U-Turn

It is official, we’ve made a U-turn.  While just days ago we were on a path floating down the string of Caribbean Islands and planning to spend the Hurricane season in Grenada before working our way across the South and Central American coast towards the jeweled and remote islands of the San Blas (Panama) from which we would slowly work our way back to the start, today we have our bow pointed West.

What happened in the past few weeks to totally derail decades worth of planning and dreaming?!?  I don’t know for sure.  Maybe it started when we left the Dominican Republic and knew we hadn’t even begun to see all it had to offer.  We were only in one harbor after all.  Or, on that logic, maybe it started when we sailed right past Rum and Conception in the Bahamas- they were both on my wanna-go-there list.  It’s like we built up so much momentum then crashed and burned.  Really, it probably started with the comparison of what we had read and seen about the San Blas islands in our preparation phase (years and years ago) to what we heard from people who have been there recently. Seems we did our research once and didn’t revisit it again. To shorten it down to a sentence or two: It is no longer a place that is only reached by the rare cruising boat, it is a place now easily reachable by plane, charter boat, cruise ship excursion tours and probably even jet skis too. We are listening to reports of overcrowded anchorages with fees to anchor and even come ashore.  This is a far cry from what we are in search of.  Not all the islands have been corrupted by the taste of tourism, but it seems many have.  Some cruisers loved the San Blas, some hated it, some people said it is now a lost destination- the window to truly experience it unmolested has already closed.  However, everyone does seem to be in agreement that if what you are looking for is free diving, spearfishing,  clear water, unlimited white beautiful beaches, and the freedom to travel among them we won’t find any better than the Ragged and Jumento Islands of the Bahamas. In all of our time in the Bahamas we never made it there. Normally we take it all in and just go see for our selves but all of a sudden 1600 miles (plus the return trip) seemed like a really, really long way to sail for a destination that we now had some doubts about how much we would like. From this doubt it snowballed and we’ve been a lost, spinning mess since.  If time (money) were not the limiting factor we would still just go and see for our selves then come back and hit the parts of the Bahamas we missed and/or loved again.  We don’t have that many seasons left.  It is an either or situation. Decisions had to be made, priorities sorted.

Once San Blas was in question the entire Eastern Caribbean quickly came under review.  Did we want to still go to Grenada for the summer?  The Eastern Caribbean was never our interest, they were just islands along our path we hoped to enjoy on our way to our primary destination.  We’ve been in the USVI for almost three weeks now for weather, and while we know we can’t compare these charter clogged islands to the entire chain, we think we have seen enough to make a decision. Though the process has been a doozey!! We’ve flip-flopped on an almost hourly basis for days now!  I even made a color-coded spreadsheet with our possible routes to help sort out all our options.  It just added to the mess.  Anyone who has come in contact with us as we were working out this whole morphing-of-a-dream thing has probably felt our sting. Sorry. We never forgot that we are in a the most privileged  of positions, but, still, transitions can be exhausting.

We finally were able to work it through to this:  With our remaining cruising seasons, was it more important WHERE and how FAR we went (and completing what we set out to do)-or-HOW we experienced these remaining seasons.  Until now the where and the how meshed.  We were someplace we thought was terrific and doing all the things we love. So Simple.  We don’t feel that way now.  Where do I begin without sounding sour and bratty? I suppose I can’t, but we are not enjoying the crowded harbors, we don’t like being told we have to use a mooring ball, and we really don’t like having to pay $26.00 a night to use it.  We don’t like the hunt to find the exclusions to these rules. The beaches are beautiful, sure, but are littered with bars, and beach-floaty rental shacks, and, the kicker for me, they come with roped-off swimming areas that I am supposed to stay in.  I, apparently, do not like being told where I can swim! Throw on top that you have to pay just to access many of the beaches and we are done.  Done, done. What all of that boils down to is that we feel we are someplace we could just as easily visit and experience just as wholly by plane and we are worried it will likely be the same for the majority of the way down the islands.  The freedoms we have by traveling on our own little boat are all gone here.  Are our concerns for the remaining islands valid? I think so. Would we see beautiful things, have amazing experiences, and meet wonderful people if we kept going?  Absolutely. Will we regret not venturing on? That is the real question. We hope not. We won’t have this opportunity again.

