March 14th to March 21st – Ocean World Marina, DR to Turks and Caicos

The timing of our departure from Ocean World Marina is a complicated decision.  Saturday’s forecast calls for moderate winds with 8 foot seas.  On Sunday, the seas are expected to settle down considerably, but there may be insufficient breeze to sail to the Turks and Caicos.  Beyond Sunday, an extended period of moderation in the weather will shut off the supply of wind completely.  Not wishing to motor 100 miles to Great Sand Cay, the decision is reached to depart Ocean World at 8 AM on Saturday morning.

Ocean World Marina is similar to the saga of Hotel California.  Getting into the marina is relatively easy.  Departing Ocean World Marina is yet another story.

Under normal circumstances, it would have been our preference to depart on a journey of this magnitude at 4 PM, arriving in Grand Turk just after sunrise.  However, the weather pattern on the north coast of the DR precludes a late afternoon departure from Ocean World.

The entrance channel to the marina is exposed to the northeast and the prevailing wind direction is ENE.  In order to avoid powering through huge waves on the bow, it is critical to depart before 9 AM when the wind is still relatively calm.  By mid-morning, the wind typically reaches 20 knots.  In late afternoon squalls, wind speeds are even higher.

Eric & Navy DR goodbye

At precisely 8 AM on Saturday, we are in the marina office to settle our account and to clear Customs and Immigration.  Today, the Customs officer arrives 90 minutes late.  Since he has forgotten the key to his office, “Navy” (our new friend and resident naval officer) is recruited to jimmy a sliding window in order to gain access to the office.  After clearing Customs, Navy accompanies us to the dock where the final Despacho document is signed and delivered.  Part of Navy’s official duties is to observe the departure of our vessel from the marina.

At 10 AM, the dock lines are cast off as we bid a final adios to Navy.  Cutter Loose is finally underway…hobby-horsing her way under full power into 6- foot waves in the channel.  After 15 minutes of rocking and rolling, the sails are set for a rollicking beam reach to Big Sand Cay in the Turks and Caicos.

A few miles offshore of DR, the wind freshens to 23 knots with gusts to 28 knots while the waves increase to 8 feet.  Under a deeply reefed mainsail and genoa, Cutter Loose is sailing smartly at 8+ knots, spreading a shower of salt over everything in sight as she surges through the northeast swell.  Each time the wind subsides to 18 knots, we are certain that this signals the moderation promised in the forecast.  But this hope proved to be wishful thinking.

At 11:30 PM, Cutter Loose passes Endymion Rock to port on final approach to Big Sand Cay.  Since this is the site of numerous shipwrecks, caution and concentration are the watchwords of the evening.  Falling into the lee of Sand Cay, the sails are doused as we thread the needle into the anchorage.  Suddenly the waves subside but the wind continues to howl over this low-lying, sandy spit of an island.  Using radar and chart plotter, we ease our way through the darkness, gradually moving closer to the beach while allowing sufficient distance from an anchored boat to starboard.  Entering an unfamiliar anchorage at night is stressful under any circumstances, let alone after pounding through eight foot waves for 14 hours.

Fortunately, the hook sets instantly in 15 feet of water over a sand bottom.  There is a rolly surge in the anchorage.  The wind is whistling through the rigging.  But, there is no motion or noise that can deter us from falling instantly and deeply asleep.

Beach at Sand Cay

At 8 AM on Sunday, the relentless cries of shore birds slowly penetrate our consciousness.  Still groggy from a deep sleep, we are afforded a view of our surroundings that was obscured by the black of night just eight hours earlier.  It is as if we are children on Christmas morning.  A magnificent gift awaits our awakening.   Just beyond the bow of Cutter Loose is a pristine white sand beach.  We are surrounded by electric aquamarine water made brilliant by the morning sun.  There is a gentle hint of a breeze from the east.  The moderation in the weather we had hoped for the night before has finally arrived.  Sand Cay makes for an outstanding welcome to the Turks and Caicos Islands.  We already feel at home in this remote place.

After lingering at Great Sand Cay until noon, the anchor is up and Cutter Loose is bound for Grand Turk, about 18 miles to the north.  In 12 knots of breeze on the beam, today’s sail is a leisurely event with 4 to 5 knots of boat speed.  Salt Cay passes slowly to starboard.  The unmistakable boxy outline of a cruise boat on the horizon serves as a convenient steering target.

At anchor cruise dock area

The southeastern tip of Grand Turk is a cruise boat destination, inasmuch as it is the sole deep water port in the Turks and Caicos.  Accordingly, the Turk economy is largely oriented to the cruise boat trade.  The designated anchorage area just off the beach near the cruise boat dock is filled with local excursion boats on moorings, but we manage to drop the hook in a small opening on the periphery of the anchorage area near the concrete cargo ship pier.  Our mission this afternoon is to clear Customs.  Customs officials everywhere are notoriously feisty with cruisers about clearing in as soon as possible upon arrival.

After landing the dinghy and scaling the walls of the massive pier, we learn from Port Authority employees that Customs officials have departed for the day and cannot be reached by telephone.  Therefore, clearance must wait until Monday morning.  Once today’s cruise boat departs at 6 PM, the loud music disappears as the beach chair vendors pack away their umbrellas for a few hours of relaxation before a new wave of cruise boats arrive at dawn.

Stand Up Paddles & boards

At 9 AM on Monday, we re-scale the massive concrete pier and enter the Customs office with a warm greeting.  After a brief explanation of our efforts to clear in on Sunday afternoon, the Customs officer explains that we will be charged a $15 “overtime surcharge” for arriving during the weekend. The fact that no Customs officer was on duty at the time of our arrival is irrelevant.  The fact that our actual clearance took place on Monday morning is also irrelevant.  According to Customs officials, it is the day of arrival, not the day of actual clearance that triggers the overtime fee.

skiff on GT beach

Although it seems like a technicality, we smile and go along with this verdict.  It is simply not prudent for visitors to question a $15 Customs overtime fee.  Likewise, it is not the time or place to suggest the novel notion that “overtime surcharges” be contributed to a fund for the construction of a decent dinghy dock.  Since it is off the beaten path, relatively few cruising boats clear in or out at Grand Turk.  Besides, these employees don’t make the rules…they simply enforce the law of the land.  Without exception, we are treated warmly and politely by these public servants.  Once Immigration officials arrive to stamp our passports, we are free to cruise the Turks and Caicos for seven days.  A longer stay will require a more expensive cruising permit.

Front St GT

With clearance documents in hand, it is a long, two-mile hike past the airport to Cockburn Town, the Capital of the Turks and Caicos.  Shuttle buses are already delivering cruise boat passengers to the Front Street historic district.

Grand Turk Library

There are a handful of historic buildings, small restaurants, guest houses and boutique hotels that line the waterfront.

woman at church door

Merchants are busy hustling their wares to the tourists.  But there is no evidence that this sleepy village is the nerve center of a national government.  Nor is there any sign whatsoever that this community is an international banking center for clients that wish to stash cash in anonymous accounts.

Grand Turk house

Duke St house

Waiting for a taxi to South Dock where Cutter Loose is anchored, Pat discovers a rumpled $5 bill along the sidewalk.  About this time, a gentleman in a pickup truck stops to ask if he may offer us a lift.  We crawl into the truck and arrive at South Dock within a few minute’s time, contributing our newly found cash to the cause.  The driver initially refuses to accept our contribution, but we insist and he relents.  The Turks are genuine and kind.

