23/03/2011/12:50 pm, Puerto de Vita, Cuba
How do I even begin to tell you about Cuba?
It is lush and beautiful, arid and dry. We have driven through mountains and across valleys, along coastlines and through farmlands. We have shopped at Farmers' Markets in the tiny towns of Santa Lucia and Santa Marta, and sat in the plazas of Santiago de Cuba - a city of 400,000 and Havana - 2,000,000. We have travelled among horse drawn carts and bicycles on rutted and pot holed roads, and with buses and trucks on modern two lane highways. We have negotiated our way through narrow city streets jammed with bikes and carts and horses and buses and trucks and people on foot all together! It is like "Wild west meets old European city".
But let me go back to the beginning ... March 23/11 (and this posting is mostly about the process - it gets more interesting later!)
We came all the way across the channel from Ragged Island under sail and began to see outlines of mountains from miles off the coastline. It was such a change from the approach to the Bahamas, or the approach to the US on our way back. The purply outlines grew clearer as we got closer, and we spotted the lighthouse at the entry into the channel. The buoys were just where they were supposed to be and we started into the river. We hadn't been able to raise the Guarda Fronterra (Coast Guard) on the radio when we called, but we had heard that they don't always answer so we didn't worry. A fellow on a jetski appeared out of nowhere, motioned us to follow and led us all the way through the well-marked twists and turns to the anchoring area. We had heard from Peter (Wanderer) and Duncan (Talisa) that the procedure was to anchor there first, get cleared by the Doctor and then proceed to the marina so we knew what to do. We were the first of the four boats coming from the Bahamas that afternoon so we all dropped our anchors and waited. Alexi arrived from the marina shortly to tell us that the doctor had been delayed at the hospital and would be along later. We happily settled down to wait some more, and as time went on, we began to realize that he wouldn't be coming that night. Another couple of boats came in and we heard that our check in would be the next day.
After a lovely night's sleep, we were sipping coffee in the cockpit when Ali (Alexi) came alongside with Dr Rolando. He pulled out his forms, checked passports, asked if we were ill, and where we had come from (he was pleased that we had not been in the Dominican Republic or where cholera is a problem - in his words "That is a pain in the head!" - and told Jim he could pull down the Quarantine flag and raise the Cuban one. We were cleared. As Ali delivered the Dr to the next boat, we hauled anchor and followed Ali in his little blue boat into the marina. The moorings are Mediterranean style, and we haven't done much of that before but it was easy. There was little current so as Ali tied a bow line to the mooring ball, Jim backed us toward the large open space on the dock. Two fellows waiting there caught our stern lines, pulled us into position and we were set. The only complication to this was that we had to learn to crawl over and under our stern railings and dinghy davits to get on and off the boat! We tied the dinghy alongside and left it there because we were not allowed to use it while we were there.
The rest of the officials arrived shortly and neatly climbed through the obstacle course to sit in our cabin with their forms and papers. There were four of them - harbourmaster, immigration, customs and a health officer. We had a white uniform, a khaki one and a green one, and the last fellow wore a hospital type scrub shirt. They were all very polite and friendly. We offered sodas and beers, and I had a plate of home made gingersnaps on the table. As we all sat around eating and drinking, they started filling in forms. Their English was adequate for the task, and our few Spanish words were jovially received. In fact, the Immigration fellow found amusement in teaching me how to give the answers to his questions in Spanish. They wanted to know where we were from, what jobs we had, last port of call, intended destinations in Cuba (we gave a list of about 25 possible stops along the north coast and all but 2 were approved), length of time we would stay (we asked for 30 days and got it with the assurance that if we wanted to stay longer, it would be easy to get an extension), where we would go from there and were we carrying guns (no). Then there were the boat questions: size, make, kind of engine, how much fuel we carried. We had a form (copied from the Spanish for Cruisers book) all filled out and ready to give them and this helped the process. Once the main questions were answered, the Ministry of Health officer asked if he could look at our provisions. He was so shy and polite that he barely looked in our lockers and fridge. He wanted to know if we had fresh meat (no) and where our produce had come from (Bahamas). Everything we had was OK - oranges, apples, cabbage, eggs. He asked what milk we had and was satisfied with the powdered milk and cartons of long life milk. While he was filling in his forms, the cocker spaniel drug dog made a quick run through and then leapt off again. Another cocker spaniel (explosives expert) made a quick check as well.
All in all, it was a painless process - even a pleasant one. My impression is that the only thing one really needs is patience. It takes a while to do the paperwork, but there was nothing intrusive or threatening or bothersome about the process.
