PART 5- THE EAST COAST AND BACK
July 5th - Day 19
I must have been exhausted last night. Even though it was the fourth of July, I never heard any fireworks, or street parties, or anything of the sort, and I slept until my typical 4:00am.
I started earlier than usual, since there was no tent or gear to pack up today, and after six landbound days I was eager to be making progress again.
I covered more distance than any other day so far. Today the headwind was forecast to be light, and I wanted to begin rounding the southeast corner of the island. Tomorrow the east wind is forecast to be stronger, but it won’t matter as much once I have a more northerly heading.
I saw a shark. I had paused to pick up a phone call from last night's host who was calling to ask where I had dropped the keys, when suddenly I saw a big fish swimming directly towards my bow. It was just as surprising to see me as I was to see it. It stopped for a second as if it was evaluating what I was, and then dove down into the turbid water. “Doesn’t look like food and seems big enough that maybe it might think that I am food,” it must have thought. I remembered a video on Youtube that shows a drone view over the beaches in Southern California. There the waters are teaming with great white sharks swimming amongst the surfers and paddle boarders sometimes coming so close that you could kick the fish in the face. The oblivious swimmers beat their arms and legs around like distressed fish, and the surfers with black wetsuits bobbling on their boards waiting for a wave look just like a distracted sea lion that would make an easy meal. Almost always, however, the sharks ignore the commotion, and if they approach with any curiosity, they quickly lose interest once they realize you’re not the type of food they’re looking for. Seems to me they aren’t out there looking to bite anyone; except for the one that bit the back of my kayak last week. I don’t want to run into that guy again.
Perhaps there were other sharks around, because the place I stopped for the day was called California Beach. I’m glad that I was prudent to not be out on the water these past days. The waves on this beach reached all the way up into the bushes and there were many turtle eggs strewn about the sand as many nests must have flooded.
A little ways from where I camped were a few ramshackle plywood houses. I became the attraction of the day for the fishermen, who wanted to know if I fish off my kayak. Then two then elderly ladies, sisters as I later found out, came by to see what was going on and were determined to get a picture with me, and then with the kayak. Then flattered me with generosity offering me a bottle of orange juice and a beach chair to sit on, all of which I readily accepted. I hadn’t realized until now but having a decent place to sit on when on land is a huge comfort to have on a kayaking expedition. It’s on the same level as having a pillow when sleeping in the tent. I’ll consider investing in a folding chair for my next kayaking expedition.
July 6th - Day 20
I finally rounded the south east corner of Puerto Rico. I was thrilled when the compass heading started to point Northeast and then due North. Compared to yesterday, paddling felt rather and visibly seeing that the land was moving backwards with every stroke was a big psychological boost.
I passed by an island full of monkeys. It’s the first time I’ve seen monkeys here in Puerto Rico, and I would venture to say that the ones on this island are not native. A sign on the beach said very sternly, “Do not land. The monkeys are aggressive, and they bite.” and so I stayed a few meters offshore and did not get off my kayak. I’m not sure what these monkeys eat, because the island is kind of barren. Maybe someone from the mainland comes by a day or two and drops off food for the famished critters. I didn’t want to set foot on land and be mistaken for their meal ticket and find out how unhappy they would be with unrealized expectations.
Yesterday I noticed a small rash under each of my armpits. I don’t know why I didn’t apply the rubbing cream before starting today. Maybe the discomfort wasn’t enough to remind me in the morning, but it sure was throughout the day. The rashes are now red, and I am in sore need to wash them in fresh water.
I camped on the mainland, just downwind of the monkey island. The beach here is very ugly, full of seaweed and trash. There was a road nearby leading to a small village. I walked along the road and found a gas station. At that point I had a bright idea. I bought two gallons of fresh water and dunked them over my head for an improvised shower which was greatly appreciated by the armpit rashes.
July 7th - Day 21
Yesterday afternoon I got very worried about the wind. This part of the coast bends back East again for about 7 miles which means I have to paddle directly into the wind. Unlike other sections thus far in the journey, the trade wind here blows over the ocean unimpeded by land, picks up speed much earlier in the day and takes longer to die down in the afternoon. I stared out to the horizon looking at Viequez island to the Southeast, my wide brim hat was barely hanging on to my head, and I wondered if I would have the physical and mental strength to make it through this section.
Up until 3:00am the wind howled and my tent was shaking uncontrollably. Then, miraculously over the next two hours it died down considerably. I saw that as my window of opportunity and was on the water at 5:30am. For good measure I drank one of my He-Man potions (aka, the 5-hour energy drink) to feel pumped up and ready to blast out energy through my paddles strokes like an Energizer Bunny. The He-Man potion really does work. for the first few hours I felt like an Olympic athlete and powered over swell after swell like they were ripples in a pond. I became singularly focused on rounding the headland in front of me. No time for early morning photos; the magic potion effect is like the Mario Star power, and I had to make the most of every minute.
The coastline had the shape of a fingered hand. There are four separate hilly headlands with their tops punctuated with wind turbines. For some reason, none of the turbines were working even though there was plenty of wind to spin the blades. Perhaps, like so many things here in Puerto Rico, they were a casualty of Hurricane Maria as well. Many towns near the coast look dilapidated, businesses like restaurants are shuttered, and houses seem abandoned. Even some four years after the storm, the scars on the island are visible everywhere.
On my way to the last headland the wind picked up and I had increased my efforts to squeeze every drop out of the He-Man potion and keep pace. I also had to look out for boat traffic as several of the early ferries to Culebra and Viequez were leaving and arriving from the Ceiba port terminal and were crossing through my path. No doubt, they had no idea I was there.
After the last headland I took a sharp turn due North, and with that I formally ended the headwind portion of the journey. The last two miles were an easy breeze, and I even got to put up the sail.
I arrived at an island called Isla Piñeros. The beach here is fantastic for camping and I had a beautiful view of the green mountains of El Yunque in the mainland with their tops shrouded in clouds. The only issue were the signs propped all along the beach. Not only was it forbidden to camp on the beach, but it was also forbidden to even land on the island as there were unexploded munitions from the time the US navy used the island for target practice.
I didn’t plan on venturing into the mosquito infested interior of the island, so I assumed I would be pretty safe from stepping onto any bombs. I pitched my tent right next to the sign which I concluded should be the safest place; someone had to walk up the beach and put the sign there.
Tomorrow morning I’ll leave some of my own unexploded ammunition buried in the sand for some unfortunate foot. But I suppose that if I bury mine deep enough I’ll have done a better job cleaning up after myself than the US Navy.
I only paddled twelve miles today and with my early start, I finished quite early and there wasn’t much to do. The beach to the west is blocked by fallen trees so there isn’t anywhere to walk. I found an old pot potty cover that washed up and it became a very comfortable seat. I spent hours watching rain storms rolling in from the sea and over Farjado Bay wishing they would come over to where I was. I could use a freshwater shower.
I turned on my phone to see if I could pick up enough reception to listen to NPR and catch up on the news. I heard that the president of Haiti has been assassinated by a paramilitary group. I turned the phone off.
From here I can already see the Northeast cape of Puerto Rico. There isn’t much left to complete the journey now.