This sailboat race from Key West to Havana was turned into a rally.
Captains and crew all met at the skipper’s meeting the night before at Schooner’s Wharf along the docks of Key West. Personalized shirts were passed out by Alice Petrat, our organizer from Bone Island Regatta while we introduced ourselves and munched on chicken wings, shrimp quesadillas, and nachos with black bean dip. Alice gave each of us a form signed by the U.S. Coast Guard approving our trip to Cuba.
Travel to Cuba has become much easier. As of September, 2015, an export license for your vessel from the Commerce Department is no longer required. Alice used an American tour company out of Boca Raton which has a blanket license from the U.S. government under which they can plan trips. We fell under the tour company’s license as a people to people cultural trip. It is a U.S. requirement under that license that we have a certain number of days of tours in Cuba. Additionally, each boat had to get Coast Guard approval to go to Cuba and list every crew member on board. Cuba required a visa costing 75 CUCs (approximately $83) for each person.
Cuba allows 30 day stays but the U.S allows us to stay only 14 days.
The six boats in our group were White Hawk and Incognito from The Sarasota Yacht Club, Island Time from the Dolphin Marina in Bradenton, Robbie Lee from the Boca Ceiga Yacht Club in Gulfport, Florida and Wind’s Way from the Naples Sailing and Yacht Club. Aqua Therapy’s home is Key West where she is docked.
Incognito and Robbie Lee raced in the Bone Island Regatta from Sarasota to Key West. White Hawk and Wind’s way raced the Naples to Key West leg of Bone Island Regatta. Island Time and Aqua Therapy joined us in Key West.
Alice asked us if we were more interested in the destination than the race. We voted unanimously that the destination was what was calling us, and the race was turned into a rally. This was particularly good for us as our fourth crew member (also our son) had noticed at the last minute that his passport had expired and he had to go to the Miami passport office on the morning of the race in in the hopes of getting a new passport. Best case scenario, we would likely be leaving after the other boats anyway.
Looking at the forecast of 15 to 18 knot winds from the east, it was decided we would leave at 2:00 P.M, which would get us into Marina Hemingway at 8 A.M. if we sailed 98 miles in 18 hours at 5 ½ knots.
Monday morning was spent with last minute provisioning and stocking up on ice as the information was that ice was hard if not impossible to get in Cuba.
Our captain was my husband, Steve, and our crew was myself, our son, Jon (hopefully) and our good friend and experienced offshore sailor, Caryn Canfield. Steve and I have sailed on Wind’s Way to the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas twice, and also up the east coast of the U.S. to the Chesapeake Bay and back to Florida. Our son, Jon has sailed with us to the Bahamas and chartered with us in the Caribbean. He has also crewed on a boat in the Newport to Bermuda race. Caryn has her own boat on the Chesapeake and has crewed on numerous offshore adventures.
The other boats were also captained and crewed by experienced sailors. Alice and her husband, Greg have sailed and raced for many years and have sailed to Cuba twice. Alice has organized the Bone Island Regatta for the last 7 years. Joel Heyne from the Robbie Lee has sailed around the world among other adventures. Bob Gruber from Island Time has sailed for 30 years and sailed three times to Mexico in the Regatta del Sol race.
At 2:00 P.M. on May 16 five of the boats took off at the prearranged starting line off the Hyatt Hotel, in Key West Harbor. Everyone was relaxed as this was now a rally, there were no starting guns to contend with, the skies were sunny and there was a nice wind.
Our boat, Wind’s Way was still at the dock. We had word that our son had miraculously obtained a new passport at 1:00 P.M. in Miami and was on his way to Key West in his rental car. He arrived at the dock at 4:15 and at 4:30 Wind’s Way was on her way out of the harbor heading to Cuba.
We motored through the shipping channel and around a fishing boat anchored right in the middle of the channel until we could get our bearing with deep water to Marina Hemingway. Winds were already 18 knots, at the high end of the forecast and out of the east so we decided to reef the main. Jon and I tethered ourselves, went forward and with some difficulty raised and reefed the main sail while waves were splashing over the bow and drenching us both.
