All posts by elgatoannie

Annie is married to Eric Witte and together they own El Gato, a luxury semi custom performance cruising Catana 472 catamaran. Life long sailors and sailing teachers, they bring their passion and experience on board this fine vessel and want to share the stoke with you! Customized teaching charters can focus on teaching all levels of sailing, cruising, and windsurfing. Snorkeling, hiking, and other island adventures await as we explore the Caribbean chain of islands. Annie's Career Highlights Olympic Silver Medal - windsurfing 5 world, 18 National sailing titles in Catamarans and windsurfers Navigator America3 - Americas Cup Womens Team Team Building Facilitator - MBA programs for Universities and businesses Sailing Commentator and Adventure Show TV host on ESPN, FOX, PBS Eric's Career Highlights Hobie Cat Design Team ASA and Beach Cat Sailing Instructor Worrell 1000 competitor - long distance Hobie 16 race from Florida to Virginia Top competitor all size multihulls Lifelong Cruiser Coming soon: TradewindAdventuresLLC.com For more info on customized chartering: Email TradewindAdventures@gmail.com 1-619-549-0098.

How it Works

Written while sailing south towards Colombia…

We’ve been on El Gato for over 4 years now and it definitely feels like home.

One year in the Mediterranean, 3 seasons in the Caribbean with 2 voyages up the East Coast of USA, stopping in Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and Bermuda, a visit to Cuba, Mexico, and the Caymens. We are preparing for the great big vastness of the Pacific via the Panama Canal.

We’re comfortable sailing long distance on our own although sharing the journey and having a bit more rest by bringing friends as crew is preferred if their schedule works with ours.  The rule on this is to pick a time or a place but not both.  With weather being the main factor in when we depart or arrive we can’t adhere to others work schedules.  Luckily many of our BFFs are retired or getting closer to retirement and with enough seniority to say “hey I’m leaving next week for a week or two” to their companies. We’ve been blessed with great friends and when you live on a boat with someone for a week you get to know them more than onshore.  The stories and the experiences we share as they unfold, watching sealife, braving storms together, these things bind friends more than casual dinner parties and such. 

As for our relationship, it’s stronger than ever.  When your life depends on your best friend and you put that much trust in them to make good decisions when you are sleeping, the bonds become herculean.  Do we run out of things to say sometimes? Not much as we are constantly moving, preparing and planning.  But meeting other cruisers and getting in touch with friends and family helps open up new conversations as does reading which we sometimes do aloud. 

Our roles on the boat are as diverse as we are in nature.

Eric, AKA Moto, Sasquatch, Squatch, is the typical engineer who can solve the tiniest to the toughest problems with complexity and great results.  The lists are endless on a boat and differ not to a monohull or motor boat.  While the jobs never end, Eric works tirelessly making lists, fixing, tweaking, experimenting, upgrading, varnishing, and changing the systems to our advantage.  Through sometimes trial and error he knows the boat inside and out and I could not have been more blessed to have such a great partner to share this life with on the sea and on land.  He always has a grin from ear to ear when he’s driving our ship with wind in our sails as we rack up the miles.  How many miles? No idea. While we keep a log book we don’t always write down the smaller trips but we’ve put at least 20,000 miles on El Gato since 2015.  

Aside from Chief Engineer he is bottom scrubber, dish washer, windsurfer rigger, dinghy captain, engine problem solver, spare parts regulator, water maker repairman, sail repair officionado, ice lover, rigger, sail trimmer, fish cleaner, my captain, co conspirator, best friend and lover. To know Eric is to love him. He’s the kindest, most gentle strong man I’ve ever known with integrity oozing out of his pores.  He makes me want to be a better person.

Although he does not speak his mind quickly like some of us who tend to speak as they think and as a result put their foot in their mouth way too often, yep me, his words are calculated and thoughtful and worth waiting for.  It’s a trait I’ll never have but have learned to appreciate wholeheartedly.  His ying is my yang. 

