So you want a new adventure, you have sailed to the Bahamas, but you don’t have the time to go to the Eastern Caribbean for a year or two. Well, why not consider a winter sojourn in Bahia Luperon? This year, Luperon was the southern turning point of Mandalay’s five-month round trip cruise from Florida. We spent five weeks anchored in Bahia Luperon exploring the beautiful country and could easily have spent longer.
“Where on earth is Luperon?” you may ask. Sailors familiar with the thorny path, (or thornless path as some optimists now call it), know that Luperon is a small town blessed with an excellent safe harbor on the otherwise unfriendly north coast of Hispaniola. Luperon is in the Dominican Republic (aka the D.R.), one of two countries on Hispaniola, the large island between Cuba and Puerto Rico. Luperon is featured in Bruce Van Sant’s Caribbean cruisers’ bible, The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South. Bruce himself calls it home.
Would Luperon be a good winter destination for cruisers who want to go beyond George Town in the Exumas, but do not have the time or inclination to go all the way to the eastern Caribbean? The answer is yes. It is possible to sail there and back in a six-month season from the southern U.S. and still have plenty of time to enjoy the Dominican Republic, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas. For westbound sailors returning from the eastern Caribbean, Luperon is an easy stopover after crossing the Mona Passage from Puerto Rico, as well as a good jumping off point for the Bahamas.
Island hopping to Luperon takes you through the Exumas, the Bahamian Out Islands and then the less well known Turks and Caicos. Setting out from Lake Worth, Florida in January our plan was to head to Miami to wait for a weather window to cross the Gulf Stream and enter the Bahamas. When we neared Miami, it was evident that the window had arrived and we simply turned east instead of entering Government Cut. Crossing the Gulf Stream is always nerve racking but the weather forecasters were correct in calling for light southeast winds and calm seas. Although we prefer to sail whenever possible, a Gulf Stream crossing is considered a success even if there is no wind at all because the ugly square waves kicked up when the wind opposes the northerly flowing current are absent. A south wind is best of all, but the wait for a south wind can be a long one.
Sailing from Florida to the Bahamas involves crossing major shipping lanes, so it is best done in daylight with good visibility. As usual, we saw 9 ships as we crossed the Gulf Stream although none passed within a couple of miles of Mandalay. Between Florida and the Bahamas, northbound ships usually stay between the center of the Stream and the Florida coast, gaining a boost from the three knot current. Southbound ships travel closer to the Bahamas to find some relief from the current.
With a draft of over six feet, both the East Coast of the US, the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos offer plenty of challenges for us. We entered the Bahama Banks between the shoals north of Bimini with no trouble thanks to the Explorer Chartbooks, which we rely on in the Bahamas. For us, entering Bimini harbor would have only been possible at mid tide or higher, although there is a dredging project under way. Crossing the Banks east of Bimini is eerie since the water ranges from 12 to 20 feet deep and there is no land in sight. It is quite possible to anchor for the night if the chop is moderate, but we elected to keep moving, following the Explorer routes and keeping a close eye on the radar screen. Island freighters ply this route at all hours so anchored boats should be a mile or so off the rhumb line between the waypoints.
Exiting the Banks, we found deep water again in the Northwest Bahama channel. After Bimini, Chubb Cay offers the next opportunity to make landfall and clear in to the country. We gave Chubb a miss this year, however, and continued on to Nassau and docked at the Yacht Haven Marina. Clearing customs and immigration is easy at any marina in Nassau. The officers visit each marina late in the day and clear all arriving boats and crews rapidly. For a flat fee of $100, you receive a one year cruising permit for the boat and six months for the crew, plus a fishing license if you want one (trolling with a wire leader, you might catch barracuda or mackerel on the Banks and dolphin fish in deep water).
