8 May - This Cruising Life... a Cuban Adventure Part 2
Returning to the boat from Raphael Freyre, we met our new neighbour Frederik and his crew Francoise. A Swedish horticulturalist who has been away for 10 years but returns to Stockholm each summer to top up the cruising kitty, he owns a 20 foot, forty year old GRP double-ender called ‘Bris’ and was sitting on the jetty with what was, once upon a time, a lightweight genoa. It was not a day under forty years old and badly torn. He had a couple of others in a similar condition, but Escapade has a sewing machine and some good thread, so we offered to help. The skipper of the Dutch boat on our port side, Johann, turned out to be a bit of a whizz with sewing machines, so we hatched a plan to set up a sail loft in one of the buildings owned by the marina the following day.
Frederik the Swedish Adventurer, aboard his tiny command, Bris
That night, the gas ran out whilst we were cooking dinner. This should not have been an issue, because I had purchased US propane bottles in Puerto Rico and left England with a kit proclaiming to enable me to connect to any gas bottle anywhere in the world. Indeed I’d tried it in Puerto Rico and the fittings fitted. Only snag: no gas emerged from the bottle. The US authorities have updated their safety requirements since 2016 and our ‘worldwide kit’ bought at the Southampton Boat Show turns out to be useless. We ate breakfast cereal for dinner and contemplated a life with no hot food until arriving in Havana in four days’ time – we knew there was no chance of finding the right connection in Puerto de Vita.
In the morning, I approached Johann and his Spanish wife Sylvia aboard their 50’ steel ketch Alea. Miraculously, whilst they could not help with the propane fitting, they had a Camping Gaz bottle lying idle, awaiting their return to Europe. Saved! Even more miraculous, as I discussed our good fortune with Frederik, he produced another Camping Gaz bottle from his tiny yacht; it turned out he uses alcohol for cooking, but somebody gave him a gas bottle which he was hanging onto in case he needed to barter. Easy: sewing machine and time in return for gas! The three boat crews spent a laughter-filled, interesting day patching up Frederik’s tattered sails, solving Brexit and world peace and exchanging stories about remarkable places we have visited since leaving Sweden, the Netherlands and UK. Sail repairs complete, we continued telling stories aboard Escapade into the night.
The temporary sail loft. Frederik is cutting a patch, watched by his wife Sylvia, Johann repacking a spinnaker, I’m spinning another dit…
The following day (Saturday 5 May), Alea sailed for the Bahamas and the Azores and, once the washing had dried on a bush (no drying facilities in the local laundry), Escapade sailed for Havana. It’s a 425 mile trip along the north coast of Cuba which would take just under three days. We found ourselves keeping pace with a steady series of thundery squalls running along the coast. We pushed a bit further offshore to clear them, but after a few hours began to run out of sea room to the north as the shallow waters of the Bahamas Bank encroach. A series of Traffic Separation Schemes run parallel with the coast through the ‘Old Bahamas Channel’ and we aimed for the northern side. By nightfall, we were surrounded by thunderstorms and lightning, most of it to the south of us.
A fisherman in the river at Puerto de Vita, straight out of a Hemingway short story
We put some critical electronic gadgets in the oven to protect them in case of a lightning strike and pushed on, heavily reefed. As the storms closed in, the wind dropped, then veered from southeast to northwest very quickly, stopping the boat and causing the mainsail to gybe. It was held by the preventer, but managed to bend a stanchion on the port side nonetheless. We started the engine and sorted ourselves out, then turned round and headed southwest to run underneath the storm and into what looked like cleared weather away to the south. The rain was very heavy and we thought about our comfy home in Gosport and wandered what on earth we were doing off a strange shore in a full-blown electrical storm in the middle of the night! Having an adventure, of course! By ten thirty at night, we were back on course, the rain had stopped and the lighting retreated to the far horizon. I got my head down as Julie sailed for a bit, motored for a bit and sailed again as the wind came and went.
Pesky thunderstorms escorted us along the north coast of Cuba
The following morning, we were in the Traffic Separation Scheme heading west under spinnaker when I hooked a fine 8lb tuna. We had a busy half hour or so as we gradually worked our way into the central separation zone and then hardened up to cross the eastbound lane at right angles in between the steady stream of merchant ships, all whilst try to land the fish! By lunchtime, the thunderstorms were back, so we dropped the spinnaker, stowed everything away and were well set when the first squalls hit us. Heavy rain and gusts of 40 knots had us following an interesting track along the edge of the shallow waters on the northernmost tip of Cuba, but by mid afternoon the sun was back out and we were motor sailing in a flat calm. You could see the seabed quite clearly, 20 metres below. By now, the shipping lane was well to the north and we were on our own: the mainland was about five miles south of us, protected by a wonderful archipelago of coral reefs and mangroves. In the distance, some fine volcanic peaks dominated the skyline, overhead we were being tracked by frigate birds and at one stage a couple of pilot whales came for a look. It was a good chance to rest and recover from the excitement of the previous 24 hours.
Dinner for eight?
The remainder of the passage was uneventful. The thunderstorms stayed well to the south and the wind remained favourable, if lighter than we would have liked. We used the engine more than normal to keep our average speed up – neither of us wanted to spend longer at sea in that unpredictable weather than we needed to! On Tuesday morning (8 May) we were off Havana, picking our way amongst a steady stream of small, open fishing boats, each with a crew of two, longlining for tuna in a big swell which hid them from view for 70% of the time. Some merchant ships drifted offshore, waiting to go into the commercial docks at Matanzas and Havana, but unable to anchor in water 1000 metres deep. Right along this coast, you sail in very deep water right up to within a couple of hundred yards of the shore, when it suddenly shoals to about 20 metres. Not a coast to approach when tired or lost: we were thankful for the excellent situational awareness that modern GPS-based navigation systems give us and the seaworthiness of Escapade that allowed us to rest when off watch.
Harry Flat Calmers, with a distant thunder escort!
Fishermen off Havana
Marina Hemingway is an extraordinary place, some 6 miles west of the capital. It was carved out of a mangrove swamp by someone with a vision of a huge resort with hotels, restaurants, shops, game fishing boats and yachts from around the world on a scale to match anything in the US or Europe. The marina is formed from four long canals and can accommodate up to 450 vessels; when we were there, there must have been no more than 50, of whom 10 were ‘transient’ yachts like us. The big event of the year is the Hemingway Sports Fishing Festival at the end of May: this year, 90 boats are expected. We arrived at lunchtime. An unsmiling, uncommunicative woman with too much lipstick from Customs marched onboard before we had finished tying up and parked herself below decks. She chose not to speak English and was a stark contrast to the efficient, but very polite gentleman in Puerto de Vita. She gossiped with her assistant, barked out the odd demand which would have been satisfied if she had bothered to read the paperwork laid out in front of her and departed, apparently satisfied.
Fuelling at Marina Hemingway
We had a much friendlier experience at the fuel dock, where we took a couple of hundred litres of much-needed diesel from some lovely dock hands. We had a similar reception alongside our berth, where the marina staff fell over themselves to make us feel welcome. Keen to establish communications with the family at home and our ‘local’ friends Kamran ‘Micky’ Shafi and his wife Rafia, we went to the little dockside bar along the pier where there was wifi. As we walked in, the staff were dancing to some wonderful Latin rhythms on a Cuban version of MTV. Amid the gaiety, we handed over a couple of Cuban Pesos for some beers, relaxed and ‘checked in’.
Havana… Can you believe it? We are really here!
In the next episode, we explore Havana and beyond…