As you can expect, my roles compliment his.  Start with chief communicator, I make sure we are in touch while onshore or offshore to our friends and family.  These days when you leave the dock you do not have to be off the grid unless you want to be.  With IridiumGo! we can text, write or call with texting being the easiest fastest and most affordable way.  InReach is the back up.  Obviously I write a blog to share our stories but also so that we can remember the travels and our stories as well.  When you’re always on the go, so much happens that it’s impossible to remember. Recording it with words and photos does the trick.  I use the iPhone now that the quality is so good, and occasionally bust out the Nikon for the long lens. 

Safety Officer is another cap for me.  From preparing our ditch bag to making sure our harnesses have good cartridges, the flares are up to date, the MOB gear is in place and in good shape, and most importantly making sure our peeps on land know our plans.  

Provisioning and cooking are fun and I’ve learned some good recipes along the way.  Pizza? No problem.  Learning to make bread and dough was a goal accomplished and our herb garden helps produce fresh pesto sauce! If we could just grow mangos and avocados life would be perfect!

Did you know you can freeze cheese? We carry bags of mozzarella  and cheddar for pizza and quesadillas on the go. I’ve become a lasagna expert now that I don’t have to precook the noodles. Cooking fresh fish is still a learning process. Making sushi is not. We always have wasabi, nori, soy sauce and sushi rice on board.  Other roles include getting the laundry done which we take to shore and give to someone else. It can be a challenge just getting it to the laundromat. Bicycles, walking, hitch hiking, cabs, whatever it takes to get there and back, we’ve done it. Same goes for food.

Another role for me is planning.  I order cruising guides and courtesy flags once we know where we are going and then read up and ask questions so we know what we are getting into.

Every country, island is different and we filled up our large passports way before they expired.
Sewing is something we share and we have an industrial portable machine onboard to do the jobs.  He uses it for sail repairs and I use it for making pillows, cushions, repairing awnings, and making gifts. 

I’m also the local barber.  Eric hasn’t had a professional haircut since our wedding. He’s frugal and we like the experience. I’ve made some major mistakes and he has such a kind spirit he does not get mad. Like the time I thought I had the side trimmer and it was the buzz cutter. He had a long stripe on one side and still was cool about going to the SDYC for Friday night cocktails. I was horrified at my mistake and yet he still came back for more. That’s love.

 Roles we share:  Driving, navigating, trimming sails, fishing, making beds, and making decisions on just about everything.  

Life is good and we are blessed and grateful that we found each other and share this amazing thing we call life together. 

Cuba

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.

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 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.

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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.  

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IMG_2820The 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. `

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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!

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Last Bahamian view, Great Inagua at sunrise
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Morton Salt Mines
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Mega Lobster

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.  

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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.  

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Paolo driving Carlottas Promise
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Sierra Maestra Mountains

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.

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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,

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San Pedro De La Roca Castle World Heritage Site

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!  

IMG_2989Meanwhile CP crew have been standing with dock master Jorge getting the local lowdown about rules and money exchanges.  We are deliriously happy.

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Dancing with the dock master
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View from the marina
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Looking towards the port
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Dilapidated marina where we checked in

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.  

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The colorful bill is for foreigners
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Front and back of a $3 bill. Che Guevara sports this bill

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.

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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.  

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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!

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Santiago De Cuba’s welcome sign
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Kids fishing for crabs
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Taxi anyone?  This is where cruise ships dump the herds.
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Locals hanging out
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Kids love to have their photo taken worldwide but here they rarely get to see them.
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Cool truck
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Colorful buildings abound in STC

 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,

IMG_3012black beans and rice, some artisan wood products including dominoes, then back to the boats.

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Because STC was the capitol, there are reminders everywhere honoring the revolutionists.
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Paolo checking it out
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Art and music abound in Cuba

They are covered, I mean covered in orange spots from the power plants that blew the smoke towards us last night.

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Bunker fuel, the bottom of the barrel, is burned at night for power. The results are awful for people’s health and the environment.
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Spotted deck

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. 

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 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. 

