About Blair

I'm one half of Strathspey's crew - the one that keeps her seaworthy. I'm also the ship's purser, surgeon, musician and skeptical inquirer. If you think you heard bagpipes in the anchorage last night, it might have been me.

Nueva Gerona

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.

Street sweeper in Nueva Gerona

Street sweeper in Nueva Gerona

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.

Rum for lobster

Rum for lobster

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.

Our apc sail leaving Nueva Gerona

Our apc sail leaving Nueva Gerona

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.

Cruise ship pilon with Strathspey hanging on

Cruise ship pilon with Strathspey hanging on

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.

Blair and Charlie tuna

Blair and Charlie tuna

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.

Blair cutting up tuna for Sashimi

Blair cutting up tuna for Sashimi

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.

Cienfuegos to Nueva Gerona

The night before we leave Cienfuegos there’s some excitement in the anchorage. At dusk a 50-foot Amel ketch steams into the harbour, clearly intending to anchor in a wide-open space between Strathspey and shore. But perhaps in reaction to the attempted theft of our dinghy and motor, the Guarda officials hop in their dinghy and speed out to the Amel and direct them to a spot much further from shore. It’s a windy and wavy night in the harbour and the Guarda want to get this job done quickly so they gesture the Amel to follow them and, despite not being boaters themselves, they simply indicate a spot that is right in the middle of a big clump of other boats. There’s obviously no regard as to what kind of swing room a 50-foot boat requires. They position their dinghy about 50 feet in front of Strathspey and gesture to the Amel to anchor right there. Blair whistles them down to say that it is too peligroso (dangerous) having the big boat so close to Strathspey as well as the two other boats anchored near us. The Guarda aren’t happy because they’re getting wet, sprayed with saltwater in the windy anchorage. They acquiesce though and agree that it is too close, but not before the Amel has dropped their anchor and started paying it out. The Amel now realizes that these guys in the dingy are the Guarda officials, not actual boaters with an understanding of anchor scope or swing room. Twenty minutes later, the Amel ignores the new anchoring location indicated by the Guarda, judging it again to be to close to surrounding boats and eventually drops its anchor at the far North end of the anchoring field. Throughout the whole exercise there are many other cruisers in their cockpits, eyes narrowed, all thinking the same thing, ‘Just anchor well enough away from me and set the anchor well’. The excitement ends and we all retreat down below and carry on.
The next night we leave Cienfuegos. We have paid our marina anchorage bill ($7/night) and requested a 7 pm checkout by the Guarda Frontera. This isn’t just a formality. They have our dispacho and we need it to continue on. Once past Bahia Pilon, the dispacho process is quite a bit stricter and, in every port, we must surrender our dispacho to the Guarda officials and only receive it back when we leave port. Promptly at 7 pm, the marina manager and the two Guarda officials dinghy out to Strathspey. The Guarda speak a little English but the marina manager speaks even more and he translates when necessary. At some point, one of the Guarda officials holds up our visa and says that there is a problema with it. This is the last thing we want to hear about our Cuban visa. He says, ‘visa expired’. The marina manager asks our nationality and Blair says we are Canadian and we have three months and it’s Americans that are only given one month. The Guarda official looks skeptical but the marina manager says’ Si, Si!’ and agrees that we should have three months. In the end the Guarda believes both Blair and the marina manager but it is a little disconcerting. Blair thinks there was a little smirk on the Guarda’s face as he announces the problema because these are the same two Guarda officials that he delayed the night before by pointing out that the Amel was too close. I give the Guarda the benefit of the doubt and say that he probably needs to go back for refresher training.

We sail overnight west to Cayo Largo, the first big cayo in the Archipelago de los Canarreos. This archipelago is a popular cruising area with Canadians and Europeans and the occasional bold American willing to take a chance on bucking the US system and hoping to not get caught. We think it is easier for Americans to cruise on the South coast of Cuba as there are no US Coast Guard patrols down here and few Guarda Frontera outposts to check in and out of. Although not as remote and pristine as the Jardines de la Reina archipelago, we’re looking forward to exploring this area through February.

In Cayo Largo, the Guarda officials insist that we dock at the Cayo Largo marina so they can check us in. They don’t search the boat at all and we get the feeling that they just don’t want a wet dinghy ride out to our anchored boat to check us in. Once we pull into the dock though, we decide to stay a few nights and clean the layer of Cienfuegos grim off the decks. Blair gets ambitious after the first layer of dirt is removed and he uses FSR, a solution of oxalic acid, to remove all the spots on our deck deposited by the Santiago refinery plume. We’d tried scrubbing at them with all kinds of product and this oxalic acid did the trick (two jars worth). On the floating docks we are surrounded by chartered catamarans out of Cienfuegos. The marina manager tells us that water and electricity are free but please don’t drink the water.
Once Strathspey is clean we leave the marina and drop our anchor behind a small island beside a blinding white beach. We spend the next few days swimming and snorkelling in the crystal clear water here and walking beaches of talcum powder softness. We visit the local turtle hatchery and get a tour of their holding tanks for green and hawksbilled turtles and hear the method of releasing the newly-hatched baby turtles on the beaches every spring. Cayo Largo is not a typical Cuban island or town. It is just a series of hotels and resorts and one long beach after another; the resort workers are actually flown or ferried in here for 20-day stints, staying in barracks. Each day at anchor, we are passed by huge catamarans carrying sunburned tourists out to the beaches or to various islands to snorkel. Periodically, charter catamarans join our anchorage and it feels a little crowded so we make plans to continue on.

From Santiago all the way to Cayo Largo, at almost every port and anchorage we’ve stayed at we are joined by the same two American boats. We play leapfrog with them as we move westward down the coast and trade items back and forth as we go. One boat gives us water in Cayo Granada when our water maker had problems, we give them tomatoes in Cayo Cuervos when we have a surplus, we copy their excellent Cuban charts while in Cienfuegos and, as thanks, offer up a pound of butter to tide them over until they reach good shopping across the Yucatan channel in Mexico. Here in Cayo Largo is the last time we chat with them. They’ve had a surprise when trying to extend their one-month visa; it’s expensive for Americans it seems. They must pay $3/person/ day for insurance. They’d shown a valid credit card to the officials in Santiago when they checked in but it seems that wasn’t sufficient for the Guarda in Cienfuegos who want actual money for the insurance up front. In Cienfuegos they coughed up enough to stay an additional 15 days in the hopes that they’d get good weather windows to travel from Cienfuegos to Isla Mujeres in Mexico. In conversation with a group of five German businessmen on a chartered catamaran, I mention that expense to them. They scoff at the cost and say that it is worse for them. At $8/person/day, they’d ponied up $800 for the five of them to sail in Cuba for 20 days. It’s all to do with the insurance it seems. As Canadians, we’re lucky that we haven’t been stung by this extra cost.

We sail down to Cayo Cantilles on the ‘outside’, out in the ocean. All the catamarans in this area can sail down there on the shallow inside route. Because we take the outside route, we carefully negotiate the red and green buoys that mark the safe passage between the reefs that shelter Cayo Cantiles from the big ocean swells. We hear from other cruisers that this is a good area to trade rum for fresh lobsters as the lobster fishermen use this area as a nightly anchoring spot on their week-long fishing trips. We anchor in 7 feet of crystal clear water and then dinghy out to the reefs to do some snorkelling. Our guidebook tells us that many boats have been wrecked on this reef as only one of the red and green buoys is lit at night. We find the remains of quite a few fishing boats under water and Blair sights a green moray eel. The holding in this area is notoriously bad and when the winds pick up to 25 knots later that night we have a slo-mo drag that positions us about 500 feet south of where we started. No harm is done but we decide to move across the channel to Cayo Rosario that afternoon as the winds are clocking to the Northeast and there will be better protection and hopefully better holding. However, on the opposite side the holding is no better; the seabed is turtle grass and sand. We re-anchor twice and hold through the high winds that night but when I listen to the weather forecast from Chris Parker, he tells me that we need to be in a very well protected area by end of day Sunday as there is another strong cold front coming, bringing clocking winds from southeast, south, southwest and then northwest along with heavy rain and squalls with 40 knot winds. This is not a good area to be in for that sort of weather so we head to Cayo Tablones for the night with plans to move on to the town of Nueva Gerona on the big island – Isla de la Juventud.

Pelican at Cayo Cantilles

Pelican at Cayo Cantilles

We have a quiet afternoon and evening at Cayo Tablones until the wind picks up to 31 knots around 8:30 pm. The cayos in Cuba are basically low-lying islands covered with mangrove shrubs, which provide very little protection from the wind. The seabed at each one of them is the ubiquitous turtle grass and hard-packed sand so holding is never wonderful. We’re frustrated as we can see we’re dragging again. We have set an anchor alarm on our chart plotter and that’s the only way we can tell we are dragging. It’s pitch black out because the moon is not up yet and there are no lights on shore for a reference point. Blair gets out on the foredeck and we re-anchor but the current around the cayo is at right angles to the wind direction and Strathspey is dragging from the minute our anchor has been dropped; it just doesn’t have time to grab. We make the decision to go to Neuva Gerona immediately rather than waiting for daylight and spend the next five hours sailing there.

We have a reef entrance, Pasa de Quitasol, to contend with before we arrive at Isla de la Juventud but it’s well marked with red and green lights. The only hiccup is that we read and re-read the guide’s instructions that the red buoys must be on our port (left) side going through the channel. Our Garmin chartplotter shows the red buoys on the starboard (right) side of the channel though. We’ve been finding that the Garmin software is not as detailed for Cuba as other brands. We often sail from waypoint to waypoint while our chart plotter shows broad swaths of uncharted waters. The Navionics charts that our American friends have are far more detailed for Cuba and show the same waters crowded with depth notations. This is the first time we’ve been disappointed with Garmin as they have been very accurate and detailed for all the other areas that we’ve sailed in so far. Blair says he will contact Garmin regarding the red buoy mistake at Pasa de Quitasol as that could be disastrous. On the other hand, as we follow the channel, the Garmin charts show a small circle with the notation that there is an obstruction in the middle of the channel. I scan the waters ahead of us with our 400,000-candle flashlight. I see no obstruction but Blair gears back suddenly and says that the channel depth has shallowed suddenly. He gradually relaxes and throttles up as the depth increases and comments that Garmin had that little detail bang on.

We negotiate the reef without further incident and an hour later we follow the well-marked channel into the Rio las Casas to Nueva Gerona. This is a commercial port with no facilities for yachts but our guidebook says that we can tie up to a concrete pier at the ferry terminal for a maximum of two days. This will take us through the cold front we hope and give us a few quiet nights without the constant 25-knot winds that we’ve had for the last three days. One thing we’ve been finding here on the South coast of Cuba is that the winds are quite a bit stronger than anything we’ve had in the Bahamas or Lake Ontario. If the wind is blowing here, it’s usually at 20-25 knots and gusting to 30 knots. There’s usually a late afternoon lull, a diurnal effect, where the wind dies down to 15 knots but then after sunset, it picks right back up.

So, it’s a relief as we turn the corner past the last green marker in the channel and we are in the calm Rio las Casas. There are no more lighted buoys and Blair at the wheel feels his way down the river while I shine our spotlight onto shore looking for a ferry terminal. Our Garmin chartplotter shows that we are on land again, a disappointment but we’re okay because we have the moon plus our powerful spotlight to help us stay in the middle of the channel. We pass a Guarda Frontera building and a big shipyard on the right, then on the left an oil and propane dock with a big ship pumping propane into huge storage tanks ashore. And then the shores are black, no lights. We keep going and the depths are still good; 8 feet under our keel. We round corner after corner and then the ferry terminal appears on our right. We find a spot that looks good on the concrete wall just past the last ferry and I take the wheel and circle in the river with 4 feet under our keel until Blair has lines and fenders set out and we gently slide into dock finally; it’s 5 am and we’re numb from the cool night, the constant 30 knot winds and the occasional salty wave over the decks. There are three people there to catch our lines, one of which is the harbourmaster. He comes down below to do the necessary paperwork immediately and it’s embarrassing because Strathspey is a shambles down below from the constant rolling through the big waves. We look like we’re a dirt-eater boat rather than our usual pristine condition. I apologize for the mess but the harbourmaster shrugs it off and says Welcome to Nueva Gerona.

In very rudimentary English with more Spanish than English he tells us that Nueva Gerona is a commercial port – no tourista. We say ‘Si’. Then he says, ‘Is your boat broken?’ We get it right away – that’s the only way we can stay here on the concrete dock. Blair says ‘Si, la bomba de agua tiene una fuga’ (the water pump is leaking). Then the harbourmaster asks ‘How long (to fix)’? I say ‘Dos dia’. Here in Nueva Gerona, they really have no facilities for visiting boats and the guide books says you can only stay two days maximum but I figure maybe I’ll get two days for the water pump repairs and then perhaps another day for the big cold front to pass. Blair says ‘Tiempo pronostico es habra tormentas’. There are storms coming. The harbourmaster says, ‘Si, norther martes’ so we hope we have permission to stay through Tuesday at least.

We tidy up a bit and then fall into bed hoping to sleep a good five hours at least but this is a noisy port and we’re awake again in three hours. We walk into town to explore a bit but we’re both dozy and, with eyes a little glazed, are not taking much in. I’m looking for produce as always and we use up the last of our meagre stack of Cuban pesos to buy some tomatoes and green peppers and some sort of purple vegetable that Blair is sure is turnip. I’m too tired to argue and we get two of them; I’ll figure out how to cook them when I’ve had more sleep. We wander around for an hour or so and on the way back to Strathspey we see a vegetable cart with the kind of vegetables I can recognize so I’m more alert now. Trouble is, I have no more pesos; only CUCS which are worth so much more than pesos that it’s a big problem. Thinking back to when Blair handed over CUCs for pineapples and we ended up with seven of those things, I’m doing mental calculations; there is no way I want enough tomatoes to make 20 batches of spaghetti sauce. I say to the vendor, ‘No pesos pero CUCS’ (I have no pesos but I do have the big ones – CUCS). I hand the vendor a three CUC note (worth $3 Canadian) and I start to point out what I want. He’s happy to oblige and I get cucumbers, green peppers, tomatoes, beets and eggplants. My bag is full to overflowing and I say ‘No mas’. The vendor is happy, I’m happy and I’ve got at least two weeks worth of vegetables right now.
The ferry dock on the river is pretty yucky. In fact, it’s actually been described as noxious which we wouldn’t dispute. But it’s secure and we have a chance to see a real Cuban town that has had very little tourist influence. It’s definitely a different view of Cuba. Here at the ferry dock, we’re behind a high fence and a locked gate that is guarded day and night. In fact, when the ferry from Havana arrives or departs, we’re actually not allowed off the boat. Or if we happen to have been walking in town and are outside the fence, we’re not allowed back into the safe enclosure where Strathspey sits floating. To emphasize that fact, there is a fit young man in olive green hovering at the gate we usually enter and exit from. We know he is not your typical Guarda Fronteras because he’s wearing a badge, ‘Brigada Specialisa’, but mostly because he’s got a service revolver holstered at his waist. Other than the standard guards visible outside the banks when money is being picked up, this is the first time in Cuba that we’ve seen any signs of weapons at all. The regular security guard at the marina has a nightstick as a weapon and he very apologetically tells us that we must wait until the ferry passengers are loaded before we can walk down the pier to Strathspey. We stand at the fence looking in at them until the Brigada Specialisa motions us away and points to where we must wait to enter. We say ‘No problema’ and move away quickly.

Other than this odd bit of guns and ammo thing, we’re quite comfortable here despite the polluted river we are floating on. Far up this river, we feel very little wind and when the torrential rain begins on Monday morning it’s a welcome washdown for our decks with just a bit of wind blowing us off the pier. Once the rain clears, we walk into the center of town and negotiate a taxi to take us out to Presidio Model. This is the penitentiary built by the USA for the Batista regime back in the 1950s. It was modeled after Joliet prison in Illinois and held mostly political prisoners; both Fidel and Raoul were held here at one point. It’s been abandoned since 1967 and, although not a museum or tourist destination, we’d heard you could tour it if you found a taxi driver that knew something about it.

Our driver speaks little English but with our bit of Spanish and his bit of English and lots of gesturing, we have an excellent tour. The prison is comprised of four circular buildings, five stories high that held 1000 prisoners each. Our taxi driver drives us around the outside of the buildings but when we ask if we could enter, he shrugs and says OK and proceeds to break into one of the buildings. We follow him in and stop suddenly. Overwhelmed. Silent. Both of us say in unison, ‘Oh.wow’.

Prison Cell

Prison Cell

This is probably what a prisoner would have felt upon entering the prison building for the first time. Each cell is labeled with a number, each cell has a toilet and a sink, each cell held two political prisoners, each cell is no more than 5 feet wide and 10 feet long. The cells are on the outside walls, one cell deep, while the middle of the building is wide open with a walking/socializing area. In the center of the building is a tall tower where the guards kept watch; they actually didn’t get to the tower through the socializing area, they entered it through a tunnel.

Our next stop is the dining hall holding 1000 prisoners at a time for each meal. Each prisoner had their own table with attached chair, much the same as old-fashioned school desks. The tables and chairs fanned out from a central guard tower so that the prisoners sat in long rows, one behind the other to eat, much the same as a school classroom but everyone faced the outside wall. After the dining hall, our guide took us into a sort of ‘halfway house’ building called ‘Distincion por buen comportamiento’. If you were good in the prison, you graduated to this building where there were actual classrooms and you would be taught lessons in good citizenship. Once you graduated from here, you presumably were free to go.

We make one last stop at the administration buildings of the prison. It is impressive with its marble stairs and architecture. This marble is pretty common throughout the entire prison; all the stairs in each of the prison buildings are made of polished marble. We notice that in the town of Nueva Gerona, all the parks have marble benches and even the pedestrian mall is laid with marble stones so we think that marble is readily available in this area, especially if it was standard in the prison buildings. I take one last photo; it’s a long shot of the administration building showing two flagpoles on either side of the long, straight road in. One flagpole is taller than the other and our taxi driver says that the taller one flew the Stars and Stripes and the shorter one flew the Cuban flag. In a quieter voice he tells us that American money build this prison and most of the infrastructure on Isla de la Juventud. We’re quiet on the ride home, contemplating all this.

Trinidad de Cuba

This past week we travel to Trinidad de Cuba via a 1952 Dodge sedan. At $25 we think it’s a bargain to travel the 80 kilometers east from Cienfuegos and we enjoy the drive that weaves through farmland and along the coast. We ask the driver to leave us as close as possible to the old city; this area is a designated World Heritage site and no cars are allowed within. He drops us in front of the Iberostar hotel opposite a large park and I go into GPS mode to find our way to our casa particular. We haven’t made reservations but we stayed at this casa particular two years ago and liked it. It’s a picturesque place within the heritage area on a steep hill and has air conditioning, good plumbing (not always a sure thing in Cuba) and a nice rooftop restaurant attached to it. After a few false starts and wrong turns, we are at the casa particular and, amazingly, our landlady Katriska recognizes us from our past visit. We dump our knapsack in our room and head out to re-acquaint ourselves with Trinidad.

Gates to the heritage area

Gates to the heritage area

It’s one of the oldest cities in Cuba and we spend a day just wandering through the heritage area, ducking into cafes to listen to musicians and just soaking up the atmosphere. At one point we take a wrong turn and end up in an area that can only be described as ‘dirt poor’. The street is a rock-strewn path and leads up the steep hills between wooden shacks and squalor. In the midst of all this poverty, there is a young woman determinedly sweeping her front step and walkway to keep her small space clean. As we hastily make our way back down into the heritage cobblestoned streets, a woman calls out to us, pointing to her toddler saying, ‘Something for the baby?’ It was probably the first time I actually felt a little nervous here in Cuba. But 50 steps later, we turn the corner and we’re back onto a well-kept street with young girls skipping rope in their school uniforms.

Trinidad seems a bit full of tourists right now so we’re not sure if this is the high season now or a reaction to President Obama’s slackening of restrictions on Cuban travel. In addition, the number of people approaching us to ask for money or clothes is much more noticeable than our last visit here two years ago. Is that a reaction to the increase in tourists we wonder? A woman stops me on the street – she really likes my pink Athleta T-shirt and I think she wants to trade my shirt for hers. A stoop-shouldered man waylays us and holds out his straw hat looking for coins. We know from past experience that if I open my bag to offer money, soap or razor blades, a crowd quickly forms and it doesn’t feel comfortable. Trinidad feels more like Havana on this visit; more hustle, less friendly. But, then we stop for lunch and our waiter, Georges, is a delight. He speaks excellent English and shares many stories with us. He tells us that he used to teach grades 7 & 8 English but he quit to become a waiter because ‘it is better for his family’. Anyone who works with the tourists makes far more money and Georges is no exception.

Center of Trinidad

Center of Trinidad

Despite our casa particular being an above-average establishment, like all houses here in Cuba, there are no screens on the windows, just shutters. I’ve come prepared for the lack of screens, although I feel like something out of a Woody Allen movie as every evening around 5 pm I close the shutters and spray the room with Raid. I’m not taking chances with dengue-carrying mosquitos.

One day we ask a bicycle taxi driver to take us to the local cigar factory. We were here on our last visit and Blair picked up a few bundles of cigars then. But this time it’s harder to peek in the door and indicate that we want to buy some cigars because there is a fairly big guy in uniform guarding the entrance and shaking his head at us. Part of the problem is that we are so obviously tourists. I take photos of the building and various street-carts and horses while Blair walks around the other end of the building and catches the eye of one of the workers inside. Ten minutes later, a wiry, young man strolls around the corner with a packet of 25 small cigars (more like cigarillos rather than cigars). But Blair’s picky and doesn’t like the size of them so we wait around another ten minutes and our cigar-man returns looking quite serious but we don’t see any package for us and we expect him to say ‘Sorry…close but no cigar’. Instead he pulls up his T-shirt and stuck down each side of his pants front are a bundle of 10 cigars. He’s skinny and he hitches up his jeans as he digs out each paper-wrapped bundle and passes them over. Blair hands over $15 CUCs and the deal is done. Back at our casa particular, Katriska tells us that the cigar factory where we got our cigars makes them specifically for Cubans, not tourists. But Blair tells me that, although not nicely ‘finished’, they taste great and are really fresh.

One day Katriska encourages us to re-enter that ‘dirt poor’ area to see the beautiful church up on the hill. It’s in ruins but definitely worth seeing she says. We climb up a dusty path until the hovels disappear and we feel a fresh sea breeze sweeping up the hill. The church is beautiful, despite falling down. It’s behind a barbed-wire fence though because just beside and behind it European money is building a hotel – cinco estrella (5-star) Katriska tells us. On the hillside below the church and future 5-star hotel there are a number of tiny but tidy cement houses. One of them has hand-worked cotton tablecloths hung on a clothesline, offered for sale. We think these people will do well once the hotel is build. Perhaps even their houses will appreciate in value because of the proximity. Again, we wonder what changes are in store for Cuba once the US embargo is lifted entirely.

In Trinidad, we always eat breakfast at our casa particular because it’s a known quantity and for $4 each we’re provided with such a big meal that we aren’t hungry until late in the day. Coffee is always served in two delicate little flowered teapots the size my sisters and I played house with as children. One is full of black sweetened coffee, the other contains hot milk and I drink mine as a latte while Blair has his black and strong. Without fail we are served two thick slices of jamon, a processed ham that is just way too much meat for me. Accompanying that are two equally large slabs of gouda cheese, two wedges of flan, a big basket of toast, a tall pitcher of freshly-squeezed mango juice, omelettes and tomato slices. As we eat breakfast each morning, our waitress from last night has a bucket of water and sings lovely, gentle songs in Spanish as she hand washes the stairs leading to our bedroom.

On two nights we eat dinner at the casa particular’s restaurant and each meal we are served Arroz Moro (dark rice). We love this rice and discover that Katriska is responsible for making the rice in large quantities each day. She shares the recipe with me and explains that she uses her pressure cooker to make it; she tells me everyone in Cuba cooks with a pressure cooker, especially los frijoles (beans) – an important ingredient of Arroz Moro. She’s very specific about cooking the beans; 30-40 minutes of cooking time and then 30 minutes to sit before opening the pressure cooker. This seems like a long time for the beans and I’m thinking they must be mush by the time the pressure cooker is opened but I guess the purpose is not to have distinct beans with the rice but just use the beans to make the rice dark and give flavor. Her bean rinsing instructions are also very precise; rinse the beans five times with one cup of water each time, no more. Another odd ingredient is one can of evaporated milk but there’s a language barrier so I’m not sure if she means that I should measure the bean rinse water with an empty can of evaporated milk or to actually dump a can of the milk in with the cooked beans; I’ll try it both ways I think.

Side streets in Trinidad

Side streets in Trinidad

The taxi driver who took us to Trinidad returns for us on Saturday and we are happy to be back aboard Strathspey and sleeping in our comfortable bed. In our absence we see that Strathspey is covered with a thin film of ash because of the various fires that burn here. There is always something burning here in Cienfuegos. A neighbouring boat tells us that often they burn sugar cane fields to encourage new growth. But someone else tells us that sometimes it is just garbage that is being burned. Regardless, at least twice a week there are big clouds of smoke in the sky above Cienfuegos.

We are waiting for some good weather to continue further West to Cayo Largo but in the meantime we are also stocking up on provisions, as Cienfuegos is probably the last city we will be near until we arrive in Havana in March. We make trips into the agromercado to pick up fruits and vegetables and each time we ask for papas (potatoes). After two months here, both Blair and I daydream about foods we miss most and top of the list is a big baked potato with butter and, if it isn’t being too greedy, a dollop of sour cream on top. Potatoes are hard to find. They aren’t ever displayed in any of the agromercados we visit and certainly not in any of the vegetable carts seen down side streets. Periodically, we ask the marina errand boys, ‘Donde puedo comprar papas?’ (where can we buy potatoes). The cruisers tell us that papas are only available via the black market and we’re not quite sure why. A neighbouring boat confides that they have potatoes. They tell us that someone motioned to them outside the agromercado and offered them potatoes so now we’re on the lookout for them.

We’ve also walked over to the nearby Hotel Jagua to get Internet a few times. Yesterday, on our way there, we see a big crowd gathered in front of a concrete shed. There are horses and carts and bicycle taxis and dogs and you name it. On the sidewalk are stacks of beef ribs but these aren’t any kind of beef ribs we’ve ever seen. They look like the entire rib cage of a cow and there is next to no meat on any of the ribs. Four or five rib cages are piled up, money is handed over and the ribs are thrown in the back of the carts. I dig out my camera to record this very odd spectacle and someone shouts very loudly ‘No!’ and shakes a hand negatively. I immediately put my camera back in my purse and gesture a sorry to the man. We draw nearer though and Blair asks someone what the ribs are for; we can’t believe people would eat them as there is no meat on them. The young man tells us that people buy the ribs for their dogs and it is definitely black market and not allowed. This is when I really wished I could have captured those images.

