Hotel Juventud

We stay tied to the concrete pier in Nueva Gerona for five grey, windy, cool days. To pass the time we layer up in long-sleeved shirts and polar fleeces and wander through this town of 20,000. It’s a city of contrasts running the gamete of modern marble pedestrian malls and dirt-poor back streets. Along one of the back streets we stop to watch three men making concrete bricks, used for house foundations; the process is primitive but the end result is definitely a concrete brick, although I’m not so sure I’d want to use them in a foundation over a Canadian winter.

Brick  construction Cuba style

Brick construction Cuba style

One of the downtown streets is set up as a flea market of sorts and we stop to chat with Lio, a young print maker. He speaks a bit of English and is really charming and wants to show us how his old-fashioned printing press works. Later that day we rummage through Strathspey’s lockers and find a small plastic bin of unused pencil crayons, crayolas, and ink pens plus a bound book of good drawing paper. We find Lio again and offer this treasure trove to him and he is almost speechless but so happy. This sort of stuff is not found in Cuba very easily and we’re happy to perhaps make a difference in this young man’s life.

Fixing windlass in Nueva Gerona

Fixing windlass in Nueva Gerona

During our stay here Blair takes Strathspey’s anchor windlass apart and tries to find the source of the grinding noise its been making over the last week. He re-greases the spindle on the windlass and cleans the accumulated rust off all the electrical connections. The bolts on the gearbox are seized so he can’t take it apart and we make a mental note to have that looked at back in Florida. The salt water has been hard on Strathspey and the type of windlass mount on our bow is definitely not a good design for salt water use as it allows this sort of rusting and seizing to happen.

Finally, the constant strong Northeast winds ease slightly and, after checking with weather guy Chris Parker, we decide that we perhaps have a window to sail around to the north coast of Cuba. We’ve been waiting for this weather window for almost two weeks. A few years ago while in the Bahamas, every morning on Chris Parker’s weather broadcast, a woman on a catamaran would call him for a personal forecast. Like us, she had paid Chris Parker a yearly fee that allowed her to call him for specific routing information. We think it is money well spent and we still use Chris here in Cuba but are also reading weather grib files downloaded on our SSB radio. Every morning in the Bahamas this particular woman would jump in with her routing request as soon as Chris opened up his broadcast for questions. She and her husband were trying to get from the Bahamas down to Luperon, Dominican Republic and they just weren’t getting the forecast they needed. So, every day for approximately three weeks, we’d hear her asking the same question. After the second week Blair and I would say to each other, ‘Oh man, it’s her again, this is getting tiring….she takes up a lot of broadcast time’. We were fairly unsympathetic even though we knew that the number one rule when cruising is to pick your weather windows well. So now here on the south coast, I’m that woman. I’ve talked to Chris Parker every day for two weeks, telling him that we are trying to get around the western cape, Cabo San Antonio, and onto the north coast. I’m sure people are thinking, ‘Oh for goodness sakes, just go for it!’ The strong northern fronts have been reaching quite a bit further south this winter and we’ve been getting constant 25-knot winds from the wrong direction so we’re almost feeling like we’re trapped down here in Isla de la Juventud. It’s like Hotel Juventud…you can check in but you can never leave.

Strathspey tied to concrete pier with ferries

Strathspey tied to concrete pier with ferries

But finally one day, Chris gives us good news and we think we have a long enough period of time to make the leap around the corner to the north side. We notify the Guarda Fronteras that we are leaving Sunday morning at 11 am. In fact, I’ve told three officials that we want to leave at 11 am but it’s still not clear to me that they’ve understood exactly what we want.

At 11 am, we’re ready to go. Our dinghy is securely tied on the coach roof at Strathspey’s bow, our diesel tank is full and we have two jugs of spare diesel tied on Strathspey’s port rail and one in the starboard locker. There’s no sign of the Guarda officials though. I walk up to the guardhouse and there are two women security guards who don’t know where the guarda officials are. They motion to their telephone and say that it is dead so they can’t call. One of the workmen offers to bike by the guarda office at the mouth of the river to tell them we need our dispacho. It’s a five-minute bike ride and 45 minutes later there is still no sight of the guarda with our dispacho. Guermo, a naval engineer on one of the ferries docked behind us calls the guarda office for us and says they’ll be at Strathspey in 25 minutes. Sure enough, a male and female guarda official arrive at 12:30 pm but they’ve forgotten the dispacho back at the office. There’s another delay while the male guarda gets back on his bike and rides back out to the mouth of the river to get our document but by 1 pm, we are casting off our lines and motoring back down the river. All the way down this foul river we pass men sitting in huge truck tire innertubes, floating down the river, legs in the water up to their knees. Their fishing rods jerk occasionally and they pull up 6-inch long silvery fish. We can’t imagine eating anything out of this particular river because it is so polluted but there are plenty of these fishermen who obviously do.

We don’t have far to go this afternoon. We’ve decided to spend the night at Ensenada Los Barcos again and make a series of long day sails until we finally get around the cape. It’s a beautiful, sunny day and we make good speed. Blair comments casually that if I were up for it, he’d be fine doing an overnight sail all the way to Maria La Gorda. We check the grib files once again and do some mileage calculations and decide that it makes good weather sense to get to Maria La Gorda in this nice northeast wind. Blair adjusts our route waypoints on the chart plotter and I dig out my foul-weather gear just in case the waves get higher. In regular clothes, once I get wet with salt water, I just stay wet until I can change so the foul-weather gear works best. It’s an uneventful night and at 9 am we tie up to a mooring ball in 20 feet of water just west of the long beach at Maria La Gorda. The water is crystal clear here. In fact, this is the clearest water we’ve seen in all our travels through Cuba. The sea bed 20 feet below us looks like it is only a foot under our keel.

Strathspey's profile in clear water at Maria La Gorda

Strathspey’s profile in clear water at Maria La Gorda

I call Chris Parker to get tomorrow’s forecast to confirm that we’re still on track for a nice rounding of Cabo San Antonio and he tells me that all still looks good but that the wind is going to blow like stink from the northeast for a good long time once this short window closes. Blair and I talk about this new bit of information for a good long while, weighing the pros and cons of getting stuck in a remote anchorage on the north coast rather than being in Havana exploring the city and doing some other inland travel. We decide to get a good night’s sleep tonight and leave pre-dawn on Tuesday to sail all the way to Havana. We map out a few bailout anchorages on the north coast in case we don’t like the weather or if the window closes suddenly. Once we’ve made that decision, we check in with the guarda and he tells us that we should pick up our dispacho that night at 6 pm if we plan to leave so early the next day. This simplifies things for us and we spend the rest of the day snorkeling and walking ashore at Maria La Gorda. We arrange to buy a 20-liter jug of diesel from a fishing boat tied to the pier beside the beach. We don’t really need it but it gives me some added reassurance that if the winds don’t cooperate we can motor toward Havana.

We sleep soundly after the previous day’s 17-hour trip and at 6 am on Tuesday we drop the mooring ball line and turn toward Cabo San Antonio. The guidebooks warn that rounding this cape is one of the hardest trips. The winds must be moderate and in the right direction. You must be the right distance off shore in order to avoid the Cuban countercurrent that runs southwest around the cape and then east along the south coast. In opposing winds, you must stay out of the Yucatan current, a north flowing component of the Gulf Stream that can run at speeds above 5 knots at times. You must stay far enough off the capes and headlands in this area so as to avoid the turbulent water caused by shallow areas. With all these requirements, it’s understandable that I’m a little nervous as we approach Cabo San Antonio. We sail at 6 knots until we make the turn North to pass the cape. The waves are steep and choppy far inshore but out where we are, it’s mostly just long, gentle and manageable waves. Now that we’re heading north, we feel the effects of the countercurrent but it’s not too overwhelming as we’re still sailing at 4.9 knots. Once we pass the cape and turn northeast, the wind changes to an easterly direction and we are close-hauled and sailing at 6.5 knots in fairly flat water.

Radar display on Strathspey's chart plotter

Radar display on Strathspey’s chart plotter

As the day progresses and night falls, the wind gradually clocks around to the south and, in the lee of the Cuban coastline, we see only 1-foot waves. Around midnight our knot meter reads 7.5 knots so we think the Gulfstream is looping in close to shore and helping us along. Our plotted course keeps us about 1.5 miles off shore, occasionally two miles. At 2 am, our knot meter reads 8.8 knots so we are sure we are in the Gulfstream as the true wind is only 7 knots. Blair keeps saying, ‘Oh, we picked the best window. How could it get any better?!’ I don’t want to jinx anything so all I say is, ‘It seems good so far’.

By 9 am we can see the tall buildings of Havana and at 12:30 pm we make the turn down the channel into Marina Hemmingway. There’s a certain cachet about this particular marina and its namesake writer so we’re pretty excited to have finally arrived here. We pull over to the customs dock and get checked in by the two guarda officials. It’s a first for us in Cuba when one of the guarda officials asks us for US dollars and CUCs, ‘I need it for my baby’. He makes a cursory check down below and when he opens up our Nav station desk and sees our Canadian iPhones, he asks if he can have them. We just keep saying no and eventually he stops pestering us. This is also the first time we have been asked to show our medical insurance and are surprised when they copy down the policy numbers. It’s a short checkin though and then we leave the customs dock and motor past the entrance to canals 3 and 4 and make a right turn into Canal number 2 where we’ve been assigned a spot at the concrete wall on the north side; 196 miles and 30 hours from Maria La Gorda!

We’re excited to have easy access to Havana and plan to stay here for a few weeks to explore it, listen to some good music, perhaps take an inland trip to the western end of Cuba and definitely to get some good nights’ sleeps tied to a secure dock in a sheltered canal.

I’ve posted some photos on the older messages. Check the one of Blair’s tuna!!!

Some people want more than a dinghy for transportation

Some people want more than a dinghy for transportation

Cienfuegos

Here in Cienfuegos, we anchor in the harbour because there is no room at the marina. There are about 20 other boats anchored out here with us and initially we were annoyed that we couldn’t get dockage, thinking how easy it would be to hook up to non-stop water and just step out on the dock when we wanted to leave Strathspey. But, after being anchored offshore for the last six nights, we now realize how much better this is. We have a wonderful breeze each night which makes for good sleeping and the unlimited water is actually a water pipe dream because the pressure is so poor that it takes a half hour to fill a 20-litre jerry jug and occasionally there is just no water at all. So, rather than paying marina prices, we are anchored out and just as happy.

The only annoying thing about being out in the harbour is that every night we must haul our dinghy and motor up out of the water. When we checked in here, Blair signed an agreement that promised we would do this and we definitely comply. We comply because every night at 8 pm, 11 pm and 4 am, the marina security guards get into their own dinghy and make rounds through the harbour to ensure that everyone’s dinghy and motor is still accounted for; they really are worried about someone swimming up to an anchored boat and absconding with the motor in particular. Marina staff tells us that the stolen motors get shipped across the country to Havana and used to get to US shores.

José Martí square

We settle into a nice, relaxed routine here in Cienfuegos. We wake around 7 am and with the usual early-morning calm waters in the harbour, I do my yoga practice on the foredeck. We have breakfast and then Blair makes us espresso. I tune in to Chris Parker’s SSB weather forecast; because of our position we’re no longer listening to the Bahamas forecast at 6:30 am but now tune in to the Western Caribbean forecast at 8:30 am. Blair noodles on his guitar or plays his bagpipe chanter, learning new songs or improving existing ones. I read a little (I am hooked on the Outlander book series right now) and think about what we’re going to do today. We work on Strathspey a little, trying to keep up with the cleaning and maintenance so it doesn’t become overwhelming at some point. And then, after a light lunch, we dinghy to shore and start walking. It’s a pleasant half-hour walk down the broad Paseo del Prado from the marina into the center of Cienfuegos. There’s always some new side street to explore, a farm market stall to pick up some small bit of fruit or vegetable or sometimes even a glimpse through an open front door into someone’s house (we’re always amazed at how lovely the interior of these houses are compared to their exterior threadbare looks).

huevos

In our wanderings, we usually turn onto Avenida 54 (the pedestrian mall) and halfway down the street we stop at the cigar store where Blair happily browses through the cigar boxes in the walk-in humidor room. The mall is jam-packed with people every day of the week at any hour – we’re not sure what these people do but we think many of them are just checking out what’s for sale. One day on the mall, we see a huge crowd in front of a store and, upon investigation, we see that everyone is lined up to buy eggs. Eggs aren’t sold on a regular basis in Cuba so when they make an appearance, word goes out and the crowds gather.It’s like that for every item here in Cuba it seems; one day there are eggs, the next day there are no eggs but there is honey, the next day, no honey but stacks and stacks of cooking oil. This Sunday, everyone was out at the various cafes with their family and friends, drinking beer and rum and socializing. Monday, there was no beer for sale anywhere in Cienfuegos – even the marina bar had no beer on Monday. So the rule aboard Strathspey is that if we see some item that we use on a regular basis, even if we don’t need it immediately, we buy it; who knows when we will see it next!?

agromercado

Cienfuegos is a good place to re-provision before heading further West to the Isla de la Juventud cruising grounds. So, one of our favourite stops in downtown Cienfuegos is the Agromercado Calzada, the farmer’s market. At Calle 58, we make a left turn off the main boulevard and now the street is far narrower, more crowded and we’re picking our way carefully between the potholed sidewalks and the many street dogs trotting along purposefully. Four blocks along there is a large concrete building with all manner of food vendors set up. We wander through the market overwhelmed by rows of fruit, vegetables and pig parts for sale. I have a wad of Pesos, the paper money that is worth about 1/20th of the regular Cuban CUC. We’ve been told that all the posted prices at the agromercado are in Pesos and to be sure not to pay for anything in CUCs. In fact, to illustrate how cheap Pesos are and how we will pay very little for our market purchases, the marina manager takes a Peso out of his pocket and tears it in half and then half again – ‘Worthless’, he says. So be careful to use the right currency. We know that meat is expensive here and we’ll likely have to make those purchases with CUCs but we’ve been forewarned…everything else in Pesos.

I’m looking for bananas but Blair decides that he wants pork tenderloin tonight and he doesn’t get much past the first market table at the entrance. When I retrace my steps, I see him standing in front of a long table with mostly undistinguishable cuts of meat and I can see that he is negotiation mode. He’s gesturing to his own body with a sweeping motion down the right side of his chest; this is where a tenderloin lives right? The vendor’s eyes light up and he hauls up the biggest side of pork ribs I’ve ever seen. I shake my head ‘No’ and cup my hands together to indicate an oval and run both hands down my side. The vendor gets even more excited and lays out a pork tenderloin. ‘Si, si’, we say and then he lays out five more but that’s way too much for us considering the size of our refrigerator and our appetites. He’s confused as we say ‘Uno, no mas!’ (only one). I think that when Cubans buy meat, they buy in quantity perhaps? He looks crestfallen as he removes one pork tenderloin and offers us five and we say ‘Uno’ and then he removes tenderloins one at a time until there is just one lying there. He shakes his head and takes our money, still confused. We make our way from table to table in the agromercado, buying cucumbers, bananas, and carrots. We pay for all these items using the Pesos rather than CUCs and we think we have the hang of it; the price of all the vegetables and fruits are displayed in Pesos per pound and we start to leave the market with two full bags of food. But, Blair catches sight of some nice-looking pineapples and, at 15 Pesos for two (that’s less than $1), he lays 15 Pesos on the counter. The woman immediately gives him back 10 Pesos and hands over her entire stock of pineapples. We’re confused but happy to take them and we head across the street to the bakery. I pick out two big loaves of fresh bread and Blair hands over a Peso and here’s where we figure out what’s gone awry. The vendor asks if he can give us change in ‘Nationales’ and digs out the biggest wad of Pesos we’ve ever seen. I realize that Blair has laid down a CUC rather than a Peso and we quickly substitute for the correct money. Now we realize why we were the recipients of seven pineapples back in the market! Guess what our morning fruit is for the next week….or three. Our bags are heavy so when the first bicycle taxi drives by and hustles us for a ride, we’re happy to accept and we relax as our driver works hard to bring us 3 km back to the marina. Everything we buy at the market is thoroughly washed in a Clorox solution to ensure continuing good health aboard Strathspey.

kids on bikes

As well as provisioning for food, we refill our diesel tank and the extra jerry jugs we carry on deck. We’re not making water here in the harbour because it’s none too clean and we still have lots of water in our tanks. If we need any water, we’ll use our water jerry jug to supplement our supply from the marina taps. We plan to do some inland travel using Cienfuegos as our base camp but we don’t want to leave until we get our propane tank back. We have two 11-pound propane tanks aboard Strathspey which will last six weeks each with normal cooking – leaving the Bahamas, we had three months worth which will bring us to the second week of March. But it’s always a worry that we might run out of propane before we finish our trip around Cuba. So, here in Cienfuegos we think we might get propane. Propane is not sold anywhere as a matter of course. Each household has a monthly quota but there’s really not any allotted for cruisers but…..there is a black market for most things….including propane. Every day at the marina we stick our head into the marina office and say ‘Gas liquido?’ and most days, they say ‘No, pero manana’ (‘No, but maybe tomorrow’). Well today, someone in the ‘know’ says Gas liquido at 7 o’clock tonight, be here. Blair detaches our propane tank from its lines around dusk and we dingy in to the marina with high hopes. When we walk up to the office, someone (we’ve taken to calling him our propane ghost) appears out of the shadows and takes our propane tank, examines its fittings closely. ‘American fitting’ he says and ‘OK, good’ (apparently it’s difficult to handle the European gas fittings here). He then says ‘Pasado manana’ which is tomorrow afternoon but then our propane ghost says something that sounds distinctly like manana, manana, manana which we think is gringo-talk for perhaps three days from now. Also, he wants $20 for the fillup, which, for the average Cuban, is a monthly wage. We’re not about to argue over the price but we wonder if there is a Cuban household doing without propane this month so Strathspey can grill their fish.

roasting pig

There is no wifi here in Cienfuegos but we can use the Internet at the nearby Hotel Jagua’s for a price. This entails using the computers in their lobby and I’ve posted one blog using this method. Despite being excruciatingly slow, it allows me to post photos so all the older posts from Puerta Vita to Cienfuegos now have accompanying photos – check the one of Blair with his Mahi-Mahi! Other than posting a blog now and then, we really are not accessing the Internet at all because we have our new Iridium satellite phone. We love this phone. It’s an expensive item this year, including the monthly bill, but I don’t think you can easily cruise Cuba and stay in touch with friends and family without one. We do have SSB email but it’s more cumbersome, requires good propagation and takes forever to download emails. SSB is a good backup system but, now that we have a satellite phone, I’m not looking back!

Using the satellite phone is easy and involves getting out both the phone unit plus our Ipad. I usually put the phone unit on top of our bimini so it has an unobstructed view to the sky because we find that if we just leave it on the bench in the cockpit, sometimes the reception isn’t great. I open up the iPad and in ‘Settings’ I turn on the wifi option and select ‘Iridium’. Once that connects successfully, we have two applications we can open – either the Iridium email or the text option. The texting is quick but often people respond directly to the text on their phone and that results in a big surprise on their next phone bill because they are actually texting an International phone number. We keep telling people to go to the Iridium website to text us but sometimes it’s easy to forget. To talk, we just use the speakers on the Ipad.

sailors

We have a scare one night while anchored in Cienfuegos. I put the satellite phone on top of the bimini and settle down to set up the Ipad to receive emails and I hear a weird slide and pop-sort of sound. Blair and I look at each other and both of us curse at the same time; our satellite phone has fallen off the bimini and into the dark waters of the harbour. But, now there is this choking, barking sort of noise beside the bimini and it sounds like there is some animal aboard Strathspey. I scramble for a flashlight as the barking gets louder. It’s an 8-inch long squid! The barking noise is this squid gasping for air. Blair flips him back into the water and we both heave a sigh of relief to see that our satellite phone is still sitting securely on top of our bimini.

It’s been lovely and hot (+30C) during the days here and 18 Celsius at night. We have a great view of the harbour and every afternoon a local sailing school provides great entertainment as the young children sail back and forth in sailboats, wind surfers and Hobie Cats. We’re getting our ‘landlegs’ back with all our walking and looking forward to some inland travel in the next week. All is still good aboard Strathspey.

street art in Cienfuegos

Through the Jardins de la Reina

We sail Northwest slowly through the Jardins de la Reina archipeligo, enjoying the slow-mo pace after our almost non-stop 275-mile passage here from Puerto Vita. The Jardins archipeligo consists of two big gulfs (Golfo de Guyacanayabo and Golfo de Ana Maria) containing hundreds of small, uninhabited islands strung out in a Southeast to Northwest direction. All this, in between more reefs than we’ve seen in all our sailing to date.Because of the lack of navigable passes between the reefs and the rougher oceanside, we elect to travel the sheltered route for the time being; we’ve had our fill of rough ocean passages!

We arrive at CayoCuervo and we’re thinking that it’s pretty crowded by Cuba standards. There are four sailboats and a sportfish anchored here as well as seven shrimp boats. We’re obviously intruding on the shrimp boats – they up-anchor every evening around 5 pm and head out to work, leaving the mothership here. Their mothership is a big processing ship that comes 100-odd miles here from Cienfuegos to pick up the shrimp that the little boats have caught. The mothership is anchored in the middle of the protected bay of Cayo Cuervo and periodically, throughout the early to mid-morning, the shrimp boats come steaming back in to offload their shrimp catch. The sportfish that’s anchored here was the boat that provided us with water back in Cayo Granada when we thought our water maker was toasted. With all the tomatoes we got at our last anchorage, now we have a chance to say thanks and we dinghy over to offer some of those tomatoes up. Our friends are so happy to have fresh salad; you really can’t pay back borrowed water but it seems fresh tomatoes are a pretty good substitute here in these remote islands.

We’re definitely in the market for fresh shrimp so we dinghy over to one of the shrimp boats and, in rudimentary Spanish, let them know we’re happy to buy some shrimp from them. They don’t want money from us. But, what they do want is rum. ‘Ron’?’ they gesture with a tipping motion to their mouths. We say ‘Si’ and they hand over way too much shrimp… easily five pounds, and we say ‘Un momento’ and zip back to Strathspey. We’re not big liquor drinkers but we have a few small bottles of rum to trade. Actually, they’re embarrassingly small … about the size of the rum bottles they serve aboard airplanes. I put three of them in a ziplock bag and because those bottles are so small I add some soap and a nice razor (both gold here in Cuba). Back at the shrimp boat, when we hand it over, they’re quite pleased. Actually, when I stretch up to hand off my ziplock bag to one of the crew, he says ‘No’ and motions to me to slide it in through one of their side hatches that he has flipped open, just about on our dinghy eye-level. As I reach up to pass it through, I gasp and start back because there is a huge sea turtle lying on its back in the opening. The crew laughs and, in pantomime, gestures that they will be making soup from him and we should come back tomorrow for a sample. Hmmmm….we’re happy with way too much shrimp and wave goodbye with many calls of ‘Gracias’.

seahorse

CayoCuervo is a good stop for us. We snorkel out on the surrounding reefs, visit the shrimp boats and, because it is so protected, we have two very restful nights and sleep the sleep of tired sailors. But, it’s not very good for swimming. There are big (4-inch diameter) red and rough jelly fish that drift by Strathspey constantly. As well, when the shrimp boats clean their nets, they let loose all manner of sea horses, coral and starfish that have been scooped up along with the shrimp.

Reluctantly, because a nice calm anchorage is hard to find in the Jardins de la Reina, we up-anchor and sail further West to Punta Breton. When we arrive, the wind has died down completely and the water is flat calm. This is so unusual for this South coast and, instead of trying to feel our way into a shallow lagoon for a protected anchorage that will be full of biting insects in the calm winds, we anchor a quarter-mile from shore. It’s a lovely, calm night with a gentle swell in the lee of a line of reefs that break the waves from the ocean. We anchor about a half-mile South of a fishing station. These stations are actually steel poles driven into the ocean bed with a bit of a platform associated with them – sort of like a heavy duty dock out in the middle of nowhere. The fish and lobster boats tie up to them each night, the men gather for a bit of dinner, settle down for a good night’s sleep and then cast off the next morning at dawn.

We anchor in 10 feet of water off Punta Breton and the anchor grabs tightly – it’s good hard mud and we are happy; this means a secure sleep tonight. It’s been so hot all day that we immediately cool off with a long swim off Strathspey’s stern. We can’t settle in for the evening because off in the distance, we see a rowboat leave the fishing station and head toward us slowly. A good 45 minutes later, two men row up to Strathspey and offer us a hog snapper and a big bucket of lobster. We’re not really in the market for any more seafood as we have almost too much shrimp and lobster aboard but Blair has his eye on that hog snapper. We pay $7 for the 10-pound snapper but say no thanks to the lobster. Ever cognizant of how hard these guys work for their money, I go below and dig out a nice bar of soap and now they want to give us a big lobster as thanks. Everyone is happy with this particular transaction but mostly I’m wondering where all this seafood is going in my tiny fridge.

For the past few weeks as we anchor, our full moon is starting to wane but Venus shines brightly in the West after the sun sets. Shortly after, Mars appears, less brightly and just slightly to the right and below of Venus. Every night when we see Venus and Mars one of us hums the Paul McCartney song….’Venus and Mars are alright tonight’.

By dawn the next morning, as each fishing and lobster boat leaves the fishing station to the South of us, without fail they swing by Strathspey. It’s not even a gentle kind of swing by; these guys bear down on us until we call uncle and one of us comes up into the cockpit to acknowledge them. Without fail, the fishermen hold up huge lobsters and call out lobster??? You buy?? But right now we have way too much fish aboard… five pounds of shrimp, 1 ½ pounds of lobster and six hog snapper fillets. Blair leafs through our Spanish for Cruisers book to find the phrase that says, ‘ No more fish thank-you, we have enough’. This is obviously a first world problem!

Interestingly, the fishing boats have no brand names but are labeled for their construction type. The big fishing boats all have Ferrocemento hand painted on their sterns. The smaller rowboat-type fishing boats all say Plastico on their sterns. When we check in with our despacho, often the Guarda Fronteras ask us to confirm that Strathspey is a plastico boat, Si? We’re not so sure we enjoy the association with those little rowboats though.

Leaving Punta Breton we head toward Machos de Fuerta, one of the last cayos in the Jardins. As we start our approach in from the deep waters toward the cayo there is a disparity between what our charts show and what our eyes see. I point out an area of breaking seas to Blair, which normally would indicate a reef but our chart plotter shows no reef. We know we must skirt a small mangrove island before we make our final turn so we’re expecting to see an island at some point. The chart plotter indicates that we have 10 minutes before we make the turn around the island but I think it’s going to put us on a collision course with those breaking seas and I don’t see that island. We keep watching, ready to head further South into deeper waters, trusting our chart plotter but also trusting what we are seeing with the breaking seas. 10 minutes later, it becomes clear that the seas are breaking over our mangrove island, which is not actually an island but clearly a bit of land just awash at low tide. We make the turn past the breaking seas and nose our way in behind Machos de Fuerta and drop anchor in eight feet of water. It’s another calm and quiet night and I make panko-crusted hog snapper for dinner.

bienvenidos a Cienfuegos

The next morning we up-anchor at 7 am. This is early for us these days but we have a long day ahead; our next anchorage is at Cienfuegos, 52 nautical miles Northwest. There’s no wind and, despite our vow to only sail so as to conserve fuel, I’ve got my heart set on Cienfuegos tonight so we motor-sail all day. No worries I figure, we can buy diesel in Cienfuegos.

dinghy lift

We arrive at the entrance to the Cienfuegos harbour at 3:30 pm but it takes us almost an hour to motor in to the marina. It’s a zig-zag route down a narrow but deep channel. The Castillo with it’s gun turrets aimed down the channel remind us that this was a well-protected Spanish harbour back in the 1700’s. We call out our arrival to Marina Cienfuegos and at 4:30 we are anchored in Cienfuegos harbour. We dinghy to shore and check in with the Guarda Fronteras and Blair signs a form that promises that we will lock our dinghy and engine and have both out of the water every night; it seems that this harbour is a good place to get those items stolen. We’re glad to be here and very excited to start exploring this 300-year-old Spanish city.

Feliz Año Nuevo!

Our second day at the marina we ask the manager, Janet, to call a taxi to take us to the nearby resort, Costa Verde, where we can exchange our Euros and Canadian dollars for Cuban CUCs. As North Americans, we’re so used to ATMs and credit cards that the idea of using actual cash for every purchase is a bit of a novelty. Our big expenses will likely be marinas, communications and taxis or car rentals I think. However, the good news is that marina stays are relatively inexpensive in Cuba and, here in Marina Vita, we pay $26.25 per day, which includes unlimited water and electricity.

