After 6 years of cold water cruising in northern Europe and Canada, 2013 was the year to sail south and in 2014 we finally sailed in the Caribbean. We choose Cuba as our first country. It is close to Florida, but few Americans sail there because of US restrictions. In 2007 we spent 2 months in the northern Bahamas (Abacos). Our cruising style and the grown-up playground style in the Abacos were not good company, which is why we avoided the Bahamas in our planning. We cruised Cuba counterclockwise from Havana to Santiago de Cuba.
The counterclockwise tour
Havana. Feb 1-6
February 1 we crossed the Gulf Stream from Key West, Florida to Havana. The weather forecast was for light SE winds. Part way across the stream the black clouds gathered and lightning flashed in the dark sky. The wind veered to SW then to W and NW and freshened to 15 knots. All cruising books advise “do not cross the Gulf Stream in wind with any northern component” but here we were with north wind and an adverse current. Progress was slower than anticipated.
At daybreak on Saturday, Brian went on deck to lower the US courtesy flag and hoist the "Q" flag (until we cleared customs & immigration). Since the revolution in 1958 the US has strangled the Cuban economy with trade sanctions, so flying the US flag when entering Cuba is like showing red to a bull. The US flag refused to be lowered. The flag halyard jammed between the shiv and the housing of the turning block. Brian worked on freeing the line for 45 minutes, but the harder he tried, the more he jammed the halyard into the turning block. Finally, admitting defeat, Jane agreed to go up to the spreader, but asked to be winched up in the boson’s chair rather than pull herself up with the Topclimber to keep the procedure as short as possible. We were still in the Gulf Stream, with 12-15 knots of wind over the port quarter with the Genoa out. While Brian rigged the chair, Jane tried to gather confidence as the boat yawed in the 3-foot seas. Brian put our trusty bread knife in the tools pocket, Jane slipped into her safety harness and climbed into the boson’s chair and gave a thumbs up ... ready to go up. What a ride. Out of control and as frightening as your first roller coaster ride. With both hands holding onto shrouds and both feet bracing against the shrouds the ride was not bad, but when she had to hold the tool bag with one hand and use the other hand to grasp the knife handle and her feet slipped on the shrouds, she went flying. Jane was only at the spreaders, not masthead, and we only had 3-foot swells. It could have been ... should have been ... much worse, but it was an adrenalin rush scare we do not want to try again. Once knife was in hand, the cut was easy to make and the flag fell to the deck.
Jane replacing the courtesy flag and managing to avoid an international incident
We arrived at the Customs and Immigration Quay at noon. The medical doctor was our first visitor; he hinted that a few dollars would help speed up our entrance and we complied with the smallest Canadian bill we had on board ($20). The Guarda Frontera (customs and immigration) joined the doctor and communicated their need to have a cash hand-out. One of the guards needed to examine our kitchen knives and while he played with a 10 inch fileting knife the other made his pitch. We understood the threat. They were also keen to find out if we had any candy, especially chocolate. They were keen to record all the electronic devices we had, both marine (GPS, radios, etc.) and common (mobile phones, computers). The sniffer dogs did not come on board, but were vigilant on the quay. After an hour we were finally given permission to proceed to the marina. Once docked, the Harbourmaster went through his entrance routine making sure we understood his rum preferences, and then the Ministry of Agriculture inspectors arrived to check out all fresh and frozen food on board. They found one onion with the early signs of decay. They asked for a small gift but when we refused things became a bit tense. We offered the contents of a bag of stuff for kids which they reluctantly took in lieu of cash. Our entrance to Cuba was more onerous than entrance to other countries, but we thought this was one-time examination. How wrong we were. Our exit from Havana also required a stop at the Customs and Immigration Quay, and every stop (whether at a marina or anchorage) at which a Guarda Frontera was stationed required an on-boat inspection when we arrived and again when we left. The “Dispatcho” or cruising license, had to be stamped at each stop, and the officials followed their own schedule; our need to depart to take advantage of a weather window was of little interest or understanding to the official. We may have been too intimidated by officials and too careful to follow the rules. As a rule ALL officials make demands for small gifts. Whether or not you pay the bribe is up to you but until you have been through the process once it is very intimidating.
The official form … In the US you have to call in every time you change location in Cuba they make sure you move from point A to point B..
We know other boats ignored checking in and out at every stop and there were no apparent consequences. The cruising guides said we could land a dinghy on uninhabited cayos (islands), however we were required to be boarded at the entry ports (Havana, Los Morros, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba) and also had to hail the Guarda Frontera and be boarded in Bahia Honda and Cayo Levisa. At Cayo Levisa we had to row the official out to the boat for both the check-in and check-out. Unless you venture into the uninhabited shallow water lagoons on the South coast visits by the Guarda Frontera are guaranteed.
