Cuba On the Rocks

The sudden jolt and the sound of fiberglass grinding on rock instantly told me that this grounding was not like the others we’d experienced. I could look straight down into crystal-clear water and see sharp edged rocks sprouting branches of hard corals, rather than the turtle grass or sand that had surrounded our boat in previous groundings. Ordinarily, this would have been a beautiful sight—one of the things we seek out in our cruising adventures—but now my knees went weak when I realized that Threepenny Opera, our trusty Catalina 42, was now hard aground in the middle of an uncharted reef.

My wife, Pat, and I had headed east from Varadero, Cuba, on a 180-mile eastbound jaunt toward Marina Cayo Guillermo, where we were to clear out of the country. Our objective was to take soundings to supplement the scant details in existing charts and to chart some new cruising routes for an upcoming book.

We carried the latest paper and electronic charts from several suppliers and literally every available cruising guide to Cuba. Despite having the latest information, we had run aground several times in the previous weeks. Strong weather systems that affect the north coast of Cuba had rearranged the channels since our information was published. We understood the risks and felt that as experienced Cuba cruisers we were able to cope.

Our weather forecast that morning was for strengthening easterly trade winds and an increasing possibility of convective squalls to as much as 35 knots. Ordinarily, as lazy long-term cruisers, a forecast like this would have meant breaking out a book and staying put in our secure anchorage. Looking outside, however, I saw a clear blue sky, light winds and flat seas. Since we were only about 20 miles from our destination—and perhaps because we hadn’t been off the boat in almost three weeks—we decided that despite the forecast, we could make it before conditions got stinky.

About five miles from our destination, the winds increased rapidly, from a 10-knot southeasterly to 15 knots from the east-northeast, with gusts to 20 knots. Our progress slowed as the wind chop started throwing water over our bow. It wasn’t uncomfortable and it certainly wasn’t dangerous, but I knew that with the direction of the wind and waves we would be rolled from gunwale to gunwale when we turned to follow the dotted line on our charts that indicated the safe route to the marina channel.

The safe route began offshore and led through a mile-long stretch of 12-15ft-deep water before reaching the notorious shoals blocking the final approach to the marina. There were no indicated hazards on either side of the safe route and the conclusion I drew from looking at the charts was that we would be OK until we reached the shallows. Instead of following the recommended safe route, I decided to swing wide and make my approach with the wind on my quarter instead of directly on the beam, to keep the rolling to a minimum. I figured I would read the water and head toward a waypoint that intercepted the dotted line long before depth became an issue.

As I turned toward the waypoint on my improvised approach path, I quickly realized that visual navigation was not in the cards. The graying skies created an opaque shimmer that made it impossible to read the water except in the area right next to the boat. I could see straight down but not ahead. Nonetheless, there was a squall approaching and the winds were increasing, so I decided to push on as all I could see on the bottom was the clear white sand that this part of Cuba is famous for.

Pat headed forward to help spot obstacles in the deteriorating conditions, but she had only gotten as far as the shrouds when I heard her yell “reef!” Instinctively I spun the helm, but it was too late. The depthsounder went from 12ft to 4ft in an instant and we skidded sideways to a hard stop.

For several seconds I was in denial, as the charts showed no indication that there was an obstruction in the area, and yet here we were—stuck. Pat headed below to check for water intrusion as I tried to see if there was still enough water under our keel to try to drive Threepenny Opera to safety. The swells were bouncing us up and down, and with each drop the wing keel slammed into the rocks with enough force to knock us off our feet. The wheel was ripped out of my hands several times as the rudder came into contact with the coral. Fear, adrenaline and an incipient drizzle clouded my vision to the point that hanging on was my only option.

The best I could manage was to use our engine to spin the boat into the wind, but even that was a losing proposition as the squall line we had been rushing to avoid came upon us. My previous calls to the marina and to the local Guarda Frontera (Cuban Coast Guard) had gone unanswered, so when the boat heeled as the squall gained strength, I started to call a Mayday (PAN-PAN would normally have been the right call, but in this situation, I wanted to be heard). The feeling of relief when the USCG responded to my call was indescribable, but once I informed them that I was on the north coast of Cuba, the radio went silent again and I was left trembling and hanging onto the wheel as I helplessly waited for our boat to break up and sink. I briefly considered running a kedge anchor out in the dinghy, but the combination of the weather conditions and a faulty outboard ruled this out.

About 15 minutes later the squall began to abate and my radio came to life with a call from Control Caiman, which is the Cuban Guarda Frontera sector command for this part of Cuba. I normally make it a practice to speak to Cuban officials in English because my Spanish is better suited for restaurants and taxis, but the call came in Spanish so I responded in kind. It took a few repeats and slowly I managed to communicate our predicament and position to Control Caiman.

Shortly afterward an English-speaking voice came over the VHF from Marina Cayo Guillermo. I was informed that a tow would cost $200 CUC, but that help would not arrive for two hours. I had little choice but to agree to both the cost and the wait. Before help could arrive, though we were hit by another squall, and this time the spine-jarring crashes of our keel on the rocks became softer. When the rain stopped, I realized that I could move my rudder from stop to stop without resistance, so I put the boat in gear and slowly motored my way forward and floated free, as a rising tide and the second squall had literally blown us up and over the reef. After that I drove to the marina and docked normally, although it took several hours for my hands to stop shaking.

Threepenny Opera survived with only minimal damage, mostly scratches to the rudder and keel. She’s a tough boat but I learned that day to follow known routes, or at least maintain full situational awareness for a deviation because I don’t want to test her toughness again. 

What we did right

• We did not panic. We checked methodically for water intrusion and maintained control of the vessel as best we could.

• We did not let the rudder bang against the stops.

• We had our PFDs on. Pat and I never approach or leave the dock without wearing them and often on short trips we never take them off. Think of it as if it was one thing less to do.

• We left the engine running, but kept it in neutral; power was available when we needed it, but our prop was less exposed to damage in case of contact with a rock.

• After all options were investigated we sent out a distress call. The goal was to attract attention

What we did wrong

• We headed out in conditions that we knew were going to deteriorate

• We deviated from known safe routes in poor visibility

• We made navigation decisions based on charts that were scanty in their details. We did not recognize that the absence of hazards might only mean that earlier surveys had not picked them up.

• We made our radio calls in English when we knew we were in a foreign country. An emergency is not the time to be bashful.

• We maintained total trust in the information we had onboard, even when we had earlier warnings that the information was not 100 percent reliable. 

Addison Chan is a retired software company executive. He and his wife, Pat, have been cruising the U.S. East Coast, Bahamas, Cuba and Mexico aboard their Catalina 42 Threepenny Opera for the past nine years. He recently coauthored the Waterway Guide cruising guide to Cuba.

Got a good story to share? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com

October 2017

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