Gringo Escapade Part Quattro: Columbia

by Larry Caillouet

After spending three weeks in the States, we returned to Santo Domingo where Escapade was waiting to take us to Colombia and beyond, but first there were some challenges. Like getting out of the airport. We were carrying with us a new Mastervolt battery charger/inverter and this caught the attention of an ever diligent customs inspector. “Where is your receipt for this? Show me that you have paid the required import duties.” Calmly I explained that this is for a boat in transit, not to be sold here in Dominican Republic. Not good enough. “Boat in transit” seemed to carry no weight at all. “I must see the receipt. This item cannot leave the airport until I see the receipt.” The fact that he did not speak English and I can barely speak Spanish did not help, but fortunately a fellow-sufferer who had been snagged by Customs was bilingual and served as translator. Diana asked our translator, who seemed to be familiar with the customs operation, if we needed to pay a bribe to get through. “It’s too late for that now,” he explained. “Too many people involved.” I changed tactics and explained that there is no receipt because this item is a replacement under warranty from a purchase in the United States a year ago. “Then I must see the paperwork.” At this point they loaded my charger onto a cart and we went down a long unmarked hallway to a concrete room in the bowels of the airport. More customs officials got involved. I pulled my laptop out of my backpack and showed them the pdf file where Schafer & Brown Electrical in Puerto Rico billed me for inspecting the old charger and shipping it back to the factory in Wisconsin for repair or replacement. This was the proof they needed, but still not good enough to let me go. “I must have a document for my file.” “OK, I can email you a copy.” That would have worked if the airport’s WiFi network had been sufficient to let me log on. I guess WiFi doesn’t work well in concrete bunkers. So with Customs retaining my equipment I set out on a quest for usable WiFi. I never found it, but my telephone worked, so I called Schafer & Brown and got them to send the invoice pdf directly to the Customs official who had given me his card. This must have been the magic because soon my charger was released to my custody. I found Diana and our driver in the terminal and only two and a half hours after arriving at the airport we were on our way to the boat.

When we arrived at the boat our friends from Toronto, Greg and Elaine, had already arrived and were cleaning out the food that had rotted in the refrigerator when the power went off. The joys of boating! A more interesting task was replacing the genoa halyard that had partially snapped during the regatta in Samana. I had brought a new halyard with me (which the customs officials had overlooked), so we were eager to get started. I loaded the bosun’s chair with the tools I would need and Greg hoisted me to the top of the mast. First I cut the thimble end off the old halyard. image1Then with a curved needle I sewed the bitter end of the new halyard to the cut end of the old halyard. When this was done, Greg started pulling the old halyard down through the mast. I was absolutely elated when I saw the new halyard go over the turning block at the masthead and easily follow the old halyard down through the mast. I thought the job was over, but when the thimble end of the new halyard reached the top of the mast, my elation turned to frustration. I had led the halyard through a steel tool ring on the bosun’s chair to carry it up the mast with me and that ring was too small to allow the thimble end of the halyard to pass through. “We will have to pull the new halyard back out and do it over,” Greg said. “No way,” I said. “Put the angle grinder in a bag and send it up to me.” So I cut the steel ring off the bosun’s chair, attached the halyard to the top of the genoa furler, and the celebration began. 

We found an electrician to install the charger/inverter, so we were ready for the final step before departing: getting a despacho. A what? A despacho is a permission document required in Dominican Republic to move from one harbor to another, even within the country. So Elaine, who is fluent in Spanish, went with me to the Armada, which is the office of the DR Coast Guard. The Armada was about 2 kilometers away from Marina Zar Par, so we hired a moto to take us there. In DR there are many men with motorbikes who function as an informal taxi system. We chose one with a motorcycle large enough to carry both of us, and off the three of us went. Our moto waited patiently while the Coast Guard meticulously filled out the papers by hand, and then we rode back to Marina Zar Par.

Phase 2 was immigration, and the immigration office was conveniently located at Zar Par. Phase 3 was boat inspection, so we waited at the boat for the Coast Guard to arrive. The same men who filled out the papers plus one more man arrived and came aboard the boat. They didn’t speak English so we didn’t know what they were inspecting for. They raised a few seat cushions and looked at a few items, but seemed to have no plan of inspection, and were in no hurry to finish anything. Then it occurred to me that they were on what Garth Brooks and George Jones sang about in a song called “B, double E, double R, U, N.” Beer Run! These guys were on a beer run! We had bought a carton of Presidente, the national beer of Dominican Republic, for such an occasion as this.image2 When I pulled a cold one out of the refrigerator, their faces lit up. “These Gringos are slow,” they thought, “but they finally caught on.” Soon the beers were finished, the papers were finished, and we were ready to depart.

We set out for Isla Beata at the southernmost tip of Dominican Republic, about 125 miles away. The winds were fairly light, and we were feeling lazy, and it was already late in the afternoon, so we debated about whether it was worth the trouble to put up the spinnaker. Eventually the sailing instinct took over and we dragged the spinnaker out on deck, installed the necessary blocks on the toe rails, ran the tack line and spinnaker sheets, and hoisted the spinnaker. 1640 square feet of red, white, and blue glory unfolded in front of us.image3 We doubled our speed and doubled our pleasure. As a general rule, we don’t fly the spinnaker at night, but as a general rule we don’t have perfect conditions and a hundred miles to go, so we left it up through most of the night. Sometime before morning we turned on the deck lights and snuffed the spinnaker when we needed to change course for Beata.

