Mona Passage

The DR So Far

The DR has been a rollercoaster. A difficult one. Only made bearable by the kind people we have met and have supported us along the way.

We were feeling good after completing the Mona Pasage. Although physically knackered, even after a superb night sleep in our complimentary suite at Eden Rock, were were happy with the last couple of days and ready to take on the DR and any challenges it may have. Little did we know they would come thick and fast!

Lightening fills the night sky like a fireball (screenshot from GoPro footage)

Lightening fills the night sky like a fireball (screenshot from GoPro footage)

The whole of the peninsular on which we landed is privately owned by Cap Cana and at the far end from where we landed is the Cap Cana Marina. Strictly, we should have gone straight there when were reached the DR coast as it is illegal to step foot on land without clearing customs at one off the nominated ports of entry.

With a storm closing in we were forced to go straight to Eden Rock, which was dramatic enough in itself as outlined in our last post. Thus today our first job was to get to the marina and clear in. Luckily, we had been given our own golf cart to get around the impressive Eden Rock estate and the receptionist said this was the best way to get to the marina.

She assured us we would have enough battery to get there and back...

Thanks Maurizio!

Thanks Maurizio!


It was a fun experience cruising down the road at 3 and a bit mph and within 25 minutes we had covered the 10km to the marina. I think they were a bit confused when we turned up in the car park requesting to charge our buggy (the battery was already in the red) and to clear in. Fortunately for us the Cap Cana marina is high end and fully geared towards customer service.

The Dock Master, Frank, was superb and very soon (1 hour is considered pretty quick here) 5 different officials had turned up to clear us in. We think Frank did us a big favour by sitting them all down and explaining our situation - most find it pretty hard to comprehend what we are doing in a kayak and hardly anyone will believe that we crossed the Mona Passage!

They would not clear us in without seeing the kayak so a few (Caribbean) moments later all 9 of us were piled into two small cars and driving back down the road we had just negotiated in the buggy to the little beach down a muddy track off the golf club where we had left the kayak.  I think the local with whom we left the kayak got a bit of a shock when the two cars rolled in and all these officials jumped out.

Alas everyone seemed to be content, our passports were stamped, and we were soon on our way again back to the marina to pick up the buggy, which had been charging, and head back to the hotel for some lunch and to get ready to continue our journey.

Eden Rock really is an incredible place and we were very well looked after by all the staff and are immensely grateful for their generosity in letting us stay after the Mona Passage. If you are heavy heading to the DR, make sure you pay them a visit!


The next morning it was back to the kayak after a speedy breakfast in the hotel. We got to the beach, packed the kayak, set off, returned to the beach, packed the stuff we'd left on the beach, set off again and were on our way. The 3.5 NM up the coast to the marina was slow against the current. We had to return to get a 'despacho' - naval permission to travel on the water, which is part of the DRs solution to battling drug and people trafficking. For cruisers and kayak expeditions it is a complete nightmare!

After radioing Cap Cana we waited 90 minutes before Frank was able to get out to us to take us to the marine police station next door, 40 minutes later and we were in a difficult situation. With it being 12:30 already and a long stretch ahead to clear all the private beaches of Punta Cana we were forced to accept Frank's kind offer to stay at the marina - in his apartment in fact - and set off early the next morning. We were treated to a fantastic home cooked pasta dinner and a tour of inner Cap Cana, including a visit to the most expensive supermarket ever! (Unofficial award)

Thank you Frank for taking us in and offering a fantastic dinner!

Thank you Frank for taking us in and offering a fantastic dinner!

Departure from Cap Cana lasted the best part of 10 miles. The Dominican Republic run a system whereby we must check in and check out every morning and evening with the military at their relative check points. As you can imagine, leaving at times between 1am and 6am depending on the days distance means obtaining our 'despacho' from the military is pretty much impossible. Add to that the incredibly slow speed at which anything gets done around here and we can barely move down the coast each day.

Always take photos with officials, preferrably showing their name and rank, as proof for later on.

Always take photos with officials, preferrably showing their name and rank, as proof for later on.

