Sail away to Cuba with Adventures of Shamal

As I start this posting we are sitting in Elizabeth Harbour, George Town, Great Exuma Island, Bahamas. It is nearly time for departure and to say farewell to the Bahamas. I think what will stand out about the cruising in this area, are the colours. Beautiful cobalt blue and turquoise waters which never get too rough over the shallows as you are protected by reefs and cays. Sparkling white sandbars that appear and disappear with the tide. Beautiful waters for swimming and fishing, and, endless cays for exploring.

We are waiting on the delivery of a sim card for our Iridium Go Satphone which we ordered last week (Friday) from Florida. They told us it would be sent by fast post that very day, BUT, this morning (Monday) we received an email saying they had not yet sent it due to a muddle in the address. That is a load of rubbish as we have only one address to send it to here which was given to them in full.   We REALLY want/need this card as this is our communication link with the outside world, especially for weather, once we leave here. If it does not arrive we will just have to be like sailors of old times and read the sky’s I suppose !!!!

Cays at S.E. end of Elizabeth Harbour

Over the weekend we joined two other boats and headed for the south eastern end of the harbour and anchored off Fowl Cay. We were in the National Park and hoped to snorkel on the reef area there to see the fish, corals etc. Well it was pretty void of any marine life. We think the locals must see it as their “hunting and gathering” grounds!! We return to George Town Sunday afternoon and later that evening I catch another good fat Mutton Snapper.

Thursday 2nd, February – We spend nearly the whole day in George Town waiting for FedEx to bring the mail in. It arrived on the 10.00am plane, but we don’t get it till after 03.00pm. The airport is only 15 minutes up the road!!!! Island Time. We could not go out and collect it ourselves.

Stocking Is. Elizabeth Harbour

So Friday 3rd February, we are all checked out and have changed our route plan, we head out of George Town with “Rainbow”, heading back up the Exuma Cays towards Galliot Cut (just south of Farmers Cut) – a passage through the Cays which will take us across the shallows and into the deep waters of the Tongue Of The Ocean. Then around the bottom of Andros Island, across the Great Bahama Bank and out into the Nicholas Channel which runs along the North Western coast of Cuba. We are due to pick up our guests Judith and Graham from Dubai on the 6th, but, we will now be a day late in arriving as the whole trip is just on 425nm. We have two shallow banks to cross which we will only cross in the daylight, so it will mean a couple of nights at anchor somewhere.

“Rainbow” is heading up to Little Farmers Cay for the February Festival and regatta, and it is here we says bye to Mark and his cat James. He also picking up a new crew member here (we later learn that they never arrived, and he set off to Long Island after the regatta). We head out over the bank. The depths are around 5mts and we can see the bottom clearly. By 1800 we have just reached the edge of the Tongue Of The Ocean and decide to drop anchor here – in the middle of no-where, just lots and lots of Ocean!!!! Quite surreal as here we are 20nm from the Exuma Cays behind us, and 50nm from the bottom of Andros Island in front of us, anchored in 7mts of the clearest waters one could see!! It is a beautiful calm clear night. We are now well off the beaten track as far as cruising boats travel, but that seems to be us. By the following evening we have arrived at the bottom of Andros and again anchored in the middle of nowhere in rather different conditions. Seas between half to one meter and winds 17kts, but we won’t go on as crossing these shallows would be stupid in the dark as we will be leaving any tracks plotted on the charts. It is well surveyed showing depths and rocks, but still daylight cruising, not night stuff. And yes it was a bit of a ****** night with us rocking and rolling, and as the current was quite strong we sat side on to the waves which is never comfortable, that made for little sleep.

Anchorage on Exuma Bank

By the following evening we had motored sailed across the Great Bahama Bank and were in the deep waters off the west end of the Old Bahama Channel. That night around 0200 we have a cruise ship coming down on us. I call him up on the radio to make sure he has seen us to be told he has, and will change course. I don’t think he was too impressed having to dodge little boats sailing through this narrow passage of water as he said we should not be around at night. He passed about a third of a mile from us. I though he was going to hand me a cocktail!!!   The following morning as we are sailing through International waters between Cuba and the Bahamas, a U.S. Coast Guard plane flies over and calls us up asking the usual questions – what country are you from, where have you come from, where are you going, etc. Then later that afternoon a U.S. coast Guard ship comes by asking the same questions?   The remainder of the trip to Marina Hemingway, Cuba is a lovely downwind run. I catch two barracuda within five minutes of each other, which I put back.

