Sunday, April 25, 2010

April 25, 2010 - Isla Mujeres

April 25, 2010

Dear friends and family,

You last heard from us in Marathon, Florida on March 10. We had gotten our boat into good enough shape so we no longer felt it necessary to return to Larry Whited`s house to work out bugs. To continue southward meant going to Cuba.

The U.S. has a trade and travel embargo against that island nation and we were afraid of getting in trouble for violating it. But we read that if you go there for professional reasons, such as journalism, you are eligible to go under General License. I have already published one book about my travels and we are writing up this journey too. So we figure we`d be legal but we wanted to keep a low profile anyway so we didn´t announce our intentions. And since the authorities keep a close watch over the waters between Florida and Cuba we decided to go to the Bahamas first, then Cuba.

As in my 1993 crossing the best-situated stopover is tiny Sal Cay, which is on the edge of a vast shallow bank, quite separate from the rest of the Bahamas. We sailed out of Marathon and out into the Straits of Florida at 6:00 PM. It was soon totally dark, no moon or stars. The motion was disconcerting flying blind like that. We seemed to be going much faster and more precariously than if we could see. Also we had the Gulf Stream to worry about.

Our goal lay to the SE but the current flows NE. From our actual track per our GPS, the current seems to have been flowing about as fast as we were sailing. We steered south to counteract the current, which was a mistake. It cut our speed way down. We should have cut straight across. Time went by incredibly slowly. We yearned for dawn!

When finally we could see, the ocean around us was empty, with conflicting patterns of slow swells. There was no wind so Steve rowed. The wind returned, faster and faster. Around noon we escaped the current´s clutches and entered Sal Cay Bank, flying through a broken perimeter of sharp, tall rocks against which the sea bashed. Dead Man Rocks! Inside the water was about 30 feet deep. Sal Cay lay 25 miles across this torquoise bank. We sailed all afternoon and arrived before dark. Night landfalls are dangerous! Sal Cay is still a remote, lovely island. We didn`t go ashore because we weren´t cleared to enter the Bahamas, but it was nice to sleep at anchor in calm of the island`s lee, at least it was nice until 3:00am when the wind changed.

We still had half the distance to go. Cuba lay another 40 miles south, then we had to travel 35 miles west along the coast before we could enter at a legal location, the resort town of Varadero. We left at noon. As it got dark we saw a Cuban lighthouse beacon probing out over the sea. We turned west, keeping miles away from land, afraid to violate their territorial waters prematurely.

Another endless night. At 10 PM the wind suddenly increased alarmingly. We reefed both main- and mizzen-sail until each was a small triangle. As Thurston rolled and pitched we braced ourselves and again wished we had stars to steer by. Then land lights started appearing. Varadero became visible: ten miles of beach lined with tourist hotels. At dawn we turned landward and entered a narrow channel with surf crashing on either side. We tied up at a small marina. Safe!

For two hours we underwent formalities with a variety of officials, then we were free to wander. The marina is temporary home to ten or so yachts, mostly Canadian. We immediately connected with our fellow sailors and starting learning the ropes in Cuba. Everything is strange! There are two currency systems, one for buying some things, the other for buying other things. Some things are ridiculously cheap, like ice cream cones on the street, if you can find them. Other things are expensive, like international phone calls for $2.50 per minute. Most things, however, you just can`t find, like writing paper or building materials. Or maybe you can with vast effort and connections, because a lot happens on the black market. This is a communist country. With certain exceptions it`s illegal to run a business, own a car, or have a foreigner stay at your house. Cubans aren´t allowed to visit the boats in the marina. One of the Canadians has been married to a Cuban woman for seven years but still he can´t stay at her apartment because she doesn´t have a license to lodge foreigners!

Still, the Cubans are wonderful people. We enjoyed exploring the hotel zone and the adjoining town of Santa Marta. It´s like a land that time forgot, with its pre-revolutionary cars, mostly 1950s Dodges, Chevys, Fords, and Chryslers. Also decrepit little cars and motorbikes from behind the Iron Curtain. They keep them running because they can`t buy new ones. Many people get around by horse and buggy. They play baseball a lot and ride around on bicycles.

