We had a variety of discussions about what time of day we should leave for Cuba. Harmony Yacht Charters suggested perhaps about midnight or even 2 or 3 am on Friday, March 31st. Our thinking on board Sequoia was that we wanted to be at the front of the pack when arriving in Cuba so that we would not suffer from a big back up at Customs when 60 of our fellow rally cruisers were arriving. Harmony suggested that most of the fleet would be arriving between 12 noon and 2 pm on Friday.
Our concerns about customs were exacerbated by the description we had received from Harmony. They had led a number of cruises to Cuba and described the process as follows: first a doctor would come aboard and take all our temperatures and question us about any illnesses we might be bringing in; next customs would do the usual thing, followed by immigration, then a drug sniffing dog would go through the boat looking for drugs, and finally an agricultural team would go through the boat looking for prohibited foods that we might be bringing in. Harmony emphasized the importance of at least one crew member accompanying each of these teams all the time while on board to ensure items would not disappear inexplicably. Given this extensive process, we could imagine being backed up at customs for hours on end. I have always believed in general it is advantageous to be early although perhaps not first.
So, given the above, we decided to depart at 8 pm on Thursday evening. Accordingly we scrambled a bit to get Sequoia ready for leaving the dock. The result was that we were all ready shortly after 7pm and then posed the question, why not leave earlier? Melinda expressed her usual and well founded concerns about arriving at a strange harbor entrance and related reef before dawn. My response was Sequoia is good at slowing down but not so good at speeding up. Her stabilizers work pretty well at speeds above 5 knots but the boat is highly inefficient running at 13 knots and can in fact burn three times as much fuel at that speed than at our normal cruising speed of 9.5 knots. Accordingly we decided to leave a little after 7pm. I was glad we did because it is always good to depart and arrive destinations in day light. As with airplanes, the greatest risks on boats surround departures and arrivals. Thus best practice is to do both in daylight.
Earlier in the day, I had kept a sharp eye on the water outside our harbor and observed that the wind was blowing over twenty knots from the south. Given that our course would be about 205 degrees, this implied boats would be heading pretty much directly into the wind and waves. This normally would present little challenge for Sequoia; however, combined with crossing the Gulf Stream it meant that it would be a little bumpy for boats heading out. Indeed the sailboats that left on Thursdayafternoon complained it was very rough and quite a number of crew members were sea sick. One person described it as getting the crap kicked out of them. Fortunately, by the time we headed out, the winds had calmed and sea moderated. Thus while it was a little choppy by the time we hit the Gulf Stream it was what we called a nothing burger. Based on guidance from Ed Heller at Harmony, we exIted the harbor at Stock Island, made a 90 degree turn to the right, steamed to the main shipping channel out of Key West, made a 90 degree turn to the left and proceeded out the channel and to our rum line for Havana. The Gulf Stream runs pretty much perpendicular to the coarse to Havana. Thus the recommended strategy is to set your course to the rum line ( the straight line as a crow flies) and drift with the current to the east as you are pointed south. Once across the Gulf Steam you then make a 90 degree turn to the right and steam the 8 or so miles you drifted east. Were one to constantly adjust course for the effect of the stream, you might likely wind up turning your boat almost directly west and spend much of your time just fighting the effect of the Gulf Stream.
I will add something else about that night crossing. That is, to some extent we were headed off into the unknown. This sense added to the adventure. At the same time however, we took comfort that we were with a group of 60 boats, and indeed there is comfort in numbers.
While we started the trip at our usual cruising speed of 9.5 knots, we slowed our speed during the crossing based on the input of our excellent navigator, Melinda who was concerned that we not approach the Cuban coast until day light. I will take this opportunity to once again repeat that I am truly blessed to have such a great navigator, sailor and life partner to undertake the many adventures we have shared together at sea.
