Puerto Rico’s South Coast

Now I warn you… my impressions of the south coast of Puerto Rico may be slightly influenced by how unpleasant the sailing conditions were while we traveled there. You know – those 25 knot trade winds I keep griping about. I’ll stop complaining, but you may notice a certain lack of enthusiasm that might not be completely warranted….

The highlight of our south coast crossing was a stop in Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico. Not only because the boardwalk of restaurants and bars is a two-minute dinghy ride from the anchorage. Or because we shopped at the first American grocery store and Walmart shopping center since Florida. The colonial old town of Ponce is delightful. There are beautiful Spanish colonial buildings, piazzas and parks, and a world class art museum.

The flag of the city of Ponce is red and black, honoring its historic fire station. The station has been renovated and it’s beautiful, plus the historic firefighting equipment on display is fascinating.

Did I mention that the mascot of Ponce is the lion? No accident that you’ve seen lions in most of these photos – even on the ice cream truck!

From Ponce, we made a short hop to Isla Cana de Muertos, or Coffin Island. I was looking forward to a beach day, but the weather didn’t cooperate. Instead, the island made us work to discover its treasures. It was difficult to find a safe place to dinghy ashore, and when we did, the trail was overgrown with cactus plants of every shape and size. They were beautiful, and fascinating, but still prickly! I wished many times for a machete for a little DIY trail maintenance. Capt. Mike wished the same after a baby cactus hitched a ride on his leg.

But we persevered, and climbed up to the spine of the island where a lighthouse dating back to the Spanish colonial days holds the position of honor. We did a little breaking and entering to earn the best views of the island and surrounding seas.

Back at sea level, we hiked to the beach where day trippers visit from Ponce, and after the ferry departed, Capt Mike did a little American Ninja Warrior practice.

After a few days exploring on land, we headed east again. Set the alarm for 4:00am and headed out before sunrise to try to catch a period of calm before the daily trades kicked up. It didn’t work. We actually experienced some of the worst weather and roughest seas we’d seen all season. I tell people that I don’t get seasick, but that day, I might have been lying. On the plus side, I got some great pictures of our buddy boat Soluna riding on one hull in the big waves.

We lived to tell the tale, and soon anchored in Patillas harbor for a few days. Since we were here during the week, rather than on a weekend, town was quiet with very few restaurants open. But Paraiso Bar was open, and here Capt. Mike began his love affair with mofongo rellanos – mashed plantains cooked in garlic and oil and stuffed with fried pork or grilled shrimp.

¡Que Viva Puerto Rico!

SV Sanitas has arrived at our final country for this cruising season! We’ve been exploring for the past two weeks as we slowly cruise east along the island toward our goal of Fajardo for hurricane season. Our first stop was La Parguera, or as I like to call it – the Jersey Shore of Puerto Rico. We arrived on a Friday afternoon, just as things were getting hopping, and we dinghied in with SV Sava to check out the town. The waterfront is lined with colorful wooden house boats that make me want to move to La Parguera. Jose, from the Puerto Real marina, had given us a tip that we could tie up to “Frank’s” dinghy dock (just ignore the Privado signs) so we quietly did so.

La Parguera was a bit of culture shock after a month in the Dominican Republic. CocaCola and Medalla beer signs everywhere, a pervasive smell of fried food, and everyone dressed for fun – in tight clothing and lots of bling. We made a lap of the entire town in about ten minutes, and then gave up our search for culture or history, and just joined the party.

First stop- El Karacol, a world-famous cocktail bar, known for their fresh fruit mojitos. Forget boring old lime mojitos! Our group was evenly split between coconut lovers and passion fruit lovers.

We sat at picnic tables outside a restaurant filled with local families. However, the smell of old fryer grease was a bit overwhelming. I excused myself for a moment, just to check out the menu at Moons Tapas Bar a couple of block up the hill. Oh yeah! Now this is where we need to eat! Apparently, the rest of our group agreed, because soon we left the grease haze below us, settled in on a breezy patio, and tasted six different flavors of homemade sangria before deciding on a pitcher of Arancino flavor. The food here was the best I’ve had since Florida – grouper ceviche, chimichurri skirt steak, lobster tacos wrapped in taro root tortillas…. nom,nom,nom!

