Postcard from Cuba Part 2

If you enjoyed Duncan Spencer's "Postcard from Cuba" from the October issue, you will like Part 2 from the November issue here... A great run for Madame X

Fishing boats in Varadero. Photos by Dave Dunigan

On what began as one of Madame X’s greatest runs, the boat showed what she could do under all plain sail, full main, and 100-percent jib. We roared up the mountainous coast, not seeing much except waves. We ran on into the night at eight knots, the winds and waves too strong for the self steering to work without “snakewake” down the tops, hard work, hour after hour, into January 25. By that night, we were looking hard for our supposed landfall at Cayo Guillermo, a string of sand reefs behind tiny islands, not well protected from the north, but with a hook and a high bluff behind one island.

But it was just too much to attempt. Dave “Toots” Dunigan wisely counseled “No,” mostly due to the thin island terrain and strange cranes and construction lights looming everywhere, indicating the great Cuban tourist industry was hard at work, and the features on our GPS and paper maps might not be the same as we would find, roaring in before a fresh northeast wind at night.

We sped on, and by late evening the next day were another 100 miles along at Cayo Frances, a triangle of mangroves with a perfectly protected side. Here we slid from strong seas to less, to the feeling of the land enveloping us at night, to the thankfully correct tiny Cuban buoys (all lit), and to a calm rippling anchorage with good holding ground. As the chain ran out and the nylon hawser after it, and with a turn around the cleat, the plow grips, the boat turned to wind, and we found ground to count on. We were near the ghostly wreck of one of the World War I “stone fleet” of war freighters, the San Pasqual of San Diego, which we found later had been betimes a strange tourist hotel, a prison for Che Guavara, a submarine observation station during World War II, and now a rotting burnt-out storage area for crab pots.

We never saw the wreck that night, taking it for low clouds or part of the night sky. It was unlit, but accurately marked on the chart, held in place by huge chains fore and aft. We had run more than 200 miles the past 24 hours.

Back to Varadero

Up chain in the morning, there was nothing and no one visible at Cayo Frances. We were now longing for a port; for we had flown past Cayo Coco and the tiny islands so recommended for careful, sunlit cruising – not for us in these winds and seas on a rather unforgiving stretch of tiny islands and coral heads, to explore some day when there was less weather.

We rolled on, spinnaker up, all day, all night, finally running out of our northeasterly and motoring five hours at last into the cut at Varadero, making the dock there at about 11 a.m., to find nothing changed from last time. Here was “Ismaieli” the dock master to whom I sent a Waring Blender to “start my restaurant,” and here too was “Debbie” the Canadian mother hen who has lived here for 14 years in her motor-sailer Vida Dulce — and here as well the wanderers, sun blasted and weedy bottomed, who seemed to be waiting here for something to happen; wearing Canadian flags and enjoying the $1 “Crystal” beers.

New on the docks, at least to Madame X and her crew, were the Russians, about half a dozen of them, stout men with lapping bellies over their speedos, incessant fishermen, spinning lures from the dock and catching only little fish; making up for it with beer, loud talk from the wicker chairs on the marina portico, and a great deal of sun. Whether they were on yachts or not, we never knew as they did not mix well by choice.

As if to symbolize the odd spirit of Varadero, Latino, the same large yacht which was under repair and leaking badly last year when we visited in November of 2013, was still here, tied fruitlessly to palm trees or to any grip on the rotted cleats on the bulkhead, tilting 25 degrees and sunk up to her deck, a total ruin, not even looted or disassembled.

Ismaieli told me the pumps had simply given up the ghost, the leak kept on, the owner could not be found, nothing could be done, and this very expensive and easily repairable modern 60-footer was allowed to sink. A couple of divers, some rubber fabric, she could have been towed to a yard and saved. The stalemate and hesitation that is Cuba could not be better expressed.

The sidewalks were filled as if the city were some irresistible magnet to people who stand, and watch and wait, before trudging on.

We were among friends, or at least acquaintances, and the berth with electric and fresh water and a pub within a few yards, not to mention fairly warm showers (but no toilet seats or paper, oh no). We were able to recover our sleep and plan. Every evening on the dock there was a meeting of the slip holders at a picnic table where the day was discussed and beer downed. They had all carved their names and that of their yachts into the wood of the table. I inked Madame X’s rubber stamp, a gift of my non-sailing wife.

That first night at Varadero, we walked a dirt path to the town of Santa Marta, to the worst Cuban meal yet at a restaurant endorsed by some of the cruisers. I should have known when there were no other customers, when there was no activity in the kitchen, when there was only one light on. We got cold fish out of the freezer, barely cooked in grease, and cold rice and beans. We left in false silence; Cuban food is usually lousy — the government issue of white bread, beans and rice, plus mixed meat sausage like bologna, has beaten down local initiative and even the desire to cook well. It’s well said that if you want good Cuban food, go to Miami’s Calle Ocho. Yet sometimes, sometimes, you will get a delicious, flaky toasted “Cuban” sandwich with cheese and ham, or a pot of soup with Chorizo.

