Box of the Dead

ponce-mapSecuring a slip at the Ponce Yacht and Fishing Club meant two exciting things for us; we finally could receive Amazon deliveries, and we would be able to have our generator repaired properly. I don’t know which one I was more thrilled about. There was not much frivolousness included in the packages from Amazon. After a year of cruising we had run out of a considerable amount of spare parts and supplies, which were not easy, or cheap, to come by in the Bahamas and Dominican Republic. Having these things delivered practically right to our boat at U.S. prices was quite the luxury. Not that we didn’t indulge in a few decadent purchases – some fancy martini olives and gourmet popcorn were certainly on the list!

Lighthouse on Isla Cardona, a small island two miles west of Ponce.
Lighthouse on Isla Cardona, a small island two miles west of Ponce.
We love lighthouses, but we especially love the ones we can climb!
We love lighthouses, but we especially love the ones we can climb!

Ponce is the second largest city in Puerto Rico, and that honor comes with a few perks – lots of shopping centers where we could purchase items we couldn’t receive by mail, movie theaters, a VA clinic where John-Michael could have his poisoned finger treated, a fantastic art museum, and lots of restaurants.

Chicharrones = fried meat. No wonder we're gaining weight.
Chicharrones = fried meat. No wonder we’re gaining weight.

“La Guancha”, a boardwalk containing dozens of kiosks that serve delicious Puerto Rican food and drinks (including John-Michael’s beloved, elusive IPAs) was within short walking distance of the marina. This proved dangerous to our waistlines in the two weeks we were there. We almost completely stopped cooking our own dinners. A new friend also helped ensure that we would have our fill of local cuisine.

We met Luis on John-Michael’s birthday. Our boat slip was directly next to an open-air pavilion that was popular with yacht club members for private parties. As I was decorating Pura Vida for JM’s big day, I noticed a young boy under the pavilion doing the same for his thirteenth birthday. When we returned from running a quick errand we found our boat decorated even more, and received an invitation from Luis, the birthday boy’s father, to join their festivities.

Luis became our fast friend.
Luis became our fast friend.

Coincidentally, Luis is the director of the VA clinic that we had visited earlier, and he quickly took it upon himself to be John-Michael’s personal physician, and our private tour guide.

Luis took us to his favorite mofongo joint.
Luis took us to his favorite mofongo joint.

Over the next week we were introduced to several unique attractions in Ponce that we never would have found on our own, including a seldom explored waterfall, and mountaintop pizzeria whose wood-fired pies were to die for.

View from the mountaintop pizzeria of the regular, afternoon storm rolling in.
View from the mountaintop pizzeria of the regular, afternoon storm rolling in.

We were happy to soak up the local knowledge, because soon it would be our turn to play tour guide. I had the fortune of connecting with Tammy of s/v Dos Libras on Facebook months earlier. The details she shared on her blog, ThingsWeDidToday, were vital to our decision to cruise the south coast of Hispaniola. She and her husband, Bruce, were waiting out hurricane season in nearby Salinas, and were coming to visit Ponce for a day. We were happy to have the opportunity for another stop at the waterfall, La Soplaera, this time dressed for a dip!

It’s always fun to meet, in person, someone you’ve admired electronically for so long. I knew I’d made a true friend in Tammy, and we all looked forward to spending more time together once JM and I arrived in Salinas.

The treacherous path to the pool. Tammy and Bruce were such troupers!
The treacherous path to the pool. Tammy and Bruce were such troupers!
The grab rail that had been here the week before was washed away in heavy rains. Good thing those tree roots held fast!
The grab rail that had been here the week before was washed away in heavy rains. Good thing those tree roots held fast!
Tammy and Bruce from s/v Dos Libras. Looks like an Olin Mills backdrop!
Tammy and Bruce from s/v Dos Libras. Looks like an Olin Mills backdrop!
If you squint, you can see John-Michael's head floating on the right.
John-Michael loved getting as close as he could, then having the force of the water push him away.
We passed a "lesser" waterfall on the way to the "real" one.
We passed a “lesser” waterfall on the way to the “real” one.
I get by with a little help from my friends.
I get by with a little help from my friends.
The path to and from was a little trickery. It would never be allowed in the litigious, continental U.S.
The path to and from was a little trickery. It would never be allowed in the litigious, continental U.S.
Me, in my happy place. I take dog treats with me almost everywhere we go, and food for the really hungry ones.
Me, in my happy place. I take dog treats with me almost everywhere we go, and food for the really hungry ones.
On the way, we passed this house built on top of another waterfall!
On the way, we passed this house built on top of another waterfall!
I loved the Ponce crazy cat lady! She'd had all the females spayed, and goes by every day to feed them.
I loved the Ponce crazy cat lady! She’d had all the females spayed, and goes by every day to feed them.

