I wrote a series of 5 articles for Nautical Scene Magazine about our five week sail around the northern shore of Cuba. The articles were in installments and were very well received. Be sure to push the little arrow on the left bottom to read the entire report. Sorry but no digital images.
Recently I had the great honor and pleasure of being invited aboard one of the first privately owned charter boats allowed to enter Cuban waters for the purpose of pleasure and weekly short term chartering. WINDWALKER, a beautiful CT 54 ketch, designed by Bob Perry and owned by Australians John Norris and Bobbie Fawcett, would be my home for a month while cruising the northern coast of Cuba.. Also along for this fact finding mission was Johns brother, Bob, a real estate agent from Perth, Australia and Dave Cooper, a broker for British Virgin Islands Yacht Sales and a two decade captain and delivery skipper. WINDWALKER, with its owners and captains, Bobbie and John, are well known throughout the British and American Virgin Islands as being an excellent example of a first class charter yacht. They have been in the business since 86 and have been active in the Charter Yacht Society in the BVI since that time. Also, they have become favorites of both the islanders, expiates, brokers, trades people and guests--so it was with great pride and humility that I began this adventure.
WINDWALKER began her journey on May 8, leaving Sopers Hole at West End, Tortola about midday. Stopping only for provisioning in St. Thomas and San Juan, they were well on their way when Dave and I joined them in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic (D.R.) several weeks later. We were quite excited about going to Cuba as the potential possibilities for water professions have been widely acknowledged by yachties for years. We had packed light as we knew that there would be future guests as well as charterers on board and, having resided in the Caribbean for well over a decade, we knew the needless taking of anything in excess.
Entering Puerto Plata, for me, was quite different from my 87 visit. There is a new airport and the western bustle was apparent everywhere. Having many friends in Tortola from the D.R., I was not disappointed to find that the islanders have been able to retain their cheery dispositions and offered their help at every opportunity. As there have been several economic and political recessions since I was first there, tips were more than appreciated. The peso has now devalued to 13/15 to one US dollar, so it was more than apparent that hard times were still at hand. We made several friends at the marina and enjoyed practicing our Spanish as they did their English. Bobbie and I finished our last minute provisioning at the local supermarkets by riding from one market to the other on the rear of local motorbikes driven by cheerful young men. They charge very little, 5 pesos on the average, and were excellent drivers. The stores then delivered the goods to the marina and they were loaded onto WINDWALKER and stowed for use during the next six months.
One of the rules of entry and deportment in the D.R. is that any vessel must check both in and out of each port visited. This cannot be done simultaneously so a great deal of time and money is wasted on a process that could well be revised. WINDWALKER had entered the D.R. at Samana and had stopped only at Sousa for a brief period before visiting Puerto Plata. They had encountered their only difficulty there while diving. It seems that the locals did not appreciate where they had chosen to anchor, so they swam out and cut their anchor rode. Luckily Brother Bob was on board (it is always a good idea to leave someone on a valuable yacht when cruising, if possible) and a disaster was averted. However, it took Bobbie and John well over two hours to recover their heavy anchor and left them with a bitter taste in their mouths for the town of Sousa. Incidents like this are most unfortunate. I related to them, in defense of Sousa, that I had truly loved the town when I was a guest for the World Windsurfing Championships years before. The style and intimacy of the restaurants and shops were well remembered and I was truly sorry that my friends had encountered such difficulties.
We hauled anchor and left Puerto Plata around mid day on the 22 of May. It was one of those glorious Caribbean days with a Southeast wind of 15 knots so we had a delightful sail down the northwestern coast of the D.R. to the small village of Luperon. The coastline was beautiful and appeared to be very sparsely populated. We paid close attention to the charts upon entering the many finger bays that exist there. Upon motoring into the longest bay, that breaks off from the others to the right, we counted as many as 18 cruising boats lying sleepily at anchor. As sunset was quickly upon us, we anchored and prepared a delicious mahi-mahi dinner made from the plentiful catch caught by Bob and John during their sail from Puerto Rico to the D.R. and frozen for further use. Bobbie and I hitched a ride with the cruisers next to us, in their dinghy, and proceeded to a large cement dock (built in the hopes of attracting tourists by a past president and neglected ever since). The men took WINDWALKERS dinghy and fished the mangroves for the next few hours. We had more success, finding the small town of Luperon, with its unpaved streets but paved sidewalks, friendly and hospitable, despite their harsh economic conditions.