Isla Beata is an uninhabited island visited only by lobster fishermen, but otherwise we had the island to ourselves. We went ashore, walked on the beach, gathered a few shells, chased a giant iguana, snorkeled some, and exhausted the full range of activities available to us. We had intended to spend the night here, get some rest, and then set sail in the morning, but the moon was nearly full, seas were calm, and we were eager to get started on the 500 miles between us and Cartagena.

image5At 8 pm we weighed anchor and put up the full cutter rig–mainsail, genoa, and staysail. In the lee of the island, winds were quite light, but when we got beyond it, winds picked up to 15-17 knots and Escapade loved it! Soon we were doing 8+ knots, 9+ sometimes, and once hit 10 knots. Not bad for the ancient mariner–the boat, I mean. The crossing to Cartagena was a rip roaring blast! The boat heeled to starboard 10-15 degrees and galloped along with a gentle pitching motion. The sea was our private ocean without another boat in sight, not even on the AIS. The full moon was a celestial floodlight painting the sea silver in front of us.

Morning light came and the ocean was still ours. Nightfall brought us more of the glorious moonlight sailing until we got a blast of another kind. The seas had picked up with waves 6-10 feet and the wind became gusty. Just as I was getting up for my 3 am watch, the boat rounded up sharply burying the starboard rail in the water. A blast of water shot through the open port in the aft cabin where Diana and I were sleeping and soaked the bed and us like a firehose. It was only a moment, but what a moment! Not only were we and the bedding drenched, but the lurching of the boat threw me across the cabin against the starboard hanging locker. I stopped my fall with my head and raised a big knot on my forehead that was not gone until a week later. The cut over my left eye looked like the result of a stiff left jab. “I could have been a contendah,” I thought.

image6Even with a slow start we reached the midpoint of the crossing to Cartagena in 37 hours. With no land to impede the winds, we maintained our speed the rest of the way and finished the Cartagena 500 in 66 hours, an average speed of 7.57 knots entirely on sail. It was exciting to see the ocean crossing potential of Escapade, but that wasn’t the only excitement of the passage. Still 200 miles out of Cartagena I discovered that one of the steel cables suspending the dinghy on the davits at the boat’s stern had broken and the dinghy was dangling from only the port side davit and a webbing strap under the starboard side. While Diana stayed at the wheel, Greg and Elaine and I sprang into action. We used the old genoa halyard that I had removed a few days earlier to create a sling around the dinghy. It wasn’t pretty with all sorts of homemade knots and the dinghy still hanging at an angle, but at least the dinghy was secure and we could relax and enjoy the crossing.

I had been warned by some cruisers I met in Santo Domingo about the garbage and junk that flows out of the Magdalena River that empties into the Caribbean Sea about 60 miles northeast of Cartagena. One man recommended that we dock in Santa Marta, which is east of the Magdalena, and take a bus to Cartagena. We were prepared for a real mess but we encountered much less than we expected. It seemed to be mostly gardening scraps from machete workers and tree branches of different sizes. We crossed the Magdalena outflow during daylight, so it was easy to avoid the flotsam.

image7We arrived at Cartagena in the early afternoon and decided to use the Boca Grande entrance to the harbor. Although Boca Grande means “big mouth,” this is an ironically narrow mouth. Cartagena was the most important Spanish port in Spain’s “God, Gold, and Glory” heyday, so to fend off their British rivals, pirates, and various other marauders the Spanish built a low stone wall across the mouth of the bay leaving only a small opening for boats to pass through. The wall was below the surface of the sea, so it would be easy for an uninformed vessel to shipwreck into the wall while the crew admired the fine bay. The opening is marked today with a red buoy on one side and a green one on the other side, so after questioning ashore whether the markers were accurate and reliable, we ventured through the Big Mouth into Bahia de Cartagena.

image9Cartagena is built on a combination of islands and mainland bridged together around a bay. Our marina, Club de Pesca, was located inside the walled fort San Sebastian del Pastelillo on Manga island. This happened to be a stop on the route of the Hop-on Hop-off city sightseeing bus, so we bought a ticket and hopped on. It took 90 minutes to complete the tour of the city which gave us a great overview of places to return to. Much of Cartagena is new and modern with high rise apartments, condos, and office buildings dominating the skyline, but it is the historic Old Town that draws tourists to Cartagena. We were told that Gethsemane, a neighborhood inside the walled city, was once the most dangerous neighborhood in Cartagena when the drug wars were raging, but now is considered a chic and desirable location. Bars like the Havana Tavern are famous for their night life.

image8We began with a tour of the Cathedral of San Pedro Claver. This 16th century priest is revered for his ministry to the slaves who were brought to Cartagena from Africa. This church’s tradition of caring for the oppressed continues with a large display of banner photos of women who have suffered aggression in Colombia. These photos hang from the ceiling and fill the cathedral’s airspace.

image10After the tour of the church we walked through the Plaza de Simon Bolivar where vendors were selling the usual tourist items and specialties such as maracas and boxes of cigars which claimed to be Cuban, but the most interesting vendors were the women wearing colorful traditional dresses. They were carrying large bowls of fruit on their heads and were not selling the fruit but selling the right to take their photos.image11.jpeg Metal sculptures of children playing were located throughout the plaza.

image12Days were very hot in Cartagena, so we toured the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas early the next morning. San Felipe is the largest fortress built in the Americas by the Spanish Empire. image13It stands on a high hill overlooking the bay and the city below. Its large guns could pound enemy ships at sea and its high walls were a formidable barrier to land assaults. In addition to its sheer size and height, the fortress was built with several fall-back positions and a series of underground tunnels that were rigged with explosives that could be detonated as the enemy advanced. The audio tour was rather detailed and by the time we finished the tour, the day was getting hot, hot, hot. We went back to the boat to rest and cool off.