Jon also set the jib furling line to prevent the jib from opening all the way. With both sails set, we were speeding along at 6.8 to 7.2 knots heading due south on a broad reach in the 18 knot winds. It was thrilling with the white caps and swells of following seas. Wind’s Way was fairly stable and comfortable. We all enjoyed hot stew for dinner that I had prepared at home and brought frozen just for this evening.
Caryn, who has an uncanny ability to fall asleep at anytime, went below to be prepared to take a late night shift. The winds continued to increase in strength. I stayed on the deck in order to be available if necessary, but tried to sleep while Steve and Jon took turns at the helm.
Jon was concerned about the 10 foot waves towering right behind him and the thunderstorms nearby that could possibly increase the turbulence if they came over us.. The boat was riding really well in the conditions and the auto pilot performed well.
As the sun went down, winds began to increase and averaged 23-25 knots for many hours during the night, with gusts of 30 knots. We furled the jib several times during the night. The unknown was whether we were just getting into the Gulf Stream where the eastern winds blowing against the western movement of the water and the turbulence would only get worse, or whether we were were on the way out of the Gulf Stream. We kept an eye on our water temperature gauge but couldn’t detect any appreciable change. The boat was handling the weather but there was the fear that if the winds got appreciably stronger, that something might break.
We tried to make radio contact with the boats ahead of us. They responded but our radio malfunctioned and we couldn’t hear any response. We contacted the Coast Guard to give them our coordinates “just in case” but couldn’t maintain contact. Steve asked if we should consider turning around but we were 40 miles out on a 98 mile ride.
I pulled a towel over me to protect me from the waves crashing over the side of the boat and tried to sleep. It was a terrifying night. I survived by taking slow meditated deep breaths for hours to calm the knots in my stomach and the pounding of my heart.
Caryn arose at 1:00 A.M. to take her shift with the winds at 20 to 25 knots, subsiding to 15 to 20 knots by the end of her shift at 4:00 A.M. She was disappointed that she had slept through all the excitement.
At 7:30 A.M the skyline of Havana came into sight, a very welcome sight indeed. It was a beautiful clear morning with calm seas and we all gave a sigh of relief. Winds were a lovely 10 to 15 knots. We played Havana Day Dreaming just to get into the mood, and Caryn brought us coffee, yogurts and hard boiled eggs.
We spotted a sailboat ahead of us and were finally able to make radio contact. It was Island Time which was only 30 minutes ahead of us heading into the harbor.
There is one large red buoy that marks the entrance to the harbor at the Hemingway Marina and our GPS took us right to it. We had written directions for entering the harbor and had arial photographs of the entrance and the marina. The narrow channel was well marked, so entering the marina in calm seas and daylight was not difficult. I would not do it in the dark as most of the marks are not lit.
As we had been instructed, we radioed the Customs Office to announce our arrival but got no response. We proceeded to the bright blue building which we had been told was the customs building, and tied up at 11:00 A.M. The trip had taken 18 and a half hours.
The local doctor was the first to ask permission to board our boat. He checked our food to make sure we had purchased everything fresh in Key West, checked the trash, our toilets, and took our temperatures to make sure we weren’t sick. Next were the customs officials who also boarded our boat and checked all cabins and asked for passports. Then the customs officers invited the captain, followed later by the crew members, into their windowless air-conditioned office to have our photographs taken and to fill out requisite forms.
After numerous calls on the radio to the dock master, we were finally told where to dock the boat and we proceeded to the end of the second of the 4 long finger canals that had been dug out parallel to the ocean. We tied up to cleats along the concrete bulkhead just in front of four of the other boats in our group and hooked up the electricity which had just recently been upgraded so that air conditioning can be used. We were visited by the dock master and the garbage collector and told where the showers and toilets were—a 15 minute walk to the other end of our canal. Everyone could not have been nicer or more informative.
Unfortunately, our aft air conditioner would not cool, not because of the electricity but from a problem it has had before that acted up again. Steve and I decided it was going to be very hot and close with four of us on our 42 foot boat with only one air conditioner working and decided to walk over to the Acuario Hotel located between canals two and three and see if we could get a room. Alice’s boat, White Hawk was tied up in front of the hotel and several from her boat were going to stay in the hotel.