Capt. Mike was obsessed with this old fashioned, hand-carved horse racing game called Pica. Because it was all in Spanish, we didn’t really understand how the betting worked, or even how to tell which horse had won – the track was a circle, and there was no obvious finish line. But everyone who threw down a dollar was so enthusiastic, and everyone was cheering, jumping, and shouting, so the game was impossible to resist. After watching a long time, Capt. Mike thought he had it figured out, and threw $1 down on his lucky number 3. The carny slapped a double 3’s domino down to keep it from blowing away – more lucky threes! We crossed our fingers, and held our breath, and cheered and encouraged….. and horse #3 won! Mike’s $1 bet nabbed him $20 and the most excited face I’ve seen in a very long time! We went right back to El Karacol for another one of those delicious mojitos!

After our big night on the town, we kept it quiet on Saturday. Explored the mangrove rivers by dinghy, hoping to spot an elusive monkey, but no luck. We snorkeled a bit too, but there were only a few small fish hiding in the mangrove roots. By early afternoon, we raised anchor to move the big boats east to an anchorage closer to the Bioluminescent Bay. However, when we rounded the corner and caught sight of Cayo Caracoles, Capt. Mike shouted, “We are missing out on one heck of a party!” I poked my head up into the cockpit and saw that he was absolutely right. At least 50 powerboats were moored and anchored in the shallow waters just off the Cayo, some with flags flying, loud salsa music blaring, all with a drift of floating partiers hanging out in the pool formed by the circle of boats. Well what’s the point of being a cruiser on no particular schedule if you can’t change your plans? So we threw an anchor down right there, piled in our dinghies along with Sava, and floated over to join in the fun. We enjoyed meeting local Puerto Rican boaters, including two who keep their boats in the Puerto del Rey marina where we’ll be storing Sanitas. We also had the chance to talk a bit with folks who had lived through hurricane Maria in 2017 to learn firsthand what life in Puerto Rico had been like without water or electricity for months after the storm, and how many villages are still struggling today.

On Sunday, as the weekend was winding down in this party town, Sava continued sailing eastward but Capt. Mike and I stayed put. We had one item left on our La Parguera bucket list – visiting the bioluminescent bay. There are several bays around the world where the conditions are just right to grow a high concentration of microscopic dinoflagellates and therefore, for the salt water to glow at night when agitated. Puerto Rico is lucky enough to have three of these magical bays. We were excited to visit the one near La Parguera, because you are allowed to swim there. So we moved the big boat again, for the third time in three days, close to the mouth of the bay. That turned into more of an adventure than expected. We’d followed a tip on Active Captain (sort of the Yelp reviews of the sailing world) recommending a safe anchorage that did not appear on any of our charts. We discovered the risk of believing “some guy” over believing the charts, because when we approached the coordinates he’d provided, we suddenly found ourselves in super shallow water. So Capt. Mike slammed it into reverse, and we circled looking for a deeper anchorage. I dropped the anchor in a small sandy patch, but the anchor rode immediately fouled on a craig of Rock that surrounded it. Poor Mike had to dive to free the chain and it was almost sunset before we found a safer anchorage nearby.

It was worth it though! On a Sunday evening, there were only about three other small boats in the bay after sunset and before moonrise. We anchored the dinghy and took turns jumping in. Mike made “snow angels” in the water, trails of phosphorescence following his arms and legs. I pretended I was Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, shooting streams of sparkles out of both hands like a wizard. And then spinning around in circles, gazing through my snorkel mask, feeling as though I was inside a snow globe. Sorry that there are no photos of this magical phenomenon, but the bioluminescence doesn’t show up in pictures or video. If you see it in advertisements, it’s been photoshopped! (Now you know) So if you want to experience this amazing natural wonder, you’ll have to add a visit to Puerto Rico to your bucket list, and come see it yourself!

Crossing the Dreaded Mona Passage

After a month in the Dominican Republic, our 30 day immigration stamp expired, and it was time to move on to Puerto Rico.