So why would one want to venture to Cuba – a country that has been under the grips of an economic embargo for 50 years plus. A country where the communists are still in power. A country that seems to have been cast aside and pronounced “out of bounds” to American citizens, BUT, a country where others have visited and come away with nothing but praise for a people that have been harshly suppressed and misunderstood, yet have risen above all of this, and, a country the seemly still is pretty much uncorrupted by the influence of modern tourism. From the Cruisers point of view our Guide lists it as “ the last major unexplored destination in the Caribbean”. So, long ago it was put on SHAMAL’S must visit list.

Entering Hemingway Marina

We arrive into Marina Hemingway by midday on the 7th March. Our first stop was the Customs Dock to be checked in. First a Doctor and Nurse came on board to check us. Our temperatures are taken. I think Alec’s was a little above normal as they kept asking how he was feeling. Next the Guarda Frontera (Coast Guard), which act as immigration officers as well. It was all quite high tech as we had our photos taken with modern equipment. Then we moved SHAMAL to our dock and here checked in with the Dock Master and the ministry of agriculture. Everyone was professional, very polite, friendly and helpful. The boat was not searched, but just a look over. I was able to keep all fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy and meats, and even my little herb garden. The Marina has three long canals with plenty of room and good depths. There is a bit of a rock edge below the water line protruding out in the outer canal where we were berthed, but it lies deep enough not to effect boat keels and rudders. Later that day our friends Judith and Graham arrive having spent a night in a hotel here in the marina. We were also informed by the Guarda Frontera that it will be necessary to report into and out of every port where they have a base around the coastline. A little frustrating, but we had to do the same in both the Ukraine and the U.S.A. In the U.S.A. a foreign boat must make a phone call each time one moves the boat. We were surprised at the number of yachts and pleasure boats in the marina. Some from the States just come into this marina and do land travel from here then return home without cruising the coastline. There was one yacht from Nelson, New Zealand, one from Australia, and Canadians and Europeans.

Cuba – eclectic – the history, the land, the people, the system. Where else in the World can one find such a diverse collection that seemly moulds this Island into one of the most interesting, lovable and yet somewhat frustrating at times, places we have visited so far. Within our first week staying in Marina Hemingway, we seem to have fallen for the place. It is from here we set off to explore Havana, the capital, and some of the country-side, before we move on around the coast. We have been recommended a guide by another cruiser – Danay (pronounced Dah-nigh) – with excellent English, and her partner and driver – Carlos – who is the very proud owner of his Grandfathers 1952 Chrysler Dodge painted blue, which has been re-engined with a South Korean Hyundai engine and is used as a taxi. Most of the old cars these days have been re-engined. The old cars of Cuba are part of what make this place quite eccentric. It has been forced upon them due to the embargo, lack of finances due to such low wages, and the importation of new cars has been nearly unheard of until fairly recently. To own any car, old or new, it is a prized possession. For my generation, you step back into your childhood as the cars are the types our parents owned. The American Chevy brand are known as ” Chebi’s” owing to their popularity here. Also the Buick, Ford, Dodge etc. The most popular are the Russian Lada and Moskvich brands imported here in the 70’s and 80’s

SHAMAL Hemingway Marina

Our first day trip is into Havana, but first we need to stop and change money. Now this is one of the more frustrating parts of Cuba. They have two currency’s – Cuba’s currency is the peso cubano, known as CUP, but, for visitors, they primarily use the peso convertible, known as CUC or the convertible peso. One (1) CUC is worth twenty five (25) CUP. The US dollar has a 10 per cent surcharge, so it is better to come armed with Euros or Canadian Dollars to change. Now we needed both currency’s as we will be shopping at local markets for fruit and vegetables etc. My job was to hold the CUP for the local produce – good luck Ann!!!!! On the way to the money changer we stop just up the road from the marina at an old fishing village which has now become a big tourist attraction, all due to the hard work of one man. He decided to spruce up his village by doing mosaic work on the outer walls of first his home, and then worked his way around the village. He inspired the locals to get involved giving them work and something to be proud of.

Our next stop was rather a long ride around the Havana Harbour to the Nautical Charts and Books Office to buy the two chart books we would need for the regions we were to visit. We were very impressed with what we bought as they were up to date – the coastline has been well surveyed and most beacons seem to be working, printed in English, and presented in a ring binder which makes for ease of handling. With that job out of the way we were off for some site-seeing. Our next stop was a visit to the Castillo del Morro, a fortress first built between 1589 and 1630 by the Spanish, and it sits on a rocky headland to protect the entrance to Havana Harbour. It was then rebuilt in 1844 with a lighthouse within its walls. It is then on to visit the Plaza de la Revolucion. This Plaza has a major historic and symbolic importance for the people and is where military parades, speeches and official celebrations take place. Here stands the 109 mt. high memorial for Jose Marti, one of the original revolutionaries. His statue sits at the base and is 18mt. high.   Also on two of the buildings surrounding the square are the famous faces of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.

Now for a quick History lesson on Cuba before we continue. Around about 2000 BC a Stone Age civilization called the Guanahatabeys, was known to be living in caves here. They were pushed to the western end of Cuba by the Siboneys who arrived sometime later. About 1050 AD the Taino people arrived from the Lesser Antille Islands having come from the Orinoco Basin in Venezuela. Christopher Columbus first arrived on the Island in 1492, but did not circumnavigate it. He thought it might be a peninsula of the Asian continent !! In 1494 he returns and explores the southern coast. In 1508 another Spanish navigator circumnavigates Cuba. By 1511, 400 colonizers arrive and set up a Spanish colony. 1522 first slaves arrive from Africa. 1555 – 1900 French pirates, British Navy, and Americans all try to occupy Cuba – sorry boys, back off, the Spaniards are still in control here!! 1898 sees the US declare war on the Spanish and a four-year occupation begins following the sinking of the battleship “USS Maine” in Havana Harbour. No-one quite knows to this day who did it!! The Cuban rebels had been fighting for their independence for several years and as a result of this war, Spain pulled out of Cuba, which was then granted nominal independence. The US over the years has even tried to buy Cuba, at one stage for US$300 million. They still had a stranglehold on the Cuban economy controlling the sugar market. 1925 Machado is elected president, but by 1933 his declining popularity leads to a revolution in which sees Batista come to power. By the 1950’s Cuba was famous for glamour – its music, cocktails, prostitutes, cigars and gambling. Batista had made a deal with the American Mafia which now ran the drugs, local gambling houses and luxury hotels, used for money laundering. 1952 Batista cancels the upcoming Cuban elections which the young ambitious lawyer Fidel Castro was due to stand. By 1958 Castro and Che Guevara have attacked Batista’s military and Batista concedes power to the so called rebels. 1959 and Castro is now at the reigns. After years of armed struggles, the country was now freed from previous dictatorships. Next came Agricultural and Education reforms and Nationalization of foreign property. The US now declare an economic boycott that blocks the export of petroleum and the importation of Cuban sugar. 1961 a group of Cuban exiles and mercenaries trained by the CIA lands in the Bay of Pigs to invade the Island. This failed as the Cuban civilians did not rise up against Castro. Eight days later President J F Kennedy declares a trade embargo followed by most other countries in the Americas – except Mexico and Canada. This cemented ties closer between Cuba and Russia with the Missile Crisis putting the world on the brink of a nuclear war. 1991 the collapses of the Soviet Union and Cuba heads towards its worst economic problems. I guess the trade embargo does not help. The revolution did achieve results in social terms, but the country’s economic problems slide further downhill. But today the Cuban’s still survive. Their wages are extremely low (no tax), but living costs are taken care of by the Government – rent, education, health, power etc. are supplied by the government. Food rations are handed out. Ticket to the cinema and theatre are state-subsidized as it is considered “a right” for the people. Enough History !!!

Castillo El Morro

ack in present day Havana. Well you could say that since the 1950’s time has stood still in this once decadent baroque to art deco architecturally studded city, which had been left to decay once Fidel Castro took power closing down the casinos and turning the beautiful hotels into private houses – abandoned by the wealthy who fled the country, into homes for the poor. But today the winds of change are sweeping these once glittering streets and a programme is now in place to restore old Havana to its former beauty. On our walking tour of the old city we saw scaffolding surrounding some of the old buildings as they were being given a new lease of life and being returned to their former glory. Hotels were being converted back to hotels again. The plazas were clean and tidy with restaurants and bars with outdoor eating areas with umbrellas. Old homes dating back to the 1570’s have been restored and painted in the brightest of colours. We stopped outside the two favourite bars where the novelist Ernest Hemingway is said to have frequented. One had people overflowing out onto the street as they listened to the salsa. Hips swaying, feet tapping, hands clapping and singing along with the music. It was a wonderful atmosphere. Then a few streets on we pass the street dancers on stilts, and just beyond that we arrive into another plaza where an orchestra is playing the most beautiful music. We stopped here to listen for a while and have never seen such a young conductor so passionate about what he was doing, and the music was exquisite. Havana is vibrant and certainly very colourful. There is still so much restoration that needs doing, but they have made a start. Havana has a heart and soul than cannot be lost. The people are too passionate to let go of their heritage. Our last stop for the day was to visit the Art and Craft Markets.

Our next day trip was totally different. Again we are picked up by Danay and Carlos and this time head inland west to the Pinar del Rio province to the Valle de Vinales. We travel along a reasonably modern motorway, but the first thing that strikes you is here it is used by everyone. Not just cars, trucks, buses and motor bikes with side cars, but any and everything. Horse and cart, oxen and cart, bicycles, foot traffic, and if one needs to change direction or cut across the highway, one just does. One area of this highway has no middle strip to separate from the oncoming traffic. It is explained to us that this section can also act as a runway for aircraft and there are blast walls lined along one side where the aircraft could be stored. We think these may have been built by the Russians during the Cold War. We pass people holding up cheese to sell, smoked chickens strung along a branch, and honey. Then we arrive into the famous tobacco growing region which is known for the Cuban Cigar. Among the tobacco fields are the thatched tobacco-drying houses. Later we visit one of these farms. Next we enter the Valle de Vinales, a Unesco World Heritage Site. First we are taken to a lookout to see the huge limestone monoliths which dot this part of the region. They are huge rocks hundreds of feet high that cover a valley floor. Over the centuries the limestone bedrock has been eroded away inside some of these monoliths by underground rivers creating vast caverns. Oh help Ann not another “underground” experience. I will need to “ psych” myself up for this. Me and caves are not too compatible!!!! Then it is off to visit one of these caves. This particular cave you enter on foot and leave by boat, but, there is a long que for the boat waiting inside the cave at the far end, so we have to wait, outside thank goodness. While waiting we sit next to a setup of what the local Taino Indian people had lived in and what they used. Next thing a guy in a loin cloth with painting over his face and body comes out of his tent and calls me over to blow the conch shell. Thank goodness I can do that. Next he passed me his “condor” to hold – no I actually think it is some type of hawk !! Then I am given a jutia – tree rat about the size of a cat – which runs up my arm. OK this does divert my attention away from that cave opening, but I am now over handling the wild life thank-you.

Road to Valle de Vinales

Then our turn comes to enter the cave. The floor has a neat concert path laid, the ceiling is high, and we only have to pass through one narrow area where one duck to get through. So far so good. But the que to get into the boat is still long and we have to wait about half an hour. I was happy to see daylight at the other end and hop out of the boat before the weir !!!!

We were then taken to a very local village for a very local lunch, but this is what makes these places so interesting. Beans, rice, a mix of the different yams, chicken, fish, and sliced tomatoes. All totally organic. Washed down with the local beer or mango juice. Then we set off to visit a tobacco farm. Our final visit was to see the Mural de la Prehistoria – this has been painted on the face of a monolith by a the Cuban painter Leovigildo Gonzalez. It depicts the history of evolution. Then we return to the marina – a good two hour drive back.

Our next job the following day was to visit the local market and supermarket to top up supplies, as once we leave Marina Hemingway and head towards the western tip of Cuba, I think we will be pretty isolated as far as towns and shopping goes. This time we are taken by Carlos’s Uncle in his green Dodge. The fruit and vegetable market was basic but we were able to find enough. The supermarket was an interesting experience. Many of the shelves were totally empty. Shampoo was overflowing from the shelves. As far as tinned foods there was very little choice beans and beans, but I could stock up on olives and the local coke if I had wanted. The freezers had chicken and chicken. There was a long line at the fresh meat counter which I did not join only because it was too long. My freezers were still well stocked. I could not buy bread or eggs here, but that was no problem as our driver knew where we would find those. We were again taken to a market area where I could buy fresh or smoked pork. I opted for a piece of smoked pork and paid a pittance. I was also able to buy eggs. Then it was on to the bread shop. This was like walking into a lovely bakery come cake shop one would find anywhere in the modern world.   So all stocked up and we head back to the Marina.

After a week in Marina Hemingway it is time to start moving again. Our visa is for 30 days, but is renewable if we wish for another 30 days. First we need to move back to the custom dock to be checked out by the Guarda Frontera. I hand over a list of all the places we would like to visit along the coast line which we were told needed to be done, to find that this is no longer necessary. All they want to know is our next intended stop. If there is not a Guarda Frontera post there – as many of the Cayos and bays are quite isolated, one just checks in where they come to the next one. We have a lovely sail to Bahia Honda 38nm west of Hemingway and motor up the channel to find another catamaran also at anchor here. The Frontera building here looks quite deserted apart from some animals wandering about. Later we do see people walking about also, but think they may be fishermen as no one comes out to either of us. We have been told in most cases the Frontera will row out to you. What we do find rather interesting at the places we visit is that the Guarda Frontera do not have motor boats, and are also unarmed. Only once do they come out to us, and yes they row in an old wooden boat. Bahia Honda was just a night stop. Once inside the channel it opens into a large sheltered bay which seemed to be home to a graveyard of old ships. The waters here were not really conducive to swimming, and mangroves were surrounding the area.

A yummy dinner thanks boys

The next stop was Cayo Paraiso where we negotiate our first reef entrance. Also it is the Island Ernest Hemingway supposedly used as a base for anti-submarine patrols in the Second World War, and as later as his hideaway. This we all wanted to see. As we are motor sailing along the coast Judith catches half – yes half, a barracuda – we are not sure what took the other half as she was pulling it in. A little later Graham catches a whole barracuda. We are not keeping them as we are told that they carry the ciguatera poisoning along this coastline. Ciguatera is a seafood related disease found in large reef-feeding fish, or large predators of reef fish, and is found in some tropical waters around the World. Once safely inside the reef we motor slow with Judith and I up front watching the bottom skimming past, and drop anchor off the Cayo. As we are doing so two fishermen are paddling out to sell us crayfish. We buy seven for $20. Well that takes the hard work away from us for a couple of meals or so. Then out of the mangroves paddle two more fishermen to sell us more. We felt bad sending them away empty handed. Now our charts, the guide book and the chart plotter all told us we were are Cayo Paraiso, but we are convinced this was not the island Ernest Hemingway used. For a start there was only one island not two, and there was no evidence of ever any buildings having ever been built here. We took the tender ashore and did a complete circumnavigation of the island on foot. The only evidence of any life were crabs and a small fisherman’s thatched lean-to for shelter. The place does not look like the picture in the Cruising Guide, not even if there had been a major hurricane to change things. Still we do enjoy this stop. After studding the charts Alec has found a shorter way out through the reef to open waters again. We follow our track back for .3nm then head across the shallows, again with Judith and I up front on watch. The depth drops to half a meter under the keels, but then we are clear. The seabed here is mainly grass and sand, but it is still a little nerve racking till you are back in deep water again. Then its sails up, fishing rods out and we are heading west again.

Our next stop is Cayo Jutias with its yellow and black striped lighthouse sitting at the northern end. Our first evening is spent anchored just inside the reef – a little rolly, but we were safely anchored as we did not want to continue across the shallows till daylight. The next morning we have to wait till the fishermen have pulled in their net which they set across our bow the evening before, then we motor over to the lighthouse and drop anchor – again in seagrass, but the holding is excellent. We take the tender ashore to explore to find the lighthouse is closed, so we are unable to climb to the top for the view. In fact it looks as if it is rather dilapidated with some of the huge steel girders holding it together, now only hanging by bolts at one end. Another hurricane and it looks as if it would topple over. A concrete truck was there along with some workmen who had just poured a new concrete slab which we presume is the foundation for a new lighthouse. We walked for some way along the road to find the “magnificent” white sandy beach which runs along the north side of the Cayo, but gave up on this when we could see it was some miles away, so headed back to Shamal. Alec and I later in the afternoon head out across the bay in the tender to explore another little Cayo – Cayo Restinga del Palo.

Cayo Restinga del Palo

Next morning it is back out through the reef again, sails up and rods out, but thank goodness the barracuda stay away on this leg. We do pass through schools of tuna, but unfortunately it is not our day to catch any. After a run of about 40nm we cross back through the reef again and head to the fishing town of Los Arroyos some 10nm away.   Alex is motoring around to find a good spot to drop anchor away from the dock and far enough out to avoid the bugs which can become a big problem at dusk, when two guys start out from the dock in a row boat. We seem to move further out into the Bay, and once we have dropped anchor they come out and ask for our papers which we duly had over. Then they say NO not here, NO sleep, go on!!! Oh thanks a lot, it is nearly sunset, can’t we just sleep and move on in the morning – NO!!!!   They are not rude, in fact the young guy I thinks feels sorry for us, but we up anchor and motor 4nm along the coast, around a headland out of sight and drop anchor again. It is then time for a relaxing drink before dinner watching the last of the sun’s rays sink below the horizon.   Graham is finding the local rum quite palatable. We just need to change his pipe for a Cuban Cigar and he would really look the part.

Next day is Sunday. We have a lazy morning before upping anchor at 1100 only to motor 7nm along the coast and drop anchor again on the north side of Cayo Zapato. There is nothing here to go off exploring and see. The Cayos and Coastline are made up of mangroves which are surprising clean. Usually they are growing in clean sandy waters with the seagrass growing a meter out from their root system. Heron, Egret and pelicans are busy fishing around us. White sandy beaches are dotted along parts of the coast. So it’s just us and the bird life, and, the occasional fisherman, and yes we have read that there are crocodiles in Cuba !! Not sure if all over or only in parts, but we have not seen any yet !! It is so peaceful. We really are away from the maddening crowds here. This is quite an isolated part of Cuba.

Our next leg we are able to sail inside the reef for the 40nm run across the Golfo de Guanachacabibes to Marina Cabo San Antonio – we are almost at the very western tip of Cuba.   The sailing inside the reef was great. Within a short time I had hooked the first barracuda, and put it back. A short time later Graham hooked a bigger one – it went back. Over a period 3-4 hours Graham had five more strikes. Alec has now re-named Cuba BARRACUBA !!!!!!!!

SHAMAL at anchor off Marina

Marina Cabo San Antonio opened around 2007, but was closed after a hurricane destroyed much of it and did not open again till 2009. The Marina consist of a concert pier running out into the bay. With the winds the way they were blowing we decided to anchor off and take the tender ashore. The Marina staff, Guarda Frontera and restaurant staff could not have been nicer. There was even a “very small” shop for cruisers – which contained, rum, beer, large catering tins of fruit salad, and beans, and that was about it!!! But they opened up for us and Graham was able to replenish his liquid refreshment supplies. We went to the restaurant for dinner that night and were handed the menu which had a selection of seafood’s plus a couple of other dishes, to be told tonight we could have chicken. Chicken tonight, but crayfish tomorrow!! It was simple, chicken with rice and a large plate of sliced tomatoes and peppers for a salad. Not fancy, but we did not expect it to be.

The following day we walked the 3ks to the hotel set on the very western coast to have lunch. The beach was beautiful with powder white sands, coconut trees and those turquoise waters lapping in from the Gulf of Mexico. The Hotel must be one of Cuba’s remotest and is frequented by divers who come to see the reefs and vertical drop-off, plus bird watches with their telescopic cameras who photo some of the rare 172 bird species which can be found here.

That evening we complete check out procedures as we want an early start. We wake to winds out of the west between 18-20kts. This will make for hard going till we motor out through the reef and around the Cape, then it will be a downwind run. As we head out through the reef the depth sounder reads just half a meter under the keels – the bottom is sand here, but we are glad to pass through unscathed as the seas are 2mts and the wind has increased. We reef down the main and jib, and with the sun shining and the sapphire seas sparking we are on our way. We had hoped to make a stop at Maria la Gorda, but have been informed by the Guarda Frontera, that it is closed to cruising boats at the moment. That sits in from Cabo Carrientes, the second cape off the western end of Cuba, so we are now heading for Cabo Frances, which lies on the eastern shore of mainland western Cuba.   It is 1900 as we drop anchor 2.7nm just north of the Cape. The holding is not great – sand over rock, but with plenty of chain out we should be fine as the winds and seas have dropped – in fact it is nearly flat calm. We have covered 80nm today and have a light shower of rain as we drop anchor.

Next morning I wake hearing voices. I thought we were in the middle of no-where, but apparently not. Through the binoculars I see people walking along the beach, and a horse and cart going along the beach as well. To where, well that is anyone’s guess. Mid-morning we up anchor after a leisurely breakfast, full sails up, and are now heading 084 deg – nearly due east – along the southern escarpment of the Golfo De Batabano towards the Cayos de San Felipe. We have a lovely sail arriving at Cayo Real mid-afternoon. This place is lovely, crystal clear turquoise waters and we are very fortunate that the winds drop and we are able to spend a couple of days here, as anything from the south, east or west could make this anchorage untenable. There are channels between the cayos which are nice and deep, but many of the entrances have silted up making it too shallow for us to enter to hide out in a blow. We spend the next two days exploring in the tender, beach combing, fishing and looking for crayfish. What really surprises us is we find the crayfish in shallow water just in the seagrass. Alec was able to get the first one very easily, later followed by three more. Another yummy dinner. We change anchorage heading slowly along the cayo in an easterly direction with Judith and I once again up front as we pass through the shallow waters, and are amazed to see the bottom so clearly, and yes, we see fish, starfish and even a crayfish on the sandy bottom !!!!!

Sadly time comes to move on again, as at our next stop Judith and Graham will be leaving us. We head for Marina Siguanea on the south eastern side of the Isla de la Juventud – the Island of Youth. This Island over time has had many names. The first settlers – the Siboney – name it Siguanea. Columbus arrived and claimed it for the Spanish renaming it Juan el Evangelista, but the Spanish did not settle here as it is surrounded by shallow reefs and miles of mangroves. It then becomes a hideout for pirates including Francis Drake and Henry Morgan. They called it Parrot Island. It is said that this is the Island that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s to write the novel “Treasure Island”. Later it was renamed Isle de Pinos – the Isle of Pines. During the 19th century the island served as a prison island, and it was here that the young Fidel Castro was detained. Then during the 1960s and 1970’s students from around the developed world came here to study and mass planting of citrus orchards and other crops took place. It was at this time the Island was renamed Isla de la Juventud – the Island of Youth.

With sails up we move slowly out into deeper water and leave the Cayos De San Felipe in our wake. Fishing lines are out. The barracuda are about again. Graham pulls in the first one which he lets go and as the line is going out, another strike – but this time it is a big fat mutton snapper – great. We need to enter through the reef again and cross Ensenada de la Siguanea – the big bay on the western side of the island which takes us into Marina Siguanea. As we approach the channel to the marina we can see there are new “sticks” marking a change as to which side one should pass. We can see the sandy bottom a little too clearly, and then we get a call from the marina saying pass to the starboard, keep those sticks on your port side !!!!! We skim in with just 4 inches of water under our keels, but once inside the depths are good. Three monohulls arrive later and have to anchor outside the marina due to the depth in the channel. We then do our clearance with the Guarda Frontera to be told we ALL need to travel by car to the capital of the island, Neuva Gerona, some 40ks. to the north of here the next morning. This is so Judith and Graham can be officially removed from our crew list by the Port Captain. Phone calls are made, and we are expected there by 8.00pm the following evening. Oh help no please make it earlier. Another phone call and it is changed to 8.00am. Still not a brilliant time, but a taxi is ordered for 0630 the following morning. This was not a case of us just making a few arrangements over the phone. Once again we find ourselves in a rather isolated area, but find the help of the locals wonderful. There is enough English being bantered around to sort things out.

Sure enough next morning at 0600 the taxi is waiting – Jose’ in his 1970’s Russian Lada. About 5 miles up the road we need to stop so he can clean the windscreen which fogs up – wipers not working. We travel through the interior of the island which at our south eastern end was scrubby bushlands. There are some quite dramatic hills which are visible from well offshore. The further north we travel it opens into more fertile lands with citrus and other crops growing. We pass the area where the international schools were built in the 1960’s and 70s’, and through the odd village before arriving into Neuva Gerona. We have half an hour to spare before our appointment with the Port Captain, and are dropped off at the office of the Guarda Fontera which sit two miles inland up the dirty smelly Las Casas River. There is an extra half our wait, then she turns up. A pretty smart young lady who has the paper work all completed within 10 minutes. Our taxi driver then takes us into town where we find a coffee, are able to connect to the local Wi-Fi in the town square do a little site-seeing, visit the local fruit and vegetable market, then head back to the marina. The main street which Judith and I explored, is rather pretty. There is a lovely church on the central plaza with colourful buildings with arcades which are pillar lined. Neatly manicured parks sit at each end of the main walking street. As it was a Sunday, town is only open for half a day and people were busy doing shopping, then enjoying coffee and drinks in the open-air restaurants where in one a band was setting up. The area is quite “basic” but has a charm to it. Due to the lack of fruit in the market our driver takes us to a fruit farm on the return trip. He we are able to buy Logans, star fruit, and are given a custard apple. None of what we were looking for, but the experience was something else. It was not like walking into a road side stall, no we were driven up to the shack with chickens, pigs, goats, cats, dogs etc. all running around. Not just one or two of them, but lots !!!! Mum had just done the laundry in the washing machine outside and the water is left to drain right at the front door. The farmer wandered off down into his orchard and just picked a little of what he had. This all came to under a dollar. We gave him more and that was when he gave us the custard apple. A guy had arrived at the boat the evening before and sold us onions, peppers and plantain bananas, so we really are eating “local” now.

