April 22, 2019

Los Haitises National Park and the Mona Passage

We left Luperon the morning of Thursday, March 28, 2019 on an overnight 140-nm sail toward Samana Bay and Los Haitises National Park along the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic. Winds were under 10 knots and the seas were mostly calm with a less than 3-foot northerly swell.

We realized after leaving the harbor that we had no boat speed, and that the paddle wheel on the speed transducer was likely gummed up from barnacles after mooring in Luperon's polluted bay for more than a week! Thankfully we were able to use our speed over ground on our chart plotter until Nick could dive on it with a brush the following day.

Despite dark clouds overhead and the occasional thunder clap, the afternoon and evening were uneventful with only a few hours of chop as we rounded Cape Cabron and some light showers from squalls that thankfully came with winds that stayed under 15k. Unfortunately, it was a new moon, so after the sun set, our overnight sail was very dark with no moonlight to guide us, but other than a tanker that came within 1 nm during Nick's overnight watch, we saw little boat traffic or other hazards.

A 1 nm pass of a 587-foot container ship
We arrived to Los Haitises National Park, just under 24 hours later, on the morning of Friday, March 29.

We'd read that Los Haitises, the DR's crown jewel national park, covering more than 600-square miles, was a must-see destination and one of the best anchorages in the Caribbean. And since the park is accessible only by boat, we didn't want to miss an opportunity to visit.

The park's landscape appears otherworldly with giant limestone karst rock formations jutting out of water - you quickly discover why it was even used as a filming location for the movie Jurassic Park! The park is the DR's largest protected area and is home to numerous bird species and the Caribbean's most extensive mangrove forest.

Despite being tired from our overnight sail, after a quick nap and lunch, we lowered the dinghy to explore the park by land. Other than a few tourist boats, we had the entire park to ourselves.

A trek into the rainforest took us through several caves, home to owls, woodpeckers and other birds, and gave us an up close look at all kinds of flora. The park was once a safe haven for the Taino Indians, where they hid in the islands many caves, and where you can still see their original cave drawings.

After a good night's sleep, the following morning, we hopped again in the dinghy, but this time it was to explore the park by water around the dramatic rock islands and through the lush mangrove system.We enjoyed a really peaceful ride through the mangrove forest, spotting the occasional frigate, pelican and heron.

We would have liked to spend several more days in the park, but we had a quickly closing weather window across the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico, so later that afternoon we weighed anchor to cross the Mona passage and head for Puerto Rico.

The Mighty Mona Passage

In the Bahamas and the Caribbean, the wind blows out of the east 80+ percent of the time. The strong winter trade winds typically set in around mid-December making eastward progress difficult since you can't sail a boat directly into the wind, and the waves created by the wind blowing across the water often creates choppy swell...so essentially, we have the force of the wind and the waves against us as we make our trip south and east into the Caribbean islands.

To add to that, the Mona Passage, the stretch of water between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, is known for its strong currents, swell and storms that brew over Puerto Rico and roll out to sea, so even in ideal conditions this stretch can get nasty.

Image from Wikipedia
We use several sources for our weather: PredictWind, SailFlow, Windy and Windfinder. We also listen daily to marine weather forecaster Chris Parker on Borealis' long range SSB radio. Using a variety of weather sources helps us make the best routing and departure time decisions for our passages, although we've quickly learned the winds and waves are rarely ever more moderate than forecast!

When it came time to crossing the Mona Passage, we also took advice given to us by veteran Caribbean cruisers Alexandra and Dave on SV Banyon, whom we met in the Exumas, Bahamas. They said: you can wait weeks for the right weather to sail east, OR when a large low-pressure system moves across North America, and warm air from the south flows toward the low, leaving light and variable winds behind...well fire up the engine and take advantage of those calm conditions to make as much eastern progress as possible. Even Bruce Van Sant, author of the Thornless Path to Windward - the Bible for cruisers heading south - recommends motorsailing this route in easy weather conditions. So that's what we did, while we had a several day window of predicted calm seas and light winds under 10 knots.

A gale passing off North America brings lighter tradewinds (blue shades) to the islands
On Friday, March 31 at 2 pm we weighed anchor and set sail for Puerto Rico's southwest coast. And just because you should always expect the unexpected, as soon as we rounded the bend into Samana Bay from the national park, we were met with 15 knot winds and 2-3 foot choppy seas right on the nose! As we motorsailed out of Samana Bay and into the Atlantic, for the next several hours we traveled along the edge of a large squall that brought showers and kicked up winds to 20 knots.

For several hours we sailed along the edge of a squall
Small storm cells brought rain and slightly higher winds than predicted (under 15 knots) for the rest of the evening and night, which was equally as dark as our last overnight passage with no moon overhead.
A line of unforcasted storm cells that we hit throughout our overnight passage
During Nick's first night watch, he suddenly saw small white lights bobbing on the horizon in front of him (or so he thought), but within a matter of minutes he was nearly on top of a dozen small fishing skiffs that were night fishing several miles offshore. After a panicky moment of surprise, he grabbed the helm and safely navigated around them.

Since the Mona Passage connects the Atlantic to the Caribbean Sea, it's also a busy shipping route, and we had to navigate our way around several very large container ships during the night passage.

Lots of commercial shipping traffic as we transit the Mona Passage
Several hours before dawn we made our way past the Hourglass Shoals (named for its hourglass-like shape) just off the eastern shores of the Dominican Republic. This shallow shoal area is where water several thousand feet deep gets forced over shallow shoals of only a few hundred feet deep and creates strong currents and choppy, confused seas. Sailors can cross the Hourglass Shoals south between the shoal and the shore, or to the north of the shoals until deeper Atlantic water and then head southeast in the lee of Puerto Rico, which is the course we chose. Thankfully, we had calm sea conditions through this area despite the ongoing squalls.

Our northernly pass around Hourglass Shoals; others opt for a southern route hugging the shoreline
After a night of showers, the sun came up the following morning and we had bright, sunny skies and flat calm seas with winds under 5 knots. Just after 7 am we spotted land on the horizon and shortly after heard a US Coast Guard announcement on the VHF radio, something we haven't heard in months!

Land ho! Our first glimpse of Puerto Rico on the horizon
Nick fishing off Borealis' stern

Hola, Puerto Rico

We arrived into colorful Boqueron, Puerto Rico at 3 pm on March, 31, 2019 after a 26-hour sail. We'd made it back into U.S. territory, after traveling for three months and just over 2,250 nm!

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