Had the Atlantic trade winds been westerly, we would be living in a very different world. These relentless winds blowing ever from the east facilitated the conquest and colonization of the Western Hemisphere; they made and unmade kings.
And they make beggars of all who choose to sail against them. We become thieves in the night.
It was a moonless night when we stole away from Luperon. Despite our best intentions. Our plan had been to find a window of time under a gibbous moon when the trade winds were disrupted by an intervening weather feature—a trough, a stalled front, a tropical cyclone that had already passed us by. But this did not come to pass.
As the third-quarter moon began to wane, we had decided to settle back in and wait until the September moon began to wax toward full. But then chance brought us something we’d never hoped for: a solid 3-day forecast of 5 knot winds for most of the Southwest North Atlantic. 5 knots! This might turn into 10 knots along the north coast of Hispaniola, and if so, we could sail by day and motor-sail (hybrid of sailing-motoring) through the night. It was too good to be true, we had to take it.
For months, Bill and I had sketched out our departure from Luperon on the Dominican Republic’s north coast. If we had been headed west or north, we could have planned our next sail over a few days time. But sailing east to Samana Bay meant that we would either be zigzagging for 40+ hours, clawing our way against 25-30 knot East winds and their associated wave patterns; or we would be motoring and motor-sailing at night with almost no wind, and hiding out during the daylight hours—when the trade winds gang up with sea breezes and coastal acceleration to create one of the thorniest passages along the Thorny Path from the Bahamas to the Lesser Antilles. Bill and I calculated that over the first year of our adventure we sailed against the wind about 90 percent of the time. It was hard on the boat, hard on us. And there was really no end in sight until we reached the Virgin Islands and could turn southward.
We opted for the light-wind night passage. Upon our arrival in the Dominican Republic, we purchased the bible for this route, The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward, by Bruce Van Sant. Van Sant spent 20 years sailing the route between Florida and the north coast of South America, via the eastern Caribbean. Over that time he became one of the crustiest salts in the sailing world, a fellow who hates “No Smoking” and “No Fishing” signs almost as much as he dislikes sailing to windward. He is also likely the most knowledgeable person out there about how to safely sneak east against the trade winds.
The Gentleman’s Guide has a title that sounds like it was published in the 1950s, rather than 2012, but still, when the derivation is explained by Van Sant, it strikes me as jolly good fun,( despite the years of jolly annoyance I’ve had over sexism in the sailing world). There was an old sailing adage, something to the effect of, “A gentleman never sails to windward.” Thus a gentleman would never voyage from the United States East Coast to the Caribbean, because it cannot be done without doing some of the least gentlemanly sailing in the world. Sailing to windward is a sometimes brutal sport, sailing off the wind is a genteel pastime.
I myself, prefer genteel pastimes and while I enjoy an hour or two of beating into the wind, I am apparently a bit of a gentleman. So I was keen to learn all Van Sant had to teach. I read and reread the book, as did Bill, while we were moored in Luperon hiding out from the epic progression of tropical storms that 2021 has been.
When this rare window of calm appeared, we began to ready ourselves, scraping the barnacles off all of our bottoms; weaving through the beauraucracy regulating travel by boat within the Dominican Republic; checking, rechecking, re-rechecking the weather forecasts. Finally, at midnight, the last Monday in August, when the wind had eased for the day and we expected a meager waning moon to soon crest the eastern hilltop, Bill climbed up on the mast, hooked on the mainsail halyard, and I prepared to cast us off the mooring by the light of a spotlight.
As I walked the lines aft and made sure they were clear of our propeller, I noticed why we hadn’t yet seen the tardy moonrise–the moon was already up, but obscured by a thick fog, the mist of which rushed through the spotlight beam like a billion tiny insects. I couldn’t see more than 15 feet in front of us. Had Luperon harbor had more of a strait forward entrance this would not have been a problem, but this bay’s entrance is shaped by shallow rocks and muddy shoals that make for a narrow channel that resembles a dogleg, broken and mended badly several times. There are markers, but they are not lighted and give little hint as to their colors in the dark. I went to the bow and tried to serve as eyes for Bill as he steered and consulted the chart.