So after a day's delay in Cap Cana we set off for Bavaro. Lela our host was fantastic, on arrival she sorted a safe storage place for the kayak and we then drove into the local town to begin the next fiasco with the military. Two hours later and we had our departure documents for the next day to move another 40 miles down the coast. A day that started with navigating a hugely treacherous reef in total darkness and then filled again with lightening and the ever growing realisation that we have probably used more than our 9 lives.

From Lela we arrived in Miches where we moored the kayak up on Julbo's private dock and were kindly given a place to sleep and a meal for the night. Exhausted and hungry our first point of call was again the Miches military outpost. An hour later and still with no departure documents, we were told to return at 8am the next morning to collect them. Trying to explain that we can't leave as late as 8am to the military goes absolutely nowhere. Consequently we bunked down for the night and made our way over to the military in the morning. After a good hour of waiting we finally had our documents and rushed down to the boat to get out on the water.

Heading to the commendancia with Julbo

Heading to the commendancia with Julbo

Frustrated, tired and feeling pretty down we decided to crack on and arrive in Las Galeras before darkness. The day started well, we paddled hard for the first 10 miles aware of the line of rain clouds to our right. The forecast predicted no thunderstorms. The forecast was wrong. When we were half way through the crossing the clouds suddenly grew more ominous, but with no option other than to continue we carried on hoping to duck behind them.

Storm rumbling towards us...

Storm rumbling towards us...

A couple of miles later and a crazy bright flash of lightening filled the air immediately followed by a huge crash and rumble. It was directly above us. We've all too regularly mentioned thunderstorms crossing our paths in the last couple of weeks but it's fair to say this was a completely different story. I'd highly recommend checking out our following post on lightning storms to see the full dangers and recommended procedures.

This time there was no option but to go into survival mode. We sent a warning satellite message to Exped HQ in case we were later incapacitated, placed our kayak paddles (essentially carbon fibre lightning conductors) in the water as far away as possible, got as low into the boat as we could, covered our ears with our hands and frankly hoped that it would pass over as quickly as possible. About an hour later and it had continued west. Shaken and pretty damn terrified we carried on with more clouds looming to our east. Zigzagging across the sea trying to dodge storms that are impossible to outrun or predict made for an exhausting and scary rest of the day.

'Survival mode'... what are your options!?

We luckily made it to land at around 5pm, incredibly thankful nothing bad had happened.

 

We're currently kindly being hosted by Marina, manager of the Villa Serena Hotel, in her house as our biggest set back to date has set in. With these storms forecast for at least the next 8 days we are running through all the possible options. We plan to let you know our plan of action as soon as possible!

Forecast for the next few days. We cannot go on the water when thunderstorms are predicted... hmmm...

Forecast for the next few days. We cannot go on the water when thunderstorms are predicted... hmmm...

Mona Passage

Mona Passage

Mona Passage

So, since our last post we have kayaked through a minefield of thunderstorms, been robbed, crossed 'Shark Alley', battled through a number of reefs and found out that George achieved his Grade 2 ballet (!) when he was seven years old.

After making it just north of Mayaguez we were warmly welcomed in by Carlos. His Blue Whale Apartments ended up being our home for the next four nights as we rested our bodies before the ominous Mona Passage. We've touched on people's amazing generosity in the past and Carlos was no different. After settling us in he made sure we had a fantastic breakfast the next day, kindly drove us into Mayaguez to process through customs and gave us a wonderful tour of his great town Anasco and the surf village of Rincon!

Carlos; One of life's good guys.

Carlos; One of life's good guys.

We were able to make sure the boat was as prepared as possible for the countless terrible tales of the Mona passage we had read about and had a very early night. Unfortunately, the weather was not looking good. We woke up at midnight fully prepared to get going but after a quick weather check it was apparent we were going nowhere. Gusting winds of 17/18 knots against the current would have caused extremely difficult swells. On top of that, fighting the unpredictable current and potentially battling into the wind made the decision to stay a no brainier.

We delayed to the next day and without hesitation Carlos jumped to our rescue. Offering another night and support if we needed to go anywhere, the supermarket, pharmacy or just to get out the house. After a day of frustrated waiting and killing time we were ready and set to go again. Midnight. We woke again and had our final weather check. No good, the weather had closed in again and the same conditions were present. We just couldn't risk it and on reflection we definitely made the right decision. With the prospect of another days delay looming we made contact with Carlos again.