image14By 4 pm the day had cooled, or maybe it was just us, so we took a taxi to the Torre Del Reloj, the Clock Tower that is the entrance to the walled Old Town. By the way, pirates are still active in Cartagena; they are called taxis now. We had a guided walking tour which was mostly in Spanish but with brief summaries in English. image15.jpegIt began with a tour of the Candy Street where shop after shop sold all sorts of specialty candies—nothing that you could buy in an American grocery store. We saw several important churches including the Cathedral that had been visited by Pope John Paul II and more recently by Pope Francis. We also saw the Palace of the Inquisition, but the tour wasn’t entirely spiritual. We toured the Gold Museum which had a lot of items made of gold—behind glass and well-guarded. We also toured the Emerald Museum which was informative but mainly a vehicle to sell Colombian emeralds. After the tour we found a gelato shop that we couldn’t resist.

image16We ended this day’s touring with dinner at Cande’, a restaurant recommended to us as very authentically Colombian. It was upscale with great food and fine presentation, but the most memorable part of the evening was two dancers who came out into the restaurant three times in different costumes and performed classic Colombian dances. In one of the dances the woman came to various men who were dining in the restaurant and with a sultry look on her face put a fake sword down inside the front of the men’s shirts. Somehow I escaped getting my heart cut out.

The next day while we were waiting for the Hop-on bus, it began to rain. It hadn’t rained in Cartagena yet in 2018 and this rain made up for it with a vengeance. The streets were soon ankle deep in water and Diana and I decided to go back to the boat to wait out the rain. It’s a good thing we did because our cabin was being flooded once again, not by the ocean but by the sky. One port was closed but not dogged down and water was pouring through it. Drying our cabin seems to have become a routine for us, so we got busy with it. When the rain finally ended in the afternoon we again ventured out.image17 We had dinner at a fun little diner called “Say Cheese.” The menu was dominated by cheese dishes including the absolutely best grilled cheese sandwich that I’ve ever tasted. What can you do with a grilled cheese sandwich? You have to go there to find out. The young people working behind the counter seemed to be having as much fun as those of us who were eating. When I raised my camera to them and said “Say Cheese,” they didn’t miss a beat.

The treasures of Cartagena are many, but the best treasures we found were its people. They were all friendly, happy, and helpful. The dock hands not only helped us to dock the boat, but repaired the broken cable on our dinghy davit. The people in the marina office spoke little English but patiently worked with us and our little Spanish to fill out the contract and tell us about amenities. The people in the shops were friendly but not pushy. Passersby were quick to help when we looked confused or lost. The tour guides and bus drivers were pleasant and patient with us. The young man at the fuel dock played Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” for me on his Bluetooth speaker after I played a Colombian song for him on my cockpit speakers. In spite of our language barriers and our age difference, we talked like old friends.

Cartagena is a city that is proud of its heritage, excited about its daily life and opportunities, and confidant of its future. It would have been easy to spend a week or more in Cartagena, but it was time to move on to the next escapade. We spent almost the entire next day getting the boat ready to depart. This included not only the physical preparation of the boat but also the paperwork. We had hired an agent named Jose to take our passports and boat registration papers to all the local authorities to have the proper despacho for arriving and leaving, so we needed a final meeting with him to complete the process. This cost 450,000 Colombian pesos ($160 USD) but I can’t imagine having to do all the legwork myself. image18Night was falling as we motored out of Bahia de Cartagena through the Big Mouth. We were treated to a lovely evening silhouette of this charming city. Adios, Cartagena!

~Larry

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The Huddleston Cup – THIS WEEKEND!

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huddleston

The First Regatta of the Season. This will be held Saturday and Sunday May 26th and 27th.  $25 entry per boat includes BBQ dinner on Saturday for Skipper, $10 per meal for non racers or crew if they want to eat. We will have entertainment after dinner. Alan and Denise Janes will sing, as well as Leah McMurtreys daughter and friend. Please bring a dessert to share for Saturday.
Pancake breakfast on Sunday ( Leah’s famous elliptical pancakes !) and Leftover BBQ for lunch.
Skippers meeting at 12 noon with racing to follow both days. Contact Bill Miller, if you can help with committee boat. We will have hotdogs for lunch before the skippers meeting.

The Rules

As we begin another season it’s a good idea to reiterate the rules of the club, so all can follow them. These are also listed above in case you ever need to refer to them again.

The Rules We Live By

1. Never park in a manner that blocks access to another boat
2. Members are responsible for mowing the area under and around their boat.
3. If you use something up , replace it and save the receipt for re- imbursement.
4. The last member leaving the property is responsible for turning off the
lights, locking the head and locking the gate to the yard.
5. Members are expected to help out for the spring and fall work parties
6. Report criminal activity to the ALLEN COUNTY SHERIFF at 270-237-3210
and call an officer of the Club.
7. Parking on the ramp is a Federal Crime and against club rules.
8. NO BOAT is to be left on the inside of the first dock, as that area is
reserved for launching and retreival of boats.
9. All boats docked are to be by spring line only. Do not broadside
10. Dock space is available on a first on / first off basis with occupancy
limited to THREE weeks, after which the boat MUST be removed for ONE
week across ONE weekend.
11. Dock space is limited to ONE BOAT per membership, unless launching a
second boat to be raced in a regatta.”
12. All  boats on docks are required to have a fender of Sufficient size to
insure there is no damage to the dock.
13. Boats not participating in regattas, should be removed from the dock to
allow racers access to the dock.
14. If you mess it up, clean it up .. your mama doesn’t live here.
15. Camping at the club and living aboard. We will allow this for up to 2
weeks at a time, after the 2 week interval, expect a week interval to pass
prior to camping again. For additional weeks, prior application will need
to made to the board and a fee of $25 week will be charged to defray
expense for water, electricity and other expenses.

