Tales of the Itinerant Sailor

Cruising 2009

Political Peril and the Itinerant Sailor


Steven Jones  

The Interrogations

Checking in was back to formal again, complete with medical masks and a sniff dog.  The port officials and the immigration official didn’t take too kindly to the absence of Rickey.  “Where is she now?”  She had told me that she had hotel reservations in Baracoa, on the north side of Cuba. 

“No, I don’t know the name of the hotel.”

“How were you able to buy fuel in Chivirico?“

After a long process, the contingent leaves.  I strike up a conversation with Harry, Captain of Fairwind, which is actually from St Martin, not the BVI.  As it turns out, he just happens to have the sea water impeller that I need.  I am a very happy man.  It cost me a case of cerveza which we share with a family close by with whom he has been conducting business.  We plan to take the bus into town the next day.

Programa interruptus. Early the next morning the English speaking PR person comes out to the boat to tell me that the Harbor Master headquartered at the commercial terminal in downtown Santiago requests my presence for an interview. Considering where I am, this is tantamount to an order.

Street Scene in Santiago de Cuba

Street Scene in Santiago de Cuba

In his office at 0900.  I coordinate with Harry to meet him at Hotel Casagranda, a Santiago landmark since 1914.  Located adjacent Cespedes Park, it is just a 10 minute walk from the Harbor Master’s office.

I am ushered into the Port Captains office just a little after the required 20 minute wait.  There is a cadre of officials awaiting me, some from yesterday’s check in contingent.  Instead of the anticipated questions about Rickey and her whereabouts, they are interested in the details of the entire passage from Casilda to Santiago.  They are having a problem comprehending that I was able to sail into an unauthorized harbor, like Chivirico, wander about, off load a passenger onto a bus, buy fuel, buy a pack of cigarettes for a man who helped me, without ever being challenged by a local authorityI

Then, “Did you see any other boats at sea during this time?”  Although I have more or less put the sighting of the fishing boat on July 4 out of my mind, I sense that something is wrong here and hesitate to bring this up.

I share with them the other sighting later that night, of what I had assumed to be a Cuban Coast Guard vessel.  A few questions are asked about this.

Finally, “did it come to pass that you saw another boat on this trip?”  Now, I know I can no longer evade this subject.  I think maybe I am in deep shit!  Questions in great detail are asked about the crew, what they were wearing, what kind of outboard, where were they going, how did I know it was not a fishing boat, etc.  This whole ordeal is a long, tedious process as I have to rely on my limited Spanish and they have to rely on their limited English.

At last, 2 ½ hours later, they seem to be satisfied with the interview.  Without ever telling me what this is all about.  I suspect, however, the obvious:  I had stumbled onto a bumbling operation to smuggle some Cubans to Jamaica.

The National Museum in Santiago de Cuba

The National Museum in Santiago de Cuba, adjacent to Cespedes Park

Over an hour late, I meet Harry for lunch at Hotel Casagranda.  We engage a taxi and spend the rest of the day with “Oli,” shopping for engine parts for Fairwind.  Harry has had ongoing problems with his boat, especially the engine, since leaving St  Martin several weeks ago.

The next day is a leisure day for me, performing maintenance on the Sirius II, installing the new impeller, changing oil and filters, sending the main sail out to be patched, and hiring a local to climb the mast to retrieve the halyard.  At day’s end I am informed that the Harbor Master wants again to see me tomorrow morning at 0900.

There are new members of the cadre.  There is a young man, an official translator by trade.  He introduces me to el abogado, an attorney to represent me, and to la agente de policia, the lead detective for this case, sitting at the computer.  My “testimony” from two days ago has been entered into the computer and the detective proceeds to review it, line by line.  Throughout the morning, I am never sure if it is clarification he is after or is he trying to catch me in a false statement.  A lie, if you will.

When he seems satisfied, he asks for the testimony to be printed.  The Harbor Master counts out four blank sheets of paper from his desk and sends an assistant to have the document printed.  While waiting, the detective beckons me over to the computer.  He shows me several photos.  He wants me to identify the boat and people and to sign a paper to that effect.  I refuse.  I don’t know what the penalty is in Cuba for the crimes these people may have committed, but I am not going to add to their woes.  Truthfully, if put in an American style lineup, I am not 100% sure that I could identify these men.  The entire episode at sea had happened so quickly.

When my 4- page statement comes back from the printer, it is already stapled.  (The Harbor Master wants the pages loose and removes the staple by hand.  I point this out because after we complete our business, he restaples the document, using the same staple, by hand!!)  He wants all three of us—myself, the detective and the translator—to sign each page.  At this point I exercise a little independence, a little bravado.  Or stupidity.

I turn to the translator:  “Is there any way that I am being implicated as having a part in any wrong that may have been committed here?”

I have visions of the stories I have heard about Cuban jails.   Even before he has completed his translation, from the Harbor Master on down, they assure me that I am in no way a suspect.  Whew!  Such a relief.

After treating myself to a sandwich and cerveza fria at Hotel Casagranda—and mixing with some of the locals, which gets me an invitation to a party that night, this leaves me the rest of the afternoon to prepare for a Friday departure.  But toward evening rain squalls develop and more are predicted for tomorrow, I postpone my departure for a day (Is it really the wind and rain?  Or am I just succumbing to the sailors’ mythology about not starting a voyage on a Friday?)

The Encounter The Third Mate

Cruising 2009: Political Peril and the Itinerant Sailor
Copyright © 2010 Steven Jones. All Rights Reserved.

Contact: siriusii@hotmail.com