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Abandoned in Cuba (send lawyers, guns and money)

This is a sad story about a couple that lost their sailboat after hitting a reef in Cuba. I’ve been waiting to write about it until I knew the conclusion — that is, whether the insurance company paid out. I have not been able to nail down every detail, but here is their story, along with my personal involvement and maybe even a lesson or two for us all.

David and Anita Laurence are West Coast business executives. The name of their boat is Satori (previously Liberte), a 1986 Hans Christian 43 that the Laurences purchased on the East Coast. In March 2012 they were en route from Florida to Cancun, Mexico, with two friends as crew, the first leg of a delivery voyage to California.

Anita remembers that the accident happened March 10 as Satori paralleled the northwest coast of Cuba on a course to the Yucatan Peninsula. Favoring the Cuban coast avoids the strong northeasterly current through the Straits of Yucatan, which then becomes the Gulf Stream. In fact, there is often a countercurrent that favors vessels sailing west. It worked for me on a trawler delivery in 2003.

“We had weather coming in, and we were in probably a thousand feet of water, going about 7 knots. It was actually a beautiful sail,” she said.

They struck coral somewhere on the Colorado Archipelago, a 62-mile-long fringing reef and graveyard for hundreds of galleons and merchant naos once in service to the Spanish Empire. It must have felt like a car wreck.


Anita said what I’ve heard others say when they’ve gone aground: She said the reef was uncharted. Occasionally this is true, but often it means “we did not have the charts” or “we were not looking at the charts.”

“What we found out later was that the area had not been charted in years, and the last time it had been charted was by the Russians,” she said.

Cuba has the most up-to-date charts in the hemisphere, its hydrography certainly better than our own because it is based on soundings as recent as the 1970s. Yes, thank the Russians, who did not want their submarines running aground during the Cold War. And the U.S. chart accompanying this story also shows a series of lights along the Colorado.

I never got an answer other than uncharted, but I’ll hazard a guess based on other similar groundings I’ve researched. The boat was maintaining a heading on autopilot, but the autopilot was not tracking to a charted waypoint, just maintaining a heading. Meanwhile, the freshening breeze that was pushing the boat at 7 knots was also introducing leeway into the equation, unbeknownst to the crew. Had there been a waypoint set in a GPS or chart plotter, leeway would have shown up on a display as a cross-track error to port.

Anyway, Satori was not merely aground. She was seriously aground.

“Our boat was actually OK. We needed to get it pulled out. The engine was fine. The prop was fine. There was no water coming in. It’s a pretty solid boat. We just needed to get pulled out, and then we probably could have continued on,” Anita said.

Unfortunately, no one responded to their VHF distress calls — not a big surprise since no one on board spoke any Spanish. Eventually, fishermen took them to the Cuban coast guard base at nearby Arroyos de Mantua. They desperately needed a tow before the weather worsened and waves would begin pounding the boat. Cuban officials did not share their sense of urgency.

Of course they didn’t. There is no infrastructure for recreational boating in Cuba because there is no recreational boating — no Sea Tow, no TowBoatUS — and Arroyos de Mantua is in the most remote and least populated area of the island. The Cuban coast guard did what it always does there: It deputized a couple of divers from a nearby scuba resort to see whether they could help — and they could not. Efforts to float the boat using lift bags also failed.

These Cuban divers were dispatched to free a grounded boat in the same general area a few years before the case at hand.

These Cuban divers were dispatched to free a grounded boat in the same general area a few years before the case at hand.

Anita said the boat spent three days on the reef. “The weather had come in and smashed it,” she said. “Now it started flooding. Then finally they got another fishing boat. … There was no good communication, no sense of urgency and no equipment to do anything. At this point we had no food and no money.”

Eventually a vessel under contract to Cuba’s commercial salvage company, Antillana de Salvamento, dragged Satori off the reef and towed her to the coast guard base. She had a breach in the hull and the engine wouldn’t start because of saltwater damage to the starter. Somehow the sails had torn while the boat sat on the reef. The Laurences did not have the wherewithal to effect any of the repairs — at a minimum, patching the hull and fixing the engine.

Their friends flew back to the United States. Totally frustrated, the Laurences stayed on their boat a bit longer, but Anita, who had been hurt in the grounding, began feeling worse.

“My leg swelled up and turned blue. It was really bad,” she recalled. “I couldn’t walk. I said I’ve got to go to Havana to go to the emergency room, but then they didn’t want us to leave the boat. We were starting to feel really uncomfortable. Why do they want to keep us here if they can’t really help us? The people in the village were very kind and gracious, but every time they tried to get on the telephone to help us, they just couldn’t do anything.”

In Havana, U.S. officials at the embassy-that-is-not-an-embassy (known as the U.S. Interests Section) advised the Laurences to pack it up and return stateside, which they did.

