In the land of plenty

We loved Vinales. It was definitely slo-mo there. The evenings were cool and the days were sunny with gentle breezes. The people spoke slower than in Havana where we’d pretty much given up trying to converse in Spanish, other than to say ‘No, gracias’. The tourista hustle, so prevalent in Havana, was non-existent. We wandered the back streets in Vinales at ease, no one trying to sell us something, no one asking us for money or soap. Vinales felt prosperous, although prosperous is probably not the right word for any isolated village in Cuba. But it felt like everyone had what they needed. Our taxi guide told us that tourism and the tobacco industry has been ‘very kind’ to the people of Vinales so perhaps that’s why it was easy for us.

Our spot along the concrete wall in Canal #2, Marina Hemingway

Our spot along the concrete wall in Canal #2, Marina Hemingway

Back at Marina Hemingway, it’s hot, hot, hot. We have friends with a portable outdoor thermometer (Road to the Isles, a boat from Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia). Don delights in telling us that it is 95 degrees Fahrenheit …..in the shade!!! We shower twice a day in this heat and have all Strathspey’s sunshades deployed and all her fans going full blast. Brooklyn, up in Ottawa, tells us that there has been yet another snow storm so we don’t complain. But we are keen to grab the next weather window to cross back to the USA.

Once again, I’ve turned into that woman who calls weather guy, Chris Parker, constantly for a good weather window; my apologies to all the other subscribers who groan when I get acknowledged first in Chris’ weather broadcast order. Havana to Miami is probably a 30-hour trip for us, less if we get a good boost from the north-flowing Gulf Stream. A bonus for us is that Gerhardt and Rita on Amphora are here with us in Marina Hemingway so we take turns calling Chris Parker. Amphora is a Swiss-flagged Sun Odyssey who is also heading to Miami.

Friday the 13th is Blair’s birthday so once again he gets to celebrate one of his birthdays in Cuba (the last one was two years ago in Veradero). March 13 is also the evening that the Canadian embassy here in Havana celebrates Terry Fox Day. Friday night there’s a BBQ at the embassy to raise money so we taxi over with a big group of sailors from Marina Hemingway. The embassy is actually serving big Canadian-style hamburgers with French fries plus hotdogs. Blair tells me, ‘It’s my birthday and I’m playing my pipes at the Canadian embassy in Cuba tonight!’. Okay….so the bagpipes come along with us and, when we arrive, everyone has to line up and sign in. But…when they ask Blair what’s in the bag, he tells them they are bagpipes. The guards say, ‘Oh, you’re a musician, come on in and they escort him around the lineup, no worries about signing in.

The embassy is a pretty nice venue with tables set up around a big swimming pool and two or three BBQ’s going as well as a bar. Blair gets introduced to the guests and, just before dusk, he plays a three-part medley (a March, a Strathspey and a slow Air). The audience is divided; the North American/European contingent is ecstatic and cheering, the Cuban contingent is confused…what the heck is that instrument? Blair is pumped – he’s played his bagpipes for the Canadian embassy in Cuba….On his birthday no less.

Saturday night is Pi night. Brooklyn tells us that this is a big deal in North America and everyone is baking pies. Here at Marina Hemingway, there is a boat called Pi that has arrived from Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Aboard is Jan, a wonderful singer/guitarist, and she’s decided she is going to have a Pi party aboard the boat. She walks up and down the dock inviting everyone to swing by around 8 pm but at 7 pm, the skies open. It is torrential rain and we think the party must be cancelled as Pi has no cockpit to speak of and the party was intended to be on the dock beside the boat. There is a Russian, Denis, two boats east of us on a 60-foot Trumpy motor yacht with a covered back deck big enough for a dining table of sorts and a few sofas and many deck chairs so the party is moved down there. It was a great night of music with Blair and Jan playing.

Monday morning we get good news; there’s a good weather window opening up later this week. I download the grib wind files from passageweather.com and it looks like Wednesday or Thursday may be our lucky day. The stars align on Thursday and this is a good thing as we have been in Cuba almost three months; if we stay until Friday, we must renew our visa, which will entail a lengthy visit to a visa office in Havana plus $50. We leave the Customs dock at 8:30 am, motor out through the reef cut between the red and green buoys and turn Strathspey’s bow northeast toward Florida. Our first leg of the trip will be a long one, 128 miles, and will position us off Key Largo where we then start simply following the Florida Keys coastline for another 100 miles up to Miami.

