After nine days in Puerto Vita a good weather window emerged to allow us to continue further afield to round the Southeast tip of Cuba and begin sailing in more sheltered waters on the South coast. The North coast of Cuba is far more exposed to the norther’s that bring those cool North winds down from Canada and, despite the numerous pocket bays that we could anchor in, they are subject to swells and would not provide a restful time there.
We notify the marina that we are leaving the next day at 7:30 am and the Guarda Fronteras official arrives at 7 am to stamp our despacho form – we will get asked for this form every time we anchor anywhere near a Guarda Fronteras outpost in Cuba. We motor down the winding channel to the ocean and swing Strathspey’s bow toward the Southeast tip of Cuba. With this weather window we think we can get all the way to Santiago de Cuba but we know the first 20 hours we’ll be close hauled and motor-sailing because of the wind direction.
Initially the wind is only 12 knots and we have our main sail tucked in tightly and the engine revving at 2500 rpm. We’re happy that the big waves that had built up over a week of high winds have now laid down quite nicely and we settle in for the ride. Blair puts out a fishing line and almost immediately hooks a good-sized Mahi Mahi but we’re out of practice with the fish-catching drill and, when we get the fish up to Strathspey’s stern, I’m not fast enough with the net and gaff and it gets away.
The wind rises all day (not according to our weather guy’s prediction) and, with nightfall, we’re racing along at 7.5 knots but it’s rough and periodically Strathspey hits a wave awkwardly and the aftermath is like we are falling off a cliff. We follow the coastline, dodging the occasional fishing net. It’s beautiful scenery with tall, rounded mountains rising just beyond the waterfront. These mountains cause a katabatic effect once the sun sets; the cool mountain air rushes down the slopes toward the ocean and now our East wind becomes Northwest. We can smell the mangrove swamps on the wind now.
By dawn, we’ve reached Punta Maisi, the Southeast tip of Cuba and once we round that corner, the wind turns Southeast once more and blows a steady 18 knots all day. With the wind on our stern, this is an easy sail. Blair puts out another fishing line and lands a 25-pound Mahi Mahi which he proceeds to filet. It’s carnage in the cockpit because of the heavy swell that lifts Strathspey’s stern to and fro – even the wire of our VHF radio has fish guts and blood stuck in its coil. But shortly after we have 10 good-sized filets in a ziplock ready for grilling. We use our cockpit shower hose to rinse the cockpit clean and continue on; we have another 12 hours of sailing before we’ll taste our catch.
The mountains still hover over the coastline on the South coast and they remind us of the Scottish highlands; not too high and covered with a soft green vegetation. Halfway to Santiago we approach Guantanamo Bay. Various cruisers have warned us that the US military takes the water boundary around Guantanamo very seriously. Our chart plotter clearly marks a 3-mile exclusion zone around the entrance to the harbour and we’ve plotted a course that keeps us a half-mile South of it. Blair has his binoculars out and is sure that he can see the detention facility; there’s a relatively new looking set of buildings that are located beyond the harbour entrance surrounded by a high barbed wire fence and we speculate as to who is housed here. We are two miles away from the Eastern edge of the exclusion zone when our VHF crackles to life (it’s been pretty much silent for the last 25 hours). ‘This is the US Coast Guard Cutter number 617 underway and leaving Guantanamo bay’. A minute later we hear, ‘Sailboat approaching Guantanamo Harbour, this is the US Coast Guard’. I immediately respond and they ask us what our bearing is. I tell him our direction and add that we intend to stay well clear of their exclusion zone. The operator thanks me and tells me to have a good day. Shortly after, he calls again on the VHF and asks us for the name of our vessel and the spelling. At this point, we now see that there is a 30-foot fiberglass US Coast Guard boat running parallel to us, matching our speed, but definitely out of range if we had small arms aboard. We are being escorted past the exclusion zone. In the center of the harbour entrance is an 80-foot cutter just hovering. Our foresail flaps as the wind dies and we start our engine and begin motoring. This exclusion zone is eight miles wide and the 30-foot boat escorts us all the way. It’s a small boat but it’s got big guns mounted fore and aft (two 50-caliber machine guns midship and a 4-inch naval gun on the foredeck!).
