Monday, January 22, 2007

More on the bamboom - by Eugene

I met Geert in early January in Fajardo, on the east cost of Puerto Rico, for what should have been a short (300 nm.) and uneventful passage to Santo Domingo. Yet, from the very beginning I realized that my time on Sea Scout would be anything but uneventful. In Fajardo the boat was tied up at a dock in Puerto del Rey, a vast, supposedly secure, marina. Of course, everything is relative, especially the security which was purely fictional. The day after I arrived, the boat was burglarized in broad daylight while Geert was having a shower, leaving his vessel unattended for just a short while. Back on board he noticed hat something was amiss and that an I-Pod and charger had been stolen. That evening three burly officers from the local Policia came to the marina to investigate the theft. In fact, all they wanted to see was the boat’s documents and our passports, and off they went, obviously puzzled by the boat’s Dutch registration, which they couldn’t decipher. No doubt, their report, assuming there is one, will be gathering dust at the police station, awaiting a far from certain follow-up.

Still distressed by that episode we set sail on January 8. As luck would have it we were in the wake of a cold front and had to cope with erratic winds, confused seas, and adverse currents. We tried everything; reaching under spinnaker, wing-on-wing with two genoas, jibing back and forth under main and genoa. All to no avail. We could barely do 4 knots. Instead of reaching our intended destination on the west coast of Puerto Rico, we only covered 90 miles in 26 hours. That brought us to La Parguera, a small town close to the southwest corner of the island. Surrounded by a maze of narrow waterways that crisscross endless mangroves, La Parguera is known as the Venice of the Caribbean. There we spent a day at anchor in a tropical paradise, amid mangroves and reefs. On shore we did some provisioning, sampled the local bars and restaurants, and used the computers at the town library to check our emails. The next day we left just before sundown, headed for Isla Mona, a mostly uninhabited island, mid-way between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. That meant crossing the Mona Passage, where the North Atlantic meets the Caribbean Sea. Most boats sail south, down the passage, going with the flow. Since we were sailing westward across the passage we had waves coming at us every which way, except the right way.

Bouncing and rocking like a bronco, Sea Scout headed into the night, scooting along at over 6 knots on a broad reach. Down below, the din of clanging pots and pans made sleeping impossible. After securing the galley, Geert’s son, Nico, and I finally dozed off before going on watch at 2 a.m. Well, that didn’t quite work out. At a quarter to midnight there was sudden bedlam; a loud cracking noise and some expletives. Judging by the confusion on deck, something was wrong. What and why I wondered. It turned out that, to avoid colliding with a south-bound cruise ship, Geert and David who were on watch had done a hasty jibe. Everything would have been OK, but for the fact that the preventer was still attached to the boom. Under the stress of the jibe, the boom had snapped in half, at the point of the preventer! To make matters worse still, the mainsail was torn. Fortunately we were out of harm’s way, bobbing on the waves, watching the cruise ship disappear.

Regaining control of the situation we dropped the main, lashed to broken boom to the coach roof, and motor sailed under genoa and staysail. At daybreak we could see Isla Mona ahead, and a Coast Guard cutter astern. So we kept looking ahead. Because its waters are home to countless sea turtles Isla Mona is known as the Galapagos of the Caribbean. It also happens to be US territory, and beckons would-be boat people fleeing from Cuba and the near-by Dominican Republic. Hence the Coast Guard.

At anchor we came up with a plan; make a new boom with whatever the island would yield. Nico and David swam to shore and, ‘lo and behold, came back with a 30-foot bamboo pole, straight as an arrow and stronger than steel. Removing all the fittings from the broken boom, they set to task to make the bamboom. It worked, and the next day we left for Santo Domingo. The bamboom, rigged with the spare mainsail, worked so beautifully that we made good time—who needs a fancy boom! We arrived off Santo Domingo just after daybreak, averaging close to 6 knots over ninety miles.

Before heading into the harbor we tidied up the boat to impress the local officials. That was totally unnecessary. As in any poor country the only thing that impresses local officials is dollars, the more the better. To wit, the customs official demanded a ‘little present’ ($10), the immigration official brazenly demanded a fee of $80, the so-called drug enforcement agent also wanted cash, as did various other members of our welcoming committee. As for the local marina, its waters are strewn with flotsam, the bathrooms are dismal, and one has to pay for water. But the weather is glorious, the Colonial city delightful, and the local beer as good as any.

I am back in Washington DC where it is snowing, and Nico is back at university in Berkeley. For their part Geert and David are still in Santo Domingo, enjoying the weather and, no doubt, the beer, awaiting repairs/replacement of the boom. When that is done they will sail to Haiti where other crew will join them. As for the bamboom, it will stay on board, just in case.

Eugene Versluysen
Washington DC