Courtyard to the sea

At 1 PM, the anchor is up in Grand Turk.  Cutter Loose is bound for Cockburn Harbor on the island of South Caicos, some 25 miles to the west.  The wind has disappeared almost entirely by the time of our departure.  As the afternoon progresses, cumulus clouds overhead begin to thicken and spill their excess cargo of moisture.  This mild squall serves the dual purpose of creating enhanced wind to boost boat speed while rinsing the outermost layer of salt from the decks.  By 5 PM, the anchor is down in Cockburn Harbor.  Cutter Loose is one of three cruising boats at anchor in the harbor tonight.

reflection on water

After a quiet night at anchor and the daily 6:30 AM synopsis and windless forecast from marine weatherman Chris Parker, Cutter Loose is under way again at 7:30 AM on Tuesday.  Today’s 60-mile journey takes us south to Fish Cays, then northwest across the shallow Caicos Bank to Providenciales, or “Provo” for short.  Water depths on the Bank are in the 10 foot range.  The bottom is white sand.  Today, the underside of clouds overhead are tinged in a light green…a reflection of the sun’s rays bouncing off of the colorful water below.

There is barely sufficient wind today to keep the head sail full.   Barring a few small fishing boats, Cutter Loose is the sole vessel transiting the Banks today.  It is as if we are sailing in our very own infinity pool.

under sail caicos bank

Our primary navigational task today is to recognize and steer around coral heads that appear as black holes in the iridescent blue-green water.

Black hole

Following a night at anchor in Sapodilla Bay, we arrive at high tide to negotiate the thin entrance channel to Southside Marina.  Here we will clean the boat, tend to the laundry and rent a car for provisioning and sightseeing.

View of the bank

Sapodilla Bay and Southside Marina are the most popular cruiser destinations in the Turks and Caicos.  Bob Pratt owns this 22-slip marina and serves as the controller for the 7:30 AM cruiser’s net on VHF 68.  Upon our arrival, Bob takes time out of his busy schedule to drive Pat to an appointment with the hairdresser.

CL in slip

Bob’s childhood chum, Cam (on left) from British Columbia, spends several months here during the high season, lending a helping hand with the operation of the marina.  Together, they are a dynamic duo.  We have thoroughly enjoyed their hospitality.

Cam and Bob

On Wednesday evening, there is a potluck dinner at the marina where we meet several intrepid cruisers that are bound for the Caribbean via the “Thorny Path”.  These folks are elated with the weather forecast in light of the fact that the wind is expected to remain light for the foreseeable future.  This is good news for eastbound sailors who are accustomed to motoring.  For westbound sailors, the lack of sufficient wind to sail is a disappointment.  It means that we will be listening to the sound of the engine more than we would have preferred.  Feast or famine is the dilemma faced by cruising sailors everywhere.

Shops at Grace Bay

On Thursday, we are off in the rental car to explore the island.  Provo is the polar opposite of Grand Turk. There are no cruise ships here because of the absence of a deep water port.   The four-lane Leeward Highway is busy with traffic, particularly at the numerous  roundabouts in the early morning and late afternoon hours.

Pat at Regent Grand

Provo’s north coast beaches are dotted with high- rise condo towers, perfectly manicured resorts, trendy restaurants and mixed use shopping districts.  At times, some of the more upscale neighborhoods here in Provo seem more like West Palm Beach, FL.

Provo resort

The cynical view of Provo is that it resembles a suburb in Florida rather than a Caribbean destination.  From our perspective, Provo is an excellent place to provision the galley and enjoy a good meal ashore before heading to the remote out islands of the Bahamas.

Graceway Gourmet

One additional benefit of securing a slip at Southside Marina is that it is an official port of entry.  This means that Customs and Immigration officials come here, as needed, to provide clearance services.  This eliminates the need to scale the commercial pier at South Dock to obtain outbound clearance.  Another $15 “overtime fee” is incurred for a Friday afternoon clearance because our intended departure will occur on the weekend.  At this stage of our visit to TCI, the issue of overtime fees has become an inexpensive source of entertainment.  It is all part of the island experience.

Our mission is accomplished in Provo.  For us, the Turks and Caicos have always been perceived as a convenient stepping stone rather than a must-see destination unto itself.  As such, this visit has exceeded our expectations.  On Sunday, March 22nd, Cutter Loose is bound for the island of Mayaguana in the Bahamas.

This is what happens to the underwater running gear when a motor vessel collides with a reef at a speed of 25 knots.  This vessel (not Cutter Loose) was towed to Southside Marina.  The Captain was fined $10,000 for repairs to the damaged reef.  The insurance company declared that the vessel is incapable of being repaired.

This is what happens to the underwater running gear when a 100 foot motor vessel traveling at a speed of 25 knots runs aground on an underwater reef. The damaged vessel (not Cutter Loose) was towed to Southside Marina. The Captain was fined $10,000 to cover the cost of repairs to the damaged reef. The insurance company declared the vessel a total loss.

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March 9th to March 15th – Dominican Republic

One of the reasons we elected to make landfall in the DR at Ocean World Marina involves clearance procedures that are reputed to be less cumbersome and threatening than in other ports of entry into the Dominican Republic.  We have heard all manner of stories from other cruisers about bribes blatantly sought by customs officials at the time of entry.  No doubt these stories have been exaggerated over time to add interest.

Marina entrance

Lying alongside the fuel dock on Monday morning, a boarding party of local officials asks for permission to step aboard Cutter Loose.  Included in this gathering is Victor, the General Manager of the marina, a Customs official and a Navy officer dressed in a camouflage khaki uniform with highly polished combat boots.  Victor also serves as the official translator, since the Customs officer and the Navy official do not speak English.  Since the delegation does not wish to go below into the cabin, our brief meeting is conducted in the cockpit.

First, Victor introduces the delegation and issues two wrist bands that identify us as marina guests.  He explains that security here in the marina is very tight and he urges us to wear the wristbands 24-7 until we depart so that the security personnel and other employees can identify us as guests.  After reviewing our passports and ship’s papers, we are asked to complete standard clearance forms before being escorted to the on-site office of the Immigration officer.  The total entrance fee is $100 USD plus $20 USD for a Dominican Republic bandera (courtesy flag).

To our relief, the clearance process could not have been more straightforward.  There are smiling faces and handshakes all around welcoming us to the DR.  Everyone is very polite and outgoing, including the dock master and his helper who assist us in tying up at our slip.  We would later learn that this friendly demeanor is not an act.  It will hold true not only during our initial check-in, but for the entire duration of our stay at the marina.  Each time we pass these cheerful fellows, there are more smiles and handshakes.

No sooner are our lines secure than we fall instantaneously asleep for several hours, our bodies and minds craving rest.  Later in the afternoon, Cutter Loose receives a thorough and well-deserved wash down from stem to stern.

The easterlies howl here on the north coast of the DR.  Mornings are usually calm.  By mid-afternoon, wind speeds in the marina are in the 20 to 25 knot range with gusts to 30 knots in frequent squalls that roll down to the ocean from the Septentrional mountain range to the southeast.

Our original plan was to pause at Ocean World for a day or two before proceeding on to the Turks and Caicos when wind and seas permit.  Weather being what it is, it now appears that we will remain here until the weekend when calmer seas are expected.

Casino

Ocean World is located a few miles west of the town of Puerto Plata, population 286,000.  The area west of Puerto Plata has become a popular tourist destination with several all-inclusive resorts having been developed in the past few decades.  The marina complex includes a casino (presently closed), a nightclub (open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for a special reserve-in-advance floor show), a restaurant (presently closed), a liquor store/café, guest rooms, and a laundry.

sea lion

An adventure park is located adjacent to the casino with animal acts (dolphins, sharks, parrots and sea lions) seven times each day.  While the view of the show from our slip is limited, we can hear the announcer’s voice, the recorded music that accompanies each act and the enthusiastic response of the audience.  By our second day of dockage at Ocean World, we have memorized the antics of the announcer and how the actions of the animals coincide with the recorded music that accompanies the act.  Rather than attend the show, it is much more fun to speculate about what is going through the minds of these poor creatures as they are urged by their trainers to perform.  It is difficult to place a value on this type of entertainment.