Instead of continuing on we have chosen to spend our precious remaining seasons living a life that cannot be reached by plane.  We are going back to where we eat from the water more meals than not, have the freedom to chose where to drop the anchor and make home for the night- perhaps a beautiful beach with not another soul in sight, and live a more self-sufficient and free life in a part of the world that is still unblemished by crowds (before it is).  Where we want to do that happens to be in the direction we just came from. The current plan (it has been unwavering for a whole 30 hours- a record for the past few weeks) is to finish waiting on some mail here in St. Thomas, then slowly work our way back through Puerto Rico seeing what we missed on our speedy sail East, revisit Dominican Republic, and then head back to our beloved Bahamas. We won’t miss the Raggeds this time! Plans for Cuba are actively being researched to help satisfy the “see new places” desire. Yesterday we committed and made arrangement for hurricane storage if needed on Stocking Island. It is not the plan of world-travelers or of adventurous sailors.  It is just our little happy-happy plan.

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^^ Despite our overall feelings, our introduction to St. Thomas could not have been sweeter.  A few miles out we hailed our friends on Smitty– we haven’t seen them since sailing with them in the Bahamas about a year ago and were excited to see them again.  We didn’t really expect an answer on the radio, they were not expecting us for a few more weeks, but we got one!  Before we even made it all the way in the harbor they had a mooring ball arranged for us and a plan to get us in the water immediately!  Best. Welcome. Ever.  They gave us the tours and the lowdown’s on where to get stuff like groceries and laundry, and more, it has been fun catching back up.

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^^We moved out of the mooring field and into Brewers Bay anchorage to give ourselves some more room and hang on our own equipment for the days and days of weather we got.  We knew it was coming, that is why we had been traveling so fast.

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^^ We participated in a community clean-up day with the crew on Blabber. The ladies liked Keith’s dreadlock painting skills!!!

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^^ We sailed over to St. John to get away from the city for a night.  It was pretty.  We enjoyed seeing the mountains green and not covered with square buildings. We tied the boat off to the required mooring, secured the dinghy off to the designated dinghy area and swam in the buoyed swim zone.  Everything was nice. The experience did little to sway us from turning around.

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^^While at St. Johns we went in search of a beach that Kai was allowed on.  The main one was off limits and the one behind us was to rocky to land on so we went to the next little one we saw.  It was perfect and no one was around. Kai ran from one end to the other over and over.  When we got back to the boat we realized that that cute little beach had been in the BVI’s. Ooopppps!!  We were not allowed there and Kai REALLY wasn’t allowed there.  (So, technically the farthest East we got was the BVI’s!)

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^^ Our favorite little spot on St. Thomas ended up being Brewers Bay. (The previous three photos) It sets under the pretty little University of the Virgin Islands Campus.  The University has opened the beach to the public for free and many locals come and enjoy it daily.  Two food trucks park up on the road.  The other side of the anchorage is the airport runway so it provided us entertainment to watch the little planes landing and taking off when we were getting gusts in the 30’s and 40’s!  It is filled with sea turtles, so that is nice too.

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^^We took a walk on Megan’s Bay Beach just because it was listed as one of the top 10 beaches in the world.  Of course we went after 5pm because we just don’t pay to walk on a beach.  It was pretty, and long.  We left feeling very lucky….we could list a bunch of beaches that we enjoyed more.  I think our judging criteria was just different.

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^^ Lost in thought….

Puerto Rico in a Blink

Okay, so the last post left off with us waiting for the Department of Homeland Security to come out and give our little boat a peek over.   They never came.  We called again the next morning got transferred all over the island and finally were given our magical little combination of numbers that said we were allowed to set foot in our country.  Not sure why they didn’t just do that from the beginning –but whatever.

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I had planned on sewing us our Puerto Rico courtesy flag on the sail from DR.  Keith, being the most thoughtful husband ever, knew I wasn’t up to it and stopped in the sail shop in Luperon the morning we left and bought us one.  I include a photo…..just in case you were thinking of getting some sail or canvas repair done while in Luperon.  Hems? Stitching?  Not so straight.  But ever so appreciated!!!  I didn’t have to sew it and it was only $4.00.

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Boquerón is a University and local family vacation spot and with it being a holiday weekend we got to see it in full action.  Coming back to the boat from calling Customs we found ourselves swarmed with jet skies.  Hundreds!  It was like kicking a hornets nest of them. There was some sort of club or something and they zoomed into the anchorage all afternoon.  Normally we hate jet skies, but at this point we just had to be entertained by the whole circus.  There was a police boat and three police jet skies near us.  They constantly had people pulled over.  It looked like they had a profitable weekend. We did escape the craziness for a bit by going ashore and doing some touristy people-watching for the afternoon.

