Following our departure from Antigua, we arrived at St. Martin, apparently the smallest bi-national island in the world; in this case occupied by France and the Netherlands. We dropped anchor in French Marigot Bay and once again cleared in easily online.
This island was hit directly by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, causing devastation to boats, buildings and infrastructure and both France and the Netherlands are still providing restorative aid. We met cruisers in Tobago whose catamaran, Caribbean Dream, was one of the few boats that survived Irma, held by only the last of 16 separate lines! Much of the damage is still visible, with many dismasted, sunken yachts awash in the Grande Etang lagoon and several others without rigs were anchored around us.
Whilst we awaited the arrival of our new sails, we walked the 4km to the Dutch side to shop for boat parts and also re-provisioned locally.
Our first year’s sailing anniversary was highlighted with the arrival of our new suit of sails! Looking back since leaving Cape Town in January 2018, we reflected on the richness of our adventure; with very few days being the same, we realised that we are not nearly ready for the more mundane life back on land. Surely we miss our loved ones, but circumnavigating is certainly an amazing adventure! Thus far the sailing has been easy, but more difficult has been the boat maintenance, handling red tape and gathering and assimilating vital information for our trip.
At Marigot we were pleasantly surprised to meet up again with Alain, the Frenchman who had helped us tame our shredded head sail in Guadeloupe. He was anchored close to us, also awaiting his new sails after he had lost his main sail on the same day.
Heading west to Dominican Republic
Pushed along by a 15 knot breeze from astern we set sail for the Dominican Republic, where we were going to pick up Pete’s daughter, Megs. Our new sails performed superbly! Goose-winged at first we made good progress, but the wind dropped as we drew closer to the DR, it finally taking us five days to cover the 440 nautical miles. Sadly we didn’t have any luck with our fishing lines.
In contrast to the French islands, in the DR we experienced our first really bad taste of red tape. Entry to the lagoon at Boca Chica, on the southern coast, was simple. However, it was about the last simple thing we were to encounter in Boca Chica!
Frank Virgintino, author various Caribbean Cruising Guides, said of the Dominican Republic: ‘If you feel that you do not like dealing with tips and all that goes with the process, you should avoid the DR as it is their way of life.’ It is not that we mind the tips as much as the ‘and all’.
We had read about this lagoon constricted by shallows and we found that indeed the water shoaled rapidly, leaving room for about three boats out of the channel just off the small island opposite the marina.
Whilst we were nosing our way around we heard loud whistles from the nearby Marina ZarPar dock, accompanied by insistent beckoning. Unsure of the clearance procedure and whether it was mandatory to tie up at the dock, we reluctantly mounted fenders and mooring lines and went alongside. Two Spanish speaking security staff greeted us with broad smiles and energetic handshakes. However, with attempts to communicate proving futile, Pete was reluctantly persuaded to go up to the office to see Victor, about whom we had read much on cruisers’ forums.
Victor was a handsome, charming young man, and apparently the only person in the whole establishment who could speak English. We had come to Boca Chica for just three days, it being the nearest port to the airport from where we were to meet up with Megs. So to us, his offer to act as our agent and smooth our way through the Spanish speaking labyrinth of immigration, drug control, M2 (Intelligence) and the Marina Guerra (coastguard) for only US$250 seemed steep. On top of that three nights in the marina would bring the total to US$385; about ten times the price of the next most expensive clearance/stay we had thus far experienced and far more than the costs published by other cruisers.
Since leaving Cape Town a year ago we hadn’t stayed in a marina once but in Boca Chica it seemed that the system was set up to virtually obliged cruisers to do so and thereby incur the cost of the shipping agent’s services.
Even though it was after 17:00 and Pete declined Victor’s offer to act as our agent, he pushed us to start the clearing process immediately, which was interrupted by Drug Enforcement, Intelligence and the Coast Guard. Four officials boarded Moondust and after they used their cell phones to scan our documents, the official from Drug Enforcement searched the boat. Most of the lockers were opened, mattresses lifted and panels tapped to check for hidden compartments.
Once they left it was getting dark, so we decided, as directed, to pick up the only available mooring ball opposite the marina. However, we found that a big hunk of material was missing from the mooring float itself and the integrity of the ground tackle underwater was anyone’s guess. Instead we anchored nearby.
