Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Panama to Florida. Report No 63

Panama to Florida  Report no 63
For pictures and captions: Go to Picture Gallery 63
By Diana in Norway, May 2013

After a couple of grey days, the sun was just breaking through as we motored out of Bocas Marina heading for Isla de Providencia, 246 nautical miles away, the first stop on the way to Florida. With our new crew, Frode and Andreas aboard, the boat loaded with diesel, water, food, beer and wine, we looked forward to some good sailing in the trade winds. 
Leaving Panama. Diana, Andreas and Frode

The first day was promising with a light following breeze, but by the middle of the first night this had changed to a fresh NNE  breeze, coming straight from Providencia!  Catamarans do not sail well to windward, and progress was painfully slow as we tacked back and forth trying to get north.  A bright spot on the second day was a freshly caught tuna fish for lunch.  The second night was tough with periods of winds over 30 knots, and the third night was even worse with torrential squalls and a contrary current. This pushed us near a shallow area east of the island of Saint Andres, and both Frode and Stein had to hand-steer on their watches to avoid getting too close to these treacherous reefs. On the morning of 9th March, with only 30 nautical miles left, we were longing to get to land before dark, but with a strong contrary wind there was no way we could do this under sail. We decided to have a go at motoring, so down with sails and on with engines.  After a bumpy ride straight into the waves, a large school of playful dolphins cheering us on, we reached Catalina Bay on the west side of Providencia in late afternoon. 

Stein had not tightened the ventilators to the sail-locker properly,
and in Providencia had to empty out several buckets of salt water 

The anchor held at the third attempt, and the anchor dram was toasted with relief and enthusiasm!   What we had hoped would be a pleasant two day sail had turned into a very bumpy, uncomfortable  four day experience...                                                                                                                                                Stein and I wondered what our new crew would think about this ‘sunshine cruise’, but they both took the challenges with good humour, and even seemed to enjoy the rather rough experience! For us it is luxury to have four people instead of two to divide the night watches, so they were a great help.


We have been to this island in the west Caribbean once before, and looked forward to visiting again, as it one of the most peasant, friendly, laid-back islands we have come across.  We took the dinghy ashore, where we met our old friend Mr. Bernardo Bush; the maritime agent.  All checking in and out is done through him, he is very friendly and helpful, but takes a good fee from each yacht (200 dollars in our case) with no receipt, so we suspect he might be a bit of a charming scoundrel. Anyway, he looks after the yachties very well and even arranged a party one evening for us all, with local dancers, free snacks and drink and a present of a guide-book with charts of Colombia. This island belongs to Colombia, dating back to when Panama was also part of that country. When Panama became independent with the help of USA in 1903, Providencia and its sister island San Andres which lie near Nicaragua were left with Colombia.  The odd thing is that the local people speak Caribbean English, a throw-back to even earlier days.  The island is just the size that it can be walked round in a day, which we did the last time we were here, however this time we rented a golf-car for the day, as Frode has a foot injury which limits his walking. 

Great lunch at  El Divino Niño
We took turns of driving and walking, enjoying the beautiful coastline with its varying hues of blue sea, and stopped for lunch at El Divino Niño, a shack on a beautiful white beach on the south-west coast where we previously had been served wonderful food. We were not disappointed this time either, and we enjoyed the huge helpings of lobster, conch, crab and fish with rice in coconut milk.  After lunch, Frode, Andreas and I decided to take a path across the south of the island while Stein drove the car round. This proved to be a mistake; we couldn’t follow the path, and ended up totally lost in thick, prickly bushes, with biting ants constantly attacking us. When we finally got to the beach where we were supposed to meet Stein, we were desperate and very thirsty, Stein was not there and we had no money, but the bar-owner John took pity on us, and gave us a longed-for beer until Stein came back from looking for us for the third time.
The next day Andreas, Stein and I decided to hike up to the highest point of the island. We were a little skeptical of finding the path after our previous experience in terrestrial navigation, but this time we did manage to follow the signs correctly, saw several of the famous local blue lizards, and were rewarded at the top with great views over the whole island.                

