This blog is dedicated to Eric, Paolo, Charlotte, Dennis, Ralph, and all those interested in Cuba. It took a month to write and edit and has over 200 photos as I took notes before during and after our journey.
For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to go to Cuba! As a young sailor growing up in Miami our dad talked of sailing and racing to Havana before the revolution of 1959. Then came communism, the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, and America became an enemy. Later when Castro decided to dump some of his unwanted citizens the Muriel Boat Lift was a hot topic and I still can picture the riff raff of boats piled up on the side of the wharf in Key West from people fleeing their native lands. And although he opened the jails, not all of them were criminals, many were educated and wealthy and preferred to get out of the hell that they were experiencing. As I grew, so did little Havana in Miami with the center being Calle Ocho, formerly known as 8th street. Cafe con leche por favor? Even long after I moved to California I still could not go to Miami without ordering up a good Cuban coffee.
Sailing to Cuba was a decision that didn’t come without some paperwork or a price. Two months before departure, as American citizens, we were required to apply for a USCG permit, CG3300. You have to state your purpose, there are only a few that are acceptable, and tourism is not permitted. Our purpose was simple – to support the Cuban people. And duh, to see Cuba. For almost a year we collected various items, purchased school supplies, toiletries, and kept anything that we thought they could not easily obtain. Good thing we have a cat so we could stow it all. This was the loot when I got it out of the hidey-holes.
Once permission was granted, we sent it to our insurance carrier and paid them $500 for the allowed 2 week visit. One rule not taken lightly: if we left the boat overnight without someone manning it, El Gato would not be covered for theft.
With some research I found the Cuba Guide book written by Addison Chan who loves Cuba and sails there yearly with his wife. His FaceBook page Cuba Land and Sea was also a very good resource as Addison was quick to answer my questions with sound advice. This was our Cuban library.
At 780 miles long, Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, with close to 12 million people. It’s bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico with the closest port, Havana, only 90 miles from Duval Street. Closer in fact to Key West than Key West is to Miami.
Of the 5 archipelagos that encircle Cuba, the 2 on the southside are Jardines de la Reina, Garden of the Queen, and Archipelago de los Canarreos, the Canaries. Cayos – like Cays in Bahamas and BVI’s, or Keys in Florida – are small islands and there are thousands of them off Cuba. Most are very small, but many are good sized islands with white sandy beaches, mangroves aplenty, and often a few palm trees.
Eric and I chose to go alone to keep things simple. However we buddy boated with friends on Carlotta’s Promise, a sister ship owned by Paolo Sheaffer, a larger than life seasoned racer and his wife Charlotte Christman. They were joined by friends Ralph Veneland, a retired Exxon engineer who dove into fix-it projects, and Dennis Ground, their naviguesser, chef, and first responder to jumping in the water with spear in hand.
With buddy boating you not only share the experiences, it’s like having your next door neighbors driving their own car, come over for dinner, then go home to sleep. Of course there is also the added safety factor but it’s much better than that. Discussing charts, decisions on weather, sharing info from PredictWind and deciding where to go next, what parts do we/you have/need, and sharing of ideas on how to make repairs are things we all appreciate.
When exploring, two dinghies means if one breaks down there’s another to tow. BTW this didn’t happen but hey, you can never be too careful out there, especially when there are no resources and the next port is hundreds of miles away. Another bonus? Because we are sister ships we get there close to the same time.
Before we got there, the journey actually started in the Bahamas. We were buddy boating with a fleet of mostly new friends on mostly Catanas. A wild and wonderful eclectic group, we had the hardest time leaving and every day and night was filled with gatherings onshore and on a boat, rotating whose boat would host next. The thing about full time cruisers is we don’t take this lightly. When it’s good it’s really good and this was the most fun we’d had in years. But the deadline for arriving in Cuba was closing in and eventually we knew it was time to say farewell.
The easiest Cuban port to reach from the Bahamas is called Puerta la Vita on the north east side, however we chose to sail the road less traveled. Heading south for a south east arrival you must pass between Haiti and Cuba through the Windward Passage, turn to starboard and sail for over 100 miles to Santiago De Cuba, the 2nd largest city in Cuba, a port of entry, and previously the nation’s capital.
The south is much more remote with many small islands called Cayos and you don’t need permission every time you anchor. After you check in at a designated Port of Entry you can Cayo hop along until you reach another town with a customs agent.
After we said our goodbyes for the hundredth time we departed Georgetown Exumas, Bahamas and did long day trips south to continue enjoying the Bahamas but also to arrive in good daylight for finding anchorages. The first stop was Long Island to fuel up in Thomson Bay, then onto Jamaica Bay, Acklins Island where it was tough finding good holding on the south end. `
On the way south both boats spotted whales breaching, first mom and then youngster who clearly was having a blast and possibly a good tune in his head to dance to. Still thrilling to know that’s out here! Fishing was less successful in that Eric caught a big Mahi Mahi that jumped and got away and CP had the same misfortune.
Next stop was Man O War Bay, Great Inagua Island, the last island in the Bahamian chain. It has tons of Flamingoes which we didn’t see, and still makes salt for Morton Salt Co. which we could see mounds of in the distance. In the old days this was treasure and still is as almost everyone loves salt. Man O War Bay had a beautiful reef from the boat right up to the beach. Crystal clear waters with healthy reefs teeming with fish. On the way back to the boat I speared a huge lobster. It was too heavy for me to carry back so Paolo swam with it up over his head and Eric came out by dinghy to help. Surf and turf for dinner!
