To Cuba and Mexico
At last! On Sunday November 2 all systems are go. All repairs to the Sirius II are complete, the weather is ideal, the Captain and Mate are both ready. After a stop at Key West Bight for fuel and water, we are underway by about 3:30 p.m.
On this trip I do have a mate. My new neighbor at Garrison Bight City Marina, David Werner, an accomplished sailor, will be with me as far as Cancun. I am looking forward to his companionship and experience.
The first test of his expertise occurs while we are still in the Key West main ship channel. My coffee mug falls overboard—the Nebraska Jones Family Reunion cup. I call for David to get the boat hook and we do a Man Overboard Drill. David snags the cup on his first attempt. Impressive. All is well in my soul.
Initially, we have a good sailing wind from the NNE. While crossing the Gulf Stream, the wind shifts more to the east, southeast, and finally to the south, causing us to drop sail and motor the final distance to Marina Hemingway, arriving shortly after noon. All in all, given the usual turbulence of the Gulf Stream, it is an uneventful crossing of the Florida Straits to Cuba. Except that I soon learn that David is prone to sea sickness!
The usual cadre of officials strolls over to the Guarda Dock to inspect our passports, boat documents, and to search the boat. This time there is no annoying sniff dog, but there is an additional Guarda lady to conduct the most thorough search of the Sirius II that I have experienced. For what are they looking???????? I always wonder. David’s toilet kit receives much attention, as do my collection of videos. But it is difficult to hide people or drugs in these locations. (One guarda/emigracion/Aduana official, I can’t remember which, selected an untitled video and asked me to play it, which gave me a little concern as I had no idea what was on the tape. Fortunately, it was so moldy that it was not viewable on the monitor. He accepted that and moved on.)
We are assigned a berth in Canal 2, as opposed to Canal 1 where heretofore I have tied up. It appears as if Canal 1 is closed for repairs. We join the usual assortment of sailboats and powerboats from the United States, Canada, various locations in the Caribbean, and Europe. We learn that several boats here have essentially the same itinerary as ours: to sail the north coast of Cuba westward, around Cabo San Antonio to Maria la Gorda, Isla de la Juventud and, for some, beyond. This caught my attention as most cruisers rarely leave the confines of Marina Hemingway or Varadero, 70 miles to the east!
Foremost among these is Sashay, with Bruno, Olga, Rejane and Michael aboard, a Florida boat but under foreign ownership. Interestingly, they departed Key West about the same time as the Sirius II, but arrived much later as they experienced engine problems and were carried off course by the Gulf Stream. They are headed for the southern island of Cayo Largo, a large tourist development just west of the Bay of Pigs, then to the islands of the Caribbean.
Easy Go is a sturdy 30’ Canadian sailboat with Bob and Kathy. Their plans include sailing and spelunking Cuba’s Northwest and South Coasts. They are in no hurry, which is good as their auxiliary engine is a small outboard. It will be no match for the predominate Trade Winds out of the east that stir up the waters of Cuba’s coastline. I’ve been there, done that. They may have to lay at anchor for days or weeks waiting for an abatement of the Trade Winds.
Needless to say, during the two weeks we are still in Cuban waters after departing Marina Hemingway, we did not see any of the boats that were in Marina Hemingway while we were there.
While in Marina Hemingway, I spend my time visiting Cubans I had previously met. I made a special effort to visit Club Nautico to pay my respects to Commodore Jose Miguel Diaz Escrich, who has done so much to promote Cuban-American friendship. David spent his time becoming acquainted with many boaters in the marina and touring Havana and the outlying areas.
The most interesting “visit” for me was when I responded to a hail from David Brand. “Ahoy there, Sirius II. Is this the same Sirius II that has a web site about sailing in Cuba?”
“Yes,” I respond as I step up out of the cabin. “How can I help you?”
It turns out that he and his wife, Brenda, were staying in a hotel adjacent to Canal 2 and saw my boat from their hotel room. (Fate: In Canal 1 they would not have seen the boat.) He had come across my web site while searching for information about Marina Hemingway. What a small world. Now I know why I keep up the web site. I have heard from many interesting people through this medium, but this is the first person I have met face-to-face.
We left Marina Hemingway with a despacho that allows for two stops along Cuba’s northern coast. However, the weather is friendly and we go nonstop to Maria la Gorda, a little over 200 miles. We arrived about midnight on the second day and anchor near the dive boat pier to await the officials in the morning. Of course, we are the only foreign vessel here.