After eight days at Varadero we felt acclimatized enough to continue our journey. The coast leading to Havana has few harbors. We requested permission to anchor in Santa Cruz del Norte one night, to break the trip in two and avoid sailing in the dark. They said we couldn´t stop except at marinas, and there are only five marinas on the entire north coast. Finally they said we could anchor there provided we didn´t land. When we entered at Santa Cruz, through a narrow break in the tall, rocky shore, soldiers at a Guardfrontera post at the entrance yelled at us to go away. They were very disturbed by our presence. Steve yelled back that we had permission. Eventually they allowed us to anchor in front of the military station.

At the first hint of light maybe twenty tiny wooden fishing boats with putt-putt motors started circling around us. Evidently they were chomping at the bit to go out and fish but are required to wait in front of the Guardafrontera station until light. When streaks of red cloud appeared in the eastern sky they all left and dispersed into the ocean with their hand-fishing lines out. The government is afraid Cubans will escape to America by boat. Tens of thousands already have!

We next stopped at a marina called Tarara, ten miles before Havana. The opening to the marina was only a foot deep, plenty for us but impossible for most boats. So we were the only customers. The plumbing and lighting fixtures tended not to work, but the people were friendly. Four or five guards watched over us every night. The surrounding community was mysterious! We were in the midst of a vast residential complex which was well constructed and well tended, unusual for Cuba. But the houses were empty and the entire area was surrounded by a fence. There were also many large dormitories filled with Chinese students learning Spanish. Ukrainian victims of the Chernobyl nuclear accident also live in Tarara. In fact, the 20th anniversary of the disaster occured while we were there. They held commemorative events, presided over by a former Ukrainian president. And that was it: Chinese students, disabled Chernobyl victims, guards, groundskeepers, and us. The entire place was surrounded by a fence, no regular Cubans allowed.

Twice we went into Havana by an incredibly crowded bus. We walked for miles around this fascinating city, so full of ornate, dilapidated Spanish architecture. Vendors and shoppers thronged the dirt-floored farmers markets. Pedestrians hung out along the wide waterfront sidewalk, where the ocean waves crash and soak you if you aren´t quick.

We then sailed to Hemingway Marina, on the other side of Havana. This is Cuba´s largest marina. We were one of perhaps a dozen inhabited boats, including French Canadians, Swedes, and a delightful Argentine who had recently bought a big Morgan sailboat in Florida. Boats frequently arrived from or left for Mexico or Florida. We went out each day in search for places selling things for the ¨moneda nacional¨ pesos because these items were always extremely cheap. Now and then you could find pizzas, sugar cane juice, or muffins. But usually they were out of food. Bread, fruit, veggies and street food are all sold in MN. We ended up getting stuck with about five hundred of these pesos, worth a nickel US each. Oddly enough, the other Cuban currency, the CUC, is worth about 20% more than the US Dollar and is used for the rest of the few products and services one can find. A fresh loaf of bread costs 15 cents, but processed, packaged bread costs about $3.00 (If you can find it, which is highly unlikely.)

Next we sailed to a harbor used as a graveyard for dead ships, where we were again watched over by Guardafrontera and forbidden to go ashore. Then we stayed at Cayo Levisa, a small island with a tourist hotel. We tied to a piling in the water and did a lot of swimming and beach walking. This was one of the few places we were able to go ashore so we stayed a week. We have finally arrived where the water is warm enough to swim!

From Cayo Levisa the coast consists of a reef of coral origin which partly protects a lagoon or gulf one to 25 miles wide. There are many mangrove islands within this inner sound, some with a patch or two of sandy beach. The mainland, forbidden to us, is mountainous and relatively unpopulated. In these waters we traveled and anchored without supervision.

On the fifth day we reached Los Morros, just inside the curling tip of Cabo San Antonio, the great western cape. The only sign of man was a dock, a restaurant, a marina office, and a narrow road leading into the flat tropical forest. Yachtsmen come here for refuge before and after crossing the Yucatan Channel, but we were the only yacht there upon our arrival. We tied up and walked down the road and along the beach, all the way to the lighthouse at the cape itself. Around that tip is the Caribbean!

When we got back an American yacht had arrived with plans to leave for Isla Mujeres in the morning. Isla Mujeres is a small island off Cancun, Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula. The owner, Jim , invited Steve aboard early the next morning to listen to a weather forecast on his single sideband radio.

