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 mañana.

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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