Wednesday, February 26, 2014

8 Tuff Miles

After a grueling couple weeks battling the sea, Dana and I made it to the tranquil and gorgeous Virgin Islands. We arrived just in time for the road race I’ve been dreaming about entering ever since we got married in St. John back in 2008. It was a homecoming of sorts to pick up a mooring just off Caneel Bay, where many of you joined us for our wedding five years ago. But more about St. John in a second. What happened since Boqueron, Puerto Rico?

Well, let me tell you. It’s been a whirlwind of adventure the past week-and-a-half. Boqueron was fun, filled with vacationers from Puerto Rico who come to the small beach town to blow off steam on the weekends, sort of like the Jersey Shore. We lounged on the beach, ate seafood at various street vendors, ran into some cruiser friends we first met back in Providenciales, and found a new and exciting alcoholic beverage. Gasolina, a.k.a., “party in a pouch,” is a premixed alcoholic beverage in a Capri Sun-like juice pouch. It even comes with a little straw. Needless to say, we bought a bunch for future consumption.

Ponce Yacht Club
Boqueron was the only spot until St. John we stayed more than one night. We were on a mission to make it to my race on time. From Boqueron, we motor sailed to Ponce, then Puerto Patillas. We quickly continued with a trip out sea to the Spanish Virgin Island, Vieques. From Vieques, it was another straight shot to St. John. We travelled at night when we could to take advantage of the calming effect of the land on the neighboring ocean. However, with almost 200 miles to sail, we inevitably had to sail during the turbulent middays as well. Let me tell you, not one of those sails was in “good” weather. Winds howled every day at 25 plus knots and seas were as big as 10 feet.

In my last post, I boasted that we no longer feared sailing in the dark. Well, I found something new to fear at night…squalls. Leaving Ponce at 10 pm, Dana and I planned to sail straight though to Vieques (close to 80 miles). Dana was sleeping down below after her first shift at the helm from 10 to midnight, and I was feeling pretty fresh, so I stayed at the helm from midnight until 5:30 am. At that point, I was about to wake Dana for her shift and take a nap. However, straight ahead was a dark and ominous cloud formation that I could see even in the moon and starlight. I decided to wait until the rain passed to wake Dana. It rained a couple times earlier over night, and hadn’t been that big of a deal. The wind picked up a bit and I got wet, so what?

What I didn’t know was that some of these rain showers are accompanied by 30-40 knot winds that can “lay you flat,” as described in one of our cruising guides. You can’t tell which of these storms will “lay you flat” from a distance. At about 6 am, we were “laid flat” by strong gusting winds and quickly forming 10 foot plus waves. I released the main sail so that we stopped heeling way over and just held on for dear life until the squall passed. I made sure I was leashed to the boat and Dana stayed down below, because even though she immediately woke up to help, there was no point in both of us getting soaked. When the squall passed, we decided to throw in the towel and stop early. We’d only made it about 35 miles toward Vieques in over 8 hours and were not even halfway.

Daytime squall in the distance
Although our other motor sails didn’t involve squalls, we were tormented by crappy conditions every day between Boqueron and St. John and relieved at the end of each. We wouldn’t have gone out on any of those days if it wasn’t for my race in St. John. We did not wait for weather windows because we didn’t have the luxury of time We’ve been warned repeatedly about making deadlines, but we don’t seem to learn :-)

Conditions were good enough, however, to do some fishing one morning. Most days were so rough, the thought of trying to reel in a fish and then fillet it in the cockpit seemed overwhelming. The morning of relative calm I caught a king mackerel. Not as good eating as the Mahi, but great when marinated. It also made some tasty fish tacos the next day.

King Mackerel
One night during this last journey was special. Vieques is home to a couple famous bioluminescent bays. These bays have a high concentration of phosphorescent creatures, similar to the ones that we see in our wake in the open ocean on dark nights. We tried to anchor in one bay (Mosquito Bay), but the conditions were just too rough. Instead, we pulled into Ferro Bay, about a mile up. Ferro Bay is surrounded by mangroves and very calm. We were the only people in the bay, probably because the ocean was so riled up. Upon anchoring, I promptly jumped into the water and was immersed in light. Every paddle or kick stirred up thousands of the little lights. I was even covered in light for a second or two when climbing up the swim ladder. We couldn’t get the camera to capture the scene, probably due to user error.

