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.

Let us know you are out there by joining our site. Click on the Join link under our profile on the right side of the screen. Enjoy the Pics!

IPad Users Click Here

Double click on the picture to make it larger 


Ken n Cheryl said...

Wow, two rollovers and a dismast ... hope we don't experience anything like that when we start cruising next year! Glad they (and their boat) are okay!

Mid-Life Cruising! said...

Wow, two rollovers and a dismast! Hope we don't experience anything like that when we start cruising next year!

Glad they (and their boat) are okay!

Anonymous said...

Hi Addison and Pat
Funny to read the other side of the story. I remember the relief we had to hear you on the VHF.
Safe sailing
Jean-Yves Laurence and the 4 kids from HINAYANA