1 LiveBloggin' the ICW: September 2015

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Viva Cuba! On to Annapolis...

It’s been a long while since my last blog post, for which I apologize - I try to get something online a couple of times a week, but between enjoying Havana during my last few days in Cuba, getting back to the US, fixing broken motor mounts (and fuel problems, and other assorted gremlins onboard), preparing for the Sail to the Sun ICW Rally and my regular writing, plus heading north to the Chesapeake Bay, I’ve fallen a bit behind. Let me fill you in....
Havana was, as it always is, amazing. Carlos, a friend from Spain, who cruised along the coast with me from Puerto de Vita, and I hired a classic old car to bring us from Gaviota Marina to Havana. First though we we visited a new friend whom I’d met in Gaviota - Paul, from Britain, who had married a Cuban woman and lived in San Antonio de los Banos, 35 km southwest of Cuba.
Paul and his wife lived in a lovely home they had purchased and that he had fixed up beautifully. This was most certainly a cut above - all right, several cuts above - your typical Cuban home. Along with a beautifully laid out garden and patio with tiki hut and wet bar, the interior of the house had been greatly improved. A second floor was added, it was fully air conditioned, and had a two car garage, although only a tiny Russian Lada lived in it. If you've never seen a Lada...
Like most expats living in Cuba, Paul and his wife had a maid and a groundsman, as well as a chauffeur. While that makes them sound amazingly wealthy, their staff probably did not cost them as much as $500 a month. In fact, it likely costs them considerably less, as official wages are very low in Cuba - $25 - $45 per month.
This town is not one that is visited by many tourists, which is a shame, as it’s a wonderful exposure to how many Cubans actually live. The downtown is busy, with many small shops and street merchants. Homes are small by our standards, but clean and neat inside, and generally well kept outside, even if not freshly painted, since paint is one of those products hard to come by in Cuba.
I was greatly entertained by one scene in the square by the church. Someone had a small business offering children rides on everything from small electric cars, to carts pulled by a goat, and was doing a big business. The kids were loving it, the parents had their phone cameras out, and if you let yourself forget about where you were, the scene was that of any small town in America. Cuba is not so different from the US as we imagine.
Street Mimes
the ultimate government employee!
Seriously, they are paid
by the government

Back to the classic car: this 53 Plymouth (not the beauty shown in the picture above), powered by a nearly new diesel engine, was not one of those beautifully restored classics you read about, but it got us there and that’s what mattered. The cost of the 115 mile trip was $120 one way, but had we been willing to look around further, we probably could have done better in both price and style.
Leaving Paul’s home after several days there, Paul’s chauffeur drove us to Havana, where we found a lovely casa particulara, which is analogous to our B&Bs, two bedrooms right downtown and up one floor, for $40.
From this convenient location, we explored Havana Viejo (Old Havana), wandering around the tourist district. We of course stopped by Hemingway’s haunts, wandered past the Museum of Chocolate, watched street mimes - basically did the tourist thing.
That evening we took in a music festival downtown on the Malecon, or waterfront. I was reminded vividly that I wasn’t in North America as police officers stopped and searched people at the gates as they entered. No one objected to this, or even seemed to think much of it. Of course, objecting would mean a trip to jail, and I’m told that a Cuban jail cell is something to be avoided.
As the festival ended, we chose to get a bici-taxi - a bike taxi - to bring us back downtown. While inexpensive in our terms, the $5 we paid the man was one quarter of what his official wages are monthly. He entertained us marvelously with stories of the places we passed. It was money well spent, the same as the earlier bici-taxi we’d hired earlier in the day.
Paul had explained to us that most Cubans, to survive comfortably, have to earn about $100 to $125 extra monthly over their government stipend. This explained the hustle that almost everyone was engaged in, with people selling everything you could imagine, from fruits and vegetables, to, in some cases, themselves. 
We saw several prostitutes and, obviously being tourists, were quite boldly propositioned several times during that evening.  A quick ‘no’, or simply ignoring the woman or pimp, usually settled the issue. I did chase away one woman who, in the stereotypical bright red dress, tried settling in at the table beside us at an otherwise nearly empty restaurant patio.
Our hosts at the casa particulara arranged transportation back to Varadero for us in a Peugeot, at a cost of $80. Frankly, and despite the dubious charms of the ancient Plymouth, the air conditioning and better ride of the smaller but newer car was quite welcome.
The day after arriving back at Gaviota Marina, I settled my bill for dockage (60¢ per foot per night) and prepared to leave. As always, I left with mixed feelings. 
I enjoy Cuba, but the endless bureaucracy one has to deal with as a cruising boater, and the struggle to make myself understood with my very poor Spanish, were a challenge that I needed a break from. Against that, the friendliness and charm of the Cubans you meet, the joys of this amazing culture, keeps you coming back for more.
That evening, I anchored well after dark, with no moon, at the Cay Sal Banks, a group of uninhabited cays belonging to the Bahamas. The cay was nowhere near where the chartplotter said it should be, which, when you can’t see a thing, is a bit unnerving. 
After sailing ‘through’ the island on the chartplotter and over a mile from my intended anchorage on the west side, I decided I would just drop the hook in 18 feet of water and worry about where the cay was in the morning. Turns out it was a quarter mile further still from where I was, and on the opposite side. 
It was worth the stop however, as it’s just gorgeous, crystal clear waters in which you can see the small tropical reef fish swimming about from your boat. The beach is lovely and wide, and the only concern I had was that the holding was marginal, with sand over coral rock. It would not be anyplace to be in bad weather, as there is no protection.
Leaving the Cay Sal Banks to head for Miami, I dragged a line from the back of the boat, thinking I might catch some supper. I had five big hits within fifteen minutes before a sizable tuna kept the hook, only to break the line right beside the boat. Damn!
As I got north of the Banks and turned to the east, I felt the Gulf Stream tug at Gypsy Wind as the GPS registered over 6 knots...we were finally heading home.
Cuba had been an adventure, but then, it always is.

p.s. For those who missed it, I hosted a Cruisers’ Hangout in Havana, an online webinar which you can view at https://youtu.be/4i79DoVQ74U
If you’re in Annapolis, I will be speaking on Cuba at the Annapolis Boat Show for Cruising World, and also in Fort Lauderdale and Miami at their respective shows, in November and February. Hope to see you at one of the shows, and please, if you do attend, come up and introduce yourself.

For those interested in cruising south with me in the Sail to the Sun ICW Rally, we still have one place available. You can get details on the Rally at www.ICWally.com, or contact me directly for information. This is going to be a great trip, with seminars, parties, and lots of fun, along with solid navigational guidance to make your ICW voyage a safe and comfortable one.