Tuesday, August 26, 2014

There is this place!

It is an often overlooked pearl in long string of famous pearls. As we enjoy it's diverse landscape, I am bewildered by it's lack of fame. I didn't realize it myself until I found myself in the middle of its diverse splendor. Round trip airline tickets are available for as cheap as they get. It is so accessible from the United States that you don't even need a passport to travel. By all rights, a tropical Caribbean paradise, and it one day could become the 51st state. So, why is it that when we talk of exotic destinations, it's all too often off of the radar? You can literally take a ferry boat to the famed U.S. Virgin Islands, a stone's throw away. Perhaps the reasonable prices kills the high, "No pain no gain"? I don't know, It's a mystery to me. I beg you all to take a closer look at the exotic destination that is Puerto Rico.

A roadside view along the Puerto Ricos' southeast coast.

Okay, so I convince "3 of 6" to come visit me. Some of you may know him as Alexis, my 3rd son. At the same time I ask my brother to allow my niece to come visit. His over-protective paranoia leads him to believe that it was an invitation for the whole family...? So now, for the first time we have visitors, which is great, but more than bargained for, not so great. I am completely comfortable letting fate take it's course. It has rarely failed me, somehow things always work out, but Marie must have control. She works herself up into a nasty cramp. I can imagine the frustration of trying to share her frustration with me. Talk about a double whammy, I don't care about control, I am a master of adaptation, my indecision has made sure of that. So, without any planning of sorts Alexis gets in on the 10th of August, and my brother and company get in on the 11th, both to San Juan. I'm in Ponce which is on the other side of the island, but just an hour and a half away. Fate dictates that my brother rent a car, and he does, and a major nervous breakdown is diverted.
Eva and Vanilla ready for bed.

Back at the boat we all found a place to sleep, like water finds its path. We even manage to isolate my brother, and his freight train snoring. The next morning my brother (I should start calling him Richie) goes out and brings back two loaves of Puertorican bread, tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil. We made a big sandwich that had us burping garlic all day, but they were really good.
Marie had an amazing itinerary planned. There were contingencies, and backup plans for the backup plan. If our war generals planned this thoroughly...well things would just be different.
The first day we took a panoramic drive through the mountains on the western side of the island. The road was often one lane wide, and as twisted as a politician's sense of reason. At one point we had to pull over so that Betty (Richie's wife) could throw up, she was in good spirits none the less. We inadvertently came across a waterfall that was not even shown on the map. It had three levels, and the water cascaded down to a pool at the bottom of each level. The lowest pool was large, and there were cliffs to either side. Hadrian and Alexis  scaled the cliff to about thirty feet, where there was a ledge, and then jumped into the pool below. The water was quite cool. It was all magnificent, and we felt blessed by the experience.
Two small packages that are full of attitude.

The waterfalls' 1st level was mild.

Eva and Erika were the first ones in.

Here we are acclimating to the nippy water.

Now we are ready to move to the next level.

Alexis and Marie working their way down the sides of the waterfall.

Alexis jumping into the bottom pool.

Here's Eva and Erika in the middle pool.

This is the 2nd drop in the waterfall.

Don't get too close to the edge!

Our stomachs were in need of some attention so we move on in search of some local fare. The route we chose was off the beaten path, and what few restaurants we came across were closed during the weekdays. I stopped for fuel, and Richie found a beer stand across the street. Nothing else, just a single free standing beer stand, in the middle of nowhere, that sold nothing, but beer. Present were the attendant and a single client, sipping on a, you guessed it, beer. Time has taught me not try to rush Richie, but to join him, as I will have to endure his visit to the watering hole wherever it may be. We each had 3 beers before our stomachs raised their heads again, this time with a painful stab. It was way past 3 o'clock, and we were running on garlic fumes. Marie remembered this great restaurant that we had first visited a couple of months earlier called "DeLirious". We made a bee-line for it, but arrived at 4:30, the place opened at 5 pm! As we stood there staring, all of us impersonating Mr. Bean, the chef pulled up in a station wagon, and started to unload his groceries. Figuring that it could only help our cause, we all grabbed a bag, and carried it inside, they let us in early.  The signature dish of the restaurant is called the "Volcano". It is a mound of mofongo with a rolled skirt steak placed on top, and then filled with shrimp, and drizzled with rich Alfredo sauce. This dish is best shared because it is simply too much guilt for one person alone to bear. We waddled out of the restaurant, single file, looking like emperor penguins on migration, and had take a walk around the town square before attempting to sit in the car again.
The picturesque town square at San German.