As Luperon was to be our last stop on our voyage to Cuba, we filled the water tanks the next morning and spent the necessary three hours needed in the process of checking out. All in all, Bobbie and John had spent $150.00 in clearance fees at the four ports visited while in the D.R. Upon arrival, Dave and I had noticed in the tourist guide and with the customs officials at the airport, that the only required entrance fee was $10.00 per person. A small departure tax was also required upon leaving via air. The custom of smiling officials being bribed did not sit well with any of us. The alternative of being boarded, searched, found guilty of some made-up infraction and having our boat seized or being heavily fined appealed even less. In the end, we chose the safest but most expensive way. All of us are experienced sailors and cruisers, and realize that one of the first rules of cruising is never to openly agitate officials in THEIR country. I am sure that my lovely Dominican friends in The BVI will be sad to learn of these happenings upon my return, for they are truly honest and forthright.
The sail from Luperon to Barcara, Cuba is approximately 200 miles on the rhumb line. Leaving Luperon at mid-day we put up our 110 jenny, the staysail, the main and the mizzen sails and headed west. The sailing was delightful for four hours but storm clouds were fast approaching from the east on our stern. Dave was at the helm; Captain John gave the nod that all sails but the staysail should be quickly lowered and the boat was prepared for storm conditions. Almost immediately, five hours of severe lightening, thunder, high winds and torrential rain began. Bobbie has earned a 100 ton license and her serene composure kept us all calm. With book in hand, she led me below, knowing that our skills would be needed as the men tired or the storm subsided. Understanding men at sea as I do, I knew that she was right. We headed below and started wiping water from leaks that we never knew existed. Suddenly, water was everywhere.
WINDWALKER suffered no harm and the men did an excellent job of bringing her through. Bobbie and I split the 11pm - 4 am watch with her taking the first 2 1/2 hours and my taking the last. By this time the rain had stopped, but there was still dramatic lightning coming from all sides of the horizon. Haiti was off our port beam, approximately three miles away, and I could not help but feel the differences that had occurred in the past year. Exactly one year ago, to the month, Dave and I had the opportunity to deliver a lovely 54 Alden, JESSIE, from Tortola to Georgetown, Exhumas. This was at the height of the American Barricade on Haiti and we were constantly followed by helicopters and naval warships. We just waved, took imaginary pictures on our cameras, and never went below, feeling that this ostentatious movement was the best course of safety.
It was quite different when I was on watch this night as there appeared nothing on the water or the coastline but the occasional passing freighter and small towns dimly lit in slumber. The naval embargo had been moved to Cuba and upon arising we had no idea what we would encounter next.
This is the second in a series of six articles written on Cuba for The Nautical Scene. Nancy Terrell was a guest journalist, for over a month, on WINDWALKER, a 54 CT Ketch owned by John Norris and Bobbie Fawcett of Australia and one of the first privately owned charter yachts to be invited into Cuba for the purpose of exploring private enterprise. WINDWALKER is based in the British Virgin Islands where John and Bobbie are active in the Charter Yacht Society.
Upon leaving Luperon, Dominican Republic, we set sail for the northern coast of Cuba passing the Ile Tortuga and sailing through the nightly storms that occur on the Windward Passage. After a spectacular sunrise we arrived at the northeastern port of Baracoa, Cuba. The northern mountains are truly awe inspiring when seen in the morning light. The coastline is unpopulated and the tropical foliage appears everywhere. The town of Baracoa is nestled in the eastern side of quite a moderate harbor, hidden from the sailors view by a long jetty that runs parallel to the coastline. Many of the Cuban ninos were already up and greeted us from the large rock that serves as a sentry point, with huge waves and grins. We proceeded cautiously into the harbor as our charts did not show recent changes due to shoaling. There was one other cruising yacht anchored, a lovely young Swiss couple, Wolfgang and Esther, and their four year old son, Henry. Also several very old local fishing boats were moored close by.
We were directed by the officials as to where we would anchor. We then put out a stern anchor as the harbor already seemed to have a bit of a roll, and began the laborious process of clearing in. A large wooden dinghy, rowed by one Cuban official with only a long oar from the bow, slowly approached WINDWALKER carrying three Cuban army officials, two men and one woman. To Bobbies and my delight the woman, Olivia, was in charge. She was to become our friend and advisor over the following five days that we spent in Baracoa.
