Warning: This is a long blog, covering a few months. Pour yourself a tall glass of wine or pop a cold beer before reading……and then skip the boring parts :-).
In our last Rocinante blog, back in February, we ended in Roatan, Honduras, waiting for a west wind so that we could sail east to Guanaja, and then north to Mexico. Our patience ran out before a west wind blew up, so we skipped Guanaja and sailed almost due north to Punta Allen, Mexico, where we stayed for a week, the only boat in a remote anchorage next to a small village (but big enough to have a restaurant with excellent ceviche and margaritas). From there we sailed to Cozumel, where we stayed another week, renting bikes, free diving, and sailing in a very impressive old America’s Cup racing boat that has been turned into a tourist operation. From there to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, near Cancun, where, once again, we waited for a favorable wind to carry us east. Three weeks later, we got the wind we needed and headed for Cuba.
Cuba…. Despite the recent fanfare legalizing U.S. travel to Cuba, much confusion remains in the sailing community regarding the legality of taking a U.S. flagged vessel with a U.S. crew into Cuba. Even though travel to Cuba supposedly opened up, the Trading with the Enemy Act remains alive and well in the United States. Certain rules have to be followed. In our case, the best option was Form 3300—that’s right, paperwork. Form 3300, once we discovered it and got our hands on a copy, was an easy 2 pages to complete. The form goes to the U.S. Coast Guard via email or fax, and two weeks later an approval is returned, also by email or fax. On the downside, the Form 3300 only allows for a maximum of 2 weeks in Cuba, with dates set in advance and well before a reliable weather forecast is available. (When we asked the Coast Guard what we should do at the end of the 2 weeks if the weather would not allow safe passage out of Cuba, they never quite said that it was okay to ignore the date limits, but they did say that the Coast Guard would never encourage anyone to go to sea in dangerous conditions.)
Sailing to Cuba–what an experience. Here are a few highlights:
The sail from Cancun. Mexico, to San Antonio, Cuba, crossed the Yucatan Channel and its Yucatan current, which, say some sources, carries more water than all the world’s rivers combined. Winds were ideal and the sea state was almost flat before we entered the current, but late in the afternoon, as we approached the main part of the current 30 or so miles from Mexico, we could see what looked like surf breaking on a reef. There are no reefs in the area (it’s very deep out there), but the current creates something similar to the standing waves of fast rivers. When we hit the current—which was flowing more or less toward our destination–we picked up two knots (a little more than 2 MPH) of speed, but also slightly intimidating waves.
The next morning, we were in Cuban waters. Following instructions from the harbor master in San Antonio, on the western tip of Cuba, we tied to a 72-year-old wooden fishing boat at the dock. We were boarded first by a medical doctor—this is standard procedure in Cuba, to assure that no one aboard is carrying contagious diseases (yellow fever, cholera, etc.). He asked a few questions, took our temperatures, and complimented the neatness of our boat. Once he gave his thumbs up, the Port Captain boarded Rocinante. We chatted for a while, shared a beer, and signed a couple of forms. When he was done with us, more officials came on board, and we went through more beers. All very friendly, very cordial, and very welcoming, despite the paperwork. All Cubans we met, beginning with these officials, were friendly and wished we could stay longer than two weeks. As far as Cuba is concerned, we could stay indefinitely.
Due to weather, we had to leave San Antonio the same afternoon that we arrived. We sailed a few miles and anchored between mangrove islands, well protected and entirely alone. We sailed the next morning to Cayos de Buena Vista, where we celebrated Lisanne’s birthday. The sailing was all inside the barrier reef system, so we enjoyed excellent winds and no waves. Along that route, we saw two Cuban fishing boats but no one else.
The next day, we sailed out through a reef cut and back into the open sea, and then along the Cuban coast overnight. Sometime around midnight we realized that the dim light ahead was the sky glow from Havana. Visiting yachts cannot anchor near Havana, so we pulled into the famous Marina Hemingway, our first time in a marina since December. (Marina Hemingway, according to a book by the Cuban writer Enrique Cirules, was built with financial backing from the mafia before the revolution.)
