Some 38 hours after leaving Ocean World, Ocean Angel was sailing on a southeast heading slightly west of the island of Desecheo when Puerto Rico rose like a ghost out of the early morning mists. As we neared the coast, the wind evaporated when we entered the shallower, warmer, coastal waters near Mayaguez and tucked in behind Arrecife Reef.
I’d decided to sail south to the bay at Puerto Real, Cabo Rojo, a small fishing town, where we hoped to stay at Marina Pescaderia, a marina that looked to be a safe, convenient, entry point to the country. I called ahead to check availability for us, and for Breezy, who was by then some four hours behind us. “Plenty of space”, we were told, “but be careful to stay close to the red marks, as the deepest water is on that side”.
We knew from our charts that the entrance was shallow, and reefs ran along the far right shore, but we slowed and carefully followed our instructions – until I approached the first red buoy. It seemed way off to the right, too close to shore, and as I neared it, I realized too late that something was wrong. Coral ahead! I slammed the boat into reverse, but not in time to avoid running – BANG – right onto a coral head. By the time we stopped, and I could look around the boat, there was coral everywhere. In front, behind, and right underneath us where we were stuck. We had scarce time before the tide turned, so I quickly assembled a hand lead-line, sounded out the deeper water, and told Joy to carefully power ahead, then turn hard to port back into a deeper hole between coral heads that were right at the surface. Hearts pounding and eyes popping out, we motored free of the coral, having lightly touched the rudder once, the keel much harder several times, but we were safe.
A jon boat from the marina came out on my call to guide us safely into the harbor. We were a bit shook up, exhausted, and unnerved from the ordeal in the coral. I don’t think I breathed normally until I was tied to the fuel dock. The marina’s owner was distraught; he apologized profusely, over and over. He sent a boat out later to retrieve the errant buoy whose mooring tether had apparently been cut by a power boat. Imagine that! The same day he ordered 600 feet of chain to convert all his harbor buoys’ moorings from rope to chain.
Breezy, in the photo below, came in a while later, fueled up and worked her way to a slip across the dock from us. Her four foot draft and my advice on entering saved Jay and Chris from a fate similar to ours. They were glad to be safely docked after their long trip without charts. Chris said he was very sad to see our masthead Tricolor light fade off into the distance the night before, because it had served as a shining star guiding their way through the night.
Clearance into Puerto Rico was very quick and easy because both Joy and I had obtained our “Local Boater Option” ID cards from US Customs and Immigration a few years ago when the system first became available. The card allows you to simply call US Customs, even while in Puerto Rico or the USVI, answer a few questions, and be on your way. Chris and Jay, in contrast, spent hours obtaining their clearance. If you sail from foreign waters back to US Territory, you should obtain a Local Boater Option ID card. It makes life so easy – a simple phone call to clear in, For Free.
We loved Cabo Rojo and Pescaderia – the people, the food, the marina, the beautiful climate and country. Did we really have to leave so soon? Unfortunately, yes. As we readied to depart, the marina owner came to the boat; he wanted to guide us out and be certain nothing went wrong, but I assured him we would be fine. One encounter was lesson enough.