How does one even begin to relate the conditions that exist in rural modern day Cuba? I am still not quite sure how to process all of the observations and information that I have taken in. When visiting the Cuban countryside, all forms of capitalism must totally be erased from the mind. Never having visited a totally Communist country before, it was days before I could even begin to process the simplest of facts.
Baracoa has no trash-- none at all-- not a tin can, no paper, no plastic. There is absolutely no litter, period. It took days before I truly realized that the reason for this is because those items simply do not exist. As Cuba is totally communal all items necessary for life are issued at the beginning of each month. They are given out quite simply--lines are formed, chits have been issued and goods are received. Meager goods, very meager goods. The island of Cuba has no trash because there is nothing with which to litter.
There is also very little agriculture or animal farming . Because of economic conditions within the USSR in 1992, no more foreign aid has been sent to Cuba. Fidel had the government proportion all of the livestock and farmed goods to feed the people. The farmland since has become depleted due to the lack of fertilizer. The country is near bankruptcy. Because of this, no goods can be purchased on the foreign market. To make matters worse, the United States embargo hurts the very people that they are trying to help--the citizens of Cuba. Consequently, outside of the large cities, there are no stores, no signs, no theaters, no cantinas, nothing. It is very difficult for those of us raised within the concepts of capitalism to realize this.
The officials were gracious and very meticulous. They carried only sidearms, unlike the totally armed officials we had met in the D.R., and thoroughly searched the entire boat. They were particularly interested in our fresh goods and meat. There was a communication problem, as very few Cubans speak English in the countryside and Baracoa is not a large city. However, we were able to understand the monies owed, largely due to the fact that Bobbie and I had been playing cribbage for the past few days and all tallies were said in Spanish.
The paperwork that is required for entrance into Cuba is enormous and each transaction must be checked and rechecked by even higher officials each time a yacht is moved from one anchorage to another. Wolfgang, the skipper of the Swiss cruising boat next to us, proved to be of particular value as he had already gone through the process, knew all of the hang ups, and spoke fluent Spanish. Olivia also went out of her way to shorten the process. It should be noted here that the Cuban workers own absolutely nothing. She did not even have a wedding ring, something that I also noticed also on other women. For this reason, Bobbie and I wore no jewelry at all, other than our watches.
After the process of checking in, Bobbie and I took the dinghy to the dock and left the men on board to repair the refrigeration, which had broken during the passage. The docks belong to the Cuban Communist Party, as does all real estate, so the only people allowed in this area are government officials and cargo personnel. The docks are fenced off from the rest of the town. We were politely escorted to the gate where we were greeted by five or six ninos, all bearing local shells and cheerful smiles. These young men, ranging from eight to fourteen in ages, were to accompany us throughout our stay in Baracoa. They proved to be as helpful as they were a nuisance. Antonio acquired a Chinese bike for me (the most popular mode of transportation) in exchange for an audio tape. I was later to learn that he, nor any of his friends, had a tape player. Bobbie had her own bike on board WINDWALKER and this proved to be quite a help, as it was the only way we had to escape the ninos, who would accompany us in mass, if walking. Consequently, we biked through the town the entire first day in Baracoa. There are no stores so, obviously, there is nothing to buy. No one speaks English. However word of our arrival spread through the coconut telegraph causing a local professor of Inglais to appear. His name was Alberto. We spent the rest of the afternoon in conversation. He has never left Cuba as Cubans can only have a Passport if it benefits the government. He did receive an excellent education, however. This is available, and free for all Cubans, at various universities located around the country. A travel visa is required for all citizens to leave their town of residence for travel of any type. In their home area they are assigned work, housing, and transportation.
Alberto proved to be a delightful friend and host. The following evening he took us to a local musicians home where government musicians entertained us with wonderful Latin music. As our skipper, John, is also a musician, he brought along his guitar and harmonica. Needless to say, his music brought the house down. Alberto shared the local rum with us using 1/2 coke cans as glasses. As there is no food or drink to buy, we greatly appreciated this. Later, he took us to the only tourista cantina in town. There we joined a French group and were able to purchase local beer, quite a treat. I had befriended a female Cuban singer and insisted on bringing her along. As a Cuban citizen she was not allowed to enter the tourista cantina. However, as the dancing began I showed my preference for having her included and the management (government) allowed her that privilege rather than to offend me. I remained her partner for the next few dances as it was obvious she was not allowed to mingle. She had a beautiful voice but was not licensed to sing in this particular cantina. It must also be noted here that the Cuban musicians were totally fascinated by both Johns guitar and his steel guitar strings. As these items are not available and tourism has not been developed in the outlying areas, the smallest items are appreciated.
The great exclusion to this rule is car rental. There are no cars in Cuba newer than 1958, with the exception of Russian imports. The new Japanese cars that are for daily lease by the government are scarce and greatly admired. John, Bobbie, Dave and I leased a rental car for one day to go over the mountain and visit Santiago, a distance of approximately 400 miles round-trip. The cost for this, after much bartering, was $170.00 for a 24 hour period. The car was $80.00; the rest was for gasoline, a total luxury in Cuba and almost non existent in most areas. Here there must also be noted the differences in currencies. All tourists are required, by law, to deal in US dollars or Cuban tourist pesos on a one to one exchange. This is in an effort to wipeout the widespread black market where one US dollar equals 40 local Cuban pesos. If non-Cubans are found to be dealing in the black market, their possessions can be confiscated by the government. As WINDWALKER is a luxury charter yacht, none of us were willing to take this chance. We therefore simply altered our mental image to compare prices to Tortola, BVI, where we all reside.
The car trip over the mountains was truly one of the most beautiful I have ever experienced. Cuba has all of the lush foliage that exists in Grenada, Dominica and Jamaica. The scenery is so superb that several stops were required just to breathe in the air and observe the vista. The roads, which were built before Castro, are in excellent condition but have grass growing in them due to unuse. They could not afford to be built today. One of the more pleasant parts of the 14 hour trip was watching the reaction of the guys as they encountered the rare US model cars that appeared on the road. All such vehicles were built between the years of 1940 and 1959. They are still maintained by hook and crook even if worse for wear. We simultaneously remembered many wonderful times spent in such autos and wished that our antique car collecting friends could appear. They would be agog. The same applies for motorcycles.
Once crossing the mountains, the foliage changes from moist tropical to arid desert. It is my experience that this is common in most Caribbean islands, but this change was so abrupt that it was quite startling. We then took the road that boarded the Caribbean Sea (the northern shore of Cuba borders the Atlantic Ocean) and headed for Santiago. There are no stores or restaurants along the way, only monuments to soldiers that died during the revolution. We were stopped by several military police and asked for our papers in route, making the trip longer than expected and were quite hungry by the time we arrived in Guantanamo.
There were still no restaurants. Being the ravenous capitalists that were are, our noses seemed to guide us to the Guantanamo Hotel, the most highly ranked hotel in that city. We enjoyed walking past the empty swimming pool and the rehearsal of the state musicians for the evenings entertainment as we proceeded to the cafe. There we met a lovely Cuban of Trinidadian descent, speaking perfect English. Also a professor of Inglais, and in total coincidence, the teacher of Alberto, our benefactor in Baracoa. He ordered sandwiches for us-- cold, hard buns with a small amount of butter and a slice of hard cheese. I really had a cheeseburger in mind, but smiled politely as I enjoyed my fare.
The professor, whose name was Peter Hope, explained to us that many of the local Cubans ancestors had arrived in Cuba from Jamaica, Trinidad, Grenada, St. Kitts, etc. years ago to work for the sugar plantations. They stayed when the Jose Marti Revolution began a hundred years ago and their descendants were now totally integrated into the Cuban culture. As with many of the Cuban intellectuals, his job has been changed by the government from education to public relations in dealing with the new influx of tourists. He is now the Director of Public Relations for the Guantanamo Hotel. After a most enjoyable conversation, we left for Santiago, some 60 miles down the road.
Santiago also has no trash, no litter and no garbage. This is not to say that the city is what would be called clean. As soap and paint are nearly nonexistent, buildings that were once stately and prestigious appear drab or dirty. If there is anything that I learned on this trip it is that soap is totally taken for granted by Western culture and is more important in our lives than we can possibly imagine. Knowing this, Bobbie had purchased 500 bars of soap, 70 pens, 70 pencils and numerous tennis balls to give to Cubans on this trip. I had also brought soap, small flashlights, old baseball caps and sunglasses that my numerous friends no longer needed. Each of these items was enthusiastically received by the Cubans that befriended us. I also learned to carry soap in my pocket, as well as toilet paper and a few paper towels, for my own personal use.