As well as provisioning for food, we have an opportunity to stock up on Cuban CUCs as there is a big bank here in Cienfuegos. Banking is always an interesting task in Cuba and today it was particularly enlightening. As we approach the bank, we see that there is a group of six people standing outside the door; this usually means that there is another group four times this size standing inside the bank with the entrance controlled by a guard. Blair says ‘Ultimo’ (who’s last in line) and we determine that we are behind the guy with the red cap. Shortly after, red cap guy turns to Blair and says about ten sentences in Spanish with much gesturing and pointing to a guy in yellow shirt beside him. We understand this to mean that red cap guy is behind yellow shirt guy but he wants to run an errand so we are to watch yellow shirt guy to determine when to go into the bank ….oh, and yes, red cap guy is emphatic that he is still ahead of us. Blair says ‘Si’ and we settle in for a wait. Blair counts seven people sporadically leaving the bank and then the guard sticks his head out the door and motions us in. We are given a number (#348) by a clerk sitting at her desk beside the front door. She tells us to sit down and gestures toward six rows of chairs, with all but two chairs filled with customers. Now we understand that we’ve been allowed entrance to the bank only because there are two empty chairs for us to sit in. We take our place with the 20-odd people sitting waiting for their number to be called. Number 324 is displayed and we look at each other and grimace at the fact that there are 24 people ahead of us. After 30 seconds though, our number 348 is called and Blair goes up to one of the tellers to make his transaction. About two minutes later, number 325 is called. We can only surmise that when they gave us our number, someone also put out the word to move us through quickly. We’re a little embarrassed that we’ve jumped the queue but also a little happy that we aren’t spending the next two hours waiting our turn.

On our way out to the bank we see a small fruit and vegetable cart sitting outside the marina entrance. There’s no getting past these vendors. They’re pretty persistent and want to show you all their wares but Blair just says ‘Papas’. He really wants a potato I think. This time though, the vendor says ‘Si, pasado mañana’ (day after tomorrow). This is encouraging we think. But when we return from the bank, the vendor motions us over behind his cart and he has five pounds of potatoes for us. He wants $12 for them which is pretty pricey by Canadian standards but we don’t quibble. We’ve been asking people for potatoes for two weeks now and everyone has made a face as if to say ‘Are you crazy’. So, potatoes are on the menu for the foreseeable future and Blair’s happy about that.

We’re finding that there are few things you can’t buy in Cuba. In fact on our last trip into the center of town to buy some excellent but very inexpensive Argentinian wine, we find that there’s some pretty interesting things you can buy on the street here. In the wine/cigar store, I am perusing the various brands and Blair strikes up a conversation with Juan, a Cuban wearing all sorts of Canadian logo clothes. Juan says he loves Canada and to prove it he pulls off his T-shirt to show Blair his Canadian flag tattoo. Juan is a ‘facilitator’. He speaks four or five languages very well and he says in an undertone, ‘You need lobster, fish, something else?’. The something else is hard to distinguish because of his accent but as he sees me approaching, Juan says, ‘That your wife? We talk later’. I go back to picking out wines and Juan asks Blair again if he wants this something else but the accent is too thick so Juan opens his jacket and, from an inside pocket, pulls out a packet of pills in a push-pill bubble package. Turns out it’s Viagra. Potatoes and Viagra, who knew?

So here is a sad/happy story involving our dinghy and Honda outboard here in Cienfuegos. The sad part of the story is that someone tried to steal our dinghy and outboard motor two nights ago. The happy part is that they were thwarted because we had our dinghy locked to Strathspey via a braided steel cable and the outboard was aboard Strathspey and locked to our pushpit with a Stazo stainless steel super lock. Every night, we had grudgingly hauled the outboard motor off the dinghy and onto its stern mount on Strathspey. And every night we’d complained about the extra task, often made difficult by high winds and waves in the harbour. At the same time we lifted the dinghy out of the water as well; sometimes we put it on our forward deck and sometimes Blair used the spinnaker halyard to position it on Strathspey‘s starboard hull. As time went on we saw that other boats were not lifting their dinghies up so we got lazy and began leaving the dinghy in the water but snugged up to Strathspey‘s stern and locked to one of our stanchions with the steel cable. But yesterday morning, we see the Honda outboard bridle is missing, and one of the outboard toggles is unfastened. The Stazo lock on the other toggle is intact and this is what has prevented the loss of the motor. We also see obvious signs of a hacksaw blade on the plastic casing of our dinghy’s steel cable. The marina staff suspects a fisherman (or two) either rowed or swam out to Strathspey to do this and they are very upset and have increased their nighttime patrols. There are many, many boats anchored here now and we wonder what attracted them to Strathspey. It’s creepy that we didn’t hear them at all, although I did wake up around 1:45 am to use the bathroom. Perhaps they woke me up…perhaps I scared them off. It gives us a bad vibe for Cienfuegos now, despite how much we’ve enjoyed being here. Now it’s definitely time to leave Cienfuegos to head further West.

Fresco in Teatro Terry in Cienfuegos

Water, water, everywhere, ne’er a drop to drink.

Every day we are glad we sprung for a reverse osmosis water maker. We run our water maker for five hours to fill our water tanks while at anchor here in Bahia Pilon. This is a task that is made longer by the fact that we couldn’t use the water at Marina Santiago because of the cholera scare. From Santiago westward, not only diesel is scarce, so is water.