GRINGO ESCAPADE Part Tres: Dominican Republic by Larry Caillouet

image1After spending nearly two weeks in the shelter of Puerto Rico, the day arrived to cross the notorious Mona Passage. The Mona Passage lies between Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic and is given its name because of the uninhabited Mona Island in its center. Like the Gulf Stream, it can be calm, but it can also be very rough without notice. This is caused by the deep waters of the Puerto Rico Trench, more than 5 miles deep, coming up on a large shelf only 200 feet deep called the Hourglass Shoals. The cruising guide says that for Cabo Engano (Cape Cheat) “the currents are so complex that you can literally be pushed onto the shoals and not realize it until you sense that you are getting thrashed.” Diana and I had monitored wind and wave reports for several days and decided that Friday-Saturday would be a favorable time for crossing. We left the harbor at Puerto Real at 7 am and anticipated arriving by 9 or 10 am the next day. We alternated in 3-hour watches to get plenty of rest so that we would be alert.

Our crossing turned out to be pleasant, maybe even a little boring. We gave Cape Engano a wide berth and Mona was behaving. Wave heights were usually only 2 feet and never exceeded 5 or 6 feet. Winds were much lower than they had been all week, so we motor sailed to maintain at least 5 knots. We averaged 6 knots, so the 150 mile passage took about 25 hours. We saw only two boats during the day, both of them cargo ships, but at night we were entertained by thousands of stars above us and bioluminescent waters below us. The moonless sky made the stars seem all the brighter. The bow wave coming off the boat set off sparks in the water like a grinding wheel against metal.

image2We arrived in Samana Bay with no incidents to report, and were glad of it. We sailed by the gorgeous beaches of Levantado Island and docked at Puerto Bahia Samana, a marina and residence resort. We chose Puerto Bahia for its convenient location but were pleased to find that we had stumbled into the lap of luxury. The resort offered free use of its two infinity swimming pools, its gym and spa, its billiard hall, and most of all its gloriously strong WiFi. We were connected again! Emails were flying! All the knowledge in the world was at our fingertips with just a few clicks! Life was already good, and now it was great.

 

Our friend from Toronto, Roger Harris arrived on Saturday afternoon and we spent the rest of the day catching up and planning our Dominican adventures. On Sunday we went into the nearby town, Santa Barbara de Samana to visit a historic church and sample the local culture. Culture started happening as soon as we left the resort and caught a ride on the high-way in a motoconch, a small three-wheeled motorized rickshaw. These local taxis provide maximum exposure to the sights, sounds, and smells of the highway and the town. Wind in our face, the incessant high-pitched buzz of motor bikes that swarmed the streets like bees at a hive, the roar and clanking of trucks shifting gears up and down the hills, people walking along the highway and stopping to chat without bothering to move off the street, houses crowding the streets, brightly colored laundry arrayed on whatever was handy, palm trees and lush foliage everywhere, Latino music floating in air, and the aromas of exhaust fumes, flowers, and wood stoves mixing into a ubiquitous concoction. Yes, culture was all around us.

Since we had been introduced to the frenetic and chaotic life on the streets of Samana and had survived, we decided to up the stakes and rent a car. We set off for Las Terrenas in a very nice propane-powered Samsung sedan, but first we had to fuel it. After searching for a propane station with no success, we enlisted the aid of a young man on a motorbike who led us through town to a propane station off the highway down a dirt driveway behind a building–a perfectly logical place in the order of things here.

The drive to Las Terrenas was beautiful. We went up and over the mountain range that dominates the peninsula that creates Samana Bay. In every direction we saw the makings of picture post cards with hillsides covered in palm trees, brightly painted houses crowding the road or tucked into the hollows between hills, and children walking to school or home in their school uniforms. When we reached the town of Limon it was common to see people riding horses on the highway. Limon is the starting point for the trail leading to a 150-foot waterfall in a national park, and a two-hour ride on a horse or donkey is the way to get there. We pressed on to Las Terrenas, which is the Daytona Beach of Dominican Republic. The long beach is lined with restaurants, bars, hotels, and shops. The most unusual aspect of the town is two office buildings built in the shape of cruise ships. image7You won’t see that in Daytona!

It’s hard to describe what it is like to drive in Dominican Republic. It’s not just that traffic regulations are disregarded–life itself seems to be disregarded, especially by the young people on motorbikes. They weave in and out of traffic and may pass you on either side. They come out of nowhere and squeeze through the tiniest openings between vehicles. They may drive on either side of the street, or both sides. On the motorbikes

they carry propane tanks, large coolers, doors and construction materials, and sometimes families of four or five people. At night many of them do not have lights or even reflectors. Imagine trying to see a dark skinned rider in black clothing on a black bike with no reflectors on an unlit highway. Then add traffic going both ways, vehicles stopped on the road, and people congregating on the road or walking across it. That’s driving in Dominican Republic. I can’t wait to add city traffic!

