We stay tied to the concrete pier in Nueva Gerona for five grey, windy, cool days. To pass the time we layer up in long-sleeved shirts and polar fleeces and wander through this town of 20,000. It’s a city of contrasts running the gamete of modern marble pedestrian malls and dirt-poor back streets. Along one of the back streets we stop to watch three men making concrete bricks, used for house foundations; the process is primitive but the end result is definitely a concrete brick, although I’m not so sure I’d want to use them in a foundation over a Canadian winter.
One of the downtown streets is set up as a flea market of sorts and we stop to chat with Lio, a young print maker. He speaks a bit of English and is really charming and wants to show us how his old-fashioned printing press works. Later that day we rummage through Strathspey’s lockers and find a small plastic bin of unused pencil crayons, crayolas, and ink pens plus a bound book of good drawing paper. We find Lio again and offer this treasure trove to him and he is almost speechless but so happy. This sort of stuff is not found in Cuba very easily and we’re happy to perhaps make a difference in this young man’s life.
During our stay here Blair takes Strathspey’s anchor windlass apart and tries to find the source of the grinding noise its been making over the last week. He re-greases the spindle on the windlass and cleans the accumulated rust off all the electrical connections. The bolts on the gearbox are seized so he can’t take it apart and we make a mental note to have that looked at back in Florida. The salt water has been hard on Strathspey and the type of windlass mount on our bow is definitely not a good design for salt water use as it allows this sort of rusting and seizing to happen.
Finally, the constant strong Northeast winds ease slightly and, after checking with weather guy Chris Parker, we decide that we perhaps have a window to sail around to the north coast of Cuba. We’ve been waiting for this weather window for almost two weeks. A few years ago while in the Bahamas, every morning on Chris Parker’s weather broadcast, a woman on a catamaran would call him for a personal forecast. Like us, she had paid Chris Parker a yearly fee that allowed her to call him for specific routing information. We think it is money well spent and we still use Chris here in Cuba but are also reading weather grib files downloaded on our SSB radio. Every morning in the Bahamas this particular woman would jump in with her routing request as soon as Chris opened up his broadcast for questions. She and her husband were trying to get from the Bahamas down to Luperon, Dominican Republic and they just weren’t getting the forecast they needed. So, every day for approximately three weeks, we’d hear her asking the same question. After the second week Blair and I would say to each other, ‘Oh man, it’s her again, this is getting tiring….she takes up a lot of broadcast time’. We were fairly unsympathetic even though we knew that the number one rule when cruising is to pick your weather windows well. So now here on the south coast, I’m that woman. I’ve talked to Chris Parker every day for two weeks, telling him that we are trying to get around the western cape, Cabo San Antonio, and onto the north coast. I’m sure people are thinking, ‘Oh for goodness sakes, just go for it!’ The strong northern fronts have been reaching quite a bit further south this winter and we’ve been getting constant 25-knot winds from the wrong direction so we’re almost feeling like we’re trapped down here in Isla de la Juventud. It’s like Hotel Juventud…you can check in but you can never leave.
But finally one day, Chris gives us good news and we think we have a long enough period of time to make the leap around the corner to the north side. We notify the Guarda Fronteras that we are leaving Sunday morning at 11 am. In fact, I’ve told three officials that we want to leave at 11 am but it’s still not clear to me that they’ve understood exactly what we want.
At 11 am, we’re ready to go. Our dinghy is securely tied on the coach roof at Strathspey’s bow, our diesel tank is full and we have two jugs of spare diesel tied on Strathspey’s port rail and one in the starboard locker. There’s no sign of the Guarda officials though. I walk up to the guardhouse and there are two women security guards who don’t know where the guarda officials are. They motion to their telephone and say that it is dead so they can’t call. One of the workmen offers to bike by the guarda office at the mouth of the river to tell them we need our dispacho. It’s a five-minute bike ride and 45 minutes later there is still no sight of the guarda with our dispacho. Guermo, a naval engineer on one of the ferries docked behind us calls the guarda office for us and says they’ll be at Strathspey in 25 minutes. Sure enough, a male and female guarda official arrive at 12:30 pm but they’ve forgotten the dispacho back at the office. There’s another delay while the male guarda gets back on his bike and rides back out to the mouth of the river to get our document but by 1 pm, we are casting off our lines and motoring back down the river. All the way down this foul river we pass men sitting in huge truck tire innertubes, floating down the river, legs in the water up to their knees. Their fishing rods jerk occasionally and they pull up 6-inch long silvery fish. We can’t imagine eating anything out of this particular river because it is so polluted but there are plenty of these fishermen who obviously do.
