Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Passage to....Santa Bárbara de Samaná, Dominican Republic!

We were up early and off the dock at St. Croix Marina by 0600…en route north, to either Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, we weren't exactly which. After looking at the weather and different stopping options, we decided to follow the southern coast of Puerto Rico and cruise north through the Mona Passage since the weather was so wonderful. The sun was out, and we had following seas with just 3'-4' of swells. East winds were between 13-18 knots the whole time. LOVELY! We cruised through the day, Ron happily fishing as we went. Unfortunately, all we got for our efforts were five big barracuda, catching one right after the other until we finally got sick of taking them off the hooks, and stopped fishing. We cruised on through the night, under a glorious star-splashed sky echoed by the bioluminescence sparks in the water beneath our hull. Breathtaking and nearly too beautiful for words; I can't do it justice! By dawn we were rounding the northeast corner of the Dominican Republic still in glorious conditions…even the Mona was quiet! Cruising westward is definitely easier than slogging one's way east, as we well know! 
Fish on!
Another bright morning arrived, and we continued our journey, enjoying the warm sunshine, calm waters and fishing as we went. At 0730 one line took a huge hit and we lost it almost immediately -- definitely the unknown BIG one! :) Then, at 1000, Ron spent 45 minutes wrangling in another fish, also a big one. I took the helm, trying to hear and follow Ron’s yelled instructions from the aft cockpit as he wrestled with the fish: "Back her down!" "Spin her to port!", "Full reverse!", "Starboard engine in reverse!" "Keep her into the seas!” The situation changed moment by moment, depending on what the fish was doing! Brutal!! Mind you, Equinox is not an agile sport fishing boat, so there were moments when we were rolling up to 30 degrees in the swells! (Unfortunately, the stabilizers weren't available when we were stopping, spinning and reversing like crazy.) As we tossed about, I could hear things crashing about in the bins in the galley cabinets, which were thankfully pinned and secure. There were a few loose DVDs that slipped off the shelves, plus a few books and magazines that went flying, but beyond that, nothing major thankfully! ("Always secure the cabin,  Boss!")

The aft-facing cockpit camera actually was a big help, as I could see what Ron was doing and, more importantly, where he was on the cockpit as he fought the fish. At the end, when Ron finally got the fish near the boat and could see it clearly… it was a 6’ blue marlin! Just as we were trying to figure out how to release it, it took one last twist and went under the boat, cutting the line on the props or rudder. Not precisely catch and release, but...whew!! While it was a fun battle, we’re glad it won. I really didn’t want to try to release that huge thing from the aft transom or cockpit in those rolling seas!  A battle indeed...Ron could barely raise his arms the rest of the day! 
Downtown Santa Bárbara de Samaná, from our anchor vantagepoint
We decided to head into Santa Bárbara de Samaná, Dominican Republic, since humpback whales inhabit Samaná Bay to breed and calve from Mid-january through March. We'd seen a whale earlier in the year off the coast of Puerto Rico, but the Bay here is a protected wildlife refuge, named by the world Wildlife Federation as one of the best in the world for whale watching, so hoped to see a few more whales. Plus, Samaná history is interesting too, since in 1824, a sailing vessel named the Turtle Dove carrying several hundred escaped American slaves was shipwrecked in the bay. The survivors settled and prospered in villages they called Bethesda and Philadelphia; today their descendants number several thousand, many of whom speak a patois of old 19th century English mixed with Spanish. 

We pulled into Samaná Bay about 3 :30 pm, just as the folks off the KK 48’ Bodacious were returning to their boat: they’d just gotten their despacho, and were leaving! We chatted briefly on the VHF, each lamenting our timing, for it would have been so fun to catch up! Oh well!

Almost immediately after beginning to drop anchor, we had a Samaná boat pull up next to us, with a clearance official aboard and a self-appointed cruising boat agent, Martin, aboard. I’m not sure who the official was -- from M-2 (Intelligence) I think, but once their initial paperwork was done, we then were taken by dinghy to the town pier and met with the Port Authority, where we got charged for the notorious Docking Fee.

There are conflicting reports about the DR clearance procedures over this fee; since we were on anchor, it technically didn’t apply and we shouldn't have had to pay it,  as it supposedly only applies to vessels at the town dock. But we’d heard it was a potential hassle here...and it was! Noonsite (a solid website with a veritable gold mine of cruising information) has a recent note that says, "The Dominican Republic should be a cruisers' paradise, but burdensome bureaucracy and local official corruption currently stand very much in the way." 

We can attest to that statement! The situation in every port is different, with some officials insisting on anchored vessels having to pay the dockage fee, while some don't. Not knowing Spanish, we weren’t sure who was whom nor how to go about disputing the dock charge we just tried to stay courteous and respectful and go with the flow!

There was a flurry of mystifying paperwork with laborious phonetic spellings of our full names (Romeo Oscar Tango Hotel, etc…!!) with one person reading it off, while another person wrote it down to confirm that our names matched what was on the boat documentation. From there it was a walk to the Coast Guard/Navy (Marina de Guerra) to check in our shotgun and get a receipt for that. Nothing was efficient, speedy or prompt in the slightest, but we persevered! Since it was late afternoon, Immigration was already closed ("Immigracion cerrado!") so we will have to return there in the morning to finish clearance. Clearly, nothing is simple here! 

We were dead tired by then, between being a bit physically fatigued after the long 36-hour passage to get here, followed by the lengthy clearance process. I was more than happy when we were finally brought back and dropped off aboard Equinox! We pulled down the Q flag, put up the DR courtesy flag and had a sundowner along with a light dinner on the aft deck. It wasn't long before we made way for our cabin; lights out early, since we have a busy day ahead tomorrow!
View of the "Bridge to Nowhere" in Samaná, on the southern edge of the harbor

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