The marina in Havana, Hemingway Marina, is about 20 miles outside downtown Havana.
Boats are allocated a specific spot and are not allowed to move until you leave the marina
There are 5 channels; each about ¼ mile long, but only one of the channels has power and water available. The marina was hardly full. There were boats from the UK, Canada, Norway, Australia and the US at the marina all in the one channel with power and water. The water is not safe for drinking. We tested the water with our chlorine detection kit and discovered the chlorine level in the water was “off the charts” with excessive chlorine suggesting a real water quality issue.
There was a familiar look / feel to the marina and Havana in general to someplace we had been before. The mid-20th century Soviet architecture with crumbling concrete in Latvia was right here in Cuba, often with a peeling coat of brightly coloured paint. We noticed many similarities between the two countries. More regarding this comparison at the end of this update.
We spent one day in downtown Havana. We discovered few Cubans speak English, and in the tourist sites, like Old Havana, we were barraged by people wanting to provide tours in taxis, bicycle taxis, and tour buses. The taxis are 1950’s US autos that have been transformed to diesel-guzzlers, since diesel is much more available than gasoline. Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) are hard to find, and will not accept Canadian bank debit cards; they only accept credit cards / cash advances. We did a walking tour of the major sites in the old city, but all signage and tourist information was only in Spanish. In general, Cubans who speak Spanish only did not seem interested in trying to understand our sign language. It was as though they were not interested in our business if we did not speak Spanish.
We had lunch at an upscale restaurant. Going to the toilet/ washroom cost about 1 dollar. The toilets don’t have toilet seats and never have toilet paper. The showers at most marinas do not have shower heads or hot water and often do not have enough water pressure to make the showers usable. The water infrastructure, as in many developing countries, needs attention in Cuba.
There are no toilet seats in most of Cuba, there is no toilet paper, there are few shower heads and hot water is rare. If you find a toilet that flushes you are lucky.
Fuelling is an interesting process. Make friends with the person at the marina who is in charge the night before and the day you need the fuel. Arrange with him the quantity and price, pay up front with a service charge and expect to have the fuel delivered at night in either Jerry cans or 45 gal drums. Pumping the fuel on board is your problem and the cans magically disappear when empty.
The cost including the bribes is 10% less than the official price if you can find an official station with fuel.
The product is from fuelling stations where some of the rationed product inventory is lost to evaporation. The vapour magically turns up in Jerry cans and is available to the highest bidder … typically fuel starved boaters.
Before leaving Havana we wanted to go to a grocery store to beef up our provisions and see what grocery shopping was like. A marina employee became a taxi-tour guide for the morning to help us find the best place to shop. We were taken to the Supermercado Meridiano in the upscale section of Havana, Vedado. There were security personnel at the doors who would not let you in with any kind of backpack or large bag. The store was somewhat like the discount grocery stores in Canada with shelving spaced with little aisle room and no place for product displays. Some of the shelves were full, but with little product selection. Other shelve areas were empty. Inside the store there was a boutique counter for fresh meat, cheeses and sausages that had its own cash register. There were big bins of frozen meat, mainly chicken, turkey and pork. Some of the bags looked like a large slab of frozen meat had been sawed into cubes, bones and all. There were frozen vegetables and ice cream. Cubans love ice cream, and despite the US embargo, the agriculture lobby in the US has convinced the US government to relax sanctions and allow them to sell food, especially Neilson’s Ice Cream, to Cuba for cash (no trade credit). Our driver mentioned that the average salary for Cubans with a job is about 22 Convertible pesos ($25 USD) per month. His wife, a dentist, made slightly more than than. To put that into perspective, diesel fuel is 1.20 convertible pesos per litre ($5.22 USD / gal, $1.41 CAD / litre)
Weather in Cuba was very hot and humid (in the 90’s during the day and cooled down to low 80's at night). Bearable only when there was a good breeze. We had 2 downpours in Havana, but no other significant precipitation ... it is the dry season. The wind was predominantly NE and E, up to 25 knots along the south shore when we were trying to make our way east.
Communication is difficult. The only way to get internet is use a computer in a tourist hotel. Therefore getting and sending emails, doing online banking, and doing internet searches for information was difficult. The bandwidth at some of the hotels was so narrow it took an hour to place an order that would normally take less than 10 minutes to accomplish. International calling cards could only be used with special land-based pay telephones and is quite expensive. It was difficult keeping on top of financial and banking issues without online banking and email.
An American industrialists dream, a Cuban reality … no pollution control. It makes the air difficult to breath and leaves brown phosphoric acid marks on the deck.