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An old bunker
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Fishing for lunch
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Sweetness
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Church
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Casa Particular
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Mojitos and grasshoppers

 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.`

IMG_3054IMG_3058Back 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.

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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. 

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You can tell by all the stains this recipe has been around for decades. I use a pressure cooker now to cut the time down considerably

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.  

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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.  

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This boat was not so lucky. Without Navionics we would never have gone in there.
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This is the mark for the reef
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The other side of the channel with submerged rocks and no markers.

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.

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All sails need full sun protection and our clew didn’t have it and failed.
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Paolo being silly and pretending to inspect Eric’s work. Wait!@? It is so hot Eric has all kinds of garb to protect himself from the sun.
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The Guardia is transported by a fisherman

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.

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Odaleis and me in her backyard
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I wish I’d had a Polaroid! Check out the old Singer machine, it had a foot pedal.
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bak bak bak
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Home grown food
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This little guy was tied up to protect the chickens
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My new necklace!
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The boys in the hood
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Champion fighter rooster

 

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.  

 

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Cabo Cruz Lighthouse
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Busy reef

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.

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Cabo Cruz Lighthouse
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The guy in purple is the officer. Hs friends row him our for the beer and rum.

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Lots of paperwork.

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,

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Ashore!
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You use what you can to make docks
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This dock didn’t survive
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Fishing boats

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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,

IMG_3144IMG_3148and 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. 

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Making tracks
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Pano views can be frightening
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Captain Eric racing the storm!

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. 

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Only the Solent is up and we are cruisin
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Jorge at the helm (nickname for the autopilot as Otto is overused and we stick to Spanish words).
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Foulies in the tropics?!?
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Bailing out El Raton before it’s too heavy

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.

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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. DSC_9588DSC_9589DSC_9593DSC_9592

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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.  

 

IMG_3182As 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. 

DSC_9595DSC_9597DSC_9594Channels 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.

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IMG_3199IMG_3198The 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.

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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. 

IMG_3187Then 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.

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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!

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The sunset was spectacular as the reflections of sun and boats were magnified with the lack of wind.

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More small cayos
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The beach gathering
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shrimp anyone?

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Red sky at night
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Paolo enjoying the views

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.

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DSC_9627We depart for Cayo Cinco Balas and hoist spinnakers simultaneously.

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 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.

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Channel Marker
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Rocky ledge – lobster!
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Hurricane damaged mangroves
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More devastation but it’s coming back

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!

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Within walking distance to the beach.
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You shouldn’t take a conch unless it has the large lip formed.

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. 

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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.   IMG_3285IMG_3295

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clear water

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Dinghy ride screen shot

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.

DSC_9667 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.

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Conch salad.
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Fins
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The colors faded or I would have tried to make earrings.
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The essentials in shades of mostly pink.

Finally we arrive at Cienfuegos and the long winding channel has tankers, ferries and small fishing boats.  This is where all the boats are!

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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. 

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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.  

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The boy hamming it up
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The ceiling showed signs this was a fine house 60 years ago.

 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

Ice

1 1/2 oz white rum

club soda

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.  

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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.  

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From there we walked towards another favorite watering hole of Hemmingway’s and other artists back in the hey day of Havana. 

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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.

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Photos from our walk.

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Havana has 3 sections, we were in old town
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The old China Town where mangos were introduced to Cuba
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Apartment living

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Classic character

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Pirate bar on the street

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Artists everywhere

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Hemmingway in the Floridita
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Musica!

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Local rum

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Local GF’s posing
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In every book store window
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Taxi!
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Any time you want it

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.

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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.

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Check out the onions!
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Welcome!
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Fresh and super cheap
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Gato guarding the goods from vermin
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Nope, didn’t purchase any
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The freshest eggs are in the islands. No refrigeration needed.
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Approx $12 US for all this!

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!!!

