Water, water, everywhere, ne’er a drop to drink.

Every day we are glad we sprung for a reverse osmosis water maker. We run our water maker for five hours to fill our water tanks while at anchor here in Bahia Pilon. This is a task that is made longer by the fact that we couldn’t use the water at Marina Santiago because of the cholera scare. From Santiago westward, not only diesel is scarce, so is water.

Morning awakening

Morning awakening

This morning we up anchor and leave Bahia Pilon but we’ve obviously misunderstood the Guarda. In yesterday’s pantomime of examining our despacho and pointing down the coast and smiles and nods and lots of ‘Ok, Ok, no problemo, you go’, something got lost in translation. We leave our protected spot behind Cayo Pergatorio and are almost out the channel leading to the ocean when we hear a voice calling ‘motoro vessel, motoro vessel’. We’re pretty sure it’s us he’s calling as none of the fishermen have VHF radios. Blair answers ‘Strathspey aqui’. And then a long, drawn-out volley of Spanish proceeds. It’s the Guarda and we don’t catch even one word of it because of the speed as well as the poor quality of the VHF transmission. Blair says ‘No comprende’ and the voice responds, a little more agitatedly. A back and forth with ‘No comprende’ always on our side, results in the Guarda’s voice getting louder and louder and more and more frantic. We finally catch the words ‘Despacho, correcto’ so we think he needs to change something on our despacho so we turn around and Blair flips through our Spanish for Cruiser’s book to find the phrase to say that we are returning to the harbour.

When we get back to the harbour, there are quite a few people on the concrete pier, motioning us to come alongside. We take one look at the rusty, nail-laden concrete pier and the rocks jutting out from the water beside it and motion that we will anchor instead. The Guarda official shrugs his shoulders and slowly walks back to where the fishing boats are tied, obviously looking for someone to motor him out to us. The wind has risen to 20 knots and the waves are rolling down the bay now so when we try to anchor, we quickly realize that it’s not possible. Now we are circling at the entrance to the small harbour, waiting for our Guarda to arrive. In the distance, we can see this tiny rowboat heading for us. It’s our Guarda official actually being rowed out to us by a fisherman. But he’s not making great progress in the high wind and waves. It takes a good half hour before the rowboat is near Strathspey and we decide that we will have to pull alongside the rowboat to shelter them from the wind so that our Guarda can come aboard. I’m behind the wheel and Blair is on our port side hanging fenders out to protect our nice blue paint from the wooden rowboat. All I’m thinking is, this isn’t going to be pretty. I’ve been making long tacks back and forth in front of the concrete pier and on my last tack, I aim directly at the rowboat and at the last minute, I swing Strathspey’s wheel to starboard. These guys take it all in stride and throw their painter to Blair. I reverse hard to slow us down and the Guarda and his rower grab Strathspey’s toe rails. In one quick motion, the Guarda puts one foot on the toerail and swings his other leg over our lifeline and sits down in our cockpit, smiles broadly and gestures for our despacho.

Well… as it turns out, the despacho requires an ‘Entrada’ (entrance) signature AND a ‘Salida’ (exit) signature from every bloody harbour we stop in. Our Guarda signs the Salida section of the despacho, all the while saying ‘No problemo’. For goodness sakes, they’ve probably expended 3000 calories rowing out to us and risked life and limb to get aboard and, still, it’s no problemo. Blair hands our Guarda two Heinekens and he passes them over to the rower, who has been standing in his leaky little boat all this time, hanging onto Strathspey’s toe rail and desperately trying to fend his boat off our nice paint – all this in 20 knot winds and big waves. The Guarda swings over the lifeline and jumps down into the rowboat and Blair tosses their painter in after him. As we motor away, Blair tells me that the beers are now opened and are currently being enjoyed despite the fact that it is 9 am. What an adventure!