Baiha Honda Feb 7
At 8AM we left the marina to clear out with border control. 40 minutes later we were on our way. Light wind forced us to motor until breeze freshened to 8 knots from the NE. The water was cobalt blue and crystal clear and over 1000 feet deep less than 5 miles from shore. There were clusters of Man o’ War Jellyfish that looked like empty clear water bottles with a little sail appendage. We saw the same clusters leaving the Florida keys.
Light winds and lots of Man o’ War
Bahia Honda is 37 miles west of Havana. We cleared in and out here with Guarda Frontera. Our overnight anchorage in Ensenada Santa Teresa was a lovely bay. The perimeter was wall to wall fish weirs. Fishermen were mainly in rowboats with squared-off bows. They threw their fishing lines with weighted ends into the water and brought out fish 6-8 inches long. One fisherman offered to sell us spiny lobster. We declined, since selling them is illegal and we were heading out and still needed to be checked out by the Guarda Frontera. The outline of the Organos Mountains in mist and silhouetted palms with dramatic thunderheads rimmed in sun made for stunning photos.
Old wreck of a crane Thunderheads
Bahia Honda … a sole palm against the distant mountains
Fisherman/Lobstermen trying to eke out a living
Cayo Levisa Feb 8 – 9
We spent 2 days at anchor near the ferry dock for the resort on this island. One day we went ashore to check out the moderately-priced resort and have lunch. The resort houses guests in small cabins along the beach. The north face of the island is a beach with talcum-fine sand...very hard. There were lots of Hermit Crabs and shells and very warm water (78° F). We swam /bathed off the boat for the first time since the Bahamas in 2007.
Soft sand beach full of hermit crabs
A boardwalk across the no-see-em filled wetland … guaranteed to keep you inside after sunset
Mangrove roots provide shelter for ALL forms of biting life forms that appear after sundown
While we sat at anchor at Cayo Levisa, we did some calculations and discovered that Trinidad / Tobago where we plan to haul Pilgrim out of the water for hurricane season in mid-May, is about 1500 miles (as the seagull flies)from the western tip of Cuba. The passage is against the trade winds, and we only have 90 days to get there. We decided we could not linger at anchorages except for weather reasons. We changed our plans for hurricane season half-way across the south coast of Cuba after we had a good taste of beating to windward against the trades. We realized it would be a difficult slug and we would be rushed through some beautiful cruising grounds, so we decided to go north to the Bahamas from Santiago de Cuba and haul Pilgrim out in Cape Canaveral for the summer and start the thorn less passage to Trinidad next November.
San Antonio, Los Morros. Feb 10-12
We had an excellent overnight sail of 120 nm to the western-most tip of Cuba. The wind was favourable and strong enough to sail the entire distance, once we picked our way out of the barrier reef at Levisa. The moon was 3/4's full and gave us bountiful light until 4:40 this morning.
Getting weather information is difficult in this area. We are out of range of NOAA broadcasts, and they do not cover Cuba anyway. Chris Parker has a chargeable service on marine SSB radio that non-subscribers can listen in on, but not ask specific passage questions. There is almost always a subscriber in our area, so his broadcasts are worth seeking out. We also get weather charts (GRIB files) through Airmail. Our next passage is through some difficult waters. The combination of a major shipping channel, a large bay that has currents that sweep boats into the bay, and strong currents that often have opposing winds, and therefore confused large seas mean we have to get as many weather forecasts as possible
While we waited at the marina at Los Morros for a cold front to pass, we hauled out our muscle-powered clothes washer and discovered a crack in the lid which made it inoperable. Brian repaired it and while we waited for the epoxy to cure we did laundry in our buckets, using our hand-operated ringer to assist removing water. We had not used these elemental washing tools since 2007. This marina has water on the pier, but it is not drinkable, but we could wash our clothes and sheets with it. We also washed down the salt off our decks before doing the laundry, cleaned the BBQ and rinsed and treated the boom brake line. We even took the hose from the pier below and showered ourselves. A most productive day.
A 28-foot trimaran arrived from Mexico and docked behind us. The couple (in late 50's) and son (early 30's) had attended a wedding in Mexico and were heading home to Florida. They had been battling 10-foot seas crossing the Yucatan Channel, discovering the gaskets on all portholes and hatches leaked. When they came aboard Pilgrim, the wife said, "I want a boat like this," to her husband who obviously made the decision to buy the small trimaran. She did NOT enjoy the trip. The three of them are in a small lodge tonight since there is not room for 3 of them on the boat, and it is soaking with salt water.