                                                                                                    We were all set to leave for our next port-of-call, Grand Cayman, on 12th March. The weather forecast the previous evening was not great, but not too bad weather, so we thought it best to get going.  However shortly before we were due to leave, a new forecast gave a much worse picture, with 35 knots wind still from the wrong direction, so there was no choice but to wait. This gave Stein a chance to do a repair which had been pending for some time, a leak through one of the side windows. With good help from our crewmen, the double port side window and its large frame  was removed, scraped and put back on with new filler, and lo and behold – no more leaks!                                                                                                                     By the 15th March the weather had settled, the forecast was for a moderate NNE wind until the next day, when it would go more easterly. We made a plan to go off in an easterly direction to give us a good sailing direction when the wind veered. This worked perfectly,  we motored to the north of the island, getting a barracuda on the way, then had a bumpy sail straight east,  including one horrible squall, not getting any nearer Grand Cayman which was 354 nautical miles to the north.  Early the next morning, as forecast, the wind turned easterly, and for the first time we could sail fast towards our destination, a lovely feeling. We were now a little further from the island than when we started, but for two days we averaged 7 knots, and on the morning of the 18th, with the lights of Georgetown ahead, we had to put a reef in the mainsail to slow us down so we arrived in daylight!


Visiting yachts in Grand Cayman do not drop anchor, there are mooring buoys in the bay in front of Georgetown. We picked up one of these, and after talking to the immigration authorities on the radio, waited to be called in to the jetty for check-in. This proved to be quick, easy and free, but getting water was more stressful, lying alongside a high jetty with the swell pushing us around. We only needed about 300 liters to fill up our tanks and cans, but had to pay 30 dollars for the minimum amount of 2000 liters! Whereas Providencia  is a society with a simple life-style, Grand Cayman is quite the opposite, with beautiful holiday homes for rich Americans and Europeans, big hotels, banks on every corner and huge supermarkets, and around us on the water were yachts, fishing boats and cruise ships.

 We spent two days here, on one of which we drove round the island in a rented car. It is rather flat and not scenically very exciting, but we enjoyed the botanical garden and the varied coastal scenery.  Otherwise there was a lot of washing to be done at the launderette, and a big food shopping to last the two weeks we would be in Cuba, as we knew there are not many supplies to be found there.  Frode and Andreas treated us to a good meal served by a pretty Hungarian girl in a restaurant overlooking the sea. They were a bit generous with the rum punches, so that when we were back on the dinghy jetty, I lost my balance as I was taking off my sandals and plunged into the sea. They were polite enough not to laugh until they saw my head coming up out of the water!
We were ready to leave on the 20th March for the 139 mile sail to Cuba. Now there was a very light easterly breeze, which gradually disappeared, so we had to motor or motor-sail most of the way, but in very pleasant conditions. It was so peaceful that we stopped the boat about 50 miles south of Cuba and all had a swim in mid-ocean.  We had two visits from dolphins, which is always a pleasure, it is easier to spot them when the sea is calm. We drove into an anchorage on Cayo Largo, a tourist island on the south coast of Cuba, just before sun-set, and would wait until morning to check in. Exciting to be back in Cuba!
A wee Linje-Akevitt as anchor dram outside Cayo Largo, Cuba


Early next morning, we got up the anchor and drove into Puertosol  Marina, which is a port of entry for the island of Cayo Largo. We knew from our previous visit that checking in would take some time, and it did take about three hours with various officials and boat search.  However everybody was friendly and it just takes a little patience.  We did not want to spend time in a tourist area, so immediately departed for the next island, Cayo Rosario, and after  a lovely 3 hour sail in good  weather with another barracuda catch, anchored in a big empty bay.                                                                                                                       It is very easy to find quiet anchorages here; no Cubans are allowed to own a boat, so sailing is a rather strange and lonely activity. This also means that the coral reefs are more unspoiled than on other islands, and Stein came back from his swim amazed at the amount of fish on the reef.  The morning after, he harpooned a good sized lobster before breakfast, which gave us a great lunch at another nearby anchorage in a blue lagoon. Here we had a walk on the long, white beach, devoid of people, but with cormorants and pelicans and the occasional large, brown iguana. 
Alone inside the reef in Cayo Rosario with miles of beach to ourselves