We spent the next ten days in Havana. There is much to be said about Havana, good and bad, but at the top of our list would be the friendliness of the people. We meet friendly people everywhere, but in Havana the friendliness quotient notched up a bit. The people of Havana are sometimes called Habaneros. Habaneros LOVE to talk. We got in the habit of managing our time to include fifteen or twenty minutes (or more) for random conversations, mostly in rapid fire Cuban Spanish, often with people we met while walking around (some construction workers, for example, and the marina’s electrician). In Spanish “hablar” means “to talk,” so following the lead of writer Mark Kurlansky we changed Habanero to Hablanero. The Habaneros, it turns out, take pride in their talkativeness, and loved the idea of calling themselves Hablaneros.
The people in Havana do not seem rich, but relative to, say, the average people of Honduras they seemed well off. They also seemed, in general, very well educated. Without exception, they recognized the name of our boat, Rocinante, as the name of Don Quixote’s horse—everyone seems to have read Don Quixote. People talked openly about politics, but were discrete in their criticisms of Castro. (There is a joke sometimes shared among Cubans about the revolution and Castro’s government—“they gave us housing, health care, and sports, but we still struggle with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”)
One woman, in her mid 50s, talked to us for a while about her life, her work, her ongoing education as a historian, etc., and when it came to Castro she said simply, “He was a genius.” This is of course a very safe description. Even people who do not agree with Castro’s politics would have a hard time denying that he was a genius.
In a bookstore, we asked the clerk if Cubans are big readers. She said that the older Cubans love to read, but the younger Cubans are less interested in reading. The bookstore stocked a number of titles that might be hard to find outside of Cuba. These were, for the most part, books written by members of the Cuban writer’s union. Some are available in English. Some of the books (especially those published in Spanish) were remarkably inexpensive by U.S. standards (less than a dollar for a new paperback). We bought a couple of books by Enrique Cirules (The Mafia in Havana and The Last American), who seems to find the revolutionary angle in all topics, and a book by Fidel Castro (with ghost writers) explaining why the U.S. should relinquish Guantanamo Bay (it reads like one of Castro’s endlessly verbose speeches). We asked the clerk if Castro was a good writer, and of course she said, “Yes, one or our best.” Then we asked how he found time to write, and she said, “Well, of course he had ghost writers.”
Other books well worth reading about Cuba (and especially interesting to read while traveling in Cuba) are Waiting for Snow in Havana; Havana: A Subtropical Delirium; and Trading with the Enemy.
Old cars in Havana are everywhere. Most have been rebuilt many times. One old Pontiac convertible we rode in had a Volvo engine and transmission.
The transportation system seems complicated at first, but at least the basics are simple. For costs comparable to low-end cab fares in the States, it is easy to find an old car officially working as a taxi. For costs comparable to those of a collectivo (a shared taxi) in Mexico, it is easy to flag down an old car that works a regular route, picking up other passengers along the way. It is also possible to flag down almost any passing car and then negotiate a price—many Cubans who own cars are happy to opportunistically make a few bucks by taking on passengers. In other words, the Cubans have cut out Uber, out-capitalizing the capitalists. There are also buses available, but we have no idea how they work, and some people say they are not for foreigners.
In addition to old cars, there are pedicabs (bicycle taxis) in the old part of Havana. With some difficulty, I (Bill) talked a pedicab driver into riding in the back while I pedaled the cab around some quiet neighborhood blocks where we were less likely to encounter a police presence. Driving a pedicab is way more fun than riding in the back of a pedicab.
We could go on and on about our short visit to Cuba, but suffice it to say that we managed to sail out on the schedule required by our Form 3300. We motored to the sea buoy outside of Marina Hemingway, then sailed to the sea buoy outside of Key West, with a total crossing time of about 18 hours. Sad to have to leave Cuba, but we are determined to return after the hurricane season.
On the way to Florida, just after the sun rose, we spotted the research vessel Bellows, on which I (Bill again) had spent a couple of happy weeks twenty-five years ago. I radioed the Bellows to say hi, and the captain seemed delighted to hear from a long-past student. The Bellows was an old boat even 25 years ago and I was surprised to see her still in service, but the captain told me she would be retired this year and replaced with a new research vessel.
Entering Key West, in terms of sailing, was straightforward, but in terms of dealing with officials it was a bit of a challenge. Upon arrival you required to telephone Customs before leaving the boat. This is an odd process, since it assumes that everyone arriving in Key West will have a functioning U.S. cell phone, but so be it. We borrowed a phone from a pastor who happened to be paddling past in his kayak (there is always a pastor around when you need one), but the automated system at Customs held us captive for more than 20 minutes so we gave up. The next morning we tried again to reach customs and managed to get through, only to be scolded by the Customs official for not phoning in immediately upon arrival. (“Do you know, Mr. Streever, that you could be subject to a $10,000 fine, one year in prison, and possible seizure of your vessel for failure to call us immediately upon arrival?”) Then we were told to go ashore to the Federal Building in Key West, where we were again reminded that we could be subject to a $10,000 fine, one year in prison, and possible seizure of our boat. The Homeland Security officer also demanded to see our Form 3300. The form, we told him, was on our cell phone, and cell phones are not allowed in Federal Buildings. He claimed that we were required to have a paper copy, so we (well, Bill in this case) were obligated to tell him that the regulation states that a copy of the form has to be kept on the vessel, but there is no requirement for it to be on paper—it can be carved in stone, branded into the flesh, or kept electronically, and it does not have to brought to the Federal Building. So, with great effort, he struggled out of his chair and we walked outside where we had the cell phone. Lisanne pulled up the Form 3300 and then we were finished, released to roam around the Land of the Free at will.
I (Bill) was glad to be wearing my Cuban flag T-shirt that day, even though the Homeland Security guy never mentioned it. And, for the record, I did consider offering him a Cuban beer, since beer seemed to ease the process in Cuba, but I decided against it, as he was carrying a rather large pistol and even I know that alcohol and firearms don’t mix well, and that alcohol, firearms, and U.S. government officials are even more problematic.
In summary, the whole thing seemed like great material for an Arlo Guthrie song, and we were relieved to be legally in America. We hung around Key West for a while, anchored amongst maybe a hundred other boats. Most of the other boats seemed to be more or less permanent homes. The boat next to us was an old wooden Coast Guard cutter now owned by a guy running a nonprofit that promotes awareness about opiates, and our other neighbors included several derelict boats that may or may not be occasionally visited by an owner or caretaker. One had a dinghy neatly tied to her stern, but the dinghy sunk so long ago that it is now covered with algae, bobbing up and down just below the surface.
From Key West, we sailed for the Marquesas, an isolated and uninhabited group of mostly mangrove island 20 miles west of Key West. We spent several days there kayaking among the islands, seeing sea turtles, schools of tarpon, dolphins, and a manatee before sailing on.
Strong east winds kept us pinned down in the Dry Tortugas for a few days, seventy miles west of Key West, but there are worse places to be pinned down. Clear shallow water surrounded us on all sides. Waves crashed onto the reef a half mile to the east and north, so we had the wind blowing through the boat but calm seas. Brown noddies, sooty terns, and magnificent frigate birds flew around Rocinante, and a 100-pound goliath grouper took up residence under our keel. For human company, there were six or seven cruising sailboats in the main anchorage, a little less than a mile away, and there was Fort Jefferson National Park, with its park staff and the tourists who come and go in the ferry each morning and afternoon, also about a mile away. It was fun to wander around the massive old fort, which never saw a battle (who knows why the government built a fort out here amongst a few sandy islands that have no fresh water and little vegetation aside from mangroves?) but which was the home for Dr. Mudd, imprisoned here for four years after giving medical assistance to John Wilks Booth, the man who killed Abraham Lincoln.
With a day of favorable wind, we sailed north to Charlotte Harbor, Florida, about 30 hours away, which brings us up to the present tense. Despite occasional storms and other minor hardships, life remains good aboard Rocinante—as a cruising friend once said, it is all about travel, adventure, and challenge. In a day or so, we will store Rocinante for the hurricane season while we travel in Europe and the Pacific Northwest. In the meantime, we are aboard, listening to the wind, reading and talking, swimming and paddling our kayaks, and watching the birds and dolphins—all while loving life and feeling ridiculously, outrageously, and unjustifiably fortunate.