Tuesday 25 April 2017

Visas bloody Visas, Havana, Friends, on-board Technology and Next Steps (Wednesday 19th April)

I started writing this on Saturday 14th April but it may not get posted until much later due to the sudden unavailability of the internet cards one needs to buy to get access to the internet.

Today has been one of the less enjoyable days here. It’s been the second successive day I have spent trying to extend my Cuban Visa. On arrival one is issued with a Visa which is valid for 30 days and which can be renewed for a further 30 days. My initial Visa expires on Monday and so I had set out early on Friday morning to renew it. As far as I could tell having read several tourist web sites the process is rather cumbersome requiring the purchase of special stamps from a bank which one then has to take to the Immigration Office along with Passport, travel insurance and details of one’s itinerary. They all warned it would take a long time. I had found what I thought was the address of the Immigration office but suddenly remembered it was Good Friday and then established that Friday and Monday were National holidays here in Cuba like many other places – the likelihood of the office being open seemed remote. I therefore changed decided to visit the Port Customs/Immigration office at the entrance to the Marina in the hope they could shed some light on the process. Fortunately another Yachty, Peter, was good enough to lend me his bike because it was quite a trek to the Port Office.

It turned out that the address I had was no longer valid and I got some rather vague directions from the local chap who was not sure whether the office would be open or not. I decided to go in search of it because it would at least be one step forward to locate the office whether closed or open. The local chap also told me there was no need to buy a stamp from the bank because the Immigration Office would undertake the whole process. Encouraging, or so I thought at the time.

Back at Peter’s boat, he offered me the loan of his bike once more which turned out to be an absolute blessing. On arriving in the area to which I had been directed there was no sign of the Office. Fortunately I stumbled across a government official of some sort who knew where it was and gave my directions (in Spanish of course which I did not understand but I got the general drift). After another half an hour of peddling, 2 Policemen and various locals later I finally found the Office. It was closed but I was told it would be open in the morning.

I headed back to the Marina and returned Peter’s bike did a few small jobs on the boat and went out with Dave and Kimberly for a meal in the nearby town. It was our second visit to the simple restaurant there. The food was very simple but extremely cheap. The three of us ate for less than £10. After that we watched one of the films that Laurent had given me in Cayo Largo – Babel. Good but heavy going.

Today  (Saturday 16th) I was up early at 0700 and got a taxi to the Immigration Office and arrived at 0830. Despite the early hour there was a long que already, I took a seat and settled down for the wait. After a while I noticed that the other people already had stamps with their documents. After a period of indecision I decided I best go and get one. It turned out that there was a bank only five minutes’ walk away so I should be back fairly soon.

Ha, ha. I was in the que in the Bank for nearly two and a half hours. There were only two counters staffed (it was a Saturday) and the first to Customers appeared to be conducting business transactions because they both took more than 30 minutes to conduct their business with stacks of paper going back and forth interspersed with resounding stamps. At last one of them finished and the lengthy que of ordinary customers gradually began to move. Finally, it was my turn. I explained I needed to buy a stamp to renew my Visa. The young man spoke some English and asked how many I wanted. I had not the faintest idea. After talking to a colleague, he asked me if I was sure I needed a stamp! Oh heck! I remember reading somewhere that the cost of the stamp was 25 CUC PESO and eventually I left having purchased 25 CUC’s worth of stamps. The only way I would know for sure whether I needed the stamps would be once back at the Immigration Office. By now it was 1100. I was back at the Office by 1110 only to be told that it was now closed but would be open again on Monday. By now I was thoroughly fed up. I walked back to the Marina and spent an equally fruitless afternoon trying to make up mosquito nets for the hatches and companion way. After two hours with the netting, elastic and needle and thread I manage to construct a completely useless net and gave up on the whole project.

Dave had come round to ask if I would like to go into Havana again with him and Kimberly but I was too knackered and hacked off and so declined.

It seems that rather too much of my stay here has been given over to battling with bureaucracy. Over previous days I had spent numerous hours trying to apply for a VISA for the USA. I only found out some weeks ago that because I was travelling on a private boat I was not covered by the ESTA which I had got before leaving Spain. Stopping off in Florida would be useful both from a passage planning perspective and in order to provision the boat fully. It was not to be however. The combination of the very unreliable internet connections and the painful VISA application form meant I had spent many hours on the process. Having at last completed the form I could request an appointment. And guess what – the earliest appointment available was August 17th! No stopover in Florida for me.

