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.
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.
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.
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.
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!