We quickly learned that things can be more complicated and take longer in Cuba than we are used to. I was shown a room that overlooked the boats and the Atlantic beyond, and that was very cool, an imperative as it was beastly hot outside and we were running away from a broken air conditioner on the boat. Our local organizers, José and Tony said they could get us the room for only 90 CUCs or $100 a night by going through their tour operator. They would just have to run into town to get a voucher and would be back in 30 minutes. That was fine with us as we needed to collect some clothes and toiletries from the boat. We decided to take the room at 1:00 but were not into our room (another one because the one we accepted was given to someone else) until 5:00. The tour operator had been out to lunch, and without cell phone connections, there was no communication so we just waited. At least the lobby of the hotel was air conditioned and there was internet connection in the lobby for a modest fee.
The Acuario Hotel is not fancy but it does have a lovely large pool which is ostensibly only available to hotel guests although other members of our group staying on their boats had no problem using it. The $100 a night charge includes not only the pool, but unlimited drinks at the pool bar and three meals a day. The breakfast and dinner buffets were pitiful and we soon understood why Alice who had been there before was not seen in the dining room. There was an egg station at breakfast and the omelets were good, but nothing at dinner was appealing. Steve and I did make reservations at the seafood restaurant one night. We were the only ones there at 9:00 P.M. and service was great. The waitress and chef were waiting for us and the multi course meal prepared just for us was far better than than the buffet.
We had left a note on our boat for Jon and Caryn who had caught a taxi to Hemingway's house. Jon had to fly back early and only had a day and a half in Havana so wanted to see as much as possible. We invited Jon to stay in the second bed in our hotel room which he readily accepted. Caryn wanted to stay on the boat as she could sleep in the berth with the air conditioning and has a goal of spending 100 days on a boat in 2016. She wasn’t about to give up adding 4 more days to her tally.
The first night Alice suggested we all meet at a restaurant at the end of the canal for dinner. We had an upstairs balcony all to ourselves and had a good time with our fellow sailors but the service was unique, and the food just passable. One half of the table was served their food, and the other half was served so much later that those served first had finished their meal. I was tired and walked back to the hotel alone, feeling absolutely safe at night by myself.
Our group had dwindled as the two from Aqua Therapy had taken off to backpack around Cuba for two weeks, and all but one from Incognito had taken off for a downtown Havana hotel.
The next day, Wednesday, was the first of three days of tours that had been arranged for us. We boarded our Chinese made, very comfortable coach at 9:30 A.M. and headed to downtown Havana, 9 miles away. Our first stop was the state owned and run three story cigar factory. It was a bustling place mostly full of women paid on a piece basis rolling cigars. Our guide was good, explaining the intricacies of cigar rolling and the determinants of quality. Over the loud speaker someone was reading the newspaper to the busy workers, as one of our group was being supervised by a worker on how to roll his own cigar. As in any foreign country, a trip to a factory isn’t complete without a stop at the factory store. Everyone wanted to stop, sample the rum and consider purchasing cigars.
The next stop was the obligatory visit to Revolutionary Square, a barren black top parking lot surrounded by government buildings two of which with metal outlines of Che Guevara and Castro, and the Jose Marti Memorial. The only saving grace of this seemingly hottest spot in Havana is that it is a congregating place for some of the best of the well preserved 1950’s cars.
We drove through Havana with our guide, Andres, pointing out various sights and then took a walking tour of the squares of Old Havana. Havana has beautiful grand architecture and many of the buildings are surrounded by scaffolding, giving one the opinion that they are in process of renovation. Unfortunately, the scaffolding is there to support the buildings so that they don’t fall down. There is very little renovation going on.
The city is beautiful, none the less, and the people extremely friendly. They seem to love Americans and exclaim “Obama, Obama, we love Obama!” People appear happy and unlike the downtrodden that are often prevalent in other third world countries. There is no concern for personal safety, and although we all were cautious, there was no worry about theft.
One of the favorite stops was La Bodeguita del Medio, a bar that Hemingway frequented. Jon and Caryn said they had the best mojitos there of anywhere.