After four days in the marina we left to go whale watching near Isla Levantado. We didn’t see any whales as it was already near the end of the season, but we had a pleasant sail. We anchored for the night in the bay between Santa Barbara and the “bridge to nowhere.”image10 It’s a very substantial half-mile bridge that connects the town to an island with literally nothing on it but trees. Whose brother-in-law got that contract?

We sailed about 12-14 miles across the bay to Haitisis National Park

which is known primarily for its pre-Colombian cave drawings. A short dinghy ride up a creek through the mangroves took us to where a trail led to the caves. I call these etchings drawings rather than art because I think if it’s something I could do, then it’s not art, and these drawings were primitive, rather juvenile in fact, well within the range of my aesthetic skills. After the cave we went joy-riding in the dinghy through the maze of small limestone islands. We spent a peaceful night at anchor.

After a lazy morning on the boat we sailed back across Samana Bay to Puerto Bahia. Puerto Bahia Marina & Resort was having a regatta on Saturday and enticed us to enter by offering two free nights in the marina and no entry fee. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse. Race day was beautifully sunny and the sea was calm but winds were quite variable from 3 to 18 knots, usually 8-14.  It was a Round Robin Regatta among four cruising boats, an Amel Super Maramu 52, a Jeanneau 519, a 40 foot catamaran, and us.  We beat the Jeanneau and the catamaran, but lost to the Amel due to an egregiously bad start.image13  So Escapade took the 2nd Place trophy and enjoyed the after-race party with live music by the pool.

On Sunday it was time to tempt fate by crossing the Mona Passage again. This time Mona was ready for us. We had 5-6 foot waves most of the way as predicted and the largest 6 foot waves were about 10 feet high. Against the glow of towns on the shore it looked like 18-wheelers driving along the horizon. True winds were only 15-20 knots but somehow they created confused seas which were very uncomfortable. Brooding clouds covered the sky most of the day and seemed to thicken by night time. I like sailing at night, but not in the dark. You can’t distinguish a horizon, you can’t anticipate the waves, and it just feels spooky. The occasional lights along the shore ten miles away gave some relief, but it still wasn’t an enjoyable sailing night. Mona could have treated us more unkindly, so I don’t plan to tempt her again.

By daylight we were nearing the island of Saona image14at the south eastern tip of Dominican Republic. It is a low island covered by palm trees and rimmed with sandy beaches. It has very little permanent population, all fishermen, but each day tour boats bring a thousand tourists to enjoy the beaches and parties on the beaches. Most of the boats are foot-in-face catamarans loaded with 40 to 60 passengers. They arrive with music blaring and well-oiled tourists ready to hit the beach. We witnessed the spectacle and chose to anchor off a deserted beach a little farther down the coast. When we went ashore we found out why the tour boats skip this beach. A very primitive fishing camp populated by rough looking men and nervous dogs was nestled under the palm trees a little back from the beach. We had a short conversation with the men in our best bad Spanish and decided to dinghy down the coast to a tourist beach. We didn’t feel threatened but it was awkward that we had intruded into this world that was so different from our own privileged world.

The tourist beach felt much more familiar to us–lounge chairs, barbecues, picnic tables, souvenir stands, and laughter everywhere. We lingered longer than the day trippers until we had most of the beach to ourselves. Finally we returned to Escapade to enjoy dinner and a night swinging at anchor on the soft breeze.

The next day we sailed north to the town of Bayahibe, a town described as a sleepy little town when the tour boats are gone. We worked our way through a large anchorage filled with many mooring balls and a few tour boats to find a place in 20 feet of water where we could anchor.image15 While we were relaxing and trying to gather the energy to launch the dinghy and go into town, we began to experience the vibe of this Dominican Riviera. Tour boats started zooming in all around us to return those day trippers from the beach. It was like being in the middle of a buffalo stampede. Tour boats with partiers still in their stride to the left of us, to the right of us, in front of us, behind us. Music and laughter and outboard motors all around us. We didn’t have to go to the party–the party came to us. We took a lot of photos and then decided to join in. I put Springsteen on the stereo and turned “Badlands” up as loud as it would go on the cockpit speakers. We gringos could hold our own when it comes to music, but we couldn’t match the Dominicans when it came to dancing and drinking. They really know how to party.

Casa de Campo is a very posh resort only 4 miles from Bayahibe and barely out of our way so we motored into the marina and looked at all the fancy yachts there, mostly big motor yachts, the largest 200 feet long. After a glimpse of the high life, we sailed on to the Marina Zar Par in the decidedly downscale tourist town of Boca Chica about 15 miles east of the Dominican Republic’s capital and principal city, Santo Domingo.

We spent the next morning cleaning and straightening up the boat before Roger’s wife, Chiara, arrived from Toronto. There was only a little time for greetings and visiting before we went into Santo Domingo to tour the colonial zone with their close friends, Don Jose and his wife, Sandra. Santo Domingo is not only the largest city of the Caribbean with a population of more than 3,000,000 people, it is also the oldest city in the Western Hemisphere, founded in 1496 by Bartholomew Columbus, the younger brother of the better known Christopher Columbus. The Zona Colonial is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with fortress walls, museums, government buildings, churches, etc. that date all the way back to the early 1500’s, much older than any European settlement in the USA. We were thrilled to see all the historic buildings and even go inside some of them. The most impressive was the Cathedral of Santa Maria,image16 a huge but graceful structure built entirely of hand hewn stone. We marveled at the engineering required to design the expansive multi-vaulted roof, the craftsmanship required to cut these stones with amazing precision, and the sheer strength and ingenuity required to fit these stones into place.

