Cruising Cuba Page 2

Arriving in Puerto de Vita at sunset, I followed the nav aids on the chartplotter into the harbor. The chart was acceptably accurate, but only went as far as the turn-off for the marina channel. Feeling my way in the increasing dark, I motored past the freighter dock, where I was noticed by the Guarda.

Responding to directions given in mediocre English with my worse Spanish, I proceeded to go aground at high water, and there I stayed for the next 24 hours. Not a promising start to my adventure, but in Cuba you discover there is always a silver lining to any calamity.

The next day the doctor clambered onto the boat, now well heeled over, to grant practique. He also explained that the rest of the clearance procedures could wait until I reached the marina, so as not to inconvenience me further. Such courtesy is typical of Cuban authorities, who really do try to be as welcoming as possible despite the rules.

As Gypsy Wind sat awaiting the higher high tide that evening, I dinghied in to the marina to introduce myself to the manager, Tina, a former English teacher who was a goldmine of useful information. Many educated Cubans choose to work in the tourist industry as, with tips, it pays far better than the $12 to $20 per month they make working in what would be well-paid professions in North America. The bartender at the marina pub was a lawyer; one of the other staff was an engineer. If your Spanish is marginal, don’t worry—these people generally speak good English, and often French or German too.

There were only four other cruising boats at the marina: one each from Britain, Australia, France and Canada. During the month I cruised the north coast, I saw only two other cruising boats, both well offshore, probably bound for the Turks and Caicos Islands or the Dominican Republic. There were no boats from the U.S.

After five days in Puerto de Vita, I left for Gibara, 10 miles west, where I discovered one of the frustrations of cruising Cuba. As I approached Gibara, the Guarda hailed me on the VHF to inform me that entering the port was prohibido (you’ll hear that a lot) and although I pretended not to understand, the increasingly authoritarian tones coming over the radio made it clear they meant it. Tina had warned me of this, but I thought I would try to go anyway. I turned back to sea.

This is the case with many smaller places—you are only permitted to go to designated marinas, the rest are off limits. You cannot leave your boat at anchor without someone aboard, as authorities fear it will be stolen by people seeking to flee the country. Given that Cubans attempt to leave on anything from inner tubes and homemade rafts to 1957 Buicks modified to travel on the water, it’s a valid concern. Cruisers who have traveled the south coast tell me the Guarda there are less strict.

If you’re singlehanding, this rule means you’re effectively confined to your boat outside the marinas. Until, that is, you get into the cays, with no Guarda post nearby. Then, although it’s still prohibido, you can launch the dinghy and explore the reefs and islands around you, or visit with the fishermen you see anchored nearby.

This is when paper charts come into their own. My electronic charts didn’t show the contours inside the reefs, so outside of charted harbors, you have to carefully plot your explorations. Despite its age, Calder’s guide is remarkably accurate and can bring you into anchorages you’d otherwise pass on, thanks to its accurate sketch charts, descriptions and waypoints. It would be unwise to cruise Cuba without this excellent guide.

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