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.

San Blas Islands

Sailing from St Andres to the San Blas Islands is approx. 250 NM.  For us this means less than 2 days sailing comfortably.  Leave super early, sail overnight, and arrive before the sun sets.

Many ships congregate on this path to transit the Panama Canal.  We kept a good lookout and relied heavily on our instruments to keep us safe.  You want to hope that someone is on deck of these big ships especially at night watching their instruments, but don’t rely on it.

This is an example of what we studied on our chart plotter and in daylight saw. We are the black boat and the lines show the projected tracks.  When you click on the white boat it pulls up important info like they’re course and heading, how close they will be, and time until it’s as close as it will be, barring a course change by either of us, and how big and fast it is.

Sometimes they are too close for comfort and we change course.

Often we get stowaways and this bird was doing a balancing act on the forward cleat while we bounced in waves.  I was able to get really close to take photos. We name all birds who join us Petey.

Once we got past the Canal it was time to weave our way into the islands that are surrounded by reefs.  It should never be entered at night and we had enough daylight but it was overcast.  Our Panama cruising guides helped us navigate the trickiest bits.  Completely depending on electronic charts is a bad idea in places like this.  You must look, use cruising guides, and check the chart plotter. One good thing about Navionics though, they are updated when someone tracks the bottom. And cruisers can make notes and share info.  When we arrived at our destination we were nestled in a protected little area with only 3 other boats.

 

The surrounding islands were small and serene.

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We saw no buildings, only a grass hut and some whales bones near a beach.

One boat was clearly a charter making lots of noise, music blaring, for such a quiet peaceful location.  Luckily the next morning it departed and we got to see and feel how special and unspoiled this area is.

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Eric found a bar where evidently tourists are brought over and served drinks.  I’m sitting at a chair and table made of tree stumps.  It’s a long haul to get here by boat but definitely worth it.

The chief rowed over to collect $10 for his Kuna tribe. His kayak is no doubt a gift or lucky find, the paddle home grown.

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Launching our Kona SUP’s that double as windsurfers we took off for some exploration.

So many little islands with sandy beaches and reefs everywhere!

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On our travels we met the owners of another yacht hailing from New York.  He used to be a stock broker in NYC, she was originally from England and a hair dresser, and after they met they bought a boat, sailed south, and stopped.  They’ve been here for 20 years!  Talk about finding paradise and staying put.  I should have written their names down and taken notes so I apologize for this but they were lovely.  She took us snorkeling a couple days later after we had them over for sundowners.  They returned the sundowners on their boat with the only other couple in the sweet little bay. IMG_5318

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BBQ Island got it’s nickname from Mr NYC when he started hosting a Friday BBQ every week.  We were off season so no BBQ but it was nice getting to know them without a crowd.  Now he spends his time collecting trash on the islands and she snorkels each and every day and collects tiny little creatures to feed her fish in her aquarium.  This was a first.  No cat, no dog, no bird, but fish as pets. LOL

Good story.  As Eric and I are getting a ride out to the reef she tells us a few weeks ago several friends got together and went to this reef at night.  One person yelled “blowfish”, and a few seconds later another yelled ‘Crocodile!”.  Everyone thought he was joking but went over to where he was pointing his flashlight and they all shone theirs. Low and behold there was a big croc laying on the bottom.  When all the lights hit him he opened wide and they took off, almost walking on water to the dinghy!  She tells us this as we are about to take the plunge in.  Dios Mio!IMG_5270

The following day we take the dinghy to an island with many huts. BTW these natives don’t have electricity, are not allowed to marry outside their Kuna people, and are very sweet, short, shy yet friendly.  Or maybe tolerant ism the word? They live off the sea and profit from visitors who buy their molas and bring them gifts.  It is a matriarchal society. The men fish and the women sew the molas which are colorful artworks made of fabrics woven together to create pictures of nature or other designs.  We brought sewing needles, fabric and long sleeve shirts that help with mosquitos.

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It was fascinating to check out their huts and see how life used to be in a simpler time.IMG_5288

Whale bones and art from the sea.

IMG_5319Eric loved checking out their canoes which were hollowed out trees.

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And I loved meeting the people. Little batman is with his grammy who is in charge of this tribe. Check out the beads around her legs and arms.

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My kids bought me a Polaroid camera so next time we go I’m going to give them photos, not just take them.

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Once a week a boat comes out with food for the cruisers.  They can place orders and in our case I just looked to see what they had and bought some fruit and veggies.

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All in all a trip of a lifetime.  We loved it so much we will return on our way to the canal after we depart from Colombia in January 2020.

The Polaroid camera needs some love!

Pirates of the Caribbean!

