The foreboding darkness of night enveloped us as we left Puerto Rico, sailing across the Mona Passage to the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Horizontal lightening burst across the heavens, fusing each cloud with the next, a blinding whiteness creating a momentary negative to the blackness; but there would be no silver linings for us, in this place we didn’t want to be.
Our planned 150 mile passage would take twenty five hours for my husband and me in our 41ft sailboat Alhambra, and we had been warned…
‘…the Mona Passage should not be taken lightly’, were the cautionary words of other sailors.
‘…pick your weather window carefully’, the sailing guides advised.
We heeded the advice and waited for a ‘good weather window’, but here we were, at the mercy of the ocean and Mother Nature, and all they could throw at us.
As you leave Puerto Rico and Isla Desecheo, an island off the northwest coast, the mountainous landscape provides a degree of protection for the first few hours of the crossing, which perhaps lures you into a false sense of security towards the many hazards that can be encountered in the Mona Passage.
As the Atlantic Ocean crashes ruthlessly into the Caribbean Sea, unpredictable currents are ubiquitous. The Puerto Rican Trench, the second deepest hole in all the oceans, spills water in torrents through the ever decreasing passage between the Canandaiqua Bank and the Hourglass Shoal. They in turn struggle to contain the water rushing in from the Equatorial Current; resulting in a mass of irrepressible water and energy trying to dissipate wherever it can.
In addition there is ‘the garbage line’; high sea flotsam, enormous palm fronds and bamboo all follow a specific trail through the water, which is best avoided in a boat. Add to this migrating North Atlantic Humpback Whales en-route to their breeding areas, and finally, if the above fails to provide enough entertainment during your crossing, the seismically active Mona Rift Fault can keep you guessing as to whether you will encounter a tsunami.
Not a place we wanted to be in a sailboat in the middle of a midnight storm.
Our first waypoint was eight hours away, a notional position fifty nautical miles north-west in the Mona Passage. We left the safety of Boqueron Bay on the Puerto Rican coast at 1:30pm in calm conditions, and as the sun began its descent and the skies darkened, we increased our watch on the garbage line and scanned for humpback whales.
Soon the protection of Puerto Rico’s mountains began to wane and the seas rose beyond the forecasted five to six feet. As the hours crept by, the storm clouds accumulated and hid the sunset in a veil of black. It was a moonless night and the sea continued to rise, growing with each wave. Keeping a vigilant watch meant that we were only able to take an hours sleep at a time and soon the following seas were above the top of our canopy. Had we only to encounter the height of the waves this would have caused little problem, but they were short and steep too. As soon as Alhambra was lifted up on the first wave, pointing us directly up into the night sky, she was immediately thrown back down into the ocean as the crests collapsed, just as the next wave picked her up and repeated the process.
Standing at the helm I watched as a continuous rolling mass of water tried to invade the cockpit and eject me from the safety of our boat. Fear overwhelmed me and I checked my life jacket like a woman possessed, ensuring that the safety lines were strapped on securely. The enormous seas engulfed my view; every crash of the waves behind the boat louder and larger than the last. The boat held out, but my nerves were shot, I could no longer sustain a watch on my own for fear of the deteriorating conditions.
Around midnight an exhausted bird, shattered from its fight against the elements, landed on our canopy and refused to leave. It became obvious that conditions in the Mona Passage would not improve and the night would be long and arduous. We endured the horrendous conditions throughout the night until we could see the coast. We headed for the nearest safe anchorage, which we reached at daybreak, and there, I was no longer in a place I didn’t want to be.