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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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!?)]
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.
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.
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!