The famous tri docked behind us just before the gale hit
Cayos de la Lena. Feb 13-14
The cold front hit us overnight. We woke to 15-18 knot winds from the west grinding us into the concrete pier with its black industrial fenders held in place by rusting chains. We topped up our fuel tank and got our "dispatcho" signed, allowing us to travel to Cayo Longo on the south coast. With the help of the trimaran crew, we extracted ourselves from the pier and set out for the hurricane hold anchorage 2.5 miles from the marina. It is a natural channel between two mangrove islands and very well protected from wave and wind
We were enjoying a rather late breakfast after anchoring here when a local fishing boat rowed up to us. (Bank fishing is in motorized boats, but the local fishers are in row boats) The boat had a box of 12 spiny lobsters and the fishers were keen to sell us lobsters. We asked, "How much?" Response was 30 CUC (convertible pesos, or about $40 USD). We said, "too much for a lobster." They said, "30 CUC for the whole box." We said, "Too many lobsters." We eventually offered 4 CUCS for 2 lobsters, but got 3 for 5 CUCs. One was about 5 lbs. The other 2 were 2 and 3 lbs. We cooked all 3, but only ate one for dinner. We were not concerned with the “illegal” transaction since there were no authorities in the vicinity to notice.
The Mangroves … home of the infamous no-see-ums and larger spiny lobsters
We obtained 2, 3 and 5 pound specimens. The 5 lb is tough, the 3 lb is marginal but the 2 lb is to die for
We waited in this anchorage for the wind to die and then another day for the seas to calm down. We enjoyed researching mangrove swamps in one of our Peterson Guides. Also did some basic boat chores, including splicing our starboard dock line which chafed badly when we were at the dock. Had a swim off the boat, but the water is somewhat opaque due to the high amount of algae and detritus caused by the mangroves. Brian tossed the decoy duck we bought in Newfoundland (Gertrude) into the water to ensure there was nothing harmful lurking under the water before venturing in.
Gertrude checking for shark activity
Jane taking a bath after the ALL CLEAR.
Our boat insurance company considers a mangrove swamp certified as a hurricane hole. Our second night the wind was calm and the adverse side of anchoring in a mangrove swamp emerged: no-see-ums. At dusk, our cabin lights seemed to advertise, "All-you-can-eat buffet. Group discounts." These no-see-ums are about the size of the point of an embroidery needle when they land, and are invisible when in flight unless in full sunlight. (Then they look like a speck of dust) The screens and mosquito netting could not keep out the critters; the netting was like an open window. The light attracted them to land on the cabin ceiling, and there were easily several hundred that we swept away with a damp paper towel, but no sooner had we sat down again, another hundred had replaced them. Our bodies are covered with little red welts that itch, about the size of the head of a safety match. We have tried every remedy to relieve the itching, but so far the best bet is antihistamines. The story of our battle with the bugs did not receive much sympathy from our family and friends in the deep freeze north of Canada and the US.
Cayos de la Filipe. Feb 16
We did an overnight passage around the western tip of Cuba, motoring at the end, but sailing more than we had anticipated. We arrived early (4AM) and killed 2.5 hours waiting for first light to enter the reef-strewn waters. We encountered little adverse current and a bit of favourable current and good sailing wind, which accounted for better speed than anticipated. The uninhabited islands are of nature preserve for iguanas. A couple of rangers rowed out in a dinghy and asked us questions. Their English was only slightly better than our Spanish, so the only question I could answer was our plan to leave in the morning and that seemed to satisfy them. They called someone on their VHF radio after talking with us, possibly to report our plans. We felt Big Brother watching us.
We anchored a far distance off the shore but it may have been too close for the Rangers
Isla de la Juventud, Feb 17
We are anchored in the middle of a huge, shallow bay on the NW tip of this island, the largest of Cuba's islands (excepting for Cuba itself). As the seagull flies, it was 35 miles from our previous anchorage, but we travelled 55 miles to avoid grounding on a reef to get here... a 10-hour motor sail. The wind was against us most of the way, sometimes getting as strong as 18 knots.
A rest stop only … lots of mangroves … read bugs
A note for pirate fans: Isla de la Juventud (La Evangelista, Isle of Parrots, Isla del Tesoro (Treasure Island)) was home base for John Hawkins the pirate cousin of Sir Francis Drake and other pirate folk during the 16th and 17th century. The island provided both pine trees for ship building and fresh water. Henry Morgan had 12 ships and up to 700 pirates stationed here during his heyday. YoHoho and a bottle of potable water.
Cayo Ingles Feb 18
At 2AM the wind suddenly increased from calm to 23 knots from the NE. No problems with the anchor, but the wind continued until past noon. We left the anchorage and motor-tacked around the north end of Isla de la Juventud. In the early afternoon the wind veered from NE to SE and lessened, allowing us to get to our anchorage on the east side of Isla de la Juventud by 4PM (35 nm) The normal weather pattern for this area is for the wind to increase at night and die down in the early afternoon.
