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A Klaus Encounter in the Mona Passage

At dusk on our second day out of Puerto Plata the wind flagged, faltered
and died. We switched on Big Red and motored east and watched the wild stars
come out to dance on darkling seas, the boldest first the shyest last,
‘til a skyful of stars arched overhead, and
bounced back up off the languid
sea.

Lulled by
the calm and by the beauty of the night, I neglected to tune in the evening
weather broadcast on the coast guard radio — the first time in weeks that I’d
missed a day. But I figured I hadn’t missed much — for the last several
days the same conditions had been reported — a persistent stationary low
south of Puerto Rico. I had been watching it
for signs of development but expected none; after all hurricane season was
basically over by now on the 3rd of
November. . . 1984 .

After
midnight, the wind returned and we sailed and motor sailed until the morning
sunlight found us working our way east, always east, close to the coast. As far
as we could see, a tan beach of coarse sand ran to the SE, backed by continuous
coconut plantations. In the distance, low knobby peaks with patchwork fields
and occasional forest rose above the glistening palms. As the day wore on, the
end of the island drew near until by sunset we were entering the Mona Passage.

The Mona
Passage had a reputation as the meanest of entrances into the Caribbean.
Its notorious squalls build up over the 4000 ft. mountains of Puerto
Rico and then spill down the steep western escarpments with a 40
knot punch …and more. Currents keep the passage stippled with steep seas. The
worst currents flow over Banco Burgano,
which extends underwater out from the eastern tip of land, the final thrust of
Hispaniola. A warning on the chart here said, “
dangerous tidal rips and overfalls
in heavy weather.”

I pointed at the end of the island and called to the boys
who were playing backgammon.

“Check it out. That’s Punta Espada
… sword point. And that mass of land behind it is Cabo
Engano … Cape
Trickery. Makes you
wonder what happened there to deserve such names. Look well boys…
fabled Hispaniola, where the Spaniards met a million
Arawak Indians and exterminated them in thirty years
flat!”

The Arawaks died of many causes, by the Spanish sword and in
their gold mines, of deadly new diseases— and of mass suicide. Early
travelers in Hispaniola reported coming upon
deserted villages, their populations hanging from the branches of nearby trees.
They had such faith in the afterlife that they chose to cross over into it all
together, rather than die separated, alone, and miserable.

An
intriguing story emphasizes the eerie absoluteness of their belief. The Indian
population of Hispaniola in 1500 suffered a
cruel Catch-22. If they acknowledged the authority of the Spanish Crown they
had to come down from their mountains to work in the brutal gold mines to get
the gold to pay their tax to the Crown. It had to be paid in gold.

If they
refused, they were adjudged in revolt and would be subdued and put to slave
labor — in the selfsame gold mines. Damned if they did,
damned if they didn’t. The bottom line was that the Spaniards
wanted gold and weren’t about to do the work themselves.

Faced
with this dilemma, the Indians of a certain village decided to cross into the
hereafter as a unit. When the Spaniard who “owned” them heard of
this he made the only threat that still carried any weight with people
embracing death; he vowed to hang himself with them on the very same day, to
press his claim in the next world. The Indians, aghast at the possibility,
obeyed him and went down to the gold mines to meet their shabby, inevitable
deaths.

By the
time I had told that story to the boys the late afternoon turned fiery with
sunset, the sun sank, its light guttered out and darkness gathered steadily
from the east. As it got dark, we noticed red lights on shore, cars’
brake lights perhaps. The point was supposed to show two white lights.

Suddenly
I realized — those weren’t brake lights. Those were the hurricane
warning signal! Two lights flashing alternately one above the
other. Cold fear wrenched my guts.
The broad sweep of history was getting personal – in my face! The
Arawaks were neither the first nor the last to meet a disastrous
end.

We
switched on an English speaking station in Puerto Rico
and didn’t have to wait long before a special weather bulletin announced the
co-ordinates of tropical storm Klaus! The persistent low south of
Puerto Rico had turned suddenly into a tropical storm
that was approaching hurricane force.