We are 30 miles into the trip and about 55 miles due south of Key West (basically in the proverbial ‘middle of nowhere’) when a US Coast Guard plane appears overhead and circles us. We wave and continue on without any attempt on their part to contact us. The Coast Guard maintains a close watch on the Florida Straits waters between Key West and Havana. They deploy planes as well as high speed boats to not only prevent Cubans illegally entering the USA but to also nab any Americans trying to sneak a quick trip into Cuba and back.

Strathspey's new figurehead

Strathspey’s new figurehead

The sea is calm and the winds are relatively light all day. Around dusk a young seabird circles Strathspey and tries to land. We’re almost 22 miles from any land and this bird is obviously tired. He’s also pretty persistent. He lands on our mast spreader but immediately slips off; he’s got flat duck feet and can’t maintain his balance. He tries to land on Strathspey’s deck but we know that if he stays with us, the deck will be slimed with bird droppings so we shout at him, wave our arms, Blair even gets out our air horn and uses up an entire charge blasting the duck to no avail. This duck ignores us. He keeps circling wide from the bow to the stern, then lines himself up like he’s on a runway and swoops down on Strathspey’s stern. He lands on whatever he’s aimed at and then falls off and flies away again only to repeat the maneuver. This goes on for at least 45 minutes and when we finally give up yelling at him he lands on our pulpit rail and curls his flat little webbed feet around the rail. It can’t be comfortable – we’re sure he’s got cramps in his webs and he keeps losing his balance because of his poor grip and then pulling himself upright. He stays there all night and we think it must be like trying to sleep sitting up straight at the end of a workday riding the bus home. When he flies off the next morning, we see that there’s an awful mess on Strathspey’s bow.

As we head northeast, we reach the middle of the north-flowing Gulf Stream and now we have a nice boost of speed to help push us on. We’re excited and start recalculating our arrival time in Miami because we’re moving so fast. We also start thinking about what our first North American dinner will consist of – we’ve really missed the variety and quality of food that we usually take for granted while in Ottawa. Around midnight, the wind drops to 2 knots and the sea is glassy calm. As we approach Key Largo, we think we are now at the edge of the Gulf Stream because Strathspey is now making only 6.8 knots; normally a good speed but far less than when we were right in the middle of the Stream. Ten miles off Key Largo we make our turn to port to follow the Florida Keys northward and we know we are back in civilization because of all the flashing red lights spaced at regular intervals all the way up the Keys. These buoys mark the edge of the reef that lies off the Keys and it’s comforting to see them marking the way north.

Anchored in Sunset Lake

Anchored in Sunset Lake

Friday morning the sea is still flat, the wind is a light southeasterly, there isn’t a cloud in the sky and it is steamy hot. We motor north and by 4:00 pm we are entering the port of Miami. It’s Friday afternoon and it seems everyone with any kind of motorized boat has taken the afternoon off and they are all either out fishing or simply buzzing around Strathspey making waves. We drop anchor north of the Venetian Causeway in Sunset Lake, South Beach Miami, surrounded by multimillion dollar houses – 30 hours and 228 miles after leaving Havana. It’s so great to be back in the land of plenty. We immediately drop a big pile of money at the nearby Fresh Market buying every manner of fruit and vegetables available. We sleep a sound 10 hours, out cold, and the next morning after fresh strawberries for breakfast, we taxi to the Miami Port Authority and officially check into the US.

