Cruising Cuba

Approaching Cuba from Ragged Island, at the south end of the Jumentos in the Bahamas, I noticed something I hadn’t seen for some time—mountains. After the low-lying islands and cays of the Bahamas, Cuba’s coastline at Puerto de Vita offered an exhilarating vista, nearly forbidding in its immensity. A frisson of anticipation ran down my spine.

Cruising through the Bahamas, I had followed a route of easy daysails from cay to cay. The longest passages were from Fort Lauderdale to Bimini and from Bimini to Chub Cay across the Banks. I was attempting to blaze a trail that even the most timid sailor could follow to get to Cuba and back in anticipation of U.S. citizens eventually being permitted to travel to Cuba (see SAIL, May 09). My longest passage would be the return trip from Havana to the Florida Keys, only about 95 miles and hardly onerous except for the Gulf Stream, which is manageable provided you time your crossing correctly.

In preparation for this voyage, I obtained electronic charts of Cuba from Garmin and bought backup paper charts from Bluewater Charts in Fort Lauderale. I also bought a copy of Nigel Calder’s Cuba: A Cruising Guide. Last published in 1999, it is still the primary source of Cuban cruising information. All three of these tools would prove vital in my trip westward along Cuba’s northern coast, from Puerto de Vita to Varadero.

I brought Canadian currency to exchange for pesos at the cadeca, the state-operated money changer, as I had heard U.S. dollars weren’t accepted in Cuba. That was a mistake, as the exchange rate on Canadian dollars was nearly 40 percent—the rate on yanqui dollars was only 20 percent, although the Cuban convertible peso and the dollar are technically at par.

This mistake meant that I missed visiting Havana, as I was running low on funds and U.S. bank credit cards aren’t accepted in Cuba. Neither, for some reason, was a Canadian bank debit card. The lesson? Bring lots of cash. Even though Cuba isn’t expensive, getting funds here can be exceedingly difficult.

The first question cruisers ask about Cuba is: what is it like? That’s a short question that requires a long answer. Quickly then: the north coast is beautiful. The people are happy and friendly, willing to help you however they can despite their poverty. The cruising is wonderful, the anchorages fabulous, the diving exquisite, the fishing superlative, the historic old cities charming. It’s a marvelous place to explore, a cultural eye-opener in every imaginable way, a place not to be missed.

The only real drawback is that cruising by boat is strictly regulated. Compared with the Bahamas, where your only contact with the authorities is when checking in, Cuba’s communist regime brings new meaning to the Orwellian term “Big Brother.” When you arrive flying your quarantine flag, you’ll be boarded by eight to a dozen people, plus one or two dogs. This group includes a doctor, veterinarian, Coast Guard, Customs, marina representative and the drug and explosive sniffing dogs and their handlers.

You’ll complete more documents than you do when taking out a home mortgage, in duplicate and triplicate, including a form granting permission to search your boat. For some reason you never see the form again until after the search—which is generally quite cursory. Some items (such as a handheld GPS) will be sealed in a locker, as they aren’t permitted ashore. SSB radios, portable VHFs, laptops and other electronics are of no concern. But you’d be wise to bring your own carbon paper, something customs can’t usually provide. I once supplied my own methyl hydrate to moisten a stamp pad so my despacho, or travel document, could be stamped. This is a poor country and it shows, although things improve as you get closer to Havana.

The authorities are unfailingly pleasant, but having to fill out paperwork and submit to a search each and every time you move the boat quickly becomes tiresome. Thankfully, boardings made subsequent to entry involve only two or three officials. On the brighter side, unlike many other island nations, there is no mordita (little bite), a request for a gift. Like many things in Cuba, that is prohibido. Only once did I feel that the Guarda Frontera (Coast Guard) officer on board was even hinting at a gift, and he was neither pushy nor offended when I ignored his remark.

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