Adventure on the High Seas en Route to Puerto Rico

I left Portland, Maine at the start of a winter storm. As I made my way from the hotel entrance to the rental car, I was met with an ice-skating rink for a parking lot. After I chiseled and scraped the thick layer of ice off my windows, I carefully made my way for the airport. Thankfully, the highway had already been well-salted. Our takeoff was delayed for 40 minutes for de-icing. What fun! There’s nothing like an ice storm for making me more excited to get back to the islands.

Cindy and I met up in Atlanta and flew on the same plane into Providenciales. We were both dead tired (I woke up at 3 a.m. to get to the airport for my early flight) when we arrived. Since we hoped to leave Providenciales the next morning, we asked the taxi driver to take us by the grocery store to gather a few fresh provisions. After doing a little paperwork, we had dinner at the Mango Reef Grill and turned in for the night by 10:45.

Fueled up, cleared out, and ready to hop on board Beatitude to depart the Turks and Caicos.

Fueled up, cleared out, and ready to hop on board Beatitude to depart the Turks and Caicos.

The next morning we did a pre-departure boat check, topped off the water and fuel tanks, cleared out of Customs and Immigrations, and pulled out of Turtle Cove Marina at 11 a.m. We were bound for Puerto Rico. It appeared that we had a 3 day window of decent wind and wave conditions to make the 375-475 nautical mile passage. Our departure took place with winds from the south at 15-20 knots. The daylight hours of the first day’s passage would be spent rounding the north hump of the Caicos Islands. That meant we would have the benefit of be able to sail in those winds while protected from the sea conditions in the lee of the islands. Not a bad start. The sun was bright, the water was blue, and we were visited by two pods of dolphins bidding us goodbye as they frolicked in our bow wake.

Setting out for our long passage to the Caribbean.

Setting out for our long passage to the Caribbean.

Leaving Turtle Cove

Leaving Turtle Cove

Making our way back out Seller's Cut. We had a guide boat bring us in to avoid all the coral heads, but followed our own track (on the chart plotter) back out.

Making our way back out Seller’s Cut. We had a guide boat bring us in to avoid all the coral heads, but followed our own track (on the chart plotter) back out.

Coral heads on either side of this narrow passage.

Coral heads on either side of this narrow passage.

A passing sailboat outside the breaking reef.

A passing sailboat outside the breaking reef.

Raising the mainsail.

Raising the mainsail.

Dolphin Visit!

Dolphin Visit!

Sea World - Carey Style!

Sea World – Carey Style!

Here’s a short two-minute video of our dolphin encounter:

By the time we approached Grand Turk (the easternmost island of the Turks and Caicos) the wind had diminished to 5-10 knots. We would motorsail throughout the night in mostly pleasant conditions. All that nature offered in resistance was a 3 ft. swell out of the east. We passed two ships in the night: The Royal Princess en route to Port Canaveral and the the cargo ship Juliette heading northeasterly toward Gibralter. Our closest approach to the first was around two miles, and the second, about 4 miles.

Cindy's enjoying the great conditions on the open water.

Cindy’s enjoying the great conditions on the open water.

Sunset over the Caicos Islands - Day 1

Sunset over the Caicos Islands – Day 1

The first night and the next day was about as non-eventful as possible, that was until… until we were approached by a small unknown vessel. These waters are not know for piracy, but one never knows. We were about 70 nautical miles northeast of Cabo Francés Viejo, Dominican Republic when Cindy spotted something off in the distance off our starboard beam. We had looked over that way because we both thought we had heard the respirations of a dolphin or whale through their blowhole. Peering through our binoculars, I made out what looked to be a small vessel. Seventy miles seemed to be a long way from land for a small fishing vessel, but we initially thought nothing more of it. That was until we noticed they seemed to be pursuing us. As they drew closer, I could make out that it was a small, blue skiff with several people on board. I’ll have to admit that it made me think of the recent pirate attacks between Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago. In those attacks, it was a small blue skiff with several men aboard that attacked two vessels in the region. At first, we didn’t slow down as they obviously were not disabled. Over about 5 minutes time, they drew closer and closer, and I could see they were waving frantically for us to stop. I attempted to reach the Coast Guard (U.S., Dominican, or otherwise), but no answer. (I later found we are out of range of reaching anyone on our VHF. You learn something new every day!)

