Key West back to Bonaire


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For a sense of perspective: Cuba from East to west is about the same distance as the UK from Land's End to Shetland

Key West (24th April to 14th May)

After an overnight passage from Havana, crossing the Gulf Stream, we arrived in Key West in the early morning. The location of the main anchorage, east of Wisteria Island was indicated in our almanac. The holding was reported to be good. When we arrived we noticed that many boats were on moorings rather than at anchor, but we managed to find a spot with sufficient swinging room for Alegría. As usual, we put the engine in reverse up to 2500 rpm to set and test the anchor. This time we were dragging! This was unusual. In the past year and a half we had built up a tremendous faith in our 30 kg Spade anchor. It always sets first time and never drags. On the second attempt the anchor held at 2500 rpm. We were both tired from the overnight passage and wanted to go to bed. However, according to US customs regulations, this could cost us a $5000 fine. We had to clear in first. Until the vessel has been cleared by customs, only the captain is allowed to go ashore. So I went ashore in the dinghy to find customs. The contrast with Havana could not have been any stronger. A Disney style train full of tourists was passing in the street, complete with commentary from the driver on the loudspeaker system. Ice-cream parlours, boutiques and restaurants were everywhere.  Street vendors were trying to attract customers to “their” restaurant. I found the customs office and passed through an airport style security check. The customs officer behind the window rudely ignored me for 45 minutes. When she finally attended me, I filled in the required forms, showed our ships papers, and was cleared. Before visiting immigration (in the same building), I had to go back to the boat to get Tania. Immigration wants to see all crewmembers in person. With all this behind us, we could finally catch some sleep.

When we returned to shore later that day we looked at Key West with different eyes. Behind the main tourist areas there were some lovely old wooden houses. These streets were a reminder of the way Key West must have been before the tourists came. And of course, Key West is part of the US… a consumer’s paradise. There was a West Marine store close to the dinghy dock, as well as a good sail maker. We had been looking for a sail maker since February. Finally we could get a replacement for the UV protective strip on our furling Genoa. Also right opposite the dinghy dock was a restaurant that quickly became our favourite. It had dishes from around the globe on the menu, a view of the marina, an informal atmosphere and reasonable prices. We even saw manatees in the harbour!

The next day was a Saturday. Powerboats were zooming up and down right past the anchorage and at full throttle, making the anchorage very uncomfortable. The Americans sure love their gas-guzzlers.

On the Monday we went to the shopping mall, a half hour bus ride from the dinghy dock. Whilst we were there, we had a thunderstorm with strong winds. Later we heard that the nearby airport had measured gusts of 60 knots (105 km/h). I was a little worried, but our anchor had never let us down before, so I tried not to think too much about it. By the time we got back to the dinghy it was getting dark. As we were approaching the place where we had left Alegría at anchor we were getting more and more worried. We didn’t see her! In the distance, almost a mile from where she should have been, we saw a boat that looked like her. We sped at full throttle towards this shadow, went aboard and quickly started the engine. When we hoisted the anchor, a 20 mm steel cable came up with it. The anchor had hooked the cable, and this had been our luck. Otherwise Alegría might have washed on the beach of Tank Island, about a half-mile further downwind. We motored back to the anchorage and tried to anchor again. But it was difficult to find a spot where the anchor would hold against the engine in reverse at 2500 rpm. We had to try many times. With the anchor alarm on the GPS switched on we finally went asleep. That night, the alarm sounded twice. The first time we were actually dragging and we could start the engine just in time to avoid running into one of the boats on a mooring. The second time was a false alarm. We were just swinging around on the changing tide.

Of course we were rather shaken about what had happened. For three days we did not dare leave Alegría alone. We had lost faith in our trusted anchor. How could this have happened? Well for a start this was a tidal anchorage, with the current running at right angles to the wind. A 60-knot wind on the beam rather than on the nose can generate an incredible force on the anchor. Secondly, from talking to the locals ashore we learnt that the holding in this anchorage is notoriously bad. This is why all of the local boats are on moorings. There is a relatively thin layer of sand over a rocky bottom. When the force on the anchor really gets strong, the anchor cannot dig any deeper, and starts to drag. During the thunderstorm on Saturday several other boats had dragged as well.

We decided to relocate to another anchorage west of Fleming Island. Here the holding was slightly better but the tidal current was running just as hard. After three days in this anchorage we started to go ashore again. Initially for short periods. We did not drag anchor again.

We also discovered minor damage to the gel coat (the outer layer of a polyester hull), which I repaired in the following days. Of course we had no idea how this had happened. We might have dragged into some other boat, or some other boat might have dragged into us, causing our anchor to drag too. We never found out the true story.