Maria la Gorda is a beautiful, off-the-beaten path destination for the avid divers. We don’t plan to spend much time here, just an R&R stop in route to Marina Siguanea near Hotel Colony in the southern part of Isla de la Juventud. Just before departing we meet up with Michael, crew from Sashay. He left the boat in Marina Hemingway to come here to dive and, hopefully, get a job as a dive master. An American working in Cuba? I don’t think so.
Our passage to Marina Siguanea is a little rough, but mainly uneventful. As usual, we see no other boats during the night and the only foreign vessel in the marina has been there for over a year: in storage as the owner lives in Europe.
The following day we take the local bus north to Neuva Gerona so that I can visit a family that befriended me my first time here in 1999. Dahlia, one of the family members, lives in one of the stops on the way. When the bus driver learns of this, he stops the bus while one of the passengers takes me over to Dahlia’s house for me to say “hello.” Not a single complaint from the other passengers about this unscheduled stop. In fact, they seem to enjoy being part of the “surprise.” Can you imagine this delay in the United States?
In Neuva Gerona I learn that Papa is away for the day in the fields, Mama is in Havana receiving medical treatment, and Migdalia is with her. Migdalia is the main reason for my stop here, as I have committed myself to helping her financially to immigrate to the United States. Earlier in the year I received a message from her indicating that she was becoming discouraged with the process. She attributed her difficulties to the fact that she is negra (black) and has two children. As she was away, I wasn’t able to determine her current plans or state of mind.
While David stayed in Gerona, I took the next bus back to Argelia Libre to visit Dahlia. During this visit she indicated that tomorrow was her 50th birthday and asked that I come back to celebrate with her. I agree, but only for a morning visit, as David and I are anxious to get underway while we have good weather. We have already lost a few days in Marina Hemingway and Maria la Gorda due to bad weather.
In order to properly leave Cuba for Mexico, we first have to return to Maria la Gorda, as Isla de la Juventud does not constitute an international port. Because of this delay, we encounter some very nasty weather back in Maria la Gorda, a frente frio (cold front) that causes me to move the Sirius II eight miles to the north to anchor on a lee shore for protection from the fierce north winds. During this move the rains come down so hard that I cannot see the Cuban fishing boat that I was following, neither by naked eye nor by radar. Nor can I see the lee shore that was to be my protection, until the depth sounder indicates that I am now in 50’ of water. Very intense! I had to move the boat alone as David had made prior arrangements to go diving that afternoon. What an ordeal.
During this second visit to Maria la Gorda, we spend more time with Michael. He is staying in a private home away from the tourist area, close to the lee shore mentioned above. He arranges a dinner for us, and others, in a private home and this indeed is the best meal for me in Cuba on this trip: Two different kinds of fish, rice, beans, fried banana, cucumber and tomato salad and rum and coke. What more could a man desire?
Now, off to Mexico, 130 miles to the WSW. A little over 24 hours for the passage. But, bad planning, as we arrive in Isla Mujeres after dark. Actually, we were on a daylight schedule but when we contact the Port Captain for instructions, he advises us not to enter Isla Mujeres via the north (short) route. The eight foot high waves that we were experiencing meant that when the Sirius II was at the bottom of the trough we would be eight feet closer to the bottom, which was only 12 – 13 deep to begin with. That puts the 5.5’ keel of the Sirius II very close to the rocky bottom. So we detour to the southern end of the island: A two-hour detour through shallow water on the Cancun side, in early evening darkness.
I don’t have detailed charts for this part of Mexico. Thus, we have to grope and feel our way into the harbor, eyes glued to the depth sounder. We are assisted by the Port Captain, but his voice over the radio is loud and garbled. We did manage to get the latitude and longitude of a couple of lighted buoys. This proved to be very helpful. We finally drop anchor for the night somewhere around 9:00 p.m.
Two days later, on November 24, I take the ferry to the mainland, grab a bus for Cancun City, switch to another bus for the airport, and greet Carmen, my friend from the Dominican Republic. Now, for a few days, my status changes from a solo sailor to a sailor with two mates!
Within a few days we check out of Isla Mujeres for Cozumel. It is a rough sail and Carmen gets very sick. Oops. But David is now OK. Again, we arrive at night and encounter much difficulty in finding the marina. Anchoring is almost out of the question as anchoring depth is dangerously close to the shore. The shore lights blend in with the city lights. Again, we call for help from the Port Captain. When we finally arrive, we have to do a Mediterranean anchor, which means setting anchor over the bow and then backing into a slip, tying off on the seawall. It is very, very difficult backing a sailboat into a tight spot, especially in the dark. Fortunately, David is up to the task and drops the anchor perfectly.