This is a long trip and we see yet another sunset only this time we see a green flash as the sun moves just below the horizon. This is a phenomenon that only occurs when there is an ‘infinite’ horizon, one with no land beyond and perfect visibility. We agree that it’s been a great day, what with catching the Mahi Mahi, seeing Guantanamo up close, seeing a green flash and all this on the last day of the year. But now we’re just tired and are focused on getting to Santiago. We’ve programmed our chart plotter with a good route into the Santiago harbour but we’ve never been in there before and not quite sure what to expect. We arrive at the harbour entrance at 11:45 pm, 40 hours after leaving Puerto Vita, and all we can see are red and green flashing buoy lights with a backdrop of houselights on the hills rising above the harbour. It’s almost impossible to distinguish the channel but Blair steers a course in using our chart plotter while I peer through the binoculars picking out the correct buoys. Everything looks different in the dark but we make our way in without issue and the marina manager directs us to anchor out of the shipping channel in front of the docks and says he will see us tomorrow morning, oh and Feliz Ano Neuvo. This is a New Years to remember. Here we are, anchored in a 500-year-old harbour, just below the fort built by the Spaniards to guard it. This is worthy of a special celebration and, despite the late hour, I cook two big Mahi Mahi fillets in panko breadcrumbs and butter and dig out a half bottle of Veuve Clicquot that I’d squirrelled away. Blair cracks his special Chimay ale and smokes a Romeo y Juliet N0.1 cigar that he picked up in Guardalavaca and we sit in the cockpit, congratulating each other on the long squawk here and speculating on how many more fish Blair’s going to catch this season.
The next morning we move onto the dock at the marina and both the Guarda Fronteras official and the government doctor come aboard. Despite having gone through the clearing in procedure in Puerto Vita, they want to see our documents too. In both Puerto Vita and here in Santiago, the officials ask us if we have an official boat stamp; they want us to stamp their forms. In Vita we shrugged ‘No’, but here in Santiago, on a whim, I dug out a stamp and pad that has the script Strathspey embossed on it. I use it to stamp Strathspey’s name on all our charts, guidebooks and other reading material so that, when they get loaned to people, we get them back. The officials perk up at the sight of our Strathspey stamp and Blair uses it to ‘officially’ stamp Strathspey into Santiago de Cuba.
The doctor is Luis who, after obtaining his medical certifications, earned his PhD at University of British Columbia. He says it’s very good luck for him that the first people he clears in for 2015 are Canadians. We’re good luck apparently. Dr Luis tells us that there is cholera and dengue fever here in Santiago and that we must not drink anything but bottled water and we should only eat in government sanctioned restaurants. Santiago was hit hard by hurricane Sandy two years ago and has still not recovered obviously. The marina manager tells us that if we fill our water tanks he will charge us for the water but if we use it only to wash our boat, it is free. Not sure what the logic is here but, after the doctor’s warning, we definitely are not putting any marina water in Strathspey’s tanks. We only stay 36 hours in Santiago. We spent a bit of time exploring the city two years ago when we sailed to Cuba so we decide to keep the forward motion and continue on to the archipelago regions on the Southwest shores. We also aren’t happy about the smokestack directly North of the marina that is spewing sulfur-laden fallout onto our decks. It leaves 2 cm-diameter tan-coloured spots on the decks of all the boats docked at Marina Santiago. Marina staff say not to worry, that it is removed with toilet bowl cleaner. We decide to leave the next morning.
This area of the South coast between the Southeast tip and Cabo Cruz is not very friendly to cruisers; the best anchorage (Guantanamo) is off-limits, Baitiquiri just West of Santiago can’t be entered in a heavy Southeast wind and swell (which we had), Santiago’s water is suspect and Chivirico (30 miles West of Santiago) has an entrance that is dicey in Southeast winds and swells. So, we are faced with another overnight sail to reach a protected anchorage, Bahia Pilon. We have another challenge now as well. Diesel conservation. Past Santiago, there are few places in the cruising archipelago where we can purchase diesel. We hire a driver to go into the city to fill our three 20-litre diesel jugs, transfer the contents into Strathspey’s tank and then make one more trip in to get 60 more litres to store in jugs on our deck. We pay him $10 for a return trip and it is well worth it. We agree that we’re in conservation mode now and must sail this entire South coast. In the past, anytime Strathspey’s speed fell below 2.5 knots or if we simply wanted to get somewhere fast, we’d fire up Strathspey’s engine and motor with our sails up.