Freighter waiting to depart A local short distance ferry
Another great sunset
Cayo Ingles has been badly damaged by hurricanes in recent years. Dead mangrove stumps cover the shoreline and some stumps are stuck in the waters close to the shoreline.
Our next passage takes us through a buoyed pass into Golfo de Batabano which takes us north of the Archipelago de los Canarreos. The Gulf is shallow but there are few navigation hazards, but the seas can be quite choppy. The water around Cuba is incredibly salty. Clumps of white crystals are on our rub rail and fittings on the bow. The enclosure is always wet with salt water.
Cayo Tablones Feb 19
This island is just south of Havana, so about half way along the south coast. Anchorages are about 1/4 mile off the shoreline of a mangrove cay (island). The weather remains warm and dry. We can see lightning in the thunderheads miles away. We would actually love to have a downpour to wash the salt off the decks and fittings.
Cayo Rosario. Feb 20
In the morning we discovered a fishing boat had anchored about 1/4 mile from us during the night. It was a strange-looking boat, about 30 feet long with what looked like plywood superstructure painted with chartreuse gloss. There were boxes covered with tarps... it looked more like a refugee boat than a fishing boat. This was the first time we shared an anchorage in Cuba.
Local fishing boat with Lobster Tables on the cabin
Negotiating for dinner
Cayo Rosario is totally different. It was a relatively short trip to this anchorage, motor tacking against wind from the east at 15-18 knots. There were two boats already anchored further south along the west shoreline of Cayo Rosario. Then a large catamaran anchored close to us, followed by two more catamarans and a Cuban fishing boat. At sundown there were 8 cruising boats and a fishing boat anchored on the west shore. Since Havana we have only seen 5 other cruising boats, but now we are close to Cienfuegos where there are 3 charter companies with catamarans under French and German flags. This anchorage is probably the western extent for a 1-week cruise.
Cayo Largo Marina. Feb 21-22
We docked at the marina in sweltering heat and no breeze. Our passage to Cayo Largo was another motor-tacking trip against head winds 12-15 knots, but with sea swell and wind waves that sprayed us with salt. This is the point that we both individually came to the same conclusion that we were crazy to continue with our plan to get to Trinidad by early May. Continuing east and south to Trinidad would be a difficult passage in 60 - 75 days remaining in this season's cruising, and we could not linger to enjoy any of the ports en route. Our original plan was to leave Santiago de Cuba and head toward the south coast of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Instead, we will head north up the Windward Passage and exit Cuba to the southern Bahamas and cruise north through the Exuma chain of islands and cross the Gulf Stream and head to Florida. We will haul the boat out somewhere in Florida, take masts out and discuss options with the marina for hurricane-proofing Pilgrim for the summer. Then, next November we will drive back to Florida and sail Pilgrim down the well-sailed "thorn-less path" through the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, and north coast of the DR, down the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico and on to the Virgin Islands and the Windward / Leeward Islands. In 2014 we did a 3/4 circumnavigation of Cuba. Next year we will take our time and sail through what most cruisers consider the Caribbean ... really the Eastern Caribbean. In subsequent years we will take the easier path with the trade winds to the Western Caribbean and Central America / Mexico.
A dock fixture that had been in our way The official Dock Watch Guard
Tourist accommodation and assembling for a day trip to the beach
Joy riders at rest
We were back in the ocean today... in water too deep for our depth sounder to register. When we came back inside the reef, the water colour was unbelievable. Cayo Largo is a tourist destination with expansive beaches and reefs, and the colours reflect that.
Cienfuegos Feb 24 – 26
We left Cayo Largo and motor-sailed 25 miles to Cayos de Dios (the Day Islands) to drop anchor for dinner. The anchorage was simply the reef-side of several small coral head islands that were virtually barren. Cayo Sal had one tree, but many blow-holes that spewed water upward like a geyser due to the force of the waves.
Before sunset we weighed anchor and proceeded the 50 miles to Cienfuegos. The wind was very light so we motor-sailed and arrived at the harbour entrance at 4AM (3 hours early), then reversed direction sailed very slowly for 2 hours to wait until dawn to enter the very large, convoluted bay. We arrived at the marina at 9AM. There were no slips available at the marina, and another boat had docked at the only slip available for check-in and fuelling. We finally got in at 11 AM, fuelled and were formally processed. We were back in the anchorage with about 10 other cruisers by 1 PM. The city looks much more prosperous than Havana. There was a great deal of wealth here in the 19th century that has spilled over to today. The modern buildings do not look as if they are collapsing, and the old buildings have been carefully restored. This is a UNESCO Heritage Site, and international scrutiny ensures a good show for us tourists.
