Friday, February 19, 2016

Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico

Sailing for The Dominican Republic
Before we left, we bought machetes and I plotted a course that would keep us 20 nautical miles off the Haitian coast. We’d heard from other sailors about the pirate issues. All it takes is a fast boat with 3 ambitious Haitians pulling their money for enough fuel to take a run at us. It was a small worry but we planned accordingly. We never saw a boat and it was the most sedate Windward Passage ever made. Pleasurable miles made even better with perfect sunsets, and Cuban rum.

Traveling Companion Recap
Joe is a German by passport only, who actually bested me on my use of an English word, and rightfully so (completely embarrassing to be schooled by a non-native speaker). He is a very generous guy whose heart is in the right place and smart as a whip.
Chris is a true South African gentleman with a tremendous laugh that matches his physical stature. Think: very large jovial mammal.
Every time I found myself standing between the two of them I felt like I was at the bottom of a well. I had to go back to Central America to feel tall again.

Passage Making
Chris is the owner and captain, but he made me the navigator, and by default; the Spanish translator. As we progressed hundreds of miles to the east, the time zones changed and the watch on my wrist became as arbitrary as my waypoint selections. It took us a couple days to get from Cuba to The Dominican Republic. These were easy miles at sea.

There was about a 3 hour period in which we had 9 knots of wind on the beam and we were making 6 knots of speed. That Skabenga…. She can sail!
From my journal, “We were due to make land fall in the DR at 03:30. Instead we decided to cut the engines and ghost along under a scant jibsail doing 3.5 kts of speed in 8 kts of wind. Damn the main sail. What a performer.”

Our strategy slowed us enough to make landfall at first light as we entered the skinny water of Luperon. We parked the yacht a few times on the muddy bottom but it’s really not an issue in a catamaran.
I’m glad I wasn’t in Barraveigh. Our first impression: “This is going to be a great party. Look at all these boats!” Turns out they were almost all empty. “Luperon – where dreams & boats go to die”. I’ve seen it before in many other well protected anchorages; people leave their boats for a long spell that morphs into eternity. We encountered tales of divorce, and misplaced moxie.

Luperon was a dirty hot hell hole with zero allure. I tried to come up with something nice to say, sorry Mom. Joe and I got loaded one night and the taxi that tried to take us back to the boat got lost. We finally fired him and flagged down some kid on a motorcycle. I immediately gave myself a second degree burn on the exhaust pipe and yelled in Joe’s ear the whole way back to the boat.

This woman was sure I couldn’t lift her. 
When I say I pick up chicks it means I lift them off the ground

Further East – The Mona Passage
We motored due east from Luperon to Arecibo Puerto Rico. Like the Haitian pirates, we’d been warned about the notorious Mona Passage and its ability to beat the hell out of east bound ships. Like the Haitian pirates, the threatening conditions were nonexistent. We just got lucky.

Puerto Rico
The Spanish fort at the entrance of San Juan
We made landfall at Arecibo at about 1:30 in the morning, and hid behind a very small jetty while standing anchor watches until first light. Puerto Rico is American soil – good for me, not so good for Chris and Joe. Joe holds a green card but Chris had issues with his US visa when entering with a boat. Those two took a taxi to a faraway airport and got it sorted out. I relaxed in the aircon of Skabenga and caught up on sleep and Game of Thrones.

We left the next morning for the easy motor to San Juan. Once we reached the marina, I became a land based mammal again. This is where the trip would end for me. Airfare and logistics were much cheaper and easier from Puerto Rico than from St. Maarten.

There is a Sizzler at the marina in San Juan, and we gorged ourselves repeatedly. God I love America. Endless all you can eat buffets, and it's even better in a territory. We couldn't finish our 3rd bucket of beers so they packed them up to go. That would never happen on the continent. Here’s the negative – It’s America. It’s not exotic. It’s expensive. I used San Juan as a transit spot 20 years ago. It’ll probably be 20 years before I return.
I'm such a salesman

This pretty lady came to visit

Driving or sailing, I earn my miles. 
Flying feels like cheating. 

I’m writing this from a beach in El Salvador and I don’t know when I’ll be on an ocean going sailboat again. As I become nostalgic for my brethren of the sea and our adventures together, I harken back to a more innocent year and I remember the class of 2007 with whom I crossed the Pacific; worthy humans all. Suzi, that beautiful woman who braved it in true English style with the stiffest of upper lips, has announced she'll marry and is with child. I beam thinking of her joy. To the class of 2007: Afriki, Antares, Barefeet, Barraveigh (it wouldn’t sound right on the SSB without including myself in the role call), Blue Moon, Cacafuego, Cardea, Catrina, Creola, Dreamkeeper, Emelia, Helen Kate, Jade, Northern Winds, Priscilla, Serai, Silene, and certainly not least, Sora - I stand in awe of all those who've shared my path.  

What a sweet life of which I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself at the helm. I thank you, the entire cast, especially Chris and Joe for inviting me along, and for playing a role in my drama.