 Although it was a beautiful place, it was a little spoiled by a strong wind, which eased a little as we left for an overnight sail to Isla de la Juventud, the largest island on the south Cuban coast.  Here we tied up to a quay after a very fresh sail into Marina Siguenea on the west coast, where we just managed to get in through the shallow channel, guided by an American on the VHF radio who explained the meaning of a lot of  seemingly random poles sticking up along the deepest entrance. Even so, we only just cleared the bottom. Cuban marinas are mostly for boats owned by the government for tourists, and the occasional foreign yacht like ourselves.  The American catamaran along the pier behind us was the only one we saw on this visit to Cuba. The owner took a little risk in visiting Cuba while USA still has their Cuban embargo. If he returns to The States and they find out that he visited Cuba he could be fined.              

Che Guevara's portrait is the most used portrait of anybody! And in Cuba he is everywhere: here at the Guardia's tower overlooking the American yacht
We had to check in and out at every populated stop with the local Guardia. But in Marina Siguenea they just took a quick look of approval.  Shortly after arrival we saw an air-conditioned tourist bus in the marina, and found that the driver was going to pick up a group of Mexican SCUBA-diving tourists, who were land-locked due to the strong wind at the Hotel Colony nearby. He had plenty of free seats and said we could join them for the ride north to the main town, Nuevo Gerona, and back later in the day.  The bus trip took us through pleasant rural scenery, with large, state-owned farms north to the main town, which has little to recommend it… The Cubans here live their lives in relative poverty, mostly in ugly, concrete apartment-blocks, and  most shops are just stalls on the side of the road. But this day they celebrated Independence Day, were dressed in their best  and  out to have a good time.
One of the locals in Nuevo Gerona celebrating Independance Day

The main street was actually quite cheerful with patterned paving, statues and nice benches. The few restaurants are also state-owned. We had a mediocre meal for next to nothing, but still too expensive for ordinary Cubans, so it was almost empty, and the toilet facilities were, as usual, appalling (water taps and water toilets in public Cuba seem to be in a perpetual state of disrepair.) 
Back on the boat the next morning we walked to the tourist hotel near the marina, Hotel Colony, originally a luxury American-owned resort in pre-revolutionary days, and still a good place for a cheap SCUBA-diving holiday. (The coast nearby is littered with wrecks at good diving depths.) Here we all had a Mojito, Ernest Hemingway’s  favourite drink with white rum, lemonade and mint.


We didn’t have much time to waste, after losing time waiting back in Providencia, as we had to get Frode and Andreas to Florida for their plane home on 6th April, so we were off again the same afternoon, hoping to get round to the north coast of Cuba as soon as possible.  The sail began well, sailing at 7-8 knots in a nice, southerly breeze, but just before sun-set, I heard the boys sounding a bit worried in the cockpit. When I looked out I realized why, there was a black wall of cloud just north of us, gradually getting closer. Not long after the wind quickly veered to the north, the temperature dropped and there was a torrential downpour which lasted for about an hour with occasional flashes of lightening.  After this squall, the wind stayed cool and northerly, but we were still able to sail fast, close-hauled with reefed sails along towards Cabo San Antonio, the west point of Cuba, getting there at first light. As we tried to round the cape, there was a 30 knot wind against us and the current was making the seas huge with rows of white breakers. We had a go at motoring and slamming into a couple of these seas before we gave up and turned back to relative shelter of the shore. We knew it would be foolish to sail away from the coast into the main Yucatán Channel, as here a near gale causes much more dangerous conditions as it hits the north-going Gulf Current. A couple of miles further east and we were outside a bleak, uninhabited and inhospitable coast, with swells breaking on the stony shore, not a place to anchor according to our Cuba Guide. But motoring around at about 5 m depth the water was clear enough for us to pick out one little patch of sand among the stony coral, and fortunately the anchor held. The wind was coming straight from the land so the sea was fairly flat where we lay about 75 m from the shore, and it felt  good to be at rest after that scary experience! It was now 9 a.m and we had a good, long day to relax aboard, apart from Stein unsuccessfully trying to do some spear-fishing near the anchorage. The sea floor was just one large, flattish shelf of dead coral apart from our sandy patch of about 2 x 6 m. No more lobsters.
At 2 a.m. we got up to reassess the conditions.  The wind had died down considerably and we decided to make another attempt at the infamous cape … We motored slowly up to the cape, fairly near land in a growing swell, but the breakers were now only  inside us. We followed roughly the 20 m line on the echo-sounder, and with hardly any wind, it was in fact much improved from the previous attempt. We were very glad to get well north of Capo San Antonio, were we could gradually edge sideways north-east across a large, shallow (4-5 m depth), but according to the guide safe area. Finally, after about four hours, we had safely beaten the cape and could head due east along the north-west coast of Cuba.

