Thursday, May 31, 2012

Cienfuegos to Trinidad - "No es Posible"...."pero"...

“No es posible” (that is not possible) is one of those generic phrases that everybody who spends any amount of time in Cuba learns to take in stride. In fact the answer to many questions often begins with “no es posible” but the experienced Cuba hand quickly learns that the objective is to maintain the dialog long enough to arrive at the word “Pero…” (but…). If you are dealing with familiar persons, then “pero…” arrives quickly, often in the same sentence as in “no es posible” to take the local bus, pero most drivers will not say anything if you just walk on and drop your money in the box.

When dealing with strangers however, there is a ritual verbal dance which must be performed that in some cases can last quite a long time. For example if one inquires where they can buy some of the excellent local bulk rum (bring your own jug), you might hear  “no es posible” because you must have a ration book which is only for the Cuban people. If an overpowering desire to buy a 1.5 liter pop bottle of silky smooth rum for $1, causes you challenge the response by saying something like, we have friends who bought it last week and it was very good, the conversation will likely come to an abrupt end. If however you say something like, ”yes it is difficult for everybody these days” accompanied by an appropriate sigh, you might get to “pero” or you might get another reason why it’s “no es posible” requiring another tangential non sequitur with the requisite sighs to keep the conversation flowing. Only when you demonstrate that you are sympathetic and more importantly safe to talk to will you get to “pero” I have a cousin who doesn’t drink but would be willing to part with his rum ration.

If a cruiser were to accept “no es posible” as gospel every time they heard it, they will never leave their boat and eventually they will leave the country completely frustrated, having missed much of what the country has to offer. And so it was armed with this deep knowledge of Cuban culture that Pat and I became acquainted with the harbourmaster in Casilda, a small fishing village next to the UNESCO heritage site of Trinidad in Sancti Spiritus Province.

It was shortly after 7:00PM and I was feeling pretty mellow after having downed a very large rum on the rocks in the cockpit of Threepenny Opera as she swung gently at anchor in Casilda harbour. Pat and I had arrived about 2 hours earlier after an extremely rough passage running down the coast from Cienfuegos in 6+ seas ahead of a tropical system. On several occasions I had considered turning around, but since we had already spent 10 days in Cienfuegos, we were itching to see something new. Furthermore the swells at the entrance to Cienfuegos would have been in the 10 foot range and bashing into them didn’t seem like a lot of fun, even though the worst would have only lasted about 15 minutes.

The warmth of the rum and the gentle rocking of the boat was lulling me to sleep when a deep voice reminiscent of Lorne Greene came over the VHF calling for the “moto valero” (motor sailer) in Casilda Harbour. Since Pat and I usually travel alone, and we run our engine often while traveling, we have come to recognize that a call to a “moto valero” usually meant it was for us. Dutifully I grabbed the cockpit mike and responded with my best “Buenos Tardes El Capitan eso es La Valero Threepenny Opera” and as I said it, I could hear the Homer Simpson voice in my head say ”Doh!!” as I realized the purpose of the call.

There is loose rule in Cuba that when there is a marina in the area a cruising boat is expected to use the marina rather than anchor in the open. Our 1999 cruising guide did not have many good things to say about the local Marina Cayo Blanco so we had made a conscious decision to avoid it and drop the hook near where the local fishermen anchored. As it turned out that was a bad decision on two counts, firstly the local authorities are sticklers for the rules (mentioned in the guide) and secondly we were too close to an unguarded shore where anybody could have swum out and climbed aboard. I was just about to smack my forehead with the palm of my hand when I heard the dreaded “no es posible” through the speaker informing me that anchoring was forbidden.

We were not in a good situation. It was about 20 minutes before sundown, we were in an unfamiliar and very shallow harbour with charts that did not show the channel to the marina and the captain was half asleep in a rum induced fog. We’ve all heard the expression “it was the alcohol talking”, but in this case the alcohol was not talking but rather yelling a belligerent “no es posible ir” (it is not possible to go) There were no non sequiturs uttered, no sympathetic sighs, just a ham fisted and likely grammatically incorrect invitation to face off!

I will never know if a more diplomatic approach could have changed the outcome but after 5 minutes of partisan “no es posibling” in increasingly louder tones, a hazy memory of uniformed soldiers holding billy clubs swam into my consciousness. I don’t know if Lorne Greene could have called in the cavalry but suddenly the rum fog lifted and instead of continuing to yell, I acquiesced with OK OK OK we’re [expletive deleted] moving. I’m not sure how much English the harbour master spoke, but it was either the OK or the VHF license revoking words that brought silence to the airwaves. Pat could tell that I was more than a little perturbed as she handed me my PFD in preparation for engine start.

By the time the engine was started and our anchor had been pulled it was about 10 minutes before sunset and the marina was at least 20 minutes away. As I pulled back into the main shipping channel, I ran the throttle as high as I dared to cover as much distance as possible in the failing light to get to the approach into the marina before it became too dark to see. As the sun dipped below the horizon I edged Threepenny Opera out of the main channel and pointed towards a marker about a mile away on the other side of a now invisible shoal of mud and sand. Earlier I had seen a catamaran exit the marina on approximately the same track so in the absence of any other information I attempted to create a reciprocal path.

Pat was maintaining a bow watch as the twilight deepened around us. By now the marker was only about ¼ mile ahead of us and we were gliding slowly with about 1 foot of water under our keel. Suddenly Pat pointed to port of the bow, and then she pointed to starboard and started yelling Stop! Stop! Stop! Instead of stopping, I found myself stepping away from the wheel to see what she was pointing at when Threepenny Opera, like an obedient pet stopped all by herself as the engine rattled and stalled. By the faint glow of sunset in the west and the light of a rising full moon, I saw the line of floats streaming away on either side of the boat. I had run into fish net and we were caught like a fly in a spider’s web.

It was too dark to go into the water and after several attempts at using our Spurrs line cutters to free ourselves it became obvious that we were not going anywhere. My greatest concern was that our transom pointed towards the prevailing wind which meant that a squall during the night could easily flood our cockpit and possibly drive water down the companionway into the salon below. Fortunately sinking was not a concern as we were almost sitting on the bottom anyway.

I was growing agitated as I contemplated going into the dark, and possibly crocodile infested water with a flashlight and a knife. Pat and I were discussing our options when I heard a small knocking on our hull. I looked up to see an old man and a teenaged boy, possibly his grandson standing in a small wooden rowboat. The old man was pushing down on the top of the net with his oar while the young boy reached into the water and used a rusty knife to saw away at the net. I stood and watched in stunned silence as I shone my flashlight into the water so the young man could see where he was cutting. After about 10 minutes of cutting, the old man retrieved his oar and made a shooing motion with his hands as Threepenny Opera began to swing into the breeze.

The next morning in dead calm conditions I went over the side and in short order I managed to cut about 20 pounds of fishing net free from our prop. With the remnants of the net piled on our swim step we pulled the hook and motored the short distance into the marina anchorage where we were to remain for the next 7 days as torrential rain from Tropical Storm Alberto drenched the area and caused widespread flooding.

In a country where “no es possible” is the order of the day it is the simple things that stand out. Two strangers who came out of the night to offer assistance without exchanging a single word and then gliding into the night when their efforts were successful is just not something that happens in more “civilized” parts of the world. I have never figured out who they were, but their act of kindness will always be remembered. And it is because of  this and other simple acts of kindness in the face of “no es possible” that Cuba will always have a special place in our hearts.

After our week of drenching in Trinidad, we headed off for the Jardin de la Reina. The adventure contines.

