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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