We soon learn that the voice guiding us in belongs not to the Port Captain but to a ship’s agent. He informs us that he must represent the Sirius II in negotiations with the Port, execute all the paper work for us, and his fee will be $60 US, which is less than the $100 that he usually charges. What? What is this piracy?
I dismiss him with a thank you for helping us in to the Marina. However, over the next couple of days I find that he is right. The Port Captain refuses to deal with me, insisting that I hire a ship’s agent. We do, finally, retain another agent, Jorge Gutierrez Novelo, for $40 not $60, and a gentleman to boot. He completes and processes all the paperwork that the Port officials routinely do in Isla Mujeres, for no extra fee. I have had extra fees of $5 to $30 imposed by certain ports from time-to-time, but the total fees paid here, including the entering and exit charges, is the most I have ever paid in nearly 10 years of cruising Mexico and Central America. This includes Cuba, which is well-known for adding special fees from time-to-time to fleece the tourists.
For any cruiser who might read this document, if you are considering Cozumel as a stopping place: Don’t. It is not cruiser friendly. If you want to visit Cozumel, take the bus from Cancun to Playa del Carmen, then the ferry to Cozumel. You need only spend a day, as there is not that much to see here that you can’t experience in other locations. Isla Mujeres has essentially the same attractions, and friendly personnel in the oficina de Capitania de Puerto.
Bad weather forces us to stay here much longer than we wanted. David has plane reservations to fly out of Cancun on December 3. Knowing that we will not be able to return to Isla Mujeres by then, he chooses to take the ferry to Play del Carmen and from there shares a taxi to the Cancun airport. An excellent decision as Carmen and I are confined to the marina for a few more days because of three consecutive frente frios. Our stay is long enough to be noted on the located radio station: “The sailing vessel Sirius II from the United States is among the boats visiting Cozumel this week.”
When we do leave, we are headed directly into a 20-knot wind out of the Northeast. We maintain good speed as a SE current pushes us along, but gives us a very bumpy ride. Carmen takes her Dramamine before departure, which puts her to sleep during most of the crossing. Of course, this is better than being sick. However, for all practical purposes, I am a solo sailor again.
I use some of this time in Isla Mujeres cleaning out the forward v-berth. For some reason, the diverter valve for the toilet holding tank was turned the wrong way and the holding tank was filled and over flowing. What a mess! Also, the stitching on the sun shield for the roller furling headsail is not holding. A couple on a French registered boat, who have been here for over a year, have a sewing machine and, supposedly, sail-mending skills. I engage them to make the repairs, which lasts almost back to Key West before it rips out again.
We spent more time in Cancun shopping. For me, I have been looking since Cuba for a light bulb for the red/green navigation light. It is a special bulb, not to be found locally. So, we continue the cruise without this light.
Carmen is booked to fly out of Key West on December 13. On Monday December 8 we have a favorable window wind and depart Isla Mujeres not long after daybreak. I have looked at several charts over the past several days and am confident that we can exit via the North route. We do, and have at least 12 feet of water throughout the passage. However, the autopilot is not holding course. Groan! I have visions of staying at the helm for the next three days to steer the boat.
This is not acceptable. I determine the problem is the power unit. I make some repairs to the back up unit and what do you know? It works perfectly the rest of the way. I am free to move about the boat.
Initially, I am using the motor much more than I want, as we still have a formidable head wind. This is a three-day passage and I don’t have enough fuel to motor the whole distance. On my last passage from Isla Mujeres to Key West nearly seven years ago, I ran out of fuel and subsequently lost a mate. I hope not to repeat this debacle. But by the second day the wind is more favorable and we sail most of the way into Key West, pushed along by currents in the Yucatan Channel and the Gulf Stream. On the second day, we occupy ourselves for nearly two hours watch a pod of dolphin accompanying the Sirius II.
On Wednesday we not only have a favorable Gulf Stream, but the winds have shifted to the SSW, making for the most comfortable crossing of the Straits of Florida that I have ever experienced. It is so comfortable that Carmen elects not to take her Dramamine, meaning she is awake and fully enjoying this day.
