Prism's Blog

The Worst Passage of our Lives (so far): Sailing the Windward Passage and Around Haiti

Prism and her crew made their way to the little marina/ harbor at Great Inagua. We were ready to check out and sail to the Dominican Republic. We had been waiting for over a week for the right weather window to present its self for the route we chose. 

Unlike most sailors leaving the Bahamas and heading east, we chose to sail through the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba. This would allow us to sail on a beam/ broad reach until we rounded the South West corner of Haiti. At that point we would be close enough to shore to use the nightly Katabatic winds, which would help us move east without all the standard east bashing. Allegedly. Another bonus of choosing this passage, is that it would allow us to avoid sailing through the Mona Passage which sounded pretty good to me.

Most cruisers use the route set by Bruce Van Sant, called the Thornless Path. This entails a lot of night sailing and waiting for calm weather along the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Once you round the west end of the DR you then have to sail though the Mona Passage, which is a different beast of its own. Or, you can take the I-65 route which takes you along the banks of the Turks and Cacaos then out to sea above the Mona passage before dropping down in above PR. Once you have crossed the Mona passage you can choose to sail the North or South shore of PR, which ever one floats your boat.

 Jon did not like the idea of waiting for calms nor did he like the idea of sailing along the north shore of the DR as there are very few options to stop. We all were sick and tired of waiting for calms to motor through, that is all we have been doing for years it seems. Jon wanted to sail, we have a freaking SAILboat for crying out loud. 

The question is…. Would our drive to sail more and motor less actually work out for us?

The Windward Passage

The Thornless Path

🟥= Thornless Path Options

🟨= I-65

The Mona Passage

Prism and her crew looked and looked and even asked other people to look at the weather too. It was Jon who made the final call, and said “This is our window, we are going.” Even though I thought it was a bad idea. Yes the window allowed us to actually sail through the windward passage, but the wind off Cabo Beata did not look friendly. We were all hopeful that the large cape on the south side of the DR would supply lee protection for our easting once we rounded the SW peninsula of Haiti. 

(As you can see the blue section on the wind map down below shows less wind)

We left Great Inagua with no wind, so we were already motoring, but it would not last for long. As we approached Cuba, the wind filled in and we were sailing along at hull speed. We got a weather update via our satellite messenger letting us know that the winds were going to pick up into the low 30’s at night fall. This was not forecasted. Lucky for us, it would be from behind, so it is not the worst thing that could happen. It would just send us flying down and speed up our arrival time, which would help us in the long run anyways.

When night came, we were further south than we had predicted, so the high winds never reached us. We were in the lee of Haiti and had a blissful 15-23 knots of wind on our stern quarter. The wind lasted till about half way through the passage, then died, so now we were motoring to get around the SW corner of Haiti. The tip of the peninsula has shallow water which is littered with fishing pots. Now these pots are not well marked like those of the New England coast line. These fuckers are tiny plastic water bottles, as in the single use personal ones that you can only see once you are on top of them. Our friends on SV Alchemy did this same route only 2 weeks before us and gave us the heads up about these lovely prop catchers.

We had enough daylight so we ended up cutting through some of the shallows, but we had all eyes on deck and we were dodging and weaving for hours, sifting through the minefield as nearly blinding rain squalls overtook us. Prism made it through and back into deep water just as the sun was starting to set and this was when Jon looked at me and said “Oh no, what have we done?”

Prism's Recorded Route

Yes, we had made it though the mind field of fishing pots, but now we were in some nasty shit.

The waves started to stack on top of each other and Prism was bashing into 12′ seas with no where to go. I looked at Jon and said, “Well, we could just go to Jamaica… and then on to Panama… we like Panama, and, well, this SUCKS!”

Jon had zero interest in bailing on the plan to get to Barahona, not to mention Kailey needed to be in the DR in 3 weeks to boat watch for a friend. So we really wanted to make it. 

Let me fill you in about WHY we were experiencing the seas we were in…..So remember those higher winds of Cabo Beata I was worried about… yea. We thought/hoped that we would not be affected by them because of the “lee protection” from said giant cape. SO NOT THE CASE! Yes the Cape was offering lee protection from the high winds, but not the seas that were being generated.

In fact, because the wind was so intense and blowing with gusts into the 40’s consistently for over 4 days now, the swell and wind waves were wrapping around the cape traveling in the deep waters and gaining speed, then hitting the shallower waters along the coast where we were sailing. This was causing the waves to grow even more in size and stack on top of each other. 

The picture under these words have the letters A-E in red, those are points I am now going to talk about.