As on all our days touring, lunch was a huge event with choice of beer, wine or cokes, cabbage salad and a choice of several entrees and desert. We rushed at the end to get to the Fuster house before it closed at 4:00 P.M.. José Fuster is an artist who works in oils and water colors but most notably in mosaics with which he has decorated his entire house and garden, and most of the community around his house. We were greeted by his son and welcomed to walk around and of course buy something if we were so inclined. There was much less available to buy this time in May than when Steve and I had been there in November two years earlier. My only conclusion was that it is so hot in May that they don’t get as many tourists as they do in the cooler Fall and so have less inventory.
That evening we celebrated my birthday at the privately owned Paladar La Guarida in central Havana. It is a gem of a restaurant in a crumbling old building with marble floors and columns, a winding marble staircase up three floors to the restaurant with tall doors opening onto a balcony looking over the city. Service is impeccable and our dinners as fine as any really good restaurant in the States. On our way out we explored a modern addition in the back of the building. The bathroom is a must see as is the bar and roof deck with a 360 degree view of Havana. The juxtaposition of the fabulous new design amidst the old of the front of the building is almost breathtaking. As an indication of how things are opening up in Cuba, the restaurant owners are doing so well that they are purchasing the rest of the building and have added the bar and roof deck.
Jon had to leave the hotel at 4:30 A.M. to catch a flight back to the States. The free lance taxi driver Tony had arranged for and who had driven us to dinner the night before was there right on time.
Thursday was our day for outdoor activities which did not seem too promising as it was pouring rain in the early morning. The weather cleared and it was a perfect day. We drove east and inland toward the mountains to a restored coffee plantation which had been worked by slaves from Haiti. It is now a UNESCO site. Interestingly, Cuba exports most of its coffee and the locals say that a great gift for a Cuban is a bag of good coffee beans. What they buy locally is laced with other kinds of beans. Global warming has made this particular part of Cuba too hot for coffee production.
Nearby is the town of The Terraces, so named because of all the terraces built for the coffee plantations. Thousands of acres have been set aside by the government as a preserve and a planned town was built in 1990. Local residents were given the choice either to stay in their homes on their own land, or give up their land and move into new housing in the town built by the government. The town now has 1,000 residents who either work on maintaining the preserve or in the local hotel. The town has a library, school, grocery store, movie theater and bar.
A short drive away is the San Juan River with high sulphur content and proclaimed healing properties. We walked along the bank to a swimming hole where many of us changed and dove in, swimming to small soothing waterfalls. Walking back along the bank we came to a lovely restaurant overlooking the river. Another massive meal was topped off by the very best birthday cake Tony and José had bought for me the day before.
Close by was the zip line and horses for those who might want to ride. We all decided on the zip line which was delightful. I had zip lined in Mexico and swore never to do it again, but peer pressure prevailed and I did it. We flew across The Terraces and the river we had crossed earlier in the day. The staff was helpful and there weren’t any annoying professional photographers trying to sell photographs of us.
Back at the hotel at 6:00, we all convened in the bar for the awards ceremony. Alice presented us all with “Participation Certificates”, as we had not raced to Cuba. There was much laughing and drinking as we were all happy to be in Cuba and to have survived the crossing.
That night Caryn had organized an outing for dancing but the group could not get into the first establishment because one of our sailors was wearing flip flops which were not allowed, and the dancing did not start until midnight at the second spot, so they gave up and came back to the boats.
Friday started with a visit to Hemingway’s house and his fishing boat, the Pilar, outside the city. It is a beautiful setting, especially in the cool morning air, and interesting to see the famous writer’s home and get insights into his life in Cuba. While waiting for all to congregate, we all enjoyed sweet rum drinks made with hand pressed sugar cane which was pressed right in front of us.
The next stop was Cohimar, the nearby fishing village out of which Hemingway fished. There is a small castle built after the British invaded Cuba at that spot in 1772. It was getting really hot and humid as it did every afternoon, and our stop there was short.
Standing in Old Havana looking out to the harbor, there is a fort on the opposite side, “El Morro Castle” which was our next stop, with its massive stone walls, towers and cannons, and a small flea market between the walls which, cut off from all breeze was unbearably hot. We rushed to the air conditioned bus for a brief ride through the tunnel back to Old Havana and the immense flea market in an abandoned ship’s terminal. It is amazing how much can be purchased in 20 minutes.