 After this somewhat scary passage, we had four days sailing and motoring along the north-west coast of Cuba to get to Havana, mostly in contrary winds.  The first couple of days we motored inside the many small mangrove islands and reefs along the coast, stopping where we found sheltered anchorages. On the first day we stopped outside the small fishing village of Los Arroyes, where we had not been given permission to visit on our previous visit. We decided to go ashore as quickly as possible to see a little of the town before the Guardia were aware of us. But no luck, as we were boarding the dinghy with the small outboard engine in place, we had already been spotted and a uniformed official was being rowed out. We motored towards the town jetty, but were soon waved back to the boat, and we were given the explanation  that this was an industrial town, not a place for tourists. As usual, all was done in a friendly tone, but there was no choice but to sail on…

We later found a quiet anchorage among the mangroves with lots of birds, including white ibis and a fishing eagle (osprey), but the highlight was a large caiman (crocodile) racing into the water as we rowed up to a small beach. At the second anchorage the following day, we didn't see much at all as we anchored after dark and left before dawn the next day (GPS and electronic charts are great!),and on the third day we arrived at Caya Jutias, where we have been before. This is a beautiful island with white sands, and a background of mountains on the mainland. Here we had found many fine shells, and I thought it would be nice for Frode and Andreas to find some to take home, but to my surprise they were totally gone! I think the local fishermen must have found out that they could be sold to tourists in Havana. From here to Havana there are no more islands, and we had to go out to sea again hoping to get there the day after. However, same old story, strong contrary wind and long tacks along the coast. We realized the next afternoon that we couldn't reach Havana before dark, and with the wind at 30-35 knots, we were keen to get into shelter.  We saw a beautifully sheltered bay on the map, but our guide-book said it was an industrial and naval port, not really a place for yachts.  That still sounded better than the weather we were experiencing, so we headed for Mariel bay, and raced in under reefed sail just before dusk.

Close-hauled and heading for Mariel in 35 knot winds

 Having lowered sail we motored upwind to an old jetty in great need of repair. There were a few locals on the jetty fishing and chatting, but they seemingly became paralyzed and looked at us as if we came from the moon, and did not seem to know anything about taking ropes from an approaching vessel. However we did finally manage to get tied up, and after a while the Port Captain and an immigration officer came along to find out who we were.  As I was the only one to speak a little Spanish they asked me to come with them, and we walked through a dreadfully shabby part of the town to the Port Captain’s office, a bare room with two small tables, a chair at each, a TV and a mattress on the floor. They wanted to know every detail about us and the boat, although they had no forms or books to write in, just pieces of paper. I asked them if many yachts came here, at which they shook their heads as if they had never seen such a thing before! Anyway they understood we needed shelter from the bad weather, and we were given permission to anchor at the other side of the bay until morning. This we did in the dark and had some worrying moments when Stein thought we were dragging anchor, but finally we all settled for the night. The wind is often much less on this coast early in the morning, so we got up about 5 a.m. to find to our relief that there was only a light breeze, and we motored  along the coast the last 15 miles to Havana. It was wonderful to finally sail down the narrow, man-made channel through the reef and into Hemingway Marina!