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Having seen all we needed to see at Boquerón, we had a great little sail around the corner to the quiet water-side town of La Parguera. The town was cute and colorful, but we anchored off in a secluded little spot behind some reefs and snuggled up next to some mangrove islands.  For the first time in a LONG time we got to go for a dive and catch dinner. We caught lobster, Keith saw a baby hogfish.  It was too small to go for, but was still exciting to see! The water felt great.

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Our anchorage was right next to this blimp station.  It was pretty neat watching it be brought down and float back up. It did crazy things to our radio reception and Kai wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to do about it.  It tested his little watch-dogging skills.

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The main attraction, though, was searching for monkeys!  We heard that the little island we were anchored in front of was home to 400 monkeys.  Monkeys are on my bucket list so we went in search.  There is a mangrove lined creek that runs through the islands.  We turned off the motor and quietly paddled through the entire creek.  We didn’t hear, or see, or smell any monkeys. It was a neat trip though and saw lots of other wildlife- just no monkeys.

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^^Even Kai helped look for monkeys.

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The weather has been perfect for sailing along the coast.  Technically this is still all part of the Thorny Path, but our luck has been holding out and it has been easy sailing so we’ve kept moving. Next stop was Ponce.  We figured we would basically set up camp in Ponce as it had wonders such as malls, Wal-Marts, Sam’s Clubs, marine stores, US Post Offices and is in the land of Amazon delivery.   We’ve acquired quite a list of items that we needed to take care of.  We also expected to do some sight-seeing of Puerto Rico from there too.

We were at Ponce exactly 55 minutes.  That was long enough to discover that the anchorage is too crowded with moored boats to get into it, the Yacht Club no longer allows dinghies to access their dinghy dock-even for a fee, there was no WiFi access, and we would need a taxi everyday to get to all the shops if we did find a safe place to tie the dinghy (we didn’t consider the boat ramp a safe spot).  In an unusually decisive moment we turned around and kept sailing down the coast (after filling up on cheap diesel). Ponce would just have to be visited by rental car from somewhere else.

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^^Ponce, not so much our scene.

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That evening we slid into the Salinas anchorage just as the sun was getting low.  It was a much better spot than Ponce!  Pretty, cruiser friendly, calm anchorage, and manatees swimming by the boat.  We went to bed thinking it would be home for the next week.

That plan was thrown out the window before breakfast the next morning.  The weather report was that the glorious good weather we have been enjoying was going to be coming to a screeching halt soon.  And when it did, it was going to be ugly for a really long time.  Like weeks.  So basically the take away was get to where you wanted to be stuck.  While we had planned on staying in Salinas for a while, it sounded like we were going to be there for a LONG while.  The decision became Wal-marts and projects or beaches and swimming.  Hmmmm.  Beaches won.  I heard they have beautiful ones in the Spanish Virgin Islands!

We did a mad scramble of completing as much stuff as we could in one day.  Luckily everything just seemed to line up for us all day long.  We even ran across a cruiser with a car headed to the grocery store with extra room in their back seat for us.  We had planned on doing some major reprovisioning while in Puerto Rico.  Instead we just ran a cart as fast as we could down each isle and dumped stuff in so we could catch the same ride back.  I didn’t even have my list with me. Beans, tuna, toilet paper and off we go!  We actually did pretty good I think.  Auto-pilot and freezer parts, we decided, would have to wait for a while longer. As well as mail from the US.

And that concluded our speedy tour of Puerto Rico, we headed out at first light the next morning.  We will definitely have to come back and give this island some more time.  But, if we have learned anything, take the good weather when you have it!

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^^Did I mention the sailing has been glorious?!?

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So, our tour of the Spanish Virgin Islands is almost identical as Puerto Rico’s. I can’t even give it its own post. Instead of a week we blew through in 24 hours. We stopped in Vieques as we wanted to sneak in a quick dive. We tried three different anchorages but they were all too rolly so sailed straight to Culebra for the night.  This is where we were going to camp for the next few weeks.  Once we got there we realized that the only beach we would be able to access in the high winds was a preserve.  Which is great, but Culebra and the rest of the Spanish Virgin Islands have so many great diving spots and cove-y beaches. We knew we had to see them but it would be probably be best when the weather would be more conducive to enjoying them-or even getting to them!  Maybe we should have thought that out better before we left Salinas?  Anyway……off to St. Thomas! We will back-track when the weather clears. We are not skipping these islands.