The Windward Passage. There is a famous racing sloop named after it and other than the yacht, the name meant nothing to me. With some research we learned that it’s notorious for being challenging and at times ferocious.
PredictWind was calling for 10-15 for the first 40 miles then predicted to ramp up to 30 by the time we were next to Cuba. Sometimes the predictions are lighter than the real world so being cautious was important. The decision was made to leave early for a transit in good daylight. Bad things tend to happen at night so we didn’t want to chance that. A 4AM departure time was agreed upon and our mini flotilla was up and at ’em in the dark.
It was another beautiful sail, good wind at our backs with waves breaking now and then as we slid around the corner and down the southern coast of Cuba. The only mishap was Neptune swiping our swim ladder but otherwise just a gorgeous spirited sail for seasoned sailors.
Once we rounded the corner and left the WP we took in the spectacular views of Sierra Maestra Mountain ridges. The excitement was building and we couldn’t wait to land, check through customs and immigration and go explore. But first we had to pass Guantanamo which got us all wondering. What exactly are the US doing there and who is being held prisoner? Turns out with a little research the US made a deal and are allowed to occupy that area. Big brother watching the little bro. El Gato sailed too close for their comfort and even though we were a few miles offshore we got a radio call from someone asking us to change course and we gladly complied.
The grin on Eric’s face all day was priceless and I have to admit it was some of the best driving I’d had in a long time. But I was pooped. Ended a charter the previous week, made 100’s of miles to rendezvous with Carlotta’s Promise, provisioned, laundry, etc etc, hung with party animals for several days, and hadn’t slowed down or stopped yet. Was I looking for a good nights sleep with no disruptions? You bet! Was I going to get one? Nope, no way!
Watched the sun rise and sun set as we do most days. However today was special. When you wake up at 3:30AM for a 0400 dark departure the sun is such a welcoming sight. At sunset, no matter what, we blow the conch shell.
Then there are the stars! Backtracking, in the lower Bahama Islands there are so few lights on shore that the stars glow brighter than ever! The goal is to see an airplane, a shooting star, and the elusive satellite before bed. Usually we get 2 out of three.
Onto the land of endless mojitos and live music!
Upon arrival to Cuba the sights and sounds and smells all mix in a plethora of senses.
First some lights up high then at water level, then some good smells, a castle at the entrance,
then bad smells from the power plant. Music! STC is known for it’s abundance of music and this night does not disappoint! As we round the corner and enter the well marked channel the thump thump and rhythms are getting louder. We pass disco lights where its so loud we would surely be deaf if we were inside. CP is behind us so we’ll figure it out and pass on the news of how to check in.
When we finally round the last corner towards the marina the dock master calls us. It’s 3 AM. We have tried calling for over an hour as it says in the cruising guide to start calling 12 miles out. The dockmaster’s English is good, in fact every dock master must have good command of our language for the job. We are directed where to anchor and told to stay on CH 72. Have a good night and the authorities will be here in the AM. Keep the radio on. CP arrives. Eric showers, Im in bed and hear them calling Carlotta’s Promise. Since they don’t answer the dockmaster calls us again. The doctor is coming. It’s 3AM!!!
Please put your dinghy in the water and come in when we call. OK. We dinghy over to CP and inform them too.
OMG so different checking into Cuba! It reminds me a bit of Greece. Lots of preparation, lots of paperwork, and so much worry for the government to be happy. Only once have we had a nurse make us show her paperwork and that was in St Lucia. It will be interesting to see what they want to see and do to us…
3:20AM and the doc meets us on the wharf in front of the marina. The dock master and security are there too. Very friendly, she asks if we are sick or have been sick (what if we lied?), then she takes our temperature. I report it’s 98 degrees and they all laugh. They use celsius! Next we go to customs and there’s AC and mosquitos. It’s freezing. Takes about an hour with us sitting there and them typing and printing on an ancient dot matrix printer, questions of whether we have a drone or not, “no” (we do but it’s stashed so far underneath the port bow and it doesn’t work), do we have high res cameras, “no” (not super high anyway and he says the phone camera is fine), and do we have a satellite phone “no” (we have 2, JK we only have one that has never been used and an Iridium Go! Which technically isn’t a phone). Guessing they don’t want recon by Americans or any other non Cuban citizens. To say they are paranoid is not an understatement although it sure feels like things have loosened up from the stories we’ve heard from the recent past when your neighbor could be a spy for Fidel and report you for anything. Come back at 7AM Por favor. WTF? It’s 4AM. We take a 2.5 hour nap and drag ourselves back in and he’s ready for us. It takes 2 hours (they clearly are having issues) and finally we can go back for another nap. But not before we offer up our El Gato sticker which is promptly placed on the backside of the customs computer!
Meanwhile CP crew have been standing with dock master Jorge getting the local lowdown about rules and money exchanges. We are deliriously happy.
No Cubans (unless they are officials) allowed onboard our yachts. No exceptions. Basically the rule of thumb in Cuba is this: Everything is not allowed unless it is. In America everything is allowed unless it isn’t. Unlike China which now has cameras everywhere watching, taking notes, even using face recognition, the Cuban government does not have the economy or backing to support high tech surveillance. It is the only communist country in the western hemisphere. Our neighbors.
There are 2 kinds of money in Cuba, Both called Pesos.
The CUC is about $.90 US to $1CUC. CUC’s are used mostly by tourists and in the tourism industry AKA the government who is taking our big dollars. CUP is used by Cubans between Cubans. It’s more like 30/$1US.
All the cities and places for tourists take CUC but if you hop inside a veggie market or buy a pastry off a cart it’s with CUP’s. Important to ask first!