Your man on point,

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


An Old Girlfriend
We were still well within the protected waters of the inshore reef. I had an inkling that the sea was licking her lips and waiting to kiss me full on the mouth. She was just there; a slight glance over my right shoulder, and all the desire to know if we were still compatible welled within me. My hunch proved true, she was an old lover longing to be embraced again, full of remembrances of a man ten years my junior, when I first launched myself into her bosom on a voyage of self-discovery and adventure. God it was good to be back at the helm of a seagoing vessel, passage making, nation hopping, and rekindling within myself that epic feeling that I once owned in full, and that paid dividends daily. 

Elsie is nothing short of a freedom machine, but the tires make her slightly less than global. This was a total immersive dunk back into a life that at once, was all consuming while being full tilt liberating. It had been over 3 years since I'd pulled a night watch beneath those diamond skies. I was immediately intoxicated with just the breath of the wind and being afloat on the water. Yes, it was agreed, we’d begin the affair anew, but noticing that I was standing before the binnacle, when sitting would have sufficed, told me something: my nerves were wound. She and I, well... we'd quarreled before.

I met Chris the South African and Joe the German in a bar in Belize and they invited me to join them on a trip across the Caribbean.

Sometimes you get lucky with humans. These guys are great!
I parked Elsie at the marina in Placencia and off we went.

Belize to Cuba - 57 Hours
We only sailed for about 16 hours. We motored the rest. Skabenga is a fast boat and the weather cooperated. We were headed into the prevailing westerlies (Americans - Now would be a good time to check a map) but a cyclone a thousand miles away neutralized our headwind. For me – it was wonderful to witness that my “muscle memory” for all things “boat” was still intact. The feel of rope in my hands as I trimmed a sail just felt right. Flipping on the nav lights at sunset, and shutting the breakers off at dawn was a familiar ritual still entrenched in my aquatic memory. That sense of perfection I feel when the line fits snugly in the self-tailing winch, executing a correct cleat hitch and the speed with which I can still tie a bowline – nice to be salty again.
Everyone should at some time in their life develop an intimate relationship with the sea. Get on it, get in it, let it beat you within a millimeter of your demise, and then thank her when you make it back to terra firma.  She’s the best teacher I’ve ever had. Period.

Landfall CUBA!

Cayo Largo. Not the most straightforward approach and it was midnight. Chris the owner agreed that if all the navigation lights were in place as we saw them on the digital chart plotter then we would attempt a landfall in the dark. 3 out of 4 were there. Unnerving to say the least with 3 men squinting into the black trying to understand why our eyes didn’t agree with the charts. We reasoned that it was Cuba, and most probably we were doing everything right and the poor nation had just not replaced a burned out light bulb.  Chris decided the odds were in our favor and the seas were flat enough that if we got into a jam, it wouldn’t be catastrophic. We inched our way in and with shallow water beneath us found a suitable place to anchor. We’d sleep and make our formal paperwork entry the following day.
Giant tarpon at the dock

This Italian and his suspect boat. The worst I've ever seen

The final approach was done in full daylight and it was still confusing and even shallower. We made it onto the immigration dock and began the check in “Cuban style”. Fidel must have said: "We've won the revolution, now let's decide on what level of bureaucracy we want. I'm thinking let's go for it! Let's bury our people in paperwork. Viva La Revolucion”'! The underlying theory must be to create jobs because half the island was involved in checking us in and the other half in checking us out a few days later.

During our short visit we boozed on rum and beer as the marina extended us an ever enlarging line of credit. Sweethearts, but then, it’s not like we could leave without paying. You are watched constantly. Cayo Largo is a resort town that caters to rich westerners. This wasn’t really Cuba. Not yet.

We sailed right past the historic Bay of Pigs and made our next landfall in a very well protected bay called Cienfuegos. My first impressions were probably the same for everyone who docks a boat there: “You can’t possibly put that water in your tanks. It’s barely transparent.” “Damn it’s hot.” “That is the most I’ve ever paid for a load of laundry.” “Internet is a little tricky in this country huh?” “$6 for that 1 block taxi ride? Why didn’t you just tell me to walk, you dick.” I called the guy a thief, realized things were about to go sideways real quick, took a deep breath, apologized profusely and then tipped him on top of his shakedown price.
Sunk wreck at the dock
Good luck getting an American laptop online, never gonna happen, nor an American phone. We have been their biggest enemy since 1959 and, well – nope. Not possible. Joe and I borrowed Chris’ laptop and because he bought it in Australia – it worked. This is when I started to get an inkling that we were in a communist country and things were going to be a little different.
This is the error message you will see repeatedly

We went to a restaurant with tablecloths. The waiters wore vests. We ordered and waited. And waited. I told the waiter that the bathroom had no soap. He produced a little bar that he kept in his pocket. The bewildered look on my face forced him to explain: “people will take it if we leave it in the bathroom”. That was just one more hint that things were going to be a little different.  After waiting for more than 20 minutes he told us they were out of chicken. That produced uproarious laughter from all three of us, as we had all ordered a chicken dish. Was he embarrassed to tell us? Did he think he could go kill a chicken before we noticed, and then failed? I then knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

We arranged for a taxi to drive us the 4 hours to Habana (and yes, it’s spelled with a “b” instead of a “v”.)

