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!

We’re on the Thorny Path Now!

After two and a half weeks in Luperon, we finally had to drag ourselves away from the cruiser-friendly, super-fun community. After clearing out and getting our despacho paperwork from the naval commandant, we had an early night because we planned to leave the harbor before daybreak. This would become a theme for the rest of our sailing season. Why? Because we are far enough south now to be affected by the trade winds – the prevailing easterlies that blow 15-20 knots pretty much constantly, unless they are disrupted by a storm or other natural force. For the rest of this season we will always be trying to travel east, and sailboats cannot sail directly into the wind. We have the option to tack back and forth in a zig zag pattern to make progress eastward, at least doubling the distance we need to travel, or we wait for weather windows of light winds and calm seas and motor like heck as far as we can until that window closes. Also, we’ll start most of our travel days in the dark, because land creates a night lee of calm wind close to shore, disrupting the flow of the trade winds until the sun heats up the land and wind and waves return in the afternoon. If this sounds complicated, it is! Most of us sailboat cruisers have been poring over the same guide book, treating it like the bible for sailing in these waters; “The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South– The Thornless Path to Windward” by Bruce Van Sant. We’re all, “Van Sant says this” and “Van Sant says that” as if we are members of the same cult. If you’ve read this far, you may have drunk the kool-aid 🤣

So anyway…. five boats left Luperon harbor around 5:00am, all heading east toward Samaná, more or less using the Van Sant method. The weather report predicted light winds, but we were seeing 15 knots directly from the east. We motored straight into it until the beautiful town of Sosua, where we picked up a mooring ball, ate lunch and took a good nap, planning to head out again after dark. Around 4:00, a dive boat pulled up and made us leave. (This sounds simple, but it actually required many hand gestures, the use of Google Translate, and futile attempts to negotiate to let us stay just a little bit longer) We picked up another ball nearby, only to have the same thing happen about 45 minutes later. Our buddy boats were getting kicked out as well, and several of them said “Forget it!” and just started out a few hours earlier than planned. However, as soon as they left the protection of Sosua harbor, we heard them on the VHF radio complaining of high winds and rough seas. One boat actually turned around and came back! Capt. Mike and I decided to slow roll our departure, so we hove-to and basically drifted very….slowly…. toward the mouth of the harbor then turned around and drifted very….slowly…..back. This got old, so at 9:00pm we headed out.

Outside the protection of the harbor, winds were still strong, and waves were big. Not dangerous, but because they were working against us they slowed our forward progress so much that we were only making 3 knots. Yep. We could have walked faster. We decided we couldn’t make it to Samaná at this rate, so we made a Plan B chose a closer anchorage instead and settled in for our night watches. On the positive side, after two years we finally figured out how to use our radar system! So we used the radar to stay about half a mile off-shore, or in 120 feet of water. Steering to those parameters kept us each busy and entertained during the night – almost like playing a video game.

Around 2:00am the seas finally laid down and Sanitas picked up speed. Hooray! On our next change of watch we came up with a Plan C to split the difference and travel to the harbor of El Valle. Decision made, I went below to try to sleep. When I woke up at sunrise, Capt. Mike was in a bit of a frenzy. He’d noticed a vibration in the steering wheel and a laboring noise from the motor and was attempting to troubleshoot. After checking the belts, the motor mounts, and the rudder shaft and finding nothing wrong, it was time to get serious. Capt. Mike was going into the water (in the middle of nowhere, in infinite depth) to check it out. We dropped all sails and turned off the motor, but we were still drifting at almost 1 knot. We pulled out a spare line to tie around his waist, dug out snorkel fins and mask, and put out the swim ladder. I told him I loved him, and he jumped in. After a deep breath and two exploratory dives, Capt. Mike surfaced yelling, “Hand me the knife on the steering pedestal!” I had it to him in a flash. Another couple of breaths and he grabbed the side of the boat and tossed a big mess of orange canvas and blue rope aboard. This pile of abandoned fishing junk had been wrapped around the prop, preventing it from turning and messing with our ability to steer. Scary as it was to get into the water while at sea, at least Capt. Mike had quickly found the smoking gun and fixed it. Ten minutes after we stopped, we were back underway.