 

Again he jumped to our rescue. Sensing our frustrated mood he decided to take us in the morning with his wife to get a brilliant breakfast. After that we headed to the farmers market in Rincon and were treated to some great local foods and gifts. Their hospitality was just incredible. We were dropped back home and eagerly checked the most recent weather updates. At last. It looked like we had a weather window to set off at midnight. Carlos treated us to a brilliant final dinner and we were tucked up in bed to get our 4 hours sleep in. It's fair to say the nerves were building but they were overrun by itchy feet and the excitement to get moving again.

At midnight, after just 3 1/2 hrs sleep we were up and ready to go. Almost everything had been prepared the night before so we just had to pack the last few things into the bags, carry them and the kayak onto the beach (the boat is too heavy to lift when loaded), pack it and leave.

This we did. Unfortunately, though, we soon found out that some other people had taken concern over how heavy our kayak was and had thoughtfully relieved us of some of the weight... unfortunately, they included some of our most crucial kit.

Total of items stolen: 

   - A cyalume glow stick :( 

   - Pair of gloves (Will's)

   - A spoon (George's)

   - Our emergency grab bag with flares and spare radio.

Clearly the last item was the high value and most important loss for us and left us with a difficult decision as to whether to embark on the passage or not. We decided to go. We still had a VHF radio we could keep turned off to maintain battery, strobes to use to identify our location and a good weather window to complete the crossing. After our two day delay we were in no mood to be set back again.

So off we went. 

Now, what does "scattered thunderstorms" (NoAA Marine Forecast) mean to you? Well as you may have gathered from previous posts we are becoming more and more knowledgeable and accustomed to thunder and lightening and our experiences took another leap when we found out exactly what "scattered thunderstorms" are.

They essentially turn the passage into a huge minefield. The mines are visible - as massive black clouds over towers of slashing rain that now and again light up as lightening strikes threateningly around them - and the mines are also moving... much faster than we can... but their direction is very hard to determine when it is dark.

After our disappointment first thing in the morning and a couple of hours of feeling sorry for ourselves during which we actually made pretty good progress we were starting to feel a little better. Then the lightening flared up. The next thing we knew we were sat in the middle of the minefield with thunderstorms to our left, thunderstorms to our right and and a thunderstorm to our front.  

It was shit scary. 

We waited for a nerve-wracking half an hour before we were confident enough that we were not going to kayak into the path of any of them and then continued on. But progress was much slower than before. It got light a hour later and the wind started to pick up, not coming from the East as forecast, but from the South i.e. against us. We also had a bit of a tango with the currents but overall managed to keep a steady, albeit slow, course towards Isla Mona.

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You can see we were heading south west until we were in line with Isla Mona and then turned Westward in order to avoid the crazy northerly currents on the East coast of the island.

The crossing was long and hard. There's not much more to it... it was a slog... and for a long time in the middle there was no land in sight.

At long last Mona island changed from being a dot that never grew bigger to the beach we planned to land on. We paddled closer and saw a reef that stretched down the whole beach. With no clear entry to land and only an hour of daylight left we weren't overly pleased by the situation that faced us. Before deciding to paddle onwards Will luckily spotted two signs to guide us through a narrow channel into shore. We squeezed through the channel with breaking waves either side of us and finally made land. 16 hours in the boat and we were more than ready to stretch our legs.

Cliffs of Mona Island

Cliffs of Mona Island

We jumped out and began unloading. Mona being an uninhabited island we expect nothing but a small hut was visible in the distance and we decided to check it out. After unloading the boat the quiet hum of an engine approaching caught our attention. The one ranger on the island appeared in his buggy with the one police sergeant. They began to interrogate us in Spanish, looking both confused by the fact we were saying we had crossed half the Mona passage and excited by our arrival. After verifying our documents they chopped us some coconuts, said we were more than welcome to sleep in the hut, wished us luck for the next day, took some pictures with us and disappeared into the distance. With darkness now just minutes away we quickly cooked some dinner and climbed into our hammocks. 3 hours later and alarms were ringing and we were up and ready to go again.

