We sail Northwest slowly through the Jardins de la Reina archipeligo, enjoying the slow-mo pace after our almost non-stop 275-mile passage here from Puerto Vita. The Jardins archipeligo consists of two big gulfs (Golfo de Guyacanayabo and Golfo de Ana Maria) containing hundreds of small, uninhabited islands strung out in a Southeast to Northwest direction. All this, in between more reefs than we’ve seen in all our sailing to date.Because of the lack of navigable passes between the reefs and the rougher oceanside, we elect to travel the sheltered route for the time being; we’ve had our fill of rough ocean passages!
We arrive at CayoCuervo and we’re thinking that it’s pretty crowded by Cuba standards. There are four sailboats and a sportfish anchored here as well as seven shrimp boats. We’re obviously intruding on the shrimp boats – they up-anchor every evening around 5 pm and head out to work, leaving the mothership here. Their mothership is a big processing ship that comes 100-odd miles here from Cienfuegos to pick up the shrimp that the little boats have caught. The mothership is anchored in the middle of the protected bay of Cayo Cuervo and periodically, throughout the early to mid-morning, the shrimp boats come steaming back in to offload their shrimp catch. The sportfish that’s anchored here was the boat that provided us with water back in Cayo Granada when we thought our water maker was toasted. With all the tomatoes we got at our last anchorage, now we have a chance to say thanks and we dinghy over to offer some of those tomatoes up. Our friends are so happy to have fresh salad; you really can’t pay back borrowed water but it seems fresh tomatoes are a pretty good substitute here in these remote islands.
We’re definitely in the market for fresh shrimp so we dinghy over to one of the shrimp boats and, in rudimentary Spanish, let them know we’re happy to buy some shrimp from them. They don’t want money from us. But, what they do want is rum. ‘Ron’?’ they gesture with a tipping motion to their mouths. We say ‘Si’ and they hand over way too much shrimp… easily five pounds, and we say ‘Un momento’ and zip back to Strathspey. We’re not big liquor drinkers but we have a few small bottles of rum to trade. Actually, they’re embarrassingly small … about the size of the rum bottles they serve aboard airplanes. I put three of them in a ziplock bag and because those bottles are so small I add some soap and a nice razor (both gold here in Cuba). Back at the shrimp boat, when we hand it over, they’re quite pleased. Actually, when I stretch up to hand off my ziplock bag to one of the crew, he says ‘No’ and motions to me to slide it in through one of their side hatches that he has flipped open, just about on our dinghy eye-level. As I reach up to pass it through, I gasp and start back because there is a huge sea turtle lying on its back in the opening. The crew laughs and, in pantomime, gestures that they will be making soup from him and we should come back tomorrow for a sample. Hmmmm….we’re happy with way too much shrimp and wave goodbye with many calls of ‘Gracias’.
CayoCuervo is a good stop for us. We snorkel out on the surrounding reefs, visit the shrimp boats and, because it is so protected, we have two very restful nights and sleep the sleep of tired sailors. But, it’s not very good for swimming. There are big (4-inch diameter) red and rough jelly fish that drift by Strathspey constantly. As well, when the shrimp boats clean their nets, they let loose all manner of sea horses, coral and starfish that have been scooped up along with the shrimp.
Reluctantly, because a nice calm anchorage is hard to find in the Jardins de la Reina, we up-anchor and sail further West to Punta Breton. When we arrive, the wind has died down completely and the water is flat calm. This is so unusual for this South coast and, instead of trying to feel our way into a shallow lagoon for a protected anchorage that will be full of biting insects in the calm winds, we anchor a quarter-mile from shore. It’s a lovely, calm night with a gentle swell in the lee of a line of reefs that break the waves from the ocean. We anchor about a half-mile South of a fishing station. These stations are actually steel poles driven into the ocean bed with a bit of a platform associated with them – sort of like a heavy duty dock out in the middle of nowhere. The fish and lobster boats tie up to them each night, the men gather for a bit of dinner, settle down for a good night’s sleep and then cast off the next morning at dawn.
