‘Windward or Mona Passage?’
A Review and Assessment
by Frank Virgintino
In the March edition of Caribbean Compass, in an article entitled “Windward Passage or Mona Passage?” Tito Burrell outlined his opinion(s) on the best way for sailors to access the Caribbean Sea from North America. He feels that sailing eastward along the north coast of the Dominican Republic and then into the Caribbean via the Mona Passage is preferable to sailing through the Windward Passage and then along the south coast of the DR.
Tito Borell is an excellent sailor and has promoted a race in the Dominican Republic — Hispaniola 360 Challenge — that began in 2007 as a non-stop race around the island of Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti). He has worked hard and the race is, to his credit, a great success.
However, racing is not cruising and the criteria of each activity are very different. Moreover, while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, everyone is not entitled to their own facts. There are statements in the article, put forth as facts to make a point, that are either entirely untrue or are without proof.
The article states that many of the cruisers who come from North America are 50 years old or older, and are looking for comfort and support in the form of anchorages, repairs and supplies. This is an accurate statement. Beyond this point, the article begins to run afoul of errors of fact.
Sr. Borrell states, “In the navigation zone from Montecristi to Cabo Engaño (250 nautical miles) on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic, there are three international airports: Santiago, Puerto Plata, and Punta Cana...” Calling this entire area “the northeast coast” is highly misleading: northeast is regarded as Luperón to Cabo Cabron; Montechristi is on the west end of the north coast and Cabo Engaño is on the east coast, south of Samaná. The article leaves the reader with the mistaken idea that there are three airports on the north coast route. In fact, there is only one airport on the north coast, and that is at Puerto Plata. Santiago is inland, hours away from coastal towns. Punta Cana is at the midpoint of the east coast, nowhere near the north coast.
The article also indicates that the south coast of the Dominican Republic has only two airports, Santo Domingo (Las Americas) and La Romana (Casa de Campo). He overlooks the international airport at Barahona (Maria Montez). Thus, the south coast has three international airports (west, central and east on the coast).
Upwind via Lee Shore or Lee?
The article states that the Hispaniola 360 Challenge race provides first-hand proof of the benefit of using the Mona Passage, as the passage eastward on the south side of the island is hated by Hispaniola 360 Challenge participants because they are headed into the wind and sometimes sustain damage.
This statement is a perfect example of making an example fit the need. The route the racers follow is westward along the north coast of the DR with the wind at their backs. However, cruisers who come from North America go eastward along the north coast of the DR — into the wind. The north coast of the DR is a dangerous coast, buffeted by strong Northeast Trades and, contrary to what the author states, there are no stops outside of Luperón and Puerto Plata. The other “stops”, such as Rio San Juan and Sosua, are normally not tenable owing to the tradewinds and only usable in very settled weather — a rare event on the north coast.
Moreover, the north coast of the DR is a lee shore for its entire distance. Sailing a lee shore in the Trades is always risky when going to windward. The wind is against you as are the seas, often quite large. To pass Cabo Frances Viejo is what seems like a never-ending chore.
However, the south shore of the DR is not a lee shore. The tradewinds are normally from the northeast and the island can serve as protection from the easterly winds at its west end. From Ile-à-Vache to Cabo Beata, if one stays close to the coast, you can route for Bahia Las Aguillas and keep the wind at moderate. Racing boats are racing and do not employ this strategy, but for a cruising boat, the strategy makes perfect sense. Inshore the winds are 15 knots and below; head out a few miles and the apparent wind can jump to 25 knots.
Once at Cabo Beata, one can head north to Barahona and then, once up bay, use the katabatic winds to sail to Salinas. From Salinas to Boca Chica, a nighttime sail on a port tack, again using the katabatic winds, is an easy undertaking. From Boca Chica to Isla Saona (at the southeast end of the DR), the katabatic winds after sundown provide nice sailing in light offshore winds.
As for facilities, the author states there is a shortage of support on the south shore. In fact, on the north coast from Luperón to Samaná (Samaná is on the north coast at the east end of the DR) there is nowhere to get assistance or head in case of emergency. From Samaná, cruisers must transit the Mona Passage to head for the south coast of Puerto Rico. The marinas the author refers to at Cap Cana are on the mid east coast of the DR and in heavy tradewinds are difficult to enter.
On the south coast, there is excellent service at Barahona, a very active town with an international airport. There is a small marina and an excellent coast guard station. (See the entry at www.noonsite.com for January — Dominican Republic homepage, related reports — about a cruising boat that lost its rudder and got in touch with the Coast Guard at Barahona, who dispatched a coast guard boat 40 miles to render assistance.) From Barahona, Salinas has an excellent marina and restaurant, where fuel and service can be obtained. The marina at Rio Ozama in the river at the entrance to Santo Domingo can provide assistance and service. At Boca Chica, the full service Marina ZarPar with mechanics and 70-ton travel lift are available. Farther east, at Casa de Campo, is another full service marina with a big travelift as well as the full spectrum of mechanical repair services.