The Volcano at DeLirious.

Our next stop was the bio-luminescent bay in the town of La Parguera. We arrived there just after dark. There was no moon out, which really enhances the luminous effect of the bay. La Parguera is a festive town, strewn with bars, and restaurants. We quickly surveyed the main drag, and found the hub of activity at the waters edge. From there the largest tour operators ran ferries out to the famous bay. Tickets were $8 each, no break for kids, but we made the investment none the less. A half hour wait gave Richie and me time for three rum and cokes, further enhancing the effects of phenomena that lay ahead. The ferry itself was a purpose built vessel with two stories. It had four glass bottom viewing boxes, bathrooms, and a concession stand on the first level. A 6 foot wide staircase led to a second level where good views of the surroundings could be had. It always impresses me, how proficient some ferry captains become on their routes. Our captain wove around the mangroves in the bay, around shoals, and obstacles, and brought us into the phosphorescent area with surgical precision. The crew scooped up a few buckets full of water so that the passengers could agitate the water with their hands, and spur the luminescent plankton into glowing. A diver leaped into the dark water from the second level. The water around him lit up as if spotlight was on him. He turned on his back and made...like snow angels. Hadrian noticed that the water behind the propellers was also brightly lit. On the way back to the pier we sailed along the edge of the bay. A lineup of enchanting vacation cottages captured everyone's attention, they looked like they were out of a fairy tale. They were all on stilts over the water. Each cottage had a porch along the back that faced the bay, some of them even had a berth for their boat. Most impressive is that someone had enough wisdom to preserve the mangroves between the homes. We each picked one, and in our minds it was ours for a minute. Back on shore, we discussed what we had just experienced as we made our way back to the cars, and headed for home. It had been a great day.
The kids on the ferry to the bio-luminescent bay in the town of La Parguera.

Richie and Betty were enjoying the ride.

The captain and his 1st mate.

The next morning we got a late start. It was almost noon before we headed out. The lighthouse at the very southwest tip of the island was our first destination. The drive was an event by its' own right, with great views around each corner. Shortly before the lighthouse are the salt tidal ponds. There were a couple of salt hills ready for market. It is impressive to see salt in such vast amounts, piled so high that you just want to climb it...and the kids did, as we ran around the base screaming at them to get down. I thought for sure we would all be reprimanded. The parking area for the lighthouse was still a quarter mile from the light, but there was a trolley bus to take you the rest of the way. The site was a peninsula surrounded by cliffs, about 50 feet high. Waves crashing along the bottom gave us an ominous feeling. The bus driver, obviously bored to death, had conjured up a way to make his job more interesting. Once at the end of the road, he would make a wide u-turn that would place the bus tires a few feet from the cliffs edge. He would be entertained by the look of raw fear on the passengers faces. A "religious experience" is what he called it as he sat there looking back at us with a gaping smile, having more fun than anyone else! I am pretty sure the municipality was unaware that it sponsored his hellish event.
We all posed for a picture on top of the lookout tower over the salt ponds.

The kids were really amused by the salt mounds.

The historic lighthouse at Cabo Rojo.

Here's a view of the peninsula. 

The light still works today.

This the spiral staircase inside the lighthouse.

These are the treacherous cliffs around Cabo Rojo.

The view was unnerving.

This a view down the coast.

This is where the bus driver would take the bus.

A religious experience?
The next destination was Boqueron, the small town where we had first arrived a couple of months ago, and quite close to where we were. A great stop for lunch, it was quieter than it has ever been on a Thursday while we had been staying there. In any case the first stop was a bar, where we were served a generous rum-and-coke for 3 bucks each. The rest of the gang went off to the beach. Richie and I just sat around killing brain cells, and that was that. We would wander out into town only as far as our drinks would last, and then we would scurry back for another. What a great afternoon.
The town dock at Boqueron.

