Winner winner, lobster dinner!

After our tour of the Frigate Bird Sanctuary, our guide George Jeffreys steered his Boston Whaler north in the lagoon to a spot near the ruins of the old Lighthouse Hotel. Capt. Mike and I kind of looked at each other, like “Where’s he going? I thought he was taking us back to our boat” But George found some magical unmarked spot and lo and behold! Raised up a big lobster trap and dumped it in the boat. Silly me wondered whether there would be a lobster in the trap. Well, there were at least a dozen! George used a stick to pull out all of the lobster that were over the legal size for fishing – seven in all. For $15 we had the makings of a wonderful dinner!

Treasures from the deep
George teaching us the difference between male and female lobster

At least we WOULD have a good dinner if we could herd those grumpy lobsters onto our boat, and could figure out how best to clean them and cook them. So Capt. Mike is in charge of sailing, and I guess I’m in charge of killing lobster. I googled “how to clean a Caribbean lobster without tools”, and it goes something like this…. First, put on a pair of work gloves to protect your hands from the spiny bits. Then grab the body of a lobster in one hand, and it’s tail in the other and pull and twist. Drop the body overboard quickly, so you don’t have to watch it twitch or confront the reproach in its beedy little eyes. Save one of the long tentacles because you’ll use it to pull the digestive tract (aka the poop chute) out of each tail. Then rinse well with seawater.

Before all the killing and cleaning
After all the killing and cleaning

I trimmed the soft inner shell off each tail, topped with melted butter, garlic, and Old Bay spice, and roasted in the oven for 15 min. With a side of mashed sweet potatoes, and a fresh tomato salad concocted by Melinda on SV Sava, we had an amazing lobster dinner while watching the sunset.

The finished product! Bon appetit!

What to pack for the Camino Frances?

Every time I climb a hill, I think about what I’m carrying in my pack that I don’t need. And there have been a lot of hills over the course of 800km, so I think I’ve got this packing list figured out! Now keep in mind, this list is specific to the Camino Frances where towns and services are close together. If you are planning for a more remote route, you might need to carry more food and water. I hiked in July and August when temperatures ranged from the high 40°s Fahrenheit in the Galician mountains to nearly 110°F across the Meseta. For a winter hike, you’d need warmer clothing. For another route you might actually need camping gear.

Gear

Backpack– You’ll need a comfortable, well-fitting backpack of 30-40 liters. Don’t buy anything larger than 40 liters or I will personally haunt you and give you nightmares every night of your Camino. It will just be heavier, and you’ll fill it with stuff you don’t need. I’ve been very happy with my Gregory Jade 38 pack, although I probably could have even used a size smaller. Gregory Jade 38

Hiking poles (optional)– I’m hooked on hiking poles. They take some stress off your knees going downhill, provide a rhythm going uphill, and keep you from falling when you trip over a cobblestone or your own feet. They are difficult to pack in luggage, so next time I’ll buy an inexpensive pair when I get to Europe.

Hiking Shoes– Choose a pair of running shoes or trail shoes. Fit is more important than type of sole, upper material, or anything else. There’s no need for heavy leather hiking boots on this trail! Remember- a pound on the feet is like five pounds on your back! Brooks Cascadia

Sleeping bag liner- In the summer, there’s no need for an insulated sleeping bag, because albergues provide blankets. But you’ll need a lighter bag or sleeping bag liner, because not all albergues provide sheets. In fact, some of the cheaper albergues use rubber mattress pads to make it easier to keep clean. I prefer a silk liner, over synthetic or cotton, because it’s light and comfortable. Mine is a mummy bag, designed to fit inside a sleeping bag. Next time, I’d buy a rectangular bag to have more comfortable sleeping space. silk sleeping bag liner

Pillow case – Most albergues provide pillows but not pillow cases. I’ve used a t-shirt, but next time, I’ll just bring an old pillow case.

Packing Cubes– or stuff sacks. It’s much easier to keep organized and to pack your bags quickly in the morning with a few lightweight bags. packing cubes

Pee cloth – public toilets (servicios or aseos or WCs) are few and far between. When walking between towns you’ll need to find a bush and go au-natural. But don’t be a jerk and throw TP on the ground! Kula Cloth makes a discrete antimicrobial cloth that hangs conveniently on your pack, where it’s always available to catch the last few drops. Just throw it in the laundry every couple of days.

