Another Day in Paradise

Cayo Largo has a very welcoming marina. The staff has a lot of pride in developing their tourist business. They do not get much if any investment from the government so like everywhere else in Cuba they have to make do. Last night we went to bed with the intention to fuel up and sail half way to Jamaica. We had so much fun last night at dinner and meeting the local people we decided to stay one more day and sail the 383 miles to Jamaica in one leg. On Thursday night I visited the harbormaster Gabino Cid.

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I happened to stop by his office to inquire where I could buy a WIFI card. He said the office that sells the WIFI cards closed 10 minutes ago at 8:00 pm but would I be willing to join him for a Cuba Libre. He introduced me to Raymond the airport manager. We chatted about his life. He has a passport from Spain as well as Cuba so he has traveled outside Cuba. He had visited Chicago a few years ago. He went to Brazil to start a business and lost all his money. Now at age 44 he is starting all over again. His family lives in Havana. He has two children, a boy 13 a girl 15. He works 20 days and then goes to Havana for 10 days. He earns $24 per month just like everyone else in Cuba. Gabe gave him a tip for helping tie up the boat and I gave him a can of shaving cream, a baseball for his son and a five pack of chewing gum for his daughter. A can of shaving cream costs $5.50 in Cuba. That is a weeks pay so it is real luxury.

We had dinner at the marina tiki bar. Two rounds of cocktails and four dinners cost a total of $40. It is nice to be away from Havana prices. In the afternoon we tried to rent a taxi or van to take us around the island for sight-seeing. There were no taxis available so we rented a full size tour bus and driver for $40.

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We visited several all inclusive hotels. The advantage of an all inclusive hotel is you can walk up to the bar and order a drink and walk away. It is all inclusive. The bar tender cannot accept cash. We also visited an iguana and crocodile farm.

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One of Cayo Largo’s most infamous residents was an American who was number one on the FBI’s most wanted list. Robert Lee (Bobby) Vesco the fugitive financier built a house in Cayo Largo and lived here with his family. He started a few joint ventures with Fidel Castro and had another house in Havana. Unfortunately Bobby tried to swindle Fidel and ended up dying in a Cuban jail. His house was converted into a very nice hotel and is still called the American House.

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Bobby Vesco

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We were invited to visit the crew onboard the Beneteau 57 Luna Azul (Blue Moon). Paulo the owner is from Italy and is cruising with his girlfriend Danielle. Danielle is from an Italian family from Venezuela. Paulo’s former business partner in the oil business Les is from Denmark. Les is onboard for one month and said no one else wanted to do the crossing to Jamaica. They have sailed their boat in the Mediterranean and then sailed to the Canary Islands and then to the Caribbean. It was a 16 day crossing of the Atlantic. Paulo said if there are no storms it is the most boring 16 days of your life. They had discussed sailing around the world but have currently decided to just cruise the Caribbean for a few years.

Les, Paulo and Danielle

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One of our blog readers Bill Nordeen has a strong connection to Cuba. Bill provided the following comments. “My brother’s name was Jack. He was an officer in the rebel army and part of Fidel’s inner circle, lived in the Presidential Palace after the revolution. The first issue of Life Magazine in 1959 has a picture of him from when he first joined the rebel army. I believe he rode into Havana on the right front fender of Castro’s jeep, but really don’t know for sure. If you google him and go far enough you’ll find a picture of him with William Morgan(ex U.S. Military and the strategic mastermind of the revolution, he was later executed by Fidel), a very young Bob Brown, founder of Soldier of Fortune magazine, two unnamed Cubans and Jack atop some Havana hotel. All except Bob Brown are well armed. Jack became disillusioned with Castro and I recently found an FBI memo that states he was attempting to form a 700 man Army to invade Cuba. It didn’t happen.”

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The Touch

Our cruise down the west coast of Cuba provided a great view of the mountains. The entire western part of Cuba has a large mountain range. There are few potential anchorages and we would not be allowed to go ashore because there are no Guarda to check us in and out and make sure no Cubans came aboard our boat.

