Cienfuegos

Here in Cienfuegos, we anchor in the harbour because there is no room at the marina. There are about 20 other boats anchored out here with us and initially we were annoyed that we couldn’t get dockage, thinking how easy it would be to hook up to non-stop water and just step out on the dock when we wanted to leave Strathspey. But, after being anchored offshore for the last six nights, we now realize how much better this is. We have a wonderful breeze each night which makes for good sleeping and the unlimited water is actually a water pipe dream because the pressure is so poor that it takes a half hour to fill a 20-litre jerry jug and occasionally there is just no water at all. So, rather than paying marina prices, we are anchored out and just as happy.

The only annoying thing about being out in the harbour is that every night we must haul our dinghy and motor up out of the water. When we checked in here, Blair signed an agreement that promised we would do this and we definitely comply. We comply because every night at 8 pm, 11 pm and 4 am, the marina security guards get into their own dinghy and make rounds through the harbour to ensure that everyone’s dinghy and motor is still accounted for; they really are worried about someone swimming up to an anchored boat and absconding with the motor in particular. Marina staff tells us that the stolen motors get shipped across the country to Havana and used to get to US shores.

José Martí square

We settle into a nice, relaxed routine here in Cienfuegos. We wake around 7 am and with the usual early-morning calm waters in the harbour, I do my yoga practice on the foredeck. We have breakfast and then Blair makes us espresso. I tune in to Chris Parker’s SSB weather forecast; because of our position we’re no longer listening to the Bahamas forecast at 6:30 am but now tune in to the Western Caribbean forecast at 8:30 am. Blair noodles on his guitar or plays his bagpipe chanter, learning new songs or improving existing ones. I read a little (I am hooked on the Outlander book series right now) and think about what we’re going to do today. We work on Strathspey a little, trying to keep up with the cleaning and maintenance so it doesn’t become overwhelming at some point. And then, after a light lunch, we dinghy to shore and start walking. It’s a pleasant half-hour walk down the broad Paseo del Prado from the marina into the center of Cienfuegos. There’s always some new side street to explore, a farm market stall to pick up some small bit of fruit or vegetable or sometimes even a glimpse through an open front door into someone’s house (we’re always amazed at how lovely the interior of these houses are compared to their exterior threadbare looks).

huevos

In our wanderings, we usually turn onto Avenida 54 (the pedestrian mall) and halfway down the street we stop at the cigar store where Blair happily browses through the cigar boxes in the walk-in humidor room. The mall is jam-packed with people every day of the week at any hour – we’re not sure what these people do but we think many of them are just checking out what’s for sale. One day on the mall, we see a huge crowd in front of a store and, upon investigation, we see that everyone is lined up to buy eggs. Eggs aren’t sold on a regular basis in Cuba so when they make an appearance, word goes out and the crowds gather.It’s like that for every item here in Cuba it seems; one day there are eggs, the next day there are no eggs but there is honey, the next day, no honey but stacks and stacks of cooking oil. This Sunday, everyone was out at the various cafes with their family and friends, drinking beer and rum and socializing. Monday, there was no beer for sale anywhere in Cienfuegos – even the marina bar had no beer on Monday. So the rule aboard Strathspey is that if we see some item that we use on a regular basis, even if we don’t need it immediately, we buy it; who knows when we will see it next!?

agromercado

Cienfuegos is a good place to re-provision before heading further West to the Isla de la Juventud cruising grounds. So, one of our favourite stops in downtown Cienfuegos is the Agromercado Calzada, the farmer’s market. At Calle 58, we make a left turn off the main boulevard and now the street is far narrower, more crowded and we’re picking our way carefully between the potholed sidewalks and the many street dogs trotting along purposefully. Four blocks along there is a large concrete building with all manner of food vendors set up. We wander through the market overwhelmed by rows of fruit, vegetables and pig parts for sale. I have a wad of Pesos, the paper money that is worth about 1/20th of the regular Cuban CUC. We’ve been told that all the posted prices at the agromercado are in Pesos and to be sure not to pay for anything in CUCs. In fact, to illustrate how cheap Pesos are and how we will pay very little for our market purchases, the marina manager takes a Peso out of his pocket and tears it in half and then half again – ‘Worthless’, he says. So be careful to use the right currency. We know that meat is expensive here and we’ll likely have to make those purchases with CUCs but we’ve been forewarned…everything else in Pesos.

I’m looking for bananas but Blair decides that he wants pork tenderloin tonight and he doesn’t get much past the first market table at the entrance. When I retrace my steps, I see him standing in front of a long table with mostly undistinguishable cuts of meat and I can see that he is negotiation mode. He’s gesturing to his own body with a sweeping motion down the right side of his chest; this is where a tenderloin lives right? The vendor’s eyes light up and he hauls up the biggest side of pork ribs I’ve ever seen. I shake my head ‘No’ and cup my hands together to indicate an oval and run both hands down my side. The vendor gets even more excited and lays out a pork tenderloin. ‘Si, si’, we say and then he lays out five more but that’s way too much for us considering the size of our refrigerator and our appetites. He’s confused as we say ‘Uno, no mas!’ (only one). I think that when Cubans buy meat, they buy in quantity perhaps? He looks crestfallen as he removes one pork tenderloin and offers us five and we say ‘Uno’ and then he removes tenderloins one at a time until there is just one lying there. He shakes his head and takes our money, still confused. We make our way from table to table in the agromercado, buying cucumbers, bananas, and carrots. We pay for all these items using the Pesos rather than CUCs and we think we have the hang of it; the price of all the vegetables and fruits are displayed in Pesos per pound and we start to leave the market with two full bags of food. But, Blair catches sight of some nice-looking pineapples and, at 15 Pesos for two (that’s less than $1), he lays 15 Pesos on the counter. The woman immediately gives him back 10 Pesos and hands over her entire stock of pineapples. We’re confused but happy to take them and we head across the street to the bakery. I pick out two big loaves of fresh bread and Blair hands over a Peso and here’s where we figure out what’s gone awry. The vendor asks if he can give us change in ‘Nationales’ and digs out the biggest wad of Pesos we’ve ever seen. I realize that Blair has laid down a CUC rather than a Peso and we quickly substitute for the correct money. Now we realize why we were the recipients of seven pineapples back in the market! Guess what our morning fruit is for the next week….or three. Our bags are heavy so when the first bicycle taxi drives by and hustles us for a ride, we’re happy to accept and we relax as our driver works hard to bring us 3 km back to the marina. Everything we buy at the market is thoroughly washed in a Clorox solution to ensure continuing good health aboard Strathspey.

kids on bikes

As well as provisioning for food, we refill our diesel tank and the extra jerry jugs we carry on deck. We’re not making water here in the harbour because it’s none too clean and we still have lots of water in our tanks. If we need any water, we’ll use our water jerry jug to supplement our supply from the marina taps. We plan to do some inland travel using Cienfuegos as our base camp but we don’t want to leave until we get our propane tank back. We have two 11-pound propane tanks aboard Strathspey which will last six weeks each with normal cooking – leaving the Bahamas, we had three months worth which will bring us to the second week of March. But it’s always a worry that we might run out of propane before we finish our trip around Cuba. So, here in Cienfuegos we think we might get propane. Propane is not sold anywhere as a matter of course. Each household has a monthly quota but there’s really not any allotted for cruisers but…..there is a black market for most things….including propane. Every day at the marina we stick our head into the marina office and say ‘Gas liquido?’ and most days, they say ‘No, pero manana’ (‘No, but maybe tomorrow’). Well today, someone in the ‘know’ says Gas liquido at 7 o’clock tonight, be here. Blair detaches our propane tank from its lines around dusk and we dingy in to the marina with high hopes. When we walk up to the office, someone (we’ve taken to calling him our propane ghost) appears out of the shadows and takes our propane tank, examines its fittings closely. ‘American fitting’ he says and ‘OK, good’ (apparently it’s difficult to handle the European gas fittings here). He then says ‘Pasado manana’ which is tomorrow afternoon but then our propane ghost says something that sounds distinctly like manana, manana, manana which we think is gringo-talk for perhaps three days from now. Also, he wants $20 for the fillup, which, for the average Cuban, is a monthly wage. We’re not about to argue over the price but we wonder if there is a Cuban household doing without propane this month so Strathspey can grill their fish.

roasting pig

There is no wifi here in Cienfuegos but we can use the Internet at the nearby Hotel Jagua’s for a price. This entails using the computers in their lobby and I’ve posted one blog using this method. Despite being excruciatingly slow, it allows me to post photos so all the older posts from Puerta Vita to Cienfuegos now have accompanying photos – check the one of Blair with his Mahi-Mahi! Other than posting a blog now and then, we really are not accessing the Internet at all because we have our new Iridium satellite phone. We love this phone. It’s an expensive item this year, including the monthly bill, but I don’t think you can easily cruise Cuba and stay in touch with friends and family without one. We do have SSB email but it’s more cumbersome, requires good propagation and takes forever to download emails. SSB is a good backup system but, now that we have a satellite phone, I’m not looking back!

Using the satellite phone is easy and involves getting out both the phone unit plus our Ipad. I usually put the phone unit on top of our bimini so it has an unobstructed view to the sky because we find that if we just leave it on the bench in the cockpit, sometimes the reception isn’t great. I open up the iPad and in ‘Settings’ I turn on the wifi option and select ‘Iridium’. Once that connects successfully, we have two applications we can open – either the Iridium email or the text option. The texting is quick but often people respond directly to the text on their phone and that results in a big surprise on their next phone bill because they are actually texting an International phone number. We keep telling people to go to the Iridium website to text us but sometimes it’s easy to forget. To talk, we just use the speakers on the Ipad.

sailors

We have a scare one night while anchored in Cienfuegos. I put the satellite phone on top of the bimini and settle down to set up the Ipad to receive emails and I hear a weird slide and pop-sort of sound. Blair and I look at each other and both of us curse at the same time; our satellite phone has fallen off the bimini and into the dark waters of the harbour. But, now there is this choking, barking sort of noise beside the bimini and it sounds like there is some animal aboard Strathspey. I scramble for a flashlight as the barking gets louder. It’s an 8-inch long squid! The barking noise is this squid gasping for air. Blair flips him back into the water and we both heave a sigh of relief to see that our satellite phone is still sitting securely on top of our bimini.

It’s been lovely and hot (+30C) during the days here and 18 Celsius at night. We have a great view of the harbour and every afternoon a local sailing school provides great entertainment as the young children sail back and forth in sailboats, wind surfers and Hobie Cats. We’re getting our ‘landlegs’ back with all our walking and looking forward to some inland travel in the next week. All is still good aboard Strathspey.

street art in Cienfuegos

Through the Jardins de la Reina

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’.

seahorse

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.

bienvenidos a Cienfuegos

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.

dinghy lift

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.

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.

New Years Aboard Strathspey

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.

Blair catches a Mahi Mahi

Blair catches a Mahi Mahi

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!).

 Entrance at Fort/Castillo

Entrance at Fort/Castillo

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.

Guarda officials in Bahia PIlon

Guarda officials in Bahia PIlon

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.