Point A:

This is when we rounded the SW corner of Haiti and found ourselves in 12 foot square seas with no wind to help stabilize. We thought about sailing to Jamaica instead, but we hoped that if we tucked up close enough to Haiti, we might find some protection and smaller seas behind Pointe a Gravois (point B)

Point B:

Yes, there was some protection behind this point, but it did force us to sail much closer to the coast than we originally wanted to. Plus those nightly Katabatic winds never showed up. The 40nm from Point A to Point B took Prism all night to do. Around 3 am I (Shannon) was on watch when I received a message from Chris (Jon’s brother who was looking at weather for us) that the wind was going to increase by a lot once we rounded Pointe a Gravois. The message said that once we were out of the lee we would be faced with 25+knts on the nose for a few hours. He suggested that we find a place to anchor for the rest of the morning till the winds die down. But this is the Haitian coast line, and there is nowhere safe to anchor in this region. We were about 2 nm from rounding the point when I woke Jon up to get a second opinion. Normally when approaching a point like this, if there was that much wind on the other side, it would be wrapping around and be on our nose already. But, there was no wind, Jon decided not to listen to the weather report from Chris and instead use the local knowledge that we had for this area as well as our 10+ years of cruising to make our decision.

It is known that at night, winds are lighter in the Caribbean, waiting till morning to cross a point was against all the rules if you want “less wind”. We decided to press on  and to say the hell with forecast. We had a full main up to help with the roll from the seas, so I asked Jon if he could stay on deck with me till we rounded the point just in case there was in fact some crazy wind vortex waiting for us around the corner. When Prism stuck her bow in front of the lee of the point, we are confronted not with wind,  but once again by the swell. Great, and no wind to help stabilize, just straight bashing. Thank goodness we have a new-ish motor with a brand new transmission. Jon was awake at this point and told me to go get some rest. At some point in the bleak blackness of the night Jon believes we caught something in our prop. We had already found a significant counter current slowing us down to 4knts when the waves where not stopping us, but in the early morning hours our best speed got down to around 1.5knts at almost full engine RPM. 

Point C: 

This was very, very slow going. As soon as Prism would get back up to 3knts, another 12 footer would slow us right back down to 1/2 of a knot.  Then something happened that has never happened to us before. Our Autopilot took a shit.  I woke up to the feeling that I was falling, oh wait, I WAS falling. Given it was only the 2 or 3 inches from going zero G, but still, It’s one hell of a way to wake up, then I heard the jibe. WTF? I thought as I stood up and made my way to the companion way.

What I found is Jon at the helm with a look on his face that I never want to see again. He was clearly sleep deprived and all turned around. After Prism launched herself off that last wave, all 30,000lbs of her went airborne and her gyro compass got all jacked up, which caused Prism to make a hard turn. Which is something we did NOT want to do in these seas. Jon must have been in a state of such extreme exhaustion that he could not tell which way was up. I quickly grabbed the helm and got Prism back on track with the swell on our bow rather than on our broad side. Jon took a quick breather before shaking himself out of his brain funk and went to work to find out if we could get the autopilot back on line.

Now this was a sticky situation we were in. Not because the auto pilot stopped working, if that was the case we would have to had steer, which would suck, but would not be the end of the world. But we were all very tired and the sea state was not forgiving. The scary part was, we were very close to a lee shore with nowhere to anchor safely, we could not head further off shore because the conditions were even worse out there. The wind was building to around 20knots of apparent but with so much current slowing us down, along with the sea state, Prism was suffering from terrible leeway even with the engine pushing her as much as she could. 

For me there were 2 options, for Jon, there was only 1. I looked at him and said “If we can not get the autopilot working in the next 10 minutes, then we are turning and sailing to the Isle of Vache. When we left the Bahamas, I had always thought of the Isle of Vache as a possible stopping point if the passage was not going as planned. IE this exact scenario. Jon wanted to avoid Haiti at all cost, even though the Isle of Vache is considered safe to visit. At this point in time Jon could not get the damn thing to work again and during our trial runs we were loosing ground and getting pushed north into Haiti. After about 20 minutes of dicking around Jon looked at me and said “Okay, I am going to try one more thing and if it does not work, then we will go to Vache”

I was so relieved, I for sure thought there was no way in hell this last ditch effort was going to fix our problem and we would turn north, ride these huge swells to Vache, seek shelter and rest for a few days while we fixed our shit and waited for the weather to change in our favor.

Jon comes up, engages the autopilot again, sets the compass heading and hits ON. 