We arrive in Key West about six hours ahead of schedule, about 2:00 a.m. Thursday morning. As there now is a significant wind blowing, I elect to anchor out in the seaplane basin off Fleming Key, rather than squeeze into my slip at Garrison Bight in the dark at low tide. Bad decision, as I am unable to see some buoys in the darkness and run aground. So we spend the night heeled over. I call for a tow the next day from Boat US’ Reef Perkins and we finally pull into the slip about noon Thursday December 11, still more than a day before Carmen’s plane departure to the Dominican Republic. This gives us time for Carmen to shop at the t-shirt shops on Duval Street. We do.
Key West is cold. I want to go back to Mexico. Can’t do. Maybe next year in the Lesser Antilles I will be warm again.
A few days later, I fly to the Dominican Republic to share Christmas and the Holidays with Carmen and her family. Here is a short account of this visit.
This is a busy time of the year to fly worldwide. The only ticket that I could get was through Puerto Rico, which, with layovers, added about five hours to a normal two-hour flight from Miami. My penalty for waiting so long to book the flight.
Christmas Day is almost nigh and I am worried that I didn’t come bearing gifts. I make a point of shopping for gifts for Carmen and Francis (her son) only to find that exchanging gifts is not really a part of their holiday. Wow! I like this custom. But I still felt better about finding the soundtrack CD of Chicago for Francis and a Nativity scene fountain for Carmen’s condo.
Most of the eight condo units were decorated with small lights in the windows or on the balcony. This seemed to be the custom throughout the city, as well as many fireworks. With plenty of loud, very loud fireworks.
The primary Christmas celebration is a family affair on Christmas Eve. Carmen’s custom is to share dinner at her brother’s home in Santo Domingo. She indicated a little concerned about my usual casual style of dress so I am properly attired in long pants, a shirt with both collar and buttons, and regular street shoes, only to find that her brother has just gotten out of the shower and never did bother to put on a shirt the entire evening.
The maid had prepared a feast for us. Many family members were present: Three of Carmen’s brothers, a sister-in-law, her son and one niece, and another niece came to visit after dinner. On the dinner table was pork, turkey, goat (very similar to beef in consistency, with a little lamb flavor), rice with pigeon peas potato salad, green salad, meat pie, bananas wrapped in a leaf, bread, fruits, cake and other sweets.
On Christmas morning I take a long walk with Carmen, her brother Julio and his daughter Rahaina. Back at the condo, the afternoon and evening are spend making and receiving phone calls, and receiving friends who drop by to visit. I get the feeling that I was part of the draw.
A week later, on New Years, the celebration is almost an exact repeat. Nothing much happened on New Years Day, except for the noise of the left over fireworks. The partying occurred the night before, including the customary exchange of handshakes, hugs and kisses at midnight, about the time we finish dinner. Afterwards, Rahiana left with friends to stroll up and down the streets through the night. This is the highlight of New Years Eve.
In between, we shop, tour the city, enjoy wonderful gourmet Dominican cooking, and talk. This upper class family is very well informed about local and world events. The brothers, Joaquin, a local businessman, and Julio, a physician from Venezuela, want to understand better the United States’ policy toward these countries. Gulp! I don’t know. Then, they ask me questions about US domestic policy.
“Are you a Republican or Democrat?” I haven’t voted Republican since Dan Evans was Governor of Washington State. But this doesn’t impress them.
“Did you vote for Bush?” I assure them I did not. Nor did I vote for Gore. This confuses them as they understand the United States to be a two party political system.
Then, the usual comparison to John Kennedy, whom most foreigners view as the ideal US President.
Also, during this time we drive north across the island to Monte Cristi to visit their sister, Hilda, and her family. In route they see signs advertising goat meat for sale. A delicacy, they say, so we stop and buy some. This is what we had for lunch, as well as fish, rice, plantains, salad and bread. Always bread and rice.
I drive most of this trip. Driving in the Dominican Republic. After reading the account of my previous visit, David Tremaine, from Inter-TIE days (International Themes in Education, an organization that we help found), wrote to remind me of the additional hazard created by the drainage ditches at the intersections. These can be as deep as the speed bumps are high. This of course compounds the traffic congestion, as many cars are forced to crawl across these obstacles at an angle, and driver frustration, as the SUV’s take this opportunity to spurt ahead, often irritating the other drivers to the point of becoming even more aggressive. For a more detailed observation of Dominican driving habits, see my earlier adventures in the Domincan Republic.
Copyright © 2003, 2004 Steven Jones. All Rights Reserved.