We had heard that Tina in the marina office would help with all the arrangements for getting money and paying the fees, but she was off that day. Her replacement didn't have as much of a command of English, but arranged for taxis to take us all to Guardalavaca to the bank. It closed at 3 and we needed to hustle but we made it in time. We withdrew money from a Canadian credit card and changed it to CUC's (convertible pesos). There was a small charge for that but we pretty much got 1 CUC for $1. Cdn. Changing American money is more costly. It can still be done but there is at least a 10% charge. (We heard 20% but the sign in that bank said 10%) We could not change CUC's for national pesos there, but that can be done at the Cadecas in other centres. We obtained pesos later at the Cadeca in Santa Lucia (near Puerto de Vita) and in Santa Marta (near Varadero), and also at a roadside fruit stand when we bought pineapples (we paid in CUC and asked for pesos in change).
The fees (90 CUC's) were paid to Tina who then dispersed them to the appropriate officials and there was no request or expectation for any further exchange of money.
Another 15 for a cruising permit was due when we left.
We, along with John and Jackie (Camelot) visited the Cubacar rental office in Guardalavaca while we were there for banking and arranged for a rental car for two weeks. There was no room for dickering on price - weekly rentals were 56 CUC per day including insurance and a second driver. We discovered later that Tina can make all these arrangements too, but since she was off, we did it ourselves.
After enjoying a browse around the (touristy) market area and our first Cuban mohito (a minty rum drink that we proceeded to sample at every opportunity) we taxied back to the marina and a relaxing evening after a busy day.
We had been warned to have mosquito coils and or good screens and it was good advice. The marina is in a mangrove area and as the sun goes down, the noseeums come out. This was the first time we have ever really coveted those lovely big screened in cockpits. We have a full enclosure with screens but it would have blocked pretty much all the breeze too so we didn't put it up - we stayed outside as long as we could and then retreated into the cabin. We have a dearth of fans on Madcap so we were delighted to accept Tom's offer to lend us a high efficiency and quiet 12 volt fan for the next week or two. It made a wonderful difference in our comfort level for those nights when there was no breeze.
Madcap in Cuba. How about that?!
22/03/2011/12:45 pm, Southside Bay, Ragged Island
We found Phicol just outside his fishing lodge and hopped in his truck for a trip out to Gun Point. That is where the big new boat basin is being blasted and chopped out of the rock. We had thought last year that it would be useful for cruisers as well as commercial vessels but it's not looking that way at the moment. There are no plans for a floating dock for cruising boats or their dinghies, and it is a long trip to town from there. Phicol, as chief councillor for the island, is trying to encourage a dock and golf carts or some convenient way for cruisers to commute. We'll see how it looks next year!
When we bought our brand spanking new outboard motor last year, we left our old Mercury 5 hp outboard with Phicol. He thought he could get it repaired eventually and would do something with it. We were thrilled to find out that he did indeed get it fixed and gave it to the old fisherman who lives on Buenavista cay. We saw him rowing for miles when we anchored there last year and we wondered this year if he was still around since the place seemed empty. Phicol says he sure is - but was away for a couple of weeks. This epilogue seemed just like the icing on the cake to our good news story of last season.
Percy picked us up again as we walked through town and delivered us to the beach where our dinghy had fortunately remained unmolested by his pig. (Although we did find pig hairs and dirt on one of the pontoons!) After changing into swimsuits, we set off across Southside Bay to the shoal on the other side for an idyllic final evening in the Bahamas. The tide was out and the sand bars were wide. I picked up one lovely penshell, and looked through the hundreds of sand dollars for a white one but they were all green and very much alive. We wandered for over an hour, as the ripples of water came creeping back over the sand and the sun dropped closer to the horizon. Then it was time to head back to Madcap and ready her, and ourselves, for departure to one more adventure.
We both slept for a bit, and then at 2am, the alarm went off. We poured coffee into our thermal mugs, pulled the anchor out of Bahamian waters for one last time, and followed our track out of the bay. Good bye to the beautiful Bahamas for another season.
22/03/2011/10:50 am, Duncantown, Ragged Island
We had envisioned a week long trip down through the Jumentos but that hasn't happened quite the way we planned. Hmmmmm - I think I've been saying that a lot lately!
We left Thompson Bay on Friday and had such good sailing winds that we came all the way down to Flamingo Cay, bypassing Water Cay - our first stop last year. There were several boats in the little anchorage by the two palms, but just like last year, we opted to anchor in the next little bay. We covered 56.2 nautical miles and had the engine on for less than an hour (just to get us out of one anchorage and into another). While we were tired after 11 hours of sailing, it was so much better than having the engine roaring away.
We dined on a new recipe I invented, and named Chicken Quatro - for the 4 C's - coconut, curry, cassava and chicken. I must say, it was very tasty! I had never cooked cassava before but the farmer who sold it to me told me to cook it till tender, then peel it and add it to a stew or whatever I was making. It has a texture somewhat like the Bahamian potatoes, (firmer than the ones we are used to) and it worked well with coconut milk and curry powder - with a dash of the hot seasoning salt I bought at the same market. I sauteed chicken pieces with onion and tossed it all together to simmer for half an hour. Mmmmmmm.