It was a glorious night passage. The moon was full and illuminated the entire ocean around us. It was not as bright as day but but almost. We could see the ocean for miles around. The east wind did a good job assisting us we traveled west. As we reached the west end of Cuba we sheeted in the mainsail and eventually furled it in the mast as our course became more easterly and we now had the east wind on our nose. We continued to motor and arrived at Maria la Gorda ( Fat Mary ) at 8:30 am. The water is as crystal clear as advertised. In 32′ of water we can see the bottom as clear as glass. We picked up a mooring ball and launched the dingy. Unfortunately the battery was dead or so we thought so we put the battery charger on the dingy battery. We need to go to shore and check in with the Guarda Frontera ( frontier guard ). The Guarda office is directly behind the tiki bar at the resort. That sounds like a good duty station. There are several large boats at the dock. The dive boats take up all the slips.

Gabe and the battery charger.

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After charging the battery for an hour we tried to start the dingy engine with the electric starter. No luck. We tried to start the dingy engine with the pull chord. No luck. We checked all the fuses and even read the trouble shooting guide. After much poking around at the wire bundles, I noticed the positive electrical cable had pulled out of the fitting on the battery terminal. With all the rolling around we did crossing the Gulf Stream the dingy battery came loose and pulled the cable out of the battery fitting. It was a quick fix once we figured it out.

Gabe and I took the dingy to the pier at Maria la Gorda. The Guarda was on the dock to meet us. We thought that was nice of him to take our dingy line. The first word he spoke was cerrado (closed).  He explained the harbor was closed to all pleasure craft. No explanation, he just told us to leave. Adios.

We had a choice to sail all night again to the Isla dela Juventud or get creative and find an anchorage for the night. We identified a location called “anchorage” on the Navionics chart and anchored near Laguna de Cortes in the NE corner of the Gulf of Batabano close to the wreck of the Santa Domingo. The wreck has a large red marker to identify the location. None of the guidebooks mention this anchorage. Since the majority of the waters surrounding Cuba are 3,000 – 5,000 feet deep, anywhere that is 20 feet deep, even unsheltered, becomes an anchorage. We grilled the black-eyed tuna that we caught the day before and went to bed early.

Tuesday morning we awoke to diminishing winds and a fairly flat anchorage. Flat is good for an anchorage that is unprotected from any direction. The forecast was for variable winds becoming a strong northerly front by evening. The east winds that have been blowing for two weeks are finally shifting.

We slept in until 10:00 am and made our way east to Cayo Siju. The Waterways Guide raved about a perfect anchorage in the mangroves. They made the little diagram of the anchorage surrounded by mangroves look totally protected. We arrived around 2:00 pm and Gabe brought Pilar into the channel that was marked 8′ deep on the chart. Pilar draws 5′ of water. We barely entered the channel when we felt “the touch” in the sand. It was ever so slight but everyone onboard knew we had grounded. There was a strong current pushing us forward. Captain Gabe gave full reverse throttle and we were off as quickly as we had touched. We cruised a few hundred yards east and dropped anchor in 20′ of water. It is strange that anyone would recommend an anchorage in a channel with such a swift current.

Just like it said the Pilar tourist brochure we launched the dingy (it started) and went to a beautiful white sand beach and snorkeled and swam and saw large iguanas.

On the beach at Cayo Sinju.

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Iguanas just like in the Galapogos Islands.

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The we went to a beach on another Cayo and saw a sign that said accesso prohibido (access prohibiied)

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This was a bird sanctuary. We collected some sea shells and departed. On the way out from the beach we saw two pescadores (fisherman) rowing. We waived and they waived and we went back to the boat. An hour later we see the same two fisherman approaching us. We would have saved them a lot of time if we had taken our dingy over to them when we first saw them.

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They said they work for the national park and would be happy to sell us fish and lobster. They had no fish or lobster in their rowboat. We said we wanted a large snapper and two lobsters. They rowed away and came back in 1.5 hours with a large snapper and five lobsters. They would have been happy with $5.00. We gave them $20.00 and Gabe gave them two Cohibas and a package of beef jerky and I gave them 2 T-shirts. Life was good that night on Cayo Siju.

Dinner is served.

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On Wednesday we were up early and planned a short cruise to the Isla dela Juventud (The Island of Youth). Upon closer examination of the cruising guide we learned the marina entrance had a controlling depth of 5 feet. No room for error if it was silted in. We would have to anchor outside of the harbor. Overnight the north wind had filled in from the NE at 20 plus kts so the seas were building. It would be an uncomfortable location to anchor. Plan B is to sail all night to Cayo Largo. Cayo Largo is a resort marina with a nice beach, restaurant and tiki bar. We are headed east so the north winds are very favorable to this leg of the trip. We will be protected by the island and then several cays for a good portion of the trip.

Our departure from the anchorage at Cayo Siju was not with out its drama. We hauled anchor and set course across a relatively thin section of water. We had been warned that the GPS charts were not 100% reliable in all areas of Cuba. The chart read 11 feet but as we touched soft sand and came to stop in less than 5 feet of water we decided to use an abundance of caution in the future and stay in deeper charted waters. We dropped our sails immediately and were able to back off the sand. The best way to extricate ourselves is to go back the way we came. Trying to go over the sandbar is never a good strategy. The 100 horse power Yanmar diesel in Pilar has saved us twice in two days from soft groundings. We realize we are very alone on the south side of the Cuba. Another cruising boat has not been seen since Sunday night near Havana. If we get ourselves stuck, no one is around to help us. We would have to wait for the tide to come in.

We had a choice to go north of Isla dela Juventud in some thin water or take a little extra time to go on the outside in 3,000 feet of water. We chose the outside route since we will be sailing all night in the dark

The wind and waves continued to build until we had all 50,000 pounds of Pilar leaping out of the water. We were close hauled with NE winds 20 – 25 with sustained gusts to 30 mph. The waves averaged 6 – 8 feet. We pounded our way east for 24 hours. It was impossible to sleep in the forward bunk. Priscilla was airborne. She moved to the quarter berth which was much more comfortable. There is something surreal about sailing at night in big wind and waves. The moonrise was not until 11:00 pm so raced along at 7 – 8 kts in pitch blackness. You might as well have a bag over your head. The wind in howling. The seas are huge. Our instruments are on low light settings to help our night vision so the cockpit has a slight glow. The starboard rail n almost in the water. We stare ahead into the darkness thinking about the fact we are n 3,000 feet of water off the shore of southern Cuba.

The moon rose around 11:00 pm and we could start to see the size of the waves. Perhaps it would have been better not to know. We sailed on. The boat was pounding over the waves under reefed main and jib. We tried to tuck in closer to shore to get relief from the huge waves. Every hour or so we would see the light from the next light lighthouse on shore flashing its distinctive pattern. Shift change at midnight and Priscilla and gladly handing over the helm to Gabe and Angela from midnight to 4:00 am. The good thing about strong winds is you get where you going quickly. We arrived at Cayo Largo just before dawn so we slowed the boat down to wait for the sunrise. At 7:30 am after sailing for 22 hours in heavy weather we pulled in near a several mile long white sand beach and dropped anchor. Nap time.

Cayo Largo is tourist destination. The beach us the longest clothing optional beach in the world. We called the Guarda to check n and asked if we needed to enter the marina or could we come in by dingy. He said since we had already cleared into Cuba in Havana we did not need to bring the boat into the marina. We took the dingy 2 miles from the anchorage to the marina. We started to pull into a floating dock were directed to go and to the other side. We saw a new floating dock and tied up. We started to walk off the dock and realized it was not connected to shore. We got back in the dingy and went to another dock that was connected to shore. When we told the Guarda that Cayo Largo was our final destination in Cuba before we sailed to Jamaica he said we did need to bring Pilar to the dock before we departed the next day. The drug sniffing dog would be our visitor.

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At the beach with Gabe and Angela.

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Maria la Gorda

This might a little too much detail but it can provide a little insight into the conditions in Cuba. We are at the Marina Hemingway which is the largest pleasure boat marina in Cuba. It is located close to the Miramar section of Havana which is very upscale with many foreign embassies and corporate headquarters. It was built in the 1950’s so all the mega yacht owners from Miami could cruise to Havana. The men’s bathroom has four urinals all of which are broken. There are six toilets. Only two have toilet seats and only one flushes. Be sure to bring your own toilet paper. The sinks have cold water and no soap or paper towels. There are no pump facilities in Cuba and we cannot empty our holding tank in the Marina. We will survive.

On Saturday we drove to 2.5 hours to the Bay of Pigs which is the site of the ill fated US invasion to overthrow the Castro regime. The battle plan was developed by the Nixon administration using Cubans sympathetic to the deposed Cuban president Baptista and implemented by the Kennedy administration soon after Kennedy entered the Whitehouse. The battle was over in less than 72 hours with total victory by Fidel Castro’s forces. US / Cuban relations became a little more strained at that point.

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Along the highway we saw many hitchhikers. Hitchhiking is a common form of transportation. The individual stands by the side of the road with the equivalent of $1.50 in their hand and wave the money at passing cars and trucks. Dump truck drivers can make small fortune filling the back of their truck with hitchhikers when they have an empty back haul. The long straight sections of the six lane highways have giant steel spikes along the side of the road. In case of a potential invasion they can block the highway with the metal spikes to keep enemy planes from landing.

Our US Government approval to enter Cuba was based on Person to Person contact to engage the Cuban people. We brought soccer balls and baseballs to give to the Cuban children. We saw some boys playing baseball and gave them a baseball and soccer ball. We saw some children playing in their front yard and gave them a soccer ball and we pulled up to a young man in a horse drawn cart and handed him a baseball. It is fun to see the confused looks on their faces. We also handed out some candy.

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One of Gabe’s favorite restaurants in the Bay of Pigs is the Brig. The Brig is a small outdoor seafood restaurant. We waitstaff wears bright white starched uniforms and the chef/owner wears his chef uniform with a chef’s hat. We had the lobster and fresh fish platter with rice and yucca. The meal was outstanding as was the pina colada.

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They have great coffee too.

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Along the road we saw numerous piles of small logs. Miguel advised the wood is mangrove and it makes the best carbon (charcoal) for grilling. The mangrove wood is burns slowly for 11-12 hours and then broken into small briquettes.

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On Saturday night Gabe and I paid the bill for our slip at Marina Hemingway. There is a $75 per person visa charge, boat slip $1.00 per foot per day plus electric and water. Water is 6 cents per gallon. Don’t forget the 10% service fee and an extra $20 “mandatory tip” for the harbormaster. The harbor master is not shy to say he expects to get a tip. The total cost for four days was $666. The visa fee is a one time charge so our expenses should be less at the next marina.

On Sunday we were up before the crack of dawn and picked our way over to the customs dock. In true rookie fashion, the customs agent took the bow line and immediately tied it off bringing the bow in and the stern out. A little fast action from the crew to fend off and avoid any drama saved the gelcoat. After clearing customs we waited at the customs dock for the sun to rise. Once we were out of the entrance channel Captain Gabe turned Pilar west. Navigation will be fairly simple, keep the land on the left for the next 700 miles or so as we circumnavigate around the west end of Cuba and head east. The forecast is good for motor sailing. Light winds from the east becoming northeast as we round the west end. Our destination is Maria La Gorda. The estimated travel time is 31 hours to cruise 221 miles at 7 mph.

We decided to put up the code zero sail. It is a cross between an asymmetrical spinnaker and a jib. It is a great light air sail when sailing off (sideways) to the wind. In other words you cannot go close hauled or dead downwind with a code zero. We were making 8 – 11 mph. Nicely making way.

Our course from Havana to the Gulfo de Batabano

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Gabe put out a deep sea fishing rod. While he was setting the lure to troll behind the boat he had a hit that spooled the reel. This was the first time I have seen a fishing reel almost catch on fire. It was red hot when the line snapped. Perhaps it was a marlin. We will never know. During the late afternoon Priscilla was on the helm and called out “fish on!” I ran on deck put the engine in neutral and reeled in a nice black eye tuna. That fish will be grilled for dinner tomorrow.

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We rolled up the code zero sail at 9:30 pm and motor sailed with the mainsail with a preventer. We are under control for our nighttime sailing and still moving at 8 – 9 mph. We should arrive at Maria la Gorda (Fat Mary) around 9:00 am. Maria La Gorda is known to have crystal clear water, white sandy beaches and excellent snorkeling and diving. There is a small marina and a hotel/restaurant there.

Bonus photo – Miguel our driver and tour guide.

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