When we first untied the lines in Florida to start cruising, we were stressed out by the thought of crossing the Gulf Stream. But after four crossings under our belts, looking back on it the Gulf Stream doesn’t seem that bad. You always know which direction the current will be flowing, there are apps and websites to tell you how fast the stream is running any given day, the distance is short so you can cover it in daylight, and it’s well understood what makes up a good weather window.

The Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico on the other hand, throws in a lot more variables. This is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea, and the currents here can vary widely with no real means to predict their strength and flow. You just figure out the currents when you experience them. Also, there are several shoals, or sandbars, which change the depth of the water from thousands of feet to a couple hundred of feet. You certainly won’t run aground in that, but the change in depth really messes with the water and kicks up confused waves far from shore. Although the passage itself is only 80 miles, the distance from the anchorage in Samana to the first safe port in Puerto Rico is more like 150 miles. We planned for over 30 hours of travel. Cooling land masses often kick up thunderstorms that won’t appear in any weather report. So we were particularly cautious when choosing a weather window to cross. Capt. Mike listened to the offshore weather reports for three distinct regions: north, in the passage, and south of the Mona for about a week, watching for the right conditions before making our Go / No-Go decision.

Finally, we were pretty confident we’d have a window we could safely motor across the Mona Passage, although it was unlikely we’d have enough wind to truly sail. We said our goodbyes to Marcie and Damon the night before, so we were all set to raise anchor and head out at first light. The Bay of Samana is gigantic – hours later, we could still see the finger of land to our north. But eventually, we broke free of the bay, and motor-sailed down the southeastern coast of the DR, encountering one of those crazy currents streaming about 1.5 knots against us along the way. Winds were pretty calm (Capt. Mike had done his research well) so we considered ignoring the hourglass shoal all together and just choosing a heading that lined up straight with our destination in Puerto Rico. Glad we didn’t do that! Even doing everything right, and picking a longer course to the north of the shoal, we still encountered pretty rough seas on the edge of it.

Otherwise, the trip was smooth and uneventful – but long! Out of 33 hours, we were only able to turn the motors off and sail for about 3.5 hours. After about 28 hours, we got just close enough to land that my Google Fi phone picked up a signal and started dinging. So, apparently we were back in US waters for the first time since January 8th! Time to clear back in! Well the US government has finally managed a web site that works. We put my phone up the halyard to get a strong signal, and Capt. Mike called up the CBP Roam app, let ’em know we were back in the US, and twelve minutes later we were successfully cleared in. That even included a quick phone call with Officer Felice. How cool is that? The best part is, we didn’t even need to go ashore in Puerto Real. We could just continue east, taking advantage of the calm winds. Instead, we lowered the Dominican Republic flag and raised the Puerto Rico flag while we were still barely in sight of land.

We had the best of intentions of sailing around the southwest corner of Puerto Rico and making it as far as La Parguara. But as we rounded the cape at Cabo Rojo, the true force of the easterly trade winds and the sea swells they bring hit us. SV Sanitas slowed down to about two knots. And she was getting tossed around like crazy. Maybe it was because we were tired after 33 hours, or maybe it was because we were attempting to travel east too late in the afternoon when the winds had had time to build. But we called an audible and turned sharp to port and found ourselves a safe anchorage underneath the lighthouse.

While we were resting and recovering from our long journey, a fishing boat pulled up. Now, I get kind of defensive when a strange boat pulls up to Sanitas. My first instinct is to say “No gracias! I don’t want it. How much?” But in this case, one of the guys simply handed Mike a live lobster, waved, and zoomed off. Well alrighty then! Welcome to Puerto Rico!

Our last stop in the Dominican Republic – Los Haitses National Park

The whole time we were in the Dominican Republic, we’d been hearing folks rave about the huge, wild national park located on the south side of the Bay of Samana. So although I still firmly believe I could have happily lived the rest of my life in the Puerto Bahia Marina, we tore ourselves away for a couple of nights to sail over to the park. Making it even more fun, our friends Damon and Marcie from Denver sailed over with us on SV Wanderlust.