Some locals exchanged our US money for CUC pesos (blackmarket but so common it’s in the guide books) so we could take the ferry to town and have a few bucks before hitting the CadeCa which is a money exchange house. Banks take too long we were told by the friendly dockmaster Jorge.
At 12:30 we hop on the ferry to STC and no one has change for our $20 CUC. It was like asking someone if they had change for $500. One thing that stood out is no one had phones. Nowadays you can’t go anywhere without seeing people on their phones and this was refreshing. Everyone was actually talking to each other and looking around. Other than me of course while I took some photos.
Upon arrival at the STC port everyone gets off in single file surrounded by dozens wanting to board. I look through the faces and all are Cubans except 3.
We have arrived!
We head up the hill to find Charlotte and Dennis in front of a church. A great lunch with live music, my first Cuban mojito,
black beans and rice, some artisan wood products including dominoes, then back to the boats.
They are covered, I mean covered in orange spots from the power plants that blew the smoke towards us last night.
Acid rain. We will leave tomorrow. This night we entertain some Kiwis who we hope to see down the road when we sail to NZ in 2020, and of course get a full nights sleep.
The next AM it’s all about clearing out. More paperwork and forms. Finally one more chance to see something local and we take a short ferry for 4CUC round trip to the small Cayo Granma, named after the yacht Fidel and 81 other rebels arrived on in 1956 to launch the Cuban Revolution.
It’s is a quaint island and 2 teenagers help us off the ferry and lead us to their father’s restaurant.
It is my first Casa Particular! A restaurant in a house which is a new thing for Cuba. Not sure how much the government takes but it is giving some people a chance to make $.
The boys take us for a tour of their 1K island so it’s a short walk. Several houses are now rubble from hurricane Sandy and Matthew.
Kids stop and ask if we have pens or pencils and I feel terrible I didn’t bring any from the boat. Big mistake I won’t make again.
Camerones in garlic with rice and the BEST plantain chips on the planet! Fresh, warm, and garlicky with a twang of vinegar and onions.
Two older gentlemen are summoned to play music and one plays excellent guitar and harmonizes while the one with half his front teeth missing belts out the songs with such gusto you wish you knew the words to sing along. They are all smiles. Besides our group a German couple are the only other guests.`
Back to our mission of escaping the acid rain after tipping our tour guides by giving them a requested USB dongle (there was an exchange by giving it the dock master who would then give it to the ferry driver who would then give it to the boys). You never know what they could use and what’s hard for them to get, especially if they only get paid $30/month. Doctors make up $67/month, and while education and health care is free, it’s a rough life for most. Things are changing, but Fidel’s and Che Guavera’s faces are everywhere. Posters, billboards, framed photos in the customs office. They are reminded everyday to behave and go along with the system.
Checks and balances – now that we are leaving after only 1.5 days, we wonder was it worth it to stop in Santiago De Cuba. We got to rest, we are checked in, saw the city, an island, and a first taste of Cuba in the old capitol where they honor Fidel. The down side are the spots that cover the deck and are difficult to remove. There were only a handful of boats in and around the marina. Dock space is limited to about 6 transient smaller boats. Most choose to anchor – $11/night. No one stayed long.
We depart by 3PM, later than the plan as now it will most likely be an after sunset arrival to a new port called Chivrico. The wind is with us but starts out light which doesn’t help.
I’m cooking black beans and rice, a recipe my mother’s Cuban friend gave her many years ago and still one of my favorites.
The coast is fairly desolate and mountainous. Raw. Few lights. One thing that stands out on this journey is how few boats there are. Other than one tanker near the WP and the few anchored off STC we are alone. We are off the grid in more ways than one. There is no cell coverage for our phones, internet is only at ports, and even then you buy cards for $1/hour and hope for a good connection.
The sun sets and a half moon helped as we pondered whether to enter a narrow channel to a small harbor with a reef on one side and a road on the other.
The guide says do not under any circumstance attempt to enter at night. So after going back and forth we decide to go close and then make a decision. Fueled by a desire and necessity for sleep we went for it. Slowly.
The channel would be extremely narrow, but on our side was the practice of weaving through lobster traps in Maine. Try doing that in a multihull! It definitely gives you a better sense for how close you can get to things on both sides.
The waves regressed to nothing, the spot light found the pilings for the reef, and as we passed the most narrow and sketchy area someone on a bike no more than 3 boat lengths away whistled loudly, a pause, then another loud whistle. Kinda made the hair on your neck bristle. Was it a warning we were going too close to the road or reef or? Gut said yes. All senses were on high alert and our head phones were being used very efficiently. This was most likely the bravest and stupidest thing we’ve done in a while but feeling like seasoned confident cruisers we tiptoed on and later promised to Never do that again. CP was on our tail, in radio contact, and advised to stay far enough behind so we could back up or turn around as needed.
Once inside we found ourselves alone with lots of room in all directions. At the end a shipwreck was marked on the chart and in closer inspection it was a barge with a large Mangrove tree growing in it. CP meanwhile had their own dramas. Everyone but Captain Paolo were quietly muttering how nuts we all were and they would not be doing this if it was their yacht. Paolo tried hard to ignore them and follow our lead. He trusted us and knew we could back up as needed. It’s one of those sea stories that will be told and embellished in years to come.
The rewards of our folly were sweet. A group dinner and then a peaceful sleep in a sweet tiny protected fishing harbor where we hear Cuban music ashore.
Haven’t felt this awesome vibe since we were in the Med.
New country, new experiences, and its exciting!
In the AM the little bitty fishing boat we passed on the way towards the harbor the night before is being towed in by a bigger one. They smile, say buenos Dias, I take photos and smile.
