Whales, Virgins, Puerto Rico and the notorious Mona Passage - 29th February 2004

Not my words in the title about the Mona Passage, but from Reed's Caribbean
Almanac. But first stop were the British and American Virgin Islands,
reputedly named after Elizabeth I the supposedly virgin queen. The 85 miles
NE to the British Virgins from St Maarten is an awkward distance - at 6
knots = 14 hours so with 13 hours of daylight you either sail overnight or
start at 0500 and aim to get in as it just before it's dark at 1700. We
decided to go for the day sail, and exited the lagoon the night before, (the bridge only opens 3
times/day, the earliest at 0600) set off at0500 and had a lovely sail in a
stiff breeze. But the waves were increasing all the time and about 3pm it became apparent that if
we continued to Virgin Gorda (fat virgin as the most eastern Virgin is
irreverantly named) and the Bitter End Yacht Club we would be negotiating
the narrow entrance in dusk with heavy seas over shallow reefs. Not impossible by any means but we
diverted to go through the deeper passage south of Beef Island and anchored
as the light faded completely to the west of Beef Island in a perfect
unmarked anchorage.

Next day we snorkelled on the reef then moved 3 miles west to Buck Island
where we moored and went ashore in search of nightlife. Well, truth to tell,
there wasn't much of it - one bar was closed, the next had 2 customers, the
last was a restaurant with perhaps 8 diners. Kate Nicky and I sipped
ferociously iced cocktails in the chill airconditioning and dinghied back to
our livelier Intrepid. The Virgins have so many islands connected by the 20
metre deep Francis Drake Channel that they are great for cruising. We had
snorkelled on the wreck of the RMS Rhone last time, so diverted to little
used Bay which is beautifully sheltered in South East winds. We sailed in
with another smaller yacht, anchored, swam, and then were entertained by a
Canadian yacht which spent 2 hours trying to anchor next to us. As dusk fell
we invited both boats over for a beer - the Chicago/Irish couple on the
smaller boat had met in this very bay 2 years ago to the day, and were very
experienced sailors, the Canadian/Alaskans on the other boat had apparently
lots of experience - it was just that they had never anchored in a bay with
other boats before - in all their sailing, they just sailed into remote
bays, dropped 60+ metres of chain to a rock bottom and swung around it. We
had an impromptu anchoring seminar over (many) beers, and learnt about
Bahamian anchoring (2 anchors) for future use.

We filled our American Gas (Propane) next day at the Shell Gas Depot in the
Capital, Road Bay Tortola then sailed via Red Hook (which is kind of the
working and fishing part of the US Virgins) to St Thomas which is the cruise
ship touristy part. We arrived to find a seaplane taking off directly at us,
but it jinked a bit and missed us (not by much) and as we anchored, Helice
dinghied over. Jim and Anne and daughters Elizabeth and Ellie (aged about
10) have taken 9 months off to do an Atlantic Circuit, and are some of the
most sociable people I know. The girls have charmed everyone on the ARC, and
Jim and Anne run their own shopfitting business. We all dined American
style in the Green House (cocktails and Hamburgers) which managed to
transform itself around us from Breakfast Diner to Cocktail Bar, Restaurant
and finally late night Disco , all by shifting tables and lighting. I guess
it is making maximum use of its assets.

To the west of US Virgins lies Culebra and Vieques, the latter used as a US
Navy bombing range, but now sometimes open. We chose Culebra and negotiated
the narrow entrance to find the first anchorage packed with Puerto Rican
fishing boats who apparently come to Culebra for fishing but mainly loud
music. We found a supremely quiet anchorage to the right of the large bay,
protected from the stiff east wind, then next day sailed through the E/W
reef that 'joins' Culebra to Puerto Rico and entered San Juan harbour. In
2002 our engine had stopped here because of a blocked prefilter, and we set
a ghost to rights as we sailed in though the narrow entrance between reefs
under the massive imposing and more or less impregnable Fort Morro (with our
engine idling just in case), with a following surging swell .