We don’t have far to go this afternoon. We’ve decided to spend the night at Ensenada Los Barcos again and make a series of long day sails until we finally get around the cape. It’s a beautiful, sunny day and we make good speed. Blair comments casually that if I were up for it, he’d be fine doing an overnight sail all the way to Maria La Gorda. We check the grib files once again and do some mileage calculations and decide that it makes good weather sense to get to Maria La Gorda in this nice northeast wind. Blair adjusts our route waypoints on the chart plotter and I dig out my foul-weather gear just in case the waves get higher. In regular clothes, once I get wet with salt water, I just stay wet until I can change so the foul-weather gear works best. It’s an uneventful night and at 9 am we tie up to a mooring ball in 20 feet of water just west of the long beach at Maria La Gorda. The water is crystal clear here. In fact, this is the clearest water we’ve seen in all our travels through Cuba. The sea bed 20 feet below us looks like it is only a foot under our keel.
I call Chris Parker to get tomorrow’s forecast to confirm that we’re still on track for a nice rounding of Cabo San Antonio and he tells me that all still looks good but that the wind is going to blow like stink from the northeast for a good long time once this short window closes. Blair and I talk about this new bit of information for a good long while, weighing the pros and cons of getting stuck in a remote anchorage on the north coast rather than being in Havana exploring the city and doing some other inland travel. We decide to get a good night’s sleep tonight and leave pre-dawn on Tuesday to sail all the way to Havana. We map out a few bailout anchorages on the north coast in case we don’t like the weather or if the window closes suddenly. Once we’ve made that decision, we check in with the guarda and he tells us that we should pick up our dispacho that night at 6 pm if we plan to leave so early the next day. This simplifies things for us and we spend the rest of the day snorkeling and walking ashore at Maria La Gorda. We arrange to buy a 20-liter jug of diesel from a fishing boat tied to the pier beside the beach. We don’t really need it but it gives me some added reassurance that if the winds don’t cooperate we can motor toward Havana.
We sleep soundly after the previous day’s 17-hour trip and at 6 am on Tuesday we drop the mooring ball line and turn toward Cabo San Antonio. The guidebooks warn that rounding this cape is one of the hardest trips. The winds must be moderate and in the right direction. You must be the right distance off shore in order to avoid the Cuban countercurrent that runs southwest around the cape and then east along the south coast. In opposing winds, you must stay out of the Yucatan current, a north flowing component of the Gulf Stream that can run at speeds above 5 knots at times. You must stay far enough off the capes and headlands in this area so as to avoid the turbulent water caused by shallow areas. With all these requirements, it’s understandable that I’m a little nervous as we approach Cabo San Antonio. We sail at 6 knots until we make the turn North to pass the cape. The waves are steep and choppy far inshore but out where we are, it’s mostly just long, gentle and manageable waves. Now that we’re heading north, we feel the effects of the countercurrent but it’s not too overwhelming as we’re still sailing at 4.9 knots. Once we pass the cape and turn northeast, the wind changes to an easterly direction and we are close-hauled and sailing at 6.5 knots in fairly flat water.
As the day progresses and night falls, the wind gradually clocks around to the south and, in the lee of the Cuban coastline, we see only 1-foot waves. Around midnight our knot meter reads 7.5 knots so we think the Gulfstream is looping in close to shore and helping us along. Our plotted course keeps us about 1.5 miles off shore, occasionally two miles. At 2 am, our knot meter reads 8.8 knots so we are sure we are in the Gulfstream as the true wind is only 7 knots. Blair keeps saying, ‘Oh, we picked the best window. How could it get any better?!’ I don’t want to jinx anything so all I say is, ‘It seems good so far’.
By 9 am we can see the tall buildings of Havana and at 12:30 pm we make the turn down the channel into Marina Hemmingway. There’s a certain cachet about this particular marina and its namesake writer so we’re pretty excited to have finally arrived here. We pull over to the customs dock and get checked in by the two guarda officials. It’s a first for us in Cuba when one of the guarda officials asks us for US dollars and CUCs, ‘I need it for my baby’. He makes a cursory check down below and when he opens up our Nav station desk and sees our Canadian iPhones, he asks if he can have them. We just keep saying no and eventually he stops pestering us. This is also the first time we have been asked to show our medical insurance and are surprised when they copy down the policy numbers. It’s a short checkin though and then we leave the customs dock and motor past the entrance to canals 3 and 4 and make a right turn into Canal number 2 where we’ve been assigned a spot at the concrete wall on the north side; 196 miles and 30 hours from Maria La Gorda!
We’re excited to have easy access to Havana and plan to stay here for a few weeks to explore it, listen to some good music, perhaps take an inland trip to the western end of Cuba and definitely to get some good nights’ sleeps tied to a secure dock in a sheltered canal.
I’ve posted some photos on the older messages. Check the one of Blair’s tuna!!!