© The Mona Passage: the Crossing of October, 1994
Fragment based on the log book, actual experiences
L. J. White
Once you decide to set sail from the safety of Luperon Bay, sometimes called by sailors a "Chicken Harbor", you must be mentally prepared for the dreaded Mona Passage into Puerto Rico. There, in this serene and secure haven surrounded by mountains resembling a Swiss lake, the sailing community is busy making ready their vessels for the journey that lies ahead and repairing damages suffered along the arduous route, most coming from the Bahamas via the Turks & Caicos Islands.
As evening falls over the tranquil surroundings, we all gather at the different local bars and cafes of this little and very poor village on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. After a few drinks of the best rum I have ever tasted and, of course the presidentes, a beer second to none, let's not leave behind the beautiful Dominican ladies, we spend the evenings telling each other our sometimes-fantastic stories at sea.
On a regular basis, we would gather aboard someone's boat for a more private evening, the guests would bring some things to munch on, I kid you not, the food was always great, specially the local cuisine.
Most of us, now had graduated into a different class of Sailors. The common denominator was the fact we had made it this far alive and the intense desire to share our stories about the real perils and dangerous situations faced along the way. But most important, was the feeling of anticipation and excitement of what was an inevitable departure on a course to one of the most dangerous passages, the Mona.
Being the month of October, hurricane season, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, did not present a pretty picture for a suitable weather window for the crossing, we all knew that. Most would not risk venturing out of port until the conditions changed, which meant a rather long wait. As a matter of fact, we met a few well-seasoned sailors who had been there for over a year, kid you not.
Neats, and I became very close to Mike, a Canadian sailor, who was doing it solo. He was a special person, very shy but at the same time quite adventurous and determined. As our relation grew closer with him we shared our experiences and decided, rather suddenly, to make the crossing together. The timing was now set, departure upon the first weather window available.
The navigation plan was not to do what the majority of sailors would do, or what is recommended on all the guides written on the subject, which is to hop from harbor to harbor along the coat and wait for the next window to open, finally reaching Samana. Then, wait for optimum weather for the approximate 120 nautical miles crossing to Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, what is known as the Mona Passage.
Our navigation Plan called for a straight shot into Mayaguez not stopping at any port or harbor along the way, definitely a different approach. To accomplish this unheard of adventure we needed to have a window that would last at least four to five days. Also, we decided to sail away from the Dominican coastal region and keep a distance of 35 nautical miles to avoid coastal and mountain effects. This also allowed us to maximize the long swells at open sea. A further advantage was the winds; we felt that we would have better winds therefore faster sailing………. so, we plotted our course and waypoints.
After about a week of monitoring our weather faxes and satellite images we finally felt we had a decent shot at the crossing. This meant that we had to leave 2 days ahead of a slow moving north front; departure time was set for first light. We spent the night in town saying our goodbyes to the wonderful and hospitable people of Luperon and our friends, which no doubt, though we were totally crazy.
At dawn we raised anchors and headed for the inlet out of Luperon bay, all our friends were giving us a shout on the radio wishing us a safe journey, including the Comandancia, (the port authority). I felt somewhat very sad to leave such a wonderful village and I knew, deep inside, that I would return.
As we headed out the inlet the winds were calm close to 12 to 15 knots east-southeast, seas were from 5 to 7 feet that made somewhat easy to get away from the coastal region as we had planned. We kept a distance of no more than one nautical mile of each other, the plan called to stay within visual contact throughout the voyage.
By 3:00 PM we were approximately 45 nautical miles north of the Dominican coast line the winds were now 15 - 20 knots, the seas remained 5 - 7 feet, it was time for our next tack which would bring us closer to the Dominican coast, 15 nautical miles or so, by then it should be night and the mountain effects would not affect us, the weather and wind remained the same.
Mike, since he was doing a solo, after supper and our third tack back out, took a well deserved nap as we kept our eyes on him. By midnight we were close to 30 miles out and east of Puerto Plata, winds were lighter 10 -12 knots east south east, seas were 4 - 5 feet. So we took full advantage of the situation and Neats and I had a delicious late supper, wine included. She took her turn after supper and got some shuteyes. I stayed on the cockpit with the autopilot on enjoying a beautiful clear night. There was no moon so the stars were like clusters of diamonds, you could see the very faint aura of the lights of Puerto Plata in the horizon.