“Ok, you’ve got a green to starboard and red to port. Then there’s a…I think that’s green, god, its really hard to say.” Bill replied through the dark, “Chart says it should be green.” (For those unfamiliar with boating aids to navigation, green marks the rightmost extent of the channel, often a shoal-line, when leaving a port. You don’t want to mistake red for green.)
And so it went as we groped along in the thick dark mist at 2 knots, figuring if we hit anything, we wouldn’t hit too hard. I could see fish swimming and leaping in the beam of the spotlight, an octopus legged languidly past the bow, headed toward Luperon, barely giving us a second glance, though its hard to tell with octopi. Occasionally the light would fall on a float for a fishing net and I’d alert Bill, or cliff face some 50 feet away. Then all would fade from view as I scanned the dark for clues to the deeper water.
After 15 tense minutes and 8 bouys passed, I couldn’t see any more channel markers. Standing on the bow I also couldn’t see the chart so I asked Bill, “Are we out?”
“We’re out,” he said.
I gave the water a few more scans for fishing floats, then went back to help Bill raise the mainsail.
As Maggie May made her way through the dark world we took turns at the helm, keeping the boat on coarse and watching the lights of Puerto Plata, Sosua and Cabarete fall behind us. The winds were light, so light that there was almost no wave action aside from an easterly swell—the ocean’s long memory of a wind somewhere, sometime. But we were able to keep the mainsail filled to take some strain off the engine and save a little fuel.
I hadn’t slept well for days before our departure, so Bill took first watch while I lay in the cockpit with my head near his lap, him stroking my hair, me looking up at the moon which was now clear of mist and accompanied by Orion striding purposefully toward the southeast. At 4:00am I took over the helm, just as Canus Major was following Orion into the sky. Bill rested beside me while I watched the dark horizon, only a pale reflection of moonlight and starlight ruffling the cloak of night.
I generally have no trouble staying awake on these passages, but before long, a powerful fatigue overtook me. My eyes began to cross, exhausted from the effort of holding their lids open. I pulled at my hair to stay alert. Ate some M&Ms one…by…one. Stuck my face out of the cockpit to get some air. It was then I noticed a dark line on the horizon in front of us, drawing ever nearer. Could be a trick of light, a huge trick of light. There is no land out here…is there? A rogue wave, the size impossible to tell in the darkness? How close is it? I didn’t want to wake Bill, but didn’t trust myself to decipher danger from hallucination, “Bill, uh Bill, there’s something on the horizon.” He jumped up like a piece of toast shot out of a toaster. “Wha! Whas going on?!”
“Do you see that?” He turned and then scrambled behind the wheel and flipped the boat around faster than I have ever seen it done.
Now facing the opposite direction, we both stared at the dark line, which began to resolve itself in the water.
“I don’t think it’s anything,” Bill said slowly, not entirely sure. “It must be just a giant matte of sargassum catching the moonlight in a weird way,” he said, turning the boat back the way we were going.
“Could be the garbage belt,” I said, referring to the line of garbage that follows currents around islands, 2-5 miles offshore. The garbage can come from all over the Atlantic. And it can destroy boats.
“Yeah, could be. Let’s head closer in toward shore.”
Back at the wheel, I steered us closer to the coast and Bill sat back down and began to nestle in to his pillow. He stopped and said “Are you ok? Do you feel sharp?”
“No,” just being honest. “But the sun will be up soon. I’ll be fine.” He went back to sleep. I didn’t tell him until later that I had been hearing music in the engine noise, first violins, then an angelic choir, then death metal.
A dusty pink dawn perked me up for a while, and I watched the coast roll by, along with patch after patch of sunrise-rose tinged sargassum. I shook my fist at it for making a fool of me.
The presence of this brown floating seaweed has been increasing over the past decade, significantly. Many places in the Caribbean, so dependent on tourism dollars, have named it a public enemy and much effort now goes toward controlling it, or desperately trying. Scientists are not yet certain what is causing the expansion of the plant’s range. It is almost certainly something humans have set in motion, either through climate change or increasing nutrients in the ocean from agricultural runoff. Sargassum provides important habitat for fish, sea turtles and other ocean organisms. But it can also be a hazard when it stacks up meters thick and miles wide and animals become trapped in it. But it is a force all its own, one of those immense mysteries we have yet to unravel, but you can be sure that when we do, we ourselves will be at the bottom of it.