We contacted our friends Cock and Patty Heemskerk from Holland. They were visiting Patty’s parents in Florida with their two sons Robert and Mark. We arranged to meet in a hotel in Orlando. We rented a car to get there, and of course we moved Alegría to a marina (the most expensive marina we had ever been in!) because we would be gone for four days.

Together with Cock, Patty and the kids we visited Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral. We had great fun together, and Cape Canaveral was very impressive. The next day they went back to Patty’s parents, but we stayed another day in Orlando to visit Epcot Centre, one of the Disney parks.

Time was running out. We needed to get out of the hurricane belt in time for hurricane season. Officially the hurricane season starts on the first of June, but our insurance company wants us out of the hurricane belt by the first of July. We could either go north of the hurricane belt, (the northern part of the US east coast) or south of the belt (Bonaire, Curacao and the north coast of Venezuela).  We chose the latter.

The route from Florida to the Caribbean is against wind and current. Because of this, it is known as “the thorny path”.  Beating against twenty knots of wind and one knot of current can be very uncomfortable and progress is very slow. There is a book dedicated to this route, which includes tips and tricks to make things more comfortable. In the northern part of the route, through the Bahamas, the trick is to wait for a passing cold front. When a cold front passes, the wind quickly clocks around from southeast via south to northwest. Then it slowly continues via northeast back to southeast. A cruising sailboat sets off when the cold front has passed, and the wind is in the NW. Before the SE trade winds re-establish themselves, the cruiser finds an anchorage where he waits for the next cold front. In our case however, it was late in the season getting towards summer. The depressions (with their trailing cold fronts) that come off the US coast heading east take a more northerly route. When the depressions pass to the north, they bring lighter trade winds to the Bahamas, but no northwesterly winds. We made use of these lighter trade winds to make progress to the SE. Sometimes we sailed, sometimes we motor-sailed, and sometimes we motored.

Bahamas (14th May to 31st May)

On the 14th of May we set off from Key West, heading for the Bahamas. The winds were less than 10 knots most of the time, so we motored. The Gulf Stream was pushing us along at up to 2.5 knots. Motoring through the night at 6 knots, we were making 8.5 knots towards our destination. We entered the Great Bahama Bank at South Riding Rock. On the bank the water is only just deep enough for us to cross. You have to keep a constant watch for coral heads, which are clearly visible below the surface of the water and present a danger to navigation. When it started to get dark, we dropped anchor right in the middle of the bank. It was a strange experience. Never before did we anchor without any land in sight. Because the weather was so calm, we did not need an island to break the waves and we had a fairly comfortable night. Next morning we continued to Chub Key, where we tried unsuccessfully to clear in with Customs.

We proceeded to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, where we did manage to clear in with customs (very expensive!). A full day at Atlantis was clearly the highlight of our stay in Nassau. Atlantis is a huge five star hotel complex with many restaurants and bars, a casino and lots of “water fun”, such as water slides, landscaped swimming pools with artificial beaches etc. The main attraction though is the aquarium. It is presented as an underwater archaeological site where the remains of Atlantis have been found. There are sculptures and displays showing how the people of Atlantis used to live. Walking along a huge glass wall you can see sea creatures of every description including sharks, stingrays and a manta ray. In one of the smaller displays they had sea horses. For Tania there was a second highlight in Nassau. She visited a Yoga centre in the morning, where she had a two-hour Yoga session. She couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful this was.

From Nassau we continued along a string of islands known as the Exumas. For many people these islands represent paradise. In the lee of these islands you sail in flat, turquoise blue water. The islands are mostly uninhabited and have fabulous white sandy beaches. Our favourite anchorages were at Warderick Wells and Big Majors Spot. Warderick Wells is a marine park where fishing is prohibited. When we snorkeled we saw some huge spiny lobsters. At Big Majors Spot we snorkeled in the famous Thunderball grotto where part of the James Bond movie was filmed. Inside the grotto are hundreds of tame fish. The fish are used to the fact that most snorkelers bring bread to feed them. We didn’t. One tiny fish got aggressive and bit me.