Tourists love their rum and coke … it arrives in tanker trucks
Our second day in Cienfuegos, having recovered from our overnight sail, we walked the 1 KM to town to find fresh fruit, vegetables and meet and to see the 3rd largest city in Cuba. It is so different from Havana. This city thrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the houses (palaces) and government buildings are neo-classical and grand in style with Spanish / Moorish, French and Italian influences.
All are equal in Cuba … even the dogs have their place
The buildings do not seem to be crumbling as much as in Havana. The main roads are boulevards with shading coconut palms and lots of parks.
Well maintained boulevards with little non-tourist road traffic
The gutters on the roads are very deep, showing the need for quick runoff when tropical storms and hurricanes strike. In addition to auto-taxis, there are bicycle-taxis and horse-drawn carts. There are fewer 1950's vintage US cars converted from gasoline to diesel (government funded) than there were in Havana. We see modern Japanese and Korean cars. We are beginning to understand that the 50s cars are a political statement and tourist attraction rather than a necessity.
Most if not all old American Cars are Taxies … the regular cars are modern imports from all over the world.
We found the market. There is a building with a main floor with about 40-50 vendors' stalls, mainly selling onions, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, long beans, okra, corn on the cob, pineapple, guava and bananas. There were a couple of stalls selling fresh pork, spices, and some liquid in small bottles (could have been vanilla or some ingredient for drinks). There were a few stalls with coarsely ground corn meal. We bought cucumbers in Havana Feb. 6. They are still healthy and not turned to slime. Same with the tomatoes we bought. We are delighted that the tiny sweet peppers we bought in Marathon are still feeding us with little / no spoilage. In general, we find that the produce in Cuba is tasty and robust. What we buy in the US and Canada has been transported long distances under refrigeration. When we buy it, even when we keep it refrigerated, it goes bad quickly. Here, the produce does not get refrigerated, is locally produced and lasts a reasonably long time.
Looks great but we found the street vendors had better and cheaper produce
In our search for a paladares (private restaurant often run out of a home) we found the local hospital.
The doctors and interns arrived on bicycle dressed uniformly in white tops and carrying official looking computer bags. The patients arrived by public bus, taxi or by foot to join the long entry line-up into the emergency room. The discharged waited patiently for busses, taxies or family members in the dusty lanes to take them home. Dressings were reminiscent of grade school first aid training classes with bits of gauze hanging out from tired adhesives. There was no attempt to be cosmetic …. Slap on a band aid (a luxury item) and be done with it seemed to be the order of the day at the public clinic. Fractures seemed to be common place and the plaster casts were rudimentary at best with no apparent concern regarding protecting the skin around plaster. I imagine that foreign patients with cash to spend are afforded a much higher standard of care and it is that level of care that gets reported in the world press as typical of the Cuban health system. It is like comparing Toronto hospital service with that available in Labrador.
Our plans to visit Trinidad (Cuba, about 50 miles away) fell through since there were not enough people interested to make up a busload and we did not want to wait another day, possibly losing a good weather window to continue the 200 miles SW to Cabo Cruz, and then another 100 miles to Santiago de Cuba.
Cayo Blanco de Casilda Feb 27
Our next anchorage was 40 miles down the coast SW from Cienfuegos, supposedly in the lee of a small island. If the wind were out of the east we would be in the lee, but the very light wind was SW all day. The wind direction was welcomed, since we were traveling SE, but the wind never exceeded 11 knots. We were delayed leaving Cienfuegos because of the lengthy check-out process, so we motor sailed with both head sails flying, which gave us good speed. The Sierra del Escambray mountains along this coast are beautiful and dramatic, with small towns (like Trinidad, Cuba) and fishing villages tucked along the shoreline. There are 2 catamarans anchored and one Cuban fishing boat close by. Because of the SW wind, we are bouncing a bit, but at least there is some breeze. Last night was stifling, and when we took down the sun shade this morning in preparation to leave, the cockpit was unbearably hot.
The Sierra del Escambray mountains A Soviet rocket made to look like a lighthouse
The Sierra del Escambray mountains launch site Local fishing boat perhaps
We will cruise down the Queen's Garden archipelago (uninhabited) to Cabo Cruz (160 miles), then round the cape and head due east for Santiago de Cuba. The last 100 miles will be right into the trade winds and ocean swells, so we will wait for a calm (like we are having now) to make that overnight passage.
Cayo Breton. Feb 28
Our next anchorage was another 35 miles into the Jardines de la Reina archipelago. The "anchorages" in Cuba are little more than islands, often with some trees, and provide only one side with depths for anchoring. This anchorage would be well-protected in East winds, even NE and SE winds, but tonight we have NW winds gusting to 18, creating 2-foot seas, so we are bouncy and have taken the precaution of putting out a second anchor. The islands in this archipelago have shallow lagoons that offer better protection. There is a catamaran anchored in the island lagoon (depths less than 5 feet). They may have less bounce, but we do not envy them; they are in no-see-um land. There were rain squalls all around us today, but we only encountered one short sprinkle.
Hand liners A Cat amongst the bugs
Cabo Cruz. March 2-3
During the day we moved 35 more miles toward Cabo Cruz on the S coast of Cuba. There was a delightful NNE wind, 15-18 knots, so we had a glorious reach. The anchorage we had selected was not well protected from the north and was quite bouncy, so we decided to make it a dinner stop and continue on to the cape overnight. We sailed the entire 95 miles, but it was a wild ride. The wind picked up to 25 knots and veered further east, kicking up quite a sea ... 4-foot waves with lots of spray. With a reefed main and staysail we were traveling at 6.5 - 7 knots all night. It was somewhat reminiscent of our Hatteras rounding, although those seas were really frightening; these seas had no ocean swell and current associated with them.
We were concerned that the Cabo Cruz anchorage right on the cape would be exposed to seas, but it is protected by a visible reef on the south and west and the cape on the north and east and the water is smooth. When we anchored the wind was still 20 knots, but soon calmed down veered south. There were several fishing boats (oar-powered) working the waters behind the reef. After we anchored a local resident swam out to the boat (we are anchored a good 1/4 mile from mangrove-lined shore and tried to sell us a small plastic bag with some tomatoes and guava. Since we do not like guava and have 3 tomatoes from Cienfuegos, we declined.
We can hear the roar of the surf that protects us from the south, and the water colour is a lovely blue green.
Great sail and a relatively easy entrance into a well-protected anchorage
Local lobster and fishing folk
Santiago de Cuba. Mar 4-6
We had a good rest in Cabo Cruz after our wild sail south. We decided to wait until late afternoon to leave Cabo Cruz to travel the 100 miles east to Santiago de Cuba (just west of Guantanamo Bay) to see if the katabatic winds from the mountains on the south shore would give us off-shore wind and allow us to sail. We battled the easterly trade winds from 4:30 PM until 8PM. Then the winds became light... easy motoring. At 10PM the off-shore wind hit us at 15 knots... great for sailing, but it lasted less than 1 hour. Thankfully, the wind was very light and the seas, although lumpy and somewhat uncomfortable, did not greatly slow us down. Just before sunset (6:30 PM) Brian was successful in catching a small Albacore tuna, which was tender and delicious seared..
A hit … a bit of a fight and finally dinner … it may look small but it did for 2 seared tuna dinners
We passed one sailboat going westbound around 3AM. Otherwise it was quiet. We arrived at the marina shortly after noon and anchored until a Swedish boat left room on the dock at 2PM. We hired a taxi to take us to downtown Santiago de Cuba so we could withdraw cash to pay for fuel. On our way back to the marina a small herd of about 20 goats came galloping down the main road. : Our first encounter with goats in the Caribbean. Also, we noticed many stands of banana trees in Santiago de Cuba which we had not seen earlier.
Downtown photos shot through the window of a careening taxi cab
Lots of diesel exhaust fumes and colourful homes
The exhaust smoke from a poorly tuned Lada
We arranged for a fuel delivery, bought some 5-liter bottles of water (we do not trust Cuban tap water, and our desalinator has not been producing the quality of water Brian demands for drinking. He just replaced the membrane, and in the future, the quality will probably improve.) The fuel was delivered to the dock in one 45-gallon drum and 4 jerry cans. Brian spent an entire night conceiving a plan to get the fuel from the drum into the fuel tanks using the pumps and filters of our fuel polishing system. Although it took about 6 hours to transfer the fuel it worked.
Fuelling up again for the Bahamas run
Departure from Cuba Mar 6
We had light winds less than 5 knots from no direction in particular as we left Santiago de Cuba. We felt a weight falling off our shoulders when we got the green light to leave Santiago de Cuba by the Guarda Frontera. We motored the requisite 6 mils off the shoreline of Guantanamo Bay and then turned NE for the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti. 2 nights at sea and 266 miles later, we anchored in the southern Bahamas. The forecast SE / S wind did not materialize, so we motored for 40 hours. Finally at 2AM the second morning the wind built from the SW and we sailed until 6AM when the wind veered quickly to the W, the NW and N, causing us to motor-tack into 20 knots of wind for our final 2 hours. Fortunately we identified an anchorage with good protection from NW to NE winds with an easy entrance with no reefs. We anchored at 9:40AM
Cuba/ Latvia comparison
· Architecture: boxy, dull, utilitarian, crumbling concrete. Cuban buildings had peeling colourful paint whereas Latvian buildings were quite drab and grey. Many buildings seemed vacant and unmaintained.