We had been considering continuing around to the south coast because they say the water is clear and deep there, ideal for snorkeling. But the forecast called for moderate east winds, bad for the south coast but good for crossing to Mexico. Jim was interested in ¨buddy-boating¨with us. Steve convinced Ginny we should jump at this weather window. The tanks were already full of Cuban well water, purified by pumping it through our REI filter. We already had a planned route for the crossing. We proposed to sail 120 miles southwest before cutting across the current itself. This would be extra distance but it would prevent the Gulf Stream from sweeping us north into the Gulf of Mexico. It looked good to Jim. A couple hours later we were underway.

While we headed straight to the cape Jim circled way around it to avoid coral heads. We figured Jim would catch up with us by motor-sailing, but after some confused VHF contacts we concluded he wanted to take a different route. He was soon out of sight.

It was sunny, hot, windy out of the ESE. For 25 miles we sailed due south, on a near reach. Then we turned SW, more off the wind, faster. Night came, but this time there was a half moon overhead and stars were visible. We would steer to the proper course by our compass, then note a star, and steer by it. We could see the surface of the waves, which allowed us to steer through the waves better. We were better able to brace for the rolls and yaws. All night long we sailed fast. Steve took a couple catnaps curled up at the forward edge of the cockpit. At first Ginny was anxious and lacking in self confidence, having drank way too much coffee and without any time to mentally prepare for the journey. She was unable to sleep or eat. But before long she reached her zen, was able to relax, and performed well.

Morning found us at the end of our SW-bound leg. We were on course. Currents had not affected us because we had stayed in extremely deep waters, typically over 13,000 feet. But now it was time to turn west, where we expected current. That would be good in that it would help carry us to our destination, which was now to the NW. But it would be bad if the current interacted with high wind to make big waves.

The wind increased to 20-25 knots. The waves grew to eight feet. We reefed until each sail had less than half its area up, and still we maintained six knots! Now that we were going down the waves at a diagonal we had to steer carefully to prevent broaching, a type of capsize in which the boat turns upwind and rolls onto its side. Water had been splashing into the boat all night, but now bigger waves occasionally sloshed in. We kept bailing. Sometimes we had to throw out little fish left wiggling on the deck. Once a little land bird considered landing on our boat because he was too far from shore, but he lacked the courage to stay with us.

Would we arrive before dark? The map showed a place called Arrowsmith Banks, where the water is under 100 feet deep. A cruising guide said the current is strongest there. We stayed south of it. We never saw much current until mid-afternoon when we were heading NW, thirty miles from Cancun. A knot or two of current finally kicked in, boosting our speed. The mammoth Cancun hotels started appearing on the horizon! Several hours later, as the sun went down, we rounded the point and anchored in Cancun harbor, just offshore from a series of lovely, lofty resorts. They extended high into the sky above us, blocking the blasting wind. Clients played in the water on the sandy beach 100 yards away. The sound of dinners and cocktails wafted over the water. We took off our salt-encrusted foul-weather gear. Steve´s butt had sores where his ilia bones stick out. Ginny was physically and emotionally spent, having been nowhere near as good at napping as Steve.

We lay down in the cabin and slept, relishing the lack of motion. Mexico, finally! We´ve been two years getting back here. First finding a boat that could carry us, then modifying it, then sailing it here. And after this is just gets better: the reefs, Belize, Guatemala, etc. And none of that requires long passages!

In the morning we sailed across Cancun harbor to Isla Mujeres, the yachting center. Here we cleared customs and found some pilings to tie to where we can wade ashore. The stores are lushly stocked with fruits, juices, and cookies! Internet is affordable. Every morning the cruisers confer by VHF, just like in Marathon.

We are looking into whether any of the boats going to Florida want to take us as crew. If so we would drive our truck back around to here. It would be nice to have it available to us, but not mandatory. We´ll get married soon, but we haven´t decided where yet. Would anyone want to vacation in Los Angeles or Cancun or Belize in the near future if it included attending our wedding?

Click here for our latest photos. We hope you are all doing well and that there is some adventure in your life too.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

April 14, 2009

Just a quick note to let you know we're alive and having a wonderful time. We have many stories, but cannot do a real update for another month. For now be content to know we are sailing, sunburning and snorkling to our heart's content.