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!

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!

A Day in the Life of Luperon

I’m starting to understand why some cruisers come to Luperon, Dominican Republic for a week and stay for years. Its residents are so friendly and even take pity on the stupid gringos who can’t talk right, figuring out how to communicate. Food and drink are ridiculously cheap compared to in The Bahamas, even reasonable compared to the US. It is kind of nice not to be worrying about what it’s going to cost every time I step off the boat. And the expat community is made up of quirky, kind individuals who welcome us visitors and make us feel quickly at home. Some highlights of our stay so far:

Luperon Free Yoga

Veronique lives on one of three boats rafted together and anchored just off our starboard bow. She’s from the Mauritius Islands in the Indian Ocean, and her husband Bruce is from Zimbabwe and they’ve lived here for 35 years and raised a family here. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday Veronique hikes up the dirt road behind the marina to the ruins of an abandoned resort overlooking the harbor and leads a free yoga session for whoever shows up. The setting is beautiful – in a gothic, crumbling kind of way. And it’s a wonderful way to start the day relaxed and centered. Oh! And on Wednesday, the fruit and vegetable guy will be at the marina right after yoga with his truck full of tropical goodness for sale.

Shopping

For such a small town, you can get almost everything you need here in Luperon. (And if you can’t find it here, Puerto Plata or Santiago are only a short drive away). There are grocery stores, MANY small fruit and vegetable markets, barber shops and salons, housewares, banks, cafes, a shop that sews sails and upholstery, used boat parts stores, cell phones and electronics stores, a dentist, a free medical clinic….

Fun fact about shopping in the DR: everything is priced separately. What do I mean by that? In the market, an egg costs 5 pesos. Doesn’t matter if you buy a dozen eggs or two eggs. A can of beer costs 50 pesos. Asked the shopkeeper how much a case of beer costs. He pulled out a calculator and typed in 24 x 50 = 1,200 pesos.

Lunch at the Chicken Shack

We’ve rarely cooked dinner since we’ve been here. There are many, many small independent restaurants, cafes, and takeouts around town and the Plato del Dia (meal of the day) is always about 130 pesos – less than $3. My favorite so far is the Chicken Shack (actually named Pico Pollo Luisa – most restaurants are named after the chef!) There’s no menu. The girl at the counter just tells you the two or three things they are serving today. When they sell out, they close up until tomorrow. After a tricky conversation, trying to get across that Mike and I are allergic to wheat (alergico al trigo) we ended up with a huge spread of food: beef strips cooked in a sauce with bell peppers and onions, rice, beans, cabbage salad, and mixed vegetables. The bill came to 250 pesos for the two of us – $5.

For that same 250 pesos, you can buy a whole marinated, grilled chicken from the sidewalk chicken man. Literally. He just has a charcoal grill set up on a sidewalk one block off the main drag. When you walk by it smells exactly like the fireman’s barbecue fundraisers they have on summer weekends back in New York State. We’ve been twice, and he already recognizes us. Doesn’t ask now if we want the sauce because the first time we said no.

One day last week, we tried to eat lunch at the Chicken Shack, but we were too late and Luisa was sold out. So we walked back to Wendy’s Bar to ask Watchie the bartender for another recommendation. “Stay here, we’ll order lunch for you” he said. Another tricky conversation about being allergic to wheat. Next thing you know, both Watchie and Wendy’s mom are on their cell phones, calling various restaurants, asking whether the Plato del Dia is fried chicken or roasted chicken. I kind of lost track of what was going on at that point, but soon multiple delivery people showed up on foot or on motorbikes with takeout containers. Watchy spoke to them in Spanish, paid them, and brought us plates and silverware. We ended up with a plate of black beans and rice, one of white rice with a cup of habichuelas (ranchero beans) and a side salad of shredded lettuce and tomatoes. After about 15 minutes, another bowl appeared, full of roasted chicken in a savory sauce. Now, I’m speculating here. But I think what happened is that Watchie and Wendy’s mom felt bad that they hadn’t found us any gluten-free Chicken. So Wendy’s mom brought us some from her own kitchen! It was delicious, and we made sure to stuff a couple hundred pesos in the tip jar to cover it. How amazing is that?