Yes they exist…

Waiting for a weather window in Isla Mujeres next to an Israeli catamaran we noticed a pattern.  The wind was howling from the East through the Caribbean with no letting up for the next 10 days, and that was the forecast every single day. You can get a reliable forecast for 5 days and after that the percent of accuracy fades.   We needed to head SE before we could head to Panama, as Nicaragua juts out to the East between the Yucatan and Panama.  Our insurance requires us to be south and we want to be there too.  Hurricanes are no fun. No fun at all and the season was approaching.

Finally we met someone who helped us make a critical change of course.

Instead of heading SE, beating upwind and bashing the boat to get around the dangerous banks off Nicaragua; dangerous because there are hidden rocks but even worse, pirates who cling to them and attack unsuspecting boaters.  Brad advised us to consider motor sailing east or even east north east towards Cuba, hugging the coast but keeping 12 miles offshore to stay in international waters, then stopping in Grand Caymen, and Then head south.  We exchanged e mails with him for our IridiumGo and he not only kept in touch, but also watched the weather and our path.  In addition to Brad, we had friends onshore across the USA knowing our plans, tracking us, sometimes chatting with texts, and we made sure they knew if and when we left, changed routes, and when we landed.  This was the first time I was extremely diligent about keeping people in the loop of our plans.  We will continue to do on long passages as it worked really well when things got rough. And rough they got. For us and for our friend Kat who was on a boat that followed our lead in trying to get south and around Nicaragia safely.

The sail to Grand Caymen took approx. 2 days.  Day 1 was spent sailing across the narrow  strong Gulf Stream (again). 

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Check out the dark red next to the tip of Mexico. That’s the Gulf Stream.

It took us north of our rhumb line course but once we were alongside the south side of Cuba things calmed down and we motor-sailed until the wind filled in again the following day. 

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Using Predict Wind we can predict and analyze currents and weather. This photo shows what the current will be like after we pass Grand Caymens. As we drag the curser along a timeline the conditions move too.

Sailing off Cuba, almost retracing our wake in the opposite direction from February, we were sailing at night in awe of the majestic feeling when out at sea away from land, Wifi, and all the other trappings we get comfortable with.

On top of the cabin to watch shooting stars and satellites on a moonless night studded with stars, planets and the Milky Way, we found ourselves marveling at the beauty that surrounded us.   There is no ambient light off Cuba to diffuse the universe’s brilliance. We were alone.

A half moon rose at 01:00 and a tint of the Sahara dust was in our nostrils.

The dust actually helps prohibit cyclone activity by keeping humidity lower. Always grateful for nature to behave.

As much as we hope not to arrive at night to new destinations, we arrived around midnight but it was calm and easy breezy.   We did not have to enter a harbor, rather we needed to find a mooring ball on the lee side of the island.  Happy that Garmin, Active Captain and Navionics are all combined now.  That means we can look at a chart, zoom into an area, see an icon, click on it and read what other cruisers have said.  Lots of input and great advice out there.  We called the Port Authority who were courteous and helpful and picked up a free mooring for the night.  Always grateful to have a good nights sleep.  

The next 3 days were filled with exploring the island (not much there if you don’t have a boat or access to one) and the highlight was swimming with dozens of rays who would eat out of your hand,

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There are rays everywhere surrounding these folks. We jumped in and joined them

then eating at Rum Point where the Mudslide drinks were invented.  Think ice cream and Baileys.  Rum Point got its name from all the rum kegs that washed up on the beaches from shipwrecks that didn’t see the barrier reefs.

June 29th

The big question hovers over our heads.

Do we stay or do we go?

Usually the forecast gives you the answer.  This time however many variables are in place.

#1 It is hurricane season and with global warming we take this very seriously.

Not only does our insurance company require us to be south of Latitude 12 40 by July 1st, we know that storms can come at any time.  There are 48 hour outlooks, and 5 day outlooks for cyclone activity, but when you are 3-4 days from the next safest port that isn’t much of a window. And if we are on a passage and something brews we need to head south and fast! South ids Venezuela.  We are not allowed to go there (insurance), nor do we want to.  Remember Sir Peter Blake at the famous Kiwi who was shot and killed when they were boarded by pirates?  He was working with the Cousteau Society.  I digress.

A British hurricane relief ship is right behind us and has been here for days. They have a lot of territory to cover!

2# The wind is howling across the Caribbean and hasn’t let up nor will it for the next 10 days. Seas are building. Currently around 6-10′.

#3. The CAPE factor which measures instability in the atmosphere is at its appex. Instablility translates to likelihood of clouds building because of the humidity and heat thereby forming large cells which can and often include lightening.

From a scale of 1-10 the CAPE is now a 10. I used to be afraid of sharks.  Now it’s lightening because it can take out all our instruments and all things with batteries, wires, bluetooth and and and.  It can cause a fire which would be only one of two reasons we would abandon ship, the other being on a reef and sinking or something like that.   So yeah, I do not like lightening at all.  We will dodge the squalls in a game aptly called Dodge Squall. 

