Saturday, March 25, 2023

Dominican Republic and the Mona Passage

The Dominican Republic is beautiful. Mountains, jungles, exotic birdcalls. What's not to love?

Mangroves at the entrance to the Line Caves, in Haitises National Park

Well, they do love to burn things. Lance thinks it's trash, I think it's agricultural burns, could be both or neither. The point is that there's always smoke coming from somewhere. Fortunately there's a lot to do, so we just pick our daily activity upwind of the smoke of the day.

The Line Caves in Haitises National Park were once the home to indigenous peoples. They hid their princess there among the caves from the marauding Spaniards in the late 1400s. There remain quite a few pictographs on the walls today, mostly depicting long-legged birds and the occasional whale.

We are still in the trade winds on the thorny path, which means we are picking our weather windows very carefully so as to fight nature as minimally as possible on our route East and South. From Ocean World near Puerto Plata to Marina Bahia Puerto in Samana meant going East, South and then West for a 20-hour slog. The window we picked should have been mostly sailable, and in fact after turning South we should have had a 16knot tailwind to drive us past the shockingly tall mountains of Samana and West into the Bay, although the weather didn't actually work out that way. We timed our arrival to round the corner and pass over the resident whale population at daybreak, and at first light we found ourselves surrounded by little fishing boats wearing no lights whatsoever. Perhaps they don't want to give away their favorite fishing grounds. Anyways, with the skinny moon and overcast skies, we were sailing in near pitch blackness and it was a surprise to blink in the half-light and find so many surrounding us. Hope we didn't disturb any in the dark. Fortunately we did not meet any whales in the dark, either.

Dominican Treehouse Village near Samana

The Marina Puerto Bahia in Samana is a high-end marina and resort with a couple of pools, laundry facilities, an ATM, a few restaurants, lots of wi-fi and lounging space, and customs officials onsite. One night they even threw a party for the cruisers, something I'm told they do a couple of times a month. Everyone was friendly and we felt quite pampered. All of this was surprisingly affordable. I can see how some folks just decide to stay here forever.

The upstairs pool offered some of the best views. Whales regularly spouted as they passed by at sunset.

An ideal place to tackle the Mona Passage plan.

The Mona Passage is the narrow body of water between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean Sea meets the North Atlantic there, the deep trench on the North meets the relatively shallow shoals between the two, both are very mountainous islands. The weather patterns spinning off Puerto Rico regularly cause epic thunderstorms. All of this combines into some potentially hazardous conditions, and the stories the sailors tell around the campfire strike terror into the soul.

You don't have to get far up the hill to find a significantly different way of life; jungles and agriculture replace beaches and bustling villages.

We have been hearing horror stories about this stretch of water for quite some time. Our plan to mitigate the danger is to study carefully the book by the local expert Van Sant, monitor the weather patterns, and to talk with everyone we meet who's done it and lived to tell the tale.

We think we have a strategy mapped out, and it looks like Wednesday afternoon is the weather window to go.

The idea is to sail along the 600' contour to avoid the fishing nets and take advantage of the near-shore night winds, kick away from the land by 8am to avoid the Cape Effect, motor directly into the (hopefully light) winds and seas out past the hourglass shoal, then head South and sail between the little islands into Boca or Puerto Real, arriving anytime outside of afternoon thunderstorm hours.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The Great Google Fi Lie

Years ago, while still roaming America in the RV, we switched our phone service to Google Fi. They promised seamless international coverage if we paid for the top tier pricing, Unlimited Plus plan. It's in the name.

Unlimited Plus? Nah, not really. Not for long anyways.

And seamless it was. All the way through the USA, and for brief forays into Canada here and there. Then in late 2020 and 2021 I heard nightmare stories of sailors who were unceremoniously cut off while stranded in places like Grenada as a result of the pandemic.

As if the pandemic wasn't isolating enough already.

As our Caribbean cruising plans started taking shape, I called Google Fi. All those sailors that were cut off - I didn't want to be one of them. I COULDN'T be one of them - I still work for a living after all. I was assured that because we have the Unlimited Plus plan that wouldn't happen to us. Those other poor souls must have had an inferior plan. All we needed to do was continue paying the top tier rate and everything would be fine.

Fast forward. We sailed away from Florida two months ago, all throughout the Bahamas and recently landed in the Dominican Republic. Our coverage has in fact been seamless. On the horizon is Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, and ultimately Curacao for hurricane season. Then last night we got the dreaded "your data roaming is being cancelled in 30 days unless you go back to the USA" letter.

I called Google Fi. Surely there must be a mistake. I had taken steps to avoid this scenario after all. Nope. It's their policy to allow you 90 days of international roaming at a time before you must ping a USA cell tower. Regardless of which plan you are on. The rep actually told me "sorry if you misunderstood". !!!???!!

Misunderstood? I WAS LIED TO.

Anyhoo. I already run my workday on Starlink, and as long as Starlink is on we have unlimited high speed data. Google Fi will continue to operate for international text and telephone (at $0.20 a minute for phone calls), but for data I'll need to find wifi elsewhere. Many folks add a second SIM card for data in whatever country they are in so there's that new hassle and expense coming soon. The truth is that I'm addicted to Google Maps and use it to navigate all these places we don't know. Which is everywhere nowadays. Hence the purchase of the international plan.