Have a great week, I know I will


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Monday, May 21, 2012

The South Coast Part 1 - Broke but not poor

You like to see Monkeys? came the question in halting English. Pat and I were in our dinghy returning from a wonderful snorkeling trip on the ocean side reefs south of Cayo Campos in the Archipelago de los Canerros when we spied a small battered wooden runabout with two men aboard. At first we dismissed them as local fishermen, but as we drew closer together I noticed that the runabout was equipped with an outboard motor.

In the Bahamas or in the US, it would have been perfectly normal to encounter a small boat equipped with an outboard motor, but this was Cuba and outboards are as rare as hen’s teeth. I became concerned as the runabout turned and the two men aboard began frantically waving their arms at us. For a brief moment a flash of fear spread across my chest as I played through scenarios of being mugged by pirates in a deserted anchorage, and then by equally disturbing images of being interrogated under white hot lights by over zealous Cuban Guarda Frontera officers protecting their shores from Imperialist invaders.

Meekly Pat and I waved back and I slowly headed our dinghy towards the approaching runabout. As they drew closer we saw that the two men aboard looked more like the Tom Hanks character in the movie Castaway then they did pirates or Guarda officers. Sporting ragged shorts that might have at one time been swimming trunks and bare chested, both were deeply tanned from the relentless sun. I let out a silent sigh of relief when I realized that they were smiling and the arm waving was merely a friendly gesture in the enthusiastic Cuban style.

After the Monkey question, we were asked if we spoke Spanish and when I replied “un poco” (a little), I was rewarded with a machine gun burst of Cuban Spanish that rapidly overloaded my fledgling linguistic neurons. Slowly with a lot of gesturing and requests to repeat from both sides, we established that the two men were the custodians of the monkeys on Cayo Campos and they had seen us enter the reef and anchor in the shallows inside the reef apron. Since they did not get a lot of visitors they came out to invite us to visit their compound and to see the monkeys. When they saw that no one was aboard, they decided to make the best use of their gas and check the fish traps that they had set on the reef apron, which was why I originally thought they were out hunting for us. From this awkward first meeting Pat and I were about have one of the most memorable experiences of our 6 month visit to Cuba.

Cayo Campos is a 4 mile by 1 mile lump of coral surrounded by reefs in the Archipelago de los Carnerros.  Located about 25 miles east of the southern tip of Isla de la Juventud or in English, The Isle of Youth, the Archipelago is a string of islands which extends for 75 miles to the east. Forming a boundary between the relatively shallow waters of the Golfo de Batabano and 1000+ fathoms of the Caribbean Sea, the archipelago is one of the best cruising grounds in all of Cuba. The water is crystal clear and the beaches and reefs are clean and unblemished by the garbage and floating detritus that seems to accompany civilization. Cruisers who are both adventurous and hardy come from all over the world to sample the pristine beauty of the region, and for those who are really in the know, they also come to visit the Cangrejero monkeys.

Originating in Asia, the monkeys of Cayo Campos are one of two troops found in the Archipelogo de los Carnneros. The other troop is a different species and is found on Cayo Cantillies a further 30 miles to the east. On Cayo Campos the troop is mostly wild and members are left to roam freely about the 4 square miles of scrub brush and mangroves. How the monkeys came to be on the island is a bit of a mystery. The official line is that they were cargo on a freighter that was shipwrecked in a storm and the original monkeys were survivors that made it to shore and settled. The survivors bred and subsequently there have been two generations of new additions and the population today is in the hundreds. As part of a nature preserve program in the Archipelago, the Cuban government has established a feeding station and placed a permanent staff of four on the island to attend to the well being of the troop.

The less official and highly speculative explanation is that the monkeys of Cayo Campos and the genetically different group on Cayo Cantillies, are there as part of a secret Cuban research program to create agents for biological warfare. We were offered little evidence to support either story, although we did find it surprising that in a country where the basic necessities for human life can be elusive, that the government would appoint custodians who were charged with a twice daily feeding the monkeys with specially formulated high nutrition pellets laced with anti-biotic and anti-parasitic drugs. In the end the how and why the monkeys are there, is far less important to the cruiser then the fact that they and especially their keepers are simply there.

The next morning Pat and I awoke after a restless sleep to gray skies and light rain showers. The anchorage was very rolly, which accounted for our less than perfect sleep and for a brief time we considered staying aboard and skipping the shore visit. In the end however I was not motivated to exit the reef in the surging conditions so we were stuck until the weather improved; consequently we decided to brave the short but likely very wet trip to shore. At the appointed hour of 8:30 we approached the rickety dock in front of the monkey keepers house in our dinghy and were greeted by our hosts for the day, Felix and Dariel.

The two of them were part of a normally four man team assigned to look after the monkeys, but one of their members was away on a course and the other was back home on Isla de la Juventud because of an abscessed tooth. There are two teams and each team is posted to the island for a period of 4 weeks and during their stay they are completely isolated except for visits from fishermen and a few passing cruisers. All supplies must be brought in when they begin their rotation which means a fairly simple and limited diet as there is no electricity except for a single 75 watt solar panel used to recharge a battery that powers a single 12 volt fluorescent light and a small AM radio. Given the very limited power supply, refrigeration on the island was out of the question. Dried foods such as beans and rice, supplemented by whatever could be coaxed out of the sea was the diet for the month.

After touring the facilities on the island, which consisted of a single 4 room building that housed the sleeping quarters, kitchen, common room and privy, Pat and I headed out for a walk on some of the trails that criss-crossed the island, with the hopes of observing the monkeys in the wild. As luck would have it however the gray skies unloaded and we turned back to the keepers house in a driving rain with no monkey sightings to report. Felix met us and invited us to stay for lunch and wait for the afternoon Monkey feeding where we would be certain to see at least a few members of the troop.

As we discussed the possibilities of lunch and monkey sightings several small fishing boats tied up to the dock. The fishermen, one of whom was Felix’s neighbour back on Isla de la Juventud, often used the monkey keeper’s dock as a place to tie up and rest when they were not tending to business. In a matter of minutes the invitation to lunch turned into an impromptu pot luck with Pat volunteering to make rice and beans and the fishing crews pitching in fish and lobster. To provide their contribution, the fishermen started to dig out a pair of battered wooden oars and prepare their dinghy for a trip out to the reef. Thinking that they were heading out to the reef to pull a trap and fetch a few lobsters I offered the use of our outboard equipped dinghy as it was easily ¾ of a mile each way.

In a flash, three burly guys in wet suits jumped into my dinghy and headed exactly in the opposite direction from the reef and disappeared around the corner. Hoping that I hadn’t committed some linguistic faux pas and inadvertently given my dinghy away, I looked at Felix who began to laugh when he saw the expression on my face. Apparently lobsters prefer shallow, calmer water and are found closer to shore rather than out on the more turbulent reef apron. The big males hide on the reef, but the smaller more tasty ones are nicely herded up in “apartamentos” (lobster shelters made up of scrap metal, old pallets and bits of plastic tarp) that the fishermen have thoughtfully built in the turtle grass beds on the sheltered side of the cayo. Felix said the three guys were just going to get the lobsters the easy way and that I needn’t worry about my dinghy.

About 20 minutes later the dinghy rounded the end of the cayo and I immediately noticed that it was riding very low in the water and the three amigos in wet suits were kneeling on the tubes with one leg dragging in the water. I had been having a problem with one of the inflation valves and I started to feel guilty that I had sent them off without providing a foot pump to keep the boat inflated. As they approached the dock however, I could see that the problem was not with the tubes but rather the fact that my dinghy was absolutely full to overflowing with lobster. I figured that in about 10 minutes the three guys had loaded about 300 lbs of lobsters into my little Walker Bay. When combined with their weight and the 100 lbs of outboard motor, my 500 lb capacity dinghy was loaded with over 1000lbs. It was a miracle that it still floated!

Lunch was magnificent, everything was hot, fresh and tasty, and despite the simple one dish, one utensil table settings, the company and camaraderie made it one of the best meals we have had in Cuba. We learned that Felix was a trained surgical nurse who had decided that working out doors was more to his liking. Dariel had a daughter who was in medical school and Duarte, the leader of the three amigos who caught lunch, owned his own boat and kept his 30 year old single cylinder Yanmar diesel running with “Cuban ingenuity” and a little prayer. We gained more insight into the lives of the average Cuban over lunch than we had in the previous 3 months.

After lunch, Felix suggested that I move Threepenny Opera closer to their dock so that we would have a more comfortable anchorage. When I replied that I would love to, but that I didn’t have any charts to maneuver across the sand bars, Felix flashed another of his dazzling smiles and offered to show us the way before the arrival of the monkeys for the afternoon feeding. Perhaps it was the contentedness of lunch or perhaps it was peering into the drizzle across to the rolling and pitching mast of Threepenny Opera, but either way I decided to take the plunge and move the boat rather than risk another sleepless night on the reef.

From the moment I said OK lets do it, Felix took charge. He deputized Duarte and in minutes Pat and I along with our new crew boarded our now freshly washed dinghy (somebody had rinsed out the lobster bits and weeds while we were having lunch) and motored back out to the Threepenny Opera. The closer we got to the boat, the more obvious it became that moving was the right decision, as a freshening breeze was now generating a pretty healthy 2-3 foot breaking chop on top of the swell over the reef. Once aboard I started the engine when Felix motioned to the wheel and suggested that he drive while he sent Duarte up to the bow to act as a lookout.

Looking across at the choppy water passing over the featureless white sand I agreed to let Felix drive indicating to Pat that she should stay very close by while I went forward to help Duarte with the anchor. It hadn’t occurred to me up to that point, but most Cuban’s haul their anchors by hand, so when I pressed the foot pedal to begin hauling our chain with the windlass Duarte pressed his thumb and first two fingers together and started to kiss his finger tips as he looked up to the sky. Once the anchor was up, Duarte with a big grin on his face pointed toward the direction we needed and Felix who had an even bigger grin on his face slipped the engine in gear and we began to move.

Threepenny Opera is equipped with a full suite of modern marine electronics. There is radar, chart plotter, AIS-B, redundant GPS, redundant electronic compasses, auto-pilot and multiple computer back-ups, but here were two guys, who only hours earlier were ready to row out to catch lunch, driving my boat with only their eyes and experience to guide them. Despite the chop and the drizzle, Duarte pointed and Felix steered us unerringly across the sand bars into a deep but protected anchorage about 100 meters from their dock. When it came time to drop the hook, Duarte genuflected, looked to the sky and pressed the down foot pedal for the windlass and Felix backed on the chain as if they had been on the boat for years. It was a humbling experience.

After the boat was secured we all piled back into the dinghy and headed for shore as we could hear Dariel  banging on a gong to call the monkeys to dinner. As we approached the dock we could see that what looked to me like small bushes from a distance were actually small groups of monkeys huddled close to the ground, stuffing their faces with the food pellets that were being distributed by Dariel. There were hundreds of monkeys, some old and solitary, others younger and many were females carrying their babies. It was an incredible sight for someone who had only ever seen monkeys in pens and cages at various zoos. After about 30 minutes of almost frenzied feeding, the monkeys sated with their evening meal, dispersed and headed back towards the trees.

With only a few tails still visible in the scrub bush, Pat and I prepared to leave and as we walked back towards the dinghy, Felix came running up with a gift for us. To fill his time during his month of the island, he would gather small shells and glue bits together to form sculptures and collages that he would then take back to Isla to sell to the few tourists that came to the area. The pieces that he had were not very large, but each would have been sold for about $2 a very large sum relative to the $15 per month he was paid by the government for his month of monkey keeping. We were touched, and as we rode back to Threepenny Opera in silence, I reflected on the amazing generosity of the people we had met. They had very little to give, yet they were perfectly willing to go out of their way to share what little they had with total strangers. Those who look at Cuba from afar or from behind the gates of a 5 star resort will often comment on how poor the country is, but from this cruisers perspective they may not have a lot of money, but in other ways they are richer than many of us in developed nations have been for a very long time.

We will leave here in the morning to continue our journey down the archipelago before heading north east across open ocean to the city of Cienfuegos. From there we will re supply and start on the last quarter of our circumnavigation of Cuba.

Have a great week, I know I will.
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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Cabo San Antonio to Isla de la Juventud - Hurry up and wait!

Cuban Fuel Dock

Pan pan, Pan pan, Pan pan…. I thought I was hearing things at first so I continued to listen to my VHF when the call was repeated. Now, having heard it clearly, I waited for approximately 30 seconds to see if anybody responded. When it became apparent that nobody was answering, I called the vessel sending the Pan Pan and received an immediate response from a man who advised that he had just struck a reef and that he was taking on water. For somebody whose vessel was in danger of sinking the fellow was remarkably calm, certainly he was much calmer than me as I fumbled to find a pencil to copy down his position.

The Hinayana was a 15 meter aluminum hulled, French flagged sailing vessel with a family of 6 persons aboard. They had been sailing along just off the reef line after an overnight sail from Isla de la Juventud enroute to Havana when they struck something hard enough to puncture a hole in their hull. Once I plotted their position on my computer, I realized that although they were still out of sight from our present position in the Marina Los Morros at Cabo San Antonio, they were only about 3 miles away. Since the authorities were not answering his call I told him that I would leave the radio and go ashore to alert the local authorities in case a rescue effort needed to be mounted.

A frontal system was moving into the area and outside the wind was blowing a steady 25 knots with gusts into the mid 30’s and spray was breaking over the dock covering everything with a slippery layer of salt.  I walked sideways with my back to the wind over to the security guard on duty and tried to explain to him that there was a vessel in distress and that the coast guard needed to be informed. I was greeted with a huge smile and a cheery “no problem” in English but it didn’t take very long to figure out that he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. Fortunately I knew that our dock mates were a French couple who spoke multiple languages so I banged on their coach roof and enlisted their help.

Lysiane who had been a UN NGO prior to her cruising life, and could glide effortlessly between a handful of languages, explained the situation to the security guy. As he began to comprehend what was happening his big “no problem” grin changed to an “I have no idea what to do” frown. His job normally is to sit on the dock and watch the boats so his total marine skill set revolved around being able to stay awake, endure the weather on the dock and not fall off his chair as he leaned it on the back legs. Anything outside of noting who came and went was outside of his job description. In Cuba when the limit of authority is reached, the rule is punt!

Security guy scampered off to get his superior who was the dock master. The dock master arrived a few minutes later and Lysiane repeated her explanation of the situation and the dock master’s expression changed from one of appropriate official concern to a deer in the headlights helplessness when she told him that the boat was in danger of sinking and they might have to mount a rescue. Rescue requires a boat and apparently the local authorities did not have one. Hinayana was on her own.

When I returned to the radio, the French skipper, although still calm was clearly getting very concerned about his predicament as he asked me what the shoreline was like if he had to beach his craft to prevent it from sinking. I provided my 2 cents worth about shoreline conditions based on the information I had on my electronic charts and added that he was very close so I gave him a heading and the coordinates to use to find his way to the marina entrance. I also told him that I had notified the authorities the best I could, but that there was very little that they could do. If they were truly in danger of sinking, I was ready to untie Threepenny Opera and go after them, so it was a huge sigh of relief when he told me that they were still taking on water but that they were managing to keep up with the flooding, so unless things changed they would be able to make it into the marina.

Relieved that I didn’t have to leave my cozy spot alongside to mount a one boat rescue mission, I went topside to inform the now growing crowd on the dock that the vessel was not going to sink, but was inbound to the marina. Los Morros Marina is actually a single stone jetty with about 50 yards of useable length. The north east side is totally exposed to the prevailing winds and waves and is useable only in flat clam conditions. In the current conditions it was awash with 2 meter waves and everybody standing on the dock was getting soaked.

The side we were on was relatively calm, but with our 42 footer and two other vessels already alongside, it was full. There were excited discussions in French, English and really fast Spanish on what could be done. Several options were shouted over the howling wind but quickly the decision was made to raft the in coming vessel to the marina’s charter catamaran. By now the distressed boat was coming around the point and was only about a mile away.

The wind had risen into the 30’s and was gusting over 40 knots so silent prayers were being said as the distressed boat approached the side of the catamaran. The mast was about 10 degrees off of vertical and it was difficult to tell if the angle was due to listing from the flooding, or heeling from the wind.  On deck two teenaged girls scampered about rigging dock lines and cast them over to the many hands that were lining the outboard hull of the catamaran, and with the gentlest of taps the skipper brought the boat to a stop alongside as if it were an everyday event.

A woman stuck her head out of the companionway to see what was happening and then quickly disappeared below for a few seconds before returning to throw a bucket of water overboard. Once we realized that she was bailing, some of us jumped aboard and formed and impromptu bucket brigade. Others remained on the catamaran and with the help of the two teenagers secured the boat against the now steady 40 knot winds.  In the meantime the skipper had jumped over the side with a mallet and with his t-shirt and a wooden plug sealed the hole from the outside.  Within 20 minutes of entering Marina Los Morros, the emergency was over and everything was secure.

It turned out that Jean-Yves, his wife Laurence and their 4 children were heading back to France to end a 4 year circumnavigation. Some of the calmness during the emergency was explained by Jean-Yves’ training as both a fighter pilot in the French Air Force and as an airline pilot with many thousands of hours in heavy transports, but much of the favorable outcome was due to the seamanship of the entire crew and the closeness with which they coordinated their efforts. They had survived two roll overs and a dismasting in the southern ocean, so a relatively small 2 inch hole in the hull was a pretty simple challenge.

It was only afterwards that I realized that the only yelling came from the shore side. Within a few hours they had dried the boat, restored the salon to normal and were hosting an impromptu cocktail reception aboard, complete with freshly cooked plantain chips. It was during the reception that we learned from one of the Cubans that likely what they had hit was the engine block from an uncharted wreck. Certainly the damage to their hull, which was a near perfectly round 2”hole punched through 8mm aluminum, was consistent with striking a pipe or other metallic protrusion from a wreck. If anybody is interested you can put an X at 21°56.215'N  084°56.527'W, the charts show a shoal at those coordinates but with otherwise sufficient water to permit a 6 foot draft to pass safely.

And so began our week of sitting in Los Morros Marina waiting out the weather. Because the marina is at the extreme western end of Cuba and the prevailing winds are mostly easterlies, almost every boat that passes through Cuban waters heading west ends up here. If the winds are very high then everybody who is trying to remain in Cuban waters gets stuck as it becomes an almost impossible to travel towards the east.. During the 6 days we were stuck here, the anchorage as well as the docks were filled to capacity as vessels came in and found that they couldn’t leave.  Ironically the beach on the leeward side of the cape was flat calm so Pat and I would walk the beach thinking that we could leave, only to return to the boat a find unacceptably high winds. For the first couple of days it was a novelty to go ashore after being chased away from land by the Guarda, but one can only take so many nature walks, or drink so many Mojitos in the marina bar.

The gray skies, high winds, spray on the docks took their toll on crew moral so when the weather broke there was a mass exodus into less than ideal conditions. Ordinarily Pat and I would have waited for a longer window, but it did not appear that there would be anything longer than 48 hours of acceptable conditions in the foreseeable future so on the morning of the 6th day, we cast off our lines and headed around the Cabo San Antonio bound for Isla de la Juventud.  The wind had dropped from the mid 20’s into the high teens and was forecast to drop even more as the day wore on. By 1:00PM the wind had dropped to below 10 knots and I started the engine for what was to become a 600 mile motor trip across the south coast of Cuba.

Have a great week, I know I will.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Leavin’ Varadero – Assault on fortress Cuba.

I’m not sure if it was the acrid smoke from the burning sugar cane fields or the scratching of the cleaner shrimp as they scoured my hull for their breakfast that woke me up. The awakening was both physical and psychological. Time to get out of Dodge I thought as I stumbled into the galley to make coffee and turn on the SSB for my morning dose of Chris Parker weather and the daily chat with my Ham radio buddies.

It has been pretty easy to get comfortable in Varadero. After-all the marina was fairly modern, and unlike most other marinas in Cuba the water was potable, delivered with decent pressure and the electric power was clean and stable and the docks were well maintained and solid. The cruising community was very friendly and like us many had been there for several months, and in some cases even several years, so the docks were beginning to feel a lot like home. Between the nightly gab sessions over cocktails at the picnic table and the readily available supplies of wholesome fresh food, it was easy to forget that our original plan was to circumnavigate Cuba. There was always maƱana.

Sure we had been boat sitting for friends and we had also committed to other friends to tour the interior of Cuba but it was now the third week of March and Pat and I had been in Varadero since early January we returned from our Christmas trip to Toronto. Threepenny Opera had been there even longer as we had originally entered Cuba with the boat in December. We could easily find other excuses to stay, but the chewing noises of the cleaner shrimp reminded me that if we found those excuses, Threepenny Opera would begin to look like the barnacle encrusted permanent residents that had drifted in years earlier for just a single season.

Once the decision was made to leave, we began to prepare the boat for departure. Even though we hadn’t really gone anywhere by boat we found that much of the preparations that we made when we launched in November had to be repeated. The hull needed to be scrubbed, batteries needed attention, fuel was boarded, the engine got its once over and the larder needed to be filled.  Of all the prep, the one item we obsessed over the most was the latter, as eating well is an absolute must aboard Threepenny Opera. Whenever possible we avoid cans, instant or prepared foods and with the cornucopia of fresh produce and meats in Varadero we had become spoiled.

Our provisioning strategy was to carry enough fresh food aboard to last about 2 weeks so that we would have a bit of a buffer between provisioning opportunities to ensure a constant supply. Fortunately Pat had honed her food handling skills to a fine edge and we could routinely keep fresh veggies and eggs for 2 weeks without trying hard. Little did we realize that we would test our provisioning plan and Pat’s skills to the limit as we started our journey west.

Our first stop was Marina Hemmingway outside of Havana, which was, like Varadero a reasonably modern facility with good docks and acceptable water and power. At first I was horrified to see the marina electrician wire a 30 amp receptacle to accept my shore power connection without shutting off the power, but once everything was connected, the power was a steady 120v and A/C and water heater ran without protest. When I mentioned to the dock master what the electrician had done, he assured me that the electrician was very good at his job. When I said that even the best can make mistakes with live wires, he smiled and told me that they had several electricians on staff. I’m not sure if his glibness was to tease the gringo or if he was serious? I’m hoping it was the former, but I suspect it’s the latter.

Havana is the nation’s capital. All of the rules and regulations that affect cruisers originate here, and here is where all of I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed. Even though we were arriving from within Cuba, the procedures were every bit as thorough as our initial international arrival and in some respects even more so. For example we had to surrender all of our flares and all hand held electronics like the GPS and VHF. The latter were placed in a baggie that we supplied and sealed with tape from customs. The flares however were meticulously inventoried and removed from the boat for safe keeping, to be returned upon departure. The bright side is, I now have a detailed list of every star shell, parachute flare and smoke canister aboard, the downside was that it took the young guarda officer about 45 minutes to count and itemize everything…we have a lot of flares!  I’m pretty sure that we had more officials on the boat arriving and departing from Havana than we did coming into Cuba in the first place.

Leaving Havana after very pleasant 4 day stay we had managed to maintain and even augment our stores, particularly in the luxury foods categories. We were able to find large bottles of Rum that were not available in Varadero, pretty decent Spanish potato chips, and be still my heart, we actually found fresh albeit slightly dubious in appearance, ground beef for sale. At $4.00 per pound it was perfectly affordable until we remembered that the average Cuban only earns about $15 per month. It’s no wonder that only foreigners eat beef.

Little did we know however that once we left Havana with the exception of a single package of very expensive soda crackers we would not be able to resupply until we reached Nueva Gerona on Isla de La Juventud ( Isle of Youth) almost 3 weeks later. For the next 250 miles until the marina at Cabo San Antonio, where the aforementioned crackers were acquired, we did not go ashore except for a brief walk on the beach of a deserted cayo. It was not from lack of trying but there was no way that the Cuban Guarda Frontera would  allow us to go ashore.

We had heard rumours of the Cuban prohibition of shore visits, but we figured that surely with enough determination and guile that we would find a way to get to ashore. Our first attempt was in Puerto Esperanza a small fishing village about 40 miles west of Havana. We had  tied up to the fishermen’s dock after a 2 mile dinghy ride in from our anchorage and were pretty smug in our belief that we had found the hole in the costal defenses. The moment I stepped out of the dinghy we were greeted by a young Guarda Officer who in his rumpled uniform shirt and flip flop shod feet looked more like a high school senior than a guardian of sovereignty.  Accompanying him was the biggest obviously male German Shepherd, I have ever seen, and it did not look like a high school senior.

The Guarda officer shook his head to our request  to go ashore for food and water, but he indicated that we should go to Santa Lucia, a port about 20 miles farther west. It only took one look at the shiny canine teeth of his companion and we left without further protest.

About 3 miles from the entrance to Santa Lucia Harbour, our VHF came to life with a Spanish voice asking us to identify ourselves and our intentions. Clearly we had been spotted approaching by the local Guarda watch tower. Feigning a lack of understanding, I replied very crisply but pleasantly that we were inbound to Santa Lucia for food and water. “No es possible” came the answer to which I continued to repeat in cheery English that we were inbound to Santa Lucia for food and water. After several repetitions of the cycle, the voice called another station and after a brief conversation in Spanish, the voice that had answered eventually called us to say in broken English that we could not stop in Santa Lucia.

In my head I thought, “in for a penny, in for a pound”, and despite the protests from Pat, I repeated my intention to come ashore at Santa Lucia for food and water. By now we were at the entrance to the channel leading into the harbour, and I interpreted the silence on the VHF as capitulation. I was wrong.

We dropped the hook at the edge of the turning basin under the watchful eye of a group of kids sitting under a tree at the shore. As they watched I loaded a couple of water jugs into the dinghy as well as our documents and knapsacks . I had said repeatedly while feigning complete ignorance of Spanish that were coming in for food and water, and in my mind having a couple of water jugs was absolute proof of our bona fides.

Approaching the shore, a young Guarda officer motioned for us to approach the sea wall with a clip board he held in his hand. When we reached him we could see he was not smiling as he stepped in front of the bollard to prevent me from tying up. I clung to the chest high seawall, as an old Russian army jeep pulled onto the dock and four soldier types wearing helmets and carrying large white billy clubs disembarked and assumed a parade rest stance about 20 feet away.

One look at the potential beating awaiting me, my confidence melted and I reverted to a babbling  pid’gin Spanish to repeat my desire to come ashore for water and food. By this time I was stuttering and fumbling with my document pouch to pull out my cruising permit and my passport as if a few flimsy pieces of paper would prevent a whopping from occurring. The Guarda officer knew that his reinforcements had arrived so with a slight smile he reiterated that we could not come ashore, however he said that he could provide us with water from a pipe on the dock if we would pass him our jugs. I meekly handed them up and another young man in civilian clothing but wearing baseball cap bearing the Guarda crest began to unwrap what appeared to be a strip of old bed sheet that held a wooden plug tight to the end of a rusty iron pipe.

As the wrap came off, water started to leak from the end of the pipe and before the plug was fully removed the spray had thoroughly soaked the young man and splattered more than a little bit of water onto his superior. I started to feel guilty as the deception to go ashore was causing some poor SOB a lot of grief and even worse, I still was not allowed to go ashore. It took about 10 minutes to coax the water into our water jugs instead of spraying all over the dock and during those long 10 minutes the fellow with the clip board meticulously copied every detail from the front of our passports as I clung to the dock.

Despite being thoroughly soaked the young guy who had filled our jugs brought them over to the edge of the dock and gently from a kneeling position lowered them onto the floor of the dinghy. We offered money, which was refused; we offered some soft drinks that we had brought as an incentive which were also refused, and so ever mindful of the billy clubs 20 feet away, I pushed off and headed back to the boat. As I pulled away the two Guarda officers were spraying water everywhere as they struggled to put the wooden plug back into the pipe.

The north coast of Cuba is closed as far as cruisers are concerned. While foreign vessels are free to travel along it, stops which involve going ashore, with the exception of a handful of marinas along the 600 odd miles between Cabo Maisi in the east and Cabo San Antonio in the west, are not permitted. If one stops, one is expected to remain aboard, although launching the dinghy to explore seems to be acceptable so long as one does not come into contact with Cuban nationals. The exception appears to be near the tourist resorts of Cayo Coco and Cayo Levisa where depending on the whim of the local Guarda it may be OK to beach the dinghy for an expensive cervesa in a tourist bar. Outside of that however, any contact with Cuban nationals is strictly discouraged if not out right forbidden.

Thoroughly humbled by the Santa Lucia incident, and reinforced by Pat’s I told you so, I resigned myself to keeping to ourselves until we rounded Cabo San Antonio and moved onto the less bureaucratic and more laid back South Coast. We were going to try the south coast, and if it was as tough to get around as it was on the north coast our fall back position was to head to either The Caymans or Jamaica. We are optimistic however that we will have a better experience than we have had to date.

In any case have a great week, I know I will….despite the threat of billy clubs!

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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Cubans eat too! – Some hints to provisioning in Cuba.

Where is Mister Big Finger?? Like swimmers riding the surf, Pat and I strained our necks and urgently surveyed the swirling mass of faces before us as we were swept by a wave of humanity into the farmers market in the town of Santa Marta. A boom box was blasting out a distorted din of salsa music that despite its obvious lack of audio quality exuded an energy that seemed strangely appropriate as the soundtrack to the organized chaos of the weekly market. There were no scientifically designed, buying behavior enhancing Musak tracks here!

Our favorite butcher, Mr. Big Finger was nowhere to be seen.

Moving in the opposite direction was an equally impressive tide of shoppers who had already made their purchases for the day. An old woman, clutching a paper plate bearing a large chunk of cake and icing stopped in mid stream to lick icing off of her forearm as she was jostled in the crowd. Men pulled various wheeled contraptions ranging from milk crates tied to baby carriage wheels, to more orthodox bag carriers, all of which were laden with fruit and vegetables. Others, perhaps less well equipped but no less game, approached with elbows up and an assortment of plastic bags and straw baskets containing everything from fresh meat, bottles of raw un-pasteurized honey and trays of eggs, all hanging from their forearms.

Young and old, black, white or brown, able bodied or in scooters and wheel chairs the townspeople of Santa Marta, a suburb of Varadero, came out in force to partake in the weekly ritual of grocery shopping Cuban style. Many of the youngest were paraded about in their finest clothes by doting parents who used the occasion as both an opportunity to fill the larder and to socialize. And more than one person used a few shuffling Samba steps to approach and greet a friend with hugs and air kisses. In a country where organized religion is less prevalent and 6 day work weeks are common, the weekly Ferria as the market is known, is both a necessity and a celebration of the things ordinary Cubans find important. Family, food and friends.

Dressed in our boat clothes, wearing tired Tevas and sporting our obligatory cruisers back packs, Pat and I stood out as the obvious extranjeros (foreigners) that we were. Still we have been back in Cuba for over a month and our weekly forays to the market have given us a sense of how the chaos works. Unlike a sterile walk through the freezing cold aisles of a supermarket back home, shopping in Cuba is a participation sport that can be played either as an individual or as a team. For the crew of Threepenny Opera, Pat and I have discovered that the best tactic is to divide and conquer, she with the fruits and veggies and me with the meats.

Instead of relying on colourful packaging and labels to identify the contents of processed food products, the food here is real. There are no little Styrofoam trays with UPC labels identifying the type and size of cuts of meat, nor are there helpful tags with suggested serving directions around the stalks of strange fruits whose names have not yet found their way into our vocabulary. In Cuba you buy food with all of your senses and your instincts and not just your intellect. Each trip to the market is an expedition and an exploration of both the familiar and the new, and for Pat and me, is the highlight of our week. For those who find that trying a new flavour of store brand frozen pizza is a walk on the wild side, Cuba may prove to be a worthy challenge.

Despite the throngs however there is an order to the madness. A shopper is entitled to walk up to a vendor's stall and examine the merchandise in anyway they see fit. Examination can include handling the goods, prodding, poking, smelling and even requesting a taste if so desired. Often samples are offered by the merchants without being asked. Sometimes the offering is part of the sales process and other times it is just a neighbourly thing to do. Pat came home with a basket full of tomatoes a couple of weeks ago because the tomato sauce vendor wanted her to see the goodness of his raw materials. He asked for nothing in return and sent Pat on her way with a friendly wave. The tomatoes were delicious and since then his recycled 1.5 liter water bottles full of rich home made tomato sauce have been added to our list of ship’s staples. At a dollar apiece they are a bargain.

Once the decision to buy is made however, the shopper is required to inquire who is the ultimo, or the last in line and take their place at the end. “Quien es El Ultimo?” It doesn’t seem to matter how bad our Spanish is, the unspoken rule is that the crowd sorts itself out and you are accorded your proper place in line. Likewise you have to keep you ears tuned to the next shopper who inquires Ultimo? As you will have to raise you hand to show the newcomer where they must go.

What is not guaranteed however is that the merchandise you originally selected and motivated you to stand in line will still be available by the time you are served as the goods are sold on a first come first served basis. More than once I have lined up for a choice cut of pork, only to have the customer ahead of me scoop up the very piece that I was eying. In that case I can leave the line and move on, or I can take my time re-selecting another. Nobody complains if I take my time!

Hey Chino! Mr.Big Finger has picked me out of the crowd, and is furiously beckoning me to his stall which this week is in a different aisle than usual. He spotted me before I saw him likely because I have become a regular customer for his best cuts and also because a 6 foot Chinese guy, is a little obvious in the crowd. Being called “Chinaman” back home might have gotten my hackles up, but here it is the way it is done. There are no undertones of racism and the name only expedites identification, and I've learned to embrace it.

Pat coined the nick name Mr. Big Finger because he has hands like a bunch of sweet bananas. His short thick fingers can grab his macha [sic], a dangerously sharp cross between a meat cleaver and a machete and confidently whack rough yet deliciously familiar cuts of meat from the hog carcasses in his stall. Pork chops in Cuba, as they do everywhere start as part of a whole pig, the difference in Cuba is that the pig probably walked to the market under his own steam earlier that morning. The first time I went to the market I was alternately fascinated and horrified at the scene; fascinated because here was fresh food presented in all of its organic glory and horrified at the thought of actually having to eat the hairy, fly swarmed pieces of soft slightly warm flesh.

He pointed his macha at one of the carcasses that has been split so that the loin end was exposed. Some days the loin is too big, which means tough dinner plate sized chops, other days it is too fat which means a lot of trimming waste. Today the loin is perfect, a nice balance of meat on either side of the T-bone. Using a motion familiar with butchers everywhere, he hefted the carcass in his right hand and leaned forward to push the meat in my face, as if to assure me that the quality I saw at a distance was just a good inches from my nose. I gestured with my hands to indicate the size of the piece I wanted and with two whacks, I am presented with a jiggling chunk of meat that once back aboard Threepenny Opera, I will trim into tender and flavourful center cut pork chops.

It’s true you have to work a little harder here to buy food, but there is plenty of food available to buy. Cubans eat, and they eat well. For our efforts we are rewarded with the freshest most additive free food we have enjoyed in years. Ingredient listings are not needed here! To eat the same way back home, if it is even possible these days, would require an equal or greater amount of effort to seek out the boutique organic merchants.  And the bill would be astronomical and out of reach on a continuous basis for all but the wealthiest and finickiest foodies. Our weekly grocery bill here has never exceeded the Cuban peso equivalent of $20 US and to-date our freezer full of frozen meat from Florida remains almost untouched.

I chuckle at the warnings in the cruising guides on Cuba that exhort cruisers to plan for a voyage to Mars, to expect a paucity of everything, and to anticipate stores filled with dusty and empty shelves. While there may be some remote corners of the island where this might be true, nothing could be farther from the truth in any of the ports we have been in. There is plenty of food, but what is lacking sometimes is selection. A couple of weeks back every produce vendor had Bok Choy for sale, we ate the stuff with almost every meal until it was coming out of our ears but we haven’t seen it since. I’m told that another crop is coming ready shortly so I expect to see the delectable stalks on our dinner plates very soon. The downside of eating truly garden fresh is that when its picked, its gone!

Some of the foods we’re used to however are hard to come by. Ice cream for example is available as an inexpensive treat everywhere, yet fresh milk has totally eluded us. Apparently it is rationed for the young and those with a “medical” need. Beef is even more elusive than milk. To date the only beef we have found available in retail outlets is in the form of 8 oz tubes of soy extended Chilean hamburger. While it is tasty enough for a chili, it would make a pretty gristly and gamey tasting hamburger. Beef is strictly controlled and despite the large herds of very healthy looking Angus and Brahma cows found in the interior, unless one is staying at an all inclusive tourist resort, “Where’s the beef?” might apply in Cuba.