Ocean World beach

Beyond the Ocean World complex is a large resort complex with hundreds of villas, hotel rooms, beaches and several pools.  While on a morning walk, we are intercepted by an employee driving a golf cart that volunteers to “show us around the resort”.  He drops us at the hotel lobby and hands us off to another resort employee.  It all ends badly two hours later when we explain that under no circumstances would we be willing to purchase a membership in their vacation club.

Puerto Plata main plaza

On Wednesday, a rental car takes us on a sightseeing excursion into the town of Puerto Plata.  In the town square, we are quickly intercepted by a friendly tour guide.

Herman the third

woman with basket on head

flag plaza

boardwalk Puerto Plata

The primary mode of transportation in Puerto Plata is motorbikes.  There are literally thousands of them on the city streets.  Moto-taxis provide rapid, inexpensive transportation to one’s destination of choice.  They rarely ride with the flow of traffic or obey stop signs or traffic signals.  This makes for an interesting driving experience in Puerto Plata.

Green banana scooter

The next stop is Pescaderia Jhoan in the Village of Maimon where we are treated to a fresh seafood lunch consisting of grilled chillo, plantains and red beans with rice.

fish dish

Jhoan dining area

From here, it is on to the tiny seaside village of Luperon, which has become the permanent residence of dozens of cruising sailors who enjoy the authenticity of the town and the affordable lifestyle.  Near the waterfront are two bars that offer free WiFi.

Wendy's sign

The anchorage is well-protected, but the water is putrid.  This underscores the fact that many cruisers do not require an abundance of amenities in order to feel fulfilled and comfortable.

Street Luperon

The road to Luperon leads through rural countryside where ranching is a way of life.  Along the roadside are gatherings of men and beasts who seem to enjoy one another’s company.

riding horseback

what a yoke

 

cattle on roadBack at Ocean World Marina, we focus on the completion of boat chores in anticipation of a favorable weather pattern this weekend.  On Saturday, Cutter Loose is bound for Grand Turk.

pink tree blossom

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March 7th to March 9th – Boqueron, PR to Ocean World Marina, DR

After nine days of waiting patiently in Boqueron for a weather window to cross the Mona Passage to the Dominican Republic, Cutter Loose is finally underway at 1 PM on Saturday, March 7th, bound for Ocean World Marina on the north coast of the Dominican Republic.  With roughly 250 nautical miles to our destination, this translates to a 42+ hour passage.  Our departure is timed to arrive at Ocean World Marina early on Monday morning while the winds remain calm.

It has been said that westbound (i.e., downwind) sailors should be equally selective as eastbound (i.e., upwind) sailors when choosing a weather window to cross the Mona.  Why does the Mona Passage have such a nasty reputation?  First, the currents are unpredictable, making it impossible to time a departure that avoids a wind against current scenario.  Second, thunder squalls that continually form over the mountainous spine of Puerto Rico move westward over the Mona carrying a powerful punch.  Third, and perhaps most significantly, Atlantic Ocean waters north of Puerto Rico funnel into the Puerto Rican Trench, (the second deepest body of water in the world), before spilling over into the relatively shallow waters of the Mona Passage.  Taken together, the energy created by these colliding forces of nature can make for a bumpy ride in the Mona.

As always, carefully picking and choosing one’s weather is a critical part of successful passage making, but especially so when crossing the Mona.  One thing that we are not seeking is light winds.  With the wind at her stern or on her quarters, Cutter Loose needs at least 15 to 20 knots of true wind to make 6 knots of speed over ground.  We have been waiting for a period of moderate winds, relatively calm wind-driven seas, minimal squall activity and the complete absence of a northerly swell upon arrival at Ocean World Marina on Monday.

Our initial course takes us north along the west coast of Puerto Rico, avoiding the relatively shallow and potentially turbulent waters of the so-called “Hourglass Shoal” on the east coast of the Dominican Republic.  In the lee of PR, Cutter Loose rides a light, west wind in the 8 to 12-knot range.  In our experience down-island, “wrap-around” west winds sometimes occur in the lee of a mountainous island.  This phenomenon is normally short-lived.

Fulfilling our expectations later in the afternoon are easterly trade winds in the 20 to 28 knot range that begin to fill in as the wind-shadow effect of Puerto Rico subsides.  In mid-Mona, seas today are running in the 7 to 8 foot range from the northeast, striking Cutter Loose just abaft of her beam.  This creates a twisty, lift-and-roll corkscrew motion…just enough to require a firm handhold when making trips below to the cabin.  Occasionally, a higher-than-average wave with a frothy crest slaps against the hull, sending an airborne salty mist into the breeze.  It does not take long before everything in the cockpit, including the crew, are encrusted in an invisible layer of salt.

through the dodger

In the initial stages of the passage, it takes several hours to become comfortable with the motion of the boat and the sea state.  With the comforting knowledge that the conditions for our passage are likely to be manageable, we settle into the evening watch.  The island of Desecheo passes to starboard as the sun disappears ever so slowly below the horizon.

Sunset

While underway, most non-essential tasks are deferred due to the rolling motion of the boat.  Other than sleep, it is best to remain in the cockpit, fixated on the horizon, in order to avoid nausea.  One-dish meals are prepared in advance of departure with the goal of minimizing prep time in the galley.

Being on passage imparts a mindset in which all of one’s attention and thought process is devoted to the boat, its crew and the waters within 20 miles or so of our position.  Absent contact with the outside world, our sole focus is to keep Cutter Loose on course and sailing efficiently towards her destination while avoiding obstructions, shoals and collisions with nearby vessels.

While one person is on watch, the other is usually resting.  On an overnight passage, sleep deprivation is an important aspect of the voyage and must be managed effectively.  Instead of long-duration overnight sleep, one must adjust to a series of shorter naps.  During this passage, our watch schedule is three hours on and three hours off.  This translates to two hour naps four times in a 24 hour period.

Saturday night and the early hours of Sunday morning is a quiet time aboard Cutter Loose.  At 8 PM, a dramatic orange moon rises above the eastern horizon.  There is no evidence of other vessels in our vicinity tonight…not a single AIS imprint, radar echo or VHF transmission.  Other than checking the chart plotter for traffic, locking in waypoints on the autopilot and trimming the headsail, there are few responsibilities while on night watch.  This freedom makes it possible to sit back, observing and listening to Cutter Loose in her element.

In darkness, we are alone in the Mona Passage, sailing briskly downwind at hull speed.   One could easily ride a bicycle at twice this speed.  Wedged tightly into a snug corner of the cockpit, watching white-tipped waves lift the stern and disappear under the hull, it is easy to believe that the boat is travelling at warp speed. Reflections of moonbeams sparkle on our bubbly wake.  There are only a few clouds and no squalls.   Jupiter is the dominant star tonight…our guiding light in the northwest sky.  It is a delightful evening, listening to music on the headphones and gazing at stars.   Tonight’s passage across the Mona is sublime.

A red sunrise, however, is cause for concern.

Sunrise

On Sunday at 1300, we have completed 165 nautical miles since departing Boqueron 24 hours ago.  With the Mona Passage now logbook history, our course runs parallel to the DR’s northern coast, running eight miles offshore along the 2000 fathom contour. Transiting the coast, we finally cross paths with a few eastbound cargo ships to keep us company.

container ship

Weather and sea conditions have moderated as Cutter Loose passes abeam of Cabo Cabron, the easternmost point of the Samana Peninsula.  Conditions have now subsided to 15 to 20 knots of wind with waves running 4 to 5 feet.  This moderation results in mellow sailing.  The roll has diminished considerably while boat speed remains relatively constant.  It is now clear that at this pace, we will arrive at Ocean World Marina before dawn and ahead of schedule.  Near Cabo Frances Viejo, the headsail is furled to reduce boat speed to five knots over ground.