By daybreak, we were approximately 60 nautical miles north of the coast, the weather, wave and wind remained the same, and we tack back after breakfast and my usual coffee, 3 cups minimum. After chatting with Mike for a while and plotting our position, which was northeast of Punta Cabarete, I took my turn and went off like a light.
When I finally woke up, after a much needed and relaxed nap, all was well. I got on the radio to mike and he told me that we needed to take a tack back out and that the weather fax did not look to good. Our position then was about 15 nautical miles north of Cabo Frances Viejo. The seas and winds were increasing to 15 - 20 knots with gust to 25 knots, seas were 5 - 7 but there were white caps. I took a look at the weather fax and the conditions were definitely changing a bit. I felt no reason to be concerned but I felt that we needed to tack out a greater distance than anticipated taking us close the Navidad Banks.
By late afternoon we were well off the coast, about 55 nautical miles north of Escondido bay, an incredible and impressive hidden cove surrounded by cliffs and a gorgeous beach with a natural waterfall, something out of the Pacific islands. However, it can be a death trap with strong north winds. The winds were steady at 20 knots with large rolling swells, not uncomfortable at all so we had our usual supper and wine as night fell.
After a couple of hours of rest, we took a tack that would take us close to Cabo Samana. That night the winds decreased to 10 - 12 knots and the seas were calm with long swells, but our progress was slower and with a north front approaching I became a bit concerned. I got on the radio and told Mike to get some rest, I meant real rest, and then proceeded to tell Neats to do the same. They were a bit tired, the weather conditions could change, so they needed all the rest they could get. Furthermore, as we got closer to Cabo Samana I knew the winds could shift and the Mona was around the corner. I spent the rest of the night up on the cockpit keeping an eye out to make sure Mike was on course and within line of sight.
As morning came we were still a ways from Cabo Samana, Mike had rested well and Neats was cooking a hell of a breakfast, I definitely needed that. The weather was holding but the winds had shifted somewhat and were a bit stronger, 20 knots out of the east, the seas were also a bit rougher with white caps. We were making up time that was good; we remained on the same tack as I took my rest, usually 4 to 6 hours.
Late afternoon we were now very close to Cabo Samana the weather was clear and the winds were easting and gusting to 25 knots. Now the seas were getting rough with 7 - 9 feet short breaking waves white caps and spray. All through the sail we were under full Sail, I had a full150 jib, we could do 45 degrees windward our rail was well of the water line but our angle was of about 20 degrees. We were faced with two choices, keep the heading, which would take us close to Cabo San Rafael or tack back out.
I ran the options by Mike and we decided to take a tack out. We felt that heading straight to Cabo Engaño was to risky because of the conditions and the fact that it would put us too close to the Hour Glass Shoal. This shoal lies off of Cabo Engaño and it is extremely dangerous, not because it is a shoal you might hit, it is about 300 feet deep, but because the massive waters and energy generated from the Atlantic accompanied by north or northeast winds that under certain conditions hit the shoal creating unbelievable waves that can sink any vessel. The Hour Glass Shoal marks the Entrance to the Mona Passage and the Puerto Rico Trench, one of the world's deepest.
This tack out meant that our plan was now being altered and due to the front approaching and easting winds I began to get a bit more concerned. However, that was the right choice, we felt. We knew now that the crossing was not going to be a piece of cake. I decided against reefing the sails, although advisable, and we kept going under full rig. Our vessel was design for blue water sailing and mike's was in the same category so we were going to pushed them to the max. We had to make time even tough our rails were now close to the water but our speed was now a bit over 7 knots.
As the night progressed conditions remained about the same, it was no doubt a rough ride and the need to keep our boats close was imperative. There was no great supper but the wine was a much needed amenity after opening canned goods. Mike gave me a shout on the radio late in the evening saying we should tack, he figured we needed to take still another final tack into the Mona and he needed some rest, so we did.
In the morning we were again closing in on the Hour Glass Shoal and the winds were now east northeast gusting to 30 knots, the seas were very rough 8 - 10 feet and braking, time to tack back out and hope for the best. Mike was concerned and proposed reefing the sails. I told him that our rail was about 7 inches from the water and that if his was about the same we could take it, he said, "let's go for it". I insisted he rested, he did so but under protest, I was sure by now the crossing was going to be at night and he needed all the rest he could get, actually we all needed all the rest.