For the first time in ages, we found ourselves on a broad reach and had a lovely downwind sail across the bay. In no time, we reached the park and anchored next to the sort of dramatic, verdant, craggy island that I’ve previously only seen in photos of Thailand. Thanks for the gorgeous photo of Sanitas, Marcie!

After ensuring we were safely settled in to the anchorage, we all hopped in the dinghy and set out to explore the park’s famous mangrove rivers. Mangroves are an important part of the marine ecosystem. They filter pollutants from the water, protect coastal areas from erosion during storms, and they provide a habitat for many species of animals and birds. And they’re beautiful! This park has a particularly lush mangrove forest that was lovely, cool, and mysterious in the dappled afternoon light.

After a dinghy ride down one of these winding streams, we came across a small wooden dock, and stepped ashore to explore the Cuava de La Linea. Since we came to the park after the busy Easter holiday weekend, we had this massive cave all to ourselves. I toddled slowly across the uneven stone floor in the dark and used my cell phone flashlight to illuminate a huge collection of ancient petroglyphs drawn by the Taino indigenous tribes. My camera didn’t do them justice, but it was awe-inspiring to look upon the artifacts of an ancient people and to try to imagine their lives.

Marcie treated us to a fabulous gourmet meal aboard Wanderlust that evening, and we had a chance to catch up on each others’ lives. We met Marcie and Damon in Denver in 2016 at a meetup for YouTube video blog celebrities “Chase the Story” It was lots of fun to meet like-minded, adventurous people and Marcie and Damon blew us away by sharing that they had already bought a sailboat -IN TURKEY- and they were getting their lives in order and preparing to fly there and move aboard before spending a couple of years cruising in the Med. Wow! So real people actually do this kind of stuff? And therefore, maybe WE could actually do it? At that point, buying a boat and cruising the sea was still just a faint dream for Capt. Mike and me. So basically, they were our first ever cruising friends, and we really enjoyed Seeing them years later in the Dominican Republic and hearing their stories of cruising in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Croatia and then crossing an ocean to reach the Caribbean.

The next day, we set out to do more exploring by dinghy, hopefully with a little bit of hiking thrown in. We saw gorgeous white herons, and heard countless smaller birds singing in the shadows of the mangroves. Eventually, we beached the dinghy near colorful park headquarters and paid 100 pesos per person entry fee.

A park guide showed us around a second cave. This one didn’t contain petroglyphs, but lots of stunning rock formations. Some were natural:

And some formations had a little help from humans (those Taino tribes again)

I’m not sure we understood all of the details from the guided tour. The guide only spoke Spanish, we speak English with a few words of Spanish here and there. But through recognizing a few words and basically playing charades, we got the gist of it! From the mangrove river, we hiked past cow pastures and rice paddies to visit the Eco Lodge Paraiso Cano Honda. This resort looks as if it sprang from the mind of a creative mad genius. All of the buildings are constructed from local golden stones, mosaicked into patterns and swirls and animal shapes. I don’t think there’s a straight line anywhere on the property. A series of “natural” pools flow one into the next via mini waterfalls. We wandered for about an hour, soaking it all in. It would be a very fun place to fly in guests to visit Sanitas!

I’m really glad we made time to stop in this gorgeous park and to explore another off the beaten path area of the Dominican Republic. And the timing was perfect! Our 30-day cruising permit for the DR expired on the day we left. Thanks for the beaches, the friendly people, the yummy food, and of course, the pineapples! We had a wonderful month exploring this beautiful island nation.

What do you do about health insurance?

This is the second most common question I am asked about our lifestyle of cruising on a small sailboat. (After, “What do you actually DO all day?”) Short answer is – It’s complicated! We aren’t old enough to be covered by Medicare. And I’m not daring enough to go uninsured, especially because we still spend several months in the USA each year. I worry that one car accident and the resulting hospital stay could bankrupt us if we don’t have insurance for the US. So I’ve spent countless hours researching options that provide the right balance of cost and coverage for two fairly healthy folks in our 40’s.