On Sunday night, the rising moon is obscured by increasing cloud cover.  This is not a good omen, as it portends an increase in the likelihood of squalls.  However, given the benign sea state, 5 to 10 knots of enhanced wind in squalls should be quite manageable.

At 0400 on Monday, Cutter Loose is within 20 miles of our destination, still well ahead of schedule.  Radar depicts an increasing cluster of squalls in the coastal waters near the town of Puerto Plata, just three miles east of Ocean World Marina.  An increase in wind speed with the approach of the squalls, sends Cutter Loose racing towards Ocean World at a time when we are trying to reduce boat speed.  Still in darkness, we remain well offshore, but down to bare poles in an effort to hover for two hours until 8 AM when the marina opens for business.

Between squalls, we navigate the choppy but well-marked entrance channel to Ocean World.  By 9 AM, Cutter Loose is tied alongside the fuel dock, waiting for the arrival of Customs, Immigration and Navy officials for clearance formalities.

Although very tired, we are nonetheless enthusiastic about the completion of this highly satisfying 258 mile passage in 44 hours.  To our good fortune and notwithstanding the squalls upon arrival at our destination, the weather for this journey could not have been better.

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February 26th to February 6th – inland exploration of Western Puerto Rico

While Cutter Loose remains anchored in Boqueron, a rental car is just the ticket for sightseeing and completing travel-related tasks.   The nearest car rental agency is located in Mayaguez Mall, about 8 miles to the north.  After hitching a ride in a pickup truck from Boqueron to the nearby town of Cabo Rojo, a publico (van) provides transportation from Cabo Rojo to Mayaguez Mall.  At $2 per person, the fare is quite affordable.

Route 2 is the primary north-south commercial corridor in Mayaguez, the third-largest city in Puerto Rico.  Driving Route 2 is similar to being in the U.S.  This six-lane highway is lined with commercial strip development interspersed with traffic signals about every quarter mile.  Since the signals are not synchronized, Route 2 frequently becomes gridlocked with traffic.  This is where the fun begins.

traffic

Going with the flow of Puerto Rican traffic requires a mental adjustment from the cruising lifestyle.  Red lights and stop signs are interpreted by Puerto Rican drivers as mere suggestions…not hard and fast rules.  Vehicles entering an intersection at a stop sign inch their way into the flow of traffic, playing chicken with vehicles that have the right of way.  During periods of peak congestion, vehicles sometimes block an intersection after the signal has turned red.  Surprisingly, there is no road rage.  What we refer to as aggressive driving is accepted behavior here in Puerto Rico.  Most vehicles are road warriors…riddled with numerous dents and dings.

The U.S. Customs office is located in Mayaguez, as are grocery stores and banks.  For last- minute provisioning, there is one final visit to Sam’s Club.  After all, grocery stores in the out islands of the Bahamas are few and far between.  Puerto Rico is an outstanding place to restock for the long journey ahead.

A few blocks from the Customs office is Massa Artisan Bakery, an oasis in the desert of Mayaguez’s industrial waterfront.

Massa coffeeshop Mayaguez

Route 2 eventually leads to the Camuy River Cave Park near the town of Arecibo on the north coast of Puerto Rico.  Here, a subterranean river has carved its way through limestone, creating vast caverns.  From the visitor center, a tram provides access through the tropical forest to the entrance to cave’s entrance.

stalagtites

From here, a lighted walkway reveals all manner of stalactites and stalagmites with resting bats.  In two areas, the cavern is lit by natural light from huge sinkholes that have opened up to the earth’s surface above.

Camuy Cave Opening

This extensive network of caves and underground waterways extends for ten miles, but only a small part of the overall network is open to the public.  The Camuy River cave system was discovered in 1958, but there is evidence that the caves were explored by the native Taino Indians (Puerto Rico’s first in habitants) hundreds of years ago.

Camuy cave opeing w roots

From Arecibo, Route 10 bisects Puerto Rico as it heads towards the seaport city of Ponce on the south coast.  This highway becomes a narrow, winding road in the interior rainforest mountains of the Cordillera (spine) of Puerto Rico.

Parque de Bombas

Ponce is Puerto Rico’s second largest city.  The core of the downtown has retained much of its original architecture, including the Parque de Bombas. This former fire station is now a tourist attraction.

Building Ponce

Cathedral

From Ponce, it is an easy one-hour drive to Boqueron paralleling the south coast on Route 2.  In our experience, this is one of the better stretches of highway in Puerto Rico, apart from toll roads.  Because it is further away from the major population centers, the south coast remains relatively undeveloped and the highway is in good condition and free of traffic congestion.

Over one thousand miles have passed beneath the keel of Cutter Loose since we began our journey in early December.  At this juncture, we have reached the midway point of our winter cruise.  After nine days of waiting in Boqueron, wind and sea conditions are expected to subside for a brief period this weekend.  This is our opportunity to depart Puerto Rico and continue on with our journey.  On Saturday, March 7th, Cutter Loose will cross the Mona Passage bound for the north coast of the Dominican Republic.

pretty in pink

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An introduction to Puerto Rican food culture and cuisine

One interesting aspect of travel is the opportunity to learn about local customs and cuisine.  In Puerto Rico, exploring a menu and interacting with waiters also provides an opportunity to learn new words and practice our conversational Espanol.

Here’s a sampling of Puerto Rican food served at the Metropol Restaurant in Fajardo:

Ensalada de de aguacate – a simple but delicious avocado salad with lentils in a balsamic glaze served over greens

Lentils Avocado salad Metropol

Mofongo Marisco – Nearly every menu in Puerto Rico includes a variation of mofongo.  This is the traditional comfort food here…the equivalent of mashed potatoes in the U.S. but with a thicker consistency.   Ingredients include fried green plantains mashed together with yucca, garlic, stock and olive oil.  Sometimes the mofongo is stuffed with protein.  Here it is served smothered with seafood.

Mofongo Metropol

Pechuga de pollo - chicken breast served with black beans and rice and candied ripe plantains

Chicken rice Metropol

Churrasco – grilled skirt steak served with veggies and potato salad

Skirt steak Metropol

Chuletas Kan Kan – crusty, deep fried, melt-in-your-mouth pork chops served with Spanish rice and tostones (unripe fried plantain slices)

Pork and rice Metropol

Puerto Ricans also love their roasted pork (lechon asado).  Lechonerias are everywhere in Puerto Rico, most commonly in the form of informal highway stands.  Roasted pork is commonly served with side dishes such as rice with pigeon peas and plantains.

Pig sign1Route 184 near the town of Guavate in eastern Puerto Rico is known locally as pork highway.  A series of cute little pig graphics announces one’s arrival in hog heaven.  More than a dozen lechonerias are concentrated within a half mile section of this remote, rural road.  The pork highway is the epitome of retail clustering.  This community went whole hog in its efforts to attract visitors.

 

To get things started, simply step up to the counter and gaze at the expression on the face of the whole pig as it rests stoically on a spit above hot coals.

Roasted pig on spit

Pig sign 2

 

Then order some slow roasted pork and select from an assortment of side dishes.  Once the order is placed, watch closely as the chef hacks furiously at the pig with his machete.  A large chunk of flesh is transferred to the cutting board for further processing.

 

Free parking pigWhen the desired serving portion is achieved, the chef places the meat in a Styrofoam clamshell container.  The serving includes mouth-watering tender meat as well as bones, crispy skin and other pork byproducts.  After the chef’s assistant adds the side dishes, proceed to the cashier and pay about $12 for a satisfying meal including beverage.

Obtain some plastic forks and spoons and a healthy supply of paper napkins from the condiment station, then have a seat at a picnic table or proceed to the nearby community park for an outdoor picnic.