I mused on this idea for a while as I watched flying fish dart by the dozens in front of the boat, etching 30-foot-long criss-crossed trails of disturbance in the glassy ocean. An hour later I woke Bill, handed over the wheel, and then crashed upon the couch belowdecks.
We spent the day making good, easy progress east, while passing by some of the most notorious locations on the coast of the Dominican Republic, including Puerto Malo (bad port), Punta Mala (bad point), and Cabo Cabron, or Cape Asshole, where we would snuggle in and anchor for the night. We had thought to keep going straight to Samana, uncertain whether we could trust the weather forecast. But the ocean was so placid, and I told Bill about my hearing music in the engine’s drone, and we really wanted to see the anchorage at El Valle, reported to be gorgeous.
In truth it was one of the most breathtaking anchorages Maggie May has ever, or perhaps will ever, visit. We dropped the anchor in late afternoon in the small nook where Cape Asshole meets the Dominican Republic’s mainland coast. The cape and mainland rise 1000 feet in mounded hills and sheer cliff walls where palm trees by the thousands cling improbably and birds soar on thermals flowing off the hillsides.
Once we were secure, I sat in the shade and watched a pelican dive for fish along the rugged coast. He wasn’t very good at it, but was fun to watch. The bird kept at it, over and over until he got some dinner, which gave me a sense of satisfaction for him. Bill had jumped in the water to cool off and check the propeller and engine water intake, which as suspected were partially clogged and crusted with barnys and other stowaways. When he climbed out a jellyfish tried to come along on his forearm and left some nasty tentacles behind. He brushed them off, but not before they left a nasty mark, as if someone had dribbled acid along his arm.
We made some dinner, watched the sun settle beyond the western wall of our anchorage, then lay down, hoping to get a few hours sleep before a late night departure. My alarm went off at 3:00am and we set about prepping the boat as tree frogs sang through the deep darkness all around. I pulled up the anchor and Bill drove us northward in the night stillness along the coast of Cabo Cabron.
The Van Sant method of transiting this coast uses what is known as the night lee to creep eastward. The night lee only works well when the trade winds are relatively light, 10-15 knots, and blowing from south of east, which happens somewhat infrequently. When it does, the sea breeze that accelerates the trades in the daytime, reverses to a gentle land breeze flowing off the mountains. This land breeze blows in opposition to the trades, gentling them and even changing their angle from east to southeast or even south. To take advantage of this, one has to follow the coastline closely, sometimes frighteningly close, within a few hundred yards, where a sudden strong shift in the wind or waves to northward could prove disastrous. Because Bill and I found a window where the daytime wind was going to so very, strangely light, less than 5 knots, we didn’t need to follow Van Sant’s method precisely, and could gain some distance from the rocky coast. But because we had the luxury of calm seas, we stayed close enough to Hispaniola that we could feel the power of this land and seascape.
As we rounded Cabo Cabron light began to glow on water and sky, giving a pale silhouette to Cabo Samana, the last cape would would pass before heading south and then west into the bay of Samana. Here the water was filled with sargassum, in places it flowed with unseen currents, elsewhere it lounged about as immense islands, hundreds of feet across. Some we tried to avoid, but others we motored through. Looking back behind us, I could see a clear water trail where the boat had passed through the sea vegetation.
But as we approached Cabo Samana a few hours later, our speed inexplicably decreased by several knots. At first we figured it was a counter current that would ease when we rounded the cape, but it only got worse. When we were down to 3.8 knots Bill got worried. We tried tacking back and forth on sail alone for an hour, but we were getting nowhere because what wind there was, came directly from our destination. So we crept along under engine power until we could round Punta Balandra, enter Samana bay and anchor behind Cayo Levantado. Once anchored I dove down and found the prop entwined in pieces of sargassum. I cleaned it off, hopped back on board, and we got underway the last few miles to the Puerto Bahia marina, having regained most of our speed.
As we tied up at the marina, the first marina we have visited for six months, we looked forward to some real rest and the first real showers we had had in a month. We’ll stay at this marina while we sort out our Dominican Republic boat permits and do a few repairs, then will head out to one of our long awaited adventures, a trip to Los Haitises National Park!