Gaps in the supply chain however are often filled by a vibrant and pervasive black market. Dealing only in hard currency convertible pesos, unlike the national peso vendors in the Ferria, the underground vendors are able to provide everything from $15 Single Malt Scotch to Uruguayan or Canadian beef, to Italian Parmesan, and anything else a gourmet first class hotel might need to satisfy their foreign guests. A few weeks back, vacuum packed 3lb slabs of Nova Scotia smoked salmon were making the rounds at $10 apiece, and whole beef tenderloins were $18.

Participation in the black market is highly illegal and will result in jail time for the vendors if they are caught. Foreigners might have their purchases confiscated and in extreme cases there is the possibility of a substantial fine, so the risk and reward equation must be evaluated by every participant. If the answer is to proceed however, a few discrete inquiries within the cruising community, or to the barristas and bar tenders in local establishments will usually result in a clandestine tap on the shoulder from an interested vendor. Getting to know “some guys” is a personal decision, but if however you figured out how to buy pot in high school, you’ll be fine down here!

At the end of the day, wherever you acquire your groceries; you will not starve in Cuba. Pat and I always have some reserve supplies, but almost anything we would normally buy in Florida or Canada can be found here, although the brands might be different. One could theoretically show up here with empty lockers and be able to completely re-supply for a very reasonable sum. As I put the finishing touches on the blog, it is Sunday morning, and as soon as I close the lid on the PC Pat and I will be off on our weekly foraging trip. We have a rough idea of what we are looking for, but the end result may be very different from our original intentions. All we know is that we will eat well this week and if you are what you eat then we must be in pretty good shape too.

The weather is warming up and the cold fronts are getting weaker and farther apart, so for the next few weeks, Pat and I will be doing a little bit of land touring to the interior of Cuba. Places like Santa Clara, Ciego D’Avila, Spiritus Sancti and Pinar Del Rio are on the itinerary. Whether we cover them all this trip, or save some for the next remains to be seen, but whatever happens we know it will be a grand adventure. When we get back sometime towards the middle or end of March, we’ll cast off and head west for our circumnavigation of Cuba. There will likely me more cruising stories to tell and new cruising friends to meet so stay tuned for more news as it develops.

Have a great week, I know I will


P.S. The internet, the utility that we have all come to take for granted is still in its infancy in Cuba. We are paying $8.00 per hour for bandwidth approaching that of dial up and we have to use the internet terminals supplied by ETECSA the Cuban telephone company. So far this post alone has cost me about $16. I’ll post more when we hit greener and less expensive internet pastures but in the mean time enjoy what I’ve managed to get up. If you are planning a trip to Cuba and want some tips on provisioning, feel free to send us an e-mail.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Year Four – Tread softly and enjoy the voyage

Threepenny Opera is tugging gently on her lines as the wake from a passing fishing boat reaches into her slip at Marina Darsena in Varadero Cuba. It is early December and it has been 3 weeks since we left Vero Beach and the land based life of rental cars, air conditioning and shoes. Pat and I are loath to dwell on it, lest we jinx the good vibes that we feel, but the both of us has silently noted first to ourselves and then more vocally to each other that we seem to be unusually prepared and organized as we set off on what will be our fourth year of cruising.

Our lazarettes actually seem to have space in them, unlike the jack in the box stuffed entities that we have lived with in the past. Everything has a place and so long as we remember where that place is, we can actually open hatches and locker lids without having flying objects landing on or pinching, crushing, stabbing etc. various unsuspecting body parts. Even though Double jointed maneuvers worthy of Harry Houdini and chess grand master like forward planning of our stores consumption 2-3 months ahead are still required in order to make best use of our finite space aboard, the phenomenon of crawling over the corn flakes to retrieve the Allen wrenches seems to be much less common these days.

Pat has been cooking even more gourmet meals than she has in the past. We have always eaten well onboard but the major milestone this year has been her forays into the baking realm. Now we can have an endless supply of wonderful multi-grain loaves so long as our flour and energy supplies hold out. While we might miss being caromed around in the subway rush hour like crowds that crush the counter at the local bakery when the racks of bread come from their ovens, we know that this year the experience will be by choice and not necessity.

Even the sailing itself has gotten better and seems much less frantic these days. While respect for the weather is still and will always be paramount, our minimum weather limits are broader and our ability to react to changing conditions has improved significantly. For example we broke our main sail furling line on our trip from Lake Worth to Fort Lauderdale a couple of weeks back. Instead of triggering a panic attack at the thought of an uncontrollable flapping piece Dacron, Pat and I tied off the clew as best we could, found an acceptable anchorage and made the requisite repairs. I shudder to think how we might have handled the same situation in the past, but this time, it was a non-event.

Our trip across from Marathon to Varadero saw us leaving Boot Key Harbour with a forecast of moderate winds and 3-4 foot seas north of the gulf stream with a freshening breeze and 3-5 foot seas on arrival the next morning. Our planned route was about 30 miles longer than the 92 mile rhumb line course so that we could keep the ride as smooth as possible by transiting the gulf stream perpendicular to the current. Our strategy worked as the gentle seas allowed Pat to go below and whip up one of our favorite cruising meals of Italian Sausage and Penne before sunset. The trip itself was pretty benign as a nearly full moon lit our way across the Straits of Florida towards our destination.

Things were progressing so well that by 3:00AM we were starting to slow the boat down so that we would not arrive at the harbour entrance before day break. As luck would have it the freshening breeze that was forecast arrived on schedule but with a little more intensity than expected. Once the moon disappeared behind the clouds of the approaching cold front, we found ourselves down to a postage stamp main and no head sail as we ran downwind in 25 knots of wind. Somehow Pat still managed to make coffee, although drinking it without spilling scalding hot liquid all over our chins was more difficult. By the time we arrived at the harbour entrance the seas were somewhat higher than forecast and the 4 meter high channel markers were disappearing under the breaking waves.

Conditions were not forecast to improve and there was no real alternate so our challenge was to time the breaking waves so that we could transit the outer markers and enter the relatively calm waters between the breakwaters before getting pooped or broached by a following wave. The rhythm was 2-3 8 foot waves, followed by 5-6 smaller 4-5 foot waves, so I maneuvered in idle as close as possible to the outer markers with the seas on the beam until we were rolled by the big waves. As Threepenny Opera regained her footing, I swung the wheel sharply, hit the throttle and put the bow between the markers. We were almost between the breakwaters when the next set of large waves hit our stern and pushed us around to a heading of 70 degrees off the centerline of the channel. I was cranking the wheel from stop to stop trying to maintain our position in the channel and given the amount of control I had, the experience was more like white water rafting than sailing, but in 30 more seconds we were through the entrance and into the calm water of the canal.

And so begins our fourth year on the water. It seems like yesterday that we waved farewell to our friends, family and regular pay cheques. One of our challenges this year will be to remain humble about our abilities and respectful of the sea as we continue our adventures. As the saying goes there are old sailors and there are bold sailors, but there are no old bold sailors.

I am writing this post from my sister's kitchen in Toronto. We are home for the holidays but in the New Year we are flying back to rejoin Threepenny Opera in Varadero Cuba. Our cruising plans are pretty open at the moment but generally we will attempt to circumnavigate Cuba and move towards the Exumas and Abacos as the weather warms up. Apparently there are man sized lobsters on the south coast of Cuba, so my spears are sharpened in anticipation. All in all we hope it will be an interesting year and hopefully we will find enough internet out in the boonies to share our experiences with you.

Have a great holiday season with your friends and families and of course have a good week. I know I will.


P.S. The pictures that accompany this post are of our summer road trip. We started in Vero Beach and drove to Toronto and Montreal via Atlanta, Lexington KY and Cleveland. On our way back we stopped in Dayton, Memphis, Mississippi, New Orleans, Pensacola and the Forgotten Coast of Florida. It was 6500 miles of land touring that while lots of fun, really gave us an appreciation of how fortunate we are to be visiting new places from the comfort of our own boat. Hotels, no matter how nice and restaurants of the highest caliber are no substitute for home sweet home. The pictures are largely captioned so I hope you enjoy them.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Cuba to The Abacos - Two different worlds only a few miles apart!

Huevos, huevos, uh huevos? Pat and I ran around the stalls at the Sunday market in Santa Marta like demented chickens whispering the Spanish word for eggs in hushed conspiratorial tones. We were greeted by the merchants with reactions ranging from shoulder shrugging indifference to amused curiosity to total confusion.  After all why would a fruit seller have eggs? But we asked anyway because in Cuba one finds that goods are not always sold by the expected merchants. In other provisioning forays we found very good quality Chinese soy sauce at the service station, cheese at the bakery and eventually eggs at the local snack bar.

We were unsuccessful in our quest for eggs that morning, as the last tray was being sold by the time we had figured out where they were being sold that day. Obviously eggs were in scarce supply, not necessarily because they were not being produced, but because the egg sellers had chosen to go elsewhere that morning. On the other hand foods such as pineapples, mangos and beets were plentiful and cheap. The concept of the 100 mile diet is gaining some traction in North America and elsewhere as a way of healthy eating; with limited storage facilities and less than ideal distribution systems in Cuba the 100 mile diet is probably more like the 20 mile diet. Eating local is not a fad, it is a way of life and the Cubans have learned to make do with what is at hand that day.

For Pat and me learning to shop for food in Cuba was sort of like learning to sail our boat in the early days. We knew basically what needed to be done, and we knew technically how to do it, but the execution left a lot to be desired. We are amazed however at how much meaningful communication can take place with a vocabulary that is limited to a handful of words, most of which were nouns or verb infinitives. It probably speaks volumes for the Cubans and their desire to accommodate, than it did for our critically inadequate language skills, but in the end we were able to re-fill our fridge and freezer with all sorts of goodies as we prepared for our exit from Cuba.

Pat found herself being led into a secret warehouse where she was offered 10lb bags of black market potatoes for $1, when other cruisers were shut out of the highly sought after tuber. Potatoes are a rarity because the local production is reserved for the resort hotels that cater to the “all inclusive” crowd. Perhaps it was her smile, her natural charm or perhaps it was the confidently uttered “pappas” that ruled the day, but she proved that where there is a will there is a way to get the job done! We even found our coveted eggs a few days later at, of all places an egg stall where they were being sold for $1.80 per 30 egg tray.

In Cuba there are two parallel economies. One is the convertible peso or hard currency economy, and the other is the Cuban peso or monada  nacional economy. As foreigners we are almost always charged for goods and services in hard currency and usually we are expected to shop at hard currency establishments, the one exception being the procurement of food. While there are ample opportunities to buy imported food stuffs in hard currency, there is no prohibition for a foreigner to shop in local markets and pay for their purchases in national pesos. Indeed it is important to ask specifically in what currency items are priced,  as a few unscrupulous merchants will try and trick a foreigner into paying 1 CUC (convertible peso) when the actual price is only 1 MN (monada national peso) 25MN = 1CUC

Most agricultural food items in Cuba are priced in Cuban Pesos with a few notable exceptions such as cooking oil, coffee and butter. Items that are priced in national pesos are by Canadian standards amazingly cheap. We were able to score bargains such as 5 pounds of onions for $1.00 and a gallon container of organic cherry tomatoes for $.30.  We weren’t able to determine if the prices actually reflected the cost of production, but I doubt that even a socialist would sell goods at a loss.

We were able to fill our larder with the essential meats, eggs, fresh veggies and bread for 2 weeks of cruising for less than $20. On the other hand we also bought some beer, rum, soft drinks, potato chips and coffee at a hard currency shop and managed to spend an additional $90 for the frills. In short if you are prepared to go Cuban, you can eat very inexpensively, but the moment you try to be “first world”, the dollar signs start to spin pretty quickly, although not as quickly as they might back home. For example top quality coffee is $ 7 per pound, Rum is between $3 and $8 per quart and honey is $3 for 500 gms.

The month flew by as our departure date, timed to coincide with the full moon approached. Our objective on this trip was to scout out the country and to see if it was worthy of further exploration. And the answer is a resounding yes. Plans are already hatching to spend an even longer period of time in Cuba next season with the objective of refining our language skills and discovering other parts of the country.

Our route back to the Bahamas will be a non traditional one, as our plan is to depart Varadero in the morning and make a land fall on the Cay Sal bank the same evening. While the 65 mile trip will technically put us back in the Bahamas, the Cay Sal Bank is a patch of shallow water fringed by small cays near the very center of the triangle formed by Cuba, Florida and Andros Island. It is definitely the path less taken, but Pat and I are beginning to stretch our explorer reflexes and we are anxious to apply our newly found multi-day voyage skills. The pics that accompany this posting are a visual treat for an area that very few people see.

Enjoy and have a great week. I know that I will


Addendum: We arrived back in the Bahamas after a 36 hour cruise up the Gulf Stream from the Cay Sal Banks. The winds were coming from ENE instead of the forecast E, so we ended up pinching as high as possible along the Florida coast for most of the night. It is truly a growth experience to sail past the mouth of Miami Harbour at 4:00AM surrounded by multiple inbound cruise ships, and dodging departing tankers and container ships. Our Class B AIS system earned its keep that night as we were both able to hail, and be hailed by ships to sort out the various collision avoidance maneuvers. I would definitely not leave home without it!

Once we were back in the Abacos, we were in familiar territory and the heightened senses of passage making, rapidly dulled to the laconic pace of the live aboard warm climate cruiser. The days ran together, and the anchorages, although each different, blended into a composite of sun, sea and fishing. The notable events of the summer were as always about the people. We reunited with our long time cruising friends Bob and Mary Ann from Queen Angel, and we met and spent some quality time with the crews of Eagle, Aroha and Kennel Up.

A broken tooth forced us to cut our stay in the Abaco short. Even though the nurse in Grand Cay provided me with pain killers and anti-biotics which controlled the symptoms, the thought of more eye watering pain was enough motivation to force a reluctant retreat. Despite the pain however, I managed to keep diving and practicing my new found swimming skills. It was a personal milestone this year, that I can actually jump into the water with a a snorkel and spear and go hunting fish. The water wings and supplementary flotation devices of the past, are now gone! The training wheels are off and next season will be even better.

I am writing the addendum from our kitchen in Vero Beach. The stock market has crashed yet again, London is burning and the world appears to be going collectively mad. Even though I won’t buy a newspaper, and we don’t watch the news, the hew and cry is loud enough to penetrate our sensory defenses. I am longing for the solitude and the truly “ignorance is bliss” life aboard.

We have been back in the USA for about 2 weeks and it is a little odd to be wandering around 3 floors and driving everywhere, but when in Rome….. Threepenny Opera will be hauled out at the end of August for a bottom painting and since it is hurricane season in Florida, we may well leave her on the hard until November. In the meantime, we will be looking for land projects and activities to keep us busy…..maybe a road trip….hmmmmmm?

Have a great week, I know I will.


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