Study the free guide to the Dominican Republic, which can be obtained at www.freecruisingguide.com. The comparison of facilities on the south shore versus the north shore of the Dominican Republic is at once apparent.
Haiti is Not ‘Unthinkable’
The author makes two additional statements that should be examined.
The first is that stopping in Haiti is “still unthinkable to most cruisers”. I have cruised Haiti for over two decades. Where you stop in Haiti makes all the difference (see www.noonsite.com, Haiti homepage, related reports and also comments at bottom of page). Read the new second edition of the Guide to Haiti offered free at www.freecruisingguide.com to see the possibilities. From Cap Mole and Bombardopolis in the north, to Cape Sable and Ile-à-Vache and Jacmel in the south, each of these stops is as safe and often much safer than most places in the Caribbean. If you stop at the fishing villages listed in the Guide to Haiti, you will find the people welcoming and happy that you choose to come visit. To be sure, no place is perfect and petty theft can take place anywhere, but to my frame of mind, stopping in Haiti is very thinkable. Some may not want to stop because their insurance policy does not cover the boat in Haiti and if this is the case, such boats should continue through the Windward Passage and on to Cabo Beata without stopping. However, for those that want to cruise and see the Caribbean as it was decades ago, Haiti is what the Lesser Antilles were in 1960.
‘Drug Trafficking’ is Not an Issue
The author also states that “drug trafficking adds insecurity” to a passage on the south coast, where he states it is more prevalent. There is no basis in fact for this comment, no proof of any type whatsoever. The comment is made to inspire fear.
Drug trafficking is rampant throughout the Caribbean. In all the years I have cruised in the Caribbean (almost four decades), I have never seen or had an incident with a “drug trafficker.” Drug traffickers are interested in their cargo and in not getting caught by the authorities. Getting involved with cruisers on a slow-moving sailboat is bad business — in fact, none of their business.
As you cruise through the Caribbean, be more concerned about pirating off the coast of Venezuela, as cruising boats are their target. Also, be concerned that at any given anchorage where people live throughout the Caribbean, there can be theft and even theft with violence. The Caribbean Safety and Security Net at www.caribbeansafetyandsecuritynet.com and the Caribbean Security Index offered free at www.freecruisingguide.com can show you what happens and where it happens. It is up to you to avoid problems and high-crime areas as best you can. If you are sailing at night and see two boats that appear to be together offshore, change your course to avoid them as they can be two fishing boats or two of anything else.
What is Your Goal?
For cruisers coming from North America to the Caribbean Sea, there is only one logical entry and that is the Windward Passage. That it is the quickest and safest way into the Caribbean is obvious from a look at the charts and a study of anchorages and facilities.
What has happened in the past that caused cruisers to use the DR’s north shore route heading eastward was not a desire to get into the Caribbean Sea per se, but a desire to get to the Lesser Antilles, the chain of islands at the east side of the Caribbean Sea.
The Lesser Antilles is part of the Caribbean but not the entire Caribbean. It was favored because the chain runs north and south and sailing in the easterly Trades is a matter of sailing close reaches to broad reaches. In fact, it is where the entire concept of “I want to go sailing in the Caribbean” started. However, to arrive in the Lesser Antilles from North America is to pay the piper — especially in the Atlantic, because what many call a trip south is really a trip east.
If you choose the north coast route, I suggest you read Bruce Van Sant’s book The Gentleman's Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward. He did it many times and his methods raised to an art form ways to transit what is an inhospitable coast. His strategies make a harsh route possible, albeit still difficult.
I recommend that you choose the south route through the Windward Passage to arrive in the Caribbean Sea. To reach the Lesser Antilles, if that is your goal, you still have to go east against the tradewinds, but not on a lee shore. Rather you are on a shore with many facilities and anchorages and all forms of services and provisioning.
The map of the Caribbean clearly shows the Caribbean Sea. Look at the north route above the DR; it is a route east in the Atlantic Ocean. The prevailing tradewind is from the northeast. The route on the south shore protects you from the tradewind inshore to Cabo Beata, the prominent cape halfway east. From there on, one can use the nighttime katabatic winds to proceed east on a port tack.
In summary, the south shore of the DR is in the Caribbean Sea; the north shore is in the Atlantic Ocean. The north coast is a lee shore with only two major stops. The south shore is not a lee shore and has many stops and a great deal of support in the form of repairs and access to provisions.
Notwithstanding that it is over 200 nautical miles longer to sail the southern route via the Windward Passage, cruisers should most often choose safety and comfort over speed.
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