So the question is, are these people happier than the ones who escaped? Let’s say you were not in trouble politically and you were not educated or rico. Would you go to America or elsewhere to be free of communism? Many did but most couldn’t and can’t. I suppose it really depends on your circumstances like how many family members you would be leaving behind, and how many left and can send you money to leave too. It’s sad, but for now it’s what they know. And most everyone is friendly, helpful and doing the best they can.
As we leave the harbor, this time with full sun and visibility of the reef, the shipwrecked hull of a sailboat is tossed in the surf with it’s mast hanging down. A pitiful sight and a reminder we were lucky.
Heading west we try to fish. No boats out here either. The shoreline has a few small villages but otherwise it’s all mountains and nothing else. Kinda weird, kinda cool.
It feels like ages since we’ve landed anything and finally El Gato hooks and lands a Black Fin Tuna with a little help from her human caretakers. Cats love fish and we were overdue.
Sushi tonight for all 6 of us!
45 NM from Chivrico we round Punta De Piedras and enter the bay for Marea Del Portillo where we will be required to check in.
The boys of CP swim over for Cuba Libres, Paolo inspects Eric’s work and while they visit a small fishing boat is rowing out towards us.
It’s the Guardia! The boys jump in the water after greetings and one did enough of of a cannonball to soak the oarsman and officer. Many giggles and they were on their way back to CP.
The official came inside, sat at the table and requested a pen. I brandished a new one and said it was a gift. Offered a Coke which he did not open but accepted gratefully and set aside for later. After a few questions on how long we would stay (leaving in the AM) he wrote it all down and started to put his glasses away in a neatly folded paper towel. I ran down to the cabin and brought up a neoprene case for him. More smiles. Meanwhile fishermen Ray stayed on the back steps smoking until they left. It was dusk when they finished both boats and at dinner we heard Ray was going to sell CP some veggies in the AM. A lively dinner of sushi, raw veggies, and dessert brownies pursued and we all rehashed the story of entering the Chivrico channel at night.
The next AM we gathered up some goods and go to shore with Paolo and Dennis while Eric continued to work on the main. So far he has missed seeing Cuba other than by boat. Today that chapter is OVER! We were greeted upon landing by Ray, the veggie seller Odaleis, and a young woman with her small son on the beach.
The small fishing village had zero cars, or stores, and very few houses. Many fishermen were gathered near a hut and Dennis handed out hooks and reading glasses. El Gato donated an old gaff and a cutting board to an old man while he sat on the pier fishing. The Old Man and the Sea is my favorite Hemmingway novel and it’s easy to see how he built the character. Hemmingway loved Cuba and spent much of his time writing and drinking in Havana where he owned a house.
The little boy received new crayons and small cups to play with. The women received rice, syrup, ibupropen, clothes, a large pillow and other odds and ends that they’d find useful.
Odaleis invited us to her casa behind the fishing village.
We hung out awhile speaking a mixture of Spanglish, swapping news of kids and learning a bit about life in Cuba, basically how hard it is. Her daughter is studying to be a nurse and will make a whopping $30/month, and her son is a champion soccer player.
The boys gather veggies while Odaleis offers me a necklace calling it a Santa Maria saying it has good luck. Buena Suerta. I’m honored and place it around my neck sliding the silver yacht necklace to my back so only hers shows.
A chicken walks in the back door. I follow it outside and find the husband smoking next to another small hut.
There’s a pig grazing and a puppy tied up who beckons me to come for a good pat. Eventually all come outside and we laugh about the chickens. Odaleis gives them the rice.
It’s a scene right out of a movie in my mind and I am so grateful to be here sharing and caring and making friends.
On our way out we spot another rooster tied up to the fence. It is a fighter. Ray proudly picks him up and pulls his wing out. This seems to be important. We all nod and smile and make positive mumblings and later admit we had no clue what that was about.
We still haven’t seen another yacht or even a fishing boat on our slide down the coast. It’s all ours to see and absorb. The coast reminds us of Baja California. Dry and desolate with only a few towns sprinkled along the coast. Staying offshore keeps us away from the rebounding waves. Today we have hoisted a full main (it’s fixed!) and the Gordo! It’s 15-20 and TWA approx 145. Perfecto! Why anyone would sail west to east is beyond me but the cruising guide is written this way so we have to go backwards when reading about the next port.
Entering this channel is not as tricky as Chivrico, but it is narrow with a shallow breaking reef and reported for not having the best holding. Both boats settle in and El Raton heads towards shore to find an agent and scope things out. No sooner do we hit the beach and a small row boat is struggling up current to intercept us. About face and back to the boat as they were fishermen buddies rowing the Guardia to us. Down current and they hop aboard EG. We give them some beers and t shirts and off they go.
At CP they asked for rum, no more beers thank you very much, and were given hooks, tools, etc. According to CP the guys asked for a lot of rum and they eventually had to cut them off. Meanwhile Eric and I went back to shore for a stroll, tie up to a very cool dock,
and pay too much for limes, but the effort the guy made to go find them was appreciated so perhaps the tip was included. We walked the length of the town, only a few kilometers, saw a few pigs,
and spotted the primary school where we donated school supplies. After checking out the restaurant we chose to go home as we were tired puppies! The CP crew chose to eat onshore and loved the small local vibe and fresh seafood. It was probably the only night we didn’t eat together.
Finally we’re well rested and wake up to typical island sounds. Dogs barking and roosters crowing. The surf has calmed down too. The day starts with a southwest wind and we see heavy rain clouds approaching from behind. We race them hoping they’ll have a different path and for the most part they do.
