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Part 1: Ft. Lauderdale to Key West

Our first contact with the Cuban authorities was loud and insistent. “Yacht Solera! Yacht Solera, flying the Canadian flag. Report immediately!”

We jumped to attention and looked around. We were one mile off the Cuban coast with nothing in sight except a decrepit fishing boat and two languid anglers who eyed us suspiciously.

We had no idea who or where our mysterious radio contact was, but we thought we’d better comply. So we turned towards the nearest port and began a charming visit to the island of Cuba and its wonderful people.

It was the tail end of a short but eventful holiday last November that started with a telephone call from Diego Nazar Anchorena, former member of the NYC and owner of Solera, a C&C 30. Always a bit of a fidget, Diego decided to head south a couple of years ago, single-handed with occasional help from his friends.

I helped him sail across Lake Ontario, down part of the Erie Canal and then the lower half of the Hudson River into Manhattan. It was a lovely trip through some of the prettiest parts of the United States.

His last request was very different. He wanted to sail from Ft. Lauderdale to Miami, Key West and then Havana, where he planned to spend the winter. “Would you come along?” “You bet!” I said as I grabbed the first plane south.

Marathon city anchorageHow does one summarize southern Florida. Well, sailing the Atlantic Coast was much like sailing in Lake Ontario in mid-July, with two-foot waves, a hot, steady wind, funnel clouds in the distance and monster motorboats all around. It wasn’t at all difficult. We sailed the 35 miles to Miami Beach in seven hours, stopped for dinner and went looking for a good anchorage. We were chased out of Cruise Ship Alley by the U.S. Coast Guard wielding very big machine guns, so we deked around them into the Miami Yacht Club basin where we dropped anchor for the night. Out of Coast Guard sight; out of Coast Guard mind.

We ran aground twice the next morning – right in front of downtown Miami – because the dastardly U.S. authorities insist on putting their red buoys on the wrong side of the channel (Take note, sailors!). After an hour of frantic waving, we were washed into deep water by the bow wave of a monster fishing boat and off we went across Biscayne Bay.

Sailing in the Florida Keys reminded me of The Riddle of the Sands, that charming book on coastal navigation by Erskine Childers. The dredged Intracoastal Waterway twisted and turned across flat, featureless bays and through mangrove swamps, often with two-foot shoals on either side. Diego would study the chart with GPS in hand looking for the next red buoy, often two miles away, while I scanned the horizon with binoculars, making sure we were on track. We went aground, of course we did, but only four times in 200 miles, a performance we thought was pretty darned good.

The winds were lovely – strong and steady easterlies carried us south and then west at a steady six knots. We would adjust the sails every six hours or so and drop them at dusk when we were ready to anchor for the night.

The wildlife was wonderful. Frigate birds and pelicans swooped overhead. Dolphins gambolled beside us, smiling as they passed. Flying fish flashed across our bows, skimming the waves before diving into the water off our port side. We saw a family of manatees in Marathon, a father that weighed nearly as much as my boat back home with his 3,000 pound bride and their two babies. They were a charming group that loved to eat fresh lettuce and drink cold, fresh water from a garden hose, but they were nothing like any mermaid I’ve ever seen.

Speaking of wildlife, Florida natives are a class apart. Our first encounters with the local populace were the crab fishermen who tend their pots wearing facemasks, dark glasses, baseball hats pulled down low over their foreheads and full-length white coveralls. They looked like a species of Jesse James crossed with an inner-city hoodie and a Star Wars technician. But there was logic to their fashion statement. Fishermen have a huge incidence of skin cancer from the constant glare and are doing their best to stay alive.

We can’t say we enjoyed their company. They are an angry, threatening people, who have laid thousands, literally thousands, of crab pots all along the Intracoastal Waterway. If they see you coming, they roar over and drive parallel with your sailboat, daring you to hit one pot, just one. If you do, of course, you end up with a thunk, thunk, thunk as the crab line wraps around your propeller and whacks the bottom of the boat on every revolution.

The sheer number of crab pots sparks the inevitable question. Can there be any crabs left? The answer, we were told, is that fishermen can take only the left claw. Then they throw the crab back into the water and catch it again the next day and the day after that. No wonder fishermen look so frustrated.

Florida residents are a suspicious bunch, but they can be very pleasant once they discover you’re not going to mug them. There were several hundred itinerant sailors in Marathon, a huge publicly-owned marina with 225 swing moorings. Many were retired, but a large proportion pretended to be working from home. “My boss doesn’t know I have a boat,” was a familiar refrain. “He thinks I’m in Ft. Myers/ Houston/ Boston/ wherever.” That made for some interesting conversations. One guy sat on his boat working out airplane schedules for American Airlines in Dallas-Fort Worth. Another designs valves for eight-foot high sewer pipes. Dunno. He made it sound exciting. An English grandmother spends her winters scooping ice cream at the local mall and one 25-year-old adventurer gave up his job in Minneapolis and sailed his Macgregor 26 down the Mississippi River all the way to the Florida Keys. Bahamas is next, he said, or maybe England.

Many Floridians are definitely a little, um, strange. I wandered over to the local courthouse as part of my exercise routine and started chatting with a very bored security guard. It wasn’t long before he was demonstrating his handy-dandy Taser gun, especially for me. Zap zap zap. He zapped a spot on the tile floor. “They shot me with the Taser in my training routine,” he said proudly. “It was bad. I’d rather be pepper-sprayed three times than Tasered once.” He actually quantified it. Three times, not two, not four. Then he showed me his Glock 40-cal. pistol with its hollow-point dum-dum bullets. “If a guy is coming towards me with a knife, I want stopping power,” he said. Luckily, he didn’t demonstrate.

our route - key largo westAfter that conversation, we were glad to move on to points west. We paid our marina bill, loaded up with water and sailed 29 miles west to Big Pine Key where we found a secluded spot in a gorgeous, quiet bay with no highway traffic, no motorboats and no Taser-wielding security guards, just calm water, bright sun and trees in the far distance. A 50-foot yawl sat at anchor not far away. A fisherman drifted by to say hello. A sprit-sail dory swooped past to show off his rig.

But time was pressing so we raised anchor next morning and headed for Stock Island, the industrial fishing port of Key West. There’s a brand-new marina there, very posh and very empty, just waiting for the first winter season to bring some business.

A short-order shrimp cook runs a delicious food truck on the dock, right next to the fuel pumps. He spends his summers long-lining in the Labrador Current north of Newfoundland and his winters in Florida trying to get warm again. “I’m still shivering,” he said. There was a lonely young mother who lives on a catamaran with her six-year old son for weeks at a time waiting for her husband to return from his roughneck job on the oil rigs. Then there was a proud motor boater who gritted his teeth as I told him we had burned a total of $7 in gas on our 200-mile journey from Ft. Lauderdale. Ha!

I don’t have to tell you about Key West. It’s charming but crowded and very touristy. After a day wandering around the bars and gift shops, Cuba was far more appealing. So, we started the motor, tossed off the lines and headed south.

Watch for Part II: Arrival in Cuba next month

by Oliver Bertin