The Cuba-Bahamas Sailing Loop

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As Cuba opens up to U.S.-flagged boats, Caribbean cruising patterns look set to change. Photo by Onne Van Der Wal

As Cuba opens up to U.S.-flagged boats, Caribbean cruising patterns look set to change. Photo by Onne Van Der Wal

As the United States and Cuba develop a new relationship, we are hearing voices of gloom from other Caribbean cruising destinations, including the Bahamas. They have studied the projections: once the U.S. travel ban is lifted entirely, tens of thousands of U.S. boats will surely cross the Florida Straits to Cuba.

We should all rejoice when Cuba’s 3,000-mile shoreline is once again open to U.S. sailors, but that’s no reason for Bahamians dependent on cruiser dollars to fear devastation. Many skippers may choose Cuba over the Bahamas initially, but opening Cuba also creates an enticing new cruising route that incorporates both destinations. Let’s call it the Bahamas-Cuba Loop. The popularity of America’s Great Loop among power cruisers—the route that takes boaters around the eastern portion of the United States through the Great Lakes and inland waterways—reveals an essential truth about the psychology of cruising—most of us would rather not go home the way we came, whether we are navigating a vessel or driving a Toyota.

Boats sit at anchor in Waderick Wells, in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. Photo courtesy of the Moorings

Boats sit at anchor in Waderick Wells, in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. Photo courtesy of the Moorings

LEG 1: TO GEORGE TOWN

Each winter hundreds of cruisers leave ports in South Florida, cross the Gulf Stream and set a course for the Exumas. The cays of this 113-mile-long archipelago are stepping stones leading south and east to the enormous roadstead at George Town on Great Exuma.

This popular route would be the first leg of the Bahamas-Cuba Loop, which, for the sake of discussion, begins and ends in Miami.

On the map you’ll see four legs, with distances adding up to 1,200 nautical miles, not a voyage to be undertaken lightly. If today’s cruising patterns are any indication, most participants in the Bahamas-Cuba Loop would probably set off from Miami in January and return four to five months later—at the very latest before July, when they’ll face sweltering heat and the potential for hurricanes.

Boats begin arriving at George Town in December, and by February more than 400 fill the anchorages. By April, foreign boats are leaving, a few continuing to the Caribbean, but most just going home the way they came.

The arrival of so many foreign retirees transforms George Town into a floating North American suburb even more organized than the places many cruisers are trying to escape. Mornings begin with “the net,” a daily VHF broadcast with schedules for volleyball, tennis, bridge, golf and bocce tournaments; softball; lessons in yoga and watercolors; excursions; sailing regattas; a variety show; and when mass is being held on the beach church—just to name a few. Evenings are all about happy hours and potluck suppers.

Cuban port officials clear the author’s boat into the country. Photo courtesy of Peter Swanson

Cuban port officials clear the author’s boat into the country. Photo courtesy of Peter Swanson

LEG 2: ON TO THE JUMENTOS

This kind of happy hoopla is not for everybody. Over the past decade, a growing number of George Town boats have quietly raised the hook and gone off to explore the Bahamas’ last frontier, the Jumentos and the Ragged Island archipelago. Like rungs on a ladder, the Jumento Cays and Ragged Islands lead southward toward Puerto Vita, which ends the second leg of the Bahamas-Cuba Loop.

Duncan Town in the Jumentos is just 67 miles due north of the Cuban port of entry at Vita, which already boasts a serviceable and friendly marina. Between Vita and Havana—our third leg—lie dozens of anchorages and four marinas, although three of the four are grouped within 80 miles of the capital. The timing could not be better, because the north coast of Cuba enjoys its most settled weather during April and June, and the run west is downwind.

The fourth leg finds us back in U.S. waters after the 90-mile crossing from Havana to Key West and a cruise up the Florida Keys to Miami.

[advertisement]David Allester is a Canadian writer with years of cruising experience, including in Cuba and the Bahamas. Here is his description of Duncan Town on Ragged Island:

“By the time one reaches Ragged Island, the only inhabited island in the entire chain, the cruising crowd is pretty sparse, even now. And Ragged Island is definitely the end of the line. With nothing but the deep blue water of the Old Bahama Channel stretching to the south, it seems like the world ends there. And for all of the attention that they get from the government in Nassau, the 80 residents of this small outpost sometimes feel they’ve actually fallen off the edge.”

Monte and Sara Lewis publish the Explorer Charts, and their research included a visit to Duncan Town. The Lewises and other adventurous visitors stress the importance of self-reliance in this remote region. There is no TowBoatU.S. here. Nor are there any stores to sell you spare parts. If you go to the Jumentos believing that other cruisers will bail you out of trouble, you are a menace to others. The same can be said for most of Cuba.

The early morning sun rises over Smathers Beach in Key West. Photo courtesy of Peter Swanson

The early morning sun rises over Smathers Beach in Key West. Photo courtesy of Peter Swanson

LEG 3: VITA, THEN WEST

Bruce Van Sant is author of the well-known Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward. Years ago, Van Sant cruised along the north coast of Cuba on his Schucker 440 trawler, researching anchorages and weather conditions.
Van Sant anchored Tidak Apa in six places on the route from Puerto Vita to Varadero, a beach resort 60 miles east of Havana. After Vita, Van Sant made an overnight run, anchoring at Cayo Confites. This is a lovely and well-protected little spot that has a lighthouse and Cuban coast guard post. Shoving off at 0500, he reached his next anchorage, Cayo Paredon, at 1130.

Cayo Paredon has an unspoiled beach, coral for snorkeling and a distinctive black-and-yellow checkerboard lighthouse. Leaving at 0200, Tidak Apa was anchored seven hours later at Cayo Frances, a mangrove island with several sheltered places to drop the hook.

From Cayo Frances, Van Sant made another overnight run to Canal de los Barcos (“The Ship Channel”), which serves as the entrance to a long inside passage through Santa Clara Bay. From there, he made a midmorning start to reach Pasa de La Manuy, the channel that connects Santa Clara Bay to Cardenas Bay, an inside run protected from ocean swell by mangrove islands.
Aside from Puerto Vita, Van Sant avoided any port that required checking in and out with Cuban officials. Security-conscious Cuba continues to adhere to a rigorous port clearance system that is as much a vestige of Spanish colonialism as it is a control mechanism for the current regime.

Midway between Puerto Vita and Varadero is a lone transient marina. The marina at Cayo Guillermo has a persistent shoaling problem and, according to Cuban officials, will probably be relocated once there is sufficient transient boat traffic to justify the expense.

The newly completed Marina Gaviota in Varadero on Cuba’s North Coast has room for 1,160 docked Med-moor fashion on floating concrete docks: in September, there were fewer than 50 boats at the marina, including this excursion fleet that serves local hotels. Photo courtesy of Peter Swanson

The newly completed Marina Gaviota in Varadero on Cuba’s North Coast has room for 1,160 docked Med-moor fashion on floating concrete docks: in September, there were fewer than 50 boats at the marina, including this excursion fleet that serves local hotels. Photo courtesy of Peter Swanson

STOPOVER: VARADERO

At Varadero, cruisers can tie up at the biggest marina in the Caribbean, Marina Gaviota. A state-run enterprise, Marina Gaviota has been expanding its facilities in anticipation of the end of the U.S. travel ban. The complex can now accomodate 1,160 vessels at state-of-the-art floating concrete pontoons, including berths for six 200ft megayachts. This makes Marina Gaviota Varadero bigger than the former title-holder for largest marina in the Caribbnea—Puerto del Rey in Fajardo, Puerto Rico—and bigger than any marina on the East Coast of the United States.

Marina Tarara also accepts transients at its tiny facility, about halfway between Varadero and Havana.

In Havana, Marina Hemingway is a respectable facility with roughly 400 side-tie berths, a 25-minute cab ride from downtown Havana. Mariners should be thankful for Marina Hemingway, because Havana has no place for recreational boats to anchor, and the harbor is restricted to commercial vessels. Eventually the industrial facilities will move to Mariel, west of the capital, and Havana will become a cruise-ship port with recreational marinas.

Jose Escrich, Commodore of the Hemingway International Yacht Club in Havana, also holds out hope that the burdensome port clearance policies will change once the Americans arrive in force. “I know this system of ours bothers yacht people,” Escrich says. “The minister of tourism is aware of the problem, too, so our ‘working group’ looking at nautical issues will try to come up with something else that preserves Cuban security without bothering people.”

LEG 4: HOME TO FLORIDA

From Havana, of course, the way home is straightforward: 100 miles across the Florida Straits to Key West. For many U.S. sailors, crossing to Havana and returning directly back to the Keys will constitute a “Cuba cruise” in its entirety.

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Honestly, if it were a choice between the Bahamas and Havana—with its classic cars, rum and cigars, spectacular art and architecture, vibrant music and dance—many of us Yankees might choose the latter. But it’s a false choice. Experienced cruisers will be able to get their George Town fix and see much more of Cuba by following the Bahamas-Cuba Loop.

THE LOOP & THE LAW

As of this writing, U.S. citizens could take their own boats to Cuba if they had a legal reason to visit. To be legal a boater would have to qualify for one of 12 general licenses, including participation in competitions such as regattas, being Cuban-American or for journalism or professional research. The latter three allow a license holder to bring family members who might not otherwise qualify.

Nonetheless, the Bahamas-Cuba Loop remains tantalizingly off limits. For one thing a general license only allows citizens to take their boats for up to 14 days, after which they must return. Any meaningful attempt at the Loop would require at least 45 days. Worse still, current regs require that any recreational boats going to Cuba must leave from the United States and return to the United States without visiting any other nation in between.

BCLoopRoute

CUBA BY THE NUMBERS

Landmass: 44,000 square miles
Climate: Tropical in the trade-wind belt, modified by frontal systems from the U.S. and by hurricanes
Shoreline: 3,000 miles
Circumnavigation: 1,650 miles
Islands and keys: 4,195
Percentage of coastal shelf navigable by boats over 25ft: 70 percent
Quality of Cuban marine cartography: Superb
Marinas: 15 with most slips in a 70-mile swath between Havana and Varadero. The new Gaviota Marina at Varadero is the biggest in the Caribbean with 1,160 slips on concrete floating docks. Its boatyard boasts a 100-ton Travelift.
Planned marinas: 23 additional with more than 5,000 slips
Major colonial port cities: 5 (Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Santiago and Baracoa)
Distances to
Florida: 90 miles
Mexico: 110 miles
Cayman Islands: 170 miles
Jamaica: 80 miles
Hispaniola: 45 miles
The Bahamas: 45 miles
Turks & Caicos: 110 miles
Estimated number of yachts that will travel to Cuba in the first year after the travel ban ends: 60,000 to 80,000

booksCharts

RESOURCES

The Explorer Chartbooks are indispensable resources for Bahamas cruising. The publisher includes the Jumentos in the same region as the Exumas, which means any vessel bound for George Town should have charts for the Jumentos, as well.

Cheryl Barr has written the Yacht Pilot’s Guide to Cuba in two volumes, based on 18 voyages around the island nation. This is an essential resource for anyone considering a Cuba Cruise. The books are more current than Nigel Calder’s Cuba: A Cruising Guide, but a prudent mariner should carry this reference as well.

German chartmaker NV Charts has the best paper charts of the island nation. Each regional chart kit comes with a CD containing the charts in electronic form and chart viewer software. These raster charts can run on PC navigation systems such as Rose Point. The charts contain annotations for anchorages and relevant features such as dinghy docks. The paper charts also contain sea-level topographic sketches of coastal destinations in the manner of old British Admiralty charts.

Nobeltec and MaxSea also sell electronic charts of Cuba to be used with their navigation software. These and the NV Charts all use data from GEOCUBA, Cuba’s competent hydrographic and geodesic service.

Peter Swanson, former editor-in-chief of PassageMaker magazine, heads up the AIM Marine Group’s seminar programs. A lifelong sailor, Swanson keeps his Morgan Out Island 41 on the St. Johns River in North Florida. He covers Cuba for the Marine Group’s magazines.

December 2015

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