We were back at the boat early in the evening. Richie was falling asleep before dinner was even ready. Of course that only makes you the object of everyone's attention, and so we all took turns bothering him. Finally he went out to the cockpit and found some peace. I made "chicharron", deep fried pork belly with the skin still on it, and mofongo. You really have to try it! My patented cooking process makes the skin crispy yet tender, like a saltine cracker.
The next day, having slept so much already, Richie was up at dawn. Not having the patience to wait for everyone to muster, he woke Betty, Erika, and Eva, and then headed to San Juan via the panoramic coastal route. The rest of us got on the road at about 11 am, and we joined up in Patillas at about 2 pm, and continued on to San Juan. About 20 miles outside of the capitol city, in an area called Luquillo is a strip of restaurants that we call the kiosks or the fish fry. We had been there a few weeks earlier, while celebrating Eva's birthday. Mostly local fare, it is a bargain, and we all feasted for a mere 20 bucks. The people watching isn't bad either.
The ruins of an old windmill.

We caught up with Richie and Betty at Mufasas'.

This is the beach at Patillas.

Eva is all tied up at the moment.

We just had to pull over for this view.

These are the food kiosks at Luquillo.

The kids loved the fair like food.

We had made arrangements to stay at a hotel close to the airport, Richie and Betty were leaving at 2:30, and Alexis at 6:00 pm. A quick visit to Old San Juan, and lunch was all that we would have time for the next day. Richie and Betty got separated while sightseeing in San Juan and spent most of their remaining time trying to find each other again. We had discovered a restaurant called Raises (roots) on our last visit to the city. They serve excellent typical local foods with a great presentation, and excellent service. There is something to be said about civilization. I just had to take everyone there before our guests left us. With hardly enough time left before they had to leave, we all sat down for lunch. The chuleta kan-kan is one of their signature dishes. It's like the rib that tips Fred Flintstones car over. I just had to see Alexis with one of those in front of him. 
A statue commemorating a historic event in San Juan.

A sentry's lookout turret along the wall.

The buildings in San Juan are magnificent.

One last meal with the group at Raises.

Richie having another Volcano.

Alexis has his hands full with this pork chop!

Eva and Alexis Had fun with the smelly pigeons.

I don't think Hadrian would make a very good sentry.

Doing what you are not suppose to is half the fun.

Eva struggled with the high winds.

This is a view from the fort to San Juan Harbor.

A battle against the Danes actually took place on these lawns in front of the fort.

An old cemetery just outside the fort walls.

 A great time was coming to an end. It was great to have visitors for the first time since we left the States. Everything is better when it's shared with loved ones. Eva was just devastated, and made us all aware of it on the ride home, over, and over.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Big Bad Bertha

I walked out to the clubhouse in the morning to find everyone fussing about tropical storm Bertha. I thought I'd be getting through a few chapters of my required continuing education; I had bought a course on the internet, but fate seemed to have something else in store for me. As it turns out, the marina that we are staying at forces everybody to remove their boats from the docks in the event of a storm. Well ain't that nice to know! My first reaction was to refuse, but one of my neighbors explained that waves from the storm would wrap around from the ocean, into the seemingly protected marina, and would just bash my boat against the concrete docks. Where would I go? The weather was already building up, and heading out to sea in search of better cover was not an attractive option. Ponce harbor is just riddled with private moorings that take up most of the usable anchorage. There are simply no clear areas left. Now, Bertha is no hurricane, just a tropical storm, so I decided to take my chances in the crowded harbor.