#4. The waves will be on our beam. If we head south towards Panama we should miss the pirates off Venezuela, but the waves will be on our beam, not a good choice.  So we will head high to begin the journey then head down when things get more spicey.  That keeps us in the CAPE zone longer. Ugh.

A few other cruisers arrived and were planning the same route. When it looked like once again no real decent weather window we decided to head out. The Caribbean winds were still howling but we’d have over 100 miles before we’d reach them.  Jamaica was a bit of a buffer to the east.

The other boats arrived after us and needed more time for provisioning and would leave the following day.  Our boat is faster so we didn’t feel like wasting any more time, plus they were going straight to Panama and once again we were thinking of changing plans.  Instead of going to Panama or the Bocas de Toros, an archipelago off of Costa Rica and owned by Panama, we would break up the trip and stop in Colombian Islands La Providencia and St Andres.  Again, always good to stop, see new places and sleep when it’s just the 2 of us. Changing our plans had become a pattern and each one was working out for the best.  

So there we were, leaving after checking out of customs, hoping the storms predicted would abate or just calm down and stop, but no, they were going to be an all afternoon and evening slalom course.

  The sailing was decent, we were making good time, sailing SE between Grand Caymen and Jamaica. 

However it was one of the worst nights we’ve experienced since we started cruising 5 years ago.

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The idea was to sail the fastest point of sail as far east as possible before the wind howled and the seas built and then head down towards Panama surfing and sailing with the wind and seas at a good angle to push us along.  Using radar to track storms, we also had our eyes peeled to watch out for those that were still developing.  When you see a cloud that reaches up to the heavens it’s not good.  Our senses were on high alert.  During the day it’s obviously easier to watch storms grow, but at night when the lightening sparks up the entire sky with tentacles reaching in every direction it gives you a good indication of how large the storm and clouds are.  That night it was frightening.  Nervous Nelly here doesn’t touch anything metal, puts all electronics that aren’t being used in the microwave to protect them, and hopes we are lucky.  Of course we were changing course and using our best storm tactics we could and that helped a lot.  But sometimes it’s all about timing and ours was good and lucky.  If we left a couple hours later we could have been under a huge cumulomambonimbus.  This the name of the monster of all clouds that can reach over 50,000′!

No dodging it as we looked back and saw it take over the sky behind us.  Ay yay yay.  And that was the afternoon!  Anyway, we worked hard all night and finally got past all that s—t by morning.  Cruising along at 10-13 nicely, taking naps on our off watches we rested up for one more night offshore.  

That night Brad saw our tracks and that we were headed too close to the Seranillo Banks.  There is a light on this small bank and an outpost for the Columbian Armada however he said they are not always on station and there are 2 boats missing at the moment who were in this area. WTF!?!

And while we thought our course was taking us safely far enough off of Nicaragua, it turns out even at 200 miles offshore we were too close.  The pirates are now hanging off of tiny little cays way out to sea, waiting for boats to come by and attack.  Some have AK47’s, other have machetes, but how do you know until they are alongside?  We’ve seen the movie Captain Philips twice.  It’s not pretty. And we’ve read the CSSN reports that lately have reported piracy and deaths in this area of the Caribbean.  This we do not take lightly.  So when our new buddy in Mexico wrote us at midnight saying we were heading towards a pirates den we freaked!  There was a choice.  Head upwind and bash in 20-25 knots, 8-12’ seas, or keep sailing on a broad reach, hauling ass, turn all lights off, AIS off, and use eyes and radar while heading a little deeper and keeping 40 miles inside the cays.  We chose the latter.  We grabbed our machete, bear spray, flare gun and placed it on the galley table.  Just in case.  In hindsight it was a joke.  At the time we had no idea some boats have AK47’s which was probably a good thing.  And honestly, we know that if we ever get boarded we have to hope and pray they don’t hurt us.  Having a gun onboard means you must be willing to shoot to kill, be trained for that, and hope they don’t shoot first. We will give them everything. Just don’t take our lives.

  Our thought process included the fact that it was rough out there.  To try and keep up or board a boat would be extremely difficult. For them to spot us they would need to be close enough to see us in the pitch black night.  That would be extremely lucky unless they had radar. Which some might if they’ve hijacked a boat with it. More often the reports are about pangas so sailing over 10 knots boat speed means we can outrun most of them.  The conditions were very prohibitive for boarding or keeping up so we went for it.  And it worked.  We sailed through the night like a ghost ship communicating with friends, sharing our location and staying on high alert throughout the night.  

It was a long night filled with adrenaline. We saw cargo ships on AIS that were heading north after passing through the Panama Canal but other than that nothing, nada.