When we first quit our jobs in September 2017, we were given the option to continue our Cigna health insurance by paying for it ourselves via COBRA. But that was CRAZY expensive – on the order of $1500 per month for two people. So I didn’t even consider it. Instead, I went on the Healthcare.gov web site and signed up for a high-deductible ACA bronze plan through Florida Blue. And every month that we were in the US, I walked into a CVS and paid in person, because that’s the only method that allowed me to pay via credit card and earn cash back. Outside the US, I paid on-line. Since I hadn’t set up automatic payments, I really noticed how much money I was spending each month on something that provided very little value and that I hoped I never had to use. In 2017 this bronze plan cost about $750 per month, and in 2018 in increased to about $850 per month. Because of the high deductible, I had no intention of going to the doctor unless it was a real emergency. But I’m grateful to my friend Uta who is pursuing an degree in healthcare policy for reminding me of the various preventive procedures covered at no cost by an ACA plan. Once I figured that out, I made sure that Capt. Mike and I got our money’s worth. I researched my insurance company’s preferred (lowest cost) provider and made appointments for both of us to get annual exams including a thorough set of blood tests, and our cancer screenings. I take two prescription medications; one for thyroid, and one for arthritis pain relief. Both are available as generics, and I learned that it’s cheaper to pay out of pocket at Walmart for generic prescriptions than to use prescription insurance – almost half the cost. As an added bonus, the pharmacy will fill all of your refills at once if you pay out of pocket, rather than only a 90-day supply using prescription insurance.

But in 2019 the cost of my bronze plan went up significantly, and I could no longer justify the cost. Back to the internet to research other options! Travel insurance wouldn’t work, because it’s designed to treat the emergency wherever it occurs, but then to get you back to your home as soon as possible for the bulk of your medical care. And since I wouldn’t have US medical insurance, getting sent “home” wouldn’t help. So instead, I signed up for an international medical insurance policy with IMG. To qualify, we needed to live outside the US for at least six months of the year. No problem! It’s an underwritten policy, which means I had to fill out a detailed health history form and the provider decides whether to issue us a policy, based on level of risk. It’s also not an ACA plan, so it doesn’t cover all preventative care or pre-existing conditions (my arthritic knees) but it DOES cover accidents and illness both inside and outside the US. And it’s a renewable policy. So if one of us gets diagnosed with cancer while we are insured, that’s not considered a pre-existing condition, and we won’t be denied coverage as long as we keep renewing the policy. IMG provides an advise nurse, and a health concierge, and several other handy services, and does provide expatriation in case we ever have an accident someplace that doesn’t have adequate health care facilities. I could afford to choose a much lower deductible than under my old ACA plan – With a $1000 deductible, we now pay $2500 per year to cover both of us. That’s a huge difference in premium cost! And when I do need to get those darn knees taken care of, I’ll pay out of pocket in a country like Thailand that specializes in medical tourism using the money I’ve saved from lower premiums. I still hope not to need this insurance, but I’m not longer sick at heart every month when the bill comes due.

What about dental? Well for the past two years, I’ve bought a Groupon for new patient cleaning and x-rays for less than $50 per person. Last year they even threw in teeth whitening strips! I’m pretty sure I’ll need a crown replaced soon, so I’ve researched a dental discount plan that negotiates 25% to 50% discounts on dental work when you pay out of pocket rather than filing for insurance. I found a plan that allows you to pay for a month at a time and cancel at any time rather than signing up for a whole year. For medications that don’t come in as generics, I’ve learned that there are prescription discount plans and that some drug manufacturers even offer coupons right on their websites. And of course, there’s always Mexico.

Vision? Another discount plan that charges $50 for an eye exam. And then I get my prescription glasses and sunglasses through Warby Parker. They are MUCH cheaper than glasses from an optometrist’s office, and the quality, style, and customer service are fantastic.

Did I mention that we donated blood for the snacks, and for enough Walmart gift cards to buy a set of Mexican train dominos? Ok, I might have lost a few of you there.So basically, I’ve learned to be my own advocate and to research the cost of EVERYTHING before making an appointment. It’s eye opening to realize how much the cost of every procedure varies between regions of the country and between providers.

Boat insurance? Now that’s a topic for another looooong blog post!