Ponce Harbor is very crowded.
We spent the day securing everything on deck. We removed the Bimini top, and lashed everything that wasn't bolted down. Some neighbors were moving to a less crowded harbor, about 15 miles away, but not being familiar with the area, I didn't want to take any chances on such short notice. After scouring the harbor, I thought that I had a fair spot to anchor in. As soon as some of the larger boats left the marina, I made my move. I was worried about steering in a crowded harbor, and thought that giving Marie the helm would not work. I sat Marie and Hadrian down and explained our goal for anchoring. With everybody on the same page I took the helm, and proceeded to move off the dock. We were hopelessly unsynchronized from the get-go. Hadrian completely released the front lines and jumped on the boat while Marie was still tied up, and standing on the dock. What the heck! We were able to recover before anything happened. I approached the selected area, and yelled to the crew, "release the anchor". All I heard was screams of pain, and chaos. The boat was stable enough to give me a minute to run forward, and assess the situation. The anchors are just too heavy for Marie and Hadrian to handle. Marie had pinched her fingers on the chain, and was bleeding a little. I got in and finished the release. As we dropped back the anchor grabbed hold. We set a mark on the GPS, then sat down to see how well the anchor would hold. This harbor is difficult because it's so deep, and so crowded. Moorings and anchors are not a good mix. We were in 25 feet of water, and there was no way to let out the proper amount of scope around all the short scope moorings. Scope is the proportion of anchor line that is let out, and the depth of the water. A 5 to 1 is usually recommended, but in 30 feet of water that would mean 150 feet of line.  As the wind changes direction you would swing around with it and hit anything inside that 150 foot circle. Moorings usually have very short scopes, like 1 to 1. We sat there a few hours till we had a little confidence in anchor's set. We then set a second anchor to compliment the first anchor. It looked like we were in good shape.
Too close for comfort.

Hoping nobody drags!
The Sea Tow guy came around to tell us that we needed to move our car as the parking lot was now going to be used for storing boats. "If you don't move it you'll be stuck there for 3 weeks," he said. He was nice enough to give me a ride to shore, and promised to bring me back. I took advantage of the opportunity, and did some last minute shopping. While I was at the market I received a call from Marie. She was quite upset that another boat had come up, and tried to take a mooring that was too close for his size of boat. He struck our boat in the process, and came to rest side-by-side with us. This was not a calm phone call. I hurried over to find the situation just as described, this guy was on top of us, and it was now dark. My crew was teary eyed, and my anchor lines ran directly beneath his boat, a large, wide catamaran. Thank goodness that this person was at least reasonable, and courteous. I was able to let out some line and drop back behind the other boat so that we could at least sleep the night, and delay moving til the morning. He was nice enough to offer to take the children home with him for the storm??? He meant well, the kids were suffering "post-traumatic stress". I really had to assure them that I was in control, yeah right.
The Sea Tow guy came around after he was done for the day (about 10 pm), and had a beer with me. He laughed as he surveyed my situation. "I'll help you in the morning," he said.
That night I slept out on the deck with a pole to push off the other boat if needed. I had to push the boats apart twice.
The next morning my buddy from Sea Tow came around and pulled the catamaran off to the side so that we could lift our anchors. This time Marie was at the helm, and Hadrian, and I lifted the anchors. I really need to buy a winch to lift my anchors. I have two 45 pound anchors with 100 feet of chain, each! When I grab hold of the chain, and start pulling I can feel my eyes wanting to leave their sockets. There is the lingering fear that in the middle of one of the herculean thrusts, I soil my pants. I have to lay down for two hours just to catch my breath again after I raise them. This was not the case when I was younger, what happened? It was really windy, and I explained to Marie that as soon as the last anchor was off the ground, she needed to steer her way through the maze of boats, and head towards open water. When the last anchor did come up, the wind was just too strong, and pushed the boat onto the catamaran. I ran back, and shifted the transmission into neutral before the propeller had a chance to tangle on the boat's anchor line. We held the boats off as best we could while the wind blew us past. We put a couple more scratches on the cat. As soon as we were past the other boat I put the Mirador into gear and headed towards open water. Again I gave Marie the wheel, and then ran up to finish raising the last anchor that lay dangling 15 feet deep off of the anchor roller.
We were left with no choice, but to head towards the more exposed mouth of the harbor. The further we went the more space we found between boats. We found a fair spot with good swinging room. This time Marie drove the boat, and I went up to drop the anchors. The anchors grabbed well on the first shot. We set the GPS to monitor any dragging, and sat down to recover from our ordeal. Just then the guy in the boat next to us came over in his dinghy , and asked us to move, as if there was somewhere else to go. I quickly told him that I could not lift my anchors, even if I wanted to. He told me that he had set a very long scope, wished me luck, and was on his way. We let out all the anchor chain, and about 40 feet of rope. To protect the rope from chafing we slipped a 6 foot long piece of fire hose over it.
About a half hour went by when another guy towing a small derelict vessel with a dinghy weaved his way through the boats harbor and picked a spot about twenty feet from us. What the heck, it felt as if these people were watching me just to trip up my plans. The boat that now laid next to us was not worth 50 bucks, so I told Marie that the moment it became an issue I would simply cut his anchor line.
It was not long before tropical storm Bertha reached us. The eye passed just a few miles to the south of us. On the radar we noticed that the worst of the storm seemed to sheer off to the north of Puerto Rico's central mountain range. Ponce Harbor is well protected, and it really took the bite out of the storm. The waves were small, and choppy, and the wind was a manageable 30 miles per hour. The effects were not steady, they came in waves with torrential rain. Mirador was impressively stable so if you could shut out the howling wind it was quit comfortable inside. Outside it was a little different. Mirador likes to swing at anchor like a race horse at the starting gate. The rain felt like bb's. At first the wind came from the north, and it slowing worked its way to the south over the next 8 hours, a complete 180 degrees. You can only hope that your anchors keep holding through the whole rotation. At about midnight brisk tradewind's from the east settled in, and we all went to sleep.
The next morning the tradewinds continued to blow. There was little if any activity in the harbor. As the day progressed it got hot and muggy. A plague of flies descended on the city of Ponce. There were hundreds of the little guys in the boat. These flies had no finesse, in fact they employed kamikaze tactics. They would swarm you and plop into you coffee or soup. While we tied to sleep, they would buzz up any opening they could find, nose, ears??!! We were tormented by the flies. Oh, we would put out fly paper. The flies were competing for space on the fly paper. We tried burning incense, and only succeeded in smoking outselves out. The flies really didn't mind the smoke. It was way too hot, closing the hatches was not an option. Eva demanded that I move the boat back to the marina, hookup to shore power, and run the air conditioner, but they had not lifted the curfew. As if my burden was not enough, the kids were screaming "I hate my life"...over and over again. The National weather service reported 7 foot waves although it was perfectly calm inside the harbor. The marina would not allow boats back as long as that forecast continued, and so we had to spend another night at anchor being plagued by flies.
The marina is almost empty.

