I had dug through historical records as part of the research process, but reached the point when I needed to go for a ride on a boat with a depthsounder. So, I brought along a portable model the day I boarded a boat run by CocoKite Tours in the Dominican Republic, transforming her into a proper research vessel.
We thundered westward, paralleling the North Coast with native guide Francisco Paulino at the wheel of our 28-footer. We drove between breaking reefs about 300 feet apart when Paulino slipped the outboards into neutral. I dipped a pole into the water so the transducer could transmit data to my handheld. Twenty-seven feet. That was deep enough for a Navy frigate to pass through. Paulino throttled up, and into Port Jackson we went.
As he nosed the center console across the placid harbor, the seabed deepened to 40 feet before it became shallow again. We approached to within a couple hundred feet of Jackson Beach. The sounder read 20 feet. Like Leonard Nimoy narrating a low-budget TV documentary, I declared our ragtag expedition a success. The CocoKite crew had rediscovered the place called “the lost harbor of Christopher Columbus.” As a lifelong sailor and history buff, I was stoked.
Though Jackson is a familiar destination for local tour boat operators, thousands of cruisers have sailed by over the decades, never knowing that shelter was nearby. A friend of mine had been through these waters decades ago. Bruce Van Sant is a quirky gringo author who wrote A Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South in the 1980s. His book discussed the gnarly nature of the waters. The North Coast of the DR has one of the world’s great hurricane holes at Luperon Bay, which is 88 nautical miles west of Port Jackson. The next decent refuge is 60 nautical miles east of Jackson. Various anchorages between Luperon and Samaná Bay are open to the north, exposed to thousands of miles of fetch over the Atlantic Ocean. When storms from as far away as the Azores send rollers into these semi-protected places, they become death traps for small craft.
Christopher Columbus experienced danger in this region, having lost his flagship Santa Maria on a reef off the northern coast of Hispaniola. And yet he must have been feeling that his luck was changing when his remaining ships, Niña and Pinta, made way eastward from Luperon, benefitting from a favorable and rare westerly breeze. The year was 1493, and the first Columbus expedition was just a few days from heading back to Spain.
Lookouts atop the rigging spied an island between two headlands against a rising mountain range. The low island capped a mass of coral reefs. What caught the attention of these experienced seamen was the inky blue basin between the island and the beach, and the fact that a wide avenue of dark water indicated a five-fathom entrance. It was deep and wide enough for a squadron of Spain’s biggest ships. Columbus named the harbor Puerto Santo, the Sacred Port, but he did not take his ships inside. Disinclined to squander his westerly breeze, Columbus piloted his little fleet right past the harbor.
Two centuries later, French pirates were in the area and were aware of the sheltered anchorage on the north side. Someone named the island that Columbus saw Cayo Jackson. (More on that soon.) The port became Port Jackson and was used for commerce, shipping out native mahogany, coconuts and copra.
Now, about that island. Like the mythological Atlantis, it sunk beneath the waves. That event occurred on August 4, 1946, when an earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale hit the area, spawning a 12- to 16-foot tsunami that inundated lowlands. Fifty-two acres of rock and scrubby foliage became a shallow reef buried three to five feet under. No one told the cartographers, however. Cayo Jackson can still be found on government charts 75 years after its disappearance.
Van Sant told me about the time he went looking for Port Jackson. Charts and U.S. Navy Sailing Directions placed it behind a protective island, but Van Sant couldn’t find it, nor could anyone else because they were all looking for the island first. Another impediment was the fact that waters in the vicinity were poorly charted. With reefs all around, exploration without local knowledge was risky. So, because of a longstanding charting error, modern science managed to misplace one of the first harbors in the New World documented by Europeans.
Patrick Florens, owner of CocoKite Tours, was aboard the boat the day we steered a course to Port Jackson. I asked him to begin our approach from Las Ballenas, which stands about five miles to the east of the entrance. U.S. government sailing directions from 1918 and 1954 recommend using this route. I wanted to test the accuracy of these directions. I learned they are not so accurate, since a principal point of reference is an island that is not there anymore. Instead, Paulino took us the way he usually goes with tourists.
Columbus gets a bad rap today, but I appreciate him as the first European to take note of Port Jackson. It’s a gift from a great navigator that I’d like to pay forward.
This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue.