Nueva Gerona is not a tourist destination. It’s not even a cruiser’s destination. In fact, upon our arrival the port captain has stressed that there are ‘No tourista here’ so we’re not to act like we’re tourists and we can only stay two nights. We negotiate for a third night because of bad weather and also so Blair can replace our engine water pump. We don’t want to stay here too long because the river is pretty dirty and the concrete pier we are tied to is close to the ferry garbage area and I’ve seen a rat scuttling around it. The morning of our departure, Blair begins to fold up our companionway mosquito netting and I hear him yell and drop the netting. There is a 2-inch cockroach clinging to the netting. It’s dark and all Blair can feel is the cockroach’s legs scrabbling against his hand, trying to get away. In short order, the cockroach floats in the grimy river and we spend the next 20 minutes looking cautiously around Strathspey‘s decks, trying to confirm that there was only the one big bug aboard.
We cast off and make our way down the river toward open water. It’s a northwest wind today so we decide to sail back down to Cayo Rosario to spend a few more days there; we hadn’t gone ashore at all and we wanted to snorkel over that beautiful reef one more time. We pull out our light-air asymmetrical sail and have a wonderful downwind sail all day. There’s not a cloud in the sky and the water over the banks is turquoise clear. We arrive at Cayo Rosario around 5 pm and take in our sail and begin to motor over to anchor in the lee of the island. There’s a fishing boat that’s heading our way, changing their trajectory as we change ours while heading in toward shore. We think they might want to sell us some lobster; our German friends had told us they had purchased seven huge lobsters for two 750 ml bottles of rum and $5. Blair gets proactive and digs out one 750 ml bottle of Havana Club rum (worth $5.80 here). He stands on Strathspey‘s foredeck and holds up the bottle of rum and the fishermen all yell their appreciation and one of them holds up a huge lobster – we understand that they’ll trade us the bottle of rum for that big guy; this is a good trade as I know that bug will feed us for two dinners easily.
I hold Strathspey in place as the fishing boat slowly nudges up beside us and Blair puts the bottle of rum in our fishing net. Blair has also tucked in a small ziplock bag with 50 meters of monofilament fishing line and 6-7 fishhooks. He extends the fishing net across to them and they’re pretty excited about the fishing line. They put the big lobster in the net and then they put another one in and then another one; they really like that fishing line we think. We’d brought extra line and lots of assorted fishhooks down here with us because we’d heard how hard they are to get in Cuba. Blair pulls the net back aboard Strathspey and we have four huge lobsters, easily six pounds of lobster meat once extracted. As an afterthought, a young guy on the bow asks us if we have coffee. Blair goes below and digs out a handful of single coffee bags for them and they are really happy. It will be a cruel hoax tomorrow morning though when they realize that it is decaffeinated- the only coffee aboard Strathspey other than our espresso. As we turn toward shore and they head the opposite way, we see all of them crowded around the fisherman holding the fishing line, heads bent down, loud talking and lots of gesticulation. We think that it never hurts to be proactive.
We’re cautious as we nose around in eight feet of water, looking for good holding here at Cayo Rosario. We dragged here the last time in and are not looking to repeat that experience. Blair is on the bow as usual and he’s picky tonight, motioning me forward and to port and then to starboard. He signals that he’s found a good spot and wants to drop anchor there so I power back to a stop as he pays out the anchor chain. Blair lets out 75 feet as extra insurance and I back down on it and we hold fast. Here’s hoping we have a good (i.e. uninterrupted) sleep tonight.
It’s a good night and the next morning when we wake up we dinghy over to Cayo Cantiles across the channel. Our guidebook tells us that there is a park here with wardens that manage the indigenous species of iguanas and caiman (small crocodiles) on the island. We are met at the beach landing by the head park warden and he is welcoming and gracious and obviously happy to have company. He points out the various trails we can walk and says help yourself (or an approximation of that in Spanish). We head down the nearest trail which very shortly becomes a difficult hike as the soft ground changes to razor rock. Three black pigs dash out of the woods when we walk by, startling us, but they ignore us and we continue down the trail which narrows and becomes even more hazardous. After 45 minutes we arrive at a lagoon and, despite hanging around for awhile, we don’t see any birds or crocodiles so we head back toward the warden’s cabin. They’ve got a fire going in their outdoor cooking pit and what looks like a pot of odds and sods of fish heads etc steaming away. The warden says, ‘Comida’…our midday meal. We hand over $6 and tell them that this is for the preservation of the park – doubtless, they need it.
After lunch we dinghy over to the reef beside the marker buoys in the Canal del Rosario which all boats follow for safe passage in to Cayo Rosario and Cayo Cantiles. This reef is one of the nicest we’ve snorkeled on in Cuba. The fish aren’t a bit cautious of us and we float around them. We see dense schools of grunts, huge yellow tail snappers, barjacks, parrotfish and ….bonus, we see a puffer fish. Such a strange-looking thing. It’s been a great few days and now we think we should start heading further west, around the western cape of Cuba and onto the north shore.
The next morning, the wind is from the northeast and we up-anchor and head out the Canal del Rosario and turn right toward the western end of Cuba. We follow the reef line because Blair is keen to catch another mahi mahi or something just as edible. Right off the bat, he catches a yellow tail snapper. We’re excited because this is the first snapper he’s caught ever. He filets the snapper and we have enough fish for three meals! Blair’s pumped now and he puts out two lines, one on each side of Strathspey‘s stern. Disappointingly, he catches barracuda after barracuda. I don’t like the taste of barracuda….and, that particular fish is prone to ciguatera poisoning, a toxin-type poison that can result in muscle aches, stomach pain and just all-round nastiness. Blair uses his gaff hook to ‘help’ the barracuda off his line and finally, after way too many barracuda, he pulls in both lines.
We make a right turn into the Pasa Punta del Este, a 0.8 mile wide channel through the reefs and we turn toward Cayo Matias to anchor for the evening. This cayo has good holding but in fairly shallow water. We motor 30 minutes in toward our anchorage at a slow speed, with less than two feet under our keel. Despite the wind, we have no waves as we are in the lee of the cayo. I cook the yellowtail snapper dusted in panko breadcrumbs and sautéed in butter and it’s every bit as good as we anticipated.
The next morning, we up-anchor and sail around the south shore of Isla de la Juventud. This is a big island and was a huge citrus-producing area for many years until back-to-back hurricanes in the mid-2000’s wiped it out. Nueva Gerona is on the northeast shore of Juventud and, at this point, we’re now 180 degrees from there; progress right? Today, we sail up the western shore of Juventud to Ensenada Puerto Frances. This is a marine park and is known for wonderful diving. There is a reef ‘wall’ here that attracts divers from all over the world. The only way to get here though is via small cruise ships. The cruise ships arrive in the mornings and disgorge hundreds of tourists to the beach or to dive. When we arrive here at 5 pm, it’s deserted. It’s also not what we expected in terms of an anchorage and we waffle over where to drop Strathspey’s anchor. We’re not happy to simply motor up close to the beach and anchor in sand and coral and hope for the best because there is a swell here and the wind drifts over the hills and funnels down through the bay. We motor back and forth at the 60-foot depth looking for the dive boat moorings that we’ve heard we can use if they are vacant. Nada…. The only mooring we see is an eight-foot high yellow mooring pilon for a cruise ship. It’s not ideal but we get bold and decide to tie up to it as the sun is setting and it will be dark soon. I’m at the wheel and I gently nose up to the pilon. Blair, on the bow, snags the rusty eyebolt on top with our boathook and threads one of our longer docklines through it. He uses two additional lines to tie to that dockline so we can just back off and leave when we need to. The sun sets and we are secure.
Throughout the night, Blair wakes up periodically and thinks about that rusty eyebolt sawing through our dockline but he has the anchor watch engaged on our chartplotter so we’ll have fair warning. The next morning, I see that the outer layer of our double-braided line has shredded because of the eyebolt but we are still holding. We bob gently in the swell and we have time to eat breakfast but I’m antsy and want to get out of here because I’m expecting a cruise ship in at any time. Blair does his NY Times crossword puzzle but leaps into action when I call to him, ‘Blair, a cruise ship coming around the point!’. Blair grabs one of the docklines and pulls us close to the pilon and retrieves two of our lines but the one that is completely shredded can’t be pulled through the eyebolt so we cut our losses and I back off the pilon and we motor north. We think that perhaps our luck may be running thin after that easy night.
We head north to La Coloma. It’s a ‘salty’ sail with waves over the bow and we’re heeled up at 15 degrees most of the day, I’m wedged into my usual spot in the pushpit but the sun is out and we’re warm. At one point, we sail behind a series of small cayos and drop the sail to begin picking our way through the surrounding reefs to deeper water to the north. Blair sends me to the bow to watch for coral heads and he slows down dramatically. We know it’s going to be pretty shallow going through this area and I’m thinking that he just wants me on the bow so I don’t squawk when the depth meter displays low water. I’m okay with this though and I maintain a close watch, signalling Blair to turn to port and starboard around the coral heads. We do this for almost two miles and then we are in deeper water and I feel Strathspey now moving at normal speed. When I go back to the cockpit, Blair tells me that the shallowest depth he saw was 0.9 feet under our keel. I’m glad I was on the bow.
Our guidebook tells us that we will be welcomed at La Coloma. It’s a commercial fishing port on the south coast of Cuba and close to some interesting inland travel. We talk about how, if the anchorage is nice and secure, we’ll leave Strathspey for a day or so and rent a car and tour the area. At 4 pm we reach the fairway buoy for La Coloma and enter the six-mile shallow channel into port. The port is well-protected and flat calm and we’re so happy to be here. We nose around the moored fishing boats (there are easily 25 of them) and then our VHF crackles to life. The port captain asks (in English) what our last port was and our nationality and then says he will be out in 20 minutes. We grab one of the many mooring balls and wait for his arrival. And here’s where the whole day starts going south.
Obviously our luck has run out. Two very junior Guarda Fronteras who speak no English motor out in a leaky boat wooden boat. We put out our fenders for them to come alongside. They board Strathspey and, unlike every other official we have encountered in Cuba, they just trundle aboard with their dirty boots and no respect. It was as if we had never cleared into the country previously. These two guys poke into every corner of Strathspey. They open every cupboard, they pick up every musical instrument and comment, they touch our clothes, they make Blair open bilge boards and they even make him take apart our CO2-inflatable lifejackets. We’ve never encountered anything like this in any of our travels through Cuba so it is quite a shock. They say we cannot stay here and we say we need diesel. They say there is no diesel for us and we cannot stay. We tell them that our anchor windlass is giving us trouble (it’s been making strange noises on the uphaul). They say we must pull it up by hand and we cannot stay. We say we must stay one night at least and they agree but they take our dispacho (expected) and our passports and Strathspey‘s boat registration. And then they leave. So, now we are bummed. No going ashore, no diesel and now we are basically under house arrest with our passports and boat registration in their hands.
An hour later, the two Guarda show up once again. They say that they have negotiated a two-day stay for us and do we have cervezas (beer) for them? We’re not feeling very gracious as we feel they have been very disrespectful of our ‘home’ but we give one of them a beer and the other an airline-sized bottle of rum and they leave after a half hour. Blair does his usual end of day navigation log stuff and I send a position report via our satellite phone; this tells our family and friends where we are and that all is good. Twenty minutes later, the Guarda Fronteras call our VHF radio and ask if we have a cell phone. We say no and then it seems quiet. Twenty minutes after that we hear the familiar putt-putt of our Guarda motor boat and the two junior Guarda come aboard again and want to look down below at our navigation equipment. They tell us that the military computers have shown that there was a satellite transmission for position and they want to know how we did it; that’s why they had asked if we had a cell phone. I show them our satellite phone and say we are telling our children we are here. They say, ‘No más’. Don’t do that again. So, we’ve been told. We say , ‘Si’ and they leave. We’re both fairly creeped out now and it’s an early night. Blair wakes at 3 am to tell me that the Guarda motor boat is hovering outside with flashlights pointed at Strathspey. We stay put down below and they leave; perhaps they are just ensuring we are still aboard, not sure.
The next morning, I start calling on the VHF …’Guarda Fronteras, La Coloma, this is the sailing vessel Strathspey’. I call from 7:45 am through to 9:15 am. All that interest in us the night before seems odd as they do not answer me this morning. Finally, we up-anchor and motor in to the main dock and tie alongside. At that point, one of the junior Guarda hastens off to retrieve the port captain. The port captain comes aboard at 9:45 and he speaks excellent English, is happy to check us out and wishes us a good day. We leave shortly after and head out the long channel. At this point, we need to regroup and top up on diesel. But….mostly we’re happy to have our passports back in hand and on our way out of La Coloma.
We have another tight-hauled sail east to Ensenada Los Barcos. The forecast is for light south winds tonight and this is a good all-weather anchorage at the north end of Juventud. We plan to go into Nueva Gerona to get diesel the following day and, if the Guarda are cooperative, take shelter from three nasty days of ‘northers’ coming our way. At 5:30 pm we arrive at the entrance to Ensenada Los Barcos and stay well south of the long shoal as we motor into the middle of the bay. Blair, on the bow, drops the anchor and we are happy to see that it is good holding as I power back at 1800 rmps. The wind is down to 7 knots and we have a quiet night here. It’s been a long squawk so I make us a comforting pasta dinner. We sleep well tonight with very little wind and no waves; a nice change.
The next morning we up-anchor and head 24 miles east to Nueva Gerona; here’s hoping that our second time in here we are lucky. It’s a quiet motor, not enough wind for sailing even. We know that there’s a big storm coming through. Our weather guy, Chris Parker, has said that there will be a cold front coming through, squalls to 40 knots and heavy rain. We plan to be into Nueva Gerona well before this but we’re a little nervous about how we’re going to negotiate this second visit, considering that the first visit was basically on their good humour because this is not a tourist destination and we were told that we could only stay two days maximum. Blair takes some time with our Spanish for Cruisers book and writes down the whole saga….diesel problems, La Coloma kicking us out, mal tiempo, problem with our anchor windlass, yadda, yadda, yadda.
As we make the turn in to the channel to Nueva Gerona, we see a small fishing boat cutting the corner in front of us. They make a stop at the Guarda Fronteras dock at the river entrance about twenty minutes later so now we have caught up with them. As we draw nearer, we see there are two fishermen aboard. One of them holds up, in turn, two huge yellowfin tunas to show us and indicates he wants to sell us some. At this point, both Strathspey and the fishing boat are motoring up the Rio Las Casas toward the ferry dock. Blair gets out our fishing net with some money to make the exchange but the fisherman shakes his head. He puts his right-hand two forefingers on his left shoulders and taps; that’s the Cuban signal for Guarda – the police – the epaulets on a shoulder of a soldier. He doesn’t want the Guarda Fronteras to see him selling his fish to us. He speaks English and says I will find you in the town.
We are motioned over to the ferry dock, well east of where we had tied up previously. The port captain wants us there to check in obviously. We pull in to the concrete pier and are told to wait for the port captain. We’re happy when he arrives as it seems there has been shift change and the port captain is the same person who checked us into Cayo Largo a few weeks ago and understands cruisers and their issues well. We greet him happily, offer him a cold cerveza and a bottle of rum. That probably helped as our port captain says you need diesel and you should only leave once the weather is good and your anchor windlass is fixed. Bueno we say! We move to our old spot in front of the last ferry and once we are settled in, we go in search of a big yellowfin tuna with our name on it.
The fishermen are waiting for us just outside the ferry terminal – Georges and Robert. Georges speaks good English; he learned it in Havana during his six-year university education as a naval engineer. He says the fish is at his house and leads us twenty minutes through the town to a small concrete house. He’s got two tunas on ice in a box beside his back door and we pick the smaller one. We really only want perhaps ¼ of the tuna but he doesn’t want to do this – it’s all or none. He weighs the fish and then gets out an old calculator and shows us that for a 26 pound tuna he only wants $41. We agree and he proceeds to process our fish. He cuts off the caudal fins and then makes a long slit along the fish’s gills and then, while his buddy holds the head, Georges grits his teeth and starts pulling the skin off in one long strip. He does this on both sides and then slices off what basically look like four massive pork tenderloins. The meat looks wonderful and, as we walk back to Strathspey, Blair says we should freeze some of it so we can have sashimi. I email our son, Sandy, and say ‘Help’, we have pounds and pounds of tuna and no recipes. Sandy knows sashimi and tuna and he immediately sends me some recipes so that night we try the first one: Grilled Mediterranean Ahi Tuna. The recipe says ‘Be brave, and cook it so the center is barely warm and still red – you will be surprised at the flavourful moistness and un-fishyness of this tuna’. I cook Blair’s tuna about 2 ½ minutes less than mine and we both agree that yellowfin tuna has just moved to the top of our list of favourite fish. We have enough tuna for easily 20 dinners and who knows how much sashimi. I even have some wasabi paste squirreled away in one of Strathspey‘s cupboards so we can get really fancy.
Throughout the next few days the wind moves from a mild southerly to a strong north direction, we have many hours of rain which washes Strathspey‘s decks clean and we top up with diesel, water, fruit and vegetables and more than one good night’s sleep. It’s gotten cold though with this north wind – each night we sleep under our down duvet and, when we explore Nueva Gerona, we wear many layers including our polar fleeces. We’re not complaining though because there’s no snow or ice and life is still good aboard Strathspey despite landing back here in the same location, one week and 240 miles later.