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Me too!
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Not so much, this will sit here for years
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Lunch plaza
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Artist at work
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Nice

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Museum de Revolution, captured US plane

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Taxi

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In local pesos, pizza dirt cheap

 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.IMG_3441IMG_3445IMG_3447IMG_3449IMG_3450IMG_3452IMG_3453IMG_3444IMG_3454IMG_3458IMG_3460

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Eric racing Fast Eddie!
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Love having fresh flowers on board and these smelled wonderful!

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. 

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Another oldie preserved well

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We bought one
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The best?
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They think so!

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IMG_3480On 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.

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The bell tower
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The view was spectacular

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More reminders
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Yuk

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.

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Baby octopus – never again!
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Our happy dinners
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Dennis

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.

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We return to our boats in Cienfuegos and the next morning it’s time to leave.  Here are some boats in the harbor.

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These folks loaned us a vice to fix our windlass. We repaid them with sneaking a bottle of rum in their cockpit with a Gato sticker on the back when they weren’t home.
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School is in session. European kids sailing around the world.

DSC_9895DSC_9896DSC_9897DSC_9900DSC_9903DSC_9906After 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! 

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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!  

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No one ever wants to see this happen
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El Raton in discovery mode
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Rainbows atop blow holes
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Even way off the grid, the signs of careless humanity show up

 

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.   

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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. 

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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.  

IMG_3773IMG_3744IMG_3745IMG_3748IMG_3750IMG_3751IMG_3752IMG_3760IMG_3764IMG_3765DSC_9930DSC_9923DSC_9933DSC_9931DSC_9925DSC_9922The 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.IMG_3830

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The ABCs of Cruising

A is for anchoring. Look for sand when you can see the bottom. Never underestimate the importance of having a good anchor and enough chain unless you don’t care about sleeping. Having another anchor is good when a storm is coming or tides are strong and you need to stay put.

B is for bitch wings. The stance used on deck when someone anchors Way too close. Place hand on hips and stare intently. They will usually move unless they are charter captains who don’t care about the boats because they don’t pay the bills. If someone shows you their bitch wings it’s time to re-anchor. Most will adhere to the code of whoever gets there first has priority over who stays and who goes.

C is for comfort. Nice cushions, protection from spray, a good fridge and freezer so you can eat well, and anything else that makes you happy. Unlike race boats, you can be very comfortable while cruising unless you are bashing upwind in big waves. Then all bets are off.

D is for Ditch Bag. The bag with all the things you need in an emergency if the ship goes down. We place it on deck for passages and hope to never use it. Cats are generally safer as if one hull has a bad leak the other will still float. The exception to this is a fire. Otherwise the rule of thumb is always step up to a life raft, not down.

E is for eating. It’s a well known fact that Everything tastes better on a boat. Because you never know when you’ll get to eat that again.

F is for fishing. Refer to E. Catching fish facilitates eating well. Plus it’s high up on the Mediterranean diet which is now rated the healthiest diet of all.

G is for GPS. Having it has made cruising a million times easier in terms of navigating. Knowing where you are is a life saver. We have 3 back ups. Just in case.

H is for helpfulness. The cruising community tends to be extremely helpful towards each other. Complete strangers will help others in the middle of the night if need be. This is so refreshing and comforting compared to being on land.

I is for the ice maker. The greatest luxury ever invented for boats! It’s also a way to make friends with Brits and others who think they don’t need ice but love it when you bring it to their boat. In a pinch it can even be used for bartering.

J is for jury rig. There’s always something that needs fixing and oftentimes you have to be creative. Stores like West Marine are few if non existent anywhere but the states.

K is for Kraken. A mysterious sea monster that plays tricks on us. It’s left the ice maker door open, thrown clothes overboard, let a windsurfer get away while underway, hid a precious cord that’s needed for watching movies, and once it drank all the rum. We’ve seen traces like footprints and have heard it stealing ice in the middle of the night therefore we know it’s real.

L is for latitude. Where are we now, where are we going? Closer to the equator please. Less clothes, more turtles, and better swimming.

M is for Mexican Train Dominoes. Having board games is a fun way to relax and entertain. They also bring out the best and the worst depending on the game and the quantities and types of alcohol consumed.

