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Ocean Star's encounter with a Cuban reef

Jan 1, 2003

The crossing to Cuba from Key West was rough (13- to 15-foot seas and 30- to 40-knot westerly winds). But the 88-foot, steel-hulled schooner Ocean Star motorsailed at 1,500 rpms under the storm trysail and fore staysail, easily handling the gale conditions, although many of the crew were seasick. Within 24 hours of departing Key West we were approaching Cuba's 12-mile limit. I contacted Marina Hemingway on channel 16 only to be informed that the marina had closed due to the dangerous conditions in the marina's entrance channel, which I remembered from a visit two years before as a dubious, poorly marked channel even in fine weather. I was told that I could enter Havana Harbor, provided I had a pilot aboard. After a frustrating exchange on VHF channel 14 with the Havana pilots, during which I explained that, because of the horrendous weather, it would be impossible for anyone to board Ocean Star while we were outside the harbor, I began the approach to Havana. The wind was now from the northwest, blowing just as hard, and the seas were barreling into the entrance. There was no sea buoy at all and only one red-and-green buoy on the side of the channel opening. The fort, the famous El Morro, was plainly visible, but I could not make out the entrance until we were almost on top of it. Having seen the harbor entrance from shore on my previous visit, I thought I knew what to expect: a poorly marked, narrow cut with confused, breaking seas. I was not mistaken. The following seas were shoveling us into the harbor. One mile from the entrance, the seas were eight to nine feet in height. At the entrance, the seas were between six and seven feet and breaking. I had the storm trysail and fore staysail still set since I knew that I needed as much stability as possible to transit the confused approach. I also had the engine at about 1,500 rpms to ensure steerageway through the channel opening. The vessel was hard to control; it was fishtailing severely, and it required all my concentration to keep from being swept sideways, abeam in the breaking surf. I wondered about how larger vessels make this narrow approach in these conditions. Ten minutes later we were in the protected waters of Havana harbor, everyone safe and the vessel intact. The pilot boat approached, and with much muddled conversation in English and Spanish I was asked to stop the vessel. I had been in neutral since the calm water, but the strong wind was keeping my speed up. So I turned to give him my lee side, and the pilot boat quickly put two people on boardone of them Louis Alberto, Havana's chief pilot. Through my patient translator, Alberto directed me to the northeast corner of the harbor, and we anchored in 35 feet of water. Since Havana harbor is predominantly commercial, we were expected to follow the same guidelines as commercial vessels. In other words, we were informed that we were not allowed to use our ship's tender for transportation. I struggled with this, since I had 13 seasick and demoralized people on board who needed to step on land. A ridiculous exchange of paperwork and conversation ensued for the next five and a half hours until we were finally granted permission to enter the country. I was exhausted, having been up for the previous 24 hours and having endured the foul weather prior to a difficult approach. My misery was compounded when, after requesting permission to leave Havana and enter Marina Hemingway as soon as weather permitted, I was told that I would have to suffer the same bureaucratic exchangein reverse! Morning came and the wind had dropped to 20 knots. The seas were still slamming the coast, however, spewing great quantities of water over the streets and buildings along the Malecón. I discovered that Marina Hemingway was open for business, so I began the dizzying chore of clearing Havana. By 1400 we were pulling up our anchor and heading out the more negotiable channel. The wind was then north and the seas were nothing like they were the day before. We motored west toward Santa Fe and began our approach to Marina Hemingway about two hours later. We spotted the sea buoy and carefully studied the seas breaking at the channel entrance. The seas were from dead astern and the wind was still north at 20 knots. I noticed that the waves were not all the same height, and particularly larger waves were occurring at irregular intervals. I had studied both the chart and a 1997 cruising guide for the entrance. We were approaching from the east, parallel to the coast, heading for the sea buoy. Having been into the marina before, I was aware of the tight approach through the cut and was especially conscious of these unpleasant northerly conditions. I lined myself up at the sea buoy, getting close enough to ensure being in mid-channel. I had no sails up at that point and felt confident that the 210-hp Caterpillar diesel would provide adequate steerage. Still, it would be difficult to prevent the vessel from broaching in the breaking sea. My speed had to be about six knots, and my course, which split the two markers, was 150°, despite the cruising guide's advice to steer 140°. This concerned me for it must have meant that the Morse A buoy was farther to the east than its charted positiona definite possibility, considering the strong westerly winds that had predominated over the previous several days. However, I knew the red-and-green markers were fixed to the bottom, so I maintained my course between them. I approached the two marker sticks and my adrenaline was rushing. Just a few feet from the sticks a very big wave came from behind. The boat dropped into the trough and I felt Ocean Star strike the bottom. My heart sank. Fearing a broach, I immediately ordered the fore staysail set in hopes that the wind would help pull my bow forward and keep the boat straight in the channel. What had happened? I ordered the crew to check the bilges and was told that there was no flooding. Everything was in slow motion in my mind, but I knew that time was racing. I realized that there was probably no substantially sized vessel in the area that would be capable of pulling us off the reef, certainly not in those conditions. I looked astern again, fearing that the next wave or surge might put me broadside and in more serious trouble. The largest wave I'd seen yet came rolling in, and with a quick prayer and a burst of adrenaline, I slammed the throttle forward as far as it would go. With the staysail up and drawing, keeping my bow dead downwind, and the throttle at full ahead, we rose off the reef and surged forward. We were soon past the reef and safely alongside the Coast Guard dock. I was shaking and nauseous, but, since I was the master, I held myself together. After all the official paperwork was completed, I sent a diver down to inspect the hull. On two inspections of the whole bottom, the only damage discovered was scraped paint on the shoe keel. As the days went by, I asked every available official about the marina entrance, still wondering why I had gone aground in the middle of the channel. No one had an answer. Finally, I overheard a conversation between a crewmember and some local surfers that piqued my interest. They asked if we were the ones who had run aground on the reef a few days earlier, mentioning casually that the markers had originally been outside the reef but recently had been moved inside the reef! Apparently the markers were continually blowing off station, so a group of officialsno one seemed to know who exactlymoved them into shallower water. I walked down to the shore, and from where I stood I could see that the surfers were right; the markers were truly inside the reef and very close to the shoreline, which is why I ran aground. The next day I took a deep breath, cast off the lines, and turned toward the cut that leads out of Marina Hemingway. The sea was still breaking, but with the sun behind me and the engine throttled up, I shot through the channel and out to the sea buoy, free and clear and back to Key West. I never felt so caged in all my life as during those days in Cuba.