Sam Juan harbour is a huge natural bay, we anchored in the San Antonio
Channel in 9 metres of water. We stayed at anchor while exploring San Juan
old town, including El Moro fort and with Kate flew kites high over it ,
then visited the Bacardi Factory (free drinks in
moderation - 2). The Bacardi family started in Cuba in mid 1800's and made
Bacardi distinctive by a special yeast, ageing the resulting rum, and using
charcoal
filters. When the people of Cuba overthrew the corrupt Batista regime the
Bacardi family were one of many owners who left and whose property including
the distillery was nationalised by Castro. The Bacardis however kept control
of the Bacardi brand and other production facilities and based in Bermuda
they
expanded their Puerto Rican facility and maintained their position as the
largest premium spirit brand in the world today (at least I think that is
what they claimed).

Kate flew out on Wednesday - we enjoyed having her as part of her gap year,
and she educated us on current music in exchange for yachting practice (she
is already a dinghy instructor).

Janet and Mark flew in from England on Friday/Saturday, and we took Intrepid
into the beautifully maintained and exceptionally friendly Club Nautico on
Saturday for water and electricity (they have a hydrant system for diesel,
so you can fuel at wherever your berth is, the first time I have seen this).
Rates are high/day ($60/day), but lowish
/month ($480/m). Unfortunately we couldn't stay for a month but we did get
useful information about Samana Bay from Emiliano who works at the club but
comes from Samana. The Club is 95%
sports fishing boats (40 feet long with high fly bridges to spot marlin etc)
but welcomed lone yachties with real grace, and to our surprise we found
there a Dragon sailing boat 'Wisp' just arrived from the Medway Yacht Club
(our sailing club in the UK). It had been advertised on the internet, bought
and shipped to Puerto Rico and was re-launched that day. They asked us to
sail with them, but we had the Mona Passage .......

We had warned Mark and Janet of the huge waves that are created when
Atlantic surges coming from water 6000 metres deep hit the Mona passage
between Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic at depths of 50 metres or less.
Our strategy for this was to choose our weather window with care, and to
stay north in deeper water. Still it was with some trepidation that we set
out, on a 2 night journey to find............10 knot winds and 3 feet waves.
Briefed by us, Mark had come prepared for an epic photo diary of Mona
travails - we offered to tilt his camera to create larger looking waves, but
we ghosted along at 4 knots under sunny skies too slow even for the special
fishing technique recommended by resident fishing pro Mike Benitez to be
fruitful. Still it was good night sailing practice for Mark, although we had
to slow down even more to avoid entering Samana Bay in the DR at night.

We had chosen Samana because between January 15th and March 15th some 80% of
the Atlantic's 10000 hump backed whales come back to Samana from the Arctic
to .......have fun, play around, mate and breed. They are renowned for
leaping almost out of the water as they display, compete and sing.

And as we entered the Bay there they were, 10 hump back whales, not
displaying but clearly in sight (well actually I was in the shower so I
missed them but Mark Janet and Nicky did). We were a bit apprehensive about
the entrance into the main 'port', Santa Barbara so continued on, and the
buoys in the event weren't bad, and we were welcomed alongside a Dominican
Republic gunboat and 8 officials came on board to clear us in through
customs and
immigration. It was a bit of a squeeze, but we gave them a coke each which
went down well. One person laboriously filled in a form, another asked for a
sheet of paper so he could write down our names, the rest watched, then they
advised that we had to pay $42 plus $10/person immigration plus $11 port fee
(which is what
we had heard was the normal immigration rate) then after this
was finished they charmingly asked for a 'tip' which they assured us was
voluntary and would be shared between them all. Well what would you do -
they had asked for it after, not before
clearing us in? DR is having a bad time economically, the DR Peso, worth 17
to the US$ in 2002 is now worth $48 to the $ and there is starting to be
significant inflation and (we read) some unrest in the capital. I gave them
$15 (about 15%) as a tip and they seemed OK with that.