“yeah….that’s a relief, but are you sure it is a good idea to keep going? This is a very nasty sea state and we are exhausted..” I said to him in a serious tone. The response I got will forever be the saying of this trip, “It will improve in another 10 miles”

A little later there was a short moment where we got to break off to the North for a bit and the seas where not directly on our nose anymore. Jon really needed to see if anything was on our prop. I suggested to put the engine in reverse to “shake” off what might be wrapped around it. He was opposed to this idea because if it was plastic, then it could badly foul or even damage our feathering prop.  Jon hove -to and stuck the gopro in the water at the end of our boat hook. There was a giant ball of sargassum weed wrapped around the prop. He threw the engine into reverse and forward a few times to see if that would clear it.

When he put the gopro in the water again, we saw that the prop was clear. Our speed was now back up to around five knots.

Point D:

Another day goes by, the Isle of Vache a non visible blip in the distance behind us, we have made it a whopping 45 nautical miles. Every time the weather models updated we would get messages from our friends saying ” It looks like conditions will improve in another 10 miles, you are so close”. These messages continued for another 24 hours, and we never saw any improvements. The boat slowed down again but the conditions where too rough to even look with the gopro, so speeds where back down to around three knots.

Point E:

It was not until we were about 4 hours out from our anchorage that the seas started to let up. We asked Kailey if she felt comfortable enough to take a watch by herself for the next few hours. When she said “yes” Jon and I were asleep within seconds, with the seas leveling out and Prism finally finding the lee protection from Cabo Beata that we were hoping for for days, we slept hard.

Jon & Shannon down for a nap

Kailey brought us safely into the “prettiest” bay in all of the DR, Bahia de las Aguilas. We set the hook in crystal clear water with a sandy bottom and then went back to bed. After sleeping for a bit we jumped in to check the anchor as well as the prop. Wouldn’t you know it, a large clear piece of plastic was wrapped around the prop.

This come to find out was a common issue we where going to learn about while motoring the coast of the DR.

We had a bird companion for a few hours

Bahia de las Aguilas

After days of bashing into the seas, our bodies and brains were fried. Pulling into this picture perfect bay was the exact reprieve we needed. Aguilas is known to be one of the prettiest beaches in all of the DR and we could see why.  Not knowing it then, but this bay would be our home for the next 2 weeks as we waited for the winds to die down. 

On our second day a catamaran anchored just a little ways down the bay, and we were very excited to have new people to interact with. Kailey, Jon and I loaded into Penta and did a slow stock towards this new boat, from what we could see from a distance, they looked young and fun. We were right about both observations, the owners Jack and Sebastian were in their early 20’s and had a full crew of beautiful Norwegian women, South Americans and one German. They opened their boat to us with nice cold beers and huge smiles.

They had come around the corner from the other side of Beata, just to visit this beach. What they didn’t know, was how hard it was going to be to get back around the nasty cape once again. They set off at sunset one night as Prism and her crew wished them luck. The next morning we saw them sailing back towards the protected bay with some serious damage done to their vessel. They were faced with 40+ knots of wind on the nose and could not make any forward progression, so they turned back around after a heavy bash which caused one of their fwd hatches to break open. ekkk.

To pass the time, we took everyone out spear fishing (which none of them had done before), did a Lion Fish fry, drank their cold beer (as we were completely out on Prism) and played card games. They wanted to check out a local town right on the boarder of Haiti and the DR, so we said our goodbyes and wished them well. 

While Prism still waited for the right weather, the wind finally started to lay down a bit which meant we could get in the dinghy and actually go scuba diving. So for the last 3 days in the pristine bay, we dove and dove  A LOT! We even found a fish none of us had ever seen before. When we got back to the boat, I drew the fish so we could try and ID it once we had internet again.

My drawing

Finally, a 24 hour window had presented itself, there was no way we were going to miss this chance.  We had over 80nm to go to reach Barahona, which would take us about 12-16 hours. The winds calmed down the most at night, so we waited for sundown to weigh anchor. The winds were nonexistent but the fishing pots were. We motored as fast as we could, while Kailey camped out on the bow with our brightest flashlight keeping a sharp eye out for those pesky prop catchers.

The full moon stared to rise right in front of us, which made it even more difficult to see the tiny water bottles. We went thought the Channel between Isla Beata and Cabo Beata.

If you did not wait to wait for the wind to die down, or if the winds were not as strong as they had been, you can sail along Isla Beata, straight out about 15 nm to get out of the “Cape effect” then tack north to make your way up to Barahona. The winds for us, were just too strong for that option.  Sure, Prism could handle sailing in those winds, but I simply did not want to. 

As we made it through the shallow waters of the channel, we were met once again with steep waves hitting the shallow shelf, but those subsided as we kept getting into deeper waters. Prism turned her bow north and we continued to motor in comparatively calm seas as the sun began to rise.  The wind started to pick up from the east as we approached Barahona, and really piped up as we turned into the large bay, riding those reinforced trades all the way into the anchorage.


Sailing up the East side of Cabo Beata

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