Our courtesy flag after three months of 20-knot winds

Our courtesy flag after three months of 20-knot winds

Friends ask what sailing the south coast of Cuba is like. In a word….Windy. We arrived in Puerta Vita on December 20, sailed 1500 miles around the coast to Havana and in the entire three months we might have had 10 days when the wind was under 20 knots. We sailed in 20 knots, 25 knots and once even in 31 knots. Another adjective that comes to mind is Remote. We sailed relatively long distances to get between secure anchorages and we often were the only boat out on the sea for days at a time. Yet, every time we anchored, no matter how remote the area, we’d get a visit from either an outpost Guarda Fronteras official or a fisherman wanting to trade or sell fish and lobster. Another thing I’d tell people about is the fishing – the excellent fishing and lobstering. We ate fresh-caught fish or lobster four or five times a week. We either caught it ourselves or traded for it with rum or soap, once or twice even paying a small amount of cash for it. The south coast of Cuba was an adventure we’re glad we took. It stretched our capacity for self-reliance and increased our confidence when sailing in big winds and high seas. Yet, like most adventures, it wasn’t terribly relaxing. We were on our toes all the time except when we took inland trips. So, now that we’re back in North America, we’re going to spend some time here in South Beach Miami and then cruise north to the Jacksonville area….but slowly. We’ll stop in West Palm Beach, Vero Beach and St Augustine for days at a time, dining out, walking the beaches and catching up with friends along the way. Blair says we are taking a holiday from our winter holiday on the south coast of Cuba but I say to everyone…..Go do it, you won’t regret it!

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

Feliz Navidad

We up-anchor from Thompson Bay in Long Island early Wednesday morning after getting our propane tanks filled. We have a long day today with a good part of it through very shallow water, the Comer Channel. At mean low water, areas of the Comer Channel are at 1.7 meters, which, with Strathspey’s five-foot draft, means that we’ll be paying close attention to our depth meter instrument for most of the morning.

After the Comer Channel, we have a fast sail down to Water Cay, a 43-mile sail from Long Island and the first good anchorage as we head through the isolated Jumentos/Ragged Island chain. We drop anchor in a tiny bay at the far North of the cay and, as the evening progresses, more and more small fishing boats anchor around us. The notation on our chart says this is a fishing boat anchorage but we disregard thoughts of anchoring anywhere else as there is a big ocean swell wrapping around the cay and this is the only location that gives a modicum of protection. It’s still rolly here but there are no waves or wind. We can see another sailboat anchored about an eighth of a mile south of us down the cay. Not only is the boat in big swells, it has no protection from the waves associated with the 20-knot winds that blow until well into the night. Its lone occupant is sitting on the starboard coach roof, possibly contemplating a sleepless night or perhaps even thinking of up-anchoring and moving into our little bay. Once darkness falls it’s completely black because the moon won’t rise until 4 am and, once it rises, it will only be a tiny sliver; the lovely full moon of our Gulf Stream crossing is a distant memory now. There are no lights ashore and the sky is blanketed with a gazillion stars. Our masthead light joins the stars as it sways back and forth through a 10-degree roll. The isolation of the Jumentos is palpable here.

The next day, we sail another 45 miles south to Raccoon Cay and drop anchor in its wide bay. We are the only boat here and, bonus, the water is flat calm, no swell, so we think we’ll sleep well tonight. As I make burgers and a salad for dinner, we discuss plans to launch our dinghy first thing tomorrow morning. We’re looking forward to testing Blair’s new fishing lures and snorkeling and paddleboarding.

Paddleboarding at Raccoon Cay, absolutely pristine!

Paddleboarding at Raccoon Cay, absolutely pristine!

The next morning I listen to SSB weather guy, Chris Parker, give his daily forecast for the Bahamas and Gulf Stream crossings and I decide to call him to get a long range forecast for when we could cross to Cuba. He had announced that he was taking a Christmas holiday for the first time in 11 years and would be off the air from December 24-29 and I wanted to get a good feel for the upcoming weather. As nice as the Ragged Islands are, our goal is to get to Cuba by New Year’s. Chris tells me that there is a long spell of high winds with cold front after cold front expected for the next three weeks but that there is a good window to cross to the North-east coast of Cuba tonight. Blair and I look at each other and shrug and agree that maybe next time we’ll spend more time in the Ragged Islands. Weather windows rule and we decide to leave for Cuba tonight.

The Ragged Islands at this time of year are deserted.

The Ragged Islands at this time of year are deserted.