Each night, the motor boats are strung out - away from the docks in case anyone decides they might want to head North

Each night, the motor boats are strung out – away from the docks in case anyone decides they might want to head North across the Florida Straits to America

The taxi that arrives to take us to Costa Verde is an old lime-green Lada with a non-functional speedometer, back windows that are down a half inch and immobile, and no sign of seat belts. This is pretty standard fare for Cuba and we count ourselves lucky that our driver doesn’t smoke. It’s an eight-mile ride to the resort and our driver wants to wait for us while we exchange our money and access the resort Internet to get our emails and post another blog. It takes us forever to get two little scratch cards that provide a userid and password for us to logon but the Internet is relatively fast, although not enough bandwidth for a Facetime call with Brooklyn.

Blair purchases two Internet cards for one hour of service for $12 and we eat up that time easily. When we emerge from the resort our taxi driver is patiently waiting for us and we head back to the marina. This ride home to Strathspey is stinky. I’m in the backseat and all I can smell is exhaust. Blair has his window wide open but I have merely one inch of open window in the back seat. I’m like a dog with my nose up to the window, trying to breath the fresh air and I make a mental note to ask Janet not to call this particular taxi again.

Back at Strathspey, Blair loosens our dock lines once again and plies a good section of the electrical cord down into the water as well as setting two of the superglue-type traps – one on the dock and one on our side deck (this is in addition to the one that is setup in our starboard locker). I am down below deck, reading in front of a cooling fan and hiding from the no-see-ums (midges) that appear every evening at dusk. Blair is reading in the cockpit when he calls to me excitedly, ‘We have a rat in the water!’ Clinging to our electrical cord with both back legs stuck to one of our superglue traps is a good-sized rata. After the first glimpse, I can’t watch that thing drown and I retreat down below. I call up to Blair, ‘Is that the rat from last night’. Blair says, ‘I don’t know who he is!’ Doh! …this is the kind of conversation that arises when you see evidence of a rat aboard I think….. Blair reports back that now only the rat’s tail is stuck to the trap and the rat is swimming to shore. I ask, ‘Do you think he will tell his friends and no other rats will come!?’ Blair doesn’t even reply to that question. Shesh! This is so far from our boat experiences to date that I’m not quite sure what the next step is. It’s obviously war and hopefully we have the superior weapons. The next morning, we find additional signs that Ratty (apologies to Wind in the Willows fans…) has visited us yet again and spoiled our last package of black licorice and a huge bag of chocolate chippits. Ratty 2: Strathspey: 0.

A homemade rat trap just for Strathspey

A homemade rat trap just for Strathspey

Our buddy, Donillo, who handles all the little rental motor boats for the neighbouring Costa Verde resort, can see we are upset about our nighttime visitor and later arrives with a trampa para rata (rat trap) and Blair sets it up in our stern locker where there is evidence that Ratty has had a bit of a party down there. Janet, the marina manager, tells us to definitely not use cheese; ‘rats here in Cuba don’t eat cheese’….she says use fried chicken. I sauté a small piece of chicken in olive oil, reasoning that if the Cuban rats are so particular that they prefer chicken to cheese, then perhaps they’d be able to tell the different between vegetable oil and good olive oil. I’m on a mission here, can you tell?!! We’re thinking that Ratty got aboard on the first two nights via our electrical cord despite its loop through water – we couldn’t attach a rat guard to the cord because of the large plugs at each end. Three more nights go by where we unplug our electrical cord and leave it onshore and we slacken our dock lines so Strathspey floats a good 15 feet away from the dock. No sign of Ratty for these three nights and we breath easier now.

This motor raises and lowers our transom door and definitely doesn't like salt water

This motor raises and lowers our transom door and definitely doesn’t like salt water

Blair spends the afternoon taking apart the motor for our transom door; it’s been gradually grinding to a halt this past month and he thinks the motor is seized. I get Chris Parker’s weather forecast for the week and compare it to two other forecasts that I’ve downloaded (grib files from our SSB radio and weather from our satellite phone). Chris isn’t as familiar with Cuban weather and anchorages because, as an American, he hasn’t sailed in this area. I will feel more confident with our weather routing if I have more than one source. Our dining table is well-covered with charts, guidebooks and weather notes as we plan our itinerary South around the Southeast tip of Cuba, Punta Maisi, and our travels through the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti. A standard pattern of activity emerges during our stay here in Puerto Vita; Blair attends to boat maintenance, we plan our itinerary by researching distances to anchorages and entrances between reefs, and we explore the area around Puerto Vita. All this, while watching the weather, waiting for a good window to continue South.

All these fresh vegetables for less than a dollar.

All these fresh vegetables for less than a dollar.