The above aside the stay here has been most enjoyable.

Dave and Kimberly have more or less adopted me and the three of us have spent a lot of time together. So far we have been into Havana twice and on both occasions we did a mixture of the classic tourist locations and also the ‘real’ Havana where the locals live and go about their business. Old Havana has been restored to its former glory but the restoration process elsewhere is proceeding at a far slower pace. Outside Old Havana one is in a third world city with crumbling buildings and streets strewn with rubble. In some streets nearly every other doorway seems to house a little enterprise of some sort – some just selling bric a brac, others more established shops and services including nail salons. Some of them are squeezed into doorways of only a few square feet, others are in stairwells disappearing into the crumbling building above. The people are for the most part cheerful despite the very considerable hardships of day to day life. Rationing is still a fact of live in Cuba and therefore most ordinary people have to make do with very spartan supplies of basic goods at subsidised prices which, if they can afford it, they can top up at market prices at the numerous independent retailers that have sprung up in recent years.

Crossing into restored Old Havana, one crosses from the third world into what could be a Rome or a Paris or any other historic city centre in Europe. Of course the specific architecture is unique but the general feeling of the place the same. There are posh shops numerous bars and restaurants and the historic sites to admire. One of the landmarks on the edge of old Havana is El Floridita Cocktail Bar made famous by Hemingway who frequented it during his Cuban period. They do make very good cocktails, especially the ‘Daiquiri’ and on the two occasions we were there they had excellent life music too. As well as drinking in famous bars we visited the equally famous Ice Cream parlour, Cappolia and the Chocolate factory XXXX. Of course we had to sample the goods at both.

Havana is packed with of all sorts of classic America cars from Chevy’s to Buicks and everything in between. Some are in almost mint condition but most are unsurprisingly showing their age. There must be a lot of ingenuous mechanics in Havana. Nearly all seem to operate as Taxis of one sort or another and sometimes it feels like almost every Cuban is associated with a Taxi when one is repeatedly asked, “Taxi Sir?”

Tomorrow we’re off to the world-famous Tropicana Club to see a show.

Last week I got to know my immediate neighbour, a fascinating Frenchman, Phillipe. He too was sailing single-handed on a similar sized but modern boat. He’s an ex computer programmer turned Personal Development teacher. The night before he left we all (me, Phillipe, Dave and Kimberly) went out for a meal in the cheap restaurant in the local town – Jaimanitas and then back to his boat where we yarned and drank rum for a few hours. It was a most enjoyable evening – one of those special ones which encapsulate the comradeship of the cruising life. Phillipe is heading up the Eastern Seaboard of the US as far as Boston and will then cross back to France via the Azores in June so there is a chance we may meet up again there.
Oh and I finally got my Visa extended on Monday after hours of yet more queing!

On Saturday I met Daniel and Anna a Brazilian/Scottish couple from their boat Noomi. They have been cruising for the last couple of years and will be heading up the Eastern seaboard too when the weather allows. We shared a bottle of wine and stories on Arctic Smoke and had a very pleasant evening.

I’m planning on leaving round about the 20th if the weather co-operates. Agustin, Port Officer for the Ocean Cruising Club in Gran Canaria, is by complete coincidence flying in to Havana on the 17th for work (he’s an Aeroplane Engineer) and we’re meeting up on the 19th. It’s proved to be most fortuitous that he’s coming because the main Tablet I use for detailed coastal navigation with Navionics software, failed in Cayo Levisa. That itself was a replacement that my son Vincent brought over to Jamaica. Agustin is therefore bringing two replacements with him which with my existing fall back tablet will mean I’ll have three which should be enough to get me home.

Yesterday (Tuesday 18th) I had another day out in Havana with Daniel and Anna from Noomi. We took local buses into town which though crowded were extremely good value – just a few pence each to cover the 10 or so miles into town. We visited the Art Museum – a bit too modern for my taste – had a good lunch and just explored the city on foot.

The winds have been blowing from the East/North East pretty hard for most of the time since arriving here and I could really do with them going South East before I leave. Headwinds against the North East flowing Gulf stream would make for a very uncomfortable and slow passage. The talk on the grapevine amongst the yachties is that the winds are forecast to go South East towards the end of week which would be good for me. My likely route now that Florida is out will be to Bimini about 250 miles which with fair winds would be a 2-day passage. From there to West End on Grand Bahama, about 60 miles, a 1 day trip and then on to Bermuda, about 800 miles which should take between 5 to 10 days depending on the winds. Weather permitting, I’ll only be making short stops in the Bahamas because I’m due to pick up Tom in Bermuda for the onward passage to the Azores.