That night at Ferro Bay seemed almost like a fairy tale. We were on the hook in a completely calm anchorage surrounded by the angry sea. Bioluminescent creatures filled the dark water around us if any movement stirred them up. Also, after dark, fish started jumping in the water all around the boat. It was all very unusual. Once we laid down to sleep for a few hours (since we planned to leave well before light again), we started to hear a strange noise. There was a rubbing, scraping sound on the hull right near our bed on the bow of the boat. It went on for a while, so I grabbed the spot light and went out to investigate. I couldn’t see anything in the dark water. The crunching sound continued and moved all around the boat. The only thing we could figure was that some fish was scouring the bottom of our boat eating the growth that has accumulated there from being in the ocean for the past several months. We woke to our alarm and left that mysterious bay at four am, back out into the large rolling swells of the ocean.

After all that rough sailing, pelting rain, and sleepless nights, we arrived in St. John on Friday afternoon, the day before 8 Tuff Miles. We dinghied into the town at Cruz Bay and picked up my bib number. I was shocked to see how many people came in for this race. More than 1000 were registered! I ate some pasta for dinner and we got a nice calm night of sleep.

The race began at 7:15 am, so we were at the dinghy dock nice and early. Dana got a good spot for spectating and I did a warm up run. I was a little intimated by the competition. There were some serious runners lining up at the start. I later learned that many elite runners fly in just for this race. A Coast Guard helicopter did a fly by and the gun went off for the start.

The race itself was brutal. Although it’s billed as 8 tough miles (, the race is actually 8.38 miles. After the first half-mile, you start climbing up into the mountains of St. John, and it feels like you never stop. The course gains 1500 feet of elevation in the first 5 miles. Then, it’s a steep downhill to the finish. Torrential downpours also occurred on several occasions during the race, making the downhill asphalt treacherous. My times ranged from an 8:30 mile climbing up to a 6:10 mile flying down. My calves were burning so intensely I had to slow down a bit in the last mile or so. I was on pace to run under an hour through four miles, but settled for 1:01:23 (7:20 pace). I was happy with my performance given that I’ve been living on a sailboat for the past 4 months. I finished 26th out of 1100 finishers.

Well deserved Gasolina
Dana, meanwhile, learned while I was waiting at the start line, that the race finished on a different side of the island than it started. The main road across the island was closed for the race, so she was at a loss for how to get there to meet me. That’s when she met Tatyana. Tatyana’s husband Terry was running the race and she offered to share a cab with Dana to the finish. Tatyana and Terry live in St. Thomas, having moved there from the mainland about a year ago. Dana and Tatyana immediately hit it off. The four of us went out for brunch following the race and they invited us to their house for dinner. We dined with them last night and it was a very nice evening. Dana and I thoroughly enjoyed the laid back home cooked meal on their patio overlooking St. Thomas, the Atlantic Ocean, and all the adjacent U.S. and British Virgin Islands. It was great to meet them and we hope to catch up again in the future.

Brunch at Aqua Bistro with Tatyana and Terry
View from near Tatyana and Terry's house in St. Thomas

Between the post race brunch, and dinner in St. Thomas last night, Dana and I spent much of our time in St. John with the Cincy-Tucky All Stars. The Cincy-Tucky All Stars are part of a running club on the Ohio Kentucky border, and they’ve been organizing a group to come down to St. John for the 8 Tuff Miles for years. Everyone in the club also happens to be a bit crazy. But, I guess all us runners are loco to one extent or another. About five of their runners finished in the top 20 and they got 2nd place in the race. One runner, Derek won it several times in the past, but had to settle for a top 10 finish this year.

Following the awards ceremony, the Cincy-Tucky All Stars befriended the winner of the race, who was just presented with a $300 gift card to the bar close to the awards ceremony. Next thing you know, Dana, the winner, the Cincy-Tucky folks, and I were all enjoying complimentary drinks. We also shared some of our “party in a pouch” drinks, which everyone seemed to get a kick out of. We had a raucous night and planned to meet up with the group again the next day at the race-sponsored “recovery beach party.”