For days in a row the forecast had been promising SW wind for the “day after next”. We decided not to wait for it any longer. In a light SE wind we sailed closed hauled to the Bight on Cat Island, and then tacked straight into wind to Conception Island. When we left Conception Island, the SW wind finally materialised. This favourable wind was associated with a stalled front to the north of us. It was great. Now we could sail in a straight line towards the Turks and Caicos Islands. We sailed through the night to make the most of the opportunity. At first light we found ourselves to the NW of Caicos bank. The forecast expected very light wind (4 knots) from the south for the rest of the day. Our original plan had been to head for the island of Provo on the west side of Caicos bank. However, it was still early in the day and we wanted to make the most of the favourable wind, so we headed east along the northern edge of Caicos bank towards Grand Turk Island. During the early morning however the wind shifted east, and we started tacking. Gradually the wind freshened to 15 knots. A one-knot current was setting us to the west. At this rate we would not make it to Grand Turk Island before dusk. We started the engine and motored straight into the wind. This improved our progress considerably, and for a while is looked as though we were going to make it. But the wind kept on freshening. At some point we were bashing into 22 knots of wind and 2-3 meter high waves. This was crazy, and we felt sorry for Alegría. The best thing to do was to turn around and head for Provo. We arrived there just before dusk. A pilot boat from the marina guided us through the reef, and we anchored inside the reef but outside the marina for the night. The entrance to the marina is so shallow that we could only enter at high tide, and even then it was a very exciting affair. The next morning at high tide and with the help of the pilot boat we entered the marina. Here we could check in with customs.

Turks and Caicos (1st of June 5th of June) 

We stayed in the marina for only one day, then we continued to West Key and French Key. After we had anchored at French Key, I went overboard with mask and snorkel to inspect the anchor. And there it was: a large spotted eagle ray, beautiful!.  I followed it around for a few minutes before it disappeared from view.

At French Key we waited two nights for favourable winds to cross the Caicos bank in eastward direction. From an anchorage on the east side of Caicos bank we would be able to make Luperón on the north coast of the Dominican Republic in one tack. Every day the forecast indicated light easterly winds, but in actual fact we had 25 knots from the east. In the end we decided to head south instead towards Manzanillo, a more westerly port on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. 

Dominican Republic (6th of June to 16th of June)  

After a night in fresh easterly winds (25-30 knots), we reached Manzanillo, a sleepy village that did boast a customs and immigration station. The suggested tactic for going east along the north coast of the Dominican Republic is different from what we had been employing thus far. At this latitude you can wait forever for a cold front to bring favourable northwesterly winds. Instead, it is suggested you sail at night. At night a blanket of hot air is being formed over the island, which deflects the easterly trade winds. Close to shore, the wind is very light, and cruising sailors make use of this to either sail or motor east. During the day they anchor behind a headland to rest and hide from the fierce trade winds, strengthened by the land effect. Using this tactic we reached Cabo Isabela in two nights, where we visited the ruins of the first settlement that Columbus established in the new world.

From Cabo Isabela it is only a short sail to Luperón. Luperón is another one of those places were you can find a large concentration of cruising sailboats. In this case the reason is not ample repair facilities, but a very well protected anchorage in combination with very cheap living conditions. The anchorage is surrounded on all sides by mangrove bushes, and is known as a good hurricane hole. On shore you can find a number of cheap bars and restaurants as well as laundry facilities and Internet cafés. As we entered we saw that the anchorage was pretty full, but we quickly found a suitable place to anchor. Just when we completed anchoring, a small boat came alongside with about six officials on board. We explained that we had already checked in at Manzanillo. The paperwork checked out OK, but we needed to pay harbour fees and there was a medical form left to be filled out. In Mazanillo they did not have a medical officer. One of the officials was also the owner of a pizzeria on shore and he urged us to come and eat in his restaurant. 

Soon after we anchored we went ashore. In the Internet café we were approached by one of our fellow cruisers. “Are you the owners of the yacht that just came in this morning?” He said, and added: “I am not sure it is you, but it may be that your anchor is dragging. I just heard a yell on the radio”. I quickly rushed out of the Internet café, and left Tania to pay the bill. When I approached Alegría in the dinghy it turned out to be true. She was alongside the yacht that had been behind us when we anchored. There were about 6 people on board, all fellow cruisers trying to help. They had organised fenders between the two vessels. The owners of the other boat were not on board. One cruiser had a “dinghy” with a 50 horsepower outboard. He was standing by to help if required. The other boat was on a mooring rather than at anchor. Alegría’s rudder was stuck behind the mooring line, her bow pointing downwind.  I donned mask and snorkel, and went down to inspect the situation. Visibility was about 20 cm.  With some difficulty I could establish that there was no damage, but it was better not to use the engine, as the propeller was close to the mooring line.  With the help of the 50 horsepower dinghy we pulled Alegría free. By this time Tania had hitched a ride on another dinghy and came on board as well. Together we anchored in a different spot. Then we offered drinks to all those who had helped us. Of course we talked about how this could have happened. Someone said that the place where we anchored was no good. Several other boats had anchored there as well, and they all dragged. Another person stated that the bottom here is very soft mud. You should anchor, letting out more scope than usual, and stay on board for a day to allow the anchor to sink through the mud on it’s own weight. Only then should you test the holding by pulling hard in reverse. That sounded like good advice, but how come our anchor was holding fine when we tested it immediately after anchoring? A third person said that he saw it happening. One moment our bow was pointing into wind. The next moment the bow was swinging downwind like crazy. The anchor didn’t drag; it became unstuck suddenly. I added that I was surprised to find that the anchor was clean when I pulled it up. Normally in a mangrove anchorage you expect it to come up covered in mud. We will probably never learn what caused this incident. One plausible explanation is that our anchor got hooked behind a disused mooring, and then suddenly got unhooked. If this is what happened, there is no way we could have prevented it. Sometimes we snorkel to inspect the anchor after we dropped it, but here we were in seven meters of water depth, and the visibility was about 20 cm. 