Santo Domingo’s colonial zone is very old but very alive today. It has large plazas that were filled with couples strolling, children riding bicycles, friends gathering, and families enjoying the festive evening. This week happened to be Semana Santa, which is Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday. Holy Week is the biggest holiday in Dominican Republic, even bigger than Christmas or New Year. All schools and many businesses are closed all week. Those that are open are operating with a skeleton staff, except for the restaurants and bars which are throbbing with business. It seemed that all of Santo Domingo was out late eating, drinking, dancing, and celebrating. I don’t think it takes much of an occasion for Dominicans to eat, drink, dance, and celebrate, but Semana Santa is a celebration on steroids. It is an ironic twist that heavy drinking and driving increases so much during Holy Week that police set up emergency stations on the highways to handle the predictable surge in highway casualties.

Dominican Republic is probably best known for its golf courses, beach resorts and baseball players, but it also has the distinction of having the highest elevations in all of the Caribbean. Mount Duarte, named for the country’s founder, is over 10,000 feet, all the more remarkable for an island that is slightly smaller than Maine or South Carolina. We rented a car and drove to a mountain only slightly lower near the village of Jarabacoa. image17The foliage began to thicken and resemble a tropical rain forest. Banyan trees with roots taller than a human and stands of giant bamboo were mixed in with banana trees and a wide variety of palm trees. In some places the trees arched over the road and created a tunnel with pale green light filtering through the leaves. When we left the highway, the road became dramatically steeper as we climbed up to the Hammock of Heaven. The Hammock’s restaurant had a breathtaking view of the valley a few thousand feet below. The air at this altitude was chilly so we were glad to have jackets and sweaters with us. Any excuse to stay and enjoy the view was a good one, so we ordered tiramisu and flan and got out our cameras. While we were admiring the scale of this vantage point, a trio of hang gliders floated by and started tantalizing us by swooping toward the dining balconies hanging over the valley. image18What a thrill and what great timing!

We still had the car for another day, so we drove into Santo Domingo and went to a supermercado, an actual real supermarket! It’s easy to take the well-stocked and aesthetically pleasing grocery stores at home for granted. This particular grocery had a Barnes & Noble style bookstore connected to it, so I browsed while the ladies shopped. The best thing I found was a beautiful little Dominican girl sitting quietly reading a book in the children’s section.image19

After shopping we went to lunch at a restaurant on a cliff along the malecon in Santo Domingo. Our table was on a balcony projecting out over the rocky sea shore. Dominican architects have a knack for using balconies in scenic locations. We used the remainder of our energy to tour the impressive National Botanical Garden where the highlight was an extensive and exquisitely manicured Japanese Garden.

On our final day before the dreaded Cleaning and Packing Day we visited with more of Roger and Chiara’s friends, Hector and Helen, at the nearby Club Nautico. Hector and Helen are officers in the Dominican Coast Guard Auxillary and they were on safety patrol for this holiday weekend. When they came to our marina in their uniforms and asked for us, the marina personnel thought they were coming to arrest us! No, nothing that dramatic. They visited with us on Escapade for a while and invited us to come over to the Nautico. It is a Yacht Club in every sense of the word. It has a modern clubhouse with glass floors where it stretches over water, meeting rooms, a restaurant and a casual beach bar, an infinity pool, a beach, and beautiful sailing and motor yachts at its docks. We enjoyed the best hamburgers we have ever eaten while Hector told stories and gave us good advice about connections to make. He summarized Dominican culture by saying it’s all about rum, cigars, and bitches. I’m pretty sure that’s how he pronounces “beaches.” image20

What did we learn about the Dominican Republic and its people? In addition to rum, cigars, and bitches, they love loud music, late nights, and anything-goes driving. Music boomed from the thatch roofed palapas that lined the beach of Boca Chica until very late at night, even when Semana Santa was over. You would think it was Spring Break at Daytona, but the party is every week, all year long. Driving in the DR takes nerves of steel and quick reflexes. But what comes easy is admiring the beauty of this country and its people. As I have described, the country has world class beaches, majestic mountains, lush and verdant foliage, and clear waters that have every shade of blue and aqua. Many of the people are strikingly good looking, both men and women. Their Hispanic facial features, dark hair, and caramel skin tones are the stuff of Hollywood stars. Dominican Republic is not without its problems, deficiencies, and aggravations, but there is much there to love and to return to.      ~ Larry Caillouet

Gringo Escapade ~ Part Dos by Larry Caillouet

Part Dos: Puerto Rico

Since I am calling this travelogue “Gringo Escapade,” it is only right that I begin this section by quoting that great Saturday Night Live philosopher, Roseanne Roseannadanna, who famously said, “It’s always sompting.” We had checked the weather and knew that some rough weather would be rolling into the passage between St. Thomas and Puerto Rico. Ocean swells were predicted to be 20-30 feet. It looked scary on the weather charts, so we dropped our plan to sail to one of our favorite islands, Culebra, and on to Puerto Rico the next day. Instead we decided to sail to the island of Vieques and sail along its south shore to use it as a shelter from the nasty northerly weather. With a good early start we could reach the Palmas del Mar marina on the Puerto Rican mainland and would be under the shelter of Puerto Rico.