We slip our lines from Marina Santiago at 9 am and follow our chart plotter’s breadcrumb trail back out the harbour entrance and its imposing fort and make a right turn. The wind is from the East, directly behind us and we pull out our foresail and are happy to see our knot meter reading 5 knots. Blair again puts a line in the water but has no bites all day. In fact, we don’t see any of the usual flying fish skittering out of Strathspey’s way so we think that this area is not a particularly good feeding ground. We sail along the coastline and again the mountains rise directly from the waterfront but these are much bigger peaks, some of them ringed in clouds. Again, with nightfall, the katabatic winds rush down to the water and chill us enough that we have to get out our light-weight polar fleeces.
We approach the entrance to Bahia Pilon at 3:30 am in light winds and pick out the flashing red buoys and one of the range lights that guide boaters into the bay. The other white range light on shore is burned out but our chart plotter shows the track for the range so Blair follows it closely. He doesn’t want to motor into Pilon immediately because he wants to make water and he isn’t sure how industrial a harbour Pilon is; we don’t like to make water in dirty harbours because it gums up the filter and shortens its lifespan. We have another three filters aboard but we’d like to conserve them if possible. So, at the end of the range, we make a small detour to the right to Cayo Blanco. Blair hands over the wheel to me and goes forward to prepare the anchor. Cayo Blanco is a small islet with a big reef extending West from its beach. Our guidebook says to anchor midway between the cayo and the red flashing buoy but to be careful to nose your way in slowly because it shallows very quickly here. I slowly motor forward, watching our depth meter. We’re in 40 feet but in the space of a breath, I see 9 feet and then 4 feet and our depth alarm sounds. I gear back dramatically and Blair drops the anchor and pays out 75 feet of chain. We don’t back down on the anchor because our guide book says it is poor holding but we’re only here for a few hours to make water and to wait for daybreak to see our way into a good anchorage in Bahia Pilon. We can see the waves crashing against the reef between Strathspey and the open ocean but they are a good enough breakwall that it is nice and calm in here. I immediately curl up in our forward berth and fall fast asleep. Blair has slept a good four hours overnight so he remains awake to monitor our water maker and do a New York Times crossword. Two hours later, the wind is now at 20 knots and we have slowly dragged down on the red flashing buoy. It’s daylight now so we pull in our non-functioning anchor and motor further down into the bay and find a small islet, Cayo Pergatorio, to hide behind for today and tonight. The anchor catches well in nine feet of water behind the cayo and I throttle back at 2500 rpms to ensure that we are well snagged for the night.
Tucked in behind the Cayo Pergatorio, we are sheltered from the winds, which are now at 23-knots. We’ve tidied up the usual overnight passage mess and around 11 am, we hear the putt-putt of a make and break sort of engine. Slowly motoring towards Strathspey are three large men in a 14-foot wooden fishing boat with minimum freeboard (that’s how much of the boat is above water). From a distance, I think they are fishermen coming out to sell us some fish or lobster. As they get closer, we see the standard, olive-drab military Guarda Fronteras uniform. The waves are crashing over the low sides of the boat and these guys are soaked. Of the three, one is a local fisherman who was commandeered to ferry the two officials a mile in heavy waves to Strathspey.
We invite them aboard and offer beers all round. The fisherman stays in his boat and keeps his little engine running but happily accepts a beer. The official wearing the Guarda uniform does the paperwork but he has come unprepared and borrows one of Blair’s ‘special’ purple pens; this guy speaks no English. The other official wears a rust-coloured jumpsuit so we’re not quite sure what his role is but we note that he has superior gesticulation capabilities which he puts to good use while repeating what the first guy says but he too speaks no English. We offer them a beer and dig out our Spanish for Cruisers book and start the process, beginning with examination of our despacho. Some cruisers to Cuba get really annoyed with the repetitive procedure and the same questions and having these guys aboard but we think it’s pretty interesting and always have a good laugh over some of the questions they ask. Mostly, they ask the same questions as every other Guarda Fronteras official…what size engine, how many radios, where are you going, where did you come from. But these guys want to know Strathspey’s mast height – we can’t even begin to wonder why they want to know this. All our information is entered in neat script in a tiny notebook with a flowered cover, this time in purple ink. Paperwork done, I give them a Ziploc bag to keep their notepad dry for the ride home, they thank us for the beer and get back in their little boat and crash their way back to land, getting completely soaked again. Only, this time, one of them has a purple pen tucked in his breast pocket and the other has a nice little zip lock bag to protect his official notebook; ziplock bags are like gold in Cuba…
What a different encounter compared to the one with the US Coast Guard off Guantanamo. Here, they grab the nearest fisherman and arrive soaked with rudimentary equipment. In Guantanamo, they have state-of-the-art weapons and communications technology. But, in both cases, the interaction was civil and with great respect.