Santiago is a peaceful city whose museums and monuments, as in the rest of Cuba, honor either Fidel, Che, or the numerous heroes of the 50s Revolution. The only graffiti seen are phrases like Socialism or Death. There was much comment made on this by Dave, who is from New Hampshire and whose state motto reads Live free or die. Again, there were no restaurants that were open. This was the end of the month and the food allotments for the coming month had not yet been distributed. Once again we were encircled by numerous ninos when stopping for gas. All of the young men wanted a handout, but they were much more aggressive than in Baracoa. They actually reached inside the car for desired items. As my new Rolex Regatta cap was sitting on the seat, I quickly scooted them away--with vigor.
After visiting several monuments, including the home where Fidel planned the Revolution and several beaches, we headed over the mountains again and back to Baracoa. The setting sun, as we rounded the peaks, put exactly the right patina on a day very well spent in beauty and in friendly camaraderie as well as in the further understanding of a totally foreign culture.
In the weeks that were to follow, we would explore the beaches, cays and the 1100 mile northern coastline, as well as the major cities of Cuba. We would gradually begin to understand the subtle, as well as the obvious, contrasts between the worlds of communism and capitalism.
This is the third article in a series of six that deals with the opening of Cuba to cruising yachts. Nautical Scene feature writer, Nancy Terrell, was aboard WINDWALKER, a CT 54 Australian yacht with owners John Norris and Bobbie Fawcett, for well over a month while cruising the northern coast of Cuba.
CRUISING FROM BARACOA, CUBA TO ST. FRANCIS CAY
Monday, May 29, was the day that we had prepared to leave Baracoa, located on the far northeastern side, for our sail westward along the Cuban coastline. It was also Bobbies birthday. With these two significant events in mind, we spent all of Sunday and Monday morning getting ready for our trip and doing some last minute shopping. As there are no stores in Baracoa and we badly needed drinking water for our trip, we spent our time collecting water from the mountain spring at the local hotel where we had enjoyed dinner the previous Saturday night. The manager, friendly in the manner of all rural Cubans, told us to bring our plastic bottles and fill them at the faucet that came from the mountain stream behind the hotel. This we did. Nowhere have I tasted better water then we received there. Two of he ninos that had been following us during our week in Baracoa had gone with me to the hotel. They carried the ten filled bottles back to the dock for me. They could not take them to the boat as Cubans are not allowed to visit on cruising yachts. I gave them each an American dollar as a tip and they were ecstatic, as the average monthly wage for Cubans is between four and eight dollars, depending on their profession. These same ninos had given me some local shells that I greatly admired and plan to use in my artwork.
Alberto, a Cuban professor of Inglais, also runs the only art cooperative in Baracoa. We had much fun admiring the local wood sculptures and purchased several small pieces for Bobbies birthday as well as a small watercolor of the harbor and the mountains beyond. Lovely examples of talent and very inexpensively priced. Artists work for the communist government who collect a heafty 55% of the selling price of anything handmade or painted.
Our departure papers were then presented to us by the customs officials at the dock. In Cuba it is necessary to clear in and out of each port visited, just as you would with each island visited when sailing the Caribbean. Each harbor in Cuba has its own official hierarchy and must be treated with all of the respect due to people who consider you their guest as well as an outsider (capitalist).
After pulling up the anchor, waving to the many ninos that had appeared on the large rock overlooking the entrance to the harbor, and setting our mainsail and mizzen, we left the beautiful coastline of northeastern Cuba and began our four hour sail to the Bay of Taco, a small body of water nestled behind two opposing cliffs, that had looked very appealing on our chart.