I've mentioned "perfect moments" before, and that evening was one of them. The moon was full or nearly full and shining brightly across the water. Madcap had just the gentlest of rolls happening and we were full after a tasty dinner and pleased with our day's sail. CBC was coming in loud and clear on the radio. As we sat in this lovely anchorage among the most southerly of the Bahamian Cays, we listened to Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe - recorded at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax, Nova Scotia - about a 20 minute walk from our home. It seemed to link the two parts of our lives so very well.
We listened to conversations among the fishermen on the 3 boats off Flamingo Cay, and passed several more anchored at Jamaica Cay while their dinghies scattered through the area to fish. Scott had explained to us that there will usually be a crew of 6 to 8 people plus a cook. The cook stays on board while the dinghies with a diver and a driver go off fishing. The men own their own dinghies and pay a percentage (plus their gas and groceries) to the captain of the big boat. The Captain C - the mailboat - was anchored off Flamingo Cay for a while in the evening too, before heading off across the Lark Channel. We smiled when we heard the radio call from the Captain C to one of the fishing boats, "Have you got any snapper?" and we watched as a dinghy went flying off to the mailboat.
The next day was a good sailing day too, and we moved on down to Buenavista Cay where we were the only boat on that lovely long stretch of white sand. This is the first time in months that we've had an anchorage to ourselves, and we made good use of it. We dinghied ashore and walked down the beach to the trail that leads to the southern end and another beach. I gathered some palm fronds for weaving, we swam in the clear blue water, and dried out as we walked some more. The house up at the northern end didn't seem to have anyone around this year - although we didn't go up close to investigate because our legs were tired of walking in the deep sand. Last year, we took cans of vegetables and beer to the two gentlemen staying there - an elderly fisherman who still rowed miles back and forth to his fishing grounds, and his son (I think).
We kept moving south and made the difficult decision to bypass both Raccoon and Hog Cays and come straight to Ragged Island's Southside Bay on Sunday. I remember Raccoon as being a really pretty little spot - and there was only one boat there. Hog Cay is a cruiser favourite and there were several boats we've met in there, but we had weather coming and we decided Southside was where we'd prefer to ride it out. Once again it was a fine sailing day - although a more "vigorous" one than the last two. We had the main and the Yankee up and were flying along at close to 7 knots, but eventually switched to the stay sail as the wind built to a sustained 18 - 20 knots. Eventually we had to furl in the stay as well and motor sail as we headed up into the wind for the last 45 minutes.
We went ashore to the beach and walked to town - take the trail to the road and then walk past the dump, across the airport runway, up the hill and around the corner. The runway is finished now and the roads are all smooth black asphalt. The crews were here working on them when we were here at just about this time last year. This is a very small little settlement - fewer than 100 people and it is so amazing to see such roads! It being Sunday, there were few people about, but we did find a working payphone - a most unusual thing. After a hot and dusty walk back, we stopped to say hello to the folks on Jubilee - the only other boat here and then enjoyed a quiet evening. Our Sunday dinner was stewfish - made of snapper I had in the freezer, onions and Bahamian Sweet potatoes - spiced up with some of the hot sauce I bought at the market.
We have been experiencing more of that eau de sewer lately and so we spent Monday morning dealing with that. We took up the table and the floor boards once more, wondering if it was the vent again, and discovered that the macerator pump had not been pumping. The tank was absolutely full. I will not describe what happened when we disconnected hoses to see if there was a blockage - lets just say I used lots of javex afterward. (And kiddos - you'll be impressed - your dad did not throw up or even gag!) Back in the fall I questioned whether we really needed a $200 spare macerator pump on board, but Jim took the old one out and installed the new one and it worked a charm. Thank goodness! No more smell and an empty holding tank. We poured buckets and buckets of water down into the bilge, pumped that out too and disinfected everything in sight. (You'd be proud MB) (and Alain - I didn't have to come to close to any tubing!!)
The predicted high winds and squalls arrived about noon and lasted all afternoon and evening. The highest I happened to see on the wind indicator was 29.2; the wind generator has been working hard enough to divert some of its energy over to the hot water tank and that hardly ever happens. Our anchor is well dug into one of the sandy bits here in the bay. We are in 7 ft of water at low tide and Jim put out about 100 feet of chain so we have lots of rode to hold us securely. I am always amazed that we can possibly stay in one place with such a wind - but we do!! (Knocking on wood here). We spent the afternoon with books and charts - of Cuba. Because yes - I really think we are going to get there this year. We'll deliver our boxes of books to the school on Tuesday and wait for the seas to calm. We'll visit with our old friend Phicol and then we'll be Cuba Bound.
ps - We have just delivered books to the school - 10 students this year - after Percy (from the house with the plane on top and goats, pigs,chickens in his yard - and pigs on the beach too!) drove us to town. We missed Phicol somehow and are now going to find him.
We are still on track for a 3 am departure to Puerto de Vita, Cuba - a trip of about 60 nautical miles. I hope we'll find an internet connection there to let you know how it goes. We are excited!!!