In between tours, we were overseeing the dismantling of our generator. It must be employed when our solar and/or wind generators are not up to the challenge of charging our batteries. We had been fiddling with it ourselves over the previous months, and even paid more than one “professional” to repair it, to no avail. In Ponce it met its match. Cesar came highly recommended, and spent more hours deep within the confines of the generator’s hot, cramped locker, than I was able to count, but eventually he got it purring again. We felt confident enough to unplug from our marina shore power and, once again, venture into the world of peaceful, breezy anchorages.

In between tours, there were dirty boat projects. Here I am with my hands buried in shit, replacing a part in our poop zapper. Try as we might, we could not drain it all out before taking it apart.
In between tours, there were dirty boat projects. Here I am with my hands buried in shit, replacing a part in our poop zapper. Try as we might, we could not drain it all out before taking it apart.

After two weeks of running errands, devouring fried chicken and empanadas, preparing for storms that never came, and soaking up air conditioning, we pulled away from the marina to head seven miles to an island getaway, Isla Caja de Muertos.

A breathtaking view of our anchorage at Caja de Muertos. Pura Vida is on the far right.
A breathtaking view of our anchorage at Caja de Muertos. Pura Vida is on the far right.

“Coffin Island” is so named because either it looks like a dead body in repose (it didn’t to us) or because some pirate sometime in the distant past buried his beloved there, and was killed by other pirates who thought the purpose of his frequent visits to the island were to bury booty. To my knowledge, no dead bodies or buried treasure have been discovered.

Anchored by the "head"
Anchored by the “head”

Seven miles doesn’t seem like a long distance, even to us. We figured it would take us an hour to reach the anchorage. “Think again!” bellowed Poseidon. As we departed the marina basin the wind and waves began to kick up, and after an hour we had only gone two, excruciating miles. The waves were, of course, on the nose, and our boat frequently pounded into them, then dove under them, burying the bow in a wall of water. That wall would then come barreling over the top of the boat, pouring into the cockpit with the force of a waterfall. Each time this happened our forward speed was reduced to zero, and our ETA was pushed back several hours.

It's amazing how much water can travel down that little hole!
It’s amazing how much water can travel down that little hole!

Anticipating arrival after dark, with our nerves shot and bones jarred, we made a change of plans and turned around to anchor back in Ponce. Those same rough conditions we’d been fighting became enjoyable as we surfed back to the anchorage in record time. We had taken a pounding, but at least this time our dinghy was still with us! Once anchored we found our bed and one of our cabin settees soaked through. Each one of those waterfalls not only poured into the cockpit, but also through the dorade vents that we’d failed to turn backward. What do ya know? Those vents that let sea breezes into our cabin can also let water in.

The next day dawned calm and clear, and we made it to Caja de Muertos in under an hour to find an idyllic bay completely empty of other boats. Near our anchorage was a large dock where a ferry was tied, having unloaded its passengers for their day in the sun on this beautiful island. By four in the afternoon, the passengers were back onboard and heading to Ponce, leaving the island to us and a handful of lucky park rangers who live there for eight days at a time. There’s nothing like that feeling of realization that people pay money to get to these chunks of paradise, then have to leave, while we arrive on our own boat and can stay as long as we like. It was Labor Day weekend, and we were happy to remain there for several days, exploring the clear water and the island itself, which offered hiking trails to an old lighthouse, and chatting up the rangers who readily admitted to loving their jobs.

The Caja de Muertos lighthouse was built in 1887, and still functions with modern technology.
The Caja de Muertos lighthouse was built in 1887, and still functions with modern technology.
The park rangers have fresh, hydroponically grown lettuce, thanks to a local Boy Scout troop.
The park rangers have fresh, hydroponically grown lettuce, thanks to a local Boy Scout troop.

Around the bend from where we were hooked, dozens of motor boats were tied to the beach, and the locals were soaking up the sunny, salty sea air. We were aware a storm was brewing in the Atlantic, but felt safe and secure knowing we were not alone.

After the crowds departed we took advantage of the grassy expanse near the beach to test our new bocce set. As John-Michael was kicking my butt, two helicopters repeatedly did circles overhead.