The next few days in Luperón were uneventful. Then we continued east, using the same tactic as before: sailing / motoring during the night and hiding behind the headlands during the day. In the early morning of the 12th of June we reached Puerto Escondido, the last anchorage before the Mona Passage. The Mona Passage is the name for the stretch of water between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. It has quite a reputation for strong winds, unpredictable currents and very rough seas. The weather forecast for that evening looked good so we decided to continue, hoping to sail non-stop to Bonaire. As we rounded the last cape before the Mona Passage, we found that the wind was South Easterly instead of North Easterly as forecast. The wind would be right on the nose until we rounded Cabo Engaño, the most easterly point of the Dominican Republic. The wind was also much stronger than predicted, and was strengthening. Around midnight we were at the latitude of Samaná, the main port on the east side of the Dominican Republic. The seas were very steep, and we were making very little progress in southeasterly direction. This was getting silly. There was little point in continuing this way. We decided to heave to until daylight and then head for Samaná. When heaving to, you “sail” on a beam reach, with the jib pulled to windward. This way you spoil the aerodynamics of the sails. The boat moves forward very slowly, at a small angle of heel, and the motion becomes much more comfortable.  We continued to take turns keeping watch. At first daylight we turned downwind into Samaná harbour, anchored and went to bed for a bit of rest.

After 3 days in Samaná, the forecast was favourable again. On the 16th of June (my birthday) we set off with destination Bonaire. Despite the forecast, the wind was right on the nose again on the way to Cabo Engaño. But fortunately, the wind was much lighter this time and we were able to motor up against it. After rounding Cabo Engaño we were able to set sail and aim straight for Bonaire. In the lee of Mona Island the wind dropped such that we needed to start the motor again. Tania was the first to notice that something was wrong. She said she smelled “electric train”, meaning the model train she used to play with as a kid. Then we saw smoke coming from the engine room, and the smoke alarm installed in the engine room sounded. We quickly stopped the engine. What to do now? Should we activate the fixed CO2 fire extinguisher installed in the engine room? Tania asked if we should prepare the life raft and call a mayday. If I opened the door to the engine room to have a look, I could feed new oxygen to the fire and make things worse. I realised it was probably just a burnt alternator, because of the smell. This is not uncommon on yachts, because you are trying to squeeze a lot of electrical power out of a small unit, and therefore these alternators tend to run very hot. Shortly after we stopped the engine, the smoke diminished, and the door to the engine room did not feel hot. Carefully I opened the door to the engine room, and had a look inside, ready to close the door if necessary. There was no fire, what a relief. I disconnected the alternator electrically, and then we started the engine again. All was well, but we had reduced power to charge the batteries. In the next three days on the way to Bonaire this was not a problem. Our wind generator and towing generator were making plenty.

For some time it looked as if we were going to arrive in Bonaire just before sundown. However, on the last day we had about one knot of current against us. This was very unusual, because the current was supposed to be running west. In the end we reached Bonaire at around midnight. Normally we would have waited until daylight before entering, but the approach to the mooring field in front of the Kralendijk boulevard is wide open, so we went on. At 2 am we found a mooring buoy with the aid of a searchlight and picked it up.

Bonaire (20th June to 3rd July)

This was the second time we visited Bonaire with the boat, and it felt very much like home to us. With enthusiasm we went to the supermarket to buy some whole grain bread, baked the Dutch way, as well as Gouda cheese and other Dutch delicacies.  We also felt relief that we were finally out of the hurricane belt. It was a pity we did not have more time to spend in the Dominican Republic. It seemed like a nice country, and we will certainly go back there some time.