As dawn emerged it was a bit hazy but otherwise good weather conditions and we still had plenty of wind. Our next island was another 50 miles away.  That felt relatively close.   And then it happened.  A ship showed up on radar but not on AIS.  All commercial ships must use AIS.  We decided to turn our AIS on to help ships see us.  This ship was not heading north in the opposite direction, it seemed to be pacing us but staying 4 miles away.  And it was big enough to show up on radar yet we couldn’t see it with our eyes. Using binoculars it was blending into the hazy horizon and then we finally understood why.  It was a metal grey Colombian Armada frigate (Coast Gaurd) patrolling the area.  Providencia is a Colombian island and there is still a fair amount of drug traffickers out there plus did we mention pirates so they were doing their job patrolling. They eventually moved on but it certainly got our heart rate pumping!  Again!

The exception to using AIS (which we also experienced in the USA) is that Naval ships go under the radar when they are practicing or trying to hide.  Now we knew why this ship was undetected except for on radar.  Now we truly felt safe(r).  

Arriving in La Providencia, we were deservedly exhausted and after calling in to the authorities we went straight to sleep.  Never did we need to relax more from 2 nights at sea! IMG_5065

IMG_5066After a lengthy and costly check in with the infamous Mr. Bush we did a walk about. The process included a scooter ride.IMG_5094

There were many Colombian tourists coming from the mainland by ferry from Nicaragua. A carnival had taken place the day before and the island was littered with trash.   This island deserved more time than we gave it, but the clock ticked on and we felt the urge to keep moving south.

But not before we did a dinghy discovery cruise to the small island called Catalina.  Since we live in San Diego when not cruising it felt fitting to go see this little paradise.

The decision to move on was a good one.  After checking out of customs we pulled anchor at 12:30, and 56 miles later, arrived at 19:00, or 7PM. As we rounded the reef and corner of St Andres we jibed and were flying at 9 knots in the channel.  The Armada came  out to greet/board us in a fast RIB, requesting us to slow down with hand signals.  I was driving and gestured not possible.  A large tanker called us on the radio and asked us to hug the starboard side of the channel – they were departing. The channel bends and as things go we passed each other right at the bend.  They were sliding sideways, there was a reef on our right, a large metal government buoy, and no room for error.  They stopped skidding just in time and we passed close but not dangerously close.  It was yet another case of good seamanship in tight conditions.  When we finally got the anchor down it was dusk and the Armada came aboard.  The group comprised of 3 young men and 1 women.  They divided and conquered with one staying on their boat, one doing the paperwork and the other 2 looking through El Gato. They lifted every cushion, opened every drawer, and checked under each and every hatch board. We’ve never had such a thorough inspection even in Cuba where we could have smuggled someone out easily.  Maybe they would be OK with that? We’ll never know.

It’s a little embarrassing to see what they see, or see it through their eyes.  We have rum and wine stashes under 3 bilges! My bra was on the desk top in our cabin, and dirty clothes were draped over the hamper.  Needless to say we weren’t expecting company and there was no time to tidy up.  

They were relaxed and fine with me snapping photos.

The female agent hailed from Bogota and spoke a little English.  She wanted to know the difference between the words for sailboat and sailor.

Knowing some keys words is good in any country but the most important thing when traveling to new countries is to be very polite and smile.  When you make them feel human, like fellow beings and respect them for doing their job, it really helps ease the process.  It’s always been our goal to make them smile, and most times it’s easy.  When it’s not, it becomes a challenge.  So far we have achieved our goals.

While we were barreling down the channel on our way in being chased by the Armada we got a radio call from Kelly on NautiKal, guiding us in to the anchorage and offering help.  They are friends of a friend named Caren on Serenity who we met in Grenada and had let them know we were coming.

 Kelly and Darren – NautiKat invited us over for wine and chats and we enjoyed meeting and sharing stories discovering we have mutual cruising friends like Christine and Matt on Sugar Shack and Cindy and Steve on Willow.   So nice to meet fellow cruisers and let our hair down after so much sailing and worrying.

The next day we rigged our windsurfers and saw 2 dinghies return from a session of kiting.

Mike – “We kite in the AM, do boat jobs, coffee at 4 onshore with friends, dinner, rinse and repeat!”

  He gives me the best mental picture of how to kite than anyone ever has.  As much as I’ve watched and even commentated on kiting during the AC Open races, I have not gotten past the blast and splash and have put my foot in the sand about trying again.  Even Eric has decided it’s easier to sail with me than rig his own kite, worry about getting back to the boat, and finding a good place to launch.  Most places are sketchy. But if you stay in one place like these guys and you know the area and are addicted to the sport then it all makes sense.  Our MO is to keep moving on and seeing new places so finding the perfect spot is not so easy.  The next day we meet at the kiting place and I take off on my windsurfer after getting freaked about kiting, again.  My thought process goes like this:  If I were younger and could afford to crash and splash until I felt like it was riding a bike I’d be all in.  My body is showing many signs of a life well lived and played hard so I am trying to preserve what I still have left.  Windsurfing is my sport and I embrace it.  It may as the kiters say harder physically, but I’ve never felt like I could die if I screw up on a windsurfer or if someone makes a mistake and screws me up.  So there you have it.  I’m never going to be that lady out there kicking ass on a kite at 60. Who cares!  I know in my heart of hearts if I had started when I was 20 something I would be racing them and flying as high as the kite would carry me. So I brought my camera and snapped shots of others crushing it.  Kelly was learning and did a beautiful job of getting up and gliding – especially since she has hardly any feelings in her legs!

Instead of suffering through another humiliating day of trying to kite, I took off on my own and windsurfed to a little island called Rose Cay.  Bought a delightful drink made with fresh coconut juice and bought pearl earrings for me and my friends.  A young man was feeding his friend the sting ray just like in Grand Caymen but this time it was shallow and calm so easy to touch and enjoy the experience.

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That night we had a date at a restaurant called Club Nautico and it was wonderful!  The food was excellent and the ambience incredible.

The next day we walked around town.

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and that night we hung out with the other cruisers, most of who stay in St Andres for the kiting and community.  Someone organized a beer tasting field trip to a new brewery.  What was to be a short walk wound up being a group of gringos lost in the city with police guarding and escorting us.

Turns out the location took us though some less than desirable neighborhoods and the police did not want us getting hurt on their watch.

The Barracuda beer was good, the presentation great, and we all had a really good time.  I don’t even like beer. Hahah

 

The next day we made plans to sail further south.  Tom advised us to skip Panama.  Too many storms, lightening, and mildew at this time of year, and we planned to leave the boat for 6 months.  He said we’d return to a boat covered in mushrooms.  LOL. So much for visiting Boca De Toros and hauling at Shelter Bay Marina.  But I’d read about Cartagena and was excited.  And first we would stop in the San Blas Islands where it’s like walking into a National Geographic story.

Next blog, San Blas and Cartagena.

Viva Mexico!

The Passage to Mexico

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Tom Materna on helm, John Forgrave and Eric doing the bro thing

Day 1 passage to Mexico Notes:

Departed at 0700 on a beautiful day.  John  Forgrave brought a beautiful fishing rod as a gift  and the boys caught 2 Mahi Mahi’s, at the same time!

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Mahi Mahi’s are fast and abundant

Saw a dolphin pod that stayed awhile.  

Had to bring in the lines – too much Sargassum weed getting caught on the hooks.

2 fish is just fine.

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Weed fish everywhere

Hoping the lightening storms don’t return as last night was horrible.  

Shrimp and grits for dinner.  Made Banana Bread for tomorrow.  Pesto pasta for lunch. 

Nice evening with no storms. YAY!  In the summer months the storms become obnoxious. 

Day 2 – Most memorable thing – I made sushi for lunch and soon afterwards Tom and I got sick.

I had Mahi Zumas revenge but Tom had it coming out both ends. NOT a good thing for a long passage.

The funny thing was I served lasagna for dinner and Tom, AKA Walkie Talkie, was hungry so he ate a big helping and promptly hurdled off the stern.  Then he returned to the table and served himself up another plate!  OMG that man loves his food! 

The queasiness stayed with us and I was physically weak but alert and floated on watches to help navigate and cook, staying on deck curled up in the fetal position all night with Juan or Eric on helm.  Tom was toast so we left him off watch.  

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Heading into one of the worlds strongest currents

John finished his graveyard shift around 3 AM and informed Eric and me that a cruise ship was on AIS and headed our way (obviously leaving Mexico and going back towards the states).  BTW they look surreal at night, humongous and all lit up like a world of it’s own and one can only imagine how strange that would be if it were transported back in time – it would be straight out of a SciFi movie! As they got closer it was not as simple as heading up or down to avoid it.  On radar we detected a squall on our port quarter trying to overtake us, a large storm cell about 4 miles in front of us going port to starboard, and the Gulfstream current was pushing us sideways to starboard at 4 knots (into the ships path).  Working hard to stay out of their path we opted to put in 2 reefs just case a squall hit us at the most inopportune time – next to the cruise ship.  We wound up having only 1/2 mile between us.   Then we headed up and slowed down to let the big cell pass in front on us.  Our tracks had us doing circles in the stream.  The boat was headed one way and going another.  True vertigo.  If we had been pilots we might have crashed. That happens unfortunately.  You must trust your instruments and sometimes that’s really really hard.  It was bizarre and felt like an episode in The Twilight Zone.

But it worked and the cell not only passed in front of us but dissipated as well.  Whew!  This is why you never let your guard down while on watch.   Shit happens – mostly at night. 