It was now 31st March, so we had time to relax in Havana and let our crew get a taste of this fascinating country, before heading straight north to USA. First was the usual form-filling and search of boat, also with a drugs dog. Then we tied up in the marina itself, and were met by cheerful José , the marina chief whom we remembered as being very fond of his drink, he of course came aboard for a beer.  Cubans are generally not allowed to go aboard foreign yachts, and there are security guards who make sure this does not happen, only government and marina officials are exempt. Once we were officially cleared in, we decided to go at once to see the sights of central Havana, and very quickly got an offer of a taxi.  Havana has not changed in the last couple of years, still as broken down as ever, yet with a certain faded graciousness, particularly the area with grand old houses renovated for embassies, and the wide, tree-lined avenues. The fact that most people cannot afford a car means that there is not the traffic chaos of most big cities. Andreas and Frode treated us to an evening meal in one of the private restaurants called NAO, where the food and service was excellent (and the toilets clean and in working order!). The government seems to have loosened up slightly and allowed the private restaurants a bit more freedom, they could only have a couple of tables earlier, but NAO was much bigger. They are no doubt still regulated and have to pay large fees to the state.

In Oscar's Chevrolet 1950beside typical poster in rural Cuba
We had arranged a car trip the next day around the area west of Havana, the first guy who had a modern car was hindered, but he arranged that Oscar would do the job for us in his 1950 Chevrolet. This was an excellent alternative; Oscar is a mechanic who can fix all types of old American cars that the Cubans are so fond of. He drove us to the mountainous area called Vinales, with some of the most picturesque scenery in Cuba, and then back along the north coast, stopping at different places wherever we wanted.  When we stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, in spite of the sign posted, they had no food available, but we were asked if we wanted to go to a private restaurant, which we of course agreed to. This was a small house out in the country, where the family makes a living by cooking for tourists. They were very friendly and obviously glad that we came, couldn’t do enough for us, and made us a lovely meal with banana chips, salad, fish, rice, etc.

As we drove, we often met old American cars coming the other way, and Oscar could immediately give us the name and the year of each one!  He could only speak Spanish, so I had a job to translate, but he was very interesting and could tell us a lot about Cuba. According to him, most of the population are very frustrated and want a change of government, the problem is that there is such a strong military force of about a million, who have many privileges and support the regime. Most people are paid by the state, and after getting a place to live and some basic rations, which are about enough for half what one person needs, the usual wages are equivalent to 30 US dollars per month.  Oscar is one of the lucky ones, he has his own workshop with three employees, and there is plenty of work with the old American cars.  After paying his fees to the state, he is left with 4-500 dollars/ month, and his employees each earn about 300/month.  His brother who is a doctor earns the usual 30 dollars/month, and needs help from Oscar and their sister in USA to feed his family!  Oscar took us to his work-shop the next morning. By western standards it is pretty shabby and has very old equipment, but he is proud of it, and it seemed a happy place where they did good work. They were in the middle of replacing the original petrol engine of a Plymouth with a modern Mitsubishi diesel! We also met his wife who showed us around their house, one of the better ones in Cuba. He then found someone who lived nearby who gave Andreas and Stein a hair-cut, the asking price was 3 dollars! 

Even with a tip it was a very cheap haircut, especially as they don’t need another one for a long time!   
It is only about 90 nautical miles from Havana to Key West in Florida, an overnight sail if the wind is right. We checked out early afternoon on 2nd April, after the bunch of friendly officials and a dog had looked for drugs and Cuban stowaways and filled in their numerous forms. 

It was interesting to visit Cuba again, but good to leave it and to realize how lucky we are to live in a western democracy. 


  1. It was really a fun to read your post. Interesting facts and hey did I mention, you looked amazing having this fun in those pictures.

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