After only a couple of days taking in the sights, sounds and smells of Havana it was time to leave. The next suitable weather window was on the 6th January which was a light southeaster. On a fine day after a winter cold front passed, Blue Heeler and catamaran Sweet Sensation were handed our cruising permits and despacho permitting us to cruise around Cuba. At each port we visit we must hand in our paperwork to the officials and have it stamped as we enter and leave.
The wind was light – around 4kn from the south east. Once out of the notoriously narrow channel we motor sailed with full sails. A 1knot current helped us reach a speed of 7.4kn at times but by midday a counter current had us slowing up. The first leg of our journey was 160nm to reach an anchorage near Los Morros on the western tip of Cuba.
That evening I went down for a nap (of sorts) at 6.30pm to rise again at 10pm. From 10pm until 1.30pm while on watch, the wind picked up from the south east between 15-20 knots giving us a great sail on a beam reach. Halfway through my watch the depths were driving me crazy. We should have been in 400+ metres although the depth sounder read 35m, 20m, 14m, 12m in a short time. Could it be dolphins? An underwater mountain? Who knows, but it certainly makes me anxious! Wayne came back up at 1.15am to relieve me. At 3.45am I was woken by the hull pounding against waves and the boat pitching up and down. The wind had shifted so we were now heading into steep choppy seas and 15-20knot winds. Ugh! This reduced our speed to around 4kn, even less when the boat stalled as it bashed into large waves.
Sailing in pitch-black darkness is like being in an aeroplane at night with only the instruments to guide us. No stars, few lights on the horizon, except for intermittent oscillating lighthouses along the dangerous reef to the south. The depths rise from 2000m to 20m to 2m in a very, very short distance along the Cuba coastline so we stay well off until we were sure of the accuracy of our charts. We reduced sail and motor sailed to keep the speed up and keep the trip more comfortable. Wayne tried to sleep but with all the pounding waves he was back up at 6am. By then the glow of the sun brightened the horizon so we had coffee and both stayed up.
All the while we were sailing, Sweet Sensation were within two miles from us, also battling the conditions under bare poles. Our ETA to the Peninsula de Guanahabibes was around 1pm on Friday 8th. The wind eased a little and we turned south into the Pasa Balandras for the final 10nm to our anchorage at Canal de Barcos. We each had only a couple of hours sleep and by 1pm we arrived at Canal de Barcos, on the east of Cayos de la Lena. By 2pm I went to bed for a few hours sleep. Wayne disappeared for a nap too.
The canal is supposed to be a ‘hurricane hole’ and was a welcome anchorage with flat water and good holding between the muddy banks of mangroves. The next morning Swedish crew, Karl and Elizabet, aboard Spray, a Hallberg Rassy HR40, arrived at the anchorage.
The Cabo de San Antonio is notorious for strong north flowing currents, counter-currents and eddies, as the fast flow of the Gulf Stream flows north from the Caribbean Sea, through the Yucatan Channel which is around 3000m deep and into the Florida Straights.
It is forbidden to use satphones in Cuba and ours was taped up by the Guarda Frontera at Marina Hemingway. As far as getting weather information, we tune the SSB to retrieve US Coast Guard weather reports. A cold front was to pass on Sunday night and Monday; right in the middle of our intended trip. It looked fine to get round the Cabo San Antonio then head east, but strong north easterly winds will be on the nose for the remainder of the trip.
By 7am the next day we began motoring west for rounding the cape. Within two hours we’d entered the Yucatan Channel and turned south 7nm to the Cabo San Antonio. Mexico is only 120nm to the west at this point. The seas were rough as the Gulf Stream flows strong through this gap between Cuba and Mexico. Fortunately we had an inshore counter-current which helped us battle the big rollers coming in from the southwest. Now and again a big set would roll in causing us to dive in the trough then ride high on a wave only to drop again. Spray sailed hard on the wind, rising out of the seas and crashing hard. We decided to take it easy and motor sailed south to avoid excessive pounding (which in our experience usually equates to breaking something). By 10am we’d made it safely around the western tip of Cuba and began our journey eastward. With light 10/12kn southwest winds we motor sailed in the bouncy seas to keep our speed up. Once we reached Cabo Corrientes we headed northeast 50nm towards Cayos San Felipe. The timing wasn’t so good as we wanted to get as far into the trip as possible before the worst of a cold front hit us, so our plan was to sail as far as we could then heave-to, then enter in sunlight.
After some great sailing, the final hours of the trip got a little rough with 15+kn winds on the nose. Spray didn’t slow down the whole trip and managed to reach the anchorage around midnight. Sweet Sensation were about 5nm ahead of us and also decided to head in and anchor at 2am. We normally don’t attempt night entries into unknown reef anchorages but with two boats successfully in, we also followed suit and made sure we didn’t deviate from their tracks. By 4.30am we were anchored and I was off to bed!
The wind was northeasterly at around 10kn and the water was warm (around 27degC). Wayne jumped in to check the anchor, while I jumped in to wake myself up. There are supposedly crocodiles around here so we didn’t stay in the water long.
A small wooden boat and three Cuban men rowed out to us from the cay. They asked us our boat name, flag, etc, all in Spanish. Two young guys, Lazaro and Yankiel, plus an older fellow (I didn’t catch his name which he muttered through his toothless mouth) invited us to go ashore to visit the National Park office. While the older fellow prepared a simple lunch for us all, the two young guys walked with us along the beach. My Spanish is okay for general conversation, while Elizabet and Chris both speak a little Spanish too. This cay is part of the Cayos de San Felipe National Park and as we walked Lazaro pointed out the markers where giant tortoise, or tortugas, lay their eggs. Further on he showed us crocodile tracks and small footprints from jutias, a small mammal endemic to Cuba.
By midday we returned to the Casa # 1 where el viejo had prepared a seafood lunch. Lazaro climbed a nearby coconut tree, feet and hands only, then tossed enough down for us each to have delicious coconut water and coconut flesh. To thank them for our lunch I gave them a fruitcake and a couple of packets of Malaysian cigarettes, while the others gave rum, fishing gear and some canned food. Gracias poor todos, then we returned to our respective vessels. Later that afternoon we had an enjoyable sundowner aboard Blue Heeler.
The next morning we arranged to leave at 7am so we could reach Laguna de San Pedro in good time and with favourable wind. By 6.45am we’d raised the anchor and motored along our incoming track waving to the crew of Sweet Sensation who followed behind us.
Another great day’s sail and we were anchored just after lunch. The following morning we motored to anchor outside Port Siguanea. As we had to check in with authorities, the Guarda Frontera were brought to Blue Heeler by Kevin, as he’d just had them aboard to clear his crew in. Two guys with poker faces inspected the boat inside and stamped entrada on our despacho. They would retain the document until we decided to leave.
After lunch we went ashore and walked 20 minutes to the Hotel Colony where we sat in the bar for a couple of hours – not much else to do around here! By 5pm we returned to the Marina where a boatload of tourist divers had returned from the outer reef. There appears to be plenty of diving in these parts, unfortunately it’s difficult for us to take our boat to the outer reef as there’s nowhere to anchor. The small store sold canned goods, UHT milk, beer, rum and fresh eggs.
On Thursday we sailed north to the Punto de los Barcos on the northwest of Isla de la Juventud. The wind was easterly 15knots, but once we turned northeast we had head-on winds up to 25knots. Ugh! We bashed into the shallow lagoon finally dropping the anchor in 3m. The forecast was for light southerly winds from 3am so we all agreed to leave at 2am to round Isla de la Juventud.
Up at 1.30am to the sounds of bugles, telephone ringing, horns, and trumpets, as I’d set all of our clocks to wake us up at 1.30am. By 2am all three yachts were motoring in ESE winds of less than 12knots. There were no stars and light rain for most of the dark hours. By 7am we’d rounded Isla de la Juventud and reached the Paso del Quitasol and a break in the reef to the east. That leg was 25nm of motoring and we had 45nm farther to reach our destination, Cayo Cantiles. The rest of the morning and early afternoon we actually had a great day sail in 12-15 knots from the south. By 3pm with stronger southwest winds we decided to anchor at the shallows at the north of the cay, out of the wind and resultant swells rolling in from the Caribbean Sea. Up early the next day in light northerly winds we motored around the corner to anchor off the Cayo Cantiles Biological Station.
Unfortunately our outboard is playing up and has stopped sucking in water and overheating so I got a lift with Spray. We didn’t see any wildlife at the cay though. Apparently there’d been too much rain so the introduced monkeys had fled inside the island. We saw cute little piglets which one day would become tasty lunch for the station workers. We met a friendly old guy who spoke clear Spanish that we could all understand.
These guys spend 30 days here and food is rationed at the best of times. I gave them a packet of rice and three cans of Malaysian chicken and potato curry. Elizabet gave them all sorts of goodies as well. We said adios to los hombres and returned to our boats and prepared to sail to Cayo Largo, 26nm away. By the afternoon we arrived at the Marina Puertosol at Cayo Largo and were checked in by the authorities, once again they retained our despacho. Here are quite a few charter catamarans and dive boats for the international tourists.
Every few days winter cold fronts sweep across the Gulf of Mexico creating northerly winds for us to battle against. We are already halfway through our 30 day visa and still have so much to see so progress is slow. Until we get favourable wind we’re stuck in Cayo Largo for a while. Could be worse places to be stuck I suppose…