Besides, St. Thomas has K-marts and US Post Offices.  Even better than that—friends!!!!

The Mona

This may sound stupid, but the first thing we did after finally getting our despacho was fall asleep, but we had an hour to leave the harbor and we were the first boat out of three that was planning on taking the same window to get cleared out so we had a few minutes.  Between my climbing fever and the bureaucracy stress we just needed a moment to regroup before starting out on what ended up being a long trip.  We left that afternoon, sailed through the night, sailed all the next day, sailed through the next night, and sailed through the next day until pulling into Boquerón Puerto Rico in the early evening.  The autopilot functioned for about one hour of that whole trip before breaking.  Having to hand steer made the trip seem to take foreeeeevvvveeeerrrrr!!!  The conditions weren’t bad, actually quite good, but parts still felt something like having strapped your home onto the back of a galloping horse. Keith took the majority of the watches and we disregarded a set watch schedule.  When ever one of us naturally woke up from a nap, we took over.  Most of my watches were short, an hour or two.  It was all either of us could do feeling so crappy.  All I wanted was to climb under a mountain of blankets and not come back out.

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As we passed near Samana Bay we kept a look out for whales.  This time of year humpback whales migrate and gather in the shallow waters off of the coast of DR and the mothers birth their calves here. I really didn’t want to spot any. Our boat insurance covers pretty much everything a normal policy covers except it has one very clear exclusion- damage by marine life (whales).  We figure there is good reason.  At first all we saw were fishing nets, in fact we found ourselves surrounded by a large drift net near Samana.  We had to cut the engine and float over it because we couldn’t see either edge of it. Then we heard Antares shout on the VHF- WHALES!!!!!  Off our starboard bow, probably close to a mile away, we saw them.  At first we thought we saw the whole whale breaching then realized it was only its tail.  That is when I really realized how massive they are!  We watched as the whales would lift their huge tails out and slap the surface causing a huge splash.  We also saw them spouting and even a few breaches.  My favorite was watching them roll over-and they did it over and over again.  One gigantic fin would slowly lift out of the water, arc, and splash down thunderously just as the second gigantic fin would lift out and follow.  They put on a non-stop show for about half an hour.  I hadn’t wanted to see them from our boat but it ended up being one of the most amazing experiences.  There we were sitting in our cockpit, in our pajamas, watching a few of only 15000 great humpback whales in the whole world frolic in front of us.  MAGNIFICENT!!!! I didn’t get photos, my camera doesn’t have a good zoom so all that would have come out is a lot of water and sky and a tiny splash.  Instead we just took in the moment.  We didn’t go any closer to them, they were longer and heftier than our boat and they were tossing there massive bodies about like a tantruming child, we stayed well out of their way!!!  It was an absolutely spectacular experience.

The second night of sailing was long and a little bouncy, but completely uneventful as we finally pulled away from the coast of the DR.  The morning found us at the edge of the Hourglass Shoals and the beginning of the Mona Passage.  I could write a paragraph or more on the hows and whys the Mona Passage can be one of the most treacherous passages in the Atlantic.  But we have had enough drama the past week so I will just write that it was flat calm-totally mellow.  Of course, that is specifically why we were so determined to make our weather window out of Luperon on time. The Mona did bring her own surprises though- more whales!!!  At first Keith thought he saw a big log in the water but it was too black and shiny.  When he realized it was a whale, he thought it was a baby humpback and started looking for mama!  It was a pilot whale (we think).  We passed within 20 feet!!!  I was down below and didn’t make it up in time to see it, but it wasn’t my only chance.  From there on, through the whole Mona Passage, we passed pods of them.  These ones were smaller than the boat and were just floating at the surface- not tossing their heft about like the giant humpbacks.  We still didn’t get closer on purpose.  It ended up being a great Mona Passage crossing.  We are becoming great believers in being very selective of weather windows!

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By late afternoon we had pulled into Boqueron, Puerto Rico and dropped hook in the company of our passage-making friends Antares and Blabber.  To clear in Customs we needed to make a phone call which would have entailed launching the dinghy and putting the outboard motor on it- they were both secured away for for the trip.  Instead we raised the Q-flag and were both asleep before dark.