Cincy-Tucky and winner, Rick
Toby and Kate enjoying Gasolina
I needed some recovery, as my legs were incredibly sore. The beach party was a blast, and Dana and I even participated in a beer pong tournament. It was a little like college all over again. We lost in the first round, which was probably good for our livers. We had another raucous night out with the group, and retired to Eventyr.

Cincy-Tucky and "the boat people"
The next day was filled with chores: laundry, procuring a cell phone, going to the post office, etc. I was in rough shape due to the partying and racing, but tried to soldier through. We had a long dinghy ride to and from Eventyr each time we went into town at Cruz Bay. On the last trip back to the boat, the outboard was not sounding so healthy. I also noticed that it was dripping gasoline out the back…not a good sign. Our plan for the rest of the day was to lounge a little and then head into the Caneel Bay Resort to visit the spot where we got married and maybe do the hike we did on our wedding morning.

Caneel Bay Resort in the distance

The trip to Caneel Bay Resort did not happen. Upon trying to restart the outboard, it wouldn’t turn over. The gas tank was completely empty and when I refilled it, gas started pouring out a hose near the rear of the engine. I got out the engine manual, and tried to figure out the problem, but it was well beyond my mechanical skills. The outboard was our only way to get to and from the distant shore, so we were quite demoralized. Luckily, I had a cell phone, so we made some calls for a mechanic. The only available mechanic was in St. Thomas, a couple miles across the bay, so we had to pack up and do an impromptu move.

We’re now at the American Yacht Harbor Marina in Red Hook, St. Thomas and our pesky outboard is with a mechanic. We’ve used our time here to fully clean the boat from stem to stern. Dana also woke up soon after dawn and was out refinishing the teak that lines Eventyr. Later today I need to climb the mast the replace a radar reflector that broke off in high seas. We cleaned the bilge and reorganized the whole boat. It’s not all fun and relaxation on this trip, although it may seem that way :-)

Later today, our friend Hanna flies into St. Thomas. Hanna was on board Eventyr with Chris, her boyfriend, back in Ft. Lauderdale. They were the couple who were supposed to be with us on this adventure from the start. Hanna decided to take the plunge of taking time away from life to join us for this next leg of the adventure. Chris is still too busy with his company SoloShot, to join, and I’m sure he’s jealous. We start a whole new leg of the adventure this evening, with three on board instead of just two.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Mona Passage…done!

Dana and I spent three of the past five nights sailing overnight. We’re over fearing the dark, and instead have been using it to our advantage. On the north coast of the Dominican Republic, and other spots hammered by the incessant trade winds, the howling wind from the east only tends to diminish at night. Hence, sailing through the night and early morning provides a modicum of comfort when attempting to sail east. You still typically have to run your motor, due to poor wind direction (or no wind at all), but at least you’re not pounding into heavy wind and waves.

That said, we left Ocean World in Puerto Plata on Sunday morning. We were travelling with a buddy boat, West Wind. Chris and Leslie on West Wind are great, and we’ve been hanging out with them since we all met in Providenciales. As usual, by afternoon, the blasting by headwind and 8-foot seas began.  We turned into one of the few available anchorages and acknowledged that we had to sleep during the day and sail at night if we were to make it to Punta Cana (120 more miles) before our dreaded crossing of the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico. We couldn’t really sail during the day even with a supposed “weather window!”

After a few hours sleep we took off for an overnight motor sail to another anchorage to wait out the next day. At 2:00 AM in the calm and beautiful night, Dana and I got a worried call from Leslie on the VHF. West Wind’s engine died and they were “adrift.” They didn’t even have a sail up, because the night was so calm, so they were really stranded. We went back for them to see what we could do to help, but before we arrived Chris already had the diesel engine up and running with some tinkering and a filter change. It was a scary moment, because there were no anchorages, marinas, squat, for 30 miles in any direction.

West Wind at sunrise after an eventful night
We (Eventyr and West Wind) anchored the next morning in a beautiful bay surrounded by towering cliffs and rainforests on both sides. At the end of the bay was a picturesque beach with a few small fishing huts. Not a bad lay over. However, while there, Chris checked the weather via his satellite phone and realized we could not make it all the way to Punta Cana in the time allotted given the weather. It would be so bad the next couple days we couldn’t even use our night sailing strategy.