As we steamed into the night, the American chatter on the VHF (very high frequency) radio faded. Once about 25 miles offshore it ended altogether except for occasional communications between the 60 boats in the rally fleet. The night was very uneventful but totally black without any moonlight. Given that Michael and Bobbe Brown were so familiar with a Fleming 65, Melinda and I broke with tradition. That is, the two of us were on the same watch together and Michael and Bobbe were on the other. Usually we split watches with Melinda on one watch and me on the other. So once we had cleared the channel out of Key West, Melinda and I took the first watch commencing at 9pm (2100 hours). Given that we encountered substantial shipping traffic traveling east and west ( while we were heading south from north) Melinda and I both stood the entire three hour watch. One of us stood watch up on the fly bridge where it was darkest and the night vision best. The other stood watch in the pilot house where the electronic displays are most extensive and it is easiest to spot intersecting traffic electronically. Unfortunately these extensive electronics tend to reduce your night vision. This arrangement contrasts with our usual practice where one stands watch and the other is immediately available in what we call near watch.
Upon completing our watch, Michael and Bobbe took the 12:00 to 3 am watch that followed. They report that the shipping traffic diminished during this period. Shortly after Melinda and I came back on watch at 3 am, Melinda asked apprehensively, do you smell something burning? I did not, and immediately went aft to check the engine room. However, once out the aft salon doors, I could smell a lot of smoke. Thus I concluded it likely was not due to a fire on board which is something we had experienced before and was a terrorizing experience. I did however continue on into the engine room to double check and confirmed that there was no fire on board. Rather, the smell was coming from Cuba which was still 45 miles away! This is something we had experienced before in the Caribbean when third world countries burn rubbish and use wood to cook for daily purposes. The impact on the environment is indeed horrific.
At dawn, we could see Havana in the distance. We continued on our course toward Havana until a few miles offshore so as to get entirely out of the Gulf Stream. Then we made about a 90 degree turn to the west and steamed the approximately eight miles to Marina Hemmingway. As we did, a number of other rally boats were converging on the most northerly channel marker into the Marina. Fortunately we were able to proceed down the channel towards the customs dock where we had only a few minute wait before we were able to dock and begin the customs process.
This began the first of our many interactions with the Cubans. The feedback we received from Harmony together with our own observations confirmed that this rally where 60 boats would sail from the United States to Cuba to participate in a huge parade into Havana harbor two days later was a really big deal for the Cubans. Accordingly they were not about to give us a very hard time at customs and immigration. Rather they were friendly, cooperative and welcoming. This is not to say that they did not do their job. But it is to say they were not there to give us a hard time, were not your typical grim customs agents and did not act disinterested, bored or hostile. Indeed as we arrived, there was a group of about 25 customs agents who appeared to be receiving their morning briefing, and the body English seemed to indicate that they were receiving the following messages: This is a big day guys. We are going to have a lot of boats in today. Your job is to hustle, get your jobs done quickly and easily and be nice. We want these people to report back to their fellow Americans that Cuba is open for business and cause them to want to come back.
After clearing customs we headed to our slip number 138 where we were met by three or four Cubans, one of which was an electrician. Apparently the electricians will do whatever is necessary to get you connected to the electricity on the dock even if that means hard wiring you directly into the system as opposed to just plugging you in. This is in contrast to some other Cuban harbors which I understand have completely destroyed the electrical systems, electronics and battery banks of visiting boats. This could easily amount to well over $25,000 on Sequoia. So you can imagine how I held my breath as they plugged our boat in. Overall I would describe the quality and amount of electricity we had at the dock as very good. After arriving we did a light wash down with a desalter and then had some long naps to make up for our lost sleep the night before. These were followed by cocktails and a great dinner on board. Harmony Yacht Charters had suggested we not plan any big outings that first day and also suggested eating aboard.
Log 5 will describe our first general tour of Havana as well get into what was one of the most intriguing and informative events of our visit, the Mafia Tour. The Mafia Tour was much different than we expected. I'll just say at this point it was not simply a tour of old casinos or old mafia mansions. It was altogether different and gave us many insights into the history of Cuba and some troublesome and dark involvement of the US Government.
( from the plane returning to San Francisco)