In the morning we learned Antares and Blabber were going to take advantage of the favorable weather and keep going, they have already seen Puerto Rico. We have not and we need to take care of some details like repairing our autopilot and getting some mail shipped in from the the US so we said our “until we see you agains” over coffee aboard Blabber.  Then we went ashore and called Customs.  We had the bought the Customs sticker and signed up for the Small Vessel Reporting Program in the States so we expected to just have to make a phone call like when we cleared into Florida from the Bahamas.  That is what all the other US vessels seemed to do when they got here.  Instead we were told that someone would be out to the boat for an inspection within a few hours-just wait on the boat.  That was fine we needed some more time to relax and recover anyway.  We went back to the boat and waited.  And waited.  By 4:00 we got impatient and Keith went in and called again but there was no answer anywhere.  No one ever came out to our boat.  There was a concert going on on the beach in front of the anchorage at night.  We got to enjoy it from the cockpit but the smells of fried and sweet vendor food also floated our way.  If we had been free to, we would have gone ashore and joined in. But we were not free to go.  Again.  Seems to be our story lately!

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No Dispacho, No Dispacho, Si Dispacho!!!

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Ok, let me see where we left off….we had been denied exit authorization on Monday.  So Tuesday we had planned to keep a low profile and specifically NOT see any of the officials or the Comandante in hopes that over time he would get over his little power trip thing and whatever may have been stirred up by him losing control of his harbor and vessels leaving without authorization the day before.  Unfortunately in the afternoon as we were walking back to the boat from town the Comandante spotted us before we spotted him.  He approached us and after a quick greeting he told us something of which we got out of: GO NOW.  We were not sure if it was that we needed to go now or he wanted us to go now.  Either way the weather window that we wanted to use Monday was closed and gone and there was now a north wind.  Not bad weather- just not the weather we needed or we probably would have just accepted and gone- no questions asked. Instead we told him that, no, we wanted to leave tomorrow (when the wind direction was good again).  He shook his head. No, no…got a phone call….bad weather….can’t go tomorrow-no despacho.  Seriously?!? Here we go again!  I immediately walked over to the bar we’ve been going to everyday and asked for bartender to just translate for us and he did.  We explained the weather was very good tomorrow and we needed to leave then.  After a lot more talking than we asked for to be translated the bartender told us we would be OK tomorrow.  We looked over at the Comandante, said Thank You, and confirmed that we were all good for clearing out tomorrow.  He didn’t look happy and was looking at the ground but said yes.  I am not sure what this has been all about but I know it is not the weather! I also don’t know how much of where we were now standing factored into what had just happened.  Wendy’s bar, the main cruisers hang-out, is run by a local family and also an ex-pat (married into the family).  Norm, the expat, runs the morning VHF cruisers net and always asks for any reports of problems encountered with the locals and asks for new boaters to report any excessive requests  experienced while clearing in and dealing with the officials.  He has been working hard on cleaning up the reputation and improving the experience of the visitors to bring more people back into the town. As we walked back down the street the Comandante offered us a ride in his shiny, chromed-out, decaled-up personal car. Thank goodness we were stepping into one last shop and could politely decline. It was weird  even though we got an OK, we were not feeling that confident that everything was going to go smoothly on Wednesday.

Early Wednesday morning we gathered with our friends on Blabber and Antares and all together headed ashore to hopefully get our despachos. We commented to each other that we saw people working on the Navy boat and they even had the engine room hatches open. Prepping for futures escapees? We also saw the Comandante on the pier.  Together we walked up the hill to the office and once again asked for our despachos.  I know you are going to just as surprised as we were to hear the answer…. “No despacho”.  This time they cited that the Comandante was in Puerto Plata. No despachos today. BS.  He was in the harbor.  We, well our friends that speak better Spanish than us, explained that we were told no problems today by the Comandante himself yesterday-please give him a call. We sat down and waited. I think they knew we were going to stay until we had a resolution.  After a while of politely going back and forth and just smiling while we waited one of the guys had us fill out a piece of paper and they took photos of our passports with their phones (nothing is done on computers).  Then we were told we could meet them on the dock at 12.  They wouldn’t give us a copy of the papers we just filled out.  I got the feeling he had just done it so that we would leave, but since he had given us a time, we hoped we were wrong. Keith took me back to the boat since I was feeling crappy, he had shared his germies with me,  and he went back to the dock to wait just in case they were early. (We wanted no excuses)  By eleven we heard from another boater that they would come out at 2:30.  This was cutting it too tight, we needed to leave in the afternoon to make our whole trip work-besides they didn’t tell any of us that.  At noon no one showed up.