Pork picnic

food caseAnother staple in the Puerto Rican diet is empanadillas…a pastry filled with beef or chicken, then deep-fried to a golden brown, crusty shell.  These snacks are typically displayed in an enclosed glass box under heat lamps.  In a residential neighborhood, a front yard empanadilla stand with tables and chairs quickly evolves into a gathering spot where area residents catch up on the news of the day.

taco truckFood trucks parked along commercial highways are a major element of the food culture throughout Puerto Rico.  In addition to lechon asado, there are also vendors that specialize in barbequed chicken, frappes, fruit stands and Creole food.  These vendors are highly patronized by the motoring public.  Each stand offers a small plastic table and chairs under a makeshift awning for customers who prefer to dine alfresco.

roadside umbrellaDuring the lunch hour and at other times as well, it is not unusual to be delayed on the highway as hungry drivers unexpectedly enter and exit the road in the vicinity of a food stand.  Sometimes, customers cross busy four-lane highways on foot in order to gain access to a popular food truck on the opposite side of the road.  Although this practice is unsafe and contributes to traffic congestion, the police appear at ease with the situation as they wait in line patiently with other customers.

Jay and the Americans at Metropol in Fajardo

Jay and the Americans at Metropol in Fajardo

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February 20th to February 25th – south coast of Puerto Rico

 

Cutter Loose is underway from Puerto del Rey Marina at 9 AM on Friday, February 20th.  Our objective in the coming week is to savor Puerto Rico’s south coast with the eventual goal of reaching the seaside village of Boqueron on the west coast.

The easterly trade winds blow vigorously on the south coast of Puerto Rico, making this passage especially difficult for eastbound cruisers en route to the promised land of the Virgin Islands.  One beneficial characteristic of the south coast is that it offers a series of protected bays and harbors to hide from heavy weather.

Our course today follows the Media Mundo Passage inshore of Isla Pineros and past the former Roosevelt Roads U.S. naval base on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico.  During WWII, this base was capable of harboring the entire Atlantic fleet.  Its function was to protect the Panama Canal and to defeat any German incursion into Western Atlantic waters.

Transiting the cut in the reef at Boca de Inferno, we enter Bahia de Jobos and motor to the nearby anchorage in the lee of Cayo Puerco.  By 5 PM, the anchor is down, having logged 60 miles for the day.  This is a cozy, mangrove-lined anchorage in the lee of Cayo Puerca.  Puerto Ricans flock to the mangrove creeks in this bay whenever a hurricane threat arises.  Tonight, Cutter Loose has the bay to herself.

On Saturday, February 21st, it is a short run inside Cayos de Ratones (Rat Cay) to the Bahia de Rincon near the town of Salinas.  Inside this well-protected harbor, there are a dozen or more cruising boats hunkered down in advance of the blustery conditions that are forecasted for Saturday and Sunday.

cl

On the afternoon of Sunday, February 22nd, we tempt fate by departing our snug anchorage for a short 17-mile, downwind run to Isla Caja de los Muertos (aka Coffin Island), about 7 miles offshore from the seaport city of Ponce.  The seas this afternoon are in the 8 to 9 foot range under an ominous dark, cloudy sky.  A peak wind gust of 33 knots is recorded during today’s passage.   Frothy waves lift the stern of Cutter Loose, sending her surfing towards Coffin Island at 8 knots.  Had better judgment prevailed, we would have remained one more night in Salinas.  However, once in the lee of Coffin Island, the blustery conditions subside rapidly as today’s bouncy conditions fade into a distant memory.  Tonight’s fiery sunset is tinged by storm clouds on the horizon.  Cutter Loose is one of only two boats in this secluded place.

kiteboarder at sunset

Given our late afternoon arrival, the decision is reached to remain here at Coffin Island for another day to hike to the lighthouse and explore this uninhabited, arid island.

Cajas Muertos Lighthouse Cupola

Under the care of the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources, Coffin Island has been designated as a wilderness area to protect its sea turtle habitat.  At the island’s summit is a low tech lighthouse which is operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.  Our hike to the summit is rewarded by superb views of the anchorage below.

View from lighthouse

Beach shot Cajas Muertos

On Tuesday, February 24th, we depart our secluded mooring at Isla Caja de los Muertos for a delightful 29-mile, downwind sail to the town of Guanica.  In 1898, American soldiers first stepped ashore here to claim the island of Puerto Rico for the U.S.  A few miles east of the entrance to the Bahia de Guanica is a small group of mangrove islands known as Cayos de Cana Gorda.  Locals refer to this place simply as Gilligan’s Island.  Tonight, Cutter Loose is one of seven boats anchored in the lee of Gilligan’s Island.

While the crew of Cutter Loose remains fast asleep, each of the other boats anchored here silently depart the anchorage in the pre-dawn hours.  Presumably they are headed east into the prevailing wind and sea.  Eastbound cruising boats must take advantage of lighter winds in the early morning hours.

At 9 AM, the anchor is up at Gilligan’s Island for a pleasant 31- mile, downwind sail to the small town of Boqueron on the southwest coast of Puerto Rico.  Our course today takes us a few miles offshore from the village of La Parguera where an unidentified flying object is hovering high above the water.  Its shape roughly resembles a pregnant goldfish cracker.  However, instead of orange, this goldfish is pure white with no obvious markings.

This is how the UFO appears through a telephoto lens from the deck of Cutter Loose:

blimp

Thanks to a Google search, the mystery is quickly solved.  As it turns out, the UFO is a TARS (Tethered Aerostat Radar System)…a balloon attached to land by way of a two mile tether, hovering 10,000 feet above the earth’s surface in our little corner of the world.  The TARS balloon is 208 feet in length and 69 feet in diameter.  Its purpose is to aid in the interdiction of illegal drugs entering the U.S. and the Caribbean.  The radar device inside the TARS specializes in tracking slow-moving, low-flying aircraft which are difficult for conventional radar systems to detect.  A network of TARS balloons stretch along the southern border of the U.S. from Arizona to Florida and extending into the Bahamas and the Caribbean.

This is a close up photograph of a TARS balloon as depicted on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website:

TARS

Rounding the southwest corner of Puerto Rico, the historic 1881 lighthouse known as El Faro, perched atop the dramatic golden cliffs at Cabo Rojo, comes into view.

Cabo Rojo lighthouse

A few miles to the north, Cutter Loose sails through the south channel entrance to the expansive Bahia de Boqueron where the hook is set just off the beach.

Boqueron beach

During the week, Boqueron is a sleepy little beach town where many of the restaurants, bars and vendor food stands that line the streets remain dark.

guitar man

Turkey

On Saturdays and Sundays, the community becomes transformed into a raucous street party, complete with live entertainment.  Bohemian in character, Boqueron attracts local boaters, cruising sailors, beach goers, motorcycle clubs, tourists, and students from the University of Puerto Rico in nearby Mayaguez.

Saturday night Boqueron crowd

Puerto Ricans love their music LOUD.  Local boats are judged not by their length or speed or attractiveness, but rather by the chest-thumping capacity of their powerful stereo systems.  Speaker arrays can be aimed at their intended target to add life to the party.

boat with speakers

Our time in Boqueron is made more enjoyable by the company of Island Packet friends Richard and Jan aboard IP 370 Morpheus of London.  We first met this charming couple while at anchor in Virgin Gorda in 2012.  It is always fun to share an anchorage with Morphie.

Morphie

The weather forecast for the foreseeable future is for wind gusts of up to 30 knots and seas in the 8 to 10 foot range.  We will remain patiently at anchor here in the protection afforded by the Bahia de Boqueron until a suitable weather window opens for our forthcoming journey across the Mona Passage to the Dominican Republic.

Peligro sign

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February 16th to February 19th – Inland exploration of Eastern Puerto Rico

 

On Monday, February 16th, the anchor is up in Esperanza, Vieques for the 23-mile run to the town of Ceiba on the east coast of Puerto Rico.  Ceiba is located just a few miles south of Fajardo.