Very unfortunately, the only guidebook for sailing the Cuban coastline gives much inaccurate information. The Bay of Taco, where we planned to spend the night, snorkeling, fishing and bathing had a huge surge in front of it and a very narrow passage. To try and maneuver WINDWALKER, a CT 54 ketch with a 7 foot draft, into such a small mouth would have not only been inadvisable but downright stupid. We all agreed on this. Captain John Norris then decided that we should stay at sea for another day and two nights and thus arrive in the Bay of Nipe at dawn of the third day. According to our Admiralty Chart (issued in 1938 and updated in 1982) there was not a safe anchorage for a yacht of our size before that on the northern coastline. It seems appropriate to add here that charts of Cuba are basically only available in Havana; therefore, any yachts sailing from east to west must rely on older charts or ones obtained from recent cruisers, which would be extremely rare as Cuba has only recently been opened for cruisers
Both nights at sea brought strong storms filled with lightening, thunder and plenty of rain. It was during this passage that leaks were obvious on the yacht that had never appeared before. The BVI, where we all live, rarely gets that amount of massive rain. Upon approaching the Bay of Nipe, the topography was changing from the lush tropical mountains of the northeast to the drier flatlands of the Cuban coastline. The bay itself is huge for a Caribbean island. It is over 50 square miles and reminds one of a lake in Switzerland. It is also delightfully cold so that swimming in it is a real treat. I am sad to relate that as charming as the Cuban officials had been in Baracoa, the total opposite was true in Nipe Bay. Not only were we subjected to a three hour clearance and to having the boat totally searched, but we were told, in no uncertain terms, that we could not anchor elsewhere and had to remain close to the customs dock. We were also prohibited from taking our dinghy ashore and were told that we could not visit the vast beaches and shores which make up this enormous lake. Since that was our sole purpose, we could see that we were prisoners on our own boat. Fortunately, this was an isolated incident as all of the other customs officials we were to meet were most hospitable.
Bobbie and I did manage to go ashore once where we were met in a jeep by a lovely Cuban woman , Nellie, and a driver. They took us over the dunes to a local hunting lodge that maintains a wildlife preserve of African animals. Not at all what one expects in a place like this. Nellie is an engineer, schooled for five years at a Russian University, and speaks perfect English. She was able to acquire the items that we needed through the hotel supplier. We bought 30 rolls ( having long since run out of bread), ice, a refill of fresh drinking water, and a T-shirt showing the animals that roam the preserve. We made dinner reservations for later in the evening and were taken back to our dinghy.
That evening we had one of the most extraordinary meals of our journey--in every way. We arrived promptly at eight p.m. only to find the entire hotel closed. Being baffled, we knocked at the door to the dining room only to be met by the night attendant. Speaking broken English, he apologized and proceeded to get not less than nine people from the local compound to come and attend to our needs. The local fisherman then immediately entered holding four freshly caught snapper by their tails for our inspection. We nodded our heads that they would do nicely. Ninety minutes later we sat down to an absolute feast. Considering the American Embargo and the shortage of goods available in Cuba, what the cook did with what he had was simply amazing. Being quite hungry, we ate in silence, appreciating what we knew would be the last meal on shore for many nights.
The next day was a total loss. We had planned to leave at 8:30 am. When the officials finally arrived, with what we thought were our departure papers, we were informed that we could not pull up our anchor until immigration arrived. By 4 pm we were sending out messages to the customs, office on our VHF asking for clearance, when were intercepted by an interpreter who volunteered to find out what the problem was. He later transmitted that we had received clearance to leave early the next morning, which we did. As any good sailor knows, it never hurts to have a totally unexpected lay day. Through our grumblings, we actually did a lot of small jobs on the boat.
The following morning we motored out of Nipe and back into the Atlantic, spending the next 50 hours battling thunderstorms with only a 110^ genoa as a forsail and all other sails away. We kept to the same two hour nightly watch schedule that we had previously used, finding it agreeable with everyone. When something works--keep it.
Several nights later we learned of a large tropical depression heading for Southern Cuba. John decided that it would be best if we sought shelter in Francis Cay, the beginning of the 500 miles of over a thousand cays that dot the north central coastline of Cuba. The possibility of bad weather, outdated charts and having a large keel led to the decision to anchor fairly to the center of the first group of cays closest to the customs office. In Cuba, there are army posts (custom offices) located in totally remote areas. At Francis Cay this was particularly true as there was no populace but there was an active post of more than thirty men. Bobbie and I went ashore in the dinghy with Capt. John to check in. Much to our delight, the commandant was a charming man who greeted us with a smile, a pure water faucet for our bottle refills, and a gift of four freshly caught lobsters. Hospitality abounded, for which we were thankful.
We spent the next few days exploring the mangroves, snorkeling, visiting the army personnel that was aboard an old freighter now used as a warehouse for Cuban molasses, and listening to the weather. When a suitable weather window appeared, we quickly hoisted sails and made our way back out into the Atlantic with waves and cheers for the army personnel we had left.
We had now entered the long chain of cays that form the middle coastline of Cuba on the northern side. The next days were to be spent alone--fishing, snorkeling, playing cards, sleeping, eating and. of course sailing. The Cuban Cays are a story into themselves.
