After exactly one month in the Dominican Republic, a month full of unforgettable adventures and precious experiences all over the island, we are ready to continue our journey. But it doesn’t matter if we are ready or not. Continuing our journey depends entirely on the weather.
The passage east from Luperon along the north cost of the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico is considered one of the most difficult and dangerous passage in the world. This 250 nautical mile stretch of Trade winds, high North Atlantic seas, untenable rocky shore, great variation in depths, unpredictable currents, and fast-forming storm cells across the Mona Passage and the Puerto Rican trench, the deepest hole in the Atlantic Ocean, has been the final stretch for many sound boats and experienced crews, including Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria.
For one month at anchor in Luperon we listened to the horror stories of fellow sailors who have braved these waters, many damaging even losing their boats.
“We call Luperon ‘The Trap’. You know why? Because lots of cruisers arriving from the Bahamas get stuck here for months even years and cannot continue east. Some sell their boats and take the plane home”, they tell us.
They also tell us that the only possible way to transit these waters safely is to study Bruce Van Sand’s book The Gentlemen’s Guide to Passages South and do exactly as he says. Not to read the book, to study it! Bruce Van Sand, “an American working internationally as systems engineer” who lives in Puerto Plata (and we had the good fortune to meet him there and chat for a while), has been cruising these waters for decades back and forth over 100 times and knows them better than anyone else. His book is the result of extensive research and experience providing all necessary information about choosing weather and sailing strategies, planning routes, understanding wind, land and cape effects, avoiding shoals, currents, and storms.
Luckily, we have the book. We begin reading and re-reading it hoping the precious information inside it will enlighten and reassure us. It surely does enlighten us, but instead of reassuring us it terrifies us even more. In The Mona Passage and Sailing The North Shores chapters we read about such terrors as “the cape effect” which “can murder you”, “severe wicked thunderstorms” that “charge like bulls”, “a wedge of swift and raging water” behind capes, “unpredictable currents everywhere”, “coastal acceleration”, “ferocious swells”, “rough shoals”, “shock waves of heavy conditions” , and “hydro-thermodynamic chaos”. Sailing here can be “flat out suicidal”, according to the author. “You probably shall have the stuffing kicked out of you”.
Not a fun book to read if you are planning to actually go out there and attempt sailing the Dominican Republic north coast against the Trades and crossing the Mona Passage, but it surely thought us a lot, and we did appreciate every bit of information and advice in it. We did follow the few simple rules from the book and we did have “a thornless passage”
· Choose an oversized weather window;
· Go only when the forecast gradient wind blows less than 15 knots south of east, less than 12 knots if blowing dead east, and less than 10 knots if the wind has any northerly component;
· Hide behind the capes in the daytime and transit them at night motoring when the wind dies out due to the night lee and the katabatic wind effect;
· Stay close to shore, 1 to 3 miles, or in about 80-100 feet depth;
· Plan 2 nights and 1 day to cross the Mona Passage;
· Stay clear of the shoals in the Mona Passage;
· Avoid the storm cells by tacking north-northeast for half the Mona Passage and then tacking back south.
A weather window opens up right when we need it, after a month of steady 20-25 knot east trades and two days after we return from our epic Dominican Republic road trip ready to sail! It is a giant window of mild south and southeast winds less than 10 knots, an oversized window forecasted to be wide open for about a week with a period of deadcalm and virtually no swell. This kind of weather conditions form here probably once or twice a year. We and about a dozen more boats anchored in Luperon among which our friends the SailingDee family, grab the opportunity and…jump right out of the window!
We start in the evening, as Mr. Van Sand taught us, shamefully motoring, stopping in Rio San Juan, 50 NM east of Luperon, to rest for a few hours. We plan to stop again in Escondido, then in Samana, and finally in Punta Macao before crossing the Mona Passage but we end up sailing straight to Puerto Rico from Rio San Juan non-stop as the sea conditions are perfect and we decide to keep going. The crossing takes us 5 days, sailing 80% of the time, motoring only the first two nights along the Dominican north shore and past some of the capes. The Mona Passage is so calm, we let the kids steer the boat. We even have a period of becalmed seas but the “unpredictable shifting current” is in our favor and we slowly drift towards Puerto Rico, avoiding shoals and storm cells from the north.
We arrive in Ponce, Puerto Rico after 5 days of very pleasant relaxed sailing, our fuel tanks half-full (last fueled 5 months ago in Key West), nothing damaged on the boat, none of us tired or scared. We actually enjoyed this passage a lot, enjoyed sailing, and even enjoyed a nice big mahogany snapper who joined us for lunch (and for supper) near the Puerto Rican shores.
What to do with a big fish in 4 steps:
Step 1 – Pull it out of the water;
Step 2 – Remove head, skin, and bones and form nice juicy fillets;
Step 3 – Fry the fillets with egg and flour;
Step 4 – Enjoy!