Google Fi buyer beware. Unlimited is NOT unlimited. And if you misunderstood the meaning of "Unlimited Plus", well... too bad.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

The Kindness of Strangers

We arrived to Ocean World Marina in the Dominican Republic around 4am. The waves had been building all night and we surfed them right in to the harbor, and lacking further instructions, selected the easy landing spot on the fuel dock. Chloe still won't pee on the boat, so after holding it for almost two full days she was quite happy to jump off the boat for a few minutes. We raised our yellow Quarantine flag, tidied up for a short time and then all three of us passed out flat.

Minerva on the fuel dock at Ocean World

The next morning we were greeted by the Armada, which is the country's Navy and they keep a tight watch on all the goings-on in the harbor. They guided us through the customs process, which involved four different check-ins with different persons in uniform, a small fee paid and a new stamp in our passports. By lunchtime we were refueled and settled into a proper marina slip. The docks are fixed and there's a lot of water motion in the harbor as a result of the unusual North swell that we surfed in. Getting on and off the boat is tricky and requires agility and focus.

We had been warned that the 2-day passages are the hardest, this was our first one. The rumor is that on a longer passage your body settles into a routine by day 3 but the 2-day passages don't allow that to happen yet. We were pretty groggy still, and the late afternoon found us stumbling out in search of food into the open-air bar on the marina the locals lovingly refer to as "the yacht club".

Some rum was consumed.

After a while I could no longer deny the downward pull of my eyelids and Chloe and I checked ourselves into bed. Lance was making friends at the bar and shots were going around.

When I woke up around midnight I found him in the cockpit on the boat, he'd made it back safely. Whew. Without a cell phone, though.

The next morning we began the great cell phone hunt. I checked his phone location on Google Maps and it showed him offshore. Damn Google Maps, probably confused about our location again. When we retraced steps back to the yacht club, we heard the strangest story. The bar owner had been approached by the Armada at the crack of dawn. A fisherman had found a phone/wallet and immediately reported it found to the Armada, but put it in his pocket for safekeeping. The fishing is typically done by noon and he left the Armada to figure out the phone's owner in the meantime.

So Google Maps had it right. The phone was in fact on a fishing expedition offshore.

The Armada came by to check on us twice, the last time it was no less than the Comandante - the big cheese himself - who came out to let us know that "he's got us". Sure enough, when the fisherman came back the Comandante and 3 other Armada staff were standing on the dock to greet him. At least they weren't wearing the big guns this time around - those are going to take a little getting used to seeing.

I'd been following Lance's phone's motion on Google Maps and gave the fisherman a few minutes to settle in before I walked over and introduced myself. In Spanish he told me that on his way in at sunup he had found it on the ground covered by some gravel and was worried about leaving it unattended because his heart is so big. With a grin. He then told me he had caught a marlin, but because it was only 100 lbs he had let it go (with a little quick side eye at the Armada).

I called Lance's phone, so Jose the fisherman could see my face on it, and he said "you are eh Love Taco?". Yes. Yes I am. I blushed. The youngest of the Armada crew allowed a small half-smile. Jose handed over the phone. Everyone stood there for a moment. Another moment. Oh. I opened the wallet side of Lance's phone and took out the biggest bill in Dominican Republic currency there, approximately $20 US. Everyone relaxed. The Armada tipped their hat to me and left, and Jose was instantly smiles and laughs. Tension gone.

So... there are some cultural differences here.

It appears we can trust the guys with the big guns. In the Dominican Republic they check you into and out of each harbor, this way they carefully monitor who is roaming around their country and where. But it's not a bribe thing and it doesn't feel oppressive, it feels very structured in a way to keep us safely having a good time and therefore freely spending money. Despite their official appearance they are very friendly and seem to appreciate the presence of tourists.

The folks at the yacht club tell us phones are left there all the time and this is the first time the Armada has gotten involved. The difference is likely that Lance's phone is also a wallet with all the usual stuff that goes there like credit cards and cash. All of which was still there.

We feel very safe here.

Later in the day, Lance lamented that his wallet had gone marlin fishing without him. We have a new friend in Jose, though, so maybe marlin fishing WITH his wallet is in his future.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Goodbye Bahamas

Around 1 am Lance woke me up for my turn at the wheel. When I came up on deck I was greeted by the full moon and glassy seas, Minerva's trusty engine was humming contentedly and we were zipping along at 6.7 knots. There were a few fluffy clouds but the air felt dryer than usual.

Lance mumbled something about the radar overlay before nodding off, so I switched the view on the chartplotter over to check it out. Nothing but nothing. Well, except that one island just before our turn 4. Little Inagua, our last contact with the Bahamas island nation.

Fruit trees line the beach on Acklins Island. Research leads us to believe this one might be a "Five Year Apple"

Little Inagua is 50 square miles and completely uninhabited. We are passing it on our way to the Dominican Republic, and it seems like a natural touchstone for a lot of other passages too. We will come within a few miles of it, and I can't see it. At all. Nothing. Eerie. Even the cloud cluster that normally betrays every other Bahamian island location is missing.

Once again I muttered under my breath "Would it kill you to put a light on this thing? A marker? A bell? Something?"

Interesting sponges on Acklin Island

And I am struck again by how grateful I am to be doing this adventure with today's technology. I have full confidence in our chartplotter. Still, some visual or audio confirmation would be welcomed.

Without a chartplotter, we would have laid out this course on a paper chart and kept our eyes glued to the compass and the clock to ensure we remained faithful to the plan. Right about now, without visual confirmation, I'd be freaking out that we had miscalculated, and probably sweating and swearing a little bit. Maybe a lot.

Instead, we glide by it in the darkness while I nibble on a cookie and pet my sleepy dog. Goodbye Bahamas.