CUBA 4 THE CUBAN CAYS
The hundreds of cays that line the northern coast of Cuba contain a multitude of delights for sailors, fishermen, shell seekers and all other types of sunshine lovers. The waters are not as crystal as they are in the Virgin Islands but they are much more vast. The topography of the cays greatly resemble those of the Florida Keys and the Bahaman Chain, as seen from the water. They are quite flat with coastlines that vary from sand beaches to scrub woodland patches. The water surrounding these many islands is quite shallow and thus demands great care in nearing an anchorage as available charts are not yet updated in these areas. Continuing in our months sailing expedition in the exploration of Cuba and its coastline, those of us on board WINDWALKER, a lovely 54 CT ketch owned by Captains John Norris and Bobbie Fawcett, were to discover more and more unsullied beaches, reefs, dive areas and coastline in general.
Sailing west, from our point of departure in the British Virgin Islands to Havana, Cuba, we spent many nights at anchor in yet another remote cay. Soon after leaving the customs station at Francis Cay, on the far eastern side of the northern shore, we sailed to Bocos de Marcos, a small cay where we anchored for the night. Once again we received an evening rain shower but not before shelling on a totally deserted and unpolluted beach. The shells were mostly under 4 inches but were plentiful and quite remarkable in their range. As tourists have largely stripped the beaches of most Caribbean islands of their shells, it was quite a treat to discover an untouched beach. As our entire WINDWALKER crew all live on boats, we never take anything in excess. Crew member Dave Cooper states, For every item you bring on board, one must be taken off. There is only so much room, so pick carefully. This I did, as I am in the process of making a shell border for the mirror in our foreword head. It was truly fun having this lovely walk along an abandoned beach at sunset.
The next morning we left this secluded cay and began motoring eastward as there was very little wind. As the seas were totally flat, we turned off the engine in about 30 of aqua water, just off the coast of
Cayo la Vela , where there is a sole lighthouse. We drifted and snorkeled, seeing some exquisite fish and coral species. As noon approached we feasted on a delicious fish sandwich, one of the several grouper caught by Johns brother Bob. The wind was picking up so we unfurled the genoa and sailed towards the west. That evening we anchored off a small cay called Cayo Hicacol and once again went ashore to explore.
Far into the distance we spotted two small local fishing boats coming in for the night. Cuban fishermen take out a mother ship of about 45 feet, towing four to six small wooden hand-built boats behind. As fuel is one of the most precious and scarce commodities in Cuba, these boats are rowed by a single oarsman from the bow, while several other men fish or set traps from the boat. We walked the beach a mile or so to watch them. They greeted us with smiles and shyness, insisting that we take two lovely conch and a lobster back to our boat with us. It is a custom for Cubans to present visitors to their country with gifts showing their honor for your presence. It is a lovely tradition, one that I can remember being practiced by my parents, grandparents and neighbors when I was a child, but largely ignored now in the western world.
The following day we brought in the anchor and again began motoring towards Havana. As the seas were again flat, we once more stopped the engine in 50 of water and decided to do some diving. John and Bobbie are excellent divers and were eager to explore the aqua depths that sparkled in the morning sun promising species as yet unseen. They were not disappointed, returning to the yacht an hour later with wonderful descriptions of the water fauna and fowl. Bobbie, who is Australian and has sailed the African coastline as well as South America, related that, below there were many gullies adjacent to the drop off. Such a large variety of species in abundance and in close proximity, I have never seen before.
I had stayed on the surface snorkeling--playing in their dive bubbles and admiring the refracting rays of sunshine that appear as starry streaks when entering water that clear and deep. The water here was gorgeous, very clear and deep. I could see the bottom, which ranged from 50 to 110 on the depth sounder. This location is to the north of Cayo Verde. The dive and snorkel gear was put away and the engine was started. Bob once again put out his fishing line. He was to bring in five strikes that we kept, all large grouper, during the afternoon. This does not include at least eight barracuda that he let go, many of them taking his lures and line.
Later that afternoon, in the waters just between Cayo Megano and Cayo Chico, we spotted an area of circling tuna feasting on bait fish. This was a sector that was quite large and probably contained several hundred large feeding tuna. We ran our lines through in circles, hoping to make a large catch, but obviously they were full as none were caught and all three men on board are excellent fishermen. About an hour later we sighted a large rock protruding from the water and near a buoy that was unmarked on our chart. It was now about 4:00 pm with still enough daylight for a good hour or so of snorkeling. We anchored in about 17 of water and proceeded to snorkel. Bobbie and John took the dingy to the windward side of the trench and saw an amazing number of varying species of fish and coral. The rest of us were quite jealous so nothing would do but to stay at anchor overnight and repeat the snorkel expedition in the morning.