We planned a fast trip through the Exumas since we had been that way before. We were anxious to get to new places – the Turks and Caicos and the Dominican Republic. The Exumas are a wonderful sailing destination and it is hard to rush through. Winds just south of east provided wonderful sails until our course became the reciprocal of the wind direction, a point of sail we would become accustomed to! Overnight stops were at Highborne Cay, Hawksbill Cay, Big Major’s Spot, Staniel Cay and Cave Cay which provide good anchorages in winds with an easterly component, and George Town which can provide protection in all wind directions. After collecting mail and refueling in George Town, it was time to head for new ports of call.
Staniel Cay, Exumas
Anchor Chain on the bottom in 15 ft of clear water – Calabash Bay, Long Island
Leaving George Town for the southeast, you can rest at Long Island, Rum Cay, Mayaguana (the stops we chose), and other small Bahamian islands that provide protection in moderate conditions. The prevailing winds, waves and current are from the southeast so prepare for some tough beating or motorsailing conditions. By watching the weather carefully, you can choose windows that minimize the discomforts, but be warned that the most common forecast of 15 – 20 knots of ESE or SE wind creates a tough slog.
For most cruisers, landfall in the Turks and Caicos means dropping anchor in Sapodilla Bay on the south coast of Providenciales (aka Provo) for most cruisers. Other choices are to anchor on the lee side of West Caicos or to head for the north side of Provo and enter Turtle Cove Marina. The Turks and Caicos are popular with divers who love the reefs and wall dives. For sailors, those same reefs require the highest level of attention and caution when traversing the Caicos Banks or while approaching the islands from offshore.
We chose the Sapodilla Bay anchorage for our landfall and enjoyed exploring Provo from there. The facilities in town are several miles away and a rental car is almost a requirement. Cruisers often share a rental, keeping the costs reasonable. Transportation on the Morris bus is available at Sapodilla Bay but at $5 per person each way, trips to town soon equal the price of a rental car. Turtle Cove Marina on the north shore provides help to transit the reef into the entrance and may be a better alternative since the marina is closer to the facilities most cruisers need. The Turks and Caicos are still British, unlike the Bahamas which have been totally independent for many years. Clearing in for a week is very inexpensive, but the cost of immigration after seven days jumps to $50 per person per month. Otherwise, the Turks and Caicos are similar to the Bahamas in many ways. The terrain is low lying and arid and the local people, known as “belongers”, speak English and could pass for Bahamians. Provo has become popular with North Americans, including celebrities, and is undergoing rapid growth. New construction is visible everywhere.
Sapodilla Bay Shoreline
Mandalay needed some maintenance while in Provo and we moved to the Caicos Marina and Shipyard where good facilities and talent are available at prices similar to Florida yards.
Traveling from Provo to Luperon can be difficult in prevailing winds. Crossing the Caicos Bank is almost a requirement in order to achieve a reasonable angle on the wind for the passage to the D.R. Charts and guidebooks provide directions for crossing the bank in reasonably deep water, but those routes require constant attention to the coral heads that litter the bank. Most, but not all, of the heads are deep enough to clear the keel. The only safe approach is to steer around each and every head. The water is quite clear on the bank, just as it is in the Exumas, so spotting a reef is not difficult unless the sun is in your eyes.
After crossing the Caicos Bank, we staged for the overnight passage to Luperon, first from South Caicos and then Great Sand Cay. We left Great Sand at 1800 hours and had a wonderful sail in 18 knot winds just forward of the beam until we neared the Dominican Republic. Then for the first time we entered the night lee of a mountainous island. The last few miles were a motorsail and we arrived at the entrance to Luperon harbor at first light. The culture shock of the D.R. began even before we could see land! An earthy smell wafted from the island giving us hints of moist farmland contrasting with the arid, rocky coast of the islands we had left behind. As the sun rose, the mountains came alive with shades of green that reminded us of Tennessee or West Virginia, if only they had an ocean next door!
