Memories of Sailing Cuba - Sail Magazine

Memories of Sailing Cuba

In 1995 my family and I circumnavigated Cuba, collecting data for my book, Cuba: a Cruising Guide. I had assumed then that relations between the United States and Cuba would soon be normalized, and that the lifting of the embargo would unleash a flood of American sailors eager to explore Cuban waters.
Author:
Publish date:
 In many ways a trip to Cuba is a trip back in time

In many ways a trip to Cuba is a trip back in time

In 1995 my family and I circumnavigated Cuba, collecting data for my book, Cuba: a Cruising Guide. I had assumed then that relations between the United States and Cuba would soon be normalized, and that the lifting of the embargo would unleash a flood of American sailors eager to explore Cuban waters. How wrong I was! Twenty years later, if Congress does not block President Obama’s move to normalize relations, this mysterious destination on our back doorstep may finally open to American cruisers over the next year or two.

In 1995 we found Cuba frozen in time. There is no reason to think much has changed since then. What do we remember? Courteous officials with reams of paperwork for us to complete at every harbor and anchorage, and an absence of corruption. (I fear this is one aspect that is changing.) The monitoring of phones in tourist hotels by the Cuban police state. The close supervision. Being chased by a small gunboat, getting arrested and being held for nine days while the government determined whether we were spying for the CIA. Our guards, characteristically, put down their rifles and took off their shoes when coming aboard. They also showed the children how to make and fly kites from bits of scrap paper and string.

Map-Cuba-cjm

Then there was the awful food in the government-run restaurants. The illegal private restaurants had great food, however, and kept someone posted to warn if officials were approaching so we could escape out the back door. We remember the lack of food in grocery stores, and the lighthouse keepers who raised jutias (a species somewhat like a large rat) in cages for meat to eat, and a fellow with a sackcloth-covered wheelbarrow who had illegally butchered and smoked a pig and was trying to surreptitiously sell it on the streets. (After several months with limited provisions, we happily bought a quarter of that pig.)

When we were in Cuba, a severe lack of fuel for public transport had led to the creation of a state-run hitchhiking system. Once when searching for diesel to fill our jerry cans, we traveled to the local gas station in a magnificent horse-drawn carriage that came straight out of the stables of a 19th-century mansion.

Why would anyone want to sail to a country like this? Because you can visit miles of pristine coast with not another boat in sight and not a footprint on the many sandy beaches littered with lovely sea shells. However, these are not your manicured touristed beaches of the West Indies; these are beaches in a state of nature, with scrubby vegetation ashore and almost no infrastructure. Offshore we found virtually untouched reefs, with lobster wandering around on the bottom in broad daylight. Fishermen happily traded dozens of lobster tails for six-packs of beer.

 Even the resorts in Cuba offer miles of almost deserted beach

Even the resorts in Cuba offer miles of almost deserted beach

The coast is liberally sprinkled with superbly protected anchorages, although many are in mangrove-lined swamps where the mosquitoes come out in force as soon as the breeze and daylight fade. The crumbling colonial architecture in the coastal cities is magnificent, accentuated by 1950s-era American cars with engines held together with baling wire and ingenuity. Then there are the Cuban people, who are the friendliest and most hospitable we have met anywhere in our travels, not to mention generous to a fault. Above all, Cuba is an adventure, a time warp that will inevitably be absorbed into our homogenized Western culture.

Exploring Cuba is far removed from the stereotype of Caribbean cruising. It is for self-sufficient, resourceful sailors who want to blaze a trail and experience nature in a pristine (and often unkempt) state. It is for amateur historians and sociologists who want to see first-hand one of the great social experiments of the past century. And it is for all those who want to immerse themselves in an incredibly friendly and culturally rich Caribbean society. For some it will be frustrating and disappointing, but for many, a cruise to Cuba will be remembered and savored long after the island is left behind.

Photos by Peter Swanson; Illustration by Pip Hurn

Related

SouthernOcean

The 50th Anniversary of the Golden Globe

Here we go! The 50th anniversary of the Golden Globe, the first singlehanded nonstop round-the-world race, is upon us. On July 1 one tribute event, the Golden Globe Race 2018, will start out of Les Sables d’Olonne, France, with a fleet of 19 amateur skippers setting out in ...read more

180621-X01-Landing-Page

Volvo Ocean Race Cliffhanger

After racing over 44,000 miles round the world and battling their way past the world’s great capes, including the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, it’s all come down to the final 700-mile leg from Gothenburg, Sweden, to the Hague. Brunel, Mapfre, Dongfeng: going into the ...read more

Stearns Photo

Racing the Solo Mac for a Cause

There are plenty of reasons to do a Chicago-Mac race, and Rich Stearns, who has done literally dozens of ‘em should know. This year, though, he’s doing the Solo-Mac for an especially important reason: to help those with prostate cancer.“Two years ago, I was diagnosed with ...read more

TOTW_PromoSite

SAIL's Tip of the Week

Presented by Vetus-Maxwell.Got a tip? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.comRafting dangerOne unseen danger when sailing yachts lie alongside one another for a convivial night is that if they happen roll to a wash or begin to move in an unexpected sea, the spreaders can clash ...read more

180615-01 Lead

A Dramatic Comeback in the Volvo

After winning three of the last four legs in the Volvo Ocean Race (and coming in second in the fourth), Dutch-flagged Brunel is now tied for first overall with Spanish-flagged Mapfre and Chinese-flagged Dongfeng following the completion of Leg 10 from Cardiff, Wales, to ...read more

MFS-5-2018-Propan-SP02

Tohatsu LPG-powered 5hp Propane Motor

Gassing it UpTired of ethanol-induced fuel issues? Say goodbye to gasoline. Japanese outboard maker Tohatsu has introduced an LPG-powered 5hp kicker that hooks up to a propane tank for hours of stress-free running. Available in short-, long- or ultra-long-shaft versions, the ...read more