Back in February of this year you might remember that Lily and I had her daughters join us for a week as we cruised the southern coast of Puerto Rico. Well I wrote a magazine article about our experience and it was published in Latitude & Attitude’s Winter 2022-23 issue. Below you can read the article.
Cruising Puerto Rico’s Southern Coast
by Capt Shane McClellan
For the last 11 years I have run crewed charters aboard Guiding Light, a Lagoon 410, in the Virgin Islands with several years down in the Leeward and Windward Islands. This year I decided it was time to point the bows westward, to see new cruising grounds, and my girlfriend, Lily, and I did just that in February 2022. Our first cruising ground would be the southern coast of Puerto Rico. I am sure many of you are wondering why we skipped the amazing islands of Culebra and Vieques along with the east coast of Puerto Rico. Simply put, I have spent months over the last decade in the Spanish Virgin Islands and I wanted to go somewhere new. Plus we had a wonderful surprise pop up a week or two before. Lily’s daughters (age 27 & 21) would be joining us for 10 days.
We sailed the 40+ miles from St Thomas to Palmas Del Mar Marina in order to leave the boat secured while we drove a rental car to San Juan to pick the girls up. Having spent some time in Puerto Rico each year I hauled the boat out over a six year period, I knew I must show them Old San Juan and El Yunque rain forest. Both were major hits and well worth the three days we spent away from the boat, but it was time to get back aboard and set sail.
We left on their fourth morning and raised the spinnaker for a fast 30 mile run to Bahia de Jobos and topped it off by entering the bay at the eastern entrance called Boca del Infierno (Mouth of Hell in English) in 25 knots of wind. Despite the ominous name I was not that worried because it was suppose to be a fairly well defined gap in the reef and if I did not think it was safe to enter we would just go another five miles and enter the bay on the leeward side of the reef. Turns out it was no big deal even in the high winds and we anchored between the mangrove islands just to the east, which turned out to be right next to Cayo Caribe State Park. Everyone loved exploring all the different mangrove channels between the islands with the dinghy and going ashore to walk around the park was a hit also.
Bahia de Jobos is a huge five mile long bay that is very well protected and offers many different anchoring opportunities. I would have loved to spend more time exploring the entire bay, but we had limited time with the girls and need to move on. With that said we set sail for Cayos de Ratones at the west end of the bay. My guide book said this was a very protected little anchorage, but when we got there it was filled with local boats all tied stern to the mangroves (this is the way most Puerto Rican captains prefer to anchor), so we pressed on for another four miles until we came to Cayos de Caracoles. I am going to admit there is not a lot of reasons to stop here. The main reason we did is because we were running out of daylight and the girls wanted a beach….even if it was only the tiny on on the northwest end of the cay.
The next morning was a leisurely pancake breakfast before we moved a whopping two and a half miles to the town of Santa Isabel. By the time we arrived the winds were blowing a good 25 knots, so it was very nice to be in the amazingly protected little creek like bay. I am not sure you can take much more than a 6 foot draft over the bar at the entrance, but once inside we anchored in a line with the local boats. If you stray too much out of the line of anchored boats you will be on the shoals to either side. Before going ashore to walk around town and grab a drink we decided to check out the two little beaches on the other side of the anchorage. Turns out the shallow sand bar going from one beach to the other was actually a sandy layer over a black mud that squished between your toes. Having three women with me, I was not the hero for taking them there. Haha.
Lucky for me our next stop was Isla Caja de Muertos (Coffin Island) 8-9 miles to the southwest. This island was owned by Tito Wirshing “back in the day” and island lore says he threw some legendary parties. Once he passed away, it was gifted to the Ponce Yacht Club and is now part of the PR Parks Department. It use to be a major tourist destination for day tripping Puerto Ricans, but it was destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and has not reopened. That meant we had the island to ourselves and Lily’s daughters loved playing on the beach, trying out snorkeling for the first time, and of course having a photo shoot as girls in their 20’s like to do. For Lily and I, the hike to the lighthouse was the highlight of the day. With all the exploring we did on this island I never did find out the origin of the island’s name. It has to be a gruesome story, right?!?