Reflections on Cuba (from Old Bahama Bay Marina, Grand Bahama Island)

The Man!
And so, on the morning of Saturday 22nd April it was time to leave the strangest and most complicated country I have ever visited. I had coveted Cuba as my ultimate destination for so long and at times it had seemed so unlikely that I would actually make it, that to be leaving after experiencing only a small fraction of the landscape, beauty, desolation, colour, squalor, bureaucracy, music, history and people, left me feeling a little flat and a little disappointed. I had experienced crystal clear waters and a couple of enchanting anchorages and the beautiful beaches at Cayo Largo and Cayo Levisa, and I had snorkelled below the waves a few times and it was delightful, but the slow cruise around the south and north west coasts that I had imagined where I would snorkel on pristine reefs and swim every day for days on end, vanished under the demands of time and weather. Cuba has a huge coastline replete with numerous islands and reefs – a cruiser’s paradise, but I now realise a month is just nowhere near long enough to explore all that, AND do Havana AND do the interior - which I never did.

As always when sailing anywhere especially rocky reef strewn coastlines, the weather is the primary factor. In order to make my rendezvous with Tom in Bermuda in mid-May, I had decided it would be prudent to leave Havana in mid-April – that should give me enough time to visit a couple of the Bahamas on route. I planned to spend a week in Havana before leaving and therefore in theory I had three weeks to explore the coast between Cabo Cruz in the South East and Havana in the North West. That’s roughly 500 miles of coastline ignoring all the squiggly bits. The first 225 from the Anchorage at Cabo Cruz (where I had headed from Jamaica to wait for a change in the winds and where I had to stay on the boat) to Cienfuegos, I had to do in one hop because that is where I had opted to ‘check-in’ to Cuba. There are only a limited number of Ports where one can do that and only after checking-in can one go ashore. Indeed, strictly speaking I should not even have anchored there, but I got away with that.

Fish for Rum at Cabo Cruz
Cienfuegos is a sizeable town (but nowhere near the size of Havana) and I spent eight days there including a day trip to Trinidad which was a delight) exploring the place, listening to live music and simply experiencing Cuba. 

Town Square

Dancers Posing

Street Games

I also made friends with Laurent the Frenchman and went out a number of times with him and another friend he had made. Eight days was longer than I had planned on staying but I needed to wait for fair winds. From there it was a day hop to the tiny island of Cayo Guana de Estate for an overnight stop and then another day hop to Cayo Largo with its gorgeous beach, and rather scrappy holiday resort.

The Beach at Tropical Island, Cayo Largo

Laurent arrived there the day after I did and we spent a very enjoyable 5 days exploring the beach and resort together and just generally hanging out.

Laurent the Action Man
Then a day hop to Cayo Rosario followed immediately by another to Cayo Matias and another to the beautiful, Ensada Puerto Frances where I indulged in nude snorkelling in crystal clear waters. The next leg was to be a much longer and challenging one south of Isle De La Juventud (Isle of Youth) and round Cuba’s most Western cape, Cabo San Antonio. The seas off the cape can be very nasty in Westerly to Northerly Winds and even in the prevailing Easterlies my sailing guide book urged caution. With time marching on and the wind in the East I therefore decided to by-pass the enticing island chain of the Cayos De San Felipe to the North West of the Isle Dela Juvented and round the cape. A day and a half later I was anchored at Cayos De Lena. Not a pretty place but with lovely local fishermen who traded fish and lobster for rum.

The enchanting Golfo De Guanahacabibies lay ahead with the possibility of days of island hopping but the weather forecast warned of north easterlies arriving within the next few days and so I opted to make ground while I could and sailed outside the reef up to Cayo Levisa. Ironically, I was sheltered from the swell by being outside the reef in fresh south easterly winds and made great progress. Cayo Levisa was a jewel and where I met Dave and Kimberly who adopted me and we had great times together there and in Havana, but once again the weather forced me to make ground while I could. 