Both boats break out the spinnakers and bounce along through confused seas. Why are some on the nose when the wind has been from the NE and now SE? Halfway to our Plan A destination the clouds gather, the rain comes down, the spinnakers too, and then the wind switches to on the noise and gusts up to 29kts. Now the confused seas make sense. All sails come down and it’s difficult to see CP but we see that are close on AIS (a system that shows other boats also registered in the system which of course no Cubans would be). We stay on Channel 69 and keep talking to a minimum. It’s a full alert situation and we are double handed. The weather models said there might be rain but there was nothing about this velocity nor shift. Uncommon in our experience. 9 miles from our first destination of Cayo Grenada we do an about face, surf the waves downwind under bare pole, put out small front sails, and go to Canal de Quatro.
The Guide book says there is an anchorage but there is no anchor symbol on any mapas. With 2 hours of daylight left the front has passed and we poke around to find a suitable anchorage, finally settling for Cayo Playa Blanco.
Here the Cayos have a familiarity to them as I grew up sailing around the Florida Keys with the low lying mango trees, an occasional beach, and lots of sea grass that encourage conchs to grow and shrimp to flow.
It’s the deepest anchorage we’ve placed our hook in 4 years and as Paolo says it’s good practice for the Pacific. The wind subsided, the rain stopped, and we are looking and feeling like drenched sea rats.
There is a spectacular sunset with a rainbow and we seasoned sailors are grateful for how things turned out.
Hot showers and a good dinner with the rest of our tuna, watching the sea life gather under the big spotlight off CP, and we are ready for bed at cruisers midnight, 9PM.
This anchorage is typical of the keys except for the depth next to their surrounding reefs. 20 meters within a boat length (47’). Tons of birds and the reef is shallow and bountiful. In the AM the pilot boat named Marianna stops by to see if we have any problems. They’re on the their way from Cabo Cayo to Manzanillo. That’s a good feeling. Since we are in a canal it seems that if we ever do have an issue we can’t handle with our 2 yachts, we should go to a channel where there might be traffic once a day. That opportunity or situation thankfully never happens.
As I prepare our breakfast of bacon, eggs, and pita bread, the thought that we are so far removed from where all this food comes from pops in my head. After buying eggs that came from a backyard with a pig that no doubt will bring great meals someday, I am reminded to be humble and not forget that there are many who do not have stores to buy anything and everything. Our provisioning in Nassau at Fresh Market was awesome. We have 2 drawer freezers, one large top loading fridge, and loads of room for dry goods.
The morning is a day for drying things out starting with the spinnakers and cushions. Clothes and foulies hung on lifelines is the sign you’ve made some miles in serious weather. The pristine coral reef is directly under CP and by 11AM we’re all enjoying a good snorkel. It’s surreal to have this all to ourselves.
As we motor sail 21 miles to the next spot we weave between small low lying cayos. No other boats.
Near the end of the passage there’s a small power boat going in the opposite direction as we enter the channel almost to our anchorage.
Channels are well marked. Big smiles and holas and “California!” is yelled in passing as the sun begins to set. I wave them over but they signal they’re not wasting a daylight minute so I make a concoction any sailor would appreciate and put it in a thermos for them to keep.
Ice, Cuban rum, Mango juice, and lime is handed over as they come alongside. It hits us we just how small their craft is.
The smiles were priceless and we did not ask nor expect anything from them. They however, had a large bucket of fresh Snappers, some so fresh their gills were moving and they wanted to share. The surprise was instead of fish they handed us a blue plastic bowl with 5 lobster! As good traders and comrades we accepted their gift and radioed for CP to hurry over and bring their fishing hooks. The blue bowl was emptied, given back to the fishermen, and then gave them a pair of Di’s smelly cat sea boots she donated to the cause (smelly cat song was sung on our passage south with Di- they were left in the barn with her horse too long). They handed the bowl back this time with 4 Red Snappers. It was too much. So below decks I go again to find the rest of the Santiago De Cuba rum and hand that over. More smiles. It was such a fun and lively exchange with us trying to communicate. Paolo would be here soon to translate although we’ve found sign language and gestures with an occasional proper word does tend to get the job done. When the 4 crew of CP arrived it was more giving back and forth and we wound up with 11 lobsters and too many fish to count.
The fishermen sleep on the boat and are out to sea for 6 days before returning home. In our world this boat was tiny with no bunks. One must stay awake because while they visited us they must have pumped the bilge at least 3 times!
Before they left, I jumped on their boat for a photo op taken by Paolo. More smiles.
After they departed we had a fun dinner of sushi, fresh olive bread and lasagna. Brownies for dessert. Eating well I must say! Tomorrow lobster salad!
On our way to the Queen’s Garden CP hit an unmarked reef when they didn’t honor a channel marker. We might not have honored it either as it looked deep but lucky for us they were lead boat. The bad bit is their boards were down. So instead of drawing only 4’ they drew 7-8. Upon inspection there was no real damage, just some loss of paint, and maybe a little pride. All in all a close call and another lesson for all of us – mind the channels markers!
Meanwhile on EG we didn’t flake the chain as often as we should have when bringing the long anchor rode up yesterday and a critical part of the windlass broke.
Then Eric noticed the port engine seal was backing off so we started using only one engine. We are a crippled fleet but with good weather and plenty of time today the windlass can be repaired.
It’s hot, no wind, and sunny and we are motoring the 55 miles from Rancho Viejo through Canal de Cucaracha to Cayo De Cuervo where there are 2 islands. Paolo sees 2 boats on AIS so we may have company. It would be fun to share stories with others. Often we learn of new places to go.
