Snow Leopard
Tue 2 Feb 2010 10:25


19:59.17N 75:52.46W


Ah Cuba! I have waited so long to visit this island and finally we’re there. We sailed through the narrow entrance into the vast inland harbour of Santiago. The marina, consisting of two long concrete jetties is situated at Punta Gorda, about 10 miles south of the city. Having tasted bureaucracy in Bocca Chica, now we got the full-blown Cuban version. First the Sanitary Inspector, then the Medical Inspector, then the Vetinary Inspector (who confiscated two limes that showed signs of mould), followed by Customs Inspector No.1 complete with sniffer dog, a lovely little spaniel named Astro, then Customs inspector No.2 with tool box who decided that whatever we may have been hiding was in our sleeping cabin. When he had finished along came the Immigration Officer, and next morning Customs Inspector No.3 and another official whose role was never ascertained. All were perfectly polite and pleasant, but what a palaver. Our canister of flares was sealed and we were warned not to take any electronics like GPS, or VHF radio ashore. Phew!


There were a couple of Swiss cats who were just about to leave, and an American, Dan who had arrived to deliver a horrendous old ferro-concrete ketch to St. Marten. Rather him than me. Over the next couple of days we were joined by and English couple from the Isle of Wight and a German couple in an Aluminium cat. Every evening there was a drinks party on one of the boats. It was a very nice little gathering.


Our friend Wendy arrived in the evening after a horrendous flight from Havana. She continues with her version of the next few days:-


“It was only after my plane landed that James told me Cubana Airways had safety record in the world. Suddenly it all made sense. I had been a bit perturbed when we all piled on, sat down and half the seats were permanently in ‘recline’ mode. This meant that, on take-off, it felt as if you were strapped into the Space Shuttle, staring at the ceiling. Take-off itself felt as if it would never happen as we chugged down the runway…


However, after a can of coke and a few boiled sweets (and the longest hour-and-a-half of my life), I arrived with a bump at Santiago de Cuba Airport, along with some of the fattest people you can imagine. I squeezed round them to retrieve my bag, then found the exit. The door opened and I was confronted by a wall of more very large, black people. From somewhere lower down, around belly height, I heard Jim calling my name. So there was hope!


It was great to see Jim and Lucy, tanned and disgustingly healthy, and to finally step aboard beautiful Snow Leopard moored in the small but perfectly formed Marina Punta del Gorda just outside Santiago. A drinks party was in progress on a neighbouring ‘pirate ship’ to which we were apparently invited and where I was introduced to the current crop of marina inhabitants. They were an English couple recently arrived from western Cuba, an American charged with delivering the pirate ship somewhere in the eastern Caribbean, plus his crew of two women, one of whom was English though lived in Australia and the other was Australian though not planning to return anytime soon. I think I’ve got that right.


The next day was spent settling in (for me) and sorting the boat out (for Jim and Lucy). Jim had to get me ‘checked in’ by the customs man (who was, in fact, a boy of about 19) who painstakingly copied into his exercise book every detail of my passport. Unfortunately, he made a mistake right at the end and had to start again. Then he wrote a narrative about my arrival the previous day, including what time I joined ship. This caused him another slight problem because he had to check what 9.30pm was on the 24-hour clock – bless!


The marina was full of delightful characters, including an enthusiastic spaniel whose job was to sniff for drugs on boats, plus a lovely bearded Cuban (fattish, of course) who introduced himself with a polite handshake and the immortal words: “Hi, I’m George – available!’ We had a great day in Santiago town, much of which was spent in a Cuban music club where we had lunch in a tiny courtyard at the back, listening to a trio of elderly gentlemen who later became a quartet when joined by a Damon Hill-look-alike on his way back from work on a building site. Fab meal of pork and fried plantain. We were joined by a young Cuban called Enrico who kept Jim entertained for hours while Lucy and I went off for a spot of food and booze shopping.


Marina-mates were exchanged for a young German couple on a similar-sized catamaran to ours – how could they afford to be swanning round the world for two years? – and an older Swedish couple who had been away from home for even longer. On the morning we left, a French boat came in but the place was hardly packed!


Wonderful to be sailing, particularly as I had virtually nothing to do but watch J and L go through their well-practised routines. We flew along at 8-10 knots under an enormous spinnaker towards our next stop – Chivirico. Wow, that place has a scary entrance with a very narrow channel through a reef then a sharp left-hand turn just before you hit the cliff, before anchoring in a tranquil lagoon, with a few thatched huts scattered around, the odd fishing boat and not much else. We weren’t allowed to go ashore here for some reason known only to the Cuban authorities, but it was a beautiful place to spend the evening on board, anyway. I think it was here that I won my first game of Scrabble.


