Part 2: Arrival in Cuba
Continued from Part I
Everybody, but everybody, asks me about sailing to Cuba, and so they should. Cuba is a fascinating place, just 90 miles across the Florida Straits from Key West but a million miles away in atmosphere and culture.
Nothing to the trip, I tell fellow sailors with a hefty dose of bravado. For us, crossing to Havana was a pleasant overnight sail with a steady wind and two-foot waves, much like sailing across Lake Ontario with the heat turned up. I’m joking, of course, but not much.
There were none of the dangers or political headaches that everybody insisted on warning us about. There were no patrol boats, neither Cuban nor American, no menacing helicopters, no paperwork and no bureaucracy. We didn’t even tell the Americans that we were leaving their country. And the only machine guns we saw on the entire trip were on the Coast Guard boats in downtown Miami.
We did see a jellyfish or two, dozens of pelicans busy commuting to and fro and gorgeous frigate birds soaring far above, the height of elegance with nary a flap of their four-foot wings. But unlike the latest Kon Tiki movie, there were no sharks at our stern with wide open mouths waiting for us to fall overboard.
As for special preparations? We picked up a Cuban courtesy flag and a set of Cuban nautical charts before we left Canada. We took our passports, boat ownership papers, two GPS handhelds and a pair of good binoculars. That’s all we needed or wanted. Visas? Insurance? Pesos? Nah. Who needs them? We didn’t.
Cuban currency, you ask in complete innocence? I will NOT delve into the mysteries of Cuban currency. Life’s too short. You can find your own currency trader behind every tree and every bush in Cuba.
As for retail? It’s so thoroughly wonderful to find a place in this world where you aren’t bombarded with advertising 24 hours a day. Just make sure you take everything you need with you, and that includes toothpaste and toilet paper. I do not jest.
The voyage across the Straits of Florida took a grand total of 21 hours, dock to dock, an average of 5.5 knots. We left Key West at 2 pm to make sure we arrived in daylight, set the compass for 190 degrees and headed straight across. Navigation was easy. We headed for handy clouds while the sun shone and, when it got dark, we looked for the lights of Havana 90 miles away.
It was a gorgeous trip – just us and the wind and the waves. Sailing is so much more exciting after dark. The black waves rushed past, inches below the gunwale, leaving a trail of white spray behind. The only sounds were the flapping of the sails and the mew of the gulls. The tropical night winds kept us warm and the compass light gave an eerie glow beside the wheel.
The wind was a strenuous 15 to 20 knots on a close reach until the early hours, but it was constant and easy to handle. The only excitement came at 4:30 in the morning when a sudden gust came howling through and blew my lovely red baseball hat into the water. It’s still there somewhere, 45 miles north of Havana in 1,200 feet of water. As for the wind, we raised all hands, dowsed the genoa and held on tight. It was very exciting at the time but not at all bad in retrospect.
I have never liked all-nighters, and I didn’t like this one. I’ll admit that I almost gave up sailing forever at five in the morning when I was cold and wet and miserable and desperate for sleep. I managed to finish the 3 to 6 am shift, slept until eight, then crawled out of the bunk to a gorgeous dawn with the fortress of Havana on the horizon. The sight of that huge castle, the esplanade and the classical Spanish architecture made it all worthwhile.
Relations between the United States and Cuba have relaxed a lot since Barrack Obama and Raoul Castro took over and most people we met – on both sides of the Straits saw the Cold War as a silly vestige of the past. The reality is that Cuban marinas are full of American boats, and nobody seems to mind. After all, the Cubans want tourism and they aren’t going to squeal if an American boat turns up looking for a place to dock. Certainly, we found the Cubans charming, friendly and welcoming. They were glad to see us, wherever we might be from.
Plenty of Americans sail across to Cuba, but they are a wary group of people who have learned to take basic precautions when dealing with their government. But Americans also like to talk and there was no shortage of people who would pull us aside and give us advice on crossing the Straits. The trick, they invariably said, was to pull out their fishing rods as they leave Key West and look busy as they motor up and down, edging closer and closer to the 12-mile limit. Once they cross the line, they immediately turn south and head straight for Cuba. The U.S. Coast Guard can do nothing to stop them in international waters, they say and hope. On the way home, American boats deke west towards Mexico or east to the Bahamas and look innocent if a U.S. patrol boat happens to pull them over and ask them for their last port of call.
Our first contact with the Cuban government was an imperative VHF command as we cruised down the coast west of Havana. “Yacht Solera! Yacht Solera, flying the Canadian flag! Report immediately!” That’s us they were talking to so, on the theory that discretion is the better part of valour, we turned into the nearest port, Marina Hemingway, nine nautical miles west of Havana, and found a welcoming committee of uniformed officials waiting for us on the dock.
They certainly looked forbidding, but we have to admit they were a very pleasant and friendly bunch. About 10 officials clambered on board our boat, two or three at a time. There was a medical doctor who checked us for infectious diseases, a veterinarian looking for sausages and fruit, several border officials and a contented sniffer dog who appreciated a cuddle or three.
They studied my passport very carefully and interviewed me at length even though they couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Spanish. They studiously confiscated all our electronic equipment, our VHF radios, our GPS handhelds and our cellphones, wrote down the numbers and sealed them in a brown paper envelope. Then they politely gave the envelope back to us. Why did they confiscate our electronics and promptly give them back, we asked in surprise? It turns out that Cuba, like every Communist country in the world, has a horde of under-employed bureaucrats who have nothing better to do than compile thick books of picky regulations that mere foot soldiers must follow religiously. But every regulation has a flaw. This one requires confiscation but doesn’t say what to do with the electronics once they are sealed in an envelope. So the foot-soldiers give them back. Dunno. Makes sense to me.
Then our friendly border inspectors searched the entire boat from bilge to ceiling, but studiously ignored the spare cell phone, VHF and GPS that I had forgotten on the shelf in the forward cabin! Out of sight, out of mind, I guess. Paperwork? All we carried were our passports, the ownership of the boat and some Canadian currency. That’s all they needed. No visas, no insurance, no nothing.
As for the bribes that everybody asks about, these guys were as clean as a whistle. They even declined the can of Coke and a glass of water that we offered to make their job more pleasant on a hot day.
But we did ask them about that mysterious radio broadcast that so peremptorily ordered us to report. It turns out that the Cuban authorities have an observation platform on the roof of one of the tall hotels west of Havana with a telescope big enough to read the name of the boat from a mile away! Low tech, Cuban-style does work after all.
by Oliver Bertin