Postcard from Cuba

Port of Entry Madame X re-entered the cut at West Palm Beach February 2; we had been out since January 13 at 7:20 p.m. and had sailed more than 1000 miles from West Palm, outside the Abacos, down the NW Providence Channel, past Freeport, Bahamas, past Cat Island, San Salvador, Crooked Island Passage, and on south and east to Puerto Vita, the easternmost official entry port to Cuba.

It was the boat’s third visit to Cuba and one taken with renewed confidence that the United States government’s 50-year-old embargo and restrictions on travel to Cuba were just so many words of bluff. Cuba, meanwhile, was accelerating into a new revolution, not toward socialism, but toward tourism. In our 40-foot sailboat, a veteran ocean vehicle, we hoped to glimpse the real Cuba. Also we had a mission: to make a film and photo record of our travels by sea which would be of use to other sailors. This mission was supported by Bruce Nairn’s T2PTV (“Sailing on Demand”) business in Annapolis.

We like to start at night with a good moon; the last of the evening light was dying at the entrance to Lake Worth. The crew: I (the owner), Dave Dunigan (“Toots”), my old friend of many ocean voyages reaching back to 1983, and filmmaker Ashley Love, a dinghy sailor and film editor on her first offshore adventure.


Madame X in Puerto Vita, the easternmost official entry port to Cuba

Winds were strong, that we were for several hours hove to; a clearing front brought northwest winds after it passed, and the boat made good time over the first 400-plus miles of our passage. We never stopped, hardly seeing the shores of Eleuthera, Cat Island, Long Island, or others of the long chain. The plan was to sail east as far as possible in the Northeast Trade Wind before reaching the Cuban coast. This way we would not have to beat along that long coast against the trade wind, and we would see the eastern part of the island with fair winds and eased sheets. We had already seen the western part on a previous passage in 2013 with a crew we now sorely missed; for it was just the two of us, Dave and myself, our filming colleague from T2PTV, Ashley, finding herself seasick and exhausted.

One gets rather dazed after the first four quite intense days on the ocean with all those waves and winds, the self-steering gear running us part of the time, but day and night blending. There were motor troubles, too, for our electronic navigation systems, refrigerator, and lights depend on battery power, and the alternator, replaced at the last moment before leaving, a series of puzzles solved one by one.

Never to be forgotten was our entry January 18 into eastern Cuba at Puerto Vita: a deep cleft in the high green shoreline backed by distant mountains. Northwest was a fine strong wind, and it made a fanged white barrier at the lighthouse and the narrow entrance. The Cubans have a well-maintained series of handsome lighthouses all along the northern shore, all welcome. Amazing it is, to come into calm water after the large seas outside, warm too, in spite of heavy rain. A small freighter sat at a deserted pier, and no voice responded to our calls on the radio. It was a moment of pure pleasure.

There are no signposts at Cuban ports, and one soon learns that everything has changed since the writing of our Cruising Guide (good though it is) by Nigel Calder in 1995.

Daniello and Disneyland We anchored in 13 feet of perfectly flat water in the soaking rain 20 yards from a mangrove jungle. To my amazed eyes, a line of small outboard sportboats, all at high speed, manned by life-jacketed white people, zipped in a zig-zag pattern across a broad leg of Puerto Vita’s empty pocket harbor. It was what we would see again and again: These were foreign tourists, on package plans, and the sportboat frolic was part of their package, like the hotel, the hotel meals, the bus rides. They lived in a kind of Cuban Disneyland, in Cuba, but not of it, and then they left and went home to Canada (most of them) or Britain. Invisible, except for the buses, to the rest of Cuba.


A sugar cane farmer

But their leader Daniello, who shepherded the group of tiny outboards, quickly became one of our friends, in deed, not only in word. All Cubans are friendly; he was more than that. Dark from many suns, soaked and plastered with wind and rain, and no wet weather gear, he led us down a channel, for we had no map or GPS, to the empty Marina Gaviota, run by the government as part of the vast shift to tourism aimed at restoring the Cuban economy.

Daniello got us moored Mediterranean style, with our stern to a stout concrete floating dock and a steep hillside of mangroves. It was peace after war, port after stormy seas. The inevitable three or four hours of paperwork ensued — but here, no hints or straight demands for bribes. Only polite dutifulness and many sheets of paper and carbon paper. It helped that we had been in Cuba before, though far west of this little place. Visas, which the Cubans kindly just insert into your passport so there is no permanent “Cuba” stamp for U.S. authorities to fuss at, were bought for about $50.

We were the only foreign cruising yacht at the marina. No, not true — there was a Scandinavian 44-foot cutter which had been there for more than a year and very much looked it. Otherwise, no one, and on the plus side, endless fresh water, good cool showers, electricity, a deserted bar where the talk was only about baseball, and the company of the dock manager Yanni, one of the new breed of Cuban tourism professionals. She earns far more than a doctor, for example. But remember, a doctor only earns about $15 a week.

Having found this haven, we decided to rent a car from the government tourist agency for three days ($70 per day but worth it). There was little enough at Puerto Vita except splendid views, pristine water, beautiful air, and regular herds of tourists who were brought in, placed in 40-foot sportfishing boats or 60-foot catamarans (four of them) and taken for a spin of about three hours, then back by bus to the distant hotel, many of them looking quite green — or red.

Baseball in Holguin We drove to the provincial capital of Holguin to see a baseball game, and on that drive were thrown immediately into non-tourist Cuba: a land of horses, oxen, bicycles, and trudging Cubans. The road, without good signs or good maps, is difficult to follow, and in places, terrible. Our little car did not fail us. There were more horses than cars, more trudgers than bicyclists, more carts than anything else on the road. The Cuban villages were colorful, thatched with palm, with tiny houses of bright wash colors, many selling bananas or small oranges and papayas, onions, tomatoes: things you cannot get at big town grocery stores, which sell only a set line of tins, package pasta, sauces, candy, and anything else with infinite shelf life. And always rum, at $5.50 a liter, lots of it. “National” cigarettes, cost 30 to 50 cents, and many Cubans smoke them.

A downtown Santiago de Cuba taxi driver

Visually, the trip to Holguin was shocking, stunning in its tropical beauty, shocking in the poverty we could clearly see (no machines, no televisions, no cars in driveways, no phones or cell phones, or air conditioners or refrigerators) — or perhaps, just perhaps, no need for these things, for the climate in winter is just perfect, and the people, from what we could see of their unshirted selves and their children, looked strong and healthy, and you can search a while to find a fat Cuban.

I’ll try not to go on about the baseball game, just a few things. First, the players are very good, as good, it seemed, as U.S. professionals. Second, there is much more drama. Every player is known by the packed audience, every referee. Each pitch is a real performance, and no one is expected to keep foul balls as souvenirs. They are used again. Every good play brings the audience to its feet in joy or dismay. The teams acted the same. Overjoyed by a run, they ran to the first base line and slapped palms with the hitter. Even the ball boy for one team (a skinny, middle-aged man), had his own little swooping dance after a good inning. He fell down once, to the delight of all.

The players are as good as U.S. professionals but there is much more drama

Be it said that Holguin was playing in a semi-final round for the national championship, so the stand was utterly packed. Admission is almost free, and for our $3 tickets we got premium seats and an escort to them, past food sellers who offered quarters of oily chicken, or rice and beans, or other things, in small rough cardboard boxes. There were drinks as well and twisted paper cones of peanuts, and some fans wobbled away with Holguin winning the game at the last moment.

The parking lot was almost empty (no cars) and after the game, the city streets were completely blocked with fans. The Cuban evening begins late, and we, still salt-soaked — were not up to it—a little dinner, and we departed, driving into a soft, mysterious tropic night, where saw at the last second, a horse cart with three aboard looming in our yellow headlights, barely time to take avoiding action, and vowing to drive more slowly.

But more figures loomed out of the dark, some with the almost worthless (normal) Cuban peso note dangling from their fingers, hoping for a ride to who knows where, or waving arms, not really in expectation, because most transports were already full and plowing along in a fog of diesel smoke. On they walked past 10 and 11 p.m. over seeming endless distances.

U.S. Dollar Changing Gringos Cuba is amazing, sort of like the West of Ireland heaved down to latitude 20, and without any prosperity. No one has any money, yet there is little crime, so we were told and partly believed. There is no drug traffic either, as far as I know, for while wandering as the most obvious of Gringos and dupes, the strongest thing we were offered were bargain cigars at four cents apiece.

Without money, it’s ironic that the Cuban bank system has such importance. In front of its doors, typically, Cubans are lined up in scores, sometimes snaking out into the street, while petty officials with ties and well-worn jackets, make rump decisions about who gets in. Once in, the U.S. dollar-changing Gringo is at the mercy of the very sharp elbows of the Cuban matron, a person who will shove quickly into any empty space. Inside, the bank is typically high ceilinged and grand and run by unsmiling bloused and skirted women who have no intention of changing their pace due to traffic. It may take an hour; and the “bite” may equal 88 cents in “convertible” pesos to one dollar. 

Varadero, Cuba

While at Gaviota, we got a more realistic vision of what “cruising” the North Coast would be like. Port after port was nixed by Yanni, our marina hostess, sometimes because it was simply “not allowed,” or “military,” or in one case “dangerous for you.” In all cases, we were not allowed to use our inflatable dinghy with its 4-hp Johnson outboard. It was the same policy I had met before in two previous visits, presumably on the theory that a small outboard could be used as an escape vehicle. I suspect a much simpler theory that the Cuban coastal authorities just don’t want to have to deal with foreigners showing up in small ports and landing without paperwork. In Cuba, it’s official dock to official dock — or else.

Road trip to Santiago de Cuba The 180 kilometers on the road to Santiago de Cuba dominated a bright sunny day of inland travel. Getting fuel is complex because the dealer doesn’t want to sell you a “fill up” but only a specific number of liters at about $1 a liter. “Servicio” stations are widely scattered and few. The best advice is to always stop for fuel whenever you see it on a long drive. But at Santiago, there were heat and sun and stunningly white buildings, music in the streets, a 19th century grand hotel, the palace/museum which once belonged to the Rum Bacardis (who were dispossessed of a fortune by Castro’s revolution), an attractive harbor, and many charms, including a characteristic grand boulevard with restaurants vying for customers outdoors and hundreds of uniformed schoolgirls swirling and giggling like young birds. 

Street musicians in front of the Bacardi Museum

We took time to find and visit “El Morro,” the fort that guards the Santiago harbor, a long process by road. It would have been far easier to sail there. Choosing to navigate Cuba in a car by map and compass often yields joys and often sorrows, such as roads that end or passages through the revolting tailings of an abandoned tin mine, now a rusting hulk. At the fort, aged tourists gaped at the rusty cannons and dim corridors, the trash-spotted moat. On the way home, the windshield smeared with road dust and splashes, making all the usual Cuban night dangers more dangerous, it wasn’t until we pulled into a roadside cafe we were able to get some paper (rare enough here in a land which has no toilet paper) to clean it with.

Trip to Antilla We made one more sailing probe eastward around Cape Lucretia to Nipe, but first we scouted by road. On that remarkable road trip we visited Antilla, a former rail head for sugar, rice and meal, but now since a terrible “tormenta” of a hurricane, 10 years ago, it lay sad and abandoned, with weeds growing out of the storage sheds, and the pillared porticos of the main drag down to the port looking false and hopeless, as if good times can never return.

But count on Cuba; looking for lunch, almost immediately a handsome young (or not so young) woman advised me energetically, “Do not go there,” she said, “Go to Tony’s.”

Asking for “Tony’s” occupied 10 minutes of walking and talking until finally I found a house, no sign, no sign of life — but there was the same woman. Tony was her brother. We were invited in, sat down, given beer and lame recorded music (which we asked to be shut down), and told that the dishes, a fish filet and vegetables, would be produced presently. Tony gallantly entertained us. His proudest possession, or one of them, was a Japanese radio from the 1950s which still worked.

"Tony's" restaurant

So it became one of the best meals in Cuba, in a one-table restaurant, with Tony, his shy mother, and his enterprising sister. A blinding thunderstorm reminded us our laundry was out drying on the other side of the island. The family spoke of hopes that tourist boats would visit and revive Antilla, a town so beautifully situated that blue water shines on both sides of the peninsular square, and the past remnants of prosperity. With the car rental over, we took a sail east to Bahia de Nipe, but could not land in the large, shallow bay. It was a boring sail, little to see except a U.S. Coast Guard missile cruiser of about 120 feet, slowly going west, perhaps to Guantanamo, but certainly near the 12-mile limit from the land of Cuba. She was silent and un-signaling and showing no interest in us. There is there a weird “safari” hotel at Nipe where wild animals could be faintly heard from the anchorage, and it is written that they can be hunted by tourists.

We entered at night, always an exciting prospect even with David’s careful and cautious navigation. Madame X moved slightly with the delicious feeling of being at anchor at a hidden place that would reveal itself at dawn (for the foreshore was black as pitch). I felt a kind of peace. We had been yachting. That night as usual we listened to the North Atlantic weather broadcast on Single Sideband: a dire litany of freezing rain, severe gales. and waves as high as a Greyhound bus off the Mid-Atlantic and New England coast, all made more sincere because of the mechanical and implacable voice uttering this bad news. Not here, not in Cuba.

A launch said to allow visitors to land never appeared, and with the wind turning eastward, we lifted anchor the next day just past noon and set off to the west.

This article was lifted from an email “postcard” to the author’s friends. Find the second part of the story about the trip to Havana in the November issue of SpinSheet. by: Duncan Spencer, photos by Dave Dunigan