Once back at SHAMAL we dropped off our goodies and are given a ride back to Hotel Colony, about a mile up the road, to have a late lunch.   This hotel was first built in 1958 as part of the Hilton chain, but was confiscated by the revolutionary government. It really does stand in the middle of no-where. Today it is a bit run down, but the setting is lovely with a long white sandy beach with coconut palms nearly to the water’s edge. It was full of locals who had come down for lunch and to spend the day at the pool. Again it was a very “local “ meal, but this is why one visits these places.

Next morning the taxi arrives at 5.00am to take Judith back up to Neuva Gerona to the airport where they catch a flight to Havana, then out to the UK for 10 days before returning to Dubai. It is sad to see them go as it has been a fun time with them on board. Alec checks the engines which makes for us doing a bit of a re-arrange of things. We are off our pontoon just after lunch with another change of plan. We had planned to sail along the southern side of the Island, but due to the winds coming out of the south east we decided to sail up and around the northern side of the island. We will have to face those winds at a later stage.

Our first leg was only 24nm where we dropped anchor off Pta los Barcos on the north western tip. In the morning we have those easterly winds and only motor 13nm across the top of the island and drop anchor in the shelter of Punta Colombo, a headland outside Nueva Gerona. There is a working marble quarry here, but we are away from the dust thank goodness. The winds in this bay are quite different gusting off the headland and swirling around the bay anywhere from 4-19kts. The holding is good so there are no problems.

Shallow waters Golfo De Batabano

Next morning with an early start we motor over to a pass between the string of northern cayos and motor through Pasa De La Manteca in front of the hydrofoil which takes passengers to the mainland. We are now back in those crystal clear turquoise waters tacking our way down the Golfo De Batabano towards Cayo Cantiles. After a 65nm run – due to tacking, we drop anchor on the N.E. side of Canal Del Rosario in the Archipielago De Los Canarreos. It is now dark, but we pick up another yacht anchored here on the AIS. The next morning we wake to see he is heading N.W. Alec now has to do a re-fuel, plus he notices the port engine is not pumping enough water, so checks that out. This is not the sort of place one needs break-downs, but through a process of ellimation, including a dive to check the salt water intake, he manages to solve the problem. There debris or seagrass in the intake on the side of the sail drive. Once that was cleared we were away again. By now the wind had died and we motored down to the Canal De Rosario and dropped anchor off the Monkey Sanctuary.

Next morning the winds are from the N.E. at 12-15kts. We go ashore to the Monkey Sanctuary to find they have already been fed and have withdrawn back into the palms and mangrove trees. Still we head off to see one of the inner lagoons and the bird life. We do see the flash of one small grey monkey as he jumps through the palms.

Later that day we start out towards our last destination here in Cuba. We are heading for one of Cuba’s premier tourist resorts – Cayo Largo. Direct flights come down from Canada. It is also popular with the yachties as an entry and exit point for Cuba with customs facilities here. The charter yachts also come in here, and yes it is a lovely spot. There are a number of tourists arriving here all the time, but in one’s own boat you are able to get away from all the hum-drum and enjoy the beautiful waters and beaches, swim and explore without being on top of others.   Once through the reef we find a great anchorage out of the wind, and over the following week are able to take the tender ashore to visit the settlement, and also around the different cayos. There is a small island just in front of us with iguanas we go and see. Here in the anchorage there are up to 12 yachts at any one time, particularly when a northerly front blows through for a few days.

So to sum up Cuba. It is very different from any other place we have visited. For the cruiser it can be hard work. It is bigger than we first realised. The coastline with its reefs need to be negotiated with care. For much of the time you will be away from the crowds, in fact at times totally alone as parts of the coastline are not inhabited. One needs to come well stocked as supplies can be limited, but you can live off the wonderful bounty of the sea. I ran out of bug spray and the mosquitoes and no-see-um nearly drove Alec crazy at dusk arriving in hordes in some places, particularly when anchored in areas with mangroves. But, the rewards are immense with beautiful waters, and the beaches are incredible. We were able to sail for much of the time with some wonderful runs between anchorages. The history is so interesting, and the people are so friendly. It is a destination that is still unspoilt. Yes we would recommend Cuba to anyone with an adventurist spirit. Would we go back – yes we just might !!!!

So with another destination behind us we will sign out for this posting.


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