N is for navigating. Good instruments and charts are priceless. Knowing where you are is a good thing. Having the skills and desires to go from location to a new location is fun, challenging, and keeps you on your toes.

O is for the oceans. They are big, wide, majestic, and must be crossed to get to new countries, islands, and adventures. When in the middle of one you are reminded how tiny we are in this huge magnificent galaxy. It’s breathtaking and just a wee bit daunting if you let your imagination run wild. This is where having good instruments and weather info is a huge priority.

P is for pirates. We haven’t seen or met any but we know they’re out there. Lock the dinghy, hide the good stuff, but no guns. We’ll take our chances by giving them everything in exchange for life if we ever have the misfortune of being boarded. And we’ll stay away from places that are desperate for food and money.

Q is for questions. Asking others is a great way to learn things like where to go, how to fix something, what’s for dinner, and where the heck did I put that?

R is for reefs. Two kinds. Reefing the main before it’s too late is always the goal. Hitting a reef is a nightmare.

S is for snorkeling. Refer to the letter R. This is the preferred way to experience a reef. S is also for swearing. You need to do it now and then to prove you are a sailor.

T is for tonnage. Either you have it or you don’t. It’s important to know.

U is for underwear. Seldom needed when cruising. Buy the good stuff though because hanging them on the life lines is how they dry and all your neighbors will see them.

V is for VHF. The radio can be turned on to listen to fellow boaters, cruiser nets, emergencies, and chatter in other languages. Use channel 16 for making initial contact with another boat, ship, or for an emergency. Use channel 68 for ship to ship and many cruisers nets held most mornings in frequented anchorage’s. Once you make the initial contact select another channel to communicate. But don’t think for one second it’s private. Radio stalkers love to listen in to your conversation. Think of it as party line and go with the flow.

W is for weather. It dictates everything else. Whether you stay, go, which anchorage has protection, and which sails to use. Knowing what’s coming is the key to good planning. Being surprised still happens but it’s less frequent if you have something like the PredictWind app. We can’t imagine cruising without it.

X is for marking the spot. With electronic charts this is easy breezy. Talking to fellow cruisers with phone in hand you can mark the spots on your Navionics charts when others share good info.

Y is for just saying yes. Keep yourself open for new experiences, people, places, and take yourself out of that comfort zone. You’ll be glad you did.

Z is for Zulu. Knowing the phonetic alphabet is a good thing for radio communications especially in other countries.

Guest Blog by Diana and Heidi

ARE WE THERE YET? Guest blog by Diana and Heidi

This blog has been brought to you by Starbucks, providers of hot cocoa mix for this El gato voyage. *Disclaimer – Do not consume a banana after you have enjoyed a cup of Starbucks Hot Chocolate as it might result in a PV** event. (projecti.. v.mt.ng).    Who knew? See, we are ALL lifelong learners! 🙂

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Those aboard the Catana Cat El Gato never had to ask that question, for as soon as dock lines were dropped, we were where we wanted to be! Sailing is the destination and we were Bahama-Bound. Captains Annie & Eric and guest crew Heidi and Dianamal were already unwrapping this early Christmas Gift with Glee.

IMG_1900 (1)Heidi: Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit. Our first glimpse of El Gato was from underneath the boat, not really the preferred perspective when afloat.

IMG_1911The boat was on the hard at Dennis Point Marina on the Potomac in Maryland. She had a fresh coat of Sea Hawk bottom paint and we were overcome by how sturdy and immense she looked!IMG_1664

Right, so now time to launch the sexy beast, and the equally sexy and sturdy (it’s a thing…) Men of the Marina set to slinging and travel-lifting El Gato into the chilly harbor. A tight fit with literally two inches between dock and beloved hull x 2, Eric instructed the crew to gently push against the hulls, as she was lowered to ensure clearance – close only counts in horseshoes and Bocci Ball, so we were good to GO!