After spotting shrimp boats just off our next island they waved and we said yes! If we’ve learned anything on this trip it is to bring more rum!
Negotiating them down from $30 we got 2 huge bowls of shrimp for $20 plus a bottle of rum.
A borrowed tool to fix the windlass, a meeting on a beach with other cruisers based in France, St Helena, Manchester, and St Barths, and a feast of shrimp!
The sunset was spectacular as the reflections of sun and boats were magnified with the lack of wind.
In the AM it’s fix it time. Windlass and AC.
The shrimp boats have all come in after a night of work. There’s a tad more wind but not much.
We depart for Cayo Cinco Balas and hoist spinnakers simultaneously.
El Gato is ahead of CP and Eric is down below fixing something. I take down the spinnaker and head towards the channel but find myself in shallow water. With only one engine I’m feeling it’s too risky to forge ahead so it’s about face and wait for CP. They lead towards the only other channel and we spot the channel marker. One small stick with a piece of white fabric and a bird standing post. We snake our way inside to discover a peaceful bay surrounded by mangroves.
Sadly many of them have been ravished by hurricanes, mainly Hurricane Matthew. A dinghy tour circumnavigating Cayo Alcatraz and we found a long beach to comb and stretch our legs. This is the first place we’ve seen conch but there’s no need to get the snorkels out as they are right alongside the shoreline. The sea grass is healthy and it’s so shallow we can’t swim but we can walk out and grab a few conchs for dinner being careful to only choose the ones that are larger and have developed shells. We will freeze them to preserve the beauty of the shells and make cracked conch for dinner tomorrow. The meat comes out easily this way. You need a good mallet or hammer as the meat is tough unless you pound it. Lightly breaded with some tartar sauce and oolala. Everyday it’s something new and fresh from the sea!
7:30AM departure for a 50NM sail downwind to Cayo Zaza de Fuera Zaza and Cayo Chiquito. That should give us a good rest on our way up to Cienfuego, approx 65 more miles.
We choose to sail on the outside of the barrier reef, surfing ocean swells and hopeful for a fish or two, when we spot a large sailboat washed up on the reef. Her hulls shining brightly, she is reminding us how treacherous the reef and the seas can be, and that we rely on our navigation systems, eyes, a little luck, and good planning to get us around this beautiful ocean.
Skirting alongside a beautiful barrier reef we land a large Barracuda with razor sharp teeth. Eric manages to release him before she gets a bite of his hand. Paolo video tapes it from CP.
We weave our way between reefs and nestle in beside more mangroves.
Slowly finding our way through a maze of Mangroves – we think of pirates and early explorers using this area for shelter from storms. The trees on the outside are once again showing they were hit hard and while some are in the stages of recovery, the trees on the inside are in good health. I always bring the iPhone with Navionics to help navigate, and a radio in case we get into trouble.
The folks we met at the shrimpers raft up are here on their yacht called Sark of Essex. We invite them over for sundowners.
Homemade pizzas and lively conversations ensue with international travelers Niki, Reg, and another Charlotte! The full moon rises after the sunset with the green flash. It’s a good party and the next morning it shows.
Another early departure and now it’s blowing 17 – 20, a broad reach (the cats meow) and we are on final approach for Cienfuegos, a big city with a good harbor.
The gorgeous hues of blue never get tiring, and spotting mountains in the far distance on the mainland is getting us excited for seeing more Cuban culture.
Once again finding it surreal to not spot ANY other boats.
Eventually we see Trinidad up ahead and we’ve been told this is a place we must visit. The harbor however is supposed to be a bit sketchy so we will go there by car.
If the mountains on the south east coast remind us of Baja Mexico, then these mountains remind us of those off the California coast. Tinges of brown nestled inside large patches of green scrub, and the skies above are like Florida skies filled with cumulous clouds billowing above.
We pass our first big city since STC, and notice a large resort hotel on the water with the city reaching up into the hills.
Then the vastness of Cuba regains it’s stance. No buildings or houses that we can see from 4 miles out.
Right now I can think of nothing more luxurious than sliding down the coast of a foreign country with spinnaker flying while making a lobster salad! We have such an abundance of lobster that I will make enough for both boats and when we arrive in Cienfuegos we shall dine extravagantly with perhaps a little rose’ to toast a new port?
While others are blissfully posting their photos on FB and Instagram wearing layers and layers of colorful clothing while on the top of a beautiful snow capped mountain with white as a background, this mermaid is perfectly happy in a sea of blue, making conch salad, rolling down liquid hills wearing nothing but a small bit of colorful clothing to hide the privates. It’s warm and wonderful and I couldn’t be happier.
Finally we arrive at Cienfuegos and the long winding channel has tankers, ferries and small fishing boats. This is where all the boats are!
The immigration customs and dockmaster process is easy breezy. So onto the closest watering hole located right there on the premises. Nice! Camerones, Mojitos and a sweet flea bitten dog greet us. The Gato sticker is now in every official office and also behind the bar.
Paolo suggested and all agreed that you cannot go to Cuba without experiencing the Capitol. It did not disappoint. It’s only a 3 hour drive, $120 car, or $40/pp each way. Our insurance carrier is in the back of our minds (boat is not insured if you leave it unattended) plus we have limited time to be here so we only go for an overnight. A Casa Particular called Hostal Paradise is found by our driver for $30/night right in the heart of Havana’s old town. Not exactly paradise but it’s wonderful at this price and super convenient.
