Could Wild Horses skirt the rules a second time and not officially check out of the Dominican Republic? Um, yup!
Bitty Rose, a fast Catamaran in our buddy group, was the first to leave the Escondido anchorage at 1730 on Sunday night. At 0330 the next morning, the rest of us weighed anchor. Our journey to cross the Mona Passage had started. We were officially on our way to Puerto Rico.
Still under the cloak of darkness, we made our way along the final stretch of the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. The winds were light and we were enjoying a calm sea state. No waves or swell. It was beautiful. This was the weather we expected from the forecast and the weather we always hoped we would have for our journey across the dreaded Mona Passage.
Why is the Mona Passage so feared? Big Atlantic waves and swell push their way through the shallow passage going against the numerous underwater currents. The result is a sea state that can become very big and rather steep. Add to that regular thunderstorms that pop up on the Puerto Rican coast every afternoon. The topper is that it takes over 12 hours to cross the Mona Passage which means that a boat faces a change in tidal currents while underway. To say that the Mona Passage is no joke, is an understatement. Choose the right weather and it is doable. Choose the wrong weather and it is dangerous.
But our weather was mild at best. We were confident and excited as the sun rose before us. We decided, along with “Caretta”, to short cut the traditional route across the Mona to save a bit of time. Instead of hugging the DR coast for the first 80 miles, we would head further offshore and straight for Puerto Real, our intended landing point in Puerto Rico.
For the first several hours, we were relaxed under calm seas, motoring due to the light winds. At about 1100 hours, the wind picked up and, well, so did the sea state. We had 24 knots of wind directly on our nose (sailor-talk for “right at us” 😉) and the waves became steep. Wild Horses slammed up and down like a rocking horse for 3 hours. Now, this wasn’t uncomfortable but it was extremely annoying. We ordered calm seas!! Oh, the Mona Passage wins again, sigh.
Although the seas calmed significantly early in the evening, the wind never dropped below 14 knots. It sounds like lovely sailing weather but, no, it was directly on our nose. We continued motoring.
But an odd thing was happening to our fuel level. We had topped up our 55 gallon tank before leaving the anchorage, with a spare 5 gallons on deck. Since we burn 1 gallon of diesel an hour at 6 knots, we had plenty of fuel for the 28 hour passage. But, wait, the fuel gauge disagrees. We have used half of our fuel and we are only 8 hours into our journey. Huh? Weird. We did some quick math and felt we still had plenty of fuel to finish off the trip. We were a little concerned but logic told us we would be okay. We were at a crossroads. We were still close enough to the DR coast to abort our passage plans for that night and go get more fuel at Punta Macao. We could always continue on tomorrow. Ugh, but the weather is perfect today and, really, we should have enough fuel. The gauge must be wrong. Our go-no go decision was made final. We put our last jerry can into the tank and decided to carry on.
Four hours later, we are hailed on the VHF by our buddy boat Caretta, motoring behind us. “Hey Wild Horses, you are looking more like a pack of mules up there. What’s going on?”. He was right. Our speed was dropping. But why? Earlier we had noticed large swaths of sea grass (aka sargassum) skimming along the water’s surface. It was impossible to avoid and our thinking was that some of this sargassum was clinging to our rudder and prop, slowing our speed over ground. We stopped the boat and went into reverse to clear the grass away. It worked! Our speed boosted back up. Yes!
And so our afternoon and evening continued. After sundown, we motored forward in complete darkness, guided only by our instruments until the three-quarter moon started rising about 2330.
We had to clear the sargassum one more time during the night but, otherwise, it was a fairly comfortable night motor. Well, except for that damn fuel gauge. It just kept dropping faster than expected. We confidently told each other that it was fine, we had enough fuel. Besides, now we were well into our passage and there was no turning back. We carried on knowing that conditions were great (no squalls, reasonable sea state) and that, heck, we are a sailboat. Worst case scenario, we could pull out the sails and tack our way across the dying wind to the finish line. We wouldn’t arrive until the middle of next week (an exaggeration of course) but we knew this wasn’t a dire situation.
At 0545 hours on Tuesday, the sun rose. We were within 25 nautical miles of Puerto Real. We had cell service once again and the sea state remained comfortable. Our fuel gauge, however, was less than happy. We were now fully in the “red” zone. We estimated that we had about 4 gallons of fuel left. And, we had about four hours left in our journey. Let’s see – we burn 1 gallon an hour…Ugh, this was going to be a photo finish.
Then a mere half hour later, a hail from our buddy boat Caretta. “So, I am extremely low on fuel. Not sure what is going on but I am not sure I have enough to get to Puerto Real”. Huh? It appears Wild Horses and Caretta were both in a fuel pickle. We continued to motor on (remember – no wind equals no sailing), hoping to get to shallow enough water to drop anchor before our tanks ran empty. We had 5 nautical miles to get to shallow water.
At 0700 hours, Caretta turned off her engine. She had run out of fuel. Barry, the captain, immediately dropped his dinghy and attached it to Caretta’s starboard side. He was going to use it as a substitute power source to get Caretta closer to the harbour entrance. From there, he could anchor and dinghy into the marina to get fuel. It worked! He was making 3.3 knots underway.
At 0745 hours, a mere 4 nautical miles from Puerto Real, we heard the telltale sounds of our engine struggling for fuel. We turned it off and dropped our dinghy. We were also going to be a dinghy powered sailboat! Going slow but steady, we made it to a great little spot, just outside the harbour. Caretta anchored close by shortly after us. We were safe, but before getting our much-needed diesel from the Puerto Real marina, we had to check into Puerto Rico. Thankfully, the CBP Roam app makes it super easy and within 30 minutes we had hoisted our Puerto Rican courtesy flag and were leaving to get fuel so we could move the boat the 0.25 nautical miles into the protected harbour of Puerto Real. What an arrival!
Once both Caretta and Wild Horses were safely in the harbour, we discussed our fuel issues. Although we had travelled separately before Luperon, we had both stopped at Great Inagua, Bahamas for fuel. We had both been forewarned that sailors often get bad fuel from Great Inagua but with no choice at the time, we had filled our tanks. Ah, that makes sense. Bad fuel burns inefficiently and at a higher rate of consumption. We had our answer to our fuel conumdrum.
Indigo Lady, the fourth boat in our buddy group, also had her issues. She had taken a different route, choosing to hug the coast before crossing the Mona Passage. Strong winds and a fouled prop made them abort their plan for a few hours but then they were able to continue along, anchoring in the harbour just a few hours after we did.
All four buddy boats are now in Puerto Real. We successfully completed the dreaded Mona Passage and can now relax for a few days. Whew! There is never a shortage of drama and learning in this sailing gig!
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Victoria is a hiker, dog-lover, blog writer and planner extraordinaire. Oh, yeah and she is kind of fond of living on a boat.