The wind today is out of the northeast, which makes for a pleasant broad reach under cloudy skies along the southern coast of Vieques.  Clearing the west coast of Vieques, our course to Ceibo places today’s gusty, 20-knot winds, directly on the bow.  Intermittent rain showers add yet another element of intrigue to the journey.   Cutter Loose reluctantly accepts her assignment, pounding through the wind-driven waves and hobby-horsing her way to Ceibo.  Our destination for today’s bouncy trip is Puerto del Rey Marina.

Puerto del Rey Marina

With 1,000 wet slips, 500 dry-stacked spaces, a travel lift and a boat storage yard, Puerto del Rey is the largest marina in the Caribbean.  Many Puerto Ricans prefer to moor their boats on the island’s east coast for easy weekend access to Culebra and Vieques.   This is a massive marina, filled to capacity with mega yachts, large, sport-fisherman-power boats and sailing vessels.  Our slip at the outer extremity of the facility requires a 15 minute walk to the marina office.  Marina “wet slip customer service” personnel are on hand 24/7 to provide transportation via golf cart from the drop off area to one’s slip and vice versa.  Each golf cart pulls a small trailer to carry the customer’s bags, groceries and boat supplies.  Marina employees are efficient, polite and bi-lingual.  The marina’s laundry facility alone makes our visit worthwhile.

Laundromat Puerto del Rey

Cutter Loose is one of only a handful of transient cruising boats in the marina.  Since our visit takes place during a weekday period, we enjoy the exclusive use of showers, rest rooms and laundry facilities. The marina is currently undergoing a facelift, including the construction of a new cascade pool.  On site is a Thrifty car rental office, which provides wheels for our inland exploration of Puerto Rico.

CasaBlanca Hotel exterior

Our first venture is an overnight stay in the Old Town section of San Juan with Pittsburgh friends Nancy and Glen.  Thanks to Nancy’s travel planning, our comfortable accommodation at the Casa Blanca Hotel on Fortaleza Street provides an excellent base for the exploration of Old Town on foot.

GNEP at hotel

Hotel wall of vases

After a paella dinner, a leisurely stroll through the charming, European-style streets of Old Town, leads to a cozy bistro owned by jazz pianist Carli Munoz.  Fortunately, our arrival is perfectly timed to listen to Carli’s final set of the evening.  The hour is late when we return to the Casa Blanca, but the streets of Old Town are still filled with late-night revelers.

Carli Jazz

The following morning begins with a stroll along Paseo de la Princesa, a promenade that passes alongside the massive original walls of the City.

La Princessa Walkway

Reentering Old Town through the San Juan gate, it is an easy walk through pleasant neighborhoods to El Morro, the imposing fortification overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

street scene

El Morro

After dropping Nancy and Glen safely at the airport, the next stop is a suburban Costco to purchase 24 rolls of paper towels and other provisions in support of our voyage.  After three years of plying the waters of the Eastern Caribbean, being in Puerto Rico with easy access to Costco, large supermarkets and a giant West Marine store is a cruiser’s dream come true.

The major highways of Puerto Rico feature all of the familiar commercial trappings of the U.S., except that the billboards and road signs are in Spanish.  Many of the secondary roads near major population centers are congested with traffic, particularly from mid to late afternoon.  Puerto Rican drivers are aggressive but mellow.  Unlike in the U.S., horns in Puerto Rico are not generally used as an expression of road rage.  All of the major expressways have EZ Pass auto-pay lanes.  Even our rental car is fitted with an EZ Pass transponder.  Our automotive GPS does a reasonably good job of guiding us to the marina at the end of the day’s travel.

On Wednesday, it is off in the rental car again, this time to explore the Cordillera Central, a scenic route of twisty, narrow, local roads which traverse the east/west mountainous “spine” of Puerto Rico.  The route in its entirety covers 165 miles from Yabucoa on the east coast to Mayaguez on the west coast.   With frequent stops, we managed to cover only about a third of the Cordillera in one day (from Yabucoa to the town of Aibonito) before returning to Ceiba late in the afternoon.  Directional signage is not abundant along the Cordillera.  Therefore, one must allow extra time for becoming lost on narrow roads where there are limited opportunities to stop and reverse direction.  This is a travel scenario where even one’s mistakes leads to breathtaking scenery.

Central PR vista

An automobile ride along the Cordillera reveals a facet of Puerto Rican life that is distant from that of the major coastal cities.  The setting is rural, much of it in rainforest.  The pace of life in the mountains is slower and less complicated.  Along the route, modest homes dot the roadway promontories, offering outstanding views of the lush, green mountains and the expansive valleys below.

Caballero

On Thursday, our final tour in the rental car, involves a drive to the El Yunque National Forest in the Luquillo Mountains.  This is the only tropical rainforest in the United States park system.  Today’s hike through the rainforest along the Mount Britton trail leads to an observation tower that provides a bird’s eye view of San Juan and the northeast coast of the island.

El Yunque sign

Eric on Trail

CCC bridge

Tomorrow, we bid farewell to the comfort and security of marina life.  An early departure is planned for our cruise of the Puerto Rico’s south coast.

four amigos

 

 

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February 7th to February 15th – The Spanish Virgins

 

On Saturday, February 7th, the anchor is up at 9 AM in Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas, USVI.  Sailing downwind in light to moderate air, Cutter Loose is bound for the easternmost islands of Puerto Rico known as the Spanish Virgins.  During this 26 nautical mile passage, we bid farewell to the now familiar waters of the Lesser Antilles (i.e., the Windward and Leeward Islands from USVI to Grenada) and enter a geographical area of the Caribbean Basin known as the Greater Antilles (i.e., Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico).

Sail Rock

Since this is previously unexplored territory for us, there is an air of eager anticipation and excitement aboard Cutter Loose as we barrel roll alongside Sail Rock and enter the territorial waters of Puerto Rico.  Travel to new and different places stimulates one’s curiosity.  Already, our sensory antennae are hyper-extended, anxiously processing every facet of our new surroundings.

The term Spanish Virgins implies that these islands are as beautiful, slow-paced and cruise-worthy as the islands of the USVI and the BVI to the east.  Our destination today is the island of Culebra where Pittsburgh friends Glen and Nancy will be visiting aboard Cutter Loose for a few days.

Nancy Glen Vieques

La Isla de Culebra once served as a target for U.S. naval sea and air weapons.  Today it is a relaxed beach destination for Puerto Ricans seeking an alternative to traffic congestion and hectic lifestyles on the mother island.

Culebra bridge

From our anchorage in the protected harbor of Ensenada Honda, there is easy access to the nearby village of Dewey.  The harbor is uncrowded.  About twenty cruising boats are anchored here, some which have established long-term residency in Culebra.  Small, twin-engine, commercial aircraft routinely buzz the anchorage during takeoff from a nearby airfield.  A shallow canal extends from Ensenada Honda to the ferry dock which fronts on the Bay of Sardines.

Culebra ferry

The town’s ferry dock comprises a large part of the public plaza that forms the nerve center of island activity.  Each day, there are three departures and three arrivals to/from the City of Fajardo, on the east coast of Puerto Rico.  Two dollars (one dollar senior rate) buys a ticket to ride on the 90-minute, fast ferry to the mainland…an incredible bargain.

Hotel Kokomo

roosterCulebra is not a pristine resort island.  While there are two small resorts located outside of the town of Dewey, most buildings in the village house small, funky restaurants, bars and guest houses.  The primary form of transportation by residents and visitors alike is golf carts.  The slow pace, unstructured appearance and casual, non-pretentious image is what makes Culebra so attractive to many visitors.

