Saturday, January 28, 2017

Cuba 2017 - Confusing,Conflicted, Cumbersome but So Very Congenial

Hopefully not our last "green flash"

Had a Passenger
We left Montego Bay January 4th and took advantage of the mild trades resulting from a stalled cold front in the Gulf of Mexico. A good way to wash away the taste of the nasty trip in 2014 which brought us to Jamaica from Cuba in 15 ft seas and 40 kt winds. This time the 150NM trip was in light Easterlies & seas of less than 2-3'.

1st Bucanero - definitely in Cuba
As this was our 3rd time in Cuba we were mainly interested in getting as many miles under our keel as a dislike for nasty weather and overnight passages  allowed. Our plan was to stay in the Southern cayes (cayos) and enjoy swimming and snorkeling in Cuba’s clear waters. We arrived in the Jardine de la Reina on the SE coast at Cayo Anclitas. A quiet anchorage we’d used in 2014. Then a good rest and a weather check with Chris Parker that said our plans were trash!. We’d need to move quickly to a more secure location as a nasty cold front was about 30 hours away bringing gale force winds and lingering for a week. The front was approaching from the West and we were sailing West but our current condition of light winds and seas should continue for the next 24 hours. Off we went to continue our Westward movement to Cayo Largo Marina on Cayo Largo, another 150 NM away. 

Drug Inspector & His Handler

A near perfect downwind sail brought us to safety in 26 hours. We had just enough time to get Wahoo tied up before the front arrived. As usual we got to enjoy Cuba’s clearance procedures. Especially the springer spaniel that comes aboard to check for drugs. The doctor took our temperature, the Agricultural guys used a magnifying glass to check our fruits and vegetables for bugs or other infestations. Heads were shaken over our eggs, cheese and meats as you aren’t supposed to to bring in meat, dairy and produce any longer,  but considering there are no provisions at Cayo Largo a few presents and some cervesas cleared the way for us to keep everything.

Cayo Largo gift shop
Afternoon lull at the restaurant
Cayo Largo is not the Cuba of exquisite old Spanish architecture and classic American cars. Its bright white sand beaches and sparkling blue clear waters have been a resort for Europeans and Canadians for years. At least 3 sailing charter companies are based here plus innumerable day charters that service the high rise hotels nearby. The weather was driving all the charters and private cruising boats, like Wahoo, to find shelter either at the docks or among the safe anchorages nearby. There were French, Italians, Canadians, Austrians and even Russians. A polyglot of languages could be heard all around us. Among the crowd we found two couples who befriended us and were befriended by us. All three boats will meet up on the Rio Dulce for next hurricane season. Jill and Pete on Regina Oceani  are from the US, Pete is writing an article for Bluewater Sailing as well as doing research in collaboration with Nigel Calder, who wrote the bible for cruising Cuba in 1999. Vizu is owned by Mike and Vicki, hail from Montreal and have sailed around the world. Mike’s anchor design is now the very famous Rocna Anchor.

Could be a marina anywhere - But it's in Cuba

Before moving on I’ll bring you up to date on changes we saw since President Obama relaxed regulations. You can’t just come to Cuba. US Citizens need to present proof that they are going for one of the 12 approved reasons. There is a whole series of hoops you must jump through. You still must bring in whatever money you will spend as credit cards and banking services are not set up for US citizens. We brought in EUROs to avoid the 15% tax on US dollars. About 1 Euro = 1CUC.

Clearance was more relaxed and we were not required to buy the $3/day health insurance that US citizens had to buy in the past. But it’s possible that just got missed in the hectic mess of the approaching storm and many boats to clear. Customs is now $75 US per person instead of $50 (payable only in CUCs). Plus there's another fee for the boat total for us was $215. But the marina rate had gone down by .10 per foot. it was a net savings for us. Communications has eased a little. AT&T, in Oct of 2016 , announced you could “roam” in Cuba though prices are exorbitant. Cuba is not part of AT&Ts International plan. You must pay full roaming fees but it allowed us to get by without a Sat phone and that’s a big savings. Though it would also mean that we could only communicate when there’s phone service. Once we left Cayo Largo it was nil until we got to the mainland. However, internet access is now 2CUCs per hour instead of $10 (where you can get it) and in Cayo Largo it was wifi which meant we didn’t have to go into a hotel and use their old clunky PC. 

Not having anything to do with the US is the water issue. Potable water is not available on Cayo Largo, or possibly anywhere else we will visit. As Wahoo doesn’t have a water maker it means that the 180 gals of water we carry must maintain us for our entire stay. (we actually have our water use down to about 3 gals for each of us per day - careful, careful, careful!!)0. Fruits and vegetables are mostly out of season and aren’t available in the Cayos anyway so again what we carry must keep us from getting scurvy until we get to Mexico. 

