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.
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.
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.
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.
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.