Other cells were out there but nothing came close.  That was by far the weirdest situation we have ever encountered. 

 We tend to keep the boat on autopilot at night and when its calm and we are way offshore and not in a traffic zone we do a visual check every 5-10 minutes.  In more challenging conditions such as these, and in busy areas we are diligent in watching radar, AIS, and using our eyes and ears to keep a careful watch on things. One person awake and alert while on watch with the other(s) resting until their turn.  Depending on how many onboard (we prefer 3-4 for long passages so we can rest more) I’ll make a watch schedule and post it in the galley.  We cross off our names after our watch because after a day or two the time becomes a blur.  We need to look at that list often to know who is next and how long we can rest. Three hour watches has worked really well for us. Some people do 6 hour watches when it’s just the 2 of them but so far we haven’t tried that.  But when it’s just me and Eric we will let the other sleep in depending on how rested we are and how hard their watch was.

The stream continued to be strong at 4-5 knots and we used engines to keep the speed and go the right way.  Sometimes the difference between our heading and COG was 30 degrees. Like crabbing sideways.

Turns out that relatively narrow area between Cuba and Mexico is one of the strongest currents in the world. 

Arriving in Isla Mujeres around 13:00 we tied up at El Milagro Marina, a quaint marina with a tiny beach, a tiny pool, parrots, palm trees, a movie room with AC, internet (even from the dock), a community kitchen and dining area outside, and a community vibe including the staff that makes a good place great. 

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Marina manager with great efficiency.  Going through customs is expensive in IM because all the palms want to be greased. A lot.

The owner, Eric Schott who is actually a bit shy

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Awesome dude who escaped the USA and made a beautiful place out of nothing.

hails from Santa Barbara, CA, and after too many divorces he headed south and brought his mom too.

He built El Milagro 14 years ago and did it well.  All tiles, ambiance, happy employees and customers. We celebrated our anniversary with him and his crew and right before we departed he gave me and Eric a sweet compliment saying we were the coolest couple to ever stay at his marina.  He probably says this to all his easy customers.  LOL.

Thank you Cindy for sharing this marina info with us!  It was very special in a million ways!

Whale sharks are frequent visitors to this area of Mexico and Isla Mujeres has many tour boots that take tourists out to swim alongside them as they feed. We didn’t go for it.  The seas were building, it would be a 45 minute ride on an uncomfortable pong with other guests throwing up, and they throw you in the water while the whales swim by and you must wear a PFD.  WAY too touristy for us.  Hoping we find them in a much more natural setting and swim with them.

Amazing how much my dress matched this tile mural outside the marina!

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I put on a dress, walked outside, and matched!

Our crew hopped on provided Milagro bicycles and took off in search of scooters so we could tour the whole island.  It’s only 5 miles long.

Eric brought along El Gato stickers and placed them in strategic spots.

 IMG_4895We headed to the south end in the dark getting lost only once. A few days later we retuned to visit the area in the daylight.  It was spectacular. DSC_0015

Back to town for a delicious meal. Toms idea for ordering one meal at a time and everyone sharing, then the last meal something everyone agreed was the best to be ordered again was a hit.  To top off the meal some street performers demonstrated their skills doing acrobatics to the rhythms of drum beats.  Then one of the nicest voices we’d ever heard serenaded us.  It was lovely. The finish of the perfect dinner was vanilla ice cream topped with Kahlua. It was so popular with our group that we bought 2 bottles and filled a flask to bring to ice cream stores in the future!  

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Like most places called paradise, Isla Mujeres has changed a lot. My last visit in 1982 when I skippered an (almost) all female crew on a 54’ monohull called Huntress. We had one man, a journalist named Bob Payne who put the whole deal together. Bob wanted to get the perspective of being the only member of the opposite sex onboard. Back in those days it was hard to find a woman on any race boat let alone a boat full.  Since I had just raced in the SORC for my 2nd year as skipper of an all female team he was inspired.  Bob volunteered to be our cook, another role reversal, and promptly tried to learn how to cook.  It was a hoot, we lost weight, were first to finish, won the race, Sail Magazine published his story, and everyone celebrated yet another milestone for women sailing. It was a bonus that Isla Mujeres translates to Island of Women.  I was 23 at the time.  Looking back it seems I was a mere child who knew no boundaries. Invited by the Mayor of Cancun I stayed for the Mexican Windsurfing Nationals hosted at Club Med, and won the title but not the Windsurfer board that was the prize as they gave that to the first place Mexican as they should. I did however receive a really cool trophy to add to the collection of Isla Mujeres trophies. They take great pride in their prize givings and some of the trophies were gorgeous.   The Nationals were really fun until the mayor practically kidnapped me.  That’s another story. I was scared and locked myself up in my room at Club Med.  I wrote letters back home just in case I disappeared. 