The forecast today is for 15 knot winds from the East behind us to push us all the way down to Cabo Cruz, 30 miles West. The reality is that the winds increase to 20-25 knots and the seas are the biggest we have ever been in. The swells are close to 20 feet and when we look over our stern, there is a mountain of water behind us. Strathspey rises gently to the top of the mountain but each time she slides down it on a 45-degree angle into the valley. After a half hour of this, I no longer looked over my shoulder; it is just too much. Our bilge pump always tends to engage periodically in a following sea because of the way our transom door is constructed (it’s a bad design with an oval slit that houses the hatch lift arm and this lets water in when there is a following sea). But today the bilge alarm sounds, indicating that the pump has been running for at least five minutes so we are concerned that we’ve got a steady leak, not good in these high seas. Blair checks the bilge but it is almost dry and the pump is running steadily so he thinks that our bilge pump switch may have a film of diesel covering it which causes it to think that there is water that needs pumping. We’d overfilled our diesel tanks in Santiago and we think perhaps some of that diesel trickled down into the bilge and has coated the switch. The bilge alarm keeps sounding and it needs attention so I stay at the wheel and Blair goes down below to see about cleaning the electronic bilge switch. This involves unbolting the salon table from the floor and lifting the floorboards to access the bilge. A rogue wave causes Strathspey to lurch sideways suddenly and Blair is tossed onto the settee and now the table is leaning against him. He recovers and wipes the sensor with a soapy rag and the alarm stops sounding. After putting the table to rights, Blair resurfaces to the cockpit and I give him a look that covers all range of emotions and at the top of the list is a wish to leave sailing and start RVing instead.

We’re not in any danger in these seas but we’re uncomfortable and we periodically discuss how we will make the turn in to Cabo Cruz. This will put us broadside to these winds and waves which will make us roll from side to side. It also requires us to move the foresail from one side of the boat to the other, not the easiest task in high winds. Blair hauls about four feet of the foresail in so it’s quite a bit smaller and when we make the turn toward shore, the sail flips to the other side in a fairly controlled manner. There is a long line of reefs stretching West from Cabo Cruz and we enter the shallower water just past the reefs. Almost immediately, the waves disappear and it’s just really windy but with flat water. We anchor behind the reef in about 8 feet of calm water and wait for the Guarda officials to arrive. Night falls and no Guarda have appeared which surprises us. We crack a few beers, I make fire-roasted mushroom ravioli with pesto sauce, we share a nice bottle of Pinot Grigio and we concede that we’re not quite ready for an RV. After a quiet night and a good sleep, the next morning we haul anchor and leave without incident.

We follow our breadcrumb trail out of Cabo Cruz, back out into the deep ocean and head West for an hour and then we make the turn that we have eagerly anticipated for the last 400 miles – we turn Northwest toward the Jardines de la Reina archipelago. The ever-present mountains disappear and we enter an area of small cayos (islands) and more shallow water and look forward to short daysails, good swimming and some fishing as well. It’s a whole new ball game out here. It’s remote and we are definitely dependent on our reverse osmosis water maker as we are almost two hundred miles from any drinking water now.

This area is colloquially known to cruisers as the ‘Hardeens’. All day we are by ourselves, seeing no fishing boats and hearing nothing over the VHF. We have a great sail all day and at 4 pm, we anchor behind a small island (yet another Cayo Blanco). The next day we move on to Cayo Granada and stay two nights in the protection of this small island. And, here’s where we really start appreciating our reverse osmosis water maker.

Cayo Blanco

Cayo Blanco

We arrive at Cayo Granada around 1:30 pm and it is hot – 30 Celsius with no wind so, after anchoring, we have a long, cooling swim and then get out our paddleboards to explore the shoreline. We’ve been invited to a neighbouring boat for lobster tonight but before we go, Blair wants to fire up our water maker to replenish the water we’ve used since Bahia Pilon. But my pride and joy doesn’t work tonight; it seems that the intake pump has stopped working and no water can been filtered. Blair tries everything he can think of and, after a few hours, he’s pretty frustrated and actually says that he thinks we won’t have water from this point on. This is serious and means that we must make long day sails from marina to marina and forego any frivolous use of water (frivolous is all relative but in this case it means no showers!). I’m madly considering our options. It’s three long days to Casilda where there’s a good marina to fill our tanks with water, get diesel and spend a few days in Trinidad de Cuba. From there, it’s a long day sail to Cienfuegos where there’s another good marina to fill our water tanks once again. As I plan the new itinerary, it becomes clear that we can still circumnavigate Cuba but it will be in less comfort; fewer showers, more sponge baths, no hosing out the grungy cockpit, the water we have is solely for cooking, drinking and basic hygiene. We can wallow in non-stop showers at each marina and we will call ourselves ‘salty sailors’ –not fun, but definitely doable.