Resigned to the fact that we couldn’t make it to Punta Cana, we decided to shoot for a closer town, Samana. Described as the “Appalachia of Dominican Republic” in our cruising guide, Samana is remote, has breathtaking jungle scenery, and is very poor. Due to reported Dinghy and outboard theft, we decided to stay at the one marina in town instead of anchoring off the town and dinghying in. Lucky for us, the marina is super cheap, yet part of an ultra luxurious resort, to which marina guests have full access. While there, several other boats we met back in Providenciales, Luperon, and Ocean World all arrived using the same weather window. It was like a reunion of sorts, and we all took advantage of the pools, exercise facilities, and top notch dining.

While at the extravagant Punta Bahia Marina, in Samana, we got a ride into the town of Samana. Despite feeling under the weather, Dana came along with Chris, Leslie, and I. Being in Domincan Republic, it seems that all the cruisers are sick at some point or another. I guess our weak gringo stomachs aren’t up for the random bacteria in the food, water, etc, around here. The four of us wandered around Samana and eventually found a nice place for dinner. I had some excellent goat, and Dana was able to keep down some Mahi. I have to say, Dana’s Spanish speaking ability has been a godsend since arriving in DR. She communicates well with all the locals. My middle school Spanish is not cutting it. All the locals seem to really appreciate Dana’s language skills and we’ve been treated really well, and not nearly as ripped off as some other cruisers with whom we’ve spoken.

Cafe del Mar in Puerto Bahia Marina and Resort
After only two nights, Will and Cheryl on Varua informed us they were leaving that day at noon to sail directly to Puerto Rico. Will sold us an outboard when we were desperately in need back in Providenciales, for which we are grateful on a daily basis. I confirmed the weather was going to be good with the meteorologist at Carribean Weather, and Dana agreed we should leave. We got our stuff together in minutes, checked out of customs, filled our diesel and water, said our goodbyes, and threw off our docklines.

The sail from Samana to Mayaguez, in Puerto Rico, is 150 miles and the longest Dana and I had done.  It would likely take us 30 hours and we were ready for a long haul. Will, on Varua, is a sailing truist, like my Dad, and quite opposed to using the engine when he can sail (even if many hours and miles out of the way). Dana and I, on the other hand, are quick to turn on the engine if the sails aren’t doing the job of getting us where we want to go. Hence, we passed Varua a couple hours after we left, not to see or hear from them again until PR. They got there about 8 hours later but probably burned through way less diesel.

Our sail (motor sail, I should say, since we always had the engine on and the sail provided only back-up support when it could) across the Mona Passage, was mostly peaceful and uneventful. It’s hard to believe! It seems that every crossing we’ve done to this point has involved huge seas, crashing waves, howling winds, fear, and tears. This one involved lounging in the cockpit in a swimsuit getting a tan, chatting, drinking hot cocoa at night, waiting for a fish to strike my lure, and watching for ocean wildlife. Although I didn’t catch any fish, we saw dolphins and whales. I wish I could have gotten a better picture of a whale, but Dana spotted the large tail of a humpback just as it was sliding into the water. Later another pod swam within a couple hundred yards of Eventyr before disappearing into the deep.

We arrived at Mayaguez, Puerto Rico just before sunset the next day, completing the trip in a record 28 hours. We celebrated Valentine’s Day on board, at anchor, off the customs dock with no real hoopla, aside from eating some stove top stuffing, which we’d been craving for quite a while now. Funny how little things can get you excited when you’ve been living on a boat outside the U.S. for months :-)

We’re currently anchored in Boqueron, Puerto Rico described in our cruising guide as “a beach-and-beer getaway for university students and bohemians.” I think tonight will be fun. Alas, we can’t dilly dally in PR because I’m registered for an 8-mile road race in St. John U.S. Virgin Islands next Saturday. That’s right! I’m running a road race after living on a boat for almost four months. We’ll see how it goes. Wish us luck getting there on time!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Ocean World

We’re still here on the north shore of the Dominican Republic. Pinned down by weather, we’ve made approximately 20 miles of progress in the past two weeks. We’re currently “stuck” in the luxurious Ocean World Adventure Park, Marina, and Casino near Puerto Plata. How did we end up in such swank accomodations?

