godot' to show up. Having admitted this I'm sure to be refused a subscription to the 'New Yorker' magazine but 'waiting for weather' in Luperon has much in common with this all but forgotten play. That's not to say Luperon and the DR are boring, but with time slipping by and that fellow Al Nino sending down one cold front after another . When we first arrived in Luperon on February 28th with 350 miles and 22 days until my brother Lane and his family arrive in Georgetown, Bahamas all seemed fine. Now with only 10 days and that same 350 miles to go, I'm getting a bit antsy.
The weather this years continues to be a bit weird. Usually in the area of the Greater Antillies and the Bahamas, during the winter months the easterly trade winds are tempered by a legion of cold fronts trailing from low pressure cells leaving the North American coast. As a cold front approaches the winds start to turn first to the south east, then to the south and as the front passes the winds clocks all the way around to the north west and north before returning to an easterly direction. The winds tend to increase on both sides for the front in relation to the strength of the low-pressure cell. My understanding is that this cycle gives occasional (perhaps weekly) opportunities for those heading east to dash from harbour to harbour with some relief from the constant trade winds. Those of us travelling west have no problems and just enjoy a pleasant broad reach home. Well, not this year! We have had one front after another with very strong winds (most in the wrong direction) punctuated by occasional periods of little or no wind (some in the right direction). Most conversation in Luperon these days centres on discussions and comparisons of David's (on Mystine), Herb's (from Canada) and the National Weather Service's (USA) forecasts. They seldom agree entirely and on any given day at least one has bad news.
Last time I wrote we had just arrived in Puerto Rico from the Virgin Islands. I had never expected much of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and had seen these two islands merely as stepping-stones to the Bahamas. As a result we planned little time for this part of the trip choosing only well spaced harbours to rest in during our quick passage west and north. Our first stop was the small harbour of Palmas del Mar near the southeast corner of Puerto Rico. We had motorsailed in light, variable winds from the islands of Celubra and entered the small harbour mid afternoon. We anchored in the calm lagoon after our long hot day. I dinghied into shore to call the US Customs service to check in from the US Virgin Islands. I was told that being a foreign flag vessel that we had to check in in person in Farardo, on the northeast corner of the island. After a brief discussion the customs agent agreed to allow us to come by car the next morning to complete the paper work.
'ACADIA' leaving Charlotte Amalie heading back down island another sad goodbye
Palmas del Mar is a very large condo / timeshare project. The property covers many acres along the beach as well as a large golf course, small shopping mall and the marina. The whole area is private though vessels are welcome to anchor in the lagoon and to use the restaurant and marina facilities. Basically though, the whole area is residential with the nearest town being Humanos about 10 to 15 miles away. There is no public transportation available on the property so rental cars are the only way us boat people can get around. We quickly arranged to rent a car for the following morning, then sat back with our afternoon 'Cuba Libre' (with ice!) and studied the road map to see what else we could visit on our day ashore.
We left early the following morning to check in with customs and immigration. We drove north to Fajardo. Checking in was, as usual, a quick and simple procedure. We then drove along the 4 lane divided highway known here as an autopista. We had decided to spend our day visiting the historic Spanish forts of Old San Juan. Along the way to Puerto Rico's capital we passed numerous modern malls with K-marts, Wallmarts, Sears and J.C. Penny stores everywhere. After many months away from all the trappings of North American society it was actually quite nice to stop and do a little window-shopping. The added convenience of a car enabled to shop for some of the bulky or heavy items that are so awkward to carry back to the boat by foot or on a public bus. So many of the things we used to take for granted back home have become rare treats for us these past two years. As we continued on our way to San Juan we talked about home and our life before cruising. It is strange to look back with a pleasant nostalgia to returning from work on a winter's evening, stopping at the grocery to pick up a few things for dinner, then another quick stop at the video store to pick up the latest movie release, then a quick trip up the elevator to a warm comfortable home (one that stays still in all weather conditions). A nice dinner prepared in a large convenient kitchen then curl up on the sofa with some popcorn to watch a movie. All very ordinary but something we now find that we miss and look forward to.