Entering the harbor is easy if you follow the directions very carefully. You actually pass between two reefs into a narrow opening between a beach and cliff. When we approached, fishermen were bobbing about in small wooden boats setting nets outside the entrance. They greeted us with a friendly wave, giving us a feeling of confidence as we neared the cut. The anchorage is invisible from the ocean so a leap of faith is needed until you are inside and can turn to starboard into the completely protected harbor. We were surprised by the sight of 70 boats at anchor. While motoring in slowly using the sketch chart in the guidebook, a familiar voice called us on the radio from Wind Dancer to give us a heads up on the position of the mud shoals and the best way to anchor. Boats in the harbor were facing all directions in the windless early morning calm, but Dave assured us that we would see at least 20 knot easterlies every day and told us to lay out lots of anchor chain accordingly. We found an empty spot and followed his instructions, knowing that our two anchors would not fully set in the ooze for a day or two. Sure enough, within a couple of hours, the boats all swung around to face east as the trades, amplified by the mountains, began to blast through the anchorage. We stayed near the boat until we were convinced the anchors had settled through the silt and were properly buried in the underlying heavy mud. Unlike the Bahamas, the water in the anchorage is murky and the bottom 16 feet below is invisible. The barnacles are tenacious in Luperon and I was glad that we had painted the bottom of the dinghy with anti-fouling before leaving Provo. Our 44lb Delta and Claw anchors each held perfectly throughout our stay.
Dinghying to town, the culture shock continued when we visited customs, immigration, and the Commandante (port captain). Spanish is not a language that either one of us has studied so we were prepared for much arm waving and broken Spanish and English. The officials in customs and immigration spoke English well enough for us to communicate but the Commandante required the arm waving and pointing we expected. Clearing in cost about $60 and was good for three months. Formalities were concluded when a pleasant representative of the agriculture department, Carlos, visited the boat a couple of days later and told us of concerns about mad cow disease and hoof and mouth disease. We were politely asked not to bring any beef to shore and relieved of another $10 for the agricultural inspection.
To say that the Dominican Republic is different from the islands we visited previously is a major understatement. Mountains on Hispaniola are as high as 10,000 feet, which is almost Rocky Mountain high. Moviegoers who remember Jurassic Park have seen the countryside of the D.R. since it was filmed near Puerto Plata. Not only is the scenery green, lush and beautiful, the towns and people are very different. Luperon is a small town of narrow streets, tiny houses and businesses, noisy motorcycles and happy people. Although the local people appear poor by US standards, they enjoy excellent, inexpensive food, free medical care, and have a refreshing enthusiasm for life. The sidewalks are always busy with activity. In the evening, it is common to see several families gathered on the sidewalk outside their homes playing dominoes and enjoying a giant bottle of Presidente, the excellent national brew. Walking the streets, one might see a small, simple house and notice children sitting at a modern computer station doing their homework. After the trials and tribulations of island phones, we were excited to discover that in the D.R., the phones work perfectly and are inexpensive. At the Codetel (telephone company) office, internet stations are available for less than $2 per hour. Public transportation is readily available starting with the motoconcho – a motorcycle taxi comprised of a 100 cc Yamaha and a driver. He will take as many as three passengers on the back of the motoconcho anywhere in town for 10 pesos (60 cents). The next level is a GuaGua, which is a car driven along a somewhat fixed route like a bus. GuaGuas depart when they are full rather than on a schedule. “Full” might mean 7 people in a Toyota Corolla or 14 people in a minivan.
Armor at the Alcazar
Our first expedition was to the capital city of Santo Domingo by public transportation. Santo Domingo is on the south coast of Hispaniola. It is more than 100 miles from Luperon and there are a couple of ways to get there. We could not get on the direct Luperon to Santo Domingo bus since many Dominicans were on their way home from a holiday weekend on the coast. A couple of cruisers who had been there for several months told us of another way to go, and feeling adventurous we set off. With almost no Spanish and no tourists in site, we were a little uneasy about communications. But for about 225 pesos each ($13), we successfully took a taxi to Imbert, an express bus to Santiago, a luxurious bus to Santo Domingo, and a taxi to the Duque de Wellington hotel. The buses were full but there was room for a fighting cock and its owner on the bus to Santiago. Good highways passed farms growing rice, coffee, cocoa, sugar, corn, and other crops. Cattle, pigs and chickens were also a frequent sight.