Before we got to the DR I had written down the number for the US Embassy in Santo Domingo just in case we got ourselves into something scary while touring. I never envisioned requiring it from the boat.  While technically we were being held without our consent for a bogus reason- I wasn’t ready to call it that yet (nor-do I really believe it was that yet).  The whole situation evoked range of emotions including frustration, confusion, dismay, and sometimes even humor over the last three days-but we never felt fearful or scared. Not even a little.  However, now, humor was long gone and so was the just go-with-the-flow and accept it attitude and we really needed to leave within a few hours for a safe trip. The situation was starting to turn into something else if we missed this opportunity. I started playing out the phone call to the Embassy in my head.  Ben and Keith went to find the Comandante as they had not told us it was going to be later.  Finally by a little after 1:00 we had gathered the officials (we didn’t need to go to Puerto Plata to find them) and loaded them into our dinghies and brought them out to our boats.  We were first.  We filled out the same little piece of paper we filled out in the morning and as we did we handed out cold bottles of water.  The Comandante was not interested- he wanted something better.  Sorry. We had bought several bottles of rum specifically  with the intention of giving them to the officials, but after the past few days of antics I plan on drinking them myself. ( I am glad we bought them nice rum!) We don’t have a problem with giving a tip to make things smooth or show appreciation but not in this scenario. They didn’t ask us for more gifts but they did on the other boats. They, as our friend described perfectly, acted like rotten, rude children while aboard and their talk about the women on the boats in front of and to the husbands was off-the-chart unprofessional and vulgar.

FINALLY!!!! We had our despacho!!!  I was also now the proud owner of a 102.8 fever. Awesome. What a way to start off a 50+ hour sail!

If you read our blog because maybe one day you may want to travel the same path (it is why I have read so many blogs the past few years), I don’t want this one situation to be the take-away of the Dominican Republic.  Please, please don’t let this be the only story that you share when talking about this country.  Just like I don’t want to be judged because of the man that heads the US, it would not be fair to judge the DR on the perversions of their Armada.  Toss a bottle of hand-sanitizer, a roll of toilet paper, and a map in your backpack and enjoy the DR.  It is worth the “troubles”!!!  Really, don’t pass it up just because of a few child-like men.

On that note- instead of writing about our passage (I am typing this post from Boquerón, Puerto Rico), I would rather share two short stories that better wrap up our experience in DR and leave on a happier thought.

One Beer Bottle of Gasoline

One of the days that I was feeling lethargic Keith took the motorcycle out for drive by himself.  We had already learned here that you do not fill up the tank before your return your rented vehicle, you just put in what you use for the day.  (Even if you are renting two days in a row)  He was just riding aimlessly but started to head back to the town when the gas was low- he thought he had put just enough in to last the day.  Not quite.  He ran out on one of the country roads.  He switched to the reserve tank (that had been full the day before) and found it to be empty now too. Whoops! A car stopped immediately and tried to help Keith switch to the empty reserve tank, then a guy from the closest house came out to help, then his brother came out too.  The brother tried to blow through the lines and make sure they were not blocked.  Not much they can do when there was no gas!  They offered to call him a motoconcho, but Keith was just going to push the bike back to town (he had almost made it back). The guys suggested he stop a few houses down first.  Keith stopped when he saw some guys working on a bike, but that was too far.  The guys gave him a “push” back up the hill (They drove on their bike and put their foot on his making it go).  At this house more people came out to help.  One was carrying a  Presidente Grande beer bottle full of gasoline. Love it. The guy filled it up, choked it and even started it for Keith.  Keith could have done it himself but they wanted to assist. Keith made sure to pay for the gas (It is the one very expensive thing here) and give big “gracias-es” all around. Just one more way to make some new friends. He made it into town and bought a few more pesos of gas to finish off playing for the day.

Our Valentines Date

The night after we were supposed to have left was Valentines Day.  We, in general, don’t do holidays but the town was quite excited about the day and we got excited too.  Red a white balloons were getting stuck on motorcycles and in doorways.  Women were getting their hair done up in big curlers and the men were gathering slabs of meat and collecting vegetables getting ready to cook a big meal.  Wendy’s Bar was hosting a dance and Freddie was making a pot of Sancocho. They were providing lessons for Merengue and Salsa later. It didn’t matter that we both felt completely crappy, we knew this was a night we shouldn’t miss!  I guess for Valentines Day it is customary to cook a huge meal and share it.  All through the streets were large cauldrons of meaty stews over wood fires set on cinderblocks being stirred with long sticks.  We were invited to taste them as we walked by.  The one we had for dinner was green and bubbly.  It looked like a witches brew- complete with bones and everything!  It was the best thing I can remember tasting!  It was like chicken soup- but with three types of meat- and little like split pea soup as it was thick and creamy.  It had lots of vegetables and herbs in it. I’m going to Google it later, but there is no chance I could ever cook it the same.  The bar served it in huge bowls for free.  As we were laughing and enjoying the night Keith said “I’m not ready to leave here yet.”  UmmThat is good-because at the moment we can’t! We wanted to hang around to watch the dancing but didn’t make it that late. We heard the rest of the night was all fun. It was still a very enjoyable date and now we need to go back so we can get those dance lessons we missed!