Eventually the weather got back to its more usual diurnal pattern. But since all the winds are still high we were seeing E-ENE winds in the high teens into low 20s early morning with increases to mid-20s gusting 30 afternoons and nights. Seas outside the reefs were running 5-7 ft from the E-SE.

Concrete Fishing boat = Gov owned, crew on 10 day rotation
On Wednesday, Jan 11th, we left the dock to anchor nearby. Its a cumbersome system. We had to be at the fuel dock for 7:30am but couldn’t get a Despacho to leave until we had bought the fuel. Also couldn’t pay for the marina and the fuel until we were ready to sail away. Finally done with payment and paperwork we set sail on Jan 12th. for the 30NM sail to Canal Rosario. The downwind sail saw us in 30 kt winds and 6-7 ft following seas under a cloudy drizzling sky. We were happy to set the hook in the calm waters of Canal Rosario where we could anchor for a couple of nights. Canal Rosario is one of the few reef passes through the 3 archipelagos that separate the Caribbean Sea from Cuba’s various Southern “Golfo’s”.  

We anchored near S/V Regina Oceani, one of the boats we’d met in Cayo Largo, had fun trading with local fisherman for lobster and a couple of Coral Crabs. On our 2nd night the 4 of us had a crab and lobster feast. A good trade, pint bottles of rum, a long unused bottle of bourbon plus my “presents” of simple medical supplies, deodorant, fishing hooks and candy along with some toothpaste filled the freezer with 18 lobster tails plus the crabs.

Two days later on the 14th we were on our way to Cayo Campos, one of our favorite stops in 2014. We sailed along with Regina Oceani for one more anchorage together before we would separate as they were hurrying to Mexico so they could fly home for the birth of their first grandchild. Our plan was to continue island hopping our way through Cuba.

Cayo Campos is a Biological preserve because of the monkeys that were brought here for medical experiments. The experiments are long over but the government still maintains rangers who oversee their care and feeding. This time as beautiful as the water was it was still too chilly for swimming and snorkeling. Once again we were invited ashore to help feed the monkeys and do a little trading. Our visit ended with a meal for us, Pete & Jill of grilled lobster and fish with rice and beans cooked by the rangers. Our tummies are full and our freezer is overflowing, we’re up to 28 lobster tails.
Cayo Campos Ranger Station

We’re resigned to the fact that our choosing to make this trip in January, when every week brings a cold front, showed poor planning on our part. Long sleeves and sleeping under a blanket is more the norm than bathing suits and snorkel gear. In 2014 we were two months later and it was soooo different. Even though we were sailing into the trades the diurnal wind pattern held lighter winds and the temperatures were higher. 

Two days only at Cayo Campos and then we needed to leave for Pasa de Quitasol which took us through the reefs North of Isla Juventud. We had spent a week in Neuva Gerona, the capital of Isla Juventud, and celebrated Roy’s 70th birthday here in 2014. This time we only stayed overnight in remote Estero Simon on the NE cost of the island. While at anchor Roy started trying to trace a leak we’ve discovered with all of this downwind sailing.  The following seas seem to be pushing water in through the rudder post.

Guarda in La Coloma
Due to windy, chilly weather we decided to exchange our reef visits and snorkeling plans for an inland exclusion. So we sailed 50NM Northwest to La Coloma, a fishing port on the main island. Our pilot books said a visit to Pinar del Rio, the tobacco growing part of Cuba, can be arranged at La Coloma.  When we arrived confusion was definitely the order of the moment. Various instructions were given to us, Anchor there, No Anchor over there, Come dockside… Roy just motored in a tight circle until eventually a Guarda motorboat with a failing engine and some officials came alongside. Our Despacho was looked at rightway, wrongway and upside down. There was much shaking of heads, smiles of appolgy and talking over a scratchy hand held VHF. The upshot was that they were very sorry but we couldn’t stay. Certainly couldn’t go ashore. It was 5pm and we’d already had a long day but they told us we’d be fine in Maria La Gorda, 65 NM away. Definitely another overnight passage was the in order. 

So off we went and endured one of the worst passages in a long while. E winds in the low to mid 20s were not so bad as we were on a downwind run going West but the 4-5 ft seas were short, steep and on our beam. Plus we were bucking a 1 knot current. No sleep for either of us that night.

We’d been to Maria La Gorda in 2014. It’s the normal first stop after clearing customs at Los Morros on Cuba’s Western side. This is a dive resort with some of the most spectacular coral in the Caribbean. It’s also the only place with a possibility of potable water. 

We arrived in Maria La Gorda by dawn and knew from our last visit about the mooring balls. So we picked one up and tried to get a little sleep before presenting our Despacho to the Guarda. Around 1pm we stumbled to the dinghy very tired and bleary eyed but ready to go ashore.  We were thinking Pinar del Rio is only 50 miles away perhaps the resort could arrange a taxi of us.

Before we could even land we were told we had to leave! “So sorry” but transient boats are no longer allowed at Maria La Gorda - New rule!! Since last week!! Obviously no one has told Cayo Largo or La Coloma!! We had to move on to Los Morros. The Porto Captain was very apologetic. He even made an exception and let us stay until 4pm! He also took Roy ashore to buy an internet card. Possibly we could pick up Maria La Gorda’s wifi on Wahoo, if not it would be good at Los Morros, only 10CUCs for 5 hours. 

Los Morros dock
Two choices: chuck it all, go against International Law and leave without Clearance to sail 140 NM to Isla Mujeres, crossing the Yucatan Channel with its northward setting 3 knot current and all the shipping that traverses that channel into and out of the Gulf of Mexico. Difficult in any but calm winds. Our other choice, head to Los Morros, only 35 NM away but also a difficult passage if the weather isn’t calm. You go around 3 Puntas (points of land) with confused seas and the current very possibly against you. In addition approaching Los Morros at night is impossible as its surrounded by shallows and reefs. So we’d have to stretch 35 NM to fill 14 hours in order to get there in daylight (yep, yet another overnight sail). Our biggest issue besides being exhausted was weather - we had no idea. Would we see a continuation of the previous night which would make either choice a poor one or would the predicted mild winds and seas finally appear. The internet card wasn’t giving us a good enough connection. Our best source was the man himself, so we called Chris Parker. He carefully laid out both scenarios. Calm wind and seas approaching Los Morros, or higher  winds and seas but doable for a Channel crossing. Finally our deciding factor was how tired we were. We opted for a sloooooow 35 NM. 

It turned out to be a quiet and beautiful, starry night as we coasted with only a reefed jib trying to stay under 3 knots. Easily one of the most beautiful night sails we’ve every had. Plus there’s now potable water at Los Morros. You just never know!!

Arrived at a friendly Los Morros (our 3rd visit here) and slept most of the day and night away. No internet at all at Los Morros. We’ll just pass the card on to a Belgian boat that’s here. However,  we could trade rum and a few CUCs for fifteen 3 to 4 lb lobsters. Plus maybe we could use the last of our CUCs to buy Havana Club rum (if they open the tienda). Oh, the problems we have. 

Los Morros, with its N facing dock is no place to weather the NW and N 
winds that come with a cold front and one was coming fast. Criolla, the lobster boat we’ve been palling around with, will lead us to Cayo de la Lena. This is a cluster of mangrove cayos 4miles East. We were expecting to anchor but instead they quickly had us tied up to the fishing platform that’s there. These are dotted around the south coast manned by 4 guys who facilitate transferring the lobster caught nearby to the "collection boats" that take them to La Coloma for transporting to Havana and export to Europe. 

Fishing Platform & Criolla
The wind was blowing 30+Kts  but there was a birthday so I baked a cake. We found more booze to give away and soon a party was underway. This is quite the experience, not something the regular tourist will ever experience. The Cuban government frowns on fraternization (so I'm posting no pictures of the guys) between the local population and tourist but this whole Western edge of Cuba, Peninsula de Guanahacabibes, is so remote and, as my Lafitte friends know, fisherman tend to go there own way. It's not only our 3rd visit to Los Morros but the place we’ve spent the most time. The gifts flew back and forth as is the Cuban way. We arrived and they gave us lobsters, we baked a cake and they brought us fresh veggies and gave us lunch, I fried conch fritters and they fried plaintain chips. Next day I made lunch, they made supper... Mainly they offered camaraderie and help as they took care that Wahoo remained safe. Can’t say how many times they worked with us to relocate and retie us as the winds backed and blew. Spending two nights on a Cuban fishing platform is not something to ever forget.
We left our mark in Los Morros - NOYC burgie

Monday, January 2, 2017

Harbournating in Jamaica

Port Antonio
Jamaica is so beautiful! It's also a similar culture to Belize. Must be the British influence, more than in other islands the British seem to have left their stamp. There's so much paperwork!!! We even had to fill out forms to have laundry done.

Get me some Jerk Chicken and a Red Stripe Beer
It seems this year's cruise is about repairs to Wahoo. After the issues in the DR we left Haiti for Jamaica in a hurry because of the freezer; got that fixed and moved on to replacing the macerator pump (you don't want to know). We're continuing to work on steering issues and more freezer problems have surfaced, which means we had to once again order a part from the States and depend on John Edward and Fed Ex to get it to us (yes its here, we go to customs to pick it up tomorrow). We replaced the 24" iMac for a LED 32" Samsung TV and donated the (2007) iMac to Ile a Vache. Now we can watch the movies & TV shows we bring on hard drives in Hi Definition, which is nice, but the connection leaves much to be desired. We are hoping to get an HDMI to USB cable in Mexico as there are none in Jamaica.

Christmas Eve
Our travels have been along the North coast of Jamaica which means a close watch on the weather as it's winter and cold fronts are making their way South. In general the Trade Winds blow from the ENE during the winter months and the ESE during the summer. A cold front in the Caribbean means high winds and clouds, maybe even some rain. The lowest we've seen the temperature is 77F at night. During the passage of a cold front the ENE winds will roar as they back to N then NNE before settling back down. Often as the front passes the winds clock to ESE and produce a period of light and variable wind. The other possibility is a cold front that stalls North of the Caribbean causing the trades to nearly collapse for a few days. We are using one such stalled front to make our 150NM passage to Cuba.

The view from Firefly, Noel Coward's house. All those movie stars lived nearby.

As we traveled from the first Jamaican landfall, Port Antonia, in the NE corner of Jamaica, along the North coast to Montego Bay we had to be careful as all the harbors on this coast naturally face North and only a few offer protection from the North winds and seas. After re-acquainting ourselves with all the things we loved about Port Antonio we moved on to spend Christmas in Oracasessa Bay. Goldeneye, overlooking the Bay, was home to Ian Fleming. He wrote nearly all of the James Bond books from here. It is now a superb resort. Condi Nast names it among the top 10 in the world! 

got a new scarf for Christmas
Golden Cove off of Oracabessa Bay is a very well protected harbor and you can see how calm it was on Christmas Eve from the photo. The rest of the coast was receiving punishing winds and seas from a strong cold front but we hardly felt a roll. It was fun to be able to use this very high end resort. Once we made reservations for Christmas Eve dinner and got "vetted" we were able to bring the dinghy in for drinks and to explore all 52 acres of this lovely spot. We stayed a week but once the front passed our destination was 40 miles West to Discovery Bay for a very different experience. Our one overnight in this safe harbor found us ashore at a locals' beach bar filled with lots of fun and laughter. We found common ground with a Jamaican family on their last day together as half of the family lives in New York. Lots of fun and we ate jerked Conch, a first for us. The next morning was the last good day to travel so we headed West another 40 miles to reach Montego Bay, or MoBay as its more commonly called. We followed the channel in and anchored near the Yacht Club. New Year's Eve found us aboard eating our own lobster and drinking our own wine as we watched the fireworks from the All Inclusive Resorts which surround this town. Not much exploring in Montego Bay as even the taxi drivers want to herd you and keep you "safe". Definitely a cruise ship mentality here - no one can even imagine that you feel comfortable walking on your own. Roy and I raised lots of eyebrows when we walked the mile or so to check out getting that new TV.
So different from seeing the iMac there

We find the the Eastern areas around Port Antonio and on to Discovery Bay a better fit for us. MoBay and Negril to the West are  the tourist part of the island. The All Inclusive Resorts have convinced everyone that the local Jamaicans are a danger. Personally I preferred being hustled by a street Rastafarian than a taxicab driver.  In Port Antonio no one blinks if you go to the market, or get jerk chicken at one of the street vendors. Here just stepping out of the yacht club into a very posh neighborhood takes everyone by surprise.
"mango, banana, coconut, ganja" he calls
I refuse to find Clive intimidating!

Wednesday, Jan 4 we head to Cuba. Our first landfall is Cayo Anclitas in the Jardins de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen). Basically a reef strewn archipelago that is totally uninhabited. We will sail through this area without clearing in as no Guarda Frontera patrol this area. Cuba has very few ports of entry so we plan to clear in at Cayo Largo, the only spot that is not on the main island. It will be a little over 569 NM at 6 knots before we reach the Western port of Los Morros and can cross the Yucatan Channel once again to find landfall in Isla Mujeres. We figure about a month. So until then friends, Hasta La Vista!
The blue dotted line is our Cuban route. We'll stay in the islands of the South Coast. Other waypoints are from other years