The city of San Juan is a very large modern city with freeways crisscrossing in all directions. We quickly passed through the satellite communities, airport and the tourist areas thick with hotels lining the Atlantic coast beaches. Then, in a matter of minutes we were transported back in time as we entered the once Spanish stronghold of Old San Juan. Begun in the 16th century, these impressive fortifications still stand guard over Spain's historic dominance of the Caribbean. After over 400 years the Castillo de San Cristobal and the Castillo de San Filipe del Morro still present a daunting face to those ships who would enter San Juan harbour.
Looking toward San Cristobal from El Morro
San Filipe del Morro from inside the city
The walls of San Cristobal
The city of Old San Juan was built on a peninsula between the San Juan Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. San Cristobal and El Morro provided the two corner stones on the Atlantic side. The smaller La Fortaleza, overlooking San Juan Bay, along with El Canuelo, on the opposite side of the harbour entrance, served to offer an unpleasant welcome for any ship that managed to evade the massive fire power of the larger forts. San Christobal and El Morro are open to the public while La Fortaleza is now home to the Governor of Puerto Rico. The centuries old city of Old San Juan was once further protected by walls joining the three forts on the peninsula. Much of the wall still exists but now visitors are welcomed into the city. Commerce still thrives though the trade in gold and silver from the New World has now been replaced by the trade of American Dollars for everything from tourist trinkets to Tommy Hilfiger factory outlet bargains.
El Morro's ancient battlements
Barracks in San Cristobal
We walked for hours through the cobblestone streets and explored the intricate passageways of San Cristobal but with so much to see our time quickly dissolved and we were forced to head back to Las Palmas del Mar. But, before we had even passed through the walls of the old city we had decided on a plan to return for another visit.
Tourists, tourists everywhere (Bart, Evelyn, Ole and Beth)
Cobblestone streets and courtyard of Old San Juan
La casa del Peluche
Returning to the boat that evening the winds had increased ahead of an approaching cold front and the small harbour offered little protection from the increasing swell. The following morning the rain and strong winds had begun. The resulting increased swells had us rolling from rub rail to rub rail. The concrete back wall of the harbour reflected waves back to create diamond patterns which no amount of effort with stern anchors or bridles could counter. One look at the harbour entrance ended any thought of leaving so we retreated to shore and spent the day at a small local plaza window shopping and treated ourselves to a long leisurely lunch watching the rain fall from under the protection of the restaurant awning. By late afternoon the weather was easing and the boat became a bit more habitable. We skipped dinner and prepared the boat for an early morning departure.
The next stop on our trip around the south side of the Island was the town of Salinas. Salinas is situated amongst a large area of mangroves. It has long been touted as the best hurricane hole in the Caribbean. As we approached it became apparent why. We passed through a narrow, shallow passage into a lagoon protected from the south by a string of out islands. This lagoon is lined on the north side by a thick, wide mangrove forest. As we approached the town we began to see numerous small winding passages into the mangroves. In the event of an approaching hurricane a boat can wind it's way up these passages and once deep into the mangrove forest be attached, by many heavy lines to the tenacious root systems. I, for one would rather experience a hurricane from the other side of a glass TV screen, but, if it was ever necessary to face such a storm in the Caribbean, I doubt you could find a better place than Salinas.
To reach the anchorage near the town of Salinas we motored into the mangroves along one of the wider passages. Hidden from the sea we found well over 50 cruising boats sitting peacefully as on a mirror calm lake. We dropped anchor near our friends Ole and Beth on their boat Orca. What a wonderful contrast to our previous few days! We spent several days in Salinas. It is basically a small beach town populated on the weekend but very quiet during the week. The town had all we needed in a mid sized grocery store, small vegetable market, modern bank and an Internet connection at the local marine store. The highlight of our visit to Salinas was a wonderful restaurant, "La Esquinita Del Sur". The tiny establishment is situated on a corner beside the marine store. It is run by a very nice couple from Argentina. They have room for two tables inside the restaurant and another two on the 'sidewalk' outside. William and Suzanna treat their guests like family. We had wonderful meals at exceptional prices in a warm and very friendly atmosphere that kept us returning for more.