Our bocce court, with Pura Vida in the backgound
Our bocce court, with Pura Vida in the background
This bird repeatedly flew down to inspect after the red balls were thrown.
This bird repeatedly flew down to inspect after the red balls were thrown.

Aware that one belonged to the U.S. Coast Guard we inquired with the park rangers if there was a rescue mission taking place, and learned that, indeed, there was! Though it was sunny, that distant storm was already causing the seas to churn. In our peaceful little bay to the north, we had been blissfully unaware of conditions on the south side of the island. There, a power boat with people aboard was stuck on the reef, and was being pounded against the sharp coral by the increasingly angry surf. All were unharmed, but a police helicopter, the CG helicopter and a local agency rescue boat were trying to determine if the passengers should be removed by water, or by air. If by air, the chopper would be landing at the ranger station to drop them off. Of course, we were hoping for a copter rescue and we got our wish! The plucking of the folks off the boat took place too far away for us to see that action, but we were only a few yards away from where they’d be landing, so we found a good, out of the way vantage point and waited for their arrival.

The U.S. Coast Guard helicopter coming in for a close landing
The U.S. Coast Guard helicopter coming in for a close landing

It may sound pathetic, but it really was exciting to watch the helicopter land so near, and watch the relived boaters step foot on terra firma, accompanied by the CG rescue diver who had secured them to the lift basket.

The rescue swimmer, still carrying his fins and snorkel, returning to the chopper
The rescue swimmer, still carrying his fins and snorkel, returning to the chopper

Back on Pura Vida, we performed our daily weather check and learned the invest we’d been monitoring would be approaching the following day – Labor Day. We anticipated winds no stronger than we’d experienced in the past, and made plans to stay put. The next morning was gray and windy, and though the ferry arrived on schedule with a boatload of people, the motor boats were far fewer in number than we’d expected for this very boaty holiday.

Some of the local boats enjoying Labor Day weekend.
Some of the local boats enjoying Labor Day weekend.

As the sky darkened and the winds increased, we still had no reason to worry. The forecast was for foul weather to blow quickly through, later that evening. We’d checked our anchor several times and knew we had good holding. At noon, almost on the dot, we were all scrambling for cover as the winds quickly picked up to over fifty knots, and rain came down in sheets. For close to forty-five minutes we watched through our ports as beach umbrellas tumbled, and the surf slammed the beach, sending enormous waves splashing over the happy beachgoers. We were less than a hundred yards from the island, but that fetch (the distance the wind is able to travel over water from the beach to our boat) was enough to kick up some big whitecaps.

As the storm started blowing through, the white caps kicked up all around us.
As the storm started blowing through, the white caps kicked up all around us.

Onboard we were being tossed around, but on the island, the happy people were protected by the large body-shaped land mass that gives Caja de Muertos its name. They were having a blast!

An hour after it started it was over, and the sun was shining intermittently, but we knew there was more of the same to come. We were all set to remain until we heard the ferry blast its “all aboard” horn an hour earlier than normal. Leaving early on Labor Day was a bad omen. Then our marine weather forecaster, Chris Parker, sent out an email, warning all mariners south of Puerto Rico to seek shelter. We couldn’t raise that anchor fast enough! As winds started building once again, we turned tail and coasted the fat waves all the way back to Ponce.

The anchorage in Ponce
The anchorage in Ponce
The Ponce dinghy dock, with ample room for two, maybe three, dinghies. Guess they don't want to make it easy for anchorage riffraff like us to go ashore and spend money.
The Ponce dinghy dock, with ample room for two, maybe three, dinghies. Guess they don’t want to make it easy for anchorage riffraff like us to go ashore and spend money.

Anchored in thick mud, and protected almost all the way around by land, we were ready for whatever horrible tempest was coming our way. But it never came. We didn’t get a single drop of rain, and the winds died after we anchored. We were definitely safe, but a little sorry that we left our beautiful island anchorage for nothing. The Ponce anchorage is a good one, but with the city lights, boat traffic, mosquitoes, and occasional loud music, it’s nothing like the serenity of Caja de Muertos. It wouldn’t be long before we tired of the big city, and readied ourselves for our next stop – the mangrove-edged town of Salinas, where we would wait out the remainder of our second (and maybe last?) hurricane season as cruisers in the hurricane belt.

6 comments:

  1. Kim & John Michael, I love your blog’s. You guys certainly live other people’s dreams. Thanks for the continuous tour.

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