Meanwhile Huntress sailed back to Florida and her keel almost fell off.  I guess we were all lucky to survive that week.  

Anyway, after the guys departed, Eric and I rested a lot and returned to almost normal sleeping patterns.  It’s tricky to sleep all night after being alert for so long and also being in a new place with new sounds.

Different restaurants every night as we can never get our fill of  good Mexican food!  

On Hidalgo Street we found El Patio with live music so we did the “white man dancing” routine.  This is what I call Eric’s moves.  LOL. I love that he does not care what he does or looks like – he loves to bust out his moves with pure abandon – the same ones he learned in junior high.  The music was great and before long the dance floor was full.  Sorry, no photos. 

Day after day we waited for a weather window but it never opened.  The forecast called for 30 knots around Nicaragua and the seas were building.

So we made a new plan.

One that would avoid pirates and weather.

We hoped.

That’s in the next blog, coming soon!

Florida’s West Coast

After leaving Cuba in February, 2019,

we sailed to Florida and spent a few months doing boat maintenance and upgrades combined with visiting friends and family. When you’re always gone, coming home is exciting!  Big smiles as we rounded Key West and headed north to the Tampa area.  St Petersburg has changed dramatically in the past few decades.  While growing up in Florida, it was primarily known for old folks and the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit (SORC).  Thankfully it’s blossomed with a hip vibe from artists and youngsters who’ve migrated there. Things we loved: The Dahli museum, the St Pete Yacht Club, the outdoor market on Saturdays, going to an outdoor art show where my childhood friend and crew in the SORC Eileen Dawson’s sister Jennifer had a display, and eating delicious food at the multitude of new eateries.  

Super grateful to our friends Kathryn and Paul Garlick and Ralph Steitz and Jamie Gross for their hospitality while we parked behind their houses, borrowed cars and cooked dinners.  They opened their homes and hearts and it was such a blessing to get things shipped and take showers without worrying about running out of water.  Expert boat seamstress Kathryn taught me some great sewing tips and I made a few wine bags for gifts.  Eric had endless boat repair assists from Paul, and Ralphie taught him how to foil behind their house.   I made an attempt and got air for a few moments but when I fell had a near miss with the foil so opted out.

Our buddy the GloMaster was living in the area working for Masterwolt and we spent Easter with her at Egmont Key.  Good times with good friends indeed.

 

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We had a wonderful charter with repeat customer Jen, a mother of 5 who is also a doctor of radiology.  Her dream to sail around the world someday with her family was inspired when her husband Tim brought her to Antigua to charter with us.  This time she was on her own concentrating on learning and taking a break from her routines.  Helping Jen overcome her fear of driving was easy breezy. We went through every sail combo and she drove like a champ!

We can’t wait to hear how her story unfolds.  Check out the light touch of her finger tips, a sure sign of confidence.

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While in the Tampa Bay Area one of our favorite spots to get away from the mainland was Egmont key.

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It’s an old fort with a bird sanctuary and long white deserted beaches. Tortoises crawl, birds sing, and we loved the quiet solitude that surrounded us with the exception of one holiday where the locals came in droves with music blaring.  Hey, this is their backyard, not ours so it’s all good.

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Always ready to stoke those fires for racing, we trained with the Garlicks on their Hobie 17’s and borrowed a friends Hobie 16 then competed in the Hobie Midwinters East in Clearwater Florida.  This was the first regatta on a path to the Worlds in November which would be held just south off Captiva Island. One night we invited our racing friends onboard for a Cuban lobster dinner.  The bugs were caught by me and Eric off the south coast of Cuba, were in the freezer and waiting for just the right people and time to share. Sadly we lost our good friend Sandra over the summer in a tragic boating accident and this would be the last time we saw her. She was my wingman when I started dating Eric and at the midwinters  she crewed for Dan Borg – they won the 16’s class.

Maintenance was a huge focus in Florida since we had access to everything.  In addition to picking up our new 3DI mainsail, a new stereo system was installed with bluetooth hooked up to our Bose speakers inside and out, and Eric worked on installing our SSB (Single Side Band) system.  It’s an important tool we will rely on when we enter the Pacific. I’m a huge believer in back up systems and this is a backup to the back up with one exception. We can use this while offshore by thousands of miles and connect by radio with anyone on the system whether they are 50 or 2000 miles away. Very cool to have with groups like rallies or friends doing long passages.  IridiumGo and InReach use satellites and are fantastic for texting and emergency alerts but you don’t get to chat about the weather or brag about how many fish were caught with someone on the same route.  We still have not figured out how to use the dang thing – it’s old school and we’ve gotten used to easy instruments.  But with some practice I’m sure it will become less cumbersome.  The sunsets were spectacular with the huge billowy clouds and full moon.