Stuck on a sand bank
The next morning, knowing that we would be expected to pay for the mooring ball, we took some photos to explain why we didn’t consider it reliable. Then we moved Moondust to re-anchor in a more appropriate area just out of the main channel. As we eased our way in it was impossible to see how steeply the bottom rose and the next instant we felt Moondust run aground. A blast on the engines in astern proved fruitless so we shut them down before sucking sand into the impellers.
There isn’t much in the way of tidal rise and fall in the Caribbean, but what there was could have proved critical, so we worked quickly to deploy the Fortress anchor from the stern into deeper water. Then we winched in the line until it was bar taught and again engaged full astern. With great relief we felt her shift and then slide off the sandbank. Then, after digging in our Rocna anchor from the bow, we re-deployed the stern anchor to prevent us from swinging onto the sandbank when the wind shifted.
After this busy start we went ashore to complete clearance formalities, first stopping at the marina office to show the puzzled staff the photos of the mooring buoy and explain why we had chosen to anchor.
We then picked up our embarkation forms and a receipt for the substantial tourist visa fee, inflated 100% compared to the accounts of others, from Immigration. After that we trudged down the road to the Commandancia’s office (Coast Guard) where our passports were once again scanned by cell phone and our departure date and destination confirmed. The officer who spoke reasonable English mentioned that we could come later the next afternoon to collect our despachio (clearance document) and then leave the following morning.
Upon entering the waters of the DR we fortunately hadn’t seen any remains of the 30 ton island of garbage that washed ashore in July 2018. However, after the short walk into town to provision Moondust, we could imagine how such a disaster could happen after heavy rains, as the roads were littered with plastic!
Megs arrived on schedule that afternoon and we had to enroll her as an additional crew member, which apparently had to be done by Victor! Now we began to understand why his attitude had become strained after we had declined his US$250 ‘all inclusive’ offer. It seemed that procedures were set up in such a way that he was involved regardless, with all the local officials involved in the clearance process deferring to him and not acting without his instruction. So Victor prepared Megan’s crew enrollment letter for a modest US$10, and we proceeded to clear out.
We once again walked down to the Coast Guard office to finalise our despachio, learning now from another official that it would be delivered to us. Once again our passports were scanned by phone, the $80 fee paid and then discussions took place via Google Translate on how they would get to Moondust early the next morning as it seemed that the Coast Guard did not have their own boat.
When he realised that we weren’t staying in the marina, without any objection to our anchoring off the island, the friendly official handed back $30 of the $80 that we had paid, indicating that we shouldn’t mention this. In the meanwhile the more senior official asked if he could have a photograph of Moondust. We were rather puzzled, but with all the other images they had taken, saw no reason to object.
Thinking no more of this and refreshed by the honesty regarding the $30 ‘refund’, we walked back to the dinghy in high spirits, prematurely looking forward to our family reunion and departure the next morning.
Leaving the DR with a bad taste
Just after dark the marina dinghy pulled up at the newly arrived sole neighbouring yacht and engaged them in a long discussion. Then the same friendly Coast Guard official who gave us the $30 refund earlier came aboard Moondust and with the help of Google Translate indicated that for security reasons we shouldn’t stay where we were and should move into the marina. Pete politely deflected that request, only to be told that we were anchored in the channel and should move for that reason. Pete pulled out the searchlight and showed him that we were on the shallow water side of the channel buoys and insisted that, as captain of Moondust he was not prepared to move her into a confined space at night.
So with matters at an impasse our visitor grimaced awkwardly as he was finishing his coke. I sensed that he was a minion sent by others to get us to move into the marina and sympathised with his exasperation. I gestured towards my drink on the cockpit table and invited him to join us. To our great surprise, with a nod and a grin, he grabbed my glass and took a huge swallow. A look of pure pleasure crossed his face as it was a Moondust ‘special’ pina colada, the type reserved for the end of exasperating days! Another great glug saw the end of the drink, and with a broad smile and a thank you he was on his way.
In retrospect we wondered if the photo we had passed on of Moondust anchored outside the marina perhaps had anything to do with the evening visit. The next morning, whilst it was still dark, Pete went to the dock and collected the despachio. We were free and happy to leave; this one bad experience tainting our opinion of the country. We set sail, looking forward to our next destination, Cuba.
The cruisers who were anchored next to us, despite enjoying their time in the rest of the DR were similarly unimpressed, and on being told the next day that they had to move into Marina ZarPar, they immediately cleared out and sailed.