For every good photo I took I missed 100. So many great scenes and the character in these people’s faces hint at stories burning to tell. We loved Habana and within 12 hours we looked into buying a flat. Impossible, and probably for the best.

Bullet holes in the presidential palace
A Short Take On The Cuban Revolution
I might not agree with Fidel’s political & economic strategy but I am utterly impressed with his determination and conviction in a belief. It’s an epic story and I won’t do it justice here. Further inquiry is warranted.

In 1953 he attacked a police barracks and served a year in prison and then was exiled to Mexico. That’s where he met Che Guevara. At the end of 1956 those 2, Camilo Cienfuegos, Fidel’s little brother Raul, and 77 other armed guerrillas motored a crapped out boat from Mexico to Cuba to try again to capture an island. After landing in Cuba and immediately finding themselves under repeated attack, only 19 survived to regroup at the designated location. It was a long struggle but you know the end result: Against all odds, Fulgencio Batista – El Presidente, looted hundreds of millions and fled to the Dominican Republic. They did it. They won. Viva La Revolucion! On the first day of 1959 they had it all.
A Few Thoughts On Communism
Here are 3 areas in which communism completely wins:
1.)     Almost zero drugs. It’s not a free society. The government gets what it wants and enforces its will on its people. That’s a horrible taste in the mouth of a freedom loving westerner but it gets results. It’s also an island and as a guy who sailed there – trust me, security is tight.
2.)     Almost zero violence. No weapons on the street. Everyone is tranquilo. They aren’t pushy like the Asians. They respect the single file line up, and will move aside to let you pass. The consequences of misbehaving are infamous. It’s safe. Very safe.
3.)     A racist vacuum. Communism is based on the equality of all people, it in theory neutralizes bigotry, and in practice, it seems to have done its job. Believe me – I love to find a scab and pick it. I looked hard for evidence to the contrary; they really do seem to be free from racism, if that’s possible amongst humans. I even baited people but I couldn’t get anyone to fall for it. “Communism: We lost to everything but racism.”
Mexico has way better 15th century Spanish towns with far more vibrant architecture. You can skip this place.

Taking A Beating

It was a rough sea with 22 knot headwinds when we left Trinidad. We got the stuffing knocked out of us and almost lost the dingy off the davits when the shackle straightened and parted under the extreme forces. We found a pass in the reef on that southern coast and hid behind a perfectly shaped crescent mangrove islet to rest and repair. Once recovered, we struck out again for a 2 night trip to Santiago, Cuba.

Chris and I
Its Cuba’s second capital and almost as photo worthy as its counterpart. We were drinking rum in a bar (this is what you do when you are with Chris and Joe) and I was practicing my Spanish on a pretty girl who explained the Cuban conundrum to me in very concise terms: “I want what everyone my age (27) wants, to see the world, to travel, but change will never come fast enough.” She’s losing her youth trapped on an island that she can barely afford to live on, but can never afford to leave.  “Soon I am in my 30’s and then, well… it’s not the same”. No – it’s not the same. It’s harder when you’re older and for a Latin woman it’s unlikely since they are expected to start popping out the ninos immediatamente. So much for a gap year of exploration and maximizing your youth. Poverty is a sad state and communism makes it a state policy. 
Fidel is a warden.
No One Can Ignore You More Perfectly Than A Cuban Waiter.
You need a flare gun and a red flag to get their attention. We were literally waving at our lazy plate bearer when a young girl hanging on a payphone saw us and thought we were beckoning to her. She hustled right over and before we could explain she said “I still have 2 years left”. The waiter saw us speaking to her and then he fast walked it to our table and immediately said, “She has 2 years of childhood still.” We were completely confused. “We were trying to get your attention not hers, but since you are here and she just walked away, what does it mean “2 years left”? Then it all came out. All women are expected to prostitute themselves at the age of 18 to help the family. Total silence with a sickness that lies like lead in your belly.  There it is – they’re all prostitutes. This kid knew she was entitled to another couple years of childhood before she had to put it on the street for the family. Just like her older sisters and mom. It was a hollow ending to our last night in Cuba. I’ll write it again; Poverty is a sad state and communism makes it a state policy.

The next day we cleared all the paperwork, and like Fulgencio Batista we left with the wind knocked out of us as we sailed away for the long passage to the Dominican Republic.

We grilled burgers on the BBQ as we sailed past Guantanamo Bay. It felt very American. We read about Che Guevara while the drones flew by. The narrow seaway corridor that my fellow Americans allowed us to transit made for exaggerated scrutiny. 

Next Dispatch: Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico!

Your man on point,

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