Then soon after sunrise the Roseannadanna Principle struck–the engine wouldn’t start. The wind would be on our nose so motoring would be essential. Even to get out of Charlotte Amalie harbor the motor would be needed. One day’s delay would trap us in St. Thomas until all the bad weather blew through. I ran through my repertoire of engine starting tricks in a couple of minutes and knew we needed a mechanic. But where are you going to get one on a Saturday who can come to your boat right away? Amazingly I found a great guy whose shop had been ruined by Irma and Wilma and was operating out of his truck. He found and corrected the problem that had been periodically plaguing us and at 1:30 pm we weighed anchor and began our sunrise dash for Puerto Rico.

Under the circumstances we didn’t feel that it was cheating to motor sail all the way. Minutes and miles were precious. We arrived at Bahia de la Chivas (Goat Bay) on Vieques a few minutes before sundown and got settled into a perfect anchorage protected by a small reef. We were the only boat within miles. After supper we were entertained by sparkles of light from tiny fish swimming in the bioluminescent water, a beautiful starry sky, and a big fat pumpkin moon rising over the horizon. I wonder what Roseanne Rosannadanna would say about that.

Palmas del Mar. We were reluctant to leave our private anchorage in the morning, but Puerto Rico wouldn’t come to us, so we set sail. I mean, we really set sail! The wind was blowing 15 knots from 60 degrees to starboard and we were knocking out 8 knots with one reef in the sails and the traveler down. I had almost forgotten what real sailing was like, but this was good. Escapade heeled to leeward and as I tinkered with the sails and found my sea legs again, she sliced through the sea. Three hours later we were entering Palmas del Mar marina.

Palmas is actually more than a marina. It is a community. It is a multimillion dollar marina in an upscale condominium development. When we entered the harbor we found a long concrete dock completely empty, so we tied up alongside it. Soon two dock hands met us in a golf cart to give us a tour and to recommend a slip they thought we would like better. “You’ll be lonely out here. We have a good place for you where you will have neighbors.” We were barely docked when two precocious kids from the boat behind us came up to introduce themselves. Before I could comprehend my new surroundings, the girl, Arden, was whispering something in Diana’s ear about her brother, Carver. We rode in the golf cart to the office to check in, and then walked over to the tiki bar. A big Irish setter trotted over to sniff our crotches and make friends and let us pet him. The four people at the bar welcomed us in Spanish accented English and talked with us as though we were old friends. It was easy to feel like we were part of this friendly community.

Our second day at Palmas we went for a short land excursion. Bernardo, a dock hand, gave us a ride in the golf cart to a small shopping plaza. After we bought a couple of souvenirs, the owner of the shop offered to let us use her golf cart to explore the area. I was completely overwhelmed that this woman who didn’t know us at all would offer to let us use her cart–no strings attached except to bring it back by 6 pm when she closed. We accepted her gracious offer and puttered off to find La Pescaderia, a highly recommended fish restaurant, and a nail salon. The salon was closed on Mondays, but the restaurant lived up to its reputation. We used the cart to haul heavy groceries to the boat and returned it to Sandra full of gas. I will never forget the gentleness and warmth of everyone we met in Palmas.

Bahia de Jobos. Before we cast off to sail west the next morning, our neighbor on the dock, Lindsay, came over to share a pitcher of fruit smoothie and to swap east bound and west bound cruising information with us. An hour or so later the junior welcoming committee, Arden and Carver, joined her along with their dad, Bay. The kids were pumped up to see the boat and found our bowl of candy and cookie snacks particularly interesting.
The downwind sail to Jobos was easy and fast, but the approach through two coral reefs at 4:30 pm with the sun in our face was a sphincter clincher. I had marked the waypoints for the entrance on the chart plotter and as long as the chart and the GPS were accurate, there was nothing to worry about. Right? Fortunately they were accurate so we settled into our anchorage behind the mangroves well ahead of sunset and proceeded to cook steaks on the grill. When night fell we discovered that the shore was decorated with blinking red lights on a row of wind generators and the glow of several factories in an industrial center.

Ponce is the second largest city of Puerto Rico and very old, founded in 1692. The center of the city is a square called Plaza de las Delicias. It is shared by the elegant Cathedral of our Lady of Guadeloupe, a lovely park with a fountain, and the fire station. The fire station? Yes, the gaudiest red and black building you’ve ever seen, built in 1883 and preserved as a landmark in all its splendor. We visited these places and enjoyed walking in the historic district.
Tourism was not our primary mission in Ponce–it was the Great Ponce Scavenger Hunt. We were there to shop in the places near and dear to our hearts at home–Walmart, Sam’s Club, OfficeMax, and Home Depot. Ponce is replete with American franchise stores, including McDonalds, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, and KFC. And most of the people are bilingual, so communicating is no problem. We had developed a detailed list of “must have” items in addition to groceries, so with a rented car and the Waze app, we hit the town hard. Prices were comparable to the same items in the US, so we wanted to make every minute count. What a treat it was to shop at USA prices instead of the double price in USVI and the triple price in BVI. Escapade is probably sitting two or three inches lower in the water after we loaded all our new equipment and provisions.
International surveys usually list Puerto Ricans as some of the happiest people in the world. Two days in Ponce showed me why this is. Puerto Ricans are completely relaxed about rules and regulations. Traffic signals are viewed as recommendations. Simple instructions like Walmart’s “Please return shopping carts here” barely rise to the level of a suggestion. If you want to use a cart in the store, just take the one left in the parking space next to your car. And clothing is not a hassle either. The men wear yesterday’s fishing shirt and the women just use spray paint.
The one area besides music where Puerto Ricans really come alive is driving. They are fearless, not a worry in the world. And so are the pedestrians. They cross the street in front of you and don’t even look back over their shoulder. These are very relaxed people.