We made some room to anchor.

A plague of flies!

Smoke didn't work.

This a fly nightclub.

The third day seemed much like the second. There was little life in the harbor. I watched the marina for signs of activity, none could be seen. At slightly before 3 pm I saw Sea Tow guy, and called him over. I asked when he thought the marina might be up again. He said they just lifted the curfew. In fact he was just on his way to get his boat. I was free to move back in to the marina. We were all elated with the news, and began to make ready to move the boat. With Marie at the helm, Hadrian and I went up to lift the anchors. Lifting the two anchors is so hard to do that it really inspires confidence in the whole setup. That being said, I have to figure out some way, other than brute strength, to raise my anchors. As Marie drove the boat forward I took up all the slack chain until we were right under the anchor. Then we had a short wait while the anchors peeled off the ocean floor like tacky tape. With the anchors up the boat fell back, and I had to run back to the cockpit to take the helm. We were just a short distance from the dock. The Sea Tow guy was the first one back to the docks and I was right behind him. As we came up alongside our dock, his mates helped us with our dock lines. We immediately ran our power cord to the dock, and connected to shore power. The security guard came running up the dock and began arguing with the Sea Tow guy. Apparently there was some difference of opinion as to whether the marina was open yet. Oh, for crying out loud, I could see this was a personal issue, and I was just collateral damage. There was no way I was going to move off the dock, and go through all the anchoring and flies again, only to return a few hours later! I just collected the crew, put them in the car, and made myself unavailable for the rest of the day.
What we needed was a good'ole civilized mall, with a food court! We enjoyed a day of sightseeing, and returned in the evening. The next day I was shocked that no boats were yet returning to the marina. It was not until the 5th day that boats started to repopulate the marina. All the big boats that were hauled out remain in the parking lot. Apparently, they do not want to go through the exercise of pulling all the boats out again any time soon.
Big Bad Bertha was a drill. She taught us what to expect, what to watch out for, and how to work together. I think that the next time around we're gonna look like we know what we're doing!