A Visit to Cuban Waters as Part of the Miami to Havana Race

Author:
Publish date:
Updated on
The fleet sets out from Miami for once-forbidden Havana.

The fleet sets out from Miami for once-forbidden Havana.

“Tack! Tack!” I roared. “Those are the lights of Cuba over there. We don’t need any gunboats threatening us.”

It was 1974. We were returning from a winter in the West Indies aboard Golden Eagle, a classic 72ft wooden ketch. After leaving Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, we rounded the west end of Cuba, taking care to not venture too close. With the wind on the nose, our port tack brought us within sight of the coast, which was closer than I wanted to be. Without the luxury of electronics, I had to rely on the vagaries of dead reckoning and questionable sextant positions, skewed by a fast-flowing Gulf Stream and a not too weatherly full-keeled ketch that made lots of leeway.

Fast forward 42 years to the Inaugural Miami to Havana Race, and we had all manner of electronics, currents data, winds and weather overlays on chartplotters showing us exactly where we were and how we were being set. Plus, until we lost cellular coverage from the Keys, we could locate our competition on the race tracking site.

Oh, and following President Obama’s decision to begin normalizing relations with our neighbor just 90 miles to the south of Key West, we no longer had to worry about any pesky gunboats.

Jasmine rests at the dock after the finish

The crew works to maintain boatspeed off South Florida

Our ride, John Evans’s lovely Jasmine, a classic 26-year-old 62,000lb Little Harbor 54, was rated the same as the competing lightweight flyer Hobie 33s and a J/105. Our track plan was based upon avoiding the area of the compressed Gulf Stream where it was joined by the Gulf of Mexico loop current. East of that area, the current appeared to spread out and weaken. The wind was predicted to clock to the east, providing a good hot angle to Havana.

At start time at 1300 on February 10, there was only 4 to 6 knots of variable wind, leaving boats scattered and searching for breeze with spinnakers alternately filling and falling. Around sunset, a 12 knot WNW breeze filled in, which built and backed through the night. Just as in the Key West Race a month earlier, the Gulf Stream was offshore, providing us with either a fair countercurrent or slight head current. Half way down the Keys a tactical decision had to be made: sail the rhumb line direct to Havana and risk more adverse Gulf Stream, or continue to hug the Keys reefs, heading west out of the current. The 69ft Trebuchet, with blistering boatspeed, shot straight through on the direct course, reasoning that the powerful Gulf Stream current was only a fraction of their Speed Over Ground. For the rest of us slower boats, the percentage in loss of progress resulted in many varied tracks to Cuba.

Jasmine rests at the dock after the finish

Jasmine rests at the dock after the finish

There were a lot of different thoughts on the best track across the Gulf Stream. Aboard Jasmine, while we had it planned out on paper, we were met with as much as 4½ knots of current against us in rough confused seas. Some boats found sweet spots of little current; none of us saw the westbound coastal current that was reported in literature and firsthand accounts.
[advertisement]

Unlike 42 years earlier, we actually sought and welcomed the loom of Havana’s city lights. In the churning seaway it made an easier target to steer by than the wildly swinging compass or rapidly changing GPS numbers.

As we approached the Cuban coastline, a sudden wind shift forced us to snuff the spinnaker and close reach with the jib. The crew was perched on the weather rail, soaking up the sights and smells of the now nearby coast. The sweet smell of the tobacco harvest and the lights and music of Havana beckoned as we carefully picked out the finish line against the background lights. For us it was a challenging 36 hours. For the pace-setter, Trebuchet, the new course record to beat: 19 hours 36 minutes.

After that it was clear customs and immigration and finally secure alongside in Marina Hemingway at 0330 am. So, what do sailors do when they finish a race? Drink beer! So it was off to find a bar open at 0345 in a strange new port. The Jasmine crew made quick work of it at the still open hotel bar, with beers costing 50 cents and rum drinks for one dollar! This gave a new meaning to Cuba Libre.

The culmination of the race was the Sunday night party, complete with two 150lb roasted pigs and unlimited rum drinks. Jasmine earned a respectable 3rd in class, 12th in fleet. The noisy crowd drew silent as the race was dedicated to our dear recently departed sailor friend Buck Gillette, a long-time leader in the Florida racing scene. I could see his smile in the crescent moon overhead.

For more on the race, which was hosted by Miami’s Coral Reef Yacht Club and the Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba, visit havanarace.org.

Photos by Andrea Dowling

May 2016

Related

TOTW_PromoSite

SAIL's Tip of the Week

Presented by Vetus-Maxwell. Got a tip? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com The double range  Every skipper knows about ranging two objects in line to keep the boat on track in a cross-current. What’s less obvious is monitoring both sides of a gap such as a harbor entrance. ...read more

FamilyCruise

Bareboating on Puget Sound

Depending on where you are, Puget Sound can look no bigger than a mountainous version of the Intracoastal Waterway. That’s what I thought when I first laid eyes on it from the lighthouse at Mukilteo Park on a sunny day last July. Then I went to the top of the iconic Space Needle ...read more

Bali4point1

Boat Review: Bali 4.1

Coming fast on the heels of its predecessor, the Bali 4.0, the Bali 4.1 adds a number of improvements, many of them inspired by feedback from owners and charterers. She’s an evolution of a concept that has already proven popular and very many benefits from its builder’s ...read more

Headsail

Ask Sail: Silencing A Rattling Headsail

Q: Our Pearson 26 has a 110-percent jib that tends to rattle very noisily at the top hank. We only bought the old boat recently, but it must have been happening for a long time, since there’s a deep groove worn inside that bronze hank. The jib has an unusually large and wide ...read more

Alerion2048x

Alerion Yachts 33, the 90 Minute Get Away

Easy to sail, luxurious, and swift; the Alerion 33 is the solution to your busy life. The intuitive, simple rig design, easy set-up, and put-away mean there’s no need to wait for crew to enjoy a weekend, a day, or an hour out sailing. Her beauty and comfort are evident in the ...read more

anchor

Know how: Ground Tackle

Your ground tackle is like a relationship—the more you care for it, the longer it will last. So, how do you enhance the relationship? First up, think of the accommodations—a damp, salt-rich, often warm environment, just the kind of thing to encourage corrosion. What can be done? ...read more

DSC_7522

Boat Review: Beneteau Oceanis 46.1

The Beneteau sailboat line has long represented a kind of continuum, both in terms of the many models the company is offering at any given moment and over time. This does not, however, in any way diminish the quality of its individual boats. Just the opposite. Case in point: the ...read more