IMG_1917IMG_1842As we boarded the regal Cat, suffice it to say she looked like she had coughed up a hairball.  Tons of tools, random systems parts, a plethora of pillows and sexy sailboard gear filled the spacious cockpit as if it had already spent a tumultuous time at sea.

IMG_1670 To Eric’s credit, he had already spent many many hours sorting through gear and said systems, and this was “the look” that all boat owners sport before leaving their home country for years to come. That’s okay with us and Eric used his new crew effectively as we went hands-on from the get-go. Annie and Heidi hit the streets for provisioning and weather windows, using PredictWind, IMG_1682and software programs filled every screen from minute one. Local Annapolis sailors Captain Holly V. and her Significant Other Dean jumped in the trusty Volvo and delivered El Gato’s mainsail and brand new Gordo furling headsail, not to mention still warm blueberry bread. Many thanks to these two, who know just what it takes to winterize a boat by Heading South as fast as possible!IMG_1916

So we all fell to our tasks and bonded as crew too, sharing a hotel room and food bites at the Longhorn Steakhouse (Heidi loved her Lobster Baked Potato) and the Zanzibar Marina Inn. Who knew how exotic remote Drayden Maryland could be? “WOW,” a true Eric Exclamation, NOW we’re ready to GO!

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BOOM, heading down the Chesapeake Bay and loving life, our 0700 Dec. 3 departure saw a typical misty morn with temps reading 18 degrees Centigrade, whateva that means.

It’s Cold and Time to Make Tracks! After approximately 80 nautical miles of getting to know the boat heading out of the Chesapeake Bay, the 13-mile span of the Bay Bridge Tunnel lay ahead. We crossed over the submerged section as El Gato’s masthead was a bit close for the 74-foot bridge section clearance. And as evening fell, sailed smoothly through this gate to the North Atlantic and our Gulf Stream Crossing.

After clearing Chesapeake Bay with the setting sun, Annie guided us south, following a dark coast searching to find the best break in the strong Gulf stream current. She used Passage Weather to pull her best image of Tuesday’s Gulf Stream prediction and we headed for the Southeast-angled gap that led us through a smooth crossing while we acclimated to our watches and ocean life.IMG_1687

As we sailed out of sight of land, there were events over the next few days that seemed miraculous to us. The dolphin escort,

the two chickens that continued to feed us meal after meal and the fact that we never had any head winds or waves.  Still, we knew the breeze was coming Wednesday, and would be our next challenge after a successful and cooperative crossing of the Gulf Stream. Some excerpts from the trusty log show us making the most of things at 0810 with 398nm to go on a course of 210 degrees “Hauling Ass!” True dat baby, El Gato, she be our sleigh ride South! The 0900 entry saw a top boat speed of 15 knots by Captain Annie, followed by fresh Biscuits and Bacon by Annie & Heidi.

IMG_1897Eric and Di were grateful for this and Eric had been brainstorming a number of projects onboard and nailing every one!  Di & Heidi made their goal of breaking the 350 nm half-way mark to go, with VMG of 9.5 recorded in the log. Happy crew, happy boat!

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Now as evening of the third day fell, the wind and seas joined in building together just as expected. The wind shifted from west to NW big-number 40 degree shifts and breeze from 23-39.5 knots! We performed our new Offshore Cha-Cha with our larger and smaller headsails with Dancing with the Stars Names… Gordo, Flecko, REEF REEF REEF!

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Annie’s midnight watch stood with Di just for fun saw Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride video game in the salon’s glowing Command Center. Annie sported her new auto-helm clicker technology as we were clicking to the shifts, laughing and holding on, 3 reefs and ¼ Flecko, gazing astern as the stars were also breezing by in the big shifts with waves dancing in El Gato’s 5-9’ seas & white-capped wake. No moon, stars with clouds, ships passing in the night with AIS technology. Visual checks every 10-15 minutes, and no worries as a mysterious glow became an island of its own, a glowing cruise ship off uh, I don’t know, one side or the other, Florida or Africa baby, she’s out there! (Funny story – ya had to be there ☺)

Thursday morning we saw a balmy 24o C and replaced our boots, socks and heavy jackets with shorts, t-shirts and sunglasses.