Rather than launching our dinghy to go fishing at Raccoon Cay, we up-anchor and continue 10 miles South to Hog Cay; this is where we will depart the Bahamas for Cuba. There are two catamarans anchored at Hog Cay when we arrive but they depart shortly after, sailing North, heading back to Georgetown for Christmas we think. We spend the day exploring the deserted beach and exploring on our paddleboards. As the sun sets, Blair hauls our radar reflector back up to our first spreader (this helps other boats see us in the dark), he installs our safety jack lines along each side of Strathspey’s deck (we will clip into these jack lines anytime we have to leave the safety of our cockpit during our nighttime crossing) and we winch the dinghy up onto our foredeck and lash it down securely. I make Pad Thai for dinner but I haven’t much of an appetite; I rarely eat much before a long crossing as I’m fairly susceptible to seasickness.

We have a short nap after dinner and then, at 8:30 pm, we up-anchor and slowly turn Strathspey’s bow toward Cuba. We tiptoe across the shallow banks for the first 10 miles because it is pitch black and we are in uncharted waters. Blair is on the bow, sweeping the waters ahead of Strathspey with a powerful light looking for unmarked coral heads. I’m at the wheel with my eyes glued to our chart plotter as we move between way points; these waypoints were the ones we used the last time we travelled from Hog Cay to Puerto de Vita two years ago and we are pretty sure they are good ones as we avoided hitting coral heads that time. Yet, we’re still cautious because it’s so dark and we are out here by ourselves.

Out there is pure ocean between us and Cuba. Leaving shortly!

Out there is pure ocean between us and Cuba. Leaving shortly!

We’re expecting three-foot waves and 13-15 knots of wind from the East so we know it will be a bit rolly with the winds on our stern quarter but we think it will be doable. We leave the Bahama banks and our depths increase dramatically until our depth meter no longer reads accurately and simply flashes random numbers. Our mainsail is spread wide as the wind fills it and we are moving along at 5.5 knots, a good speed – a speed that ensures a daytime arrival off Puerto de Vita. With the clear sky and multitude of stars we can just barely make out the horizon which I think will help me stave off seasickness; if I can focus on the horizon, I seem to be okay. As we sail Southeast and leave the protection of Ragged Island and the long length of reef that extends south from the island, the waves pick up and we start feeling the effects of the ocean swell. Eventually, the current from the Great Bahama Channel makes itself know and now it is rough. Strathspey pitches and dives through the waves and rocks from side to side. We’re in a carnival ride now – part Roller Coaster and part Cup and Saucer and it isn’t fun. The wind rises to 20 knots and stays that way until we are within sight of the Cuban coast. Strathspey behaves wonderfully and we never feel unsafe but neither of us feels great. I wedge myself into a small spot between the stern rail and backstay and try to focus on the horizon. Blair alternates between standing behind the wheel and sitting in front of the dinghy motor mount. We wear our heavy-duty lifejackets that have big safety rings and we clip our tethers between these rings and the padeyes installed at the stern of Strathspey’s cockpit. It’s a 12-hour sail and it’s rough for all but one hour. Waves crash over our deck and soak the windshield of our dodger. At one point, our AIS unit stops working. This is the device that allows us to track large ships and determine their closest point of approach. It also transmits our location to the ships so we have a measure of visibility that makes us feel a bit safer. Blair spends about 20 minutes down below at our NAV station trying to troubleshoot the problem but gives up eventually; it’s just too rough to be down there.

At 12 nautical miles off the coast I call the Marina Puerto de Vita of our approach. We know they can’t hear us but it’s protocol to call when you leave International waters and enter Cuban waters. An hour later, we’re so happy to finally spot the lighthouse at the entrance to Bahia de Vita. Blair tells me the rolling will stop as soon as we pass that lighthouse and gain the shelter of the long channel into the bay. He’s right, of course, and once the waters are flat, we swing Strathspey’s bow into the wind and drop the sail.

The marina calls us, ‘Sailboat, Sailboat, approaching Marina Vita’. When I answer, a heavily accented voice asks ‘El Nombre de barco?’ (name of boat). I say ‘Strathspey’. They want to know our last port (Bahamas), and then they want to know the port before that (Miami), and the port before that (I say Ottawa). The next question surprises us – he asks if anyone is sick onboard. We say no. He says come to the marina. We hear a quick exchange of Spanish between the marina and someone else and I think I understand that they are sending someone out to meet us but I’m not sure. We wonder whether the queries regarding our last three ports and our health are related to the Ebola situation.

As Blair tidies up the sail, zips it into its stack pack and coils ropes, I motor between red and green buoys down the winding channel toward the marina. Without the wind the air temperature is much more apparent in this protected area and we are at 28 Celsius now. A small motorboat waits for us at a tricky area of the channel and guides us toward the marina. But instead of taking us into the marina docks, the two men indicate that we are to anchor in the small bay just outside the marina. This is a new procedure from last time; we must wait for the doctor to give us initial clearance into Cuba. We were expecting a different procedure regarding the medical clearance because our friends on Threepenny Opera, who arrived in Veradero last month, told us that there were some changes due to the Ebola scare.

We anchor and tidy up the results of our rough crossing and wait for the doctor. Before the doctor arrives, a guarda fronteras official motors out and retrieves our passports and our ship’s papers and says he’ll be back. When the doctor arrives she takes our temperature with an infrared thermometer – no opening our mouths, she just aimed it at our forehead – and smiles to see that I am 36.6 C and Blair is 36.5 C. She gives us our medical clearance papers, tells us to take down our yellow quarantine flag and we are instructed to proceed to the dock.

Strathspey, med-moored and the only cruising boat here at Marina Puerto de Vita, Cuba.

Strathspey, med-moored and the only cruising boat here at Marina Puerto de Vita, Cuba.

We back into the dock, Mediterranean-moored, and we see we are the only other cruisers here. As a procession of officials step onto Strathspey, they all ask if they should remove their shoes and we say ‘No, no problema’. Three men (Customs, Guarda Fronteras, Agriculture) are crammed around our dining table filling out forms in triplicate, asking the same questions, all writing down the same answers and it is HOT. I have all our fans going full blast as they mop their brows. We offer them beer and juice which are happily accepted. It’s all pretty routine. The agriculture official inspects the contents of our fridge and specifically wants to know whether we have any fruit, which we don’t. He wants to see all my rice, flour and pasta and wants to know where we purchased them; when I say Miami, he seems satisfied. All this is going on in a sort of Spanglish on my part and gestures on his part, but all in good humour so it is relatively easy. The Customs official wants to know all about our communication devices – how many computers, GPSs and telephones we have, is there SSB aboard, what about VHF? In some cases where the meaning isn’t clear, we search for the Spanish word and, at one point, Blair even starts drawing pictures which they greatly enjoy. Every answer gets written down in triplicate. Again, all in good humour and very polite.

With all the paperwork done, the Customs official tells us we can go anywhere in Cuba with any of our phones and charts BUT we must not take our handheld GPS or our satellite phone with us. Also, he tells us that if we want to offer any gifts to Cubans, we must call him on the telephone and get permission. This last bit of instruction is a little surprising but we both say ‘Si, Si, no problema’ and then we’re done.

We spend the rest of the day getting things back in order aboard Strathspey. Water here is abundant and included in the price of the marina so the first order of business is to hook up our water hose and rinse Strathspey clean. When we hose all the accumulated salt off we think we can almost hear her sigh in relief. Blair installs guarda para rata (rat guards) on our lines to shore and ensures that our electrical cord loops into the water. One of the marina workers made these rat guards for us two years ago and we didn’t have any nighttime visitors aboard Strathspey once they were installed. Periodically, marina staff stop by to say hello; they remember us from our visit two years ago and are so happy to see us. The marina manager, Janet, hugs me hello.

We run out of steam by 4 pm and I make a roasted vegetable pizza (the dough rises alarmingly fast in the hot afternoon) for an early dinner. We loosen our lines to shore so that our electrical cord is six inches underwater; we’re sure that any rat can’t climb over the rat guards on our lines and won’t want to get his feet wet crossing our electrical cord and we reason that six feet of open water is too far for a rat to jump. By 6 pm, after being awake since we left in the Bahamas, we are out cold, sleeping like it’s our job.

Guarda para rata.

Guarda para rata.