With so little time we hustled and bustled to see and experience as much as possible and hit the hot spots like Floridita, a pink restaurant/bar named for the expats from Florida who made this their watering hole that sports a bronze statue of Hemmingway at the bar. His record was 18 daiquiris. BTW Both Mojitos and Daiquiris were invented in Cuba.
MOJITOS – serves one, and one is never enough so make a batch
10 fresh mint leaves, AKA Yurba Beuna in Cuba
1/2 lime cut into wedges
2 T sugar
1 1/2 oz white rum
Place mint leaves and 1 lime wedge into a sturdy glass. Use a muddler to crush the mint and lime to release the mint oils and lime juice. Add 2 more lime wedges and the sugar, and muddle again to release the lime juice. Do not strain the mixture. Fill the glass almost to the top with ice. Pour the rum over the ice, and fill the glass with carbonated water. Stir, taste, and add more sugar if desired. Garnish with the remaining lime wedge.
DAIQUIRI RECIPE – that frozen concoction that we used to drink before margaritas became so popular, its almost the same just using rum instead of tequila
1 cup ice
1 1/2 oz light rum
1 oz Lime juice
1 oz triple sec
1 t sugar
1 lime wedge
2 T sugar
- Blend ice, rum, lime juice, triple sec, and 1 teaspoon sugar in a blender on the highest setting until smooth, 15 to 20 seconds. Pour into glass.
- Spread 2 tablespoons sugar in a thin layer onto a small plate. Rub lime wedge around the rim of a glass. Dip glass rim in sugar to coat. Pour blended beverage into the prepared glass to serve.
In Havana, or Habana as they call and spell it, the first thing that jumps out at you is how many buildings are in disrepair and crumbling, but had once been beautiful.
It was depressing and the reality of the Cuban history hit me like a brick wall. As friendly as everyone seemed, they had some bad stuff happen and the elders lived through it. Peeking into the buildings as we walked by you could see hallways that lead way back and it’s my understanding that it’s common for several families to subside together. Fidel and his gang took away everyone’s property, and then shared it with the people who stayed or were not killed. Some were able to get out on commercial planes just in time, hoping that in a few years they could return. We all know how that turned out. The farms were confiscated along with everything else and anyone who owned anything was shit out of luck. I haven’t studied this enough, but I do now understand a lot more than I did before we traveled there, and understand the frustration and anger of the Cubans who fled and are still feeling. The rafts are still being built, the Cuban Guarda Frontera is still trying to intercept them, and some are lucky enough to get out and survive. American policies have changed and after risking their lives to get here they must figure out how to land and find their people before we send them back. How lucky we are to be Americans and free to come and go among a million other things. I digress but it’s a huge part of why it’s difficult to go there. They don’t want our influence or their people to revolt. Once they get a taste of freedom and choices there could be another revolution. Time will tell.
Our first lunch was in an old restaurant directly across from the capitol building which was also in different states of disrepair and looked in many ways familiar. It is almost a replica of our white house.
From there we walked towards another favorite watering hole of Hemmingway’s and other artists back in the hey day of Havana.
The music was pounding and the spaces were crammed but we sidled in and drank mojitos while listening and swaying to the hot Cuban beats.
Fortune tellers are popular but the word on the street is these ladies are the real deal. We did not want to know our fortunes.
Photos from our walk.
Dinner time where Rum Rum was the choice. We were serenaded by 2 young lovers who made our dinner experience unforgettable. Bought their CD for $10. Her voice was worthy of The Voice as a finalist.
The next day Ralph joined me and Eric for some power walking and we found a local mercado where the veggies and fruit were so fresh, insecticide free (they can’t afford them), and ridiculously affordable, we had to go back in style.
Because after all, while in Cuba you really should go for a ride in one of these babies. The driver whipped out his Hooded hat to match ours! Thank you Ralph – that was so much fun!!!
On the way back to the boats in Cienfuegos we spied people on the side of the road waving bills. It’s so difficult to buy a car that most don’t own and have to hitch hike. The best way to beat the others to a ride is to wave money. For sure it can’t be much, but every bit helps towards gas.
When we were finally dropped back off at the marina by our driver we were spent and content.
In the morning we went to the city and shopped for veggies and flowers.
Later we hired more drivers to take us to Trinidad. The guide book said to arrive later in the afternoon to avoid the crowds from cruise ships but I would disagree now that we’ve been. Take the time to spend the day, and if you can, spend the night too.
2 old classic cars to took us, ours was a green 1955 Pontiac driven by the dashing Orlando who fancied himself as an Orlando Bloom flirting with anything with skirts. On the way we saw no other cars, only horse drawn buggies. It was a one hour drive, and upon entering the city we found ourselves on cobblestone streets with colorful buildings as there was a lot of Spanish influence.
On a stroll through the small city we saw a bell tower and upon entering discovered it was a museum with war relics. This is a theme throughout cities. They remind everyone about the historic uprising and defeat of Batista who really was a jerk. Climbing up the tower for the view we pass more rooms filled with large posters of Fidel and the troops, and it’s gotten so we feel it’s crammed down everyone’s throats all the time.
In Trinidad, the tourists are everywhere and the shops and restaurants are open late. There’s music in the streets, and a happy vibe the reverberates throughout. It does not show the signs of wear that Havana has. For dinner I decide to be adventurous and stick with my seafood extravaganza we’ve had while being afloat. This time it’s baby pulpo, or baby octopus. YUK! Never again.
I’m curious and peek into a building where well dressed adults of both sexes are entering and a very nice gentleman invites me in. No matter I wasn’t invited, it’s a Rotary Club and honest to God I wish I could have stayed and asked them questions because here were locals who were making it in Cuba under the communist regime. But our group was tired and it was time to go back to our floating homes. Go with the flow.
