May 2001: Knockdown
On May 27-28, we sailed from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic to meet our friends Dennis and Jodie Hollinger-Lant, who were flying in from Washington State to sail with us to Cuba. We wanted to get to the DR quickly, because we wanted to spend a couple of days finding cruisers who had been to Cuba, in order to get the straight dope on conditions there. It was beautiful downwind sailing, 15 - 18 knots, and clear sky. With the spinnaker up, we were averaging better than 9 knots, and our course to Luperon put us on a nice broad reach; so when dusk came, we decided to leave the chute up. (Mistake #1.) We continued to slide along beautifully, with autopilot and only the occasional course or sheet change to keep on our jibe angle and go fast. At midnight, Rob came on watch and observed "heat lightning" in the distance, but it was not to windward of us, so we decided we could risk leaving the chute up. (Mistake #2.)

At about 3:00 AM, the wind changed to the point where we were sailing 25 degrees above course, so Rob trimmed the guy and eased the sheet to run downwind. This, as it turned out, was mistake #3. At about 3:45, Rob felt the wind change temperature and realized that something was happening. As the wind increased and the boat started to roll, he yelled for Andi to come on deck. She was already up, and she slung on her safety harness and ran up the companionway steps. Rob immediately went forward to snuff the spinnaker, but before he could get to the control lines, the squall hit, the spinnaker bellied out to windward of the boat, and Akka broached and jibed. The preventer kept the boom from jibing across, so there Akka was, lying on her side, nearly stopped by the backed mainsail, but with the chute continuing to pull her forward. Andi put the helm hard over in an attempt to jibe back, a well-known maneuver in racing sailboats, and we both held on and waited to see whether Akka would respond. This was mistake #4, as Akka is not a racing boat and her cabin ports were open. Unbeknownst to us, the cabin was being flooded with seawater.

Eventually, the chute separated itself into 2 or 3 mini-chutes, the boat righted, and we managed to drop the sodden mess on deck, get it into the bag, and drag it into the cockpit. There was a bad moment when we realized that part of the spinnaker was under the stern, but we were able to get to its clew, unshackle the sheet, and pull the sail out from under the boat.

It wasn't until we went below that we realized the full significance of the episode. While we were on our side, water had poured through the open cabin windows all over everything, including our laptop computer, which showed no signs of life. The water had then, of course, gone into the bilge, where it had accumulated to just below the floorboards. Unfortunately, the electric bilge pump chose this time to quit working, so we were down to manual methods. We formed a bucket brigade, dipping water out of the sump and into the sink, and quickly removed most of the water. A hand pump got the rest. Chastened, we went back on deck and reset sail for Luperon.

Once in port, we took to drying out the boat (Andi strung the cabin with "clotheslines" and hung out the sodden charts to dry) and seeing what we could do about our VHF, depthsounder, and stereo, as well as finding out why the wiring smoked when we turned on A/C power. The computer was a total loss (it wouldn't even turn on) and we called in desperation to Rusty Burshell of RCB Services in Yorktown Virginia. Rusty not only found us a replacement computer (we have somewhat special needs for ruggedness, as the computer has been known to fall to the deck), but sent it to Seattle in time for Dennis and Jodie to bring it with them next day!

A fellow cruiser gave us his old VHF radio, which he said works perfectly, but we were very interested in repairing ours, if possible. So we booked a taxi (van) for all the next day ($36 US) and the owner-driver, Miguel, took us to Puerto Plata, the nearest town, about an hour's drive away. Miguel, as it turned out, spoke very little English, so we were forced to converse entirely in Spanish. As a result, our communications skills improved dramatically; but still, there were little subtleties that were hard to convey to him. For example, our first stop was a stereo repair place, but of course they couldn't fix our VHF. We had tried to tell him we needed more specialized service, but it wasn't until the people at the stereo shop told him, that he fully understood. So off we went into the little side-streets of Puerto Plata until we came to a narrow alley with a stairs. Mounting the steps, we were shown into a living-room, then through the kitchen to a small electronics workshop overlooking a yard full of banana trees. Gill, the VHF repairman, immediately took our radio apart, said he could fix it, and that we should return next day. As it turned out, we didn't return until two days later when we again used Miguel's taxi to pick up Jodie and Dennis at the airport, but when we did return, he had the radio in fine working order. He had all kinds of meters and things to test both transmission and reception, and happily set up the transmit function to use 25 watts instead of the 15 watts we had had before. All this cost us $24 US. The radio still has some problems when we hook it up on Akka, but we can't duplicate those problems at the electronics shop, so it's probably our microphone, or the power supply, or something.

Poor Jodie and Dennis were no doubt expecting to get on the boat and sail away. What they got was a chance to repair the bilge pump, help solve our general electronic problems, and load drinking water from 5-gallon jugs into our tanks, as well as applying another coat of varnish to their cabin floor. In the midst of all this activity, we found people with recent experience in Cuba, had them on board, and let them confuse us.

"Only go to the south coast," exhorted one couple. "That's what we did, and loved it; but another couple we talked to went north and hated it."

"I lived on my boat on the north coast," said another cruiser, "and it's great. Besides, from there you can go to Key West without beating upwind against the trades."

A third boat had just come from Cuba and had enjoyed the north coast, so we decided to do that. Then we read the cruising guide more thoroughly, and weren't so sure anymore. But in the end, we left Luperon and headed west, with a new computer, a working VHF (or 3), pretty dry charts, resolved AC electrical problems, and a magnificent, fast-pumping bilge pump. Next step, Cuba (one coast or the other)!