Seven miles to the northwest of Isla Caja de Muertos is Ponce, the second largest town on the island of Puerto Rico. The problem with Ponce is that being such a large city it is not great for boats. Don’t get me wrong, you will find grocery stores, laundry, parts, and rental cars, which is what we needed because sadly the girls time with us had run out and we needed to get them to San Juan for their flight. The problem is that even though Ponce is on a two and half mile long bay there is only one good spot to take your dinghy to get ashore. That spot is next to the yacht club, but don’t try to use the yacht club because they are not very welcoming to visitors. Instead there is a fishing cooperative deeper into the bay that told us it was no problem to leave the dinghy for the day. From there you can get an Uber into town for $10-15. Once in town there are a few sights to see including coffee plantations and a 150 plus year old firehouse still in service.
After dropping the girls off and driving back, we took advantage of the rental car by doing laundry and getting provisions before setting sail 15 miles towards Cayos de Cana Gorda where Gilligan’s Island can be found. Obviously not the island from the TV show, but it kind of felt that way. The best part of Gilligan’s Island was the large waist deep, white sand, pool like area in front of the dock and snorkeling the mangrove channel leading away from it. You will be fighting the current in the 20 foot wide channel, but it was 10 plus feet deep and had lots of fish to see. The coolest part is that when you turn around, or round the corner to circumnavigate the island, you will zip along like you are on a conveyor belt. Very cool and a place we relaxed for a few days since it was also well protected.
When we did leave, it was to sail 10 miles west to Bahia Fosforesente, because I had a surprise for Lily. The bay is quite protected because you have to sail through a fairly narrow channel before it opens up into a decent size bay. Lily was wondering why we were there, since it is totally mangrove lined and there is absolutely nothing around. I asked her to be patient and once the sun totally set around 7pm tour boats started entering the bay for 30 minutes to an hour and it was then that I showed Lily her surprise. You see, this is one of several bays around Puerto Rico that is know for bioluminescence and the only one that you can swim in. Bioluminescence is tiny sea creatures that glow when agitated. Imagine lighting bugs, but in the water. It was an absolutely amazing sight and skinny dipping with glow in the dark glitter all over us will go down as one of my most romantic memories ever. While the tour boats came and went with barely anytime to enjoy the experience, we spent the better part of two hours soaking it all in. Needless to say, Lily loved the surprise!
Bahia Fosforesente is a bay within a larger 6-7 mile long bay that is surrounded with different reefs and small islands. I feel like it would be possible to anchor in a different spot each day for a week inside this larger bay. The two anchorages we checked out were Arrecife Enmedio and Arrecife Laurel (Arrecife means reef in Spanish). Both of these gave pretty good protection and you can enjoy them as a day anchorage and quite possibly overnight depending on weather. The reef knocks down the waves, but not the breeze. We found the snorkeling around both to be enjoyable.
From Arrecife Laurel it is a quick 5 mile down wind sail to Cabo Rojo and then another five miles up the west coast to Boqueron. While it was fun sailing around the southwest corner of Puerto Rico, and the charts show an anchorage on the leeward side of Cabo Rojo, we did not stop. From what I read and saw, this anchorage gets quite rolly and we decided why anchor there since Boqueron is such a beautiful and protected bay. We basically were able to chose anywhere along a mile long beach to drop the hook with no one to bother us. Of course that isolation was part of the problem when we went to leave. You see, even though there is a small yacht club, there is no fuel in Boqueron. For that you have to sail 3 miles north to the next bay, Puerto Real. The other issue is that Mayaguez, ten miles north, is the port of entry instead of Boqueron. Luckily, all we had to do to check out was simply submitted a form online and do a video call. Since we were setting sail for the Dominican Republic, 100 plus miles to the west, we had to make sure we got exit papers emailed to us to give to the DR officials.
We loved our westward cruise along the southern side of Puerto Rico and excited that it was the first in many new adventures as we head westward to Central America and then down to Panama over the next couple years. Before I sign off I want to impart one piece of advice to anyone wanting to sail here. Puerto Rico is big enough that the island creates its own wind. Over night and in the morning the cold air is settling down the mountains and pushes against the trade winds. This means you will find north winds more often than east and it will be lower than the trades. Conversely, by late morning until sunset, warm air is rising up the mountains and pulls the trade winds with it. This means the typical 15 knots can climb as high as 30 knots. With this knowledge I recommend anyone trying to go upwind to get to the Virgin Islands leave each day before sunrise and anchor no latter than noon. This will give you smooth seas and possible some sailing opportunities. If you are headed westward like we were then you will want to wait a bit long before heading out so you can get more wind for the downwind sails.
Join the adventures on Guiding Light as Captain Shane & Lily continue westward along the Greater Antilles. Simply look for svGuidingLight on your favorite social media or on the web.