On most weekdays, the island is quiet.  Weekends, however, are a different story.  Taxis cram the ferry plaza to meet arriving passengers.  On Saturdays and Sundays, many day visitors arrive on the morning ferry and take the 5 PM ferry back to the mainland.  From the ferry dock, visitors can board a publico (shuttle bus) for the 2-mile ride to unforgettable Playa Flamenco, the island’s premiere beach attraction.  This attractive semi-circular bay is ringed by a silky, soft, white-sand beach.  It is named after the pink flamingos that once nested in a nearby cove.

Flamenco Beach

Since the roads outside of the Village of Dewey are relatively free of traffic, our Bike Fridays prove to be the perfect means by which to explore the outlying parts of the island.  This is the first time the boat’s bicycles have been deployed since our visit to the French island of Marie Galante in March, 2013.

bikes in Culebra

To our surprise, the out and back to Playa Zoni on the northeast coast of Culebra is quite hilly, requiring more effort than we had anticipated.  There are no restaurants or commercial amenities along this route.  In fact, most of the island outside of the village of Dewey remains undeveloped.

Throwing statue

A stalled cold front remains stationary over Puerto Rico during our visit, resulting in cloudy skies and considerable rainfall for a period of three days.  Some of these downpours result in localized flash flooding.  As we travel further north and west, cold fronts exiting the U.S. east coast will exert more of an impact on our movements.  This is the price to be paid for departing the relative predictability of weather in the Windward and Leeward Islands.

Despite the gray skies, heavy cloud cover and intermittent rain, the anchor is up in Ensenada Honda on Sunday, February 15thCutter Loose is bound for the island of Vieques, about 20 miles to the south.  Our destination is the town of Esperanza on the south coast.

The U.S. Navy purchased about two thirds of the island in 1941 for the purpose of aerial and naval bombardment.  Many Puerto Ricans objected to this misuse of Vieques.  Finally in 2003, the U.S. Navy ceased the bombing and decommissioned the base.  To this day, many of the bays and beaches on Vieques are off limits due to the danger of unexploded ordinance.

Promenade Vieques

An attractive promenade extends along Esperanza’s waterfront, providing access to restaurants, picnic shelters, roadside vendors and the beach.  The movie Lord of the Flies was filmed here in 1963.

Dominoes

On Sunday afternoon, the waterfront is active with beachgoers, family picnics, card games, domino games and loud music.  By sunset, the waterfront bars and restaurants are filled to overflowing with patrons.

Dusk Vieques

Tonight, we have signed on for an evening tour of Puerto Mosquito, one of three bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico.  A twenty-minute bus ride transports us a few bays to the east and into another world.  Cloudy conditions have erased any semblance of light in the night sky, which is beneficial to our purpose tonight.

Here, aboard a pontoon boat equipped with an electric trolling motor, we are treated to an awe-inspiring, underwater light display.  These are not electric lights.  Rather, they are single-cell organisms that emit an eerie glow when disturbed by underwater motion.  When feeding fish swim nearby the boat, they leave a trail of sparkling light in their wake.  When human arms and legs are immersed in the water, thousands of sparkling lights remain on one’s limbs for a brief moment after resurfacing.  This phenomenon is an incredible display of nature…one that will not soon be forgotten.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 10.53.25 PM

The hour is late when we return from our evening adventure.  Tomorrow, Cutter Loose is bound for Puerto del Rey Marina near the town of Ceiba on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico.

 

 

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January 27th to February 7th – St. John, St. Thomas and British Virgin Islands

 

At 0800 on Tuesday, January 27th, we depart from our picturesque West Beach anchorage at Buck Island for the 34-mile sail to St. John.  The wind and seas are cooperative today, sending Cutter Loose on a delightful broad reach to Lameshure Bay.  This begins a period of relaxed cruising in the USVI and BVI where we began our Caribbean adventure in November of 2012.

The south coast of St. John is a lovely, remote cruising area.  Lameshure Bay is surrounded on three sides by lush green mountains that remain undeveloped because they are located within the National Park.  Few cruising boats venture to the south coast because it is out of the way from the mainstream of activity and there are few amenities.  This is precisely why we are here…to enjoy the peaceful solitude and natural beauty of this special place, free of crowds and distractions.

After breakfast in the cockpit on Wednesday morning, January 28th, we depart Lameshure Bay for the busy harbor at Red Hook on the island of St. Thomas.  The harbor is predictably crowded with anchored boats.  Ferries arrive and depart every few minutes from Red Hook.  Our mission this morning is to deliver our malfunctioning radar unit to the marine electronics technician here in Red Hook.  By chance, he happens to be working on a nearby boat in the harbor and notices the arrival of Cutter Loose.  He radios us on the VHF with instructions to deliver the goods to his present location, which saves us a lengthy dinghy ride to the marina.  Within a total elapsed time of 30 minutes, our mission has been accomplished.  Rarely is a boat task accomplished with such efficiency.

The anchor is up in Red Hook and we are returning to St. John…this time to the harbor at Cruz Bay.  Following a brief visit for lunch and provisioning, it is on to nearby Francis Bay for an overnight stay.  Named in honor of explorer extraordinaire, Sir Francis Drake, this large Bay is filled with National Park service mooring balls.  About three fourths of these balls are occupied by cruising boats today.  The others are empty because charter boats from the British Virgin Islands rarely take precious time away from their vacations to clear Customs and enter the USVI.  Besides, there are no restaurants or beach bars dotting the shoreline of Francis Bay…just a choice of gorgeous white sand beaches at nearby Maho Bay, Cinnamon Bay and Trunk Bay.

The overnight rental fee for a mooring in the USVI is $15.  However, our National Park Senior Pass reduces the fee to $7.50.  Payment is made on the honor system by depositing an envelope in the receptacle on an NPS float in the harbor.

For cruisers that yearn for a taste of the U.S. while visiting the USVI, Francis Bay is the place to be.  In terms of entertainment and news, there is access to both the public television station and public radio station on St. Thomas.  In addition, ATT cellular service is available.  This eliminates expensive roaming fees.

West End dinghy dock

From Francis Bay, it is on to Leinster Bay, USVI for snorkeling and a one-night stay on an NPS mooring ball.  On Friday, January 30th we arrive at Soper’s Hole in the West End of Tortola, BVI.  After clearing Customs and enjoying a late breakfast, it is on to The Bight at Norman’s Island to rendezvous with cruising friends Richard and Jan aboard IP 370, Morpheus of London.

The BVIs are somewhat unique. There are dozens of small islands encircling the large, central island of Tortola.  With clusters of islands in close proximity, the views from the water are a gorgeous sight to behold.  On the south shore of Tortola, Sir Francis Drake Channel is protected from wind and wave by the outlying islands.  During our visit, it more closely resembles an inland lake than the Caribbean Sea.

Since January is the peak of the winter sailing season, ferries and pleasure boats are everywhere.  Piloting the Channel can best be described as an exercise in defensive driving.

Norman island beach

It was fun to reconnect with Richard and Jan in The Bight at Norman Island, but the sheer density of boats on moorings here serves as a reminder that the BVIs are being loved to death by charterers.  The mooring fields have expanded, resulting in a scarcity of places to drop the hook away from the crowds.  In this simplified version of cruising, the daily itinerary involves mooring hopping from one harbor to the next, being careful to time the arrival at one’s destination by mid-afternoon before all of the balls become filled for the night.  The going rate for mooring balls in the BVI is $30 per night.

BVI boasts the highest density of charter boats in the Caribbean.  At one time, the average charter boat was in the 30 to 45 foot range, which comfortably accommodates one or two couples.  Today, 50 to 70 foot sailing catamarans and power cats are becoming the norm in the BVIs.  These larger vessels can accommodate up to 12 passengers.  Larger vessels with more passengers require larger, go-fast dinghies and tenders, frequently powered by outboard engines of up to 70 horsepower…an accident waiting to happen.  More passengers per vessel can also lead to insensitive group behavior on the part of some that interrupts the peace and quiet of others in the harbor.  Such was our experience in the Bight at Norman Island.  This is not the style of cruising that we have come to know and love in the Eastern Caribbean.