We enjoyed a dinner feast of fresh fish, lightly pan fried by Bob in the true Aussie way, and settled down for another night at sea. As we were still off the Megano coast, but were not within the shelter of a cay, we put down a second anchor. The summer season on the Northern Cuba coastline has evening storms almost nightly. They pass within an hour and provide the sailor with fresh water and free baths as well as a spectacular display of lightning on the horizon.
We visited the windward trenches the following morning where we snorkeled for almost two hours. John dived for two enormous lobsters which made a dinner meal that evening that was equal to anything in Gourmet. Bobbie is a seasoned professional chef and can turn an already tasty treat into a spectacular feast
We pulled anchor before noon and set sail for the last cay we were to see before arriving at the two cities we were to visit on the eastern Cuban coastline, Veradaro and Havana. We had a delightful 15 knots at our stern and reached a very small cay, located just five miles outside the channel to Veradaro, which is located around on the inside of last chain of cays that make up the northeastern coastline. We anchored on the lee side and had, as our neighbors, several local fishing boats that were to stay until dark before heading home. Having a feeling that plentiful lobster was nearby, John and I headed their way in the dinghy, bearing our usual gift of bars of soap. Language being a problem that is easily overcome by knowing the local numerical system and by using sign language, we returned to WINDWALKER much the richer, having been able to purchase 12 huge lobsters for only twenty dollars. The crew was overjoyed and much was made over the cooking and seafood banquet that was had on board that night.
As we wanted to arrive at customs by midday at Varadero, we went to bed after dinner, had an early morning snorkel and pulled anchor at nine. We decided to motor into the channel leading to the marina where the officials are located as there are plentiful shoals nearing the coast and the channel is very narrow and winding leading into that area. We had spent well over a week in the beautiful cays of Cuba. Having totally enjoyed that experience, we were looking forward to a few days on the Gold Coast of Veradero, the site of beginning Cuban capitalism, a coastline dotted with huge hotel complexes, owned jointly by private enterprise from Europe and the Cuban government and staffed entirely by Cuban workers -- a Miami Beach, Paradise Island or Freeport of twenty years ago.
As we approached the small marina, we all agreed that the Cuban cays had been the most spectacular part of our months journey. As much as sailors love new ports, they always love the sea and gunkholing better.
VERADERO AND HAVANA -- THE NORTHEASTERN CITIES OF CUBA
Arriving at the dock at Marina de xxxx outside of Veradero was an experience in itself. It is a small marina and the only space that they had for WINDWALKER, a 54 CT ketch, was behing a scow barge nest to a cement wall where supplies had been unloaded. There were no cleats, pilings or other usual tie-offs available so we tied our lines to the most solid blocks of old machinary and building supplies that were available.
Fortunately, the local Cuban officials had seen us entering the long channel that leads to the backwater marina and were waiting us upon arrival. The process of checking in was quite simple when compared to other ports we had visited, and we found ourselves at the bar with cold cervasas within a half and hour after arrival. Having had no ice or beer in days, we spent the afternoon making Cuban friends and buying rounds of cervasas for the group. Our tab provided true astonishment as the tariff for the afternoons entertainment was more than $50.00. Obviously, the Cubans in tourist areas have lost no time in understanding price-hiking. Being more than a little dismayed, we headed back to the boat for dinner, there appearing not much chance of eating out seeing the prices observed for tourists.
That evening, we returned to the bar at the marina where John Norris, our captain and the owner of WINDWALKER, joined the local musicians for a true Caribbean jam session. The Cuban musicians are always a delight to hear as they are highly skilled and enjoy their work, despite the fact that they work twelve hours a day six days a week. They loved Johns selection of Australian and western songs and were again fascinated by his guitar and harmonica.
After a good nights sleep, we awoke to a day filled with shoreside activities, very special to us after many days at sea. Bobbie, the other owner of WINDWALKER, and I left for one of the new hotels to enjoy a massage and lounging by the pool for the afternoon--typical Westerners. The massage was only ten US dollars so we had a facial as well, another ten.
unfortunately we had a storm on the boat and the rest of the journal was soaked. I will complete the part on Havana when I have a chance.
Thanks for reading,