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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!!
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!