Anchorage in Salinas, Puerto Rico
The anchorage in Salinas is so protected we could not even guess at the conditions outside so we listened to the weather reports and with the first indication of a favourable wind we left for Boqueron on the west coast of the island. Boqueron was our 'jumping off' point to leave Puerto Rico and cross the Mona Passage to the Dominican Republic. We had two beautiful day sails with an overnight stop in Guanica. We arrived in Boqueron's wide open bay and anchored with two days to spare before our friend John From was to arrive for his visit. Like Salinas, Boqueron is a beach town. Though crowded with university students and their party-hardy attitudes on the weekend the town is very quiet during the week. We rented a car to pick John up in San Juan. We left early in the morning and drove through the rolling hills of central Puerto Rico arriving three hours later in the capital. John was to arrive at 5pm so we spent our day seeing more of the sights of Old San Juan and exploring the awesome fort of 'El Morro'. We spent the evening exploring the not so interesting San Juan Airport. John's flight finally arrived just after midnight!
Giving John a day to thaw out and with a favourable weather forecast we left Boqueron in the early afternoon heading for the Dominican Republic. The area of water between the islands of Puerto Rico and the DR is known as the Mona Passage. It has a rather bad reputation. The large 'Hour Glass Shoal' in the northwestern part of the passage sits right on the edge of the extremely deep 'Puerto Rico Trench'. Any time you have an abrupt shallowing of the sea large volumes of water can be pushed up onto the shallower banks creating large and uncomfortable (if not down right dangerous) sea conditions. John, a fellow sailor, had expressed a desire to sail this passage with us. We questioned his sanity wanting to spend his vacation time where most cruisers dread to sail but were very happy to have him aboard as extra crew for this passage.
We started the 150-mile passage to Samana in the DR with good winds and calm seas. By midnight however, the wind had all but died and we were rolling around in a sloppy north east swell that had our sails slapping and banging and our speed down to 3 knots. Finally, in exasperation, we started the engine and motored for the next 24 hours to arrive just outside Samana at midnight the following night. So much for the Mona! Our plan was to spend a few days in Samana and then with hopefully a bit more wind, sail the 120 miles to Luperon near Puerto Plata where John would return home to Ottawa.
After the often interesting experience of clearing in in a Spanish speaking country (Just how will they attempt to extract a little extra money to line their pockets this time???), we had a couple of pleasant, relaxing days. We visited the local market, rode the 'Gua gua'(local bus service, in Samana, open pick-up trucks), where passengers and goods, i.e. chickens, groceries and kids, ride in the back. What happens when it rains? No problem, the drivers carry a large tarp which passengers hold over their heads. We visited the 165-foot Limon waterfall, a wonderful trip by gua gua through the countryside ending at a small farm where a guide and horses were available.
Trail through the rainforest
The DR countryside
Future waterfall guide?
As we were preparing to continue on our way to Luperon John received some sad news from and had to cut short his vacation. As has been the case through our cruise, our guests have always made good times and wonderful places even more enjoyable.
We left Samana with good winds, the following morning. January through March is the mating season for the Humpback whales, and if you are a Humpback whale, the place to meet the girls is Samana Bay and the north coast of the Dominican Republic to the Silver Banks. We were delighted over the course of the day with the sight of numerous of these huge, graceful creatures. They swam and breached at times only a few boat lengths away (Evelyn was a bit nervous at first asking that I start the engine, turn on the stereo, sing or do something to be sure the whales knew we where there and were not another whale. After only a few bars of my singing she decided she'd rather take her chances with the whales .).
We had a pleasant passage to Luperon with good winds throughout the day and night along the north coast of the DR. The night was very dark with no moon and only a few stars peering through the clouds. With every hour a few more miles slipped beneath our keel and sunrise found us just five miles from the Entrance channel to the town of Luperon. We motored into the mangrove harbour looking forward to a few hours sleep and promptly ran aground on a poorly marked mud bank. With a little help from another cruiser we kedged off and found a deeper spot to anchor. I felt a bit silly until watching the next two boats to enter the harbour do exactly the same thing. It seems to be somewhat of a ritual for arriving yachts.
We have spent the last 10 days here in Luperon. The anchorage is secure and well protected from any weather, the town is small but the people are very friendly. We have traveled to Puerto Plata and Santiago by Gua gua and visited yet another waterfall. Though our stay has been most enjoyable we are anxious to get on our way. By now, everyone back home must be hoping for an early spring and with only 6 or 7 weeks left till launch I'm sure the boating catalogues are by now well thumbed.
Getting the dinghy to plane (for some no effort is too great)
A closer look (owner unknown in St. Thomas)
Best wishes to all.