As night began to fall the weather conditions were about the same. We were now approaching our waypoint of 19 degrees north and 68 degrees west. This waypoint is where we make our final tack into the Puerto Rico Trench and face the famous Mona Passage into Mayaguez. About 8 PM we were in position to tack, the winds were now gusting to 35 knots, northeast, the front was here and we knew it. Mike again proposed to reef sails; he did not have Rolla furling, so I could understand his concern. I told him that if he needed to do so to do it but that was going to delay the crossing and the weather was deteriorating rapidly and our rails were not in the water yet, also to take into consideration the currents that could put us dangerously close to the Shoal. He replied, "What the hell man, go for it", we tacked. Now the trick was not to tack again and cross as far as possible from the Hour Glass Shoal.
Our speed according to our GPS was 7.5 knots at times up to 8.3 knots. The seas were getting progressively worst as we approached the narrow passage. Now my rail was a couple of inches off the water, our angle close to 30 degrees. I asked Mike how he was holding up. His reply was, "I'm alive, but the rail is in the water, the rigging is singing very loud, I'm soaked, tired, scared shitless but I can't reef even if I wanted to so let's just go for it".
Both Neats and I were on top deck and we were constantly looking for Mike's mast light, the seas were such that at times we could not see his light. At about 3 AM Neats said "Hey, I can't see Mike's light at all, you better go below and raise him on the radio". I went below and gave him a shout but I did not get a response. I tried a few times and nothing, now I was really worried. I got back up on the cockpit and asked Neats if she had seen his light, "nope, not a thing".
Our rail by now was touching water leaning a full 30 degrees and doing 7.5 to 8 knots, we were right in the middle of the passage and no Mike. I though to myself that perhaps he tried to reef or bring the jib down and simply fell overboard. I also, thought that we were a faster boat and that we might be out of radio reach and with the size of the swells we could not see the mast light. I had to make a decision, keep on going, face her into the wind and wait a while, or simply turn about and go look for Mike.
I chose the last one, I asked Neats to get ready to turn about 180 degrees. She said "you have lost your mind", "Neats just do it and do it right now". We took one hell of a wave on the starboard side as we turned, the Jib slapped so hard I though we had ripped the hell out of it. When the boat settled and we were listing the opposite way you can imagine the mess down below. Thank God the jib and the main were ok, but, what about Mike?
I had Neats go down below to keep trying to raise him on the radio. After about an hour Neats screams, "The son of a bitch is alive, I got him on the radio". She asked for his position and we plotted it, he was about 3 nautical miles from us and was hanging in there. Now I had to turn the boat about again, Neats remark was, "don't you think you are pushing your luck just a wee bit?", "Yes but let's get this bitch turned". This time it went a bit easier and we were back on course.
We felt very relieved that mike was still among the living and relatively close behind us. By now it was about 5 AM and we were dangerously close to the shoal because of the current and the wind direction. We were pushing 8 knots under full sail, rail now was under water and our angle was over 30 degrees heading straight for Desecheo Island. Both Neats and I were totally exhausted and I'm sure that Mike was even in worse shape.
The seas now were peaking and the swells were huge wind of 35 knots and gusting, I kept praying that the main and the jib would hold up, let's not forget the riggings, they were singing so loud I could not hear myself think. We took a couple of big breakers over the side, that was not funny. It was almost impossible to go below and plot our position or get on the radio because of the severe beating we were getting.
When dawn finally came, we were south of the Shoal and the seas were beginning to subside a bit, but the wind was still at 35 knots and the swells now visible were something out of a horror movie, I would guess them to be in the 20 to 25 feet range, lots of white caps and spray. Finally, about 8AM we spotted Mike's mast behind us, that was a relief. By noon or so the seas began to calm down as we were getting close to Desecheo and the winds began to subside to 20 - 25 knots.
By late afternoon we were past Desecheo on our way to Boquerón bay, south of Mayaguez. That evening, after cleaning the disaster down below Neats decided we should celebrate the mere fact that we were alive and decided to cook a hell of a meal, of course let's not forget the wine, Mike's boat was very close to ours. We took in the jib and lowered the main and just laid there, we were bouncing a bit but that felt like heaven.
In the morning we set sail for Boquerón and finally anchored at 6:30 PM. In the evening Mike came over for a celebration dinner. By the way, we opened a couple of that good Dominican rum and shared it with the welcoming committee that also visited us to find out just how rough the crossing had been. One final note, we heard the next day over the radio that two sailboats were lost the day we crossed the Mona Passage. Until today we do not know the whereabouts of the two boats, we believed that they were
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