Next stop Marea del Portillo, a different kettle of fish altogether because it had two hotels, though one was closed until April. We went ashore to explore the town though we hadn’t gone 100 yards before we were accosted by a jolly Cuban called Jorge who invited us to a pork barbecue that evening to celebrate his 34th birthday. His wife looked a little unsure about this but he insisted and showed us round his house (about the size of a single garage), introducing us to his large family, including Grandma. Horror of horrors, we also had to admire the barbecue preparations, ie a small pig with a medium-sized branch shoved up its bottom and out of its mouth, being slowly roasted over an open fire by Jorge’s children, who took it in turns to revolve the branch while sitting in the sweltering sun. Oh well, Jim had let us in for it now…


Contrast this scene with the only-open hotel about a mile up the beach where we had lunch – hot dog and chips – at a shady bar, listening to a pool-side game of bingo, laid on for the hotel guests who appeared to be mainly massive elderly Canadians. We got a lift back to the dinghy by horse and cart taxi (yes, really!) Obviously, we had to stop for another half-hour chat with Jorge and Co to check party times etc, then it was back to base for swim/shower, lashings of anti-mosquito stuff and other pre-requisites for a slightly dodgy evening in a Cuban hovel.


But the family could not have been nicer. Jorge was a few rums to the good before we arrived and the only three chairs they possessed were arranged outside for us to use. Then we were ushered inside, taking the chairs with us, and invited to eat his birthday feast – but on our own! To our astonishment, the family refused to join us but then we realised this was partly due to politeness but probably mainly for practical reasons – there simply wasn’t room inside the hut for everyone, and they only had three plates. Eventually, things became less formal and it is amazing how one drunk Cuban fisherman, his kindly wife, four beautiful children, mother-in-law, sister and silent niece can converse at length with three middle-class English people, only one of whom speaks any Spanish at all (and even you’re not that good, Jim, let’s face it). Still, the Spanish-French dictionary on the floor next to the telephone helped…


Shed-loads of wind for a couple of days forced us to stay in this delightful spot so the focus turned to domestic chores – Lucy baked bread, Jim scrubbed decks and I did little apart from a bit of bottom-washing (of the boat, you fool). I may have won another game of Scrabble here, too. (she lost one too, but forgot to mention that! Ed)


On the Monday afternoon, Skip identified a weather window so we set off for an overnight sail towards Los Jardinas de la Reina, an archipelago of tiny uninhabited islands between the south-west tip of Cuba and our return to civilisation in the shape of Cienfuegos. The loose plan was to anchor once or twice in this paradise, do a bit of snorkelling, then press on to Cienfuegos. However, we were only a few hours into this passage when I gathered that Snow Leopard could never be re-named Slow Leopard and it became clear that we would have to shoot straight past our first anchorage, given that at 4am it would be too dark to see what we were doing and where we were going. Hey ho!


So, next stop Cayo Breton, then. Well, I’d been promised snorkelling, so snorkelling I was going to do, despite the chilly waters and complete absence of fish, Not to worry, the situation was saved by the arrival of four wily fishermen, brandishing lobsters. The equally wily Jim was up to this negotiation at the end of which he had a bucket full of four monsters of the deep in exchange for a half-bottle of rum (which cost about a quid). In fact, we could have had FIVE lobsters for the same price but you can have too much of a good thing, apparently, and the last lobster was so big that we had nothing in which to cook it. Out came the Gary Rhodes guide to dealing with lobsters, plus various tools, including a hammer, and a ball of string. While I hid behind a cushion, Jim and Lucy worked out a system between them for butchering, slaying, then butchering again the poor creatures, who all had names, of course, but mercifully gave up without too much of a fight. I have to say, the end result was a magnificent meal – more than one, actually, because we had to have lobster again for lunch the following day. How tiresome.


Off into the night again for the 80-mile trip north to Cienfuegos, keeping a tight rein on the Leopard this time so as to arrive after daybreak. This objective was achieved but we were invited by the marina staff to moor up to the windward side of the fuel quay in a particularly tight spot with another catamaran six feet off our bows and a concrete dock about eight feet behind us. As we were only there for half an hour for check-in purposes, getting off again as the breeze built was something of a challenge, equalled only by re-mooring in our allocated spot with the wind this time blowing us off. Let’s just say the whole exercise enabled Jim and Lucy to display all their boat handling skills “


(Thank you Wendy. I’ll win the next game of Scrabble)


Town Hall, Santiago de Cuba. From this balcony Castro made his first victory speech after seizing power in the revolution


Taxis, Cuban style


A morning beer on roof terrace of Graeme Green’s favourite hotel in Santiago


Dan (American yacht skipper) shares a joke with Wendy


Our 1956 Chevrolet Bel-Air taxi


And driver


Thatched house, Chivrico (we were allowed to anchor in this tiny bay, but not allowed to go ashore!)