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Thursday, 12 June 2014

Wild night in The Mona Passage

Desecheo, is a seven hundred feet high island of desolated rock at the northern tip of the Puerto Rican trench and is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea. It's about twenty-five miles off the north western tip of Puerto Rico and where we would make a left turn to start our crossing of the Mona Passage. This far the seas and weather were as predicted, light winds and slight seas, so we were sailing under genoa and mizzen, but with the engine running. The sails were up to just steady Picaroon and maybe give the engine a bit of help. Just west of Desecheo we could see white tops on the seas which meant that perhaps conditions would freshen and we'd be able to cut the engine and enjoy a nice sail for a bit.
As we struck out into the Mona Passage leaving Desecheo in our wake, the seas turned decidedly boisterous, and Picaroon began to roll with the waves that were marching in just off our beam. The seas climbed aboard within the first five minutes and sloshed across the cockpit and half-filled the well where Jackie was standing, wrestling with the wheel. This well is where any stray rubbish tends to migrate to; old cigarette boxes, wrappers, the dross of living aboard, it's also where the two drain holes are, should the sea decide to come aboard. We roll uncomfortably to the opposite side and another great gush of sea makes its way on board, rushing down the decks and out of the scuppers, but the cockpit is still awash with the dregs of the Atlantic. The dross has been washed to the outlet drains and blocked them, so I scrabble about under Jackies feet to clear them, and the water leaves and goes back to where it should be, in the sea. Time to find the safety harnesses and get clipped on we think, this could be a bumpy ride.
The waves start to increase in size, perhaps twenty, sometimes thirty feet high or that's what it looked like from Piccars' cockpit. Most roll under Picaroons keel, bearing us into the air where we're able to catch a glimpse of the next candidate for Picaroons sea-washed decks. The genoa has been furled away, the wind has risen too much for comfort, but we leave up the mizzen to keep her steady, and Mr engine Sir still purrs away, below pushing us out of sight of land as Desecheo disappears into a gathering thunder storm a few miles behind us, we just hope that's not going our way too.
The day was fading and keeping the sea from mounting Picaroons decks was impossible, "Oh shit" Jackie would exclaim, hanging on to the wheel, me gripping the rail with a dead mans' grasp, as another wave rocked and rolled us, and then the rain started.  Above us a great lump of charcoal cloud had caught us up and was starting to unleash a torrent of rain, buckets of rain, waterfalls of rain began to penetrate our un-waterproofed  bimini, our only shelter. The sea attacked from both sides, the heavens above us drenched us and the soft furnishings of Picaroons cozy cockpit.
By now it had grown dark, the noise of the sea crashing around Picaroon and the winds of the storm wailing in the rigging, the rain relentless, it was becoming decidedly unpleasant. The one advantage of the onset of night was that we could no longer see the waves about to devour us, and although still making for a very scary ride, they had settled down to just horrible, as opposed to life threatening. The gizmo that tells us where we are also has a radar, so we turned that on to see where the storm above us was going, and if we may escape it soon, it had been raining a deluge for more than three hours, and although we had our English foulies on we were thoroughly and absolutely ringing wet, and still hanging on, clipped on, to one of those big dipper rides that you wished you'd said no to, but this is no Blackpool pleasure beach ride, no siree, there's no way out.
The Radar shows just one weather system in the Mona Passage, they said there would be isolated thunder storms, and we're slap bang in the middle of it. It's tracking our course, as though we have some magnetic attraction, there's  no escape, as it gathers itself for another assault, reeling around in a fiendish orange overlay on our chart plotter. The night thickens, we're getting weary, no we're worn out with being this wet and this bounced about. This was never our idea of what sailing the Caribbean would be, and we both thought silently that all this dream of buying a yacht had been a huge mistake, but neither of us voiced that thought. Standing under the waterfall that was cascading over the helmsman, yours truly, I broke into a rendition of "singing in the rain" at the top of my voice, and Ewans song, "Sailing close to the wind" that was on our last album, it seemed to help, but it didn't stop the rain, it didn't stop the seas paying us the occasional visit. It rained and rained all night and into the dawn. Just before dawn the lights of a distant Dominican Republic, dipped in and out of view as we rode up and down, the roller coaster ride of the Mona Passage swell.
The night seemed never-ending but after ten hours, the rain eased, and dawn broke majestically, in pink, orange and purple robes of the dying storm we had finally escaped. Everything was a mess aboard Picaroon, below stuff had spilled from what we thought were locked cupboards. A fire extinguisher had released itself from its clip and disgorged its contents around the galley floor, coating all the charts, books and minutia that had joined it on the floor. Wet clothes, shed in the storm littered the floor, all was chaos, and above deck too, stuff had been washed this way and that, in the dark we didn't notice, but as dawn broke it became apparent that it had been somewhat of a rough passage.
At long last, and it was a long last, we turned into the entrance of Samana Bay, Mr Engine Sir still beating in the heart of Picaroon, the mizzen raised, sometime in the middle of the night, to keep the rolling to a minimum, fluttering limply in a lifeless morning air. Samana Bay is big, much bigger than it looks on the chart, and it takes us the best part of the morning, Picaroon wallowing in an uncomfortable swell, until we get within hailing distance of Bahia Marina, where we'll find sanctuary from our ordeal. Our calls on the VHF bring no response, and we contemplate anchoring, but too tired to make any sensible decisions, we continue to try. At last we make contact, were only half a mile away from the entrance, and a voice says come in to slip 51.
We land in heaven, well it appears like that after thirty hours of hell. This is a five star Marina with infinity pools, Spa, restaurants, and staff that are ever so polite and correct, dressed in white, all marble and coral stone, incidental soothing music that you can barely hear, jazz, Frank Sinatra, and that transcendental stuff that just washes over you in the background. It's uncannily quiet too, hardly a soul about to cause a ripple in the tranquillity of the place. It's a dream, it must be a dream I am having in between those half hour watches we took in the middle of the storm, in the middle of that black as coal night, sailing the Mona Passage.
But no, we didn't sink, we didn't die, there wouldn't be two middle aged women in scant bikinis, dancing, inappropriately to muzac around an infinity pool in heaven, we must be in Bahia Marina in the Dominican Republic.