Our Dominican Visitors

Our Dominican Visitors

Since they would soon overtake us anyway, we decided to stop our vessel to see what they wanted. As they approached our port side, we could see that they were in a small skiff about 16 feet long with an outboard motor. There were eight people on board, five men and three women. Of course, they could speak no English. My Spanish is not that great, but I was able to find out that they were Dominicans (not monks, but from the DR). They said they had been at sea for 5 days. It was inevitable that all eight of them would be yelling in Spanish at the same time, making already sketchy communication all the more difficult. They asked us for food, water and gasoline. I still haven’t figured the whole episode out. They were only 70 miles off the coast of the Dominican Republic in a boat with an outboard that worked. They chased us down asking for help. One or two of them tried to climb aboard Beatitude. When I vehemently objected, pulling the taser and bear spray out of my pocket, they quickly scampered back down into their vessel. We gave them our only 10 gallons of gasoline, a loaf of bread, peanut butter and other sundries, about 7 or 8 gallons of water, and a gallon of Diet Mt. Dew that just happened to be handy. We told them that we would try to contact the coast guard to let them know of their plight. They seemed happy with this and didn’t request further help.

I'm still not sure what five men and three women on a small boat with a functioning outboard motor were doing chasing me down 70 miles from shore.

I’m still not sure what five men and three women on a small boat with a functioning outboard motor were doing chasing me down 70 miles from shore.

We then pulled away, hearts racing and emotions flaring, wondering if we had done the right thing. Should we have let them aboard and taken them to Puerto Rico with us? Should we have stayed with them? Should we have even stopped in the first place? One never knows how he will react until placed in any particular circumstance. The fact that they had an operating vessel with 10 extra gallons of gasoline and fuel and water made us feel a little better about leaving them. The conditions were also very benign, with bright sunshine, 5 knot winds and 1.5 foot swells. They were in no immediate danger, but should we have done more? We continued to try to hail the coast guard on the VHF, but no answers. Fortunately, just prior to leaving the Turks and Caicos, I was able to get our Iridium Go! satellite phone operational. I called a family member (Thanks, Rachelle!) to call the Coast Guard for us and tell them what happened since I couldn’t reach them and didn’t have the number. It was then I realized that I have a U.S. Coast Guard App on my iPhone on which I was able to find the number. So, while Rachelle was contacting the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami, I was contacting the U.S. Coast Guard in Puerto Rico. Both local agencies assured us they would take immediate action.

Whew! That’s enough excitement for one day! Make that one year! I’ll call the Coast Guard in a day or two and find out what news, if any, they have. One thing is for sure, I’m very thankful we purchased a satellite phone for use onboard! Who knew we would need it for an emergency so soon! After the excitement of our mysterious encounter on the open seas, things settled right back down. For the rest of the evening and all through the night, we motorsailed in light northeastern winds and 1-2 ft. ocean swells. Our watches were uneventful and, given the benign conditions, our off-watch sleep was sound.

[Now that I’ve given it further thought and spoke to some folks from Puerto Rico, these very well might have been Dominicans who were attempting to illegally make their way into Puerto Rico.  Apparently, this is quite common… but who knows!?)]

Still enjoying the benign and beautiful ocean.

Still enjoying the benign and beautiful ocean.

Pizza for dinner

Pizza for dinner

Sunset - Day 2

Sunset – Day 2

Night Sailing on the Atlantic

Night Sailing on the Atlantic

Our third day on the water continued with the theme of the previous two — extremely pleasant open water conditions. Around 2 p.m. we spotted our first glimpse of Puerto Rico, the over 700’ tall, tiny island of Isla Desecheo. A few moments later, the mainland of Puerto Rico came into view. We have now exchanged the flat islands of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos for the mountainous islands of the Caribbean. Woohoo! Mid-afternoon, just as our 3-day weather forecast had predicted (By the way, our forecast for the passage was dead on.), the wind shifted slightly more to the east and picked up to 15-20 knots. We continued to motorsail along on a beam reach at 8.5-9.0 knots hoping to drop anchor in Mayaguez before dark.