Transportation

For such a small town, there’s every sort of transportation available. The most popular are small (but extremely loud) motor bikes. Some operate as taxis, and motorconcho corner is the loudest part of town. Of course, there are plenty of cars and trucks. The water delivery truck always seems to be filling up the road wherever I walk. The shared taxis (or guauguas) are a cheap way to get between towns. They’re regular sedan cars that don’t leave the taxi stand until they’re full. And full means the driver plus two passengers in the front, and four passengers in the back. Good thing it’s not a very long ride! There’s a big modern passenger bus that travels between Luperon and Santo Dominingo twice a day. When you see it coming, it seems impossible that that behemoth will actually fit down the narrow street, and will make the turn around the corner without taking down part of a building. At the other extreme, some people still ride horses or donkey, and use them to carry impressively massive loads through the center of town. Which then adds poop to the mud in the middle of the street. I might need to throw away my flip flops after a few weeks in Luperon.

Speaking of Wendy’s Bar….

It’s kind of the cornerstone of the expat community in Luperon. We think Norm is married to Wendy’s sister and he is one of the admins of the Cruiser’s Net. You’ll run into everyone who’s living on a boat in Luperon at Wendy’s eventually. And you’ll definitely see them there for the free movies on Monday, or at the dance classes on Wednesday, or at karaoke night on Fridays. In addition to serving the coldest beers in Luperon, you can ask the experts how to get around, where to buy something you need, how to say something in Spanish – you get the idea. Norm’s brother-in-law sells homemade mozzarella cheese for $2. The peanut girl comes by with a bucket filled with delicious salty snacks for 10 pesos a bag, and can also get you homemade natural peanut butter. There’s a lending library filled with sailing books, and the WiFi is fast and reliable. There’s a water bowl for dogs and always a few friendly strays wandering through wagging their tails and hoping for a kind word or your lunch scraps. What else does a cruiser need?

Social Butterflies

We were certainly sad to see Micki and Nathan go home to Colorado. But we consoled ourselves by leaping into the Georgetown social scene with both feet. Did I mention we were there during the Cruisers’ Regatta? This is basically two weeks of boat races, games, competitions, and socializing…all revolving around the hub of Volleyball Beach on Stocking Island. It’s been taking place for over 30 years, and several of the cruisers we met had attended every year. It seems to be a particularly big deal for Canadian cruisers – they sail south from their home marinas on the Great Lakes, arrive in Georgetown in time for the festivities at the end of February, and then start the long trek back home. Unfortunately, we missed registration day, so many of the games were already fully booked. But Capt. Mike managed to snag a spot on a bocce ball team.

And we had the opportunity to meet cruisers from all walks of life. One afternoon, the Women Who Sail Facebook group held a meetup at the Peace and Plenty beach club. It was great fun to share stories and experiences with such a varied group of women of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of experience.

On another afternoon, the captain of Bel Canto announced a get together for Colorado cruisers. Super fun! I think there were twelve boats from Colorado, and we enjoyed hearing how all of these landlocked folks discovered sailing and a passion for the water.

And then of course there was the ARG (Alcohol Research Group) happy hour on the beach. Seemed like the perfect time to break out the last of our coconuts and bring them as our “research material.” This event even boasted live music – a jazz band of fellow cruisers. Also had the biggest, best potluck spread of the season.

As I write this, even I’m amazed at how many social events were squeezed into one week. You can start to understand why Georgetown exerts such a gravitational pull on cruisers. There’s so much to do, so many people to meet, and if you’re there for even a short time you start to make plans and commitments: “Next week starts a new Texas Hold-em tournament.” “Saturday is a concert at the Peace and Plenty.” “There’s a fundraiser for a new roof for the library coming up. We’d better stick around for that.” Next thing you know – a month has passed by.

But I’m an introvert. And after a while, all that socializing gets to be a bit too much. So then I turn to my favorite thing about Stocking Island – climbing the hill to the pristine Ocean Beach, and hiking for hours at a time. I measured it using my Garmin GPS watch. It’s 1.75 miles from the rock cliff at the south end to the north end of the beach. If this gorgeous place were in Florida, it would be covered in Condo high rises and sunburned tourists. Here on Stocking Island, I never saw more than five or six people and a couple of dogs.