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DR, you are a happy, welcoming, fantastic, fun, green, tasty country.  We can’t wait to come back!

Denied Exit

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Dominican Republic has been a blast, but it is time to move along. After monitoring all our normal weather sites for a few days and even getting a personalized weather forecast/routing report from Chris Parker (the professional marine weather forecaster/router) we were all a GO for leaving Luperon and headed to Samana, our next port in the DR and about 130 miles away.  Normally we would just up anchor and be underway within ten minutes but here in the DR you not only have to clear in and out of the country, you also have to clear in and out of each port.  You have to do this within an hour of leaving.  This is really, really difficult to do when the officials only keep office hours and most of the sailing around here is done at night or very early morning when the trade winds die down.  Lucky for us we found another great weather window with the winds so light we were afforded the opportunity to sail all the way to Samana without having to make stops along the coast or trying to leave at midnight.

Ready to go, we went to visit the officials.  We waited on the stoop about 20 min for the first of them to show up and unlock the offices, then we made our way through each department filling out papers, checking passports, and, of course, paying money.  It went smoothly though.  Once the paperwork was all done we had to go to their Navy and have the Comandante (the big guy in charge) give us our despacho. The despacho is the piece of paper that allows you to leave the harbor and clear into the next harbor. Before you leave they will also come out to the boat and check things out (or collect gifts- however you might want to look at it).  We walked up to the offices at the top of the hill and showed them our completed paperwork and receipts and asked for our despacho.  No despacho.  We asked as many different ways as we could think of but still only got  “no despacho”. After a while of working out the language differences we figured out that they were not going to give us permission to leave the country because they thought the weather was bad.  We were very confused. The weather was good-not bad. Even though we had spent hours checking the weather the last two days and were confident that we had a good and safe window to travel, we thought maybe they had some valuable local knowledge about something we missed.  Another boater who was also trying to get permission to leave asked what was the concern with the weather.  The officers couldn’t tell us exactly because they have no internet to see for themselves.  It seems like some guy in the city told them the weather was bad.  Awesome.

We were not the only boat trying to leave, at least seven boats that we knew of were asking for permission to leave but no one was allowed to go.  Confusion and frustration was certainly palpable.  We tried to convince ourselves that perhaps they were acting in our best interests and maybe saving us from some unknown dangerous conditions offshore that we couldn’t see despite all of our data, but this was coming from the same people who can not understand why you need to leave the harbor at certain times of the day (or night) in order to either avoid bad weather or to get into the next harbor by a certain time for safety reasons. I won’t even go into the aspect that we all captain our own boats and they are our homes and our decisions on when and where to travel and in what conditions are ones we take seriously and full responsibility for- nor do we leave those decisions for others who do not know our boats or how they travel! To add to our doubts we started hearing from a few locals that perhaps the restaurants did not want the cruisers to leave-they would miss the business. As we were watching our good and safe weather window slip away in front of us, I found this suggestion unsettling. However, we did not get even the slightest impression from the officials that money would have changed the situation.  We gathered with the crews from Antares and Blabber in the local plaza and used the Wi-Fi to try to find the source of this mysterious bad weather. While the group was convening I wandered off to find the ever elusive Dominican Republic toilet.  After a few strikes I found a café that looked promising.  The old man at the counter asked me “just pee-pee?”.   “Si, Senor.” Like most bathrooms here-no water so no flush.  Just a little more weirdness thrown into an already bizarre morning.  We never found why they thought the weather was no good.  Wind was under 10k and seas 2-4. Long period swell. No squalls.