Morning awakening

Morning awakening

This morning we up anchor and leave Bahia Pilon but we’ve obviously misunderstood the Guarda. In yesterday’s pantomime of examining our despacho and pointing down the coast and smiles and nods and lots of ‘Ok, Ok, no problemo, you go’, something got lost in translation. We leave our protected spot behind Cayo Pergatorio and are almost out the channel leading to the ocean when we hear a voice calling ‘motoro vessel, motoro vessel’. We’re pretty sure it’s us he’s calling as none of the fishermen have VHF radios. Blair answers ‘Strathspey aqui’. And then a long, drawn-out volley of Spanish proceeds. It’s the Guarda and we don’t catch even one word of it because of the speed as well as the poor quality of the VHF transmission. Blair says ‘No comprende’ and the voice responds, a little more agitatedly. A back and forth with ‘No comprende’ always on our side, results in the Guarda’s voice getting louder and louder and more and more frantic. We finally catch the words ‘Despacho, correcto’ so we think he needs to change something on our despacho so we turn around and Blair flips through our Spanish for Cruiser’s book to find the phrase to say that we are returning to the harbour.

When we get back to the harbour, there are quite a few people on the concrete pier, motioning us to come alongside. We take one look at the rusty, nail-laden concrete pier and the rocks jutting out from the water beside it and motion that we will anchor instead. The Guarda official shrugs his shoulders and slowly walks back to where the fishing boats are tied, obviously looking for someone to motor him out to us. The wind has risen to 20 knots and the waves are rolling down the bay now so when we try to anchor, we quickly realize that it’s not possible. Now we are circling at the entrance to the small harbour, waiting for our Guarda to arrive. In the distance, we can see this tiny rowboat heading for us. It’s our Guarda official actually being rowed out to us by a fisherman. But he’s not making great progress in the high wind and waves. It takes a good half hour before the rowboat is near Strathspey and we decide that we will have to pull alongside the rowboat to shelter them from the wind so that our Guarda can come aboard. I’m behind the wheel and Blair is on our port side hanging fenders out to protect our nice blue paint from the wooden rowboat. All I’m thinking is, this isn’t going to be pretty. I’ve been making long tacks back and forth in front of the concrete pier and on my last tack, I aim directly at the rowboat and at the last minute, I swing Strathspey’s wheel to starboard. These guys take it all in stride and throw their painter to Blair. I reverse hard to slow us down and the Guarda and his rower grab Strathspey’s toe rails. In one quick motion, the Guarda puts one foot on the toerail and swings his other leg over our lifeline and sits down in our cockpit, smiles broadly and gestures for our despacho.

Well… as it turns out, the despacho requires an ‘Entrada’ (entrance) signature AND a ‘Salida’ (exit) signature from every bloody harbour we stop in. Our Guarda signs the Salida section of the despacho, all the while saying ‘No problemo’. For goodness sakes, they’ve probably expended 3000 calories rowing out to us and risked life and limb to get aboard and, still, it’s no problemo. Blair hands our Guarda two Heinekens and he passes them over to the rower, who has been standing in his leaky little boat all this time, hanging onto Strathspey’s toe rail and desperately trying to fend his boat off our nice paint – all this in 20 knot winds and big waves. The Guarda swings over the lifeline and jumps down into the rowboat and Blair tosses their painter in after him. As we motor away, Blair tells me that the beers are now opened and are currently being enjoyed despite the fact that it is 9 am. What an adventure!

The forecast today is for 15 knot winds from the East behind us to push us all the way down to Cabo Cruz, 30 miles West. The reality is that the winds increase to 20-25 knots and the seas are the biggest we have ever been in. The swells are close to 20 feet and when we look over our stern, there is a mountain of water behind us. Strathspey rises gently to the top of the mountain but each time she slides down it on a 45-degree angle into the valley. After a half hour of this, I no longer looked over my shoulder; it is just too much. Our bilge pump always tends to engage periodically in a following sea because of the way our transom door is constructed (it’s a bad design with an oval slit that houses the hatch lift arm and this lets water in when there is a following sea). But today the bilge alarm sounds, indicating that the pump has been running for at least five minutes so we are concerned that we’ve got a steady leak, not good in these high seas. Blair checks the bilge but it is almost dry and the pump is running steadily so he thinks that our bilge pump switch may have a film of diesel covering it which causes it to think that there is water that needs pumping. We’d overfilled our diesel tanks in Santiago and we think perhaps some of that diesel trickled down into the bilge and has coated the switch. The bilge alarm keeps sounding and it needs attention so I stay at the wheel and Blair goes down below to see about cleaning the electronic bilge switch. This involves unbolting the salon table from the floor and lifting the floorboards to access the bilge. A rogue wave causes Strathspey to lurch sideways suddenly and Blair is tossed onto the settee and now the table is leaning against him. He recovers and wipes the sensor with a soapy rag and the alarm stops sounding. After putting the table to rights, Blair resurfaces to the cockpit and I give him a look that covers all range of emotions and at the top of the list is a wish to leave sailing and start RVing instead.

We’re not in any danger in these seas but we’re uncomfortable and we periodically discuss how we will make the turn in to Cabo Cruz. This will put us broadside to these winds and waves which will make us roll from side to side. It also requires us to move the foresail from one side of the boat to the other, not the easiest task in high winds. Blair hauls about four feet of the foresail in so it’s quite a bit smaller and when we make the turn toward shore, the sail flips to the other side in a fairly controlled manner. There is a long line of reefs stretching West from Cabo Cruz and we enter the shallower water just past the reefs. Almost immediately, the waves disappear and it’s just really windy but with flat water. We anchor behind the reef in about 8 feet of calm water and wait for the Guarda officials to arrive. Night falls and no Guarda have appeared which surprises us. We crack a few beers, I make fire-roasted mushroom ravioli with pesto sauce, we share a nice bottle of Pinot Grigio and we concede that we’re not quite ready for an RV. After a quiet night and a good sleep, the next morning we haul anchor and leave without incident.

