The lost port of Christopher Columbus
I had dug through historical documents as part of the research process, but reached the point where I needed to go for a ride on a boat with a depth sounder. So I brought a portable model the day I boarded a boat run by CocoKite Tours in the Dominican Republic, turning it into a real research vessel.
We thundered west, parallel to the north coast with native guide Francisco Paulino driving our 28ft. We drove between broken reefs about 300 feet apart when Paulino put the outboards to neutral. I dipped a pole in the water so that the transducer could transmit data to my handheld. Twenty-seven feet. It was deep enough for a Navy frigate to pass through. Paulino accelerated and we went to Port Jackson.
As he pointed his nose from the center console across the placid harbor, the seabed deepened to 40 feet before turning shallow again. We approached a few hundred yards from Jackson Beach. The sounder read 20 feet. As 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 port of Christopher Columbus”. As a longtime sailor and history buff, I was delighted.
Although Jackson is a familiar destination for local tour boat operators, thousands of cruise passengers have sailed over the decades, never knowing that a shelter was nearby. A friend of mine had crossed these waters decades ago. Bruce Van Sant is an eccentric gringo author who wrote Gentleman’s Guide to the Southern Passages In the 1980s. His book discussed the gnarled nature of the waters. The north coast of the Dominican Republic has one of the largest hurricane holes in the world at Luperon Bay, which is 88 nautical miles west of Port Jackson. The next decent hideaway 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 scrolls to these semi-protected places, they become deadly traps for small craft.
Christopher Columbus knew the danger in this region, having lost his flagship Sainte Marie on a reef off the north coast of Hispaniola. And yet he must have felt his luck was turning when his remaining ships, Niña and Pinta, is heading east from Luperon, benefiting from a favorable and rare westerly breeze. It was 1493 and Christopher Columbus’ first expedition was only days away from returning to Spain.
Lookouts atop the rig spotted 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 sailors was the ink-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 the larger Spanish ships. Columbus named the port Puerto Santo the sacred port, but he did not bring his ships inside. Not inclined to waste his westerly breeze, Columbus piloted his small fleet just outside the harbor.
Two centuries later, French pirates were in the area and knew of the sheltered anchorage on the north side. Someone named the island Columbus saw Cayo Jackson. (More on this soon.) The port became Port Jackson and was used for trade, shipping native mahogany, coconuts, and copra.
Now about this island. Like mythological Atlantis, it sank beneath the waves. This event occurred on August 4, 1946, when an earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale struck the area, causing a 12 to 16 foot tsunami that inundated the lowlands. . Fifty-two acres of rock and bushy foliage has become a shallow reef buried three to five feet underground. No one told the cartographers, however. Cayo Jackson is still on the government charts 75 years after his passing.
Van Sant told me about the time he went looking for Port Jackson. The US Navy charts and nautical instructions placed it behind a protective island, but Van Sant couldn’t find it and anyone else because they were all looking for the island first. Another obstacle was the fact that the nearby waters were poorly mapped. With reefs all around, exploring without local knowledge was risky. So, due to a long-standing cartographic error, modern science has managed to misplace one of the first New World ports documented by Europeans.
Patrick Florens, owner of CocoKite Tours, was on board the boat the day we set sail for Port Jackson. I asked him to begin our approach to Las Ballenas, which is about five miles east of the entrance. The 1918 and 1954 U.S. Government Sailing Directions recommend using this route. I wanted to test the correctness of these directions. I have learned that they are not that precise, as a main point of reference is an island that is no longer there. Instead, Paulino took us as he usually goes with tourists.
Columbus has a bad reputation today, but I appreciate him as the first European to take note of Port Jackson. It is a gift from a great navigator that I would like to pay to the next.
This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue.