Saturday, April 30, 2011

On to Cuba - The forbidden fruit

The digital time display on my chart plotter showed 2:58AM as I walked forward by the light of the waning gibbous moon to pull the hook from our Raccoon Cay anchorage. The wind was a steady 17 knots out of the north east so Pat really had to goose some power to drive Threepenny Opera up on her chain. Although it was the first time we had pulled the anchor in the dark, it was really a non-starter as the moon was bright enough to cast shadows. Nevertheless I took a deep breath as Pat headed our bow towards open water because the winds were slightly higher than forecast and we were venturing out on unfamiliar waters heading for an unfamiliar country. The date was April 20 and it was our 32nd wedding anniversary!

Our plan was to have the hook off the bottom by 3:00AM so that we could make the 79nm hop across the Old Bahama Channel and arrive in Puerto La Vita Cuba during daylight. By 5:30 the sky was starting to brighten and the winds were steady at 17 knots as we approached the southern edge of the Great Bahamas Bank. In the next 30-45 minutes we would pass from the relatively sheltered waters of the banks into the deep ocean, where the depths would plunge to over 6000 feet. Practically we were floating on the surface, but psychologically the thought of being more than a mile off the bottom out of sight of any land was a little intimidating.

Although Threepenny Opera felt surefooted and stable in the quartering winds, there was a fair amount of green water splashing across our decks as periodic waves slapped on our sides. In the increasing daylight we could see that the waves were about 6 feet high but the sea appeared to be running from multiple directions resulting in triangular shaped waves, a few of which crested over our decks. Fortunately we were able to keep warm and dry under the protection of the dodger as we wedged ourselves against the coamings to prevent our coffee from spilling too much. Cuba which had seemed just a word until now, was about to become a reality.

Our point of no return was 10:30AM and as the hour approached the boat was locked onto the rhumb line to La Vita like a freight train on rails. The seas had become less confused as we moved away from the turbulence caused by the deep ocean meeting the shallow banks and the knot meter was holding steadily above 7 knots. There were still waves splashing the decks, but overall the ride was bearable, however Pat who normally has an iron stomach started to feel the effects of the sloshing, likely falling victim to a short night and an empty stomach.

Most of the morning was spent hanging on as the boat pretty much sailed herself and by early afternoon the faint smudge of Cuba appeared on the horizon. At first it looked like a series of islands, but as we drew closer it became apparent that what we had seen initially were the tops of some fairly substantial hills. Shortly after 2:00PM we entered Cuban waters and made our first radio call to the Cuban Guarda Frontera to announce our arrival.

Our guide book had suggested we contact Guarda Frontera, or failing that the harbour master or El Capitania. As I tried to wrap my tongue around the foreign syllables it was hard to not giggle. Although I knew that the business of contacting the border authorities in a communist state was not a trivial matter, the image of a couple of cigar smoking guys in military uniforms huddled around a radio trying to decipher the babble of an obviously confused gringo was too much to take! Fortunately our calls were met with silence, so either the guys with the cigars didn’t hear me, or they too were rolling on the floor laughing.

After several attempts at calling we were eventually rewarded with a response from a heavily accented voice that identified itself in English as Marina Vita, followed by a series of phrases in lightening fast Spanish. Pat and I looked at each other and shrugged. Having no idea of what was being asked of us; I announced our boat name, our destination and the fact that we were Canadians. We must have been close to the mark in our responses because the next question was “How many people in boat” I answered that we were only two on board but I was met with silence. In the absence of any further communications or instructions, we continued our drive towards the coast.

The channel leading into the harbour at Puerto La Vita is well buoyed and impossible to miss, as it is marked by a 130 foot high light house. As we entered the channel a different English voice came over the VHF instructing us to turn right at the bifurcation buoy and follow the channel past the last red marker to drop my anchor in the open area away from the channel. When I radioed back for clarification I received the same instructions verbatim, after moment it dawned on me that I was being presented with a written script.

As my anchor went down I had my fingers crossed hoping I had interpreted the directions correctly. After a couple of minutes a small runabout with two men aboard approached our swim platform. The passenger asked for permission to come aboard in perfect English. He introduced himself as the doctor for the port and informed us that it was his duty to inspect our vessel and its crew for health and sanitary condition so that we could land on Cuban soil. Pat and I were asked a series of perfunctory questions regarding our general health and when he was satisfied that we were not carriers of tuberculosis or cholera he asked to inspect our refrigerator and freezer. After a quick sniff of our refrigerated stores, he went back to our salon table and filled out a rather impressive looking form granting us a certificate to release us from quarantine. We were welcomed to Cuba with a handshake and as he got back into his boat he told us to take our “Q” flag down and head into the marina.

While we were going through our quarantine inspection the wind had piped up into the mid 20’s with gusts approaching 30 knots so needless to say I approached the marina with more than a little trepidation. To make matters worse I could tell from a distance that I was expected to turn the boat and back into a stern tie Mediterranean mooring. As I entered the marina channel, I almost turned around fearing that attempting a stern tie in gusty winds would over tax my boat handling skills, when suddenly the wind dropped to below 10 knots. Apparently the marina was set into a cove that was sheltered from the wind by a high embankment, and although the wind was still howling as it did every afternoon at that time, the area by the docks was in the lee of the embankment and almost dead calm. I am still patting myself on the back as I slid Threepenny Opera between the mooring buoys and secured the lines as if it were an everyday occurrence, even though it was my very first time.

Within minutes of shutting down the engine a team of uniformed officials trooped down the dock towards our boat. The unofficial leader of the group was the Guarda Frontera officer who spoke the best English and on behalf of the other officials asked for permission to board our boat. As they climbed down from the seawall to board Threepenny Opera, each official took the time to remove their shoes and boots in a comic gymnastic dance and shook hands with Pat and me before going below and seating themselves around our salon table. To Pat and me, it felt more like we were inviting guests into our home than submitting to a border inspection.

In the vein of entertaining company Pat offered cold drinks which were gratefully accepted and for the next 30 minutes or so I provided answers to questions on the forms proffered by each government department. Unlike other countries however, the officials filled the forms out on our behalf and presented them to us for signature at the end of the interview. I signed documents for immigration, customs, veterinary inspection, pest control and a cruising license. The entire process was conducted with the utmost in professionalism and courtesy. Once the forms were completed each official gathered up his work and welcomed us to Cuba with another handshake, and reversed the dance of putting on shoes and climbing back up the seawall onto the dock. In all the formalities took about 1 hour, but it was a completely painless procedure that left a very positive impression of the country. Perhaps the US Homeland Security dept could take note, but that might be too much to dream for!

We are safe and we are legal! Next we need to go into town to get some Cuban money, so we can pay our various fees totaling $100 to the different departments, but that will take place manana….now it’s time for a cold beer! We have arrived!

Have a great week, I know I will!


P.S. Let us know you are out there by subscribing to the blog. Click on the “follow this blog” link, just below our profile photo.
Double click on the picture for the captions, run the slideshow to view the pics full screen. if you do not see any pictures below, make sure you have Adobe flash player installed. To install flash copy this link into your browser

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Jumentos - Fishing and flashing that is!

I felt my sphincters constricting as I silently repeated the mantra of I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…..unlike the Little Red Engine that could however, Pat and I were on the verge of becoming the Catalina Sailboat that couldn’t. Up to this point everything was going perfectly, we had timed our departure from Georgetown to coincide with the tides, the weather was benign and apart from a finicky chart plotter everything on the boat was working. Now exactly 3 hours after leaving the safety of Georgetown Harbour, I found myself staring down the twisting swirling, almost dry maw of Hog Cay Cut.

Hog Cay is a non descript chunk of rock that marks the southern extremity of Little Exuma Island. The cut which bears its name is the gateway to the west side of Little Exuma and must be traversed by any vessel wishing to explore the wilds of the curving chain of Cays known as the Jumentos and Raggeds. It is a narrow 100 foot wide S shaped pass that hosts a roaring current at all times except for a few minutes at slack water. At the western end of the pass is a coral bar that carries just enough water for our 5 foot keel to pass over it if we didn’t find the odd rock or two that were sticking up. Once over the bar, there is another 3 miles or so of absolutely featureless and uncharted shallow water. The alternative to going through the cut was to take an extra day going to Long Island and then back tracking through a less threatening pass known as the Comer Channel.

