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Voyager reports on recent experiences in Cuba

Jan 1, 2003

To the editor: Cuba is a paradox, especially for Americans. On the one hand the U.S. government imposes an economic embargo and restricts American travel to Cuba, and on the other Cubans generally love Americans. They are warm, friendly, law abiding, educated, poor people who are trying hard to survive.

Forty-five years after the Cuban Revolution, the U.S. Treasury Department continues to impose restrictions on Americans visiting Cuba. Details of these travel restrictions and travel licenses are available on the Internet (www.treas.gov/ offices/enforcement/ofac/). Any American voyager considering a trip to Cuba should obtain a copy of the regulations. Also, a U.S. Coast Guard permit is needed to cruise to Cuban waters. The Coast Guard permit can be obtained by fax from Miami Coast Guard: Tel. 305-415-6920, Fax 305-415-6925.

Because of the ongoing U.S. economic embargo, no U.S. banks or other U.S. businesses are allowed to do business in Cuba. No U.S. credit cards are accepted, there are no fast food outlets and no American franchise businesses. The U.S. government has only a token presence. The Cuban government grants Americans a 30-day visa with a 30-day extension. Most other visitors, including Canadians, are granted 90-day visas. FedEx and UPS don't exist. Telephone service to the United States is possible in major cities using Cuban phone cards. Despite restrictions, the dollar is much preferred over the Cuban peso. The embargo means U.S. boat insurance companies won't insure boats in Cuba even though Canadian friends have boat insurance through Lloyds. Flights to and from the United States are through third countries; Mexico and the Bahamas are popular connection points. Re-entry into the United States is outlined in a non-governmental Web article titled: "Re-Entry into the United States" (www.bootkeyharbor.com/cuba.htm).

It's worth the effort to go through the formalities and visit Cuba. Cuba is nearby, safe and friendly, offering uncrowded waters, many secluded anchorages, plus outstanding fishing and diving. It has sailing as it must have been years ago in the United States and the Bahamas. It's not uncommon to be among the first boats to visit a fishing village in many weeks. When visiting the villages, take along a few gifts for the locals: T shirts, shampoo, soap, hand cream, aspirin, candy for the kids and especially fish hooks for fishermen. The Guarda will check you in and out of the harbor, and they'll have you anchor where they can see you. The Guarda only have rowboats and are unlikely to explore remote anchorages. Cuba is an interesting experience for voyagers who have never visited a socialist country. As far as sightseeing is concerned, Havana is a must, followed by a trip to the countryside — especially the Vinales Mountains. The many small fishing villages are also worth visiting.

Coming from the United States the first stop is likely to be either Marina Darsena at Varadero or Marina Hemingway west of Havana. Both are ports of entry. At the port of entry you will go through the various formalities, including onboard visits. First impressions are six to 10 courteous officials all crowding aboard checking everything, including the head, reefer and storage areas. Rarely are bribes solicited. Their interest is to ensure that you and your boat are healthy and you don't bring goods for sale to the local population. Our advice is leave guns home! They remove and hold the guns until you check out. Guns are a hassle when checking in and out and create extra paperwork. They don't care about flare guns, however. The cost to check into Cuba is $15 per visa, $10 for the entry permit, $5 for the health inspection and $15 for the cruising permit. Dockage averages $0.45/foot. Be prepared for Cuban surprises like a 10 percent propina (surcharge) on your bill at Marina Hemingway. Cuba tries very hard to extract as much money as possible from tourists and would love to keep voyagers in the marinas since there are few places to spend money outside marinas. Some things are reasonable. While waiting for more settled weather at Marina Hemingway we hired, for $60, a local Cuban to strip our cockpit teak and apply five coats of varnish.

When you leave the marina and settle your bill, you are issued a cruising permit listing the next likely port of call. Most voyagers don't know where they will stop next so they list the most popular stops noted in Nigel Calder's Cuba: A Cruising Guide. Voyagers are generally free to stop and anchor on route, but if you stop within sight of a Guarda post you are required to check in and out. There are a few restricted harbors. When you leave they want to ensure you don't take any Cubans with you. Our advice is check out at least one hour before you plan to sail to allow for check out and paperwork.

At remote Guarda posts they will row out to your boat, request permission to come aboard, examine passports and visas and your Zarpe, or cruising permit, while sitting in the cockpit. We carried dozens of copies of our Lista de Tripulantes (crew list) in Spanish. To expedite matters we gave copies to officials, especially to Guarda in remote posts. Calder gives a form for a Lista de Tripulantes in his Guide. The Lista de Tripulantes works in Mexico too. The Guarda may accept coffee or soft drinks. They all wear black-soled combat boots that they will remove if asked. Occasionally you will have to go in and get the Guarda if they can't commandeer a local rowboat. Most Cuban officials, including the Guarda, are not sailors and have little or no appreciation for the needs of voyaging boats.

Carry spares for critical equipment: engine, head, etc. In most harbors, outside of the marinas, we were the only boats there. Since Cuba has so few facilities, traveling with another boat adds to security even though security ashore for visiting yachtsmen is excellent. Groundings are rare but you should expect to get yourself off, possibly enlisting the help of your "buddy" boat. Knowing the Cubans, I am certain that if a voyaging boat were aground or otherwise having difficulty Cuban fisherman or Cuban Defense Force (Cuban Navy) would assist. They monitor VHF channel 16. The Guarda can call the Cuban Defense Force if needed.

Cuba lies at the north edge of the prevailing easterly trade winds. This means it is easier to hug the Cuban coast south of the Gulf Stream and sail west, rather than venturing out in the Florida Straits into the eastward flowing Gulf Stream in order to sail west around the island. A circumnavigation of Cuba should start at the East End, possibly beginning at the Jumentos in the Bahamas. Moving west, an exploration of the south coast should be first followed by day sailing eastward through the islands in the northwest corner of Cuba, eventually reaching Marina Hemingway or Marina Darsena at Varadero. We gunkholed westward from Marina Darsena along the northwest coast of Cuba then across the Yucatan Channel to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Only a handful of cruising boats venture outside the marinas because facilities are non-existent. Of the 60 or so voyaging boats at Marina Hemingway, eight to 10 were American. Of the 15 voyaging boats at Marina Darsena at Varadero, we were the only American boat. We were frequently the only American boat in remote anchorages.

Navigation in and around Cuba is straightforward. We carried five large-scale Cuban charts supplemented by Nigel Calder's Cuba: A Cruising Guide. In Havana you can purchase seven individual chart books, which include all Cuba charts, for $40 U.S. each. Ask for directions to the Chart Chandlery in the Old City. We would probably purchase chart books in the future. We like Calder's Guide because he describes navigation and voyaging details necessary for gunkholing. His waypoints are accurate and in fact we created new waypoints directly from the latitude and longitude shown in the diagrams.

Since there are no weather broadcasts in Cuba outside of Havana, each day we received three weather faxes from Belle Chasse, La. at 8,502.10 kHz or 12,788.1 kHz USB, beginning at 0735 EST. Some boats at Marina Hemingway could even receive NOAA VHF weather broadcasts from Key West. Except for a norther that pinned us against the dock at Marina Hemingway, we had surprisingly good winter weather.

There is great sailing inside the reefs. There are plenty of secure, uncrowded anchorages. The waters are clear and warm with plenty of lobster and fish. We caught a seven-pound black fin tuna inside the reef trolling a yellow squid. Fish and lobster can be bartered or purchased ($1 for a dinner-size fish or lobster) from local fisherman who will row or motor around you in remote anchorages. Wave them over; they won't come to you. If you anchor in a harbor with a Guarda Frontera post nearby the Guarda will row out to your boat and check your cruising permit, passports and visas; they may even ask to look below. If there is no Guarda post nearby there will be no boarding and no paper check. While some Guarda are more strict then others, all are courteous.

Cuba is fascinating place to visit; go before it changes forever.

Dick de Grasse is a frequent contributor to Ocean Navigator. He and his wife Kathy live in Islesboro, Maine, in the summer and sail the Caribbean in the winter on their 34-foot Tartan sloop Endeavour.


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