We take a trip in to Guardalavaca and buy some vegetables from a roadside table and wander through the tourist market. A typical tourist market, there’s junk and there’s some nice things. I buy a pair of leather sandals and Blair picks up a white muslin shirt; with his well-developed tan he looks very Cubano in it. In Guardalavaca, we sit in a café and drink ice-cold Crystals and chat with the locals. In this resort town, so many of the locals are well-educated yet working at what, in Canada, we’d call McJobs. Luis graduated university in Industrial Engineering and will make $20/month in that field. He tells us that if he buys a new toothbrush for $1 and a chicken for $5, that leaves him $14 to live on for the rest of the month. So, with his excellent English, Luis chooses to work for a different vendor each day in the tourist market; he talks to the tourists and sells them shoes, shirts and other trinkets and makes far more than he would in his chosen profession. Robin sells us paper cones of roasted peanuts in his spare time after work – in the daytime he works at the hospital as a midwife ‘catching’ babies he says. It seems that some of the more prosperous Cubans are associated with the tourist industry (taxi drivers, bartenders, anyone who can receive a tip or ‘gift’). It’s all relative though because even for these ‘elites’, very few of them could ever dream to live in the kind of affluence we all enjoy in Canada.

Cuba has two types of money; Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) used in any interaction with tourists and regular Pesos used by everyone else. Whenever we purchase anything, there’s always a slight confusion on our part as to whether we pay with CUCs or Pesos – the bills look so similar that we are careful that we don’t hand over 10 CUCs ($10) for a dozen tomatoes instead of 10 Pesos (40 cents).

Blair varnishing our companionway doors and screens

Blair varnishing our companionway doors and screens

Christmas morning, for breakfast, we have blueberry pancakes and the last of our bacon with tiny cups of espresso. The day promises to be hot and sunny so Blair takes advantage of the cool early morning and applies a few coats of varnish to our companionway boards while I bake cookies. As a little Christmas treat, Brooklyn tucked a big mason jar of chocolate chip cookie ingredients in our duffle bag the night before we left Ottawa. That morning, when he arrives for work at 7 am, Donillo presents us with a bag of oranges and limes so some of these cookies will definitely make their way into his home as a Christmas present for he and his family. We’re interested to see that Christmas Day is just another day in Cuba; no one exchanges gifts and everyone just goes to work as normal. Their big holiday is December 31 where the entire family gets together and the patriarch roasts a whole pig. Even at that though, it’s not a day off work – all this happens after work, after a long bus ride home.

Cuban style refurbish of old 1952 Ford

Cuban style refurbish of old 1952 Ford

Boxing Day, we take a trip into Rafael Freyre to visit our friend Julio for lunch and to buy some more fruit and vegetables for our next sail down the coast. Julio has been trying to immigrate to Canada for many years now and announces to us to today that he has put that dream away and intends to concentrate on thriving in Cuba instead. He’s pretty enterprising and has purchased a 1953 Ford to start a taxi business but the only thing that is 1953 Ford about this car is the body and the interior. He has rebuilt the entire car from dashboard to trunk and is in the process of installing a 2014 Ford diesel engine that he got in Havana. He’s converted the front-wheel drive to rear-wheel drive and installed a new transmission at the same time with the gearshift mounted on the steering column. Julio takes us into his tiny bedroom and shows us all the new and used parts that he has yet to install. He drags each part out from under his bed, a fuel filter, timing belt, fans – you name it, it’s under his bed in various states of completion. He’s most proud of his brand new Pioneer stereo, still in the box and stored at the very back of his tall armoire; ‘See’, he says, ‘DVD, USB and iPod’.

Two modes of transport

Two modes of transport

The car is in pieces and the intent is to start painting the body today. We visit with his mother and father while Julio wheels out his bicycle and heads out to borrow an air compressor. Minutes later he’s back, followed by a friend driving a horse and cart with a good-sized compressor in the back. We watch as his hired painter uses a tiny spray gun to painstakingly paint the Ford’s roof a gleaming white. Julio holds the painter’s coat out of the way so it doesn’t brush against the wet paint and a big crowd of people gather in the dirt road outside his garage shelter to offer suggestions, say hello to each other and share a glass of rum. No one walks by without shaking hands with Julio and, of course, being introduced to us and shaking our hand. Horse-drawn carts clatter by raising dust, a young boy saunters over with his homing pigeon tucked under his arm, a man carrying a big white, lidded bucket moves down the road periodically calling out in Spanish that he has pies for sale.

Carrier pigeon

Carrier pigeon

It feels surreal to see the contrast between horses and air compressors, American-slogans on T-shirts and homing pigeons, our high-end Nikon camera and the dusty, hot road that serves as a city street. This is what we’ve come to Cuba to see. Yes, we’ve come for the fishing, beautiful beaches and remote anchorages but we’ve also come to be part of a way of life that, with the latest US announcement, may change dramatically.

Life is still good aboard Strathspey. Ratty has gone on to plague other boats, we have a grocery hammock full of fresh fruit and vegetables, we had a nice, albeit short, Christmas chat with both Sandy and Brooklyn via satellite phone and there’s no snow here! Here’s to 2015 – Feliz Año Neuvo!

1952 Dodge

1952 Dodge