I plotted
its position on the chart and felt the breath knocked out of me. We would be
encountering storm
force winds within two hours, with a lee shore close behind and a treacherous
bank beneath our keel, that same Banco
Burgano, of which the chart warned. I remembered all the
bad things I’d heard over the years about vessels lost in the Mona
Passage. Even the name had an ominous edge. Moan.

"But
did you hear the announcer say it was heading NE?" said Dorothy.
"If so, it’s headed away from us."

"NE my foot! Tropical storms always go W or NW in these
waters. The announcer made an error…"

"But
I heard it twice!"

"Then it was a typo from the weather service
dispatch—unforgivable with people’s lives on the line! It may be academic to
some timeserver sitting on his fat ass at a comfortable desk well inland but to
us, trying to figure out our next move…!
NE? Not here in the east Caribbean.
If we were in the Gulf of Mexico maybe, but not here off Puerto Rico!”

We had to
get out of the Mona Passage into open water
before the storm struck. If it was going W or NW we could expect wind from the
N to NE. The wind was picking up smartly now, so we headed S, with everything
up and the engine on to help us. We all put on foul weather gear and safety
harnesses and watched the sky descend, black with fast moving low clouds
whipping past the moon. Soon we shut the engine off and flew in silence through
the night. None of us will ever forget the wild ride that followed.

The wind
rose and the seas grew and kept building. The boat went airborne off a
particularly steep sea that had no back and she hit the trough with an impact
that shuddered the rig. "Shiver me timbers,
laddy!" the old saying came out of nowhere and it was
a relief we didn’t have to worry about breaking any ribs or springing a plank
or any of the other old wooden boat mishaps. Breath
was inordinately strong. The US Coast Guard had tested
off-cuts of one of her sister ships’ hull and found it to be equivalent to
4" thick oak planking —- the same as Old Ironsides!

A
boatyard once offered to build Paul’s boats commercially but they insisted on
cutting back on the amount of fiberglass. They cited computer models that
calculated the stresses imposed by different wave heights, pointed out
that comparably sized boats had much thinner lay-ups. Paul
stuck to his guns.

Same with
Breath — she wasn’t built to make a
profit. Nor was she built to computer specs. She was built to container specs,
that is, to survive hitting a steel container floating just awash after a storm
knocks it off the ship. These dot the ocean like
deadly needles in a haystack. Coming down on one of those
upsets a whole applecart of calculations.

Hitting a container or a giant log, being struck by a freighter or
a whale… these things happen in the real world. Computer models are
all very well if one plans to keep the boat in a test tank, but sailing on the
high seas introduces squirrelly anomalies. When you’re out there on a black
night with a tropical storm coming the criticism that
the only thing between you and two thousand fathoms is "overbuilt" is
an oxymoron. A computer can calculate stress…
but can it calculate fear?

After an
hour of flinging over the waves and falling off their backs the wind stayed
steady at about 35 -40 knots and the seas got less turbulent. Dorothy went
below out of the spray when it came time for the latest Coast Guard weather
advisory. We kept the radio below when there was spray on deck and
soon she gave a
shout: "New coordinates—- it is going NE. Listen!"

And so it
was, to our huge relief and to my instruction. Never again would I make
pronouncements about what a hurricane must do. A hurricane can be completely
unpredictable, and to prove the point, in November of 1999, 15 years later
almost to the day, Hurricane Lenny did the same thing, starting south of
Jamaica and tracking East right over Saba, St. Barths and St.
Maarten.

We
eventually put in to Boquerón to wait until
the wind shifted to NW which gave us an unprecedented fine broad reach
eastwards down the coast of Puerto Rico and Vieques.
We sailed into the Virgins having made
180 nautical miles in 24 hours, but our exhilaration died when we entered St. Thomas harbor and
counted 60 vessels on the rocks, all driven ashore by the freak storm. They too
had assumed an east Caribbean storm would
never go NE.

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