Finally, around mid-afternoon we approached the harbor of El Valle. It had been a long couple of days, and we were ready for a rest. As we approached the anchorage I couldn’t help but exclaim over and over again, “This place is gorgeous. Oh my gosh, this is so beautiful!” The vibrant green mountains were steep as fjords, and we were headed straight for a sandy beach rimmed with palm trees. We had found a perfect tropical paradise for the night as the reward for all of our efforts!

From a distance, our paradise looked deserted. But as we got closer, I noticed a small thatched roof shack. And couldn’t help but hear the loud music. Although we’d been awake all night, I couldn’t just cook dinner and go to sleep without exploring! So I convinced Capt. Mike to swim ashore with me to avoid the trouble of putting the dinghy in the water. Great decision! It felt wonderful to stretch our legs on the sandy beach, and to climb and play on the rocks. And then! We rewarded ourselves for our successful long sail with fresh pina coladas. Served right in the pineapple! Yum, yum, yum! Did I mention how much I love the Dominican Republic? ♥️🇩🇴

Busses and taxis and trucks, oh my!

From the moment I first saw the silhouette of the mountains of the Dominican Republic far in the distance as we sailed toward them at sunrise, I KNEW I wanted to hike them! Easier said than done. Pico Duarte mountain in the Jose Armando Bermudez National Park is more than 130 km from our anchorage in Luperon. And you can’t just show up and do the hike. Park regulations require you to hire a guide and mules, and the hike is long enough that you need to plan to spend at least one night near the trailhead the night before and the night after, and one night camping near the summit. So I set to work researching my options, and eventually booked an organized trek through Rancho Baiguate in Jarabacoa. But once I had booked this epic trip which was definitely NOT within our usual cruiser budget, I was NOT going to hire a car and driver to take us there at ridiculous cost. Instead, it was back to the internet to research busses on Spanish language websites that challenged every bit of my (and Google’s) translation skills. But we did it! And here’s how that journey across the Dominican Republic went down….

At 6:30am, our friend Brian of Tanda Tula kindly ferried us to shore in his dinghy, so we wouldn’t have to leave ours unattended at the government dock for days. Then we hauled our bags about a kilometer across town to the taxi stand to catch a Guagua, or shared taxi. This mode of conveyance (named after the sound of an old timey car horn) is a cheap way to travel within a town or between towns. It cost us 65 pesos per person to cram into a propane powered sedan to travel to the next closest town of Imbert. Including the driver, they wait until they have three people in the front seat, and four people in the back seat, and then they take off!

Once we arrived in Imbert, we simply crossed the street to the Javilla Tours bus station and looked for the boleteria, or ticket window. These van-sized busses only go one place – to the next biggest town of Santiago, so buying a ticket was easy. 130 pesos each and we were on our way! It was surprisingly organized. They gave everyone a deli counter number, so there was no rushing for the next bus. Everyone just lined up politely and got on in numeric order. But then we ran into our first problem. Capt. Mike was trying to track our progress with Google off-line maps and he had just said “We’ve got about 15 minutes to go” When I said “Wait! Isn’t that the Caribe Tours bus station? ” Darn Google! We traveled about half a mile in the wrong direction because neither of us knew how to ask the bus driver to stop in Spanish. Finally I decided it was better to embarrass myself than to keep going the wrong way, so I jumped up in the aisle and started waving my arms and saying stop until the bus pulled over. Phew! Now we just had to reverse our track on foot back to the big yellow bus station.

Caribe Tours busses connect the big cities of the Dominican Republic, and they are more like Greyhound – air conditioned with WiFi and toilets and even a movie. Heavenly! It cost us 100 pesos each ($2) to catch the Caribe Tours bus to La Vega. After that, the busses to the mountain resort town of Jarabacoa are few and far between, so we had a while to wait in the La Vega bus station. Plenty of time to explore the various food shacks around the block and to decide that our best options for a gluten free lunch, with our limited Spanish, was to point at whatever was left on the breakfast buffet. We ended up with the rest of the fried eggs and a huge scoop of mashed potatoes with pickled onions for each of us. The woman who served us was very patient, but everyone in the kitchen stuck their heads out the kitchen window to watch the crazy gringos try to order breakfast, lol.