We return to our boats in Cienfuegos and the next morning it’s time to leave. Here are some boats in the harbor.
After getting our laundry delivered by a local, we check out at customs and depart at 08:30, sail 50NM and plop the anchor at Cayo Sal, part of a small chain in Cayos de Dios. Appetizers on El Gato with lobster salad and Mojitos complete with fresh Yerba bueno (mint), and homemade hummus. Tahini is a staple on El Gato (ingredient for hummus).
Next stop back to the sweet small cayos.
Eric and I love Cayo de Sal and are content to be back in the quiet solitude and sweetness of cruising.
The next morning Dennis joins us in a lobster hunt and Eric catches his first 2 lobsters!
We wound up freezing them and sharing them with friends at the Hobie Midwinters in Florida.
On a dinghy cruise we explored other sections of the island and in particular wanted to take a good look at a submerged Catana 50. Evidently it was a charter boat. The islands are jagged twisted rocks made of limestone and coral reef. We find a small beach to pull up onto and walk towards the blowholes we see shooting up. One has a rainbow at the top!
Eric has a great idea! We still have a bunch of goods to give away and we should sail upwind to the lighthouse on Cayo Guano Del Este and give it to the keeper!
It’s only 8 miles and we both feel this is a good decision. CP wants to carry on and head to Cayo Largo (mistake guys, big mistake) so we will catch up tomorrow. We are cruising!
As we approach, we notice only one small powerboat anchored in front of the lighthouse. The island is less than a mile long with beaches on the windward side and rocks on the leeward which is where we will anchor.
The boat is named Lucia and as we prepare to cast our anchor we notice 3 sleepy men, checking out who the newbies are, and if it’s worth worrying or not. They settle back in. Once the anchor is set, we gather the goods and are grateful for the huge black garbage bag CP gave us. But before heading to the lighthouse we will visit the fishermen who are now stirring. The dinghy is launched and we politely ask if we can come alongside (in Spanglish which they seem to understand) and permission is granted. Captain’s name is Ruskie Negro and he thinks this is funny, as he has very dark skin and a Cuban Russian accent. I am glad I’ve brought Turkish towels and a few pillows when I see what they’re sleeping on. It’s dirty and fishy and the boards look hard. We hand over two bags of goods, a net, hooks, 3 pillows, 3 Turkish towels, crayons and colored pencils for kids, pots and pans, and a cutting board for fish.
They feel bad because they don’t have any fish for us but we are happy to give them our gifts with no expectations. They show us where to go with the dinghy to get on the island. All we see are rocks but at the end there is a beach that we can’t see. So we go, and unload our loot, Eric looking like Santa Claus minus the red gear, and me one of the elves. When we approach the keeper comes outside to greet us as he has a great view of who is coming and going. He invited us inside and if we want we can climb to the top, all 234 steps. It’s 52 meters high, with views that take your breath away.
The keeper has worked one month on, one month off for the past 41 years. Bet he’s seen a lot!
Of course he is delighted with the gifts which he will take to his family or trade with fishermen for food. We are back onboard and see Lucia crew speed fishing. They waved us over to give us their gifts. The dinghy has already been lifted and the water is so crystal clear and gloriously blue with reefs and rocks we get pumped to grab our snorkel gear and swim over. As we near their boat we can see their lines being tossed in and fish being dragged out. 5 yellow tailed Snapper await us along with proud smiles for how fast they can fish. On the way back to El Gato we saw a huge Grouper, about 3-4 feet long, and notified them. Hope they caught it. All hand lines, no sticks or rods. Just super strong hands.
Sunset arrival at Cayo Largo and Paolo greets us by dinghy in the channel to guide us back to their boat and a nice welcome drink and dinner. This will be our last gathering and everyone is a little excited about the next stage – a long distance sail back to the
First time there is a crowded anchorage.
Middle of the night the wind picks up and lights are on most boats checking anchors etc.
The AM is all about getting ready to go home. Charlotte is more than ready as she has them booked on a trip to Africa that leaves in 2 weeks. The rest of us, well, I think most of us would rather have stayed on but we certainly had enough time to feel like we experienced a lot of Cuba in different lights and situations. CP leaves early which turns out to be a good call as they have a longer distance and tougher direction to go and the wind is good now but it will subside later. Eric and I drag our feet and feel no rush. Dockmaster Ebelio is very accommodating and we decide he will be the recipient of the paddleboard Eric found in the Bahamas. It’s been a good extra board for guest and kids and we were waiting for the right person to pass it on. We try to buy fuel after exchanging more money, and after weaving through a small channel in the mangroves we find it is closed, indefinitely. Back to the main dock and we buy rum instead. We’re 2 for 2 on that one. The customs agents come aboard and look for stowaways and then we are free to go. The wind is wonderful, we have completed our journey, and it feels good to know we fulfilled our goals. Sail to Cuba, explore, meet locals, see a different culture and try to understand it, and help those we come in contact with. We are ambassadors for the USA.
It was now time to leave Cuba due to our insurance and USCG requirements, but if possible, we would have stayed a few weeks longer. Cubans want you to come and they like Americans. Yes they like our money and generosity, but they also feel connected. Remember many have family members who live in the states and can come visit or send money.
You can get a tourist card when you arrive, and it’s good for 30 days, and renewable for another 30, so if you find yourself in the Caribbean and want a different kind of experience in a place that is in between the old ways and the new, give Cuba a visit.
You won’t regret it.
It was truly a dream come true.