Homeward Bound

It’s time! Yup, after thousands of miles and countless memories – -mostly good with a few not so good — our little adventure is nearing its conclusion and we are making our way to Florida where we’ll have to decide what we want to do and where we want to live next. But, before we get to places to live, jobs, cars, homes and the real world, we still have a lot of sailing and a few interesting places to enjoy.

Our first stop after recovering from the Month of Audrey was one of our favorite islands, Sint Maarten, where we anchored off Kimsha beach, bought a new-to-us outboard engine (Vinnie), stocked up on gourmet supplies at Carrefour, and enjoyed a few dinners and happy hours with Mike and Holly on Wanuskewin, and with our Baja-Ha-Ha buddies Peter and Mary on Neko who we hadn’t seen in two years.

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After a week of reminiscing, it was time to start the trek north so we got the boat ready for a 2:00 am departure to the British Virgin Islands and hit the sack. Unfortunately, the 2:00 am departure didn’t happen because when we started the engine we noticed coolant coming out of the exhaust, which was the exact same problem as we had in Antigua that cost us thousands of dollars to get repaired. Now, I’m normally a pretty laid back guy but I can’t even describe how angry I was that night — never mind the words I used to curse the mechanic in Antigua.

But, after a little rest, I got down to some diagnostics and without going into details determined that the problem had to be the heat exchanger, which was the only major cooling system component that wasn’t replaced in Antigua!!! So, we got hold of the awesome team at All-Source Exports in Fort Lauderdale and they sourced one and had it on a plane within 24 hours — incredible. Without going into even more details, it took some “McGyvering” to get the new part to fit but it did and 36 hours or so after discovering this major issue we were back on track for a sail to the BVI’s enroute to the USVI’s.

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Most of that sail was uneventful but just as we turned the corner to find a mooring on Cooper Island we got hit by one of the biggest squalls we had ever seen in the Caribbean. It poured so hard we could barely see the front of the boat. To top if off, the anchorage was so jam-packed we couldn’t grab a mooring or even drop the anchor. So, we had to motor around very slowly in poor visibility for almost 2 hours before the system passed and we found safe anchorage in Great Bay on Peter Island.

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As we’d been delayed with repairs in Antigua and Sint Maarten, we didn’t have a lot of time to lollygag in the British Virgin Islands so the next morning we pulled up anchor and had an easy sail to St. Thomas where we caught up with our land-based friends Tim and Lauren, who also had our mail. Then, after a little shopping and laundry, we hit the high seas and made our way to the little island of Culebra in the Spanish Virgin Islands, which are located between St. Thomas and Puerto Rico.

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The plan was for a short stop in Culebra followed by a hop over to the island of Vieques before taking a break in Puerto Rico. But, as we have come to expect, plans and reality don’t always agree. In this case, the winds were blowing 20-25 knots on the nose and the seas were rough but we figured it’s only 25-miles or so to Vieques so “what the heck, how bad can it be?”

The answer was much worse than we expected. Not so much the conditions, which I gotta say were bad, but the fact that all of a sudden we lost all steering! One minute we were bashing into the waves and the next minute our port side steering wheel looked like it was about to fall off. We have twin wheels and were able to steer from the starboard one for a short period but eventually it lost steering as well and the boat started turning in circles.

Fortunately, one of the essential pieces of equipment on most boats is an emergency tiller and, after taking a few minutes to empty our locker to find ours (we have never had to actually use it), I managed to attach it to the rudder post and was able to muscle the boat for the 12 miles or so back to Culebra because we were familiar enough with the harbor to enter under emergency conditions.

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Once we’d anchored and gotten over the shock, with a little help from our friend Stoli, I went to work diagnosing the problem. I assumed the steering cable had broken, which is not that uncommon, and I was ready to take the ferry to Puerto Rico to find a replacement if necessary. But it turned out that the ring clip that holds the steering wheel hub in place had broken and the hub came loose allowing the chain and cable to fall off so we had no steering.

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The problem then was I didn’t have one of those particular clips in my bag of spares and there were only two tiny hardware stores on the island. But, the gods were smiling on us as the second store did have the clip along with the specialty pliers required to install it. I was so relieved I would have paid $500 for them at that point but the clip was $1 (I bought a few) and the pliers were $15 so I left that store as the happiest man on Culebra!

Once the steering was fixed, we decided that we needed some recovery time before heading out and we’re so glad we did as our first impressions of Culebra were that it was little more than a stop along the way. But after we rented a golf cart and toured the island for a day, we found one of the most gorgeous beaches in the Caribbean and some very charming shops and restaurants, which all made Culebra much more than we expected and worthy of another visit someday – long after we forget about the steering incident.

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OK, so now we’d been delayed in Antigua, Sint Maarten and Culebra with repairs and were falling behind on our plan to be in Florida before the official start of the Tropical Storm season on June 1. But, after all the drama with repairs we vowed to just enjoy the rest of the journey and hope no tropical storms hit before we got home….

After a quick overnight stop in Vieques, we sailed to the tiny port of Salinas on the south side of Puerto Rico which was a good anchorage but, frankly, had seen better days. It had a number of run-down marinas, some small restaurants and a tiny beach but I guess Puerto Rico has too many other beautiful places because sadly Salinas was not worth a return visit.

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One of the places worth a visit was Ponce, our next stop in Puerto Rico, where we got a dock at the Ponce Yacht and Fishing Club for a week to use as our base while we enjoyed the surprisingly lush, mountainous beauty of the island. And, what a week it was! We used our Hotels.com rewards to spoil ourselves at the Hilton Ponce one night. Then, we rented a car and spent a couple of days in historic Old San Juan staying overnight at Villa Hermencia, one of the most charming places we have ever stayed in. After that, we took a tour of the rain forest at El Yunque then enjoyed a scenic drive around the east coast of the island back to Ponce to provision and prep the boat for our sail across the notorious Mona Passage to the Dominican Republic.

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I guess after the delays and issues we’d had with the boat our luck turned because we had a good sail across the Mona Passage then motor-sailed along the DR coast under a full moon through the first night. The next morning, instead of stopping in Samana, our original plan, we decided to keep going through a second night to Luperon on the north coast of the DR. In hindsight this was a good call but when we were surrounded by lightning strikes that night we were really second guessing the wisdom of that decision.

However, after dodging lightning through the night and running aground in the harbor entrance, due to incorrect information on our Navionics chart, we eventually made it into Luperon and were kindly escorted to a mooring by Papo, who was the most industrious boat service person we have ever met. Once we were on his mooring, which was only $2/night, he sold us a DR courtesy flag then came back with his fuel boat to sell us 55-gallons of diesel. Then, when we asked about getting the boat bottom cleaned, he came back with one of his divers to start scrubbing that same morning. In fact, we got more done by Papo that morning that we’d done in a week in some other places!!!

With the boat taken care of and our check-in with Customs, Immigration, the Port Captain and the Department of Agriculture out of the way, we just chilled and enjoyed everything the little town of Luperon had to offer. Mainly some shops and stores, a nice beach with a sadly abandoned resort, and a great restaurant at the marina where we met our new friend Rufo, the friendly black lab who gave us our dog fix by allowing us to walk him to the beach. In other words, he followed us…

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Our highlight of the Dominican Republic, however, was the 27-Waterfalls, located halfway between Luperon and Puerto Plata. Granted it’s a tourist attraction but it’s a national park that features 27 natural waterfalls where, after a 45-minute uphill hike, you can either jump or slide your way back down the mountain from elevations as high as 30-feet. To top it all off, our $19/person ticket included a huge buffet lunch afterwards. What more could you ask for?

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Sadly, our stop in the Dominican Republic was much too short as the people were super friendly and there seemed to be so much more to see. But, it was time to move on as we only have one country — the Bahamas — left to go before “Richard and Audrey’s Excellent Adventures” come to an end and we seek our new home somewhere in the good old USA.

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