Lunch on Friday was a real treat at El Biky, a new privately owned restaurant opened within the last 8 months, close to the Hotel Nacional. The design is very chic modern, the service impeccable, and the food great. It is a sign of what is to come to Havana as tourism picks up from the U.S. and their economy improves.
The Hotel Nacional, our destination after lunch, was hopping with people, and everyone enjoyed mojitos at the Vista al Golfo Bar with pictures of all the famous people who have visited. Tickets were purchased for that evening’s performance at the Tropicana Night Club which was as colorful and enjoyable as always in its outside venue.
Back at Hemingway Marina we got onto the internet to check the weather. The forecast had been for mild easterly winds which would have been perfect for our plan to sail to the Dry Tortuga's for a couple of days before returning to Naples. The current forecast was now for northerly winds, building over the next several days. Alice on White Hawk planned to cut their trip short and leave the next day at 7:00 A.M. They had no fear of entering Key West harbor in the dark as they knew it well. Bob Gruber from Island time decided along with us to leave about 1:00 the next day and go straight to Key West. Since we would be motor sailing into the north wind, we didn’t know how much gas we would need if the wind became stronger as it had on the way down, and thought it would be safer to go to Key West to refuel if necessary.
Tony took us to the harbor master to pay our bill. It is always a problem at the end to have enough for bills and tips, but not too much to take home with you. All payments had to be made in Cuban CUCs. No dollars or credit cards were accepted. Dockage fees were extremely reasonable at the equivalent of $.50 per foot. Interestingly, we were charged $15 for our son because he was not on the boat. They tacked on a 59 CUC tip for the workers and then once all was paid the dock master asked if we didn’t want to give the dock master something. We did of course.
Saturday, four days after arriving, we prepared to leave. I made a pasta and hamburger casserole for dinner and prepared sandwiches for lunch. We bought what ice there was. It was expensive, $40 for what we would have paid $10 for in the U.S., and there wasn’t a lot of it. Electricity is expensive in Cuba as they are dependent on Venezuela for all of their oil.
We pulled out from the bulkhead at 12:15 P.M. and filled up at the fuel dock before tying up again at the customs’ dock to check out. They came onto the boat to check the number of passengers, invited us into their air conditioned offices to take our pictures again and have us sign a form. They could not have been friendlier and asked us to please come to Cuba again.
By 1:00 P.M. we were out of the channel in the Atlantic on a spectacularly beautiful sunny afternoon with winds blowing 11 knots out of the north. Island Time was 35 minutes ahead of us. We ate our sandwiches and hoisted the main sail. Removing the reef was a lot easier than putting it in had been. We veered off course a bit to motor sail with the north wind, but at 5.8 knots velocity made good toward the target, we would arrive at Key West at 4:30 A.M., much earlier than we wanted.
Steve put out his fishing pole and we continued to tack to use the wind. At 7:00 P.M. we made contact with Island Time which was doing fine without any sails, motoring directly north to our way point at Key West. We dropped our main sail, motored and had dinner.
The trip was uneventful except for large freighters crossing our path, using the Gulf Stream to help speed them east. We kept slowing our speed so as not to arrive at Key West in the dark.
At 4:30 A.M. we saw the lights of Key West and easily found our channel markers in the dark with the aid of our GPS and Caryn’s Avionics App on her phone. By 6:00 A.M. at first light we entered the Key West Yacht basin and tied up at the A & B Marina fuel dock. It had taken us 17 hours to return as we had continually tried to slow down. Alice on White Hawk made it back in only 11 hours, motor sailing all the way.
We heard Island Time radioing a Key West marina shortly after we arrived. They had dropped an anchor off Wisteria Island in the Key West Harbor around midnight and waited for dawn to refuel. They had breakfast and continued on to Bradenton. We took a slip at the Galleon Marina and had another relaxing day in Key West before sailing home to Naples the next day.
Alice is planning another race to Cuba in 2017 with tours to the southern coast of the island, and after time to reflect, I think we just might join them. Whether it’s a race or a rally doesn’t really matter.