Defeated, we tried to regroup and make a new plan.  We decided to wait for two more days because we think the weather should be decent enough to sail all the way across the Mona Passage and to Puerto Rico without making any more stops in the DR.  We had already heard there are a lot of problems in Samana with corruption. Like here, we had thought we would just go with an open mind but I am not sure I really want to check in and check back out through one more harbor anymore.  Especially if it is supposed to be much more difficult than here!  I certainly don’t want to deal with another “Hotel California” scenario. We also learned by asking around to the long-timers that refusing despachos citing weather (which, again, was in fact good) is not the norm and we were not the only ones befuddled by the denial.    Oh yay- we were the exception.  Grrrrrrrrrrr. On top of the up-heaved plans for the day we were not sure what to do about all the paperwork we had that was stamped for us leaving the harbor within the hour.  We were assured it would be OK. I will be interested to see if we have to pay again in two days though- if we even get clearance to leave that is!

Update: At least three maybe four of the boats left the harbor after being denied permission today.   I can’t say the thought didn’t cross my mind in frustration a time or two today but was quickly dismissed as we still have to sail along the coast of the country for over 150 miles before you even start to make the jump to Puerto Rico. (that takes more than 24 hours by sailboat)  The local military boat doesn’t seem to be in commission at the moment as it has derelict boats tied up to it and it is growing a pretty good reef on its bottom, but it is not like you can out-sail a phone call.  There are other military boats in the fleet. This evening we saw a disgruntled looking Comandante commandeer a go-fast Panga fishing boat with a large outboard motor.  He had a list of all the boats in the harbor and was going around carefully doing a roll-call.  We also heard calls on the VHF to at least two of the escaped boats.  The go-fast boat did not leave the harbor to go after the missing boats after the attendance was taken so I’m not sure what, if any, the repercussions might be. Should be interesting to see what the next few days bring.

Love Sick

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We fell in love with the DR on sight and with every step further into this beautiful country we seemed to fall deeper and harder.  Within a week we had already decided that we wanted to spend hurricane season here instead of Grenada.  Keith picked out which motorcycle he would buy and I was amassing lists of the places to go. Envisioning a much further place in the future our ears perked up when the cost of land was discussed and we have been diligently practicing our Rosetta Stone Spanish lessons in the morning and trying to learn as fast as we can. If your idea of pretty is manicured, you might not see it, but the towns have a beauty to them and the countryside, well, obviously it is breathtaking.  It is the people though, the people, that make us just want to be a part of this place. If I had to pick one description I would say happy. They are happy. And they act happy.  They make us happy.  No doubt, we caught the DR love bug.

Did you sense a “but” coming on”?

While we love almost everything about Luperon, as the days go on and the rush of love chemicals begin to mellow, we have started to miss water-of all sorts. We are missing clean water to swim in and fish in.  The harbor, though pretty, has filthy water.  All the street gutters and sewers lead into it and there is almost always a sheen of diesel on the surface from the old fishing boats.  We also miss fresh water.  Because of the pollution we can not run the water maker so we have to buy bottled water.  I miss our water maker very much.  We also miss running water-as in plumbing in the town.  There seems to be plenty of city water available for the houses, though everyone buys bottles for cooking and drinking, but even so there is a serious lack of sinks and toilets with running water.  Even the places selling food more often than not do not have a working sink.  If there even is a bathroom it is unlikely that water is plumbed to the toilet. Toilet paper or soap? Not happening. I am just going to throw this out there-  If you can’t wash your hands, the person prepping your food can’t either, if the person cooking your food didn’t wash their hands you start to notice that there are also no toilets.  Just saying.  Even beyond food prep the hand washing thing is exhausting.  Keith had someone blow their nose into the street with his fingers and immediately hold out his hand to shake. Unfortunately , the love bug was not the only thing we caught.  We’ve both picked up some cruds.. Me gastro,  Keith respiratory. Now we are just trying not to swap with each other.  After a few days of being feverish and lethargic the lack of hygiene and sanitation all around starts becoming harder to ignore and the desire for clean water more intense.

Yes, we eat just about anything or anywhere.  To be honest the street food sometimes feels safer at least it is coming straight off a hot grill or out of a pot of boiling oil.  They have been safe so far.  It is the sit down places that have pained me.  We also eat non-peelable veggies. A no-no.  I can’t help it the produce here is gorgeous!  It just gets a healthy bleach bath first.

We also learned something else about ourselves that has no reflection on Luperon:  We both seemed to have an infinite attention span for blue water, but a finite attention span for green peaks.  After only three weeks, I only glance at the beautiful mountains surrounding our anchorage where as I could sit and just watch the tide go in and out all day long everyday when the water is pretty.

With all of that said, we love the DR.  But maybe in more of a summer fling kind of way and not a soul-mate kind of way.  We will be back, I am sure, but for now I think it is time to head out and there is a good weather window coming up.

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