· Full employment policy. Latvia was the only country in Western Europe, with the exception of Russia, that had Border Guards. In Latvia older military personnel performed the check-in process at every port, not just the port of entry. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Latvia became an independent state, the military personnel were kept employed as border guards. In Cuba there are historic reasons to check private yachts to deter stowaways from leaving Cuba illegally. Now there are relaxed emigration rules, but the check in and out process continues. It takes many people many hours to complete the paperwork, which provides government jobs with real work. Is full employment the reason the onerous check in / check out process continues?
· Land Development: There is great opportunity in both countries for tourism development. Unspoiled beaches are in abundance. Unfortunately neither country has a developed infrastructure for water, sanitation, and roads. Latvia has banking machines (ATMs) that accept North American debit cards; Cuba has just a few ATMs that only accept non-US credit cards. Latvia offers SIM cards for open mobile phones. Mobile phone service from Cuba to North America is very expensive, if available at all. WIFI is available in Latvia in larger cities (Riga, Liepāja). WIFI is virtually unknown in Cuba.
· Marinas: Except for the modern marina in Liepāja in Latvia, the marinas were non-existent or in very poor condition. The toilets/showers in Riga were not useable. The same can be said for the facilities at all the marinas except Hemingway in Havana. The showers at Hemingway have shower heads, places to put shower bags, clothes, etc. and are moderately clean. No public toilet appears to have a toilet set in Cuba, they often do not flush and toilet paper does not exist except in the stores. Many of the marinas do not monitor VHF radio, although there may be personnel available to direct arriving boats and help catch lines. The harbourmaster speaks English, but other marina workers probably do not.
· Language: Latvians do not expect foreigners to understand/speak Latvian, but are anxious to communicate and are good at sign language. Cubans cannot understand why anyone would come to Cuba without knowledge of Spanish, and are not keen to communicate except in Spanish.
FOOD Discoveries: Cuban cola. We did the ABC test with US and Mexican coca cola (little difference) and Cuban coke. The Cuban wins hands down, smooth and silky and fantastic with rum: Cuba Libre. Mexican papaya: much larger and less sweet than what we find in NA markets, with a slightly earthy / musky taste, but still sweet. Nice for breakfast and also OK for dessert. Cuban pineapple: Short and squat, but has an aroma and juicy, sweet taste. Especially good with a splash of rum for dessert. Chicken drumsticks are from chickens that have actually stood on their legs and walked: solid and tasty. Cuban eggs, however, are much like NA eggs. (We were hoping for something special like what we discovered in the Azores). Local produce may show some blemishes, especially on tomatoes, but they last a long time. Spiny lobsters do not have claws, just the tail and tasty titbits in the legs. The meat in Spiny Lobster is coarser than maritime lobsters (Maine, Canadian) and the larger the lobster, the coarser and tougher the meat. Cuban food is generally bland, not like Mexican or Bahamian food. We were surprised to find leaf lettuce in Cienfuegos, and even without refrigeration at the stand, it lasted several days in Pilgrim’s fridge.
· Glad we went
o Before tourism changes the country
o Experience a very different country, culture, life from the US / Canada, but so close to the US / Canada
o Warm air and water temperatures, especially during such a cold, icy year in Toronto and the NE US
o New food experiences
· Cruising Frustrations
o Check in / check out process and restrictions on landing anywhere except a marina
o Dealing with bribe requests from officials, handout requests from citizens
o Our lack of fluency in Spanish / Cubans’ lack of fluency in English and interest in communicating non-verbally
o Dealing with “pushy” citizens trying to get your attention / business as a tourist. Especially the case in the cities. Their desire / need for additional income drives this behavior, but it made us feel uncomfortable
o Poor planning on our part to ensure we had adequate detailed charts
o Lack of communications: mobile phone, internet / WIFI
o Marina facilities: toilets, showers, VHF radio monitoring
o Water / Sanitation infrastructure. No potable water
· Would we go again / recommend the trip to other cruisers
o We will go back, but not in our own boat. Fly in / fly out and join a tour (English language) in between will work better for us. We could not interact with enough Cubans because of travel restrictions and language barriers
o We recommend other cruisers to go to Cuba in their own boats if they feel comfortable pushing the rules and are fluent in Spanish.
o Cuba is changing so fast that even 2 cruising guides published in 2013 were out of date, so the advice we would give other cruisers could be obsolete within a year.