Since friends whom we respect as sailors and navigators had traversed the cut recently and provided us with a series of GPS waypoints which we could use to navigate the bends, we decided to time the tides and make the attempt to get through. Of course the GPS chartplotter which had been acting up, but still functioning following a software upgrade, decided to quit working the moment we crossed the threshold into the cut. Suddenly instead of following GPS way points we were now committed to eyeball navigation with Pat standing on the bow pulpit as the lookout scanning for toothy rocks. The depth sounder numbers decreased steadily and rapidly until it showed a mere 2 feet under the bottom of the keel as we came out of the last turn and approached the coral bar. Pat was calling back steering instructions as the depth sounder dropped under 1 foot of clearance. As I held my breath, I kept telling myself that many others had made the passage without mishap, otherwise the banks of the channel would be littered with the hulks of broken boats.

Reason however has little place when your home is suddenly less than the height of a beer can off of a rocky ledge and the current is sweeping you along at several knots despite the engine being in idle. And then we were over the bar. The bottom turned back to sand, but the depth sounder stopped changing at about .9 feet and now there were only miles of smooth white sand in front of us. At least if you hit sand, you won’t break anything so I breathed a little more slowly. Fortunately I had noted a heading to steer during the planning stages of our trip and now I reverted to blind faith and pilotage as I followed a dead reckoning course towards deeper water. After what seemed like an eternity the depths slowly rose and we found ourselves on the banks heading towards our first landfall in the Jumentos.

Unlike the Abacos and the Exumas, the Jumentos are unpopulated with the exception of the small fishing community of Duncan Town at its southern extremity about 100 miles from our current position. Annually not many more than 100 cruising boats pass through the Cays in search of the clearest water in the Bahamas and the absolute solitude afforded by very few other locations on the planet.

For Pat and me the trip into the Jumentos was a logical stretching of our skills. The Florida Keys was the beginner class, the Abacos were the intermediate and the Exumas were the advanced class. By traversing the cut we were off the grid literally and figuratively as we were going to be completely untethered from any land based support for the duration. In fact the only outside contact we had during our time in the Jumentos was via SSB and HF radio back to Canada each morning.

Since few make the trip, the islands are completely deserted and the beaches are largely untouched. Most importantly however the water is crystal clear and the fish and conch are teeming in the waters. On Flamingo Cay, which is our favorite spot to-date, it was possible for Pat to pick conch in knee deep water and for me to hunt fish by walking off of the beach with my spear. We have also discovered the delicacy that our fish books call Queen Trigger fish but the Bahamians call Turbot, a fish that is as tasty as it is pretty.

As our supplies started to run down, we were slowly making our way towards Duncan Town where we had hoped to replenish our onions and eggs. The plan was to pick up a few supplies and return to the solitude of the islands for another several weeks, but serendipity marks the life of the cruising sailor. One evening I was dialing a frequency on my SSB to call a friend who was heading north. Instead of making my intended contact, another familiar voice popped on line and inquired what our plans were for the summer.

I explained that our cruising license for the boat and our tourist Visas for the Bahamas would need to be renewed by early in May, so our intention was to stay in the Jumentos until then and then either head back to the US for a day, or cross over to the Turks and Caicos and then return to the Bahamas to restart the clock on our documents. The voice on the other end of the radio said “why don’t you consider Cuba, it’s actually closer than any of the alternatives and you’ll be amazed by the warmth and hospitality if the people. And yes you can replenish your eggs and onions for a fraction of what you would pay in the Bahamas.

The light bulb in my head illuminated with loud click as my brain began to evaluate the logistics of making the 75 mile hop across to Cuba. In the end I’m not sure if it was my stomach or my sense of adventure that clinched the deal, but suddenly we found ourselves securing the boat and staging for an over night trip across to Cuba. The surprising thing was that the decision was made, the plans were finalized and the departure date was set in a matter of a few hours. It seems that the confidence Pat and I have gained from living off the grid in the Jumentos has kicked our cruising reflexes into high gear. I guess we have made the grade so Cuba here we come!!

Have a great week, I know I will!


P.S. Let us know you are out there by subscribing to the blog. Click on the “follow this blog” link, just below our profile photo.
Double click on the picture for the captions, run the slideshow to view the pics full screen. if you do not see any pictures below, make sure you have Adobe flash player installed. To install flash copy this link into your browser