We anchor in 10 feet of water off Punta Breton and the anchor grabs tightly – it’s good hard mud and we are happy; this means a secure sleep tonight. It’s been so hot all day that we immediately cool off with a long swim off Strathspey’s stern. We can’t settle in for the evening because off in the distance, we see a rowboat leave the fishing station and head toward us slowly. A good 45 minutes later, two men row up to Strathspey and offer us a hog snapper and a big bucket of lobster. We’re not really in the market for any more seafood as we have almost too much shrimp and lobster aboard but Blair has his eye on that hog snapper. We pay $7 for the 10-pound snapper but say no thanks to the lobster. Ever cognizant of how hard these guys work for their money, I go below and dig out a nice bar of soap and now they want to give us a big lobster as thanks. Everyone is happy with this particular transaction but mostly I’m wondering where all this seafood is going in my tiny fridge.
For the past few weeks as we anchor, our full moon is starting to wane but Venus shines brightly in the West after the sun sets. Shortly after, Mars appears, less brightly and just slightly to the right and below of Venus. Every night when we see Venus and Mars one of us hums the Paul McCartney song….’Venus and Mars are alright tonight’.
By dawn the next morning, as each fishing and lobster boat leaves the fishing station to the South of us, without fail they swing by Strathspey. It’s not even a gentle kind of swing by; these guys bear down on us until we call uncle and one of us comes up into the cockpit to acknowledge them. Without fail, the fishermen hold up huge lobsters and call out lobster??? You buy?? But right now we have way too much fish aboard… five pounds of shrimp, 1 ½ pounds of lobster and six hog snapper fillets. Blair leafs through our Spanish for Cruisers book to find the phrase that says, ‘ No more fish thank-you, we have enough’. This is obviously a first world problem!
Interestingly, the fishing boats have no brand names but are labeled for their construction type. The big fishing boats all have Ferrocemento hand painted on their sterns. The smaller rowboat-type fishing boats all say Plastico on their sterns. When we check in with our despacho, often the Guarda Fronteras ask us to confirm that Strathspey is a plastico boat, Si? We’re not so sure we enjoy the association with those little rowboats though.
Leaving Punta Breton we head toward Machos de Fuerta, one of the last cayos in the Jardins. As we start our approach in from the deep waters toward the cayo there is a disparity between what our charts show and what our eyes see. I point out an area of breaking seas to Blair, which normally would indicate a reef but our chart plotter shows no reef. We know we must skirt a small mangrove island before we make our final turn so we’re expecting to see an island at some point. The chart plotter indicates that we have 10 minutes before we make the turn around the island but I think it’s going to put us on a collision course with those breaking seas and I don’t see that island. We keep watching, ready to head further South into deeper waters, trusting our chart plotter but also trusting what we are seeing with the breaking seas. 10 minutes later, it becomes clear that the seas are breaking over our mangrove island, which is not actually an island but clearly a bit of land just awash at low tide. We make the turn past the breaking seas and nose our way in behind Machos de Fuerta and drop anchor in eight feet of water. It’s another calm and quiet night and I make panko-crusted hog snapper for dinner.
The next morning we up-anchor at 7 am. This is early for us these days but we have a long day ahead; our next anchorage is at Cienfuegos, 52 nautical miles Northwest. There’s no wind and, despite our vow to only sail so as to conserve fuel, I’ve got my heart set on Cienfuegos tonight so we motor-sail all day. No worries I figure, we can buy diesel in Cienfuegos.
We arrive at the entrance to the Cienfuegos harbour at 3:30 pm but it takes us almost an hour to motor in to the marina. It’s a zig-zag route down a narrow but deep channel. The Castillo with it’s gun turrets aimed down the channel remind us that this was a well-protected Spanish harbour back in the 1700’s. We call out our arrival to Marina Cienfuegos and at 4:30 we are anchored in Cienfuegos harbour. We dinghy to shore and check in with the Guarda Fronteras and Blair signs a form that promises that we will lock our dinghy and engine and have both out of the water every night; it seems that this harbour is a good place to get those items stolen. We’re glad to be here and very excited to start exploring this 300-year-old Spanish city.