A Stonehenge Sunrise on Day 3.

A Stonehenge Sunrise on Day 3.

IMG_4289

The impressive Isla Desecheo.

The impressive Isla Desecheo.

Approaching the western coast of Puerto Rico

Approaching the western coast of Puerto Rico

Those plans were soon put to rest as we neared the bay. I always try to check my anchor windlass prior to reaching the anchorage to make sure that it is in working order. It hasn’t always been. Sure enough, it did not operate (I had checked it pre-passage, and it worked fine). We could’ve attempted to drop anchor by hand, but I wasn’t excited to do so in a strange anchorage in the dark. So, I called the Marina Pescaderia in Puerto Real (Cabo Rojo) who said they have no slips available, but that I could tie up to the fuel dock for the night. It would take 3 more hours to get to the marina motoring in light wind in the lee of the big island. At 9 p.m., we entered the small bay in the dark. A few moments later we were tied safely to the fuel dock.

We've arrived in Puerto Rico!

We’ve arrived in Puerto Rico!

The Western Coast of Puerto Rico

The Western Coast of Puerto Rico

Raising the Q-flag.

Raising the Q-flag.

Unfortunately, leaving behind the port of Mayaguez after realizing our anchor windlass was not operating.

Unfortunately, leaving behind the port of Mayaguez after realizing our anchor windlass was not operating.

It was a great passage. For the first time in forever, it seems, there was no bashing into the wind. We either had very light wind, or wind on our beam, which is perfect for Beatitude’s sailing preferences. After tying up for the night, I spent about 20 minutes on the phone with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. The officer cleared us into Puerto Rico without having to personally appear at Customs and Immigration. Nice! Once those formalities were over, we turned in for a well-deserved sleep. We had covered 399 miles of open ocean sailing in 59 hours. And, now, for the first time, Beatitude and her crew are in the Caribbean!

Peaceful morning in Puerto Real, tied up to the fuel dock at Marina Pescaderia

Peaceful morning in Puerto Real, tied up to the fuel dock at Marina Pescaderia

Sunrise in Puerto Rico

Sunrise in Puerto Rico

14 thoughts on “Adventure on the High Seas en Route to Puerto Rico

  1. It has been great reading about your adventures. Oh the beauty and many scares that you guys have gone through. What a life’s adventure. Two brave people. Your doing what so many only dream about. God Bless and keep us informed of your discoveries and journey. We get to live the adventure through your eyes.

  2. Wow! What an adventure! I’m glad you played it smart & did not let them aboard because you never know..& you did help them a lot it sounds like! Proud of how you handled the situations! And of course proud of my DIL -you go Chelle! Love you guys!

  3. That was an adventure you will not soon forget! I think you just have to go with your instincts in a situation like that and it sounds like you made a good call. Just make a decision and don’t second guess yourself. You were more than generous. Don’t know if I would have even stopped. If they were Dominican “angels” you passed the test. Well done!

  4. In loved the dolphins. The seem like such social creatures. They hardly seem to move their tails as they propel their bodies like torpedos through the water.
    I felt an adrenalin rush just reading your story of the small boat chasing after you. The Lord protected you from what could have been an extremely dangerous encounter.

  5. You two live a life of adventure. I concur with others who have commented, I had an emotional reaction while reading your description the visit from Dominicans. Even after realizing you would have to have survived the encounter due to that fact I was reading your account of it, my feeling of uneasiness continued.

    Your report of frequent equipment malfunctions, has made me aware of what to expect even on a relatively new boat.

    Congrats on your passage of 399 nm, with night sailing included.

    Jack

    • Thanks, Jack! We’re glad to inspire and educate. Although I’ve read a number of accounts of other cruisers being approached by other boats in similar fashion, you really don’t know how you’ll react until it happens to you. Thank you for following along and commenting!

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