 No photos of any of this.. we were too tired.

We loaded up the boat, found the glow sticks we had placed on the signs guiding us through the reef and took a deep breath. Too far right or too far left and we would end up on the reef, jagged rocks and huge breaking waves. In total darkness we had to trust the glow sticks we had positioned on the beach. 10 minutes later and we had made it through the reef. Such a overwhelming feeling of relief was quickly replaced by three looming thunderstorms. After 30 minutes we decided they were far enough away and paddled on. Just 5 minutes later and our next problem arrived. We spotted some breaking waves, just a couple of metres from where we were. We pointed our powerful dive torch into the darkness and barely a metre from us was a lump of rock lurking just beneath the surface. We sharply turned the boat and headed far out from Mona Island. An island that looks like paradise, but one that is riddled with hidden dangers.

Continuing until sunlight was uneventful. Our bodies ached badly after the hard paddle the day before and the prospect of another 17 hours in the boat was not doing much for our moods. The day passed slowly and uneventfully apart from a few oil tankers in different directions. The Mona Passage, also known as shark alley, was fortunately not living up to its reputation.

16 hours later and we were nearing the Dominican Republic. We had fortunately been offered accommodation at the last minute and were pleased to have a place to stay. Unfortunately we hadn't marked it properly on the map, after heading to the Cap Cana marina we received a message on the satellite phone from HQ letting us know we were heading in the wrong direction. Under the assumption we were just a mile from shore it did not come as happy news that we were in fact 4 miles east of where we needed to be. We changed bearing and started heading west along the coast. More reefs and rapidly fading light created a stressful situation.

We continued along the shore, stopping frequently to ask for directions. No one really knew which direction to point us. Continuing down the coast the hospitable beaches were turning to rocky shores, huge dark clouds appeared and the sun was preparing to set. The wind suddenly rapidly picked up from the storm approaching and we had nowhere to land. We rounded a headland with fingers and toes crossed that there might be a beach. We were in luck, a tiny beach appeared in front of us and we sighed with relief. We were, however, naive to think the day was done. The wind had kicked up some aggressive breaking waves crashing into the beach that made the landing a serious concern. With no other option we counted the sets of waves and went for it. Spray decks up and ready to jump out the boat and drag it up the beach when we landed we managed to just escape being rolled by the wave that took us to shore.

Desperation struck when this was clearly not where we were meant to be. The beach was over grown by jungle and it was now dark. Spotting a small hut in the jungle we went to speak with a couple of the locals. They told us we need to be another couple of miles down the shore for our accommodation. Quickly surveying the state of the sea and darkness we decided we weren't going anywhere. It was now time to put all our faith in the local Dominicans. Trust them or not we didn't have much of a choice. They kindly said we could leave the kayak outside their hut and pointed us up a dirt track to where the road was located. Unloading all valuables they escorted us with machetes and torches up the dirt track to the main road. They halted a passing car which took us 10 minutes down the road to our accommodation. Such relief after an incredibly long and eventful few days!

Short Update; Mona Passage 7th Nov 2016

Short Update; Expedition HQ in the UK, 7th Nov 2016

Will and George have made landfall on the small island of Mona in the middle of the Mona Passage, having paddled for 15 and a half hours covering something over 50 miles. The ’50 miles,’ though is figurative given it doesn’t take account of the unpredictable currents and winds that torment sailors in this perilous passage where the Atlantic rushes in to meet the Caribbean Sea. It is in fact, as treacherous a piece of water as you will find anywhere. 

When Will and George write their blog posts they are necessarily sanitised. This is though, after some hard yards hacking up the Puerto Rican coast, the really tough stretch on which the success of the whole expedition rests. While a bad thing can happen at any moment during the three months, this phase is especially spicy. If the Anegada Passage was the Khumba Icefall of the expedition then the Mona Passage is the Hillary Step. After today they have another gruelling crossing to the Dominican Republic followed by many days paddling to traverse the north coast to their jumping off point for the 120 mile 36 hour leg to the Turks & Caicos. On reaching the T&C they will have broken the back of the expedition by being more than half way to Miami. 