Of yachtsmen and tourism

Every morning at gray daylight, the tiny fishing boats, with two men and oars or a pop-pop engine, slid up the inlet and threw their weighted nets for tiny fish. And then the single sculler came and the double scull, for the water was calm and the trade wind was waiting. The rowing club was active and disciplined, running stairs and turning out at daybreak each day. I got up early to watch for dawn and sipped coffee in the cockpit, did chores.

A notable vessel was there, Road to the Isles owned by Don Barr, a Canadian yachtsman and four-time circumnavigator of Cuba. His boat, a fine L. Francis Herreshoff ketch about 70-feet long was built by Barr and his redoubtable daughter Cheryl (who holds a 200-ton Yachtmaster certificate) over nine years, the two working only half the year. Don, a reservoir of knowledge, was captain of the famed Nova Scotia schooner Bluenose for 20 years, and tried to guide Canada’s reconstruction of a replica. Captain Cheryl Barr is the author of the “New Cruising Guide to Cuba,” which no doubt will be the standard for tomorrow’s wanderers. I have a copy of the first volume, which covers the west end, Madame X’s next cruising ground. 

It's not unusual to see a 1940s or 1950s vintage car driving around Cuba.

The Barrs built their boat of steel and very well, and the fact that RTTI draws more than seven feet gives me hope. They affirm that the south coast is far better for winter cruising, as there is shelter from the fierce “northers” of December and January, and that authorities there don’t care about cruisers who paddle ashore to the numberless island beaches and snorkeling reefs.

At Varadero we saw the expression of Cuban tourism at its current height. The entire Hicacas peninsula is strewn with new hotels of varying but low, horizontal, modern architecture, as if Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs had been put through Ismaieli’s famous blender and poured out on the sand. There was but one road out to the end, where a huge, 180-slip marina was being constructed for fleets of yachts which we may or may not presume will come for the joys of sun and isolation from the rest of Cuba.

For there was absolutely no connection between the Veradero life and the rest of the island — no trudging peasants and farmers, no cowboys with their work straw hats on skinny, willing caballos, no dogs, no oxen, no selling of bananas 24 to the peso (convertible). There was instead, one of the longest, purest beaches in Cuba, and behind it, “Mercados” where leather and trinkets, jewelry and shells, and gourds and beer and art and carved cow horns, and bamboo mugs with Che, and clothing, all with Che, are sold.

Then, for the package people, it’s back to the hotels, which are very much like beachfront hotels everywhere, with one exception: no one who looks like a Cuban is allowed in. Behind the beach row of large buildings are the box-like dwellings of the service people, hundreds of them. By the end of the bus trip (five pesos), all day we were thoroughly sick of the development and wondered how on earth the marina would attract the top yachting public, for behind the veneer of luxury living lies the old Cuba with its deficiencies of electricity, good food, sanitation, and restaurants.

Typical Havana scene.

The barrio of Old Havana 

To car again: we rented for two days and sped off to Havana. It’s a two-hour drive on a good highway, a tourist highway along the coast. Driving past the magnificent waterfront, the beaux art buildings, and the sight lines to El Morro across the narrow harbor mouth, then plunging into the Barrio of Old Havana was a shock.

No one here apparently had heard of the new plans to clean it all up and make it a tourist center.

Here were the one-window shops, the one-table restaurants, the courtyard where six cars — not one of them younger than 40 years — were being repaired by welders, lathe operators, and appliers of much body putty and paint.

Here were the rotting five-story buildings crowding the sky away from the narrow street, with a jumble of electric lines strung along. Cars simply could not make it down some of these streets and there were many blockages, as if to keep all but carts, horses, scooters, and cycles off. Iron cannons were buried muzzle down on many corners or used as bars to traffic. A pall of diesel smoke infiltrated everywhere, and the filth of every description was moved here and there by broom and perhaps picked up. Once as we picked our way along, a sudden plop called attention to a lady far above, clearing her balcony of her dog’s mess.

There was construction everywhere on larger streets. Sheet iron barricades masked the sites, but the work was huge — derricks, piles of bricks and stone, entire city blocks closed off for the work. A man explained that Cuba has decided to raise tourism as a partner for the Socialist State; a strange and ironic partner, it may seem, but let it succeed, if only to give these cheerful and energetic people some few pesos, some few possessions, some kind of a future.

The Barrio simply sucked energy out of us. We walked, photos and filming going on, the parliament building, the presidential palace, a square where the traffic was so thick it was like a river of horses, cabs, pedal cabs, and scooters and bicycles, and huge tour buses, all flowing and never stopping, while the sidewalks were filled, as if the city were some enormous irresistible magnet to people who stand, and watch and wait, before trudging on.

We found an overnight Room for Rent — there are hundreds now all marked with a blue anchor (how appropriate) — and for $10 apiece we got two beds, one for Toots and me, and one for our other crew member, Ashley Love, plus a shower/bathroom behind a curtain with hot, really hot, water.

Music in the streets But first, there was music, the joyful, repetitive Cuban music which poured out of the corner pubs, the 19th Century open, pillared houses of light and tile on many corners. Long may they survive and escape destruction or enclosure for air conditioning! There were groups of five usually: a bongo man, a bass viol, a keyboard, perhaps a trumpet, a guitar or two, a singer. It varied, but the sound was hypnotic, and as the night progressed, the intensity increased until it seemed it was building its own energy like a storm gathering fuel from the warm night air. They played chorus after chorus, sweating, swaying, and pealing out such sounds that the audience was moved, with their eyes, their feet, their bodies. Applause was loud and vocal ... and then the guys sold the discs to make a few pesos.

The colors of Havana.[/caption]

Another bar and the mood was more mellow; two women, one pretty, the other a good singer, and a beautiful young man, prettier than either, sang “Yolanda” with its rolling quatrain over and over. Their voices blended perfectly, and they sang in a trance.

Another group was led by a small balding guy who was filled with such energy he jumped up and down to the windowsill. Leaping before his band, he shook and spun. Outside, for there was no way to keep them out, the drunks and the passersby joined in, clapping and making a circle in the light. The players didn’t care; they came to play, they loved the energy of this night audience, and an old woman who had been there for a full 20 minutes, suddenly became an attractive 30 again, remade by one song and many repeats of an incessant throbbing beat.

We left in the morning but not before we decide to visit “EL Morro,” the famous castle across from the harbor mouth, guarding the port where the USS Maine was sunk in 1898 beginning the Spanish American War, a moment when the United States could have rescued Cuba. While Ashley and Toots packed, I went downstairs at our rooming house. Rain fell on the stair rails of our building which was open to the sky and built courtyard style. I had coffee with our hostess while water ran across the tiled floor a few feet away from the kitchen table.

Vente pesos and a southerly wind

We got lost, wandered through dirty towns, then had lunch at Matanzas, a big seaport with five or six bulk carriers waiting for cargo. Along the coast, the see-saw oil; pumps, rocking slowly up and down, drew oil from the Cuban underground strata. There were hundreds of well heads, only a few pumps. A few yards away, clear waves crashed on yellow beach or black volcanic rock.

Back home at the marina at Varadaro, Toots talked film plans with Ashley, while I walked to Road to the Isles to talk to the Barrs. Don Barr had researched the legal archive. He stated with emphasis that not a single American had been successfully prosecuted for visiting Cuba and refers to the famous Kent v. Dulles which went to the U.S. Supreme Court of in 1958 and came down in the decision that the government has no right to limit the ability of U.S. citizens to visit other countries. It made me feel very cheap to think that the State Department and the Government it represents have been relying on empty threats and lies to try to prevent people from coming here. Threats of $25,000 fines and worse are simply hot air, Barr says.

We decided to wait for a weather window, a southerly or southeasterly; anything but a norther, to head for the tip of Florida and the Gulf Stream road back to West Palm Beach. After the raucous weather we had, we were pleased to hear Cheryl Barr say she thinks the weather was headed into a less abrupt pattern, a more normal circulation of Northeast Trade, Westerly, Southwesterly and back to Trade Wind, anything but a strong northeast or north against the stream, conditions which would produce chaos in the Florida Strait.

View from El Morro, the famous castle across from the harbor mouth, guarding the port where the USS Maine was sunk in 1898 begining the Spanish American War.

The morning brought an answer, two days of south and southeast. We put forward our time of departure and summoned the authorities. But of course, this is Cuba, and there was no gainsaying the bureaucrats, who arrive when they wish, the women in high heels, the inspectors sometimes with attractive dogs who sniff for drugs. But this time we had an icy duo, a black Cubana who clearly could not care less about duties on her way to a career as a model and a young man in crisp uniform and a glint in his eye. He was the first on this voyage to cross the line when he asked if we had any Cuban currency. I pulled out my few bills, maybe seven pesos; he sneered at them and asked for “vente” or 20 pesos. I had none and then get the idea. He wanted a U.S. $20, and as soon as I handed it over, there was no problem.

We were off at 4 p.m., with wind southerly, out the channel, marina eyes on us. Madame X heeled, spun under her big main, and sped away.

Find the first part of this story in the October SpinSheet on page 90 or Click here.

Story by Duncan Spencer, photos by Dave Dunigan