We follow our breadcrumb trail out of Cabo Cruz, back out into the deep ocean and head West for an hour and then we make the turn that we have eagerly anticipated for the last 400 miles – we turn Northwest toward the Jardines de la Reina archipelago. The ever-present mountains disappear and we enter an area of small cayos (islands) and more shallow water and look forward to short daysails, good swimming and some fishing as well. It’s a whole new ball game out here. It’s remote and we are definitely dependent on our reverse osmosis water maker as we are almost two hundred miles from any drinking water now.

This area is colloquially known to cruisers as the ‘Hardeens’. All day we are by ourselves, seeing no fishing boats and hearing nothing over the VHF. We have a great sail all day and at 4 pm, we anchor behind a small island (yet another Cayo Blanco). The next day we move on to Cayo Granada and stay two nights in the protection of this small island. And, here’s where we really start appreciating our reverse osmosis water maker.

Cayo Blanco

Cayo Blanco

We arrive at Cayo Granada around 1:30 pm and it is hot – 30 Celsius with no wind so, after anchoring, we have a long, cooling swim and then get out our paddleboards to explore the shoreline. We’ve been invited to a neighbouring boat for lobster tonight but before we go, Blair wants to fire up our water maker to replenish the water we’ve used since Bahia Pilon. But my pride and joy doesn’t work tonight; it seems that the intake pump has stopped working and no water can been filtered. Blair tries everything he can think of and, after a few hours, he’s pretty frustrated and actually says that he thinks we won’t have water from this point on. This is serious and means that we must make long day sails from marina to marina and forego any frivolous use of water (frivolous is all relative but in this case it means no showers!). I’m madly considering our options. It’s three long days to Casilda where there’s a good marina to fill our tanks with water, get diesel and spend a few days in Trinidad de Cuba. From there, it’s a long day sail to Cienfuegos where there’s another good marina to fill our water tanks once again. As I plan the new itinerary, it becomes clear that we can still circumnavigate Cuba but it will be in less comfort; fewer showers, more sponge baths, no hosing out the grungy cockpit, the water we have is solely for cooking, drinking and basic hygiene. We can wallow in non-stop showers at each marina and we will call ourselves ‘salty sailors’ –not fun, but definitely doable.

We have dinner aboard the neighbouring boat and, when they hear our tail of water woe, they immediately start up their high-output water maker and insist on toping up our tanks. We have a wonderful meal and dinghy back to Strathspey, thinking good thoughts about the ‘kindness of strangers’. I go straight to bed but Blair sits up thinking about various options to our water problem. I wake up a half-hour later to the sound of our water pump and Blair tells me he has re-engineered our deckwash pump and connected it to the water maker but he’s not optimistic as the deckwash pump is not powerful enough and our water maker hoses show too many air bubbles in them now. I go back to sleep and, when I wake up to get the weather forecast on our SSB radio at 6 am, Blair lifts his head from his pillow briefly to say, ‘It’s fixed’ before he goes back to sleep. Turns out that he was up until the wee hours of the morning, trying all kinds of things; he took the pump apart, cleaned it up, put a new O-ring in the filter and this morning we have a functioning water maker. Now that it’s working we can go back to our original itinerary. Whew!

After two quiet days and nights swimming, paddleboarding and who-knows-what at Cayo Granada, we upanchor and sail down to Cayo Chocolate. As much as it sounds yummy, it’s a bust. We can’t get close enough to shore to get any protection from the nighttime winds and accompanying waves so we up-anchor early the next day and sail another 38 miles to Punta Practicos. Typically here on the South coast of Cuba, the winds blow 20-25 knots at night and early morning but by noon they pretty much die down to 10 knots and provide flat seas. We end up motoring down the channel to the ocean and make a quick left to anchor in the lee of Punta Practicos. The water is crystal clear here. Finally, we have non-silty water to run our water-maker in. Up until now, every time we run our water-maker, Blair finishes the process off by removing the water filter and rinsing it gently in fresh water. Here in Punta Practicos, the water is gin-clear and we can see the sea bottom easily in 10 feet of water. Mid-afternoon, two fishermen pull up alongside Strathspey. They give us six lobsters, 20 good-sized herring and, when we tell them we need fruta y verduras (fruit and vegetables), they zoom off in the direction where we know there is a fishing lodge and about an hour later show up with more bounty. They hand over a pineapple, about 20 tomatoes and six grapefruits. We give them very little money and everyone is happy.

lobster bot

Lobster Boat

So, now the plan is to sail slowly Northwest through the Golfo Ana María toward Cienfuegos. We’re not in a hurry; the seas are 1-2 feet, the winds are 15 knots during the day but, annoyingly, 20-22 knots at night, gusting 25 knots while at anchor. We sail 20-25 miles each day from anchorage to anchorage so we have easy pleasant sails. Blair sleeps like a log each night because he sets our anchor alarm before bedtime. It sounds if we drag more than 100 feet and each night on our chart plotter we see we swing back and forth through a huge arc but we are anchored snuggly and don’t move. Me… I’m not sleeping quite so well because I’m not used to these higher winds at night. In the Bahamas and in Lake Ontario, I’m used to quieter winds at night so this diurnal pattern that is so common down here takes a bit of getting used to. Still, all is good aboard Strathspey… weather is warm (+30) and sunny most days.

P.S. I’m sending these blogs to Brooklyn when we are in the really remote areas on the South coast. They go via Iridium satellite phone so photos don’t travel well. I’ll post the photos when we get to a larger center and have Internet access.