Cayos de Cana Gorda. After a mad dash to turn the car in and get off the dock of the Ponce Yacht and Fishing Club before our daily rentals turned into another day, we sailed west to Cayos de Cana Gorda. This was another anchorage tucked behind a long mangrove reef. The only other boat in the anchorage was a German boat. Gabrielle and Thorsten came over to greet us and give us the scoop on the island known locally as Gilligan’s Island. It’s a mangrove island with a scruffy beach and doesn’t look much like the Gilligan’s Island I remember from 1960’s television.
We felt compelled to set foot on this misnamed island. It turned out that the real attraction was not the island but the Puerto Ricans who came to the island to party. They were equipped for a picnic expedition with rolling coolers, giant picnic baskets, lounge chairs, and loud music. Diana and I were the only twosome in the crowd. There were no couples or nuclear families. No group had less than about 8 people. Puerto Ricans bring everyone!

Boqueron. With a fresh breeze behind us we left the main furled and sailed on the genoa at over 7 knots. When we rounded the southwest corner of Puerto Rico at Caba Rojo, the wind moved to our beam and kicked up into the low 20’s. We had only a short distance to go so we furled the genoa and motored into the bay. A long palm-lined sandy beach looked quite inviting, but we were tired from the day’s sail and took a nap instead. I think this must be the tempo of “senior cruising.”
After my nap, I had a new surge of ambition, plus I was hot, so I jumped into the water to scrub the green slime off the waterline of the boat. A lot of little barnacles were growing on the hull from the long dockage in BVI, so I took a long handled scraping brush from our cleaning supplies and got busy scraping. It was a great activity. I got some exercise, cooled off, and increased my pride of ownership to have a more presentable boat.

Puerto Real is a quaint fishing village squeezed between a meandering highway and the sea on the west coast of Puerto Rico. It is also where the excellent Marina Pescaderia is located. We docked there and rented a car to explore this end of the island. We drove north to Aguadilla, a town which is clearly secondary to its long ocean front. An endless parade of cars, trucks, motorcycles, dune buggies, and jeeps cruised the road beside the impressive malecon where people strolled or congregated at the many cafes and bars. The scene on this warm Sunday afternoon could only be described as “joyous chaos.” Music blared from every café and every vehicle, so whether you strolled the malecon or just stood still, you experienced a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds assaulting the senses. Puerto Ricans love their music and it comes in three styles: loud, louder, and OMG! Even the motorcycles were blasting music above the throaty staccato sputter of their engines. The royalty among the vehicles was the pimped out and jazzed up 4-door Jeep Wranglers. Whole families cruised the strip in these Road Kings. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a Jeep stretch limousine!
There were few signs of the wreckage of Hurricane Maria until we got to the end of the malecon. The park there was still littered with debris from the hurricane and the wooden boardwalk was buckled and twisted beyond use. Still people were strolling and having fun there. The big attraction was an amazingly huge tree house built around an amazingly huge tree. Surely this treehouse had been reconstructed after the storm because it had no damage and it stood in the midst of obvious damage.
Another day in Puerto Real began with a dinghy excursion into the mangrove lagoon next to the larger harbor. This is where 25 boats hid out from Hurricane Maria without a single loss. In addition to providing a premier habitat for fish hatchlings, mangrove roots cling to the earth tenaciously. Even a category 5 hurricane didn’t tear them or the boats tied to them loose.
This exercise in ecology was followed by an exercise in futility. It was time for me to change the oil in the generator. The concept for this is not hard to comprehend, but the logistics of packing a large generator into a cramped engine room raises the difficulty level considerably. To access the dip stick, the oil and fuel filters, and the fill port I had to remove the starboard side sound shield. To remove that shield requires removing 8 other panels, supports, and pieces of the boat. A contortionist would be the ideal candidate to change the oil on this generator, but since none was available, that left the job for me. I’m sure my dad was watching from heaven and chuckling. He was probably poking my mom and saying “He earned a Ph.D. but failed Learn from Dad.”
On our last day in Puerto Real we rented a car again and drove to the lighthouse we had seen on Cabo Rojo as we sailed around the southwest corner of the island. It sits on a breathtaking cliff with waves crashing on its shore 200 feet below. To get to the lighthouse we drove a deeply potholed dirt road through a wilderness refuge that presented a bleached landscape of salt flats and thickets of barkless twisted tree trunks that made me think of a Salvador Dali painting. The drive and the hike were worth it.
On the way back to the boat we drove through the town of Boqueron and experienced the Puerto Rican version of Key West. It was only 6 pm but the bars were already full and Latin music filled the streets. This seems to be a town where the party never ends and all are invited.
2We fueled up at the marina and dropped the hook out in the harbor in preparation for a first light departure to Bahia Samana in Dominican Republic. We
were working on putting away or tying down lines Birds of a feather
fenders, water hose, power cord and anything loose when we started hearing “Splash! Splash!” all around us. We discovered we were in a bombing range. A squadron of 40 or 50 pelicans were dive bombing for fish. They would glide in a circle until they saw a fish and then would tuck their wings to become more streamlined and hurtle beak first into the water like falling out of the sky. Scanning the water around us we saw water explosions on all sides, including some quite close to the boat. The bombardment was a great show to wrap up our days in Puerto Rico.

So what have we learned about Puerto Rican culture? Five things are of utmost importance: Fishing, beer, music, family, and friends–not necessarily in that order, but always with maximum exuberance.

~ Larry