We have dinner aboard the neighbouring boat and, when they hear our tail of water woe, they immediately start up their high-output water maker and insist on toping up our tanks. We have a wonderful meal and dinghy back to Strathspey, thinking good thoughts about the ‘kindness of strangers’. I go straight to bed but Blair sits up thinking about various options to our water problem. I wake up a half-hour later to the sound of our water pump and Blair tells me he has re-engineered our deckwash pump and connected it to the water maker but he’s not optimistic as the deckwash pump is not powerful enough and our water maker hoses show too many air bubbles in them now. I go back to sleep and, when I wake up to get the weather forecast on our SSB radio at 6 am, Blair lifts his head from his pillow briefly to say, ‘It’s fixed’ before he goes back to sleep. Turns out that he was up until the wee hours of the morning, trying all kinds of things; he took the pump apart, cleaned it up, put a new O-ring in the filter and this morning we have a functioning water maker. Now that it’s working we can go back to our original itinerary. Whew!

After two quiet days and nights swimming, paddleboarding and who-knows-what at Cayo Granada, we upanchor and sail down to Cayo Chocolate. As much as it sounds yummy, it’s a bust. We can’t get close enough to shore to get any protection from the nighttime winds and accompanying waves so we up-anchor early the next day and sail another 38 miles to Punta Practicos. Typically here on the South coast of Cuba, the winds blow 20-25 knots at night and early morning but by noon they pretty much die down to 10 knots and provide flat seas. We end up motoring down the channel to the ocean and make a quick left to anchor in the lee of Punta Practicos. The water is crystal clear here. Finally, we have non-silty water to run our water-maker in. Up until now, every time we run our water-maker, Blair finishes the process off by removing the water filter and rinsing it gently in fresh water. Here in Punta Practicos, the water is gin-clear and we can see the sea bottom easily in 10 feet of water. Mid-afternoon, two fishermen pull up alongside Strathspey. They give us six lobsters, 20 good-sized herring and, when we tell them we need fruta y verduras (fruit and vegetables), they zoom off in the direction where we know there is a fishing lodge and about an hour later show up with more bounty. They hand over a pineapple, about 20 tomatoes and six grapefruits. We give them very little money and everyone is happy.

lobster bot

Lobster Boat

So, now the plan is to sail slowly Northwest through the Golfo Ana María toward Cienfuegos. We’re not in a hurry; the seas are 1-2 feet, the winds are 15 knots during the day but, annoyingly, 20-22 knots at night, gusting 25 knots while at anchor. We sail 20-25 miles each day from anchorage to anchorage so we have easy pleasant sails. Blair sleeps like a log each night because he sets our anchor alarm before bedtime. It sounds if we drag more than 100 feet and each night on our chart plotter we see we swing back and forth through a huge arc but we are anchored snuggly and don’t move. Me… I’m not sleeping quite so well because I’m not used to these higher winds at night. In the Bahamas and in Lake Ontario, I’m used to quieter winds at night so this diurnal pattern that is so common down here takes a bit of getting used to. Still, all is good aboard Strathspey… weather is warm (+30) and sunny most days.

P.S. I’m sending these blogs to Brooklyn when we are in the really remote areas on the South coast. They go via Iridium satellite phone so photos don’t travel well. I’ll post the photos when we get to a larger center and have Internet access.

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About Blair

I'm one half of Strathspey's crew - the one that keeps her seaworthy. I'm also the ship's purser, surgeon, musician and skeptical inquirer. If you think you heard bagpipes in the anchorage last night, it might have been me.

One thought on “Water, water, everywhere, ne’er a drop to drink.

  1. Quite the adventure. I empathized with your thoughts of RVing and felt a tad seasick while reading the rough sea details ;)
    looking forward to pics once you get to a major marina.
    Cheers,
    David