The European style hotel we chose in Santo Domingo is within walking distance of the downtown sights and cost $42 per night. Christopher Columbus made his first landfall in the new world near Santo Domingo and there are monuments to see as well as Christopher’s remains. Our favorite building was the Alcazar, a house built by his son.
Sidewalk café in Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo is a large, bustling city with shopping of all kinds. It is a mix of modern architecture and buildings that date back to the times of Columbus. The cathedral is beautiful and there are forts that protected the harbor to visit. There is a yacht marina in Santo Domingo and the only modern boat yard in the Dominican Republic is nearby on the south coast of the island.
During our stay, we also visited Santiago, another large city, and Puerto Plata, a tourist town close to Luperon. Good provisioning is available at all three cities with large, modern grocery and hardware stores and moderate prices. The best way to provision is by van from Luperon. We shared an eight-passenger van with other cruisers and hauled back many, many bags of groceries. A van with knowledgeable driver was available for 600 pesos for the day ($36). Divided between four boats, it was a great deal.
We saw foreign tourists (mostly Canadian and European) in Puerto Plata and were sad to see that they did not venture much beyond their all-inclusive resorts and the tourist shops in town. The Dominican Republic is a real adventure and is quite safe and inexpensive, but you can’t see much from the confines of a hotel complex. As cruisers, we were in the midst of the Dominican culture from the moment we landed on shore and visited the Commandante. The people we met were hospitable and friendly and seemed glad that we were visiting their country. We quickly learned a few easy Spanish words. The locals usually greeted us with a Hola Amigo to which we responded in kind. Dominicans were interested in talking to us and many speak a little English.
We described our travels on public transportation to some Dominicans in the tourist city of Sosua and they were surprised to meet Gringos who were so adventurous. They were used to the tourists at the all-inclusive resorts and had not met many sailboat cruisers!
As hurricane season approached, we decided to return to Florida where some matters needed our attention. Luperon is considered an excellent hurricane hole, however it is excluded from coverage in most insurance policies during the summer months. It is also worth noting that there is no good boatyard on the north coast of Hispaniola. You can get help with simple repairs in Luperon and a limited number of marine supplies are available in the Dominican Republic. Otherwise, you are on your own. Some Dominican boat owners take their boats to Provo for haulouts and bottom painting.
When the time came to leave, we enjoyed terrific down wind sailing all the way back. We sailed past the Turks and Caicos and made the return trip to Lake Worth, Florida in eight days, including two nights in Nassau and three other overnight stops in the Bahamas. Sailing with the prevailing wind and current was a far cry from heading straight into it!
We highly recommend Luperon both as a destination and as an intermediate stop between Florida and the Caribbean. It is definitely an adventure!
Farmer in Luperon
Children in Luperon
Luperon farm family
ruisers eat sugarcane along the roadside
Fisherman with “adapted” windsurfer sail
The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South by Bruce Van Sant is required reading for planning the trip to Luperon and beyond. The other guides and charts mentioned provide more detail for the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. U.S. Government charts of Hispaniola are less detailed than we are used to but seem adequate.
Bahamas: The Explorer Charts – Near Bahamas, Far Bahamas, Exumas
By Monty Lewis
Cruising Guide to the Exumas
By Steve Pavlidis
Turks and Caicos: Cruising Guide to the Turks and Caicos
By Steve Pavlidis
Wavey Line Charts
By Bob and Jane Mintey
Dominican Republic:A Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South
By Bruce Van Sant
Haiti: Note that the other country on Hispaniola is Haiti. If you are headed when sailing from the Turks and Caicos to Luperon, you are in danger of sailing to Haiti. Unlike the Dominican Republic, Haiti is a very poor country with political and social problems. Most insurance policies do not cover boats in Haitian waters.