Water bottle– I brought a camelbak hydration pouch and didn’t use it. Too much trouble getting it in and out of the pack when refilling. It was easier to use a smaller flexible bottle and fill it up at each public fountain – they’re everywhere! I’d bring two 0.5 liter bottles. If you drink a bunch at the fountain there’s rarely a need to carry more than a liter.

Hiking clothes

  • 2 pairs of socks, synthetic or marino wool
  • Gaiters to keep the stones and sand out of your shoes Dirty Girl Gaiters
  • 2 pairs hiking shorts or skirts. I love my hover skirt from Skirt Sports
  • 3 pairs underware
  • 1 sports bra
  • 2 synthetic or marino wool short sleeve T-shirts
  • 1 long sleeve mid layer (I didn’t bring this, and wish I had. It gets chilly at night and I got tired of wearing my rain jacket)
  • Sun hat – I wore this every afternoon for sun protection, and even in light rain showers Chaos Hats
  • Bandana
  • Sun glasses – I dropped mine on the ground several times while juggling poles, map, phone, etc. It’s also easy to leave them behind. Don’t bring your Ray Bans.
  • Rain gear (lightweight rain jacket and pack cover, or Pancho) Mike insists on an umbrella
  • Optional wind layer – I carried a 2 oz nylon wind shirt

Camp clothes

  • Lightweight trousers – something clean to change into after you shower. I never hiked in long pants.
  • T-shirt or tank top, bra, undies
  • Pajamas – optional. You’ll often be sleeping in mixed gender dorm rooms, and you’ll probably have to get up in the middle of the night to pee. I brought a pair of cotton sleep shorts and a tank top
  • Sandals – the albergues ask you to leave your hiking shoes just inside the door to keep things cleaner. You’ll want a pair of keen sandals or flip flops for the rest of the evening and for walking around town when your feet hurt.
  • Town clothes (dress, earrings, lipstick) Totally optional, but I spent a weeks as a tourist before the Camino, and took three rest days. It was good for morale to change out of hiking clothes! I love Skirt sports dresses and the super light-weight travel dresses from Indygena
  • Swimsuit (optional) – I heard rumors of towns and albergues with swimming pools, but I never found one.

Toiletries

Bring a little bit of everything, but not too much. Toiletries get heavy fast. You’ll travel through plenty of towns with opportunities to buy more. Grocery stores are usually cheaper than Farmacies.

  • Shampoo
  • Soap
  • Facial cleanser
  • Q tips
  • Moisturizer
  • Sun block
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss
  • Prescription meds – I shopped at a Farmacie in Santiago and bought 100 days of my thyroid meds for €10. Much easier and cheaper than I expected!
  • Makeup, hair products, Deodorant, razor (optional)
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • First aid kit (blisters, colds, Imodium, allergy, antibacterial ointment)
  • Quick dry pack towel

Food

Only bring food from the States if you have special dietary needs. I brought gluten free energy bars for the first few days and nuun electrolyte tablets, but too much gets heavy!

  • Electrolytes
  • Energy bars
  • Hiking snacks (just a day or two at a time- there are lots of towns and grocery stores)
  • Zip locks

Electronics

  • Phone and charger – Spanish Sim card. I went with Orange’s Go Walk pre-paid sim card. €20 for two months of data and local phone calls. Great customer service and coverage.
  • Garmin watch and charger
  • Headphones and charger

Wallet

  • Passport, credit card, debit card, cash, pilgrim credential

Other

  • Clothes pins – optional. Mike lost a bandana from a windy line.
  • 50′ light parachute cord for clothes line – often there’s not room for everybody’s clothes at the albergues.
  • Headlight (preferably one that has a red light option and is rechargable)
  • Guidebook – supplement with a cell phone app, but it’s good to have paper backup.
  • Massage ball – you never know what’s going to hurt when you start hiking 15-25 miles a day while carrying a pack. I’d love to have access to a foam roller, but they’re bulky. A lacrosse ball is smaller, and worth the weight!

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? ♥️🇩🇴