Then we discussed what to see. Whales obviously, but we were keen to see
the interior as well, and Richard who had helped us in suggested waterfalls
so we fixed an all day visit for $30/person. Then whales - we asked at the
environment ministry and they made it clear that we were not allowed to see
the whales in our own boat. This seemed a bit restrictive, we tried the
Commandant but he smilingly confirmed this, and we had heard that the 30 or
so boats which are licensed to take people out to see the whales report
other boats and they can be confiscated and impounded on return to Santa
Barbara (and they pointed out one which they said had just been impounded).

Our other 'guide' Ralph (apparently there are now 14 guides and 2 take each
day of the week on a rota to share the work around), arranged a local boat
with a licence to take us ($100 for 4) and we left at 0830 before other
boats in his 65hp 20ft open fishing boat (with 10 lifejackets). We raced
across Samana Bay which is a rectangular bite facing due east 6 miles across and 20 miles deep
into the north coast of DR, about 20 metres deep on average.

Our first sighting was a mother and calf just 2 weeks old (our skipper,
Merron said), the water is so clear that we could see the white side fins
clearly - we later learned that all the British French and American colonies
had slaughtered most of their hump back whales whereas DR being originally
Spanish without a tradition of whaling has never touched the Samana Bay
whales. This has enabled them to survive but with a reduced gene pool, so
that ALL Samana Bay (and hence most/all Atlantic) hump back whales have
white side fins, whereas Pacific hump backs have black side fins. Mother and
baby moved slowly through the water, both arching their back as they came up
to breath in the characteristic way that gives them their name, Merron kept
us a sensible distance away until at one point he inadvertantly had the boat
right on top of the mothers tail, which looked absolutely gigantic through
the water as it lazily beat the water 5 metres beneath us. By this
time another whale watching boat had come out, and we decided we might be
disturbing them, so roared off in search of more.

Suddenly we saw about half a mile away a mass of black with white fins
launch itself completely out of the water, coming down with a splash that
created waves. We steered towards it, and found a youngster aged
perhaps 2, with mother. It was the youngster who was showing off or playing,
lauching vertically out of the water so that perhaps 5 metres of his/her
(whale sexing is an inexact process at which we are amateurs) 8 metre length
was upright for about 2 seconds then twisting round so we
could see the lumps and ridges on his lower jaw before splashing back
into water - and then repeating it again every minute or so until he got
tired. Nicky imagined him showing off to his mother, 'Look mummy, look how
high I can get, looooook, see I can get even higher, looooooook.....(She
said that James had given her some experience of this).

Have you noticed that with digital cameras there is a slight delay between
pushing the button and the picture being taken (its most evident when taking
flash but its the same without). Guess what duration the delay is?? You've
got it, 2 seconds. So Mark and I had lots and lots of pictures of wavy water
where a young whale had just fallen back into the sea, but not much whale.
In the end Mark switched to video mode and the whale was coming up
sufficiently often for him to get pictures of it launching itself right up,
and can extract stills from this. After, Merron dropped us on Cayo Levantado
which is a picture perfect desert island with palm trees and yellow
sand..........and later a few tourists but then nothing's perfect.

One effect of the DR Peso decline is to make prices quite cheap. Dinner in
Camillo's (our favourite restaurant) was very good and cost about 1500 Pesos
for 4 (about US$30). You do get a gang of boys offering to 'look after our
dinghy' when we chain it to the pier, but to date it has been safe. Next day
we had arranged with Richard to go to Salto del Limon a large waterfall
inland ($120 for 4 and Richard came with us which gave us the chance to ask
lots more questions). 27th February is DR's independance day, and there were
festivals in town. (DR was orginally a Spanish colony which was so ineptly
governed from Madrid that in 1821 the local Spanish Governor declared DR
independant, but before this could take effect, Haiti invaded and conquored
the fledgling country, uniting the island of Hispaniola. However the
Haitians (who had achieved the only successful slave revolt in 1803 when
black troops ripped the white bit out of the French tricolour, and gained
independance from France) viewed the
fairer skinned Dominicans as former slave owners and there was much mutual
resentment. On 27th February 1842, Duarte engineered a bloodless coup in
Santo Domingo, and re-achieved independance, defending it against Spain who
unsuccessfully tried to re-conquor it in 1864). To round off the history,
the USA has frequently flirted with DR, once almost offering statehood,
taking control from 1916 to 1924, and then in 1965, invading to reassert
fair elections. Even now, some 100 major league baseball players in the US
are from DR, including some in the $15 million/year wage bracket. As I write
(29 Feb), rebels have gained control of Haiti Aristide has flown out in his
private jet, and American troops are back there.

After a short taxi ride and a 1 mile hike through idyllic looking
countryside of rolling pasture with
cows, and rough scrub being cleared for market gardens, we heard the very
pretty waterfall, about 50 metres high with lots of water coming over. We
swam, then lunched then visited a small rubber plantation before passing
Samana's almost unused cruise ship dock - Richard had no idea why the cruise
ships dont come - there is certainly intense competition between the
Caribbean islands. Most of DR tourism is all inclusive resort hotels,
especially for Germans although more Brits are venturing this way, its quite
a fertile place. Mark had to leave on early Saturday, catching the good
quality bus to Santo Domingo - he hopes to cross the Atlantic with the ARC
in a few years time, and it was really good to sail with him, swop ideas on
boats, catch up on Shell gossip and learn about his role leading Shell's
sustainable development initiative.

To the south of Samana Bay is the National Park of Haitises, and on our 3rd
attempt we got a permit from the Commandant for $10 'overtime for the
typist', and after visiting Allejandro the Cuban in charge of the very
informative Whale Centre (where you can hear the whales sing) we took a
rather zig zag course there via the whales. There were perhaps 20 whale
watching boats but they seemed to miss many of the whales by rushing from
where one had been seen to somewhere else. Nicky figured that the whales
were leaping around the shallows (+/-10 metres) and this was more productive
as we watched truly spectacular displays as large humpbacks waved white
flippers and tails at us, rolled over, and leapt out of the water (all 30
tonnes of them) while the other boats were back in port for lunch.

Haitises looks very similar to Chinese prints of moss covered hills and in
fact the geology is similar - large limestone humps and caves, with, in the
case of Haitises, mangroves on coral spits which make up the bay enclosing
Haitises. We paid 600 Pesos to the Park Guides then anchored 300 metres away
from the mangroves to avoid the voracious and voluminous mosquitoes (and it
worked). Haitises has 2 large limestone caves with cave paintings of the
Taino indians who were around when Columbus arrived, and the same 2 park
wardens took us around. By this time there were perhaps 50 tourists mainly
German looking a bit wet after a 10 mile open boat trip from Santa Barbara,
but the caves are quite big enough to accomodate us all.

Tomorrow (Monday) we leave Intrepid with some trepidation in the care of
Richard who will sleep on board and take the bus to Santo Domingo (the DR
capital) for 2 days. We hope it is all safe when we return.

People continue to ask to come along on Intrepid for part of the east coast
of USA, and we really do welcome our friends/visitors. If you are planning
holidays in 2005 how about 2 months more or less if you can find the time
cruising the tranquil waters of the Pacific, including Galapogos, Marquesas
or Tahiti? We already have 2
volunteers for part of this, but if you may be interested, flights and
arrangements probably take a little longer, hence this reminder. From what
we hear it may be safer, more drug free and certainly warmer than UK.

Since its a once in 4 years 29th February, we hope that whoever you proposed
to accepted, (or as Janet tells us) bought you a really good present.

With all best wishes,

Andy and Nicky
PS www.intrepidofdover.co.uk has photos and an itinerary.

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