Now, our final challenge presented itself, Could we make it to Abaco before sunset Friday?  Annie told us the story of the Caribbean 1500 Rally from Chesapeake to BVIs 8 years ago. A fellow traveller had decided to stop in Bahamas for a rest, but it was after nightfall, and seas were big. The other boats advised them not to attempt to cross the rocky shallows of the Bahamas in the dark. They ended up on a reef, forced to abandon ship and barely make it to the beach. One crew member was never found.   With this story stuck in our minds, we raced for our goal of arrival by  sunset on Friday. 

Dolphin spotted again at 1700 on Thursday, 25 hrs out Spinners this time and Annie Sings to them! Enchiladas that evening (chix of course) with domino training to follow – sober! Good thing as there is a lot to Dominos. I made the comment that this would be good to use in our older age. And Annie gently reminded me – Di, you are here. This is when you play dominos. Wow, as our wonderful Eric often exclaims – another revelation!! Game on baby – I’m going to need a new moniker – Domino Dianamal! With less than 100 miles to go and the need for speedy VMG, Di also broke out her 1989 lucky still serviceable Green Flash bra that had nestled me well during lots of deliveries and racing. 

Our last morning at sea saw twin fishing poles and a hand line out pulling and at noon our 30-pound tuna chomped the challenge!  Phone cameras clicking and all biceps bulging, our skipjack tuna boarded El Gato after a worthy fight that traversed both hulls.

Ceviche a day later was the best evah, but back to the Action as time spent catching our fish meant with four hours to go till the need to navigate the reef strewn Whale Cay channel ( are ya with us?), Tigger and a full hoist main came out to Play!

Winds light and inconsistent so with only 2 hours to go it’s engines full speed ahead!! And we’re doin’ It!! Barreling downwind to race the clock to arrive before dark, Spirits high with no room for error. Our 5:30 date with sundown meant ‘stayin’ out all night’ if we didn’t make curfew and you know how much trouble that can mean ☺ with the powers that be. 

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Land HO! Spotted by Annie and confirmed by Di at 4pm Tea Time on Friday. Hardly time for a true high tea, it was Eric and Heidi forward for a Tigger down douse, main centered.

IMG_1744 We could see the Abacos, but the sun was low and only about 45 mins of day remained. We were not going to make it before sunset. Annie charted a new course to cross a safer opening in the reefs, and we pressed on. The ease of the actual passage was ironic compared to the nervous last minute navigating, waypoint entering, and locating a sheltered place to anchor overnight. I sat on the bow stared in extremely shallow waters with just the glow of post sunset. It all seemed to happen quickly and easily. We made the cut entrance at 1720, 4 minutes after sunset! Annie made the call to shoulder the risk as we entered Whale Cay Channel, entering Chart Waypoints with one hand and Navionics on her phone display in the other, while steering with her teeth – Ah the stuff of legends! And Poof! We’re there – the question is answered! Yes darling Yes! We are there – 107 hours to the minute and approx 800 nautical miles, as anchors away at exactly 6 p.m., nestling nicely in the white sandy bottom in 2 meters of crystal clear 80+degree salty water off No Name Cay in the Abacos. 

Settled in quietly just South of Green Turtle Cay, we celebrated our first Caribbean cocktail hour. Martinis were deployed, as well as a bit of rum, ginger beer and lime taboot. For dinner Chicken quesadillas, the end of our stalwart chicken buddy, signaling the end of our simple miracle trip.

Thanks for reading sailing friends, from your El Gato Captains and Guest Crew, We are most grateful for the mighty El Gato, her trusty engines and suite of sails, and most of all Annie & Eric too! Happily we said of our time together, “Ya’ do whatcha Do & Cheers to You!”