I stuck to my theory that it was better to embarrass myself than to miss my bus, so every time a new bus pulled into the station I’d pop out of my seat and ask at the ticket window, “Jarabacoa?” They took pity on the poor gringo and told me when the right bus arrived. Another 100 pesos each, and we climbed aboard our final bus. All that planning worked out, ’cause if we missed that one, we wouldn’t have arrived at the lodge until after dark. Once we arrived in the resort town of Jarabacoa I fought the cell phone service and my own terrible Spanish and finally got through to the lodge who sent a truck to pick us up.

Suddenly, we were transported to paradise! The lodge is set in a lovely wooded glen filled with flowering tropical plants designed to attract butterflies. There’s a river, and a swimming pool, and even miniature horses wandering through the grounds on their own. The restaurant is open air with a tin roof that goes “BANG!” every time a mango drops from a nearby tree. Those street shack eggs and potatoes seemed like a long time ago, so we browsed the lunch buffet and found salad! and vegetables! and roasted eggplant! and chicken. Oh yum. This is the first night we’ve spent away from Sanitas since the beginning of November and I reveled in the queen size beds. Capt. Mike was equally excited about the hammock on the patio.

Grand totals for this day of travel adventure:

    Travel time = 7 hours
  • Cost= 960 pesos (including lunch) = $19 for the two of us
  • Experiencing the country like a Dominican = Priceless

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Recovery Mode

After the crazy weather and scary sail into Warderick Wells, it was a wonderful feeling to be safely tied to a mooring ball in the north mooring field for the next few days.

Our first order of business was to assess the damage to our lazy jack system and solar panels. By covering one panel at a time, we figured out that the cracked solar panels still partially functioned. Great news! Because if the flexible panels weren’t functioning at all, we wouldn’t have the capacity to generate enough power to run our instruments and to keep the fridge cold. We’d have to run the generator or the motor every day to keep our house batteries topped up – loud, smelly, and requiring a lot of fuel. However, they were definitely compromised, and a google search informed us that they could catch on fire because of the damage. So we pretty much knew we needed to replace them, but where the heck would we find solar panels in the Bahamas? And exactly how many arms and how many legs would they charge if we found them? So I had a brilliant idea……

Drew and Sharon of SV ZRaye, our friends from St Petersburg, planned to leave Florida for the Bahamas as soon as they got a good weather window. Maybe they’d be kind enough to hand deliver two new solar panels to wherever we happened to be? Before I could reach out to ZRaye to propose our plan, or to start shopping on line for new solar panels, I had to figure out how to get cell coverage and data from within the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. Last year, we figured out that if we took a 20 minute hike to the top of Boo Boo Hill, and stood behind and bench, and held my cell phone up in the air, I could usually get signal. This year, this old dog learned a new trick. We put my Google Fi phone in a waterproof bag and raised it up the flag halyard (which will henceforth be known as the “phone halyard”) We used my phone as a WiFi hot spot, and could sit comfortably in the cockpit surfing the interwebs on Mike’s phone and my iPad. Thanks to Elixir for the tip! An hour later, two new solar panels were ordered, shipping to Key West arranged, and ZRaye agreed to don her superhero cape and swoop in to rescue us with an international delivery. I love it when a plan comes together.

Next order of business, repairing the lazy jacks. Jeff from Elixir came by to help me hoist Capt. Mike up the mast. Safety third! It’s always good to have a backup line attached in case the main halyard fails when he’s 50 feet up in the air! Together, we hauled him up, where he was able to knot and repair the lazy jacks, instead of having to order a whole new system. Check one more repair off the list!

Finally, Capt. Mike used spare nuts and bolts and washers to replace the hardware that had broken on our dodger and Bimini. Not pretty, but it worked! Its amazing what a difference 24 hours makes. Yesterday we were wet, tired, and scared with lots of expensive repairs to make. Today we were dry, well-fed, and basking in the sun, with all our problems solved for about $300. Not bad! We celebrated with a hike up Boo Boo Hill to stretch our legs and enjoy the views from this little slice of paradise.