After our last post we spent close to a week in Luperon. The cruising community is tight knit in that small outlaw town, so we made some great friends. We spent our nights drinking at the gringo bars and days doing various boat chores or exploring the nearby countryside. Several boats made the crossing with us from Providenciales to Luperon, so we shared a common history and a bond of open ocean hardship. Four boats became especially bonded: Eventyr, Elysium, West Wind, and Ninth Wave. Not only did we come from the same place, we were headed in the same direction.

The fun group of nine of us booked a trip together to explore the "27 waterfalls," a local attraction we were told was a must. After a couple shots of mamajuana, a spiced rum conconction involving honey and wine, we hiked the 35 minutes to the top of the waterfalls. The guides had us wear helmets and lifejackets and we started the descent jumping, swimming, sliding, and wading.

As an example of the party atmosphere of our new friend group: on the way to the waterfall, Ryan from Elysium "iced" Rowan from Ninth Wave. "Icing" involves presenting someone with a warm Smirnoff Ice, and the icee must take a knee and chug the entire bottle. Rowan did it like a pro!

Soon after the waterfall trip, Ninth Wave declared that we had a weather window coming up on Monday and we all needed to jump on it to get further east. I wasn't sure about the weather window because the weather forecasts I saw indicated more of the same: strong east winds and large seas every day. The three other boats all decided to go, so Dana and I discussed the options and decided to give it a go. We figured if we got out there and it was too rough, we could always bail and stop into Ocean World to wait for better weather.

The Super Bowl happened to fall on the night before our early morning departure, which put a little kink in the plans. We got everything done on the boat to be ready to leave and headed to a Super Bowl party at Wendy's Bar in Luperon with all the crazy cruisers. They had hot dogs on the grill for less than 50 cents and it almost felt like being in the States. Almost…aside from the fact that the projector overrode the weak electrical system every few minutes causing the bar to go dark and the owner to run around frantically changing fuses and plugging and unplugging various devices.

The next morning, Dana and I were up before the sun bringing the dinghy on deck and getting everything locked down for the trip. Customs visited the boat and we took off with a beautiful rainbow off the bow. The three other boats followed behind and we headed out into the open Atlantic. Within a few minutes, Dana started looking green and headed down below. She was fully sea sick for the first time on the trip. She curled up in the fetal position in the cabin as we beat through high seas. I made the executive decision that we would divert to Ocean World, since we had more than 10 more hours of this ahead. West Wind followed suit and the other two boats headed on toward the eastern end of the Dominican Republic and eventually Puerto Rico. We just learned that they made it successfully to the north coast of Puerto Rico through big and scary seas. I'm glad we diverted.

Later in the day, after arriving at Ocean World, when Dana's "sea sickness" did not improve upon arriving on land, we started to wonder whether the multiple rum punches at the Super Bowl party may have been to blame.

Hanging out in Puerto Plata, we've gotten to eat lots of great Dominican food and explore beautiful countryside. We took a trip to Caberete yesterday with Leslie and Chris from West Wind. Caberete is where our friends Chris and Hanna lived for years and Dana and I visited back in 2009. It brought back great memories spending time on Kite Beach, where hundreds of kite boards fill the water and sky. We even found an Irish bar with Philly roots.


On a sad note, we had to say goodbye to our friend Peter on West Wind who flew back to Florida a couple days ago. We had a great time with him over the past couple weeks after meeting in Providenciales. We'll definitely keep in touch!

Tomorrow, Dana and I will take another shot at heading east. We've been promised a great weather window by a professional meteorologist at the Caribbean Weather Center, so we should be able to make it all the way to Punta Cana in three days. We'll have to sail through the night again, but hopefully the seas will be much kinder. Once in Punta Cana, we'll wait for another weather window to travel the 85 miles across the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico. Our friends, the Manginos, had to cancel their trip, so we don't feel quite so bad about getting to PR later than expected.