Editors Notes:  Here are some photos from after we entered the Abacos – Green Turtle, No Name, Man O War, Great Guana, and Elbow Cay (Hope Town). The girls only stayed for a few days so we packed it in with watching wild life and being the wild life!
Eric and I wish to thank Diana and Heidi for being such wonderful shipmates and for helping to make our journey south a safe and memorable one.

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The Hardest Part is Leaving

And it’s not what you think. After all the goodbyes to house, kids, family, friends, Amazon, and Trader Joe’s, it’s a mad scramble to get everything done. Taxes, insurance, bills, tenants, and the piles of paperwork gets checked off the list first. Then the huge items get attacked like bottom paint, putting sails back on and provisioning when you won’t be returning with the boat to the USA for several years.

The boat looks like it vomited on the inside. It’s so messy it’s hard to believe we’ll ever get it all sorted and put away.

And this morning at the butt crack of dawn we tossed the lines and left the harbor with long time friends Diana Klybert and Heidi Schlageter. Diana was a teammate on the America3 Women’s America’s Cup Team. We’ve worked together for over 20 years team building with the University of Denver’s MBA program. She brings a sense of humor that reminds me of SNL. Heidi and I met when we started our families, and became fast friends both on and off the water. We trained together and won silver medals in Dubai at the ISAF World Games racing Hobies.

Eric is happy with our crew. Di has been by his side non stop assisting in numerous boat chores while Heidi has assisted me in the provisioning and moral support when the shit hits the fan.

So now that we are cruising down the Chesapeake there is a sense of relief and excitement. Our first landfall will be Abacos Bahamas. ETA Friday.

Hoping to have a smooth slide downwind and with PredictWind and Iridium Go! we can do our own weather routing.

The stress should slowly melt away as we head out to sea.

Wish us fair winds and we will try to post positions on FB but no promises.

New England Revisited

 

What a whirlwind of island hopping, relishing our time with all 5 kids, visiting dear friends we haven’t seen enough of, and finally sailing up the Connecticut River to enjoy 2 weeks of family reunion time behind my sisters house.  It was the best of the best.  I finally understand why folks live in the New England area.  Places to gunk hole, cool cities, American history, and everything is relatively close.

And then there is… Trader Joes!      The USA is “the land of plenty”.     Amazon Prime, Trader Joes’, Fresh Market, DSW Shoes, Apple Store, West Marine, wow.  We are back!   From independent contractors who speak English to ordering parts and installing ourselves, it’s so nice to be home and complete projects or upgrade. You have no idea how difficult or expensive it can be in other parts of the world.

In typical Gato style we did not stay anywhere for long.  From the time we arrived in July and left New England mid August we sailed to Cuttyhunk which is in the Elizabeth Islands and officially part of Massachusetts.IMG_7668IMG_7674

Onsett to clear customs, Duxbury where we barely managed to squeeze between the hundreds of small moorings to have a mini America3 reunion with Marci Lucier and Sarah Cavanah.

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On to Marblehead to visit Amy And Seamus Hourihan (Seamus wearing a gift basket from Grenada because he though it was a hat?) and Eric’s buddies Toby and Sally Reiley.

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Provincetown for the 4th of July to look for whales and celebrate son Rico’s birthday with his sibs Helena and Lucretia and best friend Ryan.

 

 

 

 

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Hadley’s Harbor to raft up with Bob and Jane Gleason.

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Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket with California friends Megan and Bruce Peeling, Marie and Lewie Wake.

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Newport where we dined, raced, and played with Dori and Scott Vogel, JB, Christy and Trev Prior, Susie Leech, Linda Lindquist, Johnny and Scott McGowan, Amy Baltzell, visited mansions, and had another mini America3 reunion with spouses, cousins, their mates and kids. Guest appearance from Mike and the newly named Mrs. Easton (Lindsay).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Marci Lucier’s son JJ following Eric’s lead.

 

 

Back to Cuttyhunk to play with Bob and Jane, Christy and Trev.  Cuttyhunk was our favorite place to revisit. Quiet, good hikes, fresh seafood, good pizzas, and some interesting history.