The north easterlies were delayed by 48 hours but the forecast showed them then entrenched for at least another week, so we spent one night there only and headed eastwards again. I made the passage to Havana in one hop whilst Dave and Kimberly did it in two. 

Arctic Smoke in Hemingway Marina, Havana
My two weeks in Havana are summarised in an earlier post, suffice to say it is one of the most intriguing cities I have visited. 

A typical Havana street

Cuba's Capitoli with Dave in foreground

Street art in Havana

The Cradle of the Daiquiri - inside Floridita - one of the haunt's made famous by Hemingway

Yet again though I left feeling I had not done it justice. I never got to the Museum of the Revolution. The day I was there with newly made friends Daniel and Anna who had sold up and sailed, the que was so long we bypassed it and went to the Art Museum instead. Nor did I get to Hemingway’s House Museum, although I did manage to get to Floridita a few times - the Daiquiri's were great!

Daniel and Anna outside the Museum of the Revolution, Havana
However, with Dave and Kimberly we did see a lot of Havana on foot and took in two Iconic shows – the Tropicana and the Buna Vista Social Club. The first an amazing extravaganza of dance and scantily clad – mostly female flesh, the second, simply wonderful Cuban music that got even this stick in the mud off his bum to dance.

Buna Vista Social Club
Cuban bureaucracy is second to none in its complexity, slowness and inefficiency and Cuban internet access is simply awful. The combination of the two equals hell on earth. My painful experience of trying and failing to get a US visa and only just succeeding in renewing my Cuban visa are also related in my Havana posting.

The most special experience of my time in Havana however, was the evening spent with Dave, Kimberly and new friend, Phillipe the night before he left Havana. We all went for a simple meal at a local restaurant in the village next to the Marina (which is about 10 miles East of the city) and then returned to Phillipe's boat for rum and yarning. I took my bottle of St Kitts rum - which went down very well.

Me, Phillipe, Kimberly, Dave and two of the locals
A fellow sailor has asked me whether I would recommend Cuba as a cruising destination. My answer is “Yes most definitely but……”

Sunset at Cayo Largo

Sunday 9 April 2017

Arrived Hemingway Marina, Havana

It's Saturday morning the 8th April and I've just had my first hot shower for goodness knows how long having spent a couple of hours checking in with the various authorities and getting the boat moored up here at Hemmingway Marina, Havana.

My previous stop was at the idyllic little island of Cayo Levisa about 60 miles west of here. [I still can't get used to the fact that after months of going west I'm now going East, the sunrises and sunsets seem back to front!]

I arrived there on Thursday morning after a day and night at sea from Cayos De la Lena just inside be Cuba's South West Cape, Cabo Santanio. The highlight of that stop was not the scenery but the delightful local fishermen with whom I exchanged a bottle of rum, two baseball caps and two razors in exchange for 3 fish and a  lagustine. Despite our inability to speak eachother's language we spent a couple of hours "chatting".

The sail from there to Cayo Levisa took about 24 hours and included two hours of record breaking sailing for Arctic Smoke during which her speed did not drop below 7 knots and some anxious moments in some very shallow water in the approach to the Anchorage. It was however very sheltered flat water.

On the way in I was passed by a Catarmaran that turned out to be named Island Girl captained by Dave with his crew Kimberly. Dave very kindly ferried me ashore having spotted I apparently had no dinghy to do the paperwork and the three of us spent the rest of the afternoon and evening together and indeed the following morning.

Ideally, I would have spent a few days at Cayo Levisa. A beautiful little island with a small resort complex by far the best kept facility any of us had come across in Cuba. A couple of lazy days on the beach and snorkeling in the crystal      seemed in order. Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas. The updates from Mick via my Yellow Brick confirmed we had two days of NNE/NE winds on Friday and Saturday before the wind settled in the East and fresh for at least another week. We would either have to move immediately or risk being wind bound for a week or more. We decided to move. First we had to clear out with the authorities which involved tracking the local guys down and then going through the paperwork again. I wasn't ready either and had to rush around getting the boat ready. We had agreed a
1200 noon departure and I wanted to go out together because the passage involved some pretty shallow water and a reef pass and if anything went amiss it would be good to  have company. All went fine until we got to the reef pass where we had to head north into a north easterly wind. It got very, very lumpy and poor old Arctic Smoke could only just make 2k over the ground. After about an hour we got out into deep water and I decide to head off NW on the starboard tack to get away from the coast before tacking east. After about three hours and nearly fifteen miles I decided we had made enough ground to windward to enable us to tack and it was with some relief that I found we were indeed able to lay our desired course.