I have chewed through my mouse today and will probably start on the keyboard tomorrow.

Thank you again for all your messages of support, all of which are passed to the boys when internet access allows.

Puerto Rico - On and On...

Well, since our last post we have made it into Puerto Rico, along it's South coast, up the West and made two failed attempts to leave - 165 nautical miles (192 miles) in total in the past week. We have slept on a driveway, in an attic, and been given a room on four other happy occasions. We have fled to shore after being caught out in lightening storms, suffered sun burn and dehydration, been molested by vicious mosquitoes and managed to hitchhike 5 miles to a supermarket and back. In the last week of hard kayaking we have moved about half a centimetre across the world map.

850 miles down.

It is difficult to know what to write in these blog updates. We are sure many people probably think we are just bouncing up the Caribbean from one nice resort to another. Our experiences of finding places to stay and the hospitality we have received (and not received) are the interesting parts for us... it is nice to switch off from the pain and misery of the kayaking... and so this is what we tend to write about. It is, of course, not the whole story.

Hitchiking back from the supermarket.

Hitchiking back from the supermarket.

Apparently, it is the kayaking (or our pain and misery to be more specific) that people reading want to actually hear about. We'll try and get a balance.

The newest addition to our kayaking knowledge is that of thunderstorms. Lightening is a hugely exciting phenomenon and of course is nothing new to us. We have seen many a storm while at home, driving along a motorway or in the mountains. The chance of getting struck by lightening is usually miniscule. However, when you are the only object sat above the surface in a massive expanse of water, the odds suddenly become somewhat less favourable.

In fact, being 2 miles out to sea (relatively close to shore thankfully), having a thunderstorm charging over the mountains towards you is terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.

This was the case on a couple of occasions during our days kayaking down Puerto Rico's South coast. At this point we hadn't researched much into thunderstorms or the advice for kayakers. It is not like being in a yacht, where the mast is a lightening conductor and will ground any shock to the sea. For us, the tallest point for miles around is the top of our heads... and we're holding carbon fibre paddles (conduct electricity brilliantly).

Rain heading for us. Just a light shower this time...

Rain heading for us. Just a light shower this time...

When you are fatigued, hungry and have a target mileage for the day the obvious decision - i.e. get off the water as soon as you hear thunder - suddenly becomes a difficult one to take. You can imagine us tired, hungry and getting pelted by rain watching this big cloud from 30 miles off.... 20 miles off... 10 miles off... wondering whether to keep paddling or not. What are the chances of it going wrong anyway? Eventually, on each occasion we decided to seek refuge on land. It was the right call every time.

Puerto Rico is different to the other islands we have moved along so far because of its size and its mountains. These mountains create two problems for us. The first is storms with the rain (miserable) and lightening (scary) they bring. The second is variable winds that can offset and often reverse the forecasted wind. If you have no interest in wind, skip the next paragraph.

There are two wind effects that affect us each day: 

1. Anabatic - As the sun comes up in the morning it starts to heat the cool sea air. As it warms up it becomes less dense and rises from sea level towards and up the mountains. This creates an on-shore wind which is a pain because we are usually trying to head away from land in the mornings and thus into wind.

2. Katabatibc - The opposite occurs as the sun goes down. The air starts to cool, becoming less dense and falls off the mountains creating an offshore wind i.e. straight into our faces as we are trying to get into land in the evenings. 

It is hard to offer what a typical day looks like for us at the moment. Back in the Caribbean islands our program tended to follow a cyclical pattern, starting with arriving on the South coast of an island. One day paddling up the West coast. Leave at 1am to get to the North coast, have a leg stretch and breakfast on the North coast, then relaunch at 5.30am (first light) to start the crossing to the next island. Then repeat.

Kayaking around a marina looking for a place to stay.

Kayaking around a marina looking for a place to stay.

Now we always try to finish our days at around 4pm, so we have time to find accomodation or a camping spot before it gets dark. This means starting our day at any time between 1am and 8am depending on the distance we intend to cover, normally dictated by the next available accomodaton. 