The next morning to my horror, there are two rat nubbins on the deck and I see a looney-sized hole chewed in the screen above the stove. I see that the electrical cord is now stretched into a good tightrope because Strathspey has moved away from the dock with the current and we figure that is how a rat might have gotten aboard. No matter the how or why’s of this, I’m now sitting on the top step of our companionway stairs, well out of reach of any critter, while Blair searches through the entire boat, looking for evidence that the rat actually crawled through the screen and is somewhere in Strathspey’s interior below deck. He empties out our stern locker and examines every food item stored back there. We check the food storage spaces under the NAV station seat and under the trash can. We’re relieved to see that there are no other droppings inside Strathspey and wonder where the rat has gotten to, hoping that it has made it’s way back to shore.

Blair’s first task of the day is to climb down into our cockpit starboard locker and troubleshoot the AIS unit. When he starts emptying the locker of all the dock lines and generator that we store down there, he spies another rat nubbin. Did the rat get down there and is not able to climb out? We ask marina staff to find us a trampa para rata (rat trap) and Blair digs out a stack of mouse traps in the meantime. These are traps that consist of a bed of superglue-type stuff that the animals can’t extract themselves from. They’re really effective with mice and we figure if we catch a rat, although it wouldn’t stop it in its tracks, the thing would be making a big racket running away with the trap stuck to it’s body and we (….well Blair that is) would be able to corner it and dispose of it somehow. We knew there would be rats here but we didn’t think we’d have a visit from them the first night! Yuck!!!

We're glad things hung together until we arrived in Cuba

We’re glad things hung together until we arrived in Cuba

All rat nubbins cleaned up, Blair wants to examine the wire from the AIS GPS to ensure that it is still intact; perhaps that is why our AIS stopped working. He doesn’t even get to that stage when he discovers that one of the retaining clips that holds the clevis pin in place for our auto-pilot’s drive is lying on the bottom of the locker. If that clevis pin had worked its way out while enroute to Cuba, we would have had to hand steer in those heavy seas and the trip would have been even more horrendous. We feel lucky (sort of….not sure yet) that we have the rat problem. Otherwise, Blair probably wouldn’t have emptied the entire starboard locker and wouldn’t have seen the retaining clip and then, later in our cruising season, we could have lost the auto pilot, perhaps in a situation when we could ill afford it.

Life is still good aboard Strathspey, despite our problems with heavy sea passages, AIS, ratas and clevis pins and we know that these are just inconveniences that we accept in order to spend time exploring Cuba for the winter. We’re pumped that we are here for Christmas and hope that everyone has a wonderful Christmas holiday. Feliz Navidad!

In the Tropics now

In Georgetown, I pump up my birthday present from Blair, a 12-foot Sea Eagle standup paddleboard. It comes neatly packed in a good-sized knapsack but, despite the size, it weighs only 22 pounds so it’s easy to carry up to the deck for assembly. I tried a few different boards out this past summer – I even did a paddleboard yoga class (not to be repeated as there’s very little ohm involved, just mostly struggling to keep your balance). Blair did the research and the Sea Eagle meets all our requirements; compact enough to fit in Strathspey’s aft cabin, light enough for me to lift and firm enough to provide a stable paddling platform. I paddle and explore the shoreline all morning, enjoying the gin-clear water here so early in the season. We’re early to Georgetown this year and it’s great because by mid-February, with the influx of 400-600 cruising boats, the waters become cloudy and definitely less inviting.

Blair plumbs in the last errant bit of the water maker. He runs the fresh water tube down through Strathspey’s interior over top our port water tank and through our forward locker, hiding the hose behind walls and under settees. He connects the tube to the bow tank fill pipe. It’s a long job but nice and tidy by completion. He also dives under Strathspey to replace the zinc anodes on our propeller. We’re a little concerned now as Strathspey has only been in the water for 35 days and those small circular anodes are almost completely gone. We think it may have been 11 days of stray current in the water while on a mooring ball in Vero Beach. No matter the cause, we’ll be keeping a close eye on the new anodes going forward.

After two nights in Georgetown, we up-anchor and sail 40 miles south to Long Island. At 3:30 pm, we drop anchor in Thompson Bay and dinghy into Long Island Breeze resort where we purchase showers. What a treat they are … unlimited fresh hot water showers, our first since Vero Beach. We shower aboard Strathspey, but those showers are always short, usually lukewarm and always with a niggling worry in the back of our mind as to how much water we’ve used and when and where we’ll be able to make more water. With only 60 gallons of water aboard and, of that, only a paltry 11 gallons in our hot water tank, we are definitely miserly when it comes to long, hot showers.