I settled down on a close reach under two reefs until dusk when the wind eased considerably and with Mick’s forecast information predicting 10 knots I decided to shake out the reefs. For most of the rest of the night we went along pretty comfortably at between 4 and 5 knots albeit in some fairly big seas. The wind increased again around 0300 and we were off again at 6+ knots. The GPS was predicting we’d be off the fairway buoy around 0700 which was pretty good timing because entry to Hemingway in the dark was not advised.

By 0500 the wind was up a further notch and we were on the edge of needing a reef but laziness won out, thankfully without any adverse con whichsequences other than the boat steering a rather erratic course as we approached the Fairway buoy. The buoy is located about half a mile off the cut through the reef which is marked by starboard and port hand stakes. It’s the only way in so if you miss the buoy and get any closer inshore you’re on the reef. Fortunately I located the buoy about a mile out in what were already rather big seas. The next challenge was getting the boat ready to dock. The Pilot book says you need to be ready to dock with Customs immediately on entry and I took that literally which on reflection was pretty dim. Getting the fenders and warps out and in place, Angus off and stowed and the sails down with the boat dancing all over the place was not very pleasant. After getting the fenders out whilst still underway my brain kicked in and we hove too to complete the rest of the chores. That made life manageable if still bouncy. The last job was getting the sails furled because whilst I could have done with some extra propulsion to get into port I was not sure how much room there would be and the thought of careering into a strange port at 6k with possibly no stopping room, was slightly more worrying than the prospect of not being able to make enough way with AS’s 10HP Buhk. The possibility of it conking out was also something I worried about. If it did I would have to get some Genoa out bloody quickly or we’d be on the reef in no time.

So we were hove to a mile down wind of the reef/pass – which at least meant we would not get blown on to the reef whilst sorting out the sails but it did mean that we’d get blown off even further whilst sorting out the sails. I got the engine on and furled the Genoa and then tackled the main. Thankfully even with no sail up, with the tiller lashed to leeward AS continued to lie (relatively) comfortably hove to whilst I got the mainsail down and roughly stowed. However by the time I had sorted all that out we were a mile and half away from the fairway buoy and even flat out AS was barely making 2 k. So nearly an hour later we were close to the buoy and I could see the channel markers leading into the marina. The pilot warned of cross currents between the buoy and the first channel markers. Another yacht was coming out as we were going in it was probably 45 feet longer and very likely packed a far bigger punch that AS’s 10 HP Buhk but I could see it was being tossed all over the place as it came out of the channel, by this time we were passing through the reef and the cross currents were playing merry hell with AS, twisting her one way and then the other. The channel was about x metres wide but felt considerably narrower. As I struggled to keep AS in the centre of the channel and out of the way of the approaching yacht the cross currents continued to play with AS. Thankfully the wind was now abaft the beam and so we were making better progress and within 15 minutes or so we were in the quieter waters of what turns out to be a huge marina and very shortly after that moored up on the Customs dock to go through all the formalities yet again. Despite the office being well equipped with computers everything was done on paper and yet again, the officials diligently asked me the same questions and completed the same forms as at the other ports of entry. The whole process took about an hour which apparently is fast track compared with a few years ago. On completion I was told where to head for in the marina where I also had to check in to and then finally I was visited by the Health Officials – they had slightly different roles and different forms but eventually I was done with them too.

Whilst I was tidying up the boat (a bit) the security guard came over for a chat. Once he had established I was on my own he appeared even more interested and hung around after our pleasantries were over. It turned out he had an ulterior

First he asked me if I wanted a ‘cheek’ for tomorrow. When I made it clear I didn’t understand he used his phone to translate. The translation of ‘cheek’ was ‘small’! I was even more confused until the penny dropped – he was saying ‘Chick’. After I turned him down he came back a few minutes later with an even more confusing translation on his phone. It seemed to include a word that looked very much like “anus”! I got the drift and refused again at which point he laughed and finally walked off.

After that encounter I had my shower and a light lunch and started writing this up whilst keeping a lookout for Dave and Kimberly on Island Girl. They arrived at around 1500 and we were both very glad to see we had all come through the passage safely, particularly the bumpy entrance into Hemmingway.

May go into town with Dave and Kimberly tomorrow.