On crossing from the Beachcomber Hotel, USVIs to Culebra - a little island that is part of Puerto Rico - we had nowhere organised to stay and little opportunity to camp close enough to the town where we could pick up the supplies we needed. Fortunately, as we were paddling down the big bay we came alongside a boat on a private dock to ask where we might be able to leave the kayak while we head to customs. The kind landlord, Luis, allowed us to tie up on his pontoon and what's more kindly offered for us to sleep on his drive.

We had an easy (ish) time getting through U.S. customs and immigration at the airport, found a small supermarket to restock, then had an entertaining evening as we tried to get to sleep on the drive... in full anti-zika attire... while the residents had a Friday evening celebration. I guess we chose the wrong drive.

Full anti-zika measures... going to sleep on Luis driveway.

Full anti-zika measures... going to sleep on Luis driveway.

The following day we made the crossing from Culebra to mainland Puerto Rico and down to Palmas del mar where we had been advised we would find a safe place to camp. Something definitely got lost in translation  because Palmas turned out to be a rather fancy and exclusive marina and plaza. While the marina offered us a complimentary 'berth' for the night inbetween two superyachts we had a very hard time finding somewhere to sleep.... as you can see...

Struggles.

Struggles.

Amazingly though, just as we were about to bed down in the marina loos to shelter from the rain we got talking to someone and through a couple of connections who must all remain nameless to protect their identities (and their jobs) got us a shower and a couple of beds right by the marina. Guys, if you read this, thank you!!

So after a quick snooze we were back on the water for 3am and making our way down the South coast towards Salinas. It was a llong and hot day with very little breeze, but we were accompanied most of the way by a small fish of some sort. You can imagine how I jumped when I put my feet in to cool off and it whipped out from under the boat to have a nibble!!

Gilbert in action.

Gilbert in action.

However, it turned out we hadn't picked the wrong drive to sleep on back in Culebra. Luis, the owner, also happened to own a restaurant in Salinas with a couple of rooms where he allowed us to stay and eat. El Dorado is a fantastic venue and well worth a stop over if you are passing by.. or even if you are not! We were taken care of fabulously by Alex, who brought us plate after plate of food and even sorted us a lift to the supermarket.

A real treat... our budget doesn't normally stretch to such delights.

A real treat... our budget doesn't normally stretch to such delights.

Carrying on along the South coast we soon had our mad dash to shore as our first thundrstorm came over. We sheltered in the mangroves for half an hour - well, George lasted about 5 minutes before deciding to risk the lightening over zika as the mosquitos came out to play - before continuing on to Cobada Beach House. Jorge, our host, kayaked out to guide us through the reef lining the beach, for which we were very grateful given our previous experiences with reefs and kindly sorted us out with dinner, breakfast and snacks for our next day! 

And more rain... bit of a theme for Puerto Rico so far.

And more rain... bit of a theme for Puerto Rico so far.

It was certainly a flying visit, and we were off again. However it was not long before more thunderstorms brewed and we were forced to sprint 2 miles into shore. We must have looked quite a state when we walked into the reception of Copamarina Beach Resort asking for them to sponsor us a night. Very fortunately some nice manager took pity on us and set us up with a room for the night. It seems odd walking into a nice hotel room but being upset we were not in a miserable campsite if it meant being 10 miles further down the coast.

We left early the next morning and kayaked again. Monotonous is the best word to describe the hours between 8am-4pm each day and there is really very little to write about. We will though follow up over the next couple of weeks with a series of 'how are we prepared' videos/posts to show you how we are dealing with some of the challenges such as navigation, the sun, sharks, eating, weather forecasting etc.

"But they said my arms would get bigger!..."

"But they said my arms would get bigger!..."

On the evening of the 3rd November after a night in a mosquito filled hell hole and a brutal kayak up the coast into wind and tide - one of our hardest yet! - we made it up to Rincon, where we have been accommodated by the wonderful and hospitable Carlos in his Blue Whale Beach Apartment (listed on AirBNB). We are now here, enjoying a rest day preparing for the "murderous" Mona Passage! 

Sounds exciting...

Storms coming over off the mountains.

Storms coming over off the mountains.