Sailing down the west coast of Florida was shared with sister Louise and her husband David. One day we were swarmed by love bugs and used the vacuum to get rid of them.  (See photo below of David vacuuming Louises head). Dinner at Cabbage Key was funky (check out the dollar bills on the walls) and delightful where we celebrated Louise’s birthday.  In Fort Meyers we ate at Doc Fords, bought a few of his books, and brought fresh shrimp back to the boat for a delicious Charleston recipe of shrimp and grits dinner.

To discover my family’s native state by boat was a treat. As sisters we grew up loving sailing, horses, and Miami. Sharing our lifestyle onboard with our family is important to me and Eric. We snorkeled, shell shopped (this is my term for beach combing or finding shells underwater), cooked old family recipes, played with arts and crafts, fished, shared lots of laughs, and like any healthy family we created great memories together. Check out Louise’s Rosette Spoonbill which she then painted on my t shirt and the wine bag I made.

Our last port with Louise and David was Key West, the southernmost spot in the USA.

IMG_4521The Gardner family has been going there for as long as we can remember and the last time going as sisters was to celebrate our parents life and throw their ashes to the sea with the entire Gardner clan. Eric and I sailed small cats during Key West Race Week when we first started dating back in 2011.

  Discovering Key West on our own yacht gave us a whole new appreciation for the area. Of course we had to go play onshore and see how whacky KW still is!

After my sibs left my cousin Nancy and her friend Lauri came to visit for a few days. We sailed to the Marquesas Keys and anchored out after some island exploration.

An old friend from CRYC days was in town, Chris Dowling, and we loved recalling the good old days of when our parents were our age!

Chris Dowling

Miami friends Diane and Kenny Davis drove down for a few days onboard where we did more key hopping, and Diane was lucky enough to swim with wild dolphins!  Sailing/racing friends Kathy Kulkowski and Beryn Hardy drove down for lunch dates and some giggles. Kathy and I have won the Hobie 16 Women’s Nationals twice and Beryn crewed for me in the SORC back in the good old days.  So much fun to celebrate lifelong friends with a common passion – sailing.

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We surprised Eric’s brother, Chad, with an airline ticket for his birthday and sprung him away from Ohio for his first visit to El Gato.  It was a reunion of bros!  He had so many funny stories from “back in the day”….

One last visitor, Cindy Cady, a match racing friend who is also now full time cruising, sailed in from Isla Mujeres on her mate’s yacht Willow, and we all danced and ate at a Cuban restaurant near the famous Mallory Square. She gave us great info on the marina where we would later stay in Isla Mujere, Mexico.

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This photo is one of the reasons artists flock to the Keys to paint

The colors…these were taken with an outdated iPhone , untouched.

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John Forgrave and Tom Materna, Hobie friends for decades, arrived with 2 extra days, just enough time to get a taste of Key West before whisking them away.  It turned out to be Pride week so we witnessed pure Key West with some very good street shows!

It was time to say goodbye to the states and start sailing south.  Truth is we’d been preparing for months and now it was time for the final preparations like check the satellite communications and weather routing via PredictWind, because after Mexico we would keep going until we got to Panama.

But one last stop was in the plan.  June 9th we left Key West, sailed to the Dry Tortugas, about 60 miles west.  Fort Jeffereson is located there and it’s a bit tricky with not much room to anchor safely so we timed it well and found a good safe spot to put the hook down.

We can check that off our list of the “someday let’s go”.  When we arrived we couldn’t wait to jump in and as Eric was first, he was the first to see something large and ominous under our boat.  His first thought was shark.  Upon further inspection it was a Goliath Grouper!  It was happily hanging out under our shade.  These fish can grow up to 8 feet long and weigh as much as 790 lbs!

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Goliath Grouper

Wikiedia:   Until a harvest ban was placed on the species, its population was in rapid decline. The fish is entirely protected from harvest and is recognized as a Vulnerable species by the IUCN.[1] The US began protection in 1990, and the Caribbean in 1993. The species’ population has been recovering since the ban; with the fish’s slow growth rate, however, some time will be needed for populations to return to their previous levels.

Goliath groupers eat crustaceans, other fish, octopuses, young sea turtles, sharks, and barracudas. They are known to attack divers, and have even been seen attacking large lemon sharks.[5]

WTF!!!???!!!

What we didn’t expect were the thousands of birds that swarmed the beach and loved landing on the boat.  With birds comes bird S@#T and Eric was none too happy about this byproduct.  He spent hours shooing them away.

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Found a window to head south and with the squalls and lightening storms blooming (summer in the southern latitudes is typically a light show) we needed to pull up anchor and go look for Margaritaville;  the real one, not the Jimmy Buffet store.

Next blog coming soon! Trying to catch up on all of this before we take off again in January.  LOL

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.