Norman island

Scrub Island pool

Rather than prolong our time in the BVIs, we complete our circumnavigation of Tortola by visiting Marina Cay, Scrub Island and Trellis Bay before returning to Red Hook, on the island of St. Thomas, where our repaired radar unit awaits.

Metal Man

Fireball cutting

 

Fireball

Perry from TropiComm is waiting on the dock at American Yacht Harbor marina when we arrive at 10 AM.  Within 90 minutes, the repaired radome is installed and thoroughly tested.  We take advantage of our time at a marina by thoroughly cleaning Cutter Loose inside and out, attending to laundry detail, filling the empty propane tank and topping off the fuel tank for the long journey ahead.

Roti hut

Our visit to the USVI is made more enjoyable by the warm hospitality extended to us by Pittsburgh natives, Cindy and Tom and their cat Felix who live on the island of St. Thomas.  The highlight of our stay here is a visit to their lovely home featuring incredible water views of Jost Van Dyke.

Tom and Cyndi

After an overnight stop in Charlotte Amalie, our next port of call will be the island of Culebra in the Spanish Virgins of Puerto Rico.

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January 23rd to January 27th – St. Kitts to St. Croix

 

Under clear skies, the anchor is up at noon in White Horse Bay, St Kitts.  Our departure this afternoon is timed for an early morning arrival in Christiansted, St. Croix.  To our dismay, the stalled cold front in the Mona Passage continues to curtail the supply of wind to our area of the Caribbean.  We had hoped for vigorous northeast winds and a rollicking beam reach.  But the wind today is slightly south of east at a paltry 8 to 13 knots, which places Cutter Loose on a downwind slog to Christiansted.  The sea state is quite benign, with four to five foot waves at ten second intervals.  It will be a calm motor/ sail passage to St. Croix.

dawn breaking

Not far north of St. Kitts is the island of St. Eustatius (aka Statia) with its enormous installation of oil storage tanks and a queue of anchored tankers waiting to unload their supply of liquid gold.  Clouds to the southwest spawn occasional rain showers, all of which contributes to a colorful sunset.   At dusk, the mountainous outline of Saba fades to black in the northeast.  Then at 2130, the crescent-shaped moon slips slowly below the horizon.  Nature has turned off its light switch.

Further away from the islands, clouds dissipate and the night sky comes alive with a stunning array of stars and constellations.  The Go Sky Watch app on the Ipad deciphers the details of the heavens.  From its location directly overhead, Jupiter is clearly in charge tonight.  To the northwest and lower in the sky is Sirius, a beacon that guides our passage towards St. Croix.  Canopus is low in the southern sky tonight, eventually falling below the horizon just as Procyon is rising on the northeast horizon.

It is also a very quiet night in the nav station.  AIS information shows a tug on a parallel course ten miles to our north, making its way to San Juan.  Another tug passes six miles to our stern.  Other than the stars, these vessels are our only nighttime companions.

At 0400, there is an eerie orange glow on the western horizon.  It is the lights of St. Croix, vaguely visible from 25 miles out.  One hour later, the eastern sky shows encouraging signs of first light.  Finally at 0645, the sun makes its appearance above the eastern horizon, casting a brilliant orange hue on Point Udall, the easternmost point of land on St. Croix.  Having completed this 130-mile passage in 20 hours, the anchor is down in Christiansted Harbor at 0845.

Sunrise from boat

Bleary-eyed and tired, our first obligation is to clear Customs in Galleon Bay.  Once the formalities are completed, we beat a hasty retreat to Cutter Loose for a few hours of shuteye before exploring the town of Christiansted on foot.

Hotel St Croix

Formerly the capital of the Dutch West Indies, much of the town’s original 18th century architecture has been preserved.  Shops, hotels, bars and restaurants are located along the boardwalk and strewn throughout the many porticos and interesting pedestrian walkways and plazas that impart a sense of character and identity to this unique place.

peach porticos

On the day of our visit, a local establishment is sponsoring a beard contest.  Moses won this competition hands down.

Beards

The cruise boat dock is located ten miles away on the west side of the island in the town of Fredericksted.  While some passengers take advantage of day excursions to Christiansted, it is not a town whose retail establishments are primarily geared to the cruise boat trade, nor are there aggressive taxi drivers or sidewalk vendors.

Christensted walkway

There is a friendly vibe here with congenial interaction between Cruzan natives, Caucasian transplants and cruisers.  As an active arts community, Christiansted offers chamber music concerts and organized gallery crawls.

Yellow government building

Near the end of the afternoon, the boardwalk bars become filled with locals and visitors, anxious to catch up on the news of the day while gazing at the seaplanes landing and taking off in the harbor.  From here, it is a short 25-minute flight to Charlotte Amalie in St Thomas. Christiansted is one of the most interesting and architecturally-attractive towns that we have visited thus far in our Caribbean cruise.

seaplane takeoff

On Sunday, January 25th, a rental car has been reserved for our self-directed tour of St. Croix.  Denmark ruled this island for almost 200 years, dividing it into 375 sugar cane plantations.  Evidence of the plantation era can be found throughout the island, including ruins of plantation homes and windmills where the cane was ground.

St. Croix is 15 miles in length and seven miles wide at its widest point.  Some 50,000 people call this place home.  The island is topographically and economically diverse.  Route 70 is the major east-west transportation spine of the island.  Located on this highway are the University of the Virgin Islands, Kmart, Home Depot and several shopping plazas with food stores.  On the southern coast is Hovensa, reputedly the largest oil refinery in the western hemisphere.  Our driving tour takes us through Fredericksted, (aka Freedom City), where the slaves of the Danish West Indies were peacefully emancipated in 1848.

Point Udall monument sundial

Point Udall is promoted locally as the easternmost point of the United States.  In addition to offering superb views, an interesting sundial Millenium Monument has been constructed here in 2000 .

Satellite dish

Nearby is a dish antenna measuring 82 feet in diameter that is part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.  We are considering adding this to our antenna array aboard Cutter Loose with the hope of achieving improved Internet access.

Buck Island signage

On Monday, January 26th the anchor is up in Christiansted harbor.  Cutter Loose is bound for Buck Island, some three miles to the northeast.  Roughly a mile in diameter, Buck Island is uninhabited and protected by the National Park Service as a National Monument.  Buck Island is a gem not to be overlooked.

Buck Island Beach

The entire island is surrounded by a coral reef.  The anchorage area is on the west side of the island within swimming distance of a gorgeous white sand beach.  A short dinghy ride to the eastern side of the island is the marked entrance to a lagoon inside the coral reef, complete with an National Park Service underwater-snorkeling grotto.  A series of moorings have been placed inside the lagoon for shallow draft dinghies, dive boats and snorkeling excursion boats.

Buck Island hike shot of St Croix

Our visit to St. Croix has been thoroughly enjoyable, made even more so by our visit to pristine Buck Island.  Tomorrow, we set sail for St. John.

Shot of water from hike

Ten ways of knowing that one has arrived in the USA:

  1. There are no less than 23 lighted aids to navigation entering Christiansted Harbor (we have not seen 23 lighted aids to navigation total in the three years since leaving the Virgin Islands in December, 2012)
  2. 5 bars of 4G ATT
  3. Upon entering the Customs office, the officer in charge greets us by saying “welcome home”
  4. Waiters and waitresses refers to us as “you guys”
  5. Prices are quoted in U.S. dollars
  6. There is no need to purchase a temporary international driver’s license to rent a car (a Pennsylvania license is sufficient)
  7. Fuel is sold by U.S. gallon
  8. Steering wheel is located on the left side of vehicles (although in the USVI, one must drive on the left side of the road)
  9. Home Depot and K Mart
  10. NPR and public television
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