Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesday, October 25, 2011, PM Post: Rough Seas

Oh, how quickly things change...in one day!! And unfortunately, not in a good way. I only posted this morning, and tonight we rounded the Dominican Republic and went south through the Mona Passage. Even going through it, and not just across it, was unpleasant. For those who are unfamiliar, the Mona Passage is an 80-mile stretch of sea between Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and is known as one of the most difficult passages in the Caribbean. Against the prevailing trade winds, variable tidal currents combine with the huge volume of water flowing from the Puerto Rican Trench up between the two countries to create waves that bunch up, shove, push and ram their way along that small sea opening. It felt like Equinox was in a washing machine, since waves were from slapping us from all directions, lumpy and confused. No fun at all! Ron and I each endured a jerky, uncomfortable watch; when Ron relieved me at dawn as we finally came south around the southwestern tip of Puerto Rico, I was grateful to see longer, sweeping swells from just one direction as I headed for bed. 

My relief was short-lived. As the day wore on, current, wind and waves combined again to take us on an ugly, upward-lurching, nose-diving ride as Equinox battled her way along. Winds piped up quickly, cracking along at 25 knots -- well above what was forecast -- churning up steep 6’+/- waves that were stacked up one after another at short intervals. Ugh!! We slowed the boat to the conditions as best we could, but it finally got too damn uncomfortable. When things started levitating off the shelves from behind the bars and fiddles, when we couldn’t keep our balance just standing next to the helm station, and when the bow started to bury into the waves a few times too many, we turned off our heading and took shelter behind a small grouping of islands near Bahia de Jobos, Puerto Rico. We'd been going non-stop until then, but if there was any time to take a break, this was it. We needed it! 

Now, one of our cruising guides specifically noted that Puerto Rico is "very strict" about its Customs and Immigration clearance procedures (especially post 9-11) and that some jurisdictions impose “substantial fines and penalties” for not clearing in properly. Unfortunately for us, the nearest port of entry was Ponce, some 20-odd miles back, and Capt. Ron was NOT going back (refuse to retreat in the face of big waves!). So, we dropped anchor in the scant bit of lee we found behind Cayo de Pajaros, put up the Q flag, and recovered a bit. While we waited for the waves to settle down and behave, we tidied up inside, clearing away small objects/projectiles that had gotten tossed about and worked outside as well, rinsing down Equinox in an attempt to get rid of some of the salt encrusting the poor girl. We looked at the tides and the best we could figure, we had a tidal current opposing the afternoon brisk winds and prevailing sea swells that tipped the equation towards unusually rough seas. 

We were hopeful that conditions would settle down in the evening as the tide changed, and we'd be underway within a few hours. We decided we’d have dinner and take another look at conditions thereafter…if things had improved, we’d then resume our journey. Being 90 miles from St. Croix, it meant another 12 hours or so of cruising before we would arrive, plus we also needed to time our departure to arrive in Christiansted in good light. That meant leaving just after dark, with a possible rough night to follow. Hmm...choices. Of course, right then in the midst of our discussion … visitors!

We were approached from afar by a small boat; Ron checked it out with binoculars, noting that it looked “official”….and, indeed it was. A marine Policia boat! Yikes!! They wanted to board, and after a few attempts to to come alongside as Equinox swung on anchor, one of the officers boarded by hopping onto the transom -- and into Ron’s waiting arms, who was there to assist. They both very nearly fell in the water, but somehow, thankfully, didn’t!! The officer laughed and thanked Ron for his help...smiles were at least an auspicious beginning!

After answering a few initial questions we explained our situation, admitting that we hadn’t cleared in, being in transit to St. Croix, and were only taking a short break in our journey from the U.S. due to the ugly and rough conditions. After getting all the USCG documentation, Local Boater Option cards and passports, the officer called Customs while Ron and I grimly sat on the saloon couch, both of us envisioning fines, penalties, or worse. (Visions of sugarplums, they were most decidedly not.)

Well, the officer must have known we were a bit freaked, as he then started reassuring us that we were fine, that there was no reason to worry. And once he got off the phone, he said we were good to go. What?? Really?? Why? How?? It turns out that since we were still in transit and hadn’t cleared in anywhere since leaving the U.S., we were considered “domestic” boaters in Puerto Rican waters as they are under U.S. jurisdiction. Going from one US port to another is considered domestic travel! I have to admit, that never occurred to us! Again, the officer was extremely nice and very professional about it, explaining that we didn’t need to do anything to clear in beyond making a phone call to Customs. Not only that, with his phone call, we were now cleared in, both in PR and in St. Croix!! Talk about relief...and kindness. It was most appreciated!! Whew!! 

Needless to say, we still weighed anchor and got underway as soon as we could; after our scare, worrying that we'd inadvertently done something wrong, everything else seemed smooth sailing. While conditions weren't great, the seas had mitigated somewhat, so away we went. But with happy hearts, and grateful that we were only traveling "domestically!" Sail on!

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