Sponge 'factory' in Thompson Bay, Long Island.

Sponge ‘factory’ in Thompson Bay, Long Island.

Unlike Georgetown, Long Island is pretty deserted except for locals right now. It’s not a tourist destination and not a big favourite with cruising boats until February usually. That’s just fine by us and we enjoy the solitude here. We walk across the island to the Atlantic side and walk the long deserted beaches over there. On our way back one afternoon we stop to chat with sponge fishermen and to admire their catch. Over a three-day trip, the fishermen have gathered wool and grass sponges from the ocean floor. The sponges are black when harvested and brought back to shore but once they dry out, the ‘meat’ falls away and all that is left is the soft skeleton used for expensive bath sponges. This was a pretty rudimentary business set up on a side street close to the government dock but the main customers were high-end distributors in Europe. We wondered what those European customers would think if they saw the men standing in deep wooden stalls, pumping their legs up and down, as if on treadmills, to tamp the sponges down into square bales so they could be shrink-wrapped for shipping.

Blair is keen to catch some fish now that we’ve slowed down a bit and, when we stop into the Hillside Grocery for some fresh vegetables, he waylays owner William who has given us much good fishing advice in our past visits. William recommends frozen squid for Blair to use as bait. When Blair mentions we are going out to Indian Hole Point to fish with that squid, William tells us that someone caught a barjack out there just yesterday. He actually shows us the fish and insists that we take it. We look up barjack in our ‘Sport Fish of Florida’ book and it tells us that the food value is ‘Excellent’ – Bonus!

Our free samples from the sponge fishermen.

Our free samples from the sponge fishermen.

Here in Long Island we’re on a quest for propane; we want to top up our two 10-pound propane tanks before crossing to Cuba where every household uses butane. We’d toyed with the idea of strapping an extra propane tank to Strathspey’s stern but just couldn’t determine how to do it using good engineering, never mind finesse. This too is the last location with good Internet as we head further south into the Ragged Islands so we make a Skype call to Sandy in Vancouver, text constantly with Brooklyn in Ottawa, catch up on all our emails and do a little banking. Once we leave Long Island we will only have access to our SSB emails and anything that comes in via our satellite phone. It will be an abrupt end to all the chatting back and forth with our children and friends and I know I am going to definitely miss it.

As we sail south to Long Island we pass the Tropic of Capricorn so we’re officially in the Tropics now and the weather has definitely warmed up since we left Florida. The first two days in Long Island are too windy to do any paddle boarding but we are anchored in eight feet of water and, with the anchor well dug into good holding sand, we aren’t too worried as Strathspey swings with the wind through a 40 foot arc.

One day while out for a hike, I lose our Coolpix underwater camera. We take it everywhere we go because it’s a sturdy little thing that tucks easily into a pocket and can withstand a drop in the sand or the water and, on top of everything, takes excellent photos. I retrace our steps back and forth between our various stops, kicking up the brush at the side of the road, asking at each store we’d stopped at, searching under the dinghy dock and under Strathspey in case it is lying on the seabed. Three hours later I give up, disappointed. We have another bigger digital SLR camera but it’s expensive and far more delicate so we’re more careful with it. What I hate most is that we’ve lost all the photos taken so far.

A Money Bat sleeping over my head!

A Money Bat sleeping over my head!

With the continued lovely weather we eat in the cockpit every night. But one night huge black moths with three-inch wing spans join us. They flutter in our face and constantly try to light on our plates and ignore our efforts to scare them away. The next morning I wake up with one of those moths two inches from my nose on the wall beside my pillow. Blair captures it with a glass and releases it outside where, probably disoriented from the bright sunlight, it flies in circles and then heads over to one of the far-off islands.

A few days later, one of the locals tells us that this moth is called a Money Bat and, if they land on you, it means you will come into some money shortly. Well, we didn’t come into actual cash but we did have our little camera returned to us that day. One of the young children living nearby found the camera on a path and his father looked through the photos and recognized us as we walked past his restaurant that morning. Just another reason we like Long Island.

But, as much as we like Long Island, now that we’ve found a source for propane to fill our tanks tomorrow morning we move further south down into the Ragged Islands.