And there’s a climb up to Monument Hill at the north end – just to get the blood pumping.

A little solitude, a bit of exercise, and I’m ready to be social again! We were finally reunited with our buddy boats Elixir and Leef Nu. Better yet, it was Trish on Elixir’s 30th birthday! So we celebrated in the best way – another night of Rakin’ and Scrapin’ at Eddie’s. The kitchen was not at its best that night. Between the eight of us at our usual patio table, only three plates of food ever got delivered. But the band was rocking, and we all had a fabulous time. I don’t think Trish will ever forget this birthday!

Speaking of reunions with old friends, Drew and Sharon of SV Z-Raye arrived in Georgetown from Key West while we were there. So we had a fun time catching up and making plans to travel together to Conception Island and Long Island.

Our First Guests, Part 2 – Georgetown, Exuma

After a couple of days anchored out and living off the grid, we sailed south to the (relatively) busy port of Georgetown on Great Exuma, catching some big shiny barracuda along the way.

It took us three tries to find the perfect spot to anchor, and Capt. Mike and I just might have gotten a bit testy with one another. Micki and Nathan discretely used that time to prepare a lovely charcuterie platter and fresh coconut water cocktails to celebrate anchors down.

Last year, when we visited Georgetown, we got a good feel for the “summer camp for adults” vibe of this cruisers’ mecca. This time, the energy was even higher because we arrived during the Cruisers Regatta – two weeks of races, games, challenges, and events augmented with daily parties. I admit, it was a bit of a shock to the system after the quiet days on Lee Stocking Island! After our delicious snack, we headed ashore to make sure that Chat ‘n Chill on Volleyball Beach was just as much fun as we remembered. Never fear – it’s still a lot of fun, and the de-facto gathering place for the cruiser community.

The beach life is fun and all, but we decided to mix things up a bit and hit some nightlife by dragging Micki and Nathan to a traditional Bahamian rake ‘n scrape. This Monday night tradition at Eddie’s Edgewater is a ton of fun. After eating a big plate of chicken plantains, and rice and peas, and after drinking a couple of Sky Juice cocktails (gin, coconut water, and condensed milk) we were ready to dance. The band included everything from guitar to horns to the saw – that’s what makes it a real rake ‘n scrape as opposed to just a boring old band. Micki loves music and is always ready to learn something new, so she got a quick saw lesson, mostly in how to hold it so you don’t cut yourself, and then she joined the band. We pretty much closed the place down, dancing until we couldn’t handle the heat and the Bahamian volume of the music, then catching our breaths hanging out with other cruisers on the patio, then dancing some more. Eddie’s is always a great night!

All too soon, it was time to say goodbye to Micki and Nathan and wish them a safe trip back to snowy Denver. Things got a little bit tricky on that last day. They’d spent a lovely night at the Peace and Plenty hotel ashore (and shared their hotel shower with Sanitas’ crew – hot showers are delightful!) but then we’d anchored back out on Elizabeth Harbor for the final night. The wind was up, and the harbor was very choppy that last day, we weren’t sure our little dinghy, Bug, could get four people ashore safely and keep the luggage dry. So we devised a complicated plan. Capt. Mike took Bug across the harbor by himself. The remaining three of us called Elvis’ water taxi and reserved a ride across the harbor at 10:00 so that we could pay for a safe, dry ride. However, nobody ever explained which boat was the water taxi, or how it would find us out at anchor. So…to make a long story short…. they didn’t find us. I hailed the water taxi on the VHF radio on channel 16, channel 14, and channel 68 and called them on the phone. I stood on the bow of the boat waving a bright shirt and yelling at any boat that looked remotely like a water taxi. And as it got closer to the time of their flight, I started waving at any old fishing boat that looked like it might get us across the harbor in time. Eventually I flagged down a water taxi a whole hour later than the original plan. The driver said, “I saw you waving at me, but why didn’t you hail me?” Hello!?! What did you think I was waiving that bright shirt and yelling so frantically for? Just to be friendly? It was quite the fiasco. But all’s well that ends well, and we had just enough time to grab a quick lunch from the jerk chicken shack and walk to the yacht club to catch a taxi to the airport. I hope Micki and Nathan enjoyed their visit! Thanks for the gift of the Peace and Plenty beach bag!