That’s where I came into the picture. Satori had staged her West Coast delivery from Holland Marine, a boatyard in Green Cove Springs, Fla., that also does work on my boat. Yard owner Tom Holland told me the story about how that big, beautiful Hans Christian was now abandoned in Cuba. Coincidentally I happened to be going to Havana in a couple of weeks on some journalism business, so I called the Laurences and told them I would look into the status of their boat.

This satellite image shows a boat that might be Satori moored next to a pier at the Cuban coast guard base at Arroyos de Mantua.

This satellite image shows a boat that might be Satori moored next to a pier at the Cuban coast guard base at Arroyos de Mantua.

From the commodore of the Hemingway International Yacht Club I learned that the boat remained where the Laurences had left her. Commodore Jose Escrich, a trusted man in the hierarchy, made a few phone calls and assured me that the Cuban coast guard had no interest in keeping the boat and that the salvors just wanted payment for the tow.

In my communications with the Laurences I basically argued that the Cubans had exercised their duty to keep the Satori crew safe, but they had no corresponding duty to save the boat. If the Cubans lacked a sense of urgency it’s because it wasn’t their boat and it was put where it did not belong.

“You may think that a local fishing boat can pull you off, but the fact of the matter is they are only issued a small amount of fuel, just enough to get to their fishing grounds and back,” I wrote. “That’s so they can’t bolt the barn and head for Key West. So even getting an additional ration of diesel to pull someone off a reef involves going through a bureaucratic process, which for all we know involves a background check.”

David Laurence had talked about getting the boat to Mexico and having repairs done there. But the Laurences’ Cuba experience had convinced me that would be a non-starter. They would be as lost as Easter eggs trying to deal with any shipyard in Latin America. “Please do not consider having work done in Latin America unless you understand how the work is done and can stand beside the people while they are doing the work, in which case you should learn Spanish,” I wrote.

That’s when I volunteered to go get Satori out of jail. My thought was that we would carry down a replacement sail in our luggage. We would see that the fracture was temporarily fixed, get a tow to deep water, then sail the boat back to the Florida Keys, riding on the Gulf Stream current — no big deal with a good four-day forecast.

On arrival, we could call Sea Tow to bring us in. Once in Florida we could either sort out the mechanicals ourselves or deliver Satori to a boatyard. Either way, an insurance company surveyor would now have access to the vessel. Tom Holland, an accomplished racing sailor, wanted to undertake the repairs.

By now the Cuban salvage company had been in touch with the Laurences and said it would release Satori on payment of $10,000 for removing the boat from the reef and the tow in. I spoke with executives at Sea Tow’s U.S. headquarters for a reality check. They said the price seemed reasonable based on my description of services rendered and the fact that the tow vessel may well have traveled 100 miles to get to the scene.

Representing the Laurences, I sought assurances that $10,000 was all they would have to pay — no hidden storage fees or anything else. From my man in Havana no answer came, perhaps his political survival instincts at play. In the end the Laurences made the right decision and decided to make an insurance claim instead. My mission to Mantua was scrubbed.

I recently examined some satellite imagery of that Cuban coast guard base. One boat was the right length and had the distinctive canoe stern of a Hans Christian and what appeared to be a dark-colored Bimini top like Satori’s. The date of the flyover was February 2013, so maybe she’s still there or maybe it was just an idle Cuban fishing boat.

Astonishingly, David Laurence did not even tell his insurance company that his boat lay abandoned in Cuba for more than a month after going aground. When I asked him why, he said it was because he had intended to recover Satori.

The insurance company also asked Laurence why it took so long to report the loss and made him tell the story of the grounding multiple times to multiple people. Why, they asked, was he in Cuban waters, which the policy specifically excluded for coverage? His offshore rider must have specified that passages include experienced crew because that became an issue in the negotiations, too. I checked back with David periodically, and in June he said that he had reached “a settlement” with Lloyds of London, his policy underwriter.

The lack of detail in his answer suggests a sense of embarrassment. An Internet brokerage lists Hans Christian 43s from the same era at $100,000 to $155,000. I suspect that the Laurences’ payout had been discounted because of the circumstances.

It’s not just that the Laurences hit the reef. I’ve gone aground a few times myself. It’s embarrassing, but I’ve been able to deal with the consequences of mishaps and mistakes.

I am accused of being a pack rat, stowing all manner of parts and pieces of stuff in every nook and locker inside my 41-foot sailboat. I call them raw materials — plywood, boards, glass cloth, jugs of epoxy, pieces of aluminum, heavy vinyl sheets. I carry a couple hundred pounds of tools and fasteners. With 40 years of practice, I’m a fair hand with engines and systems, even earned a small living at it while at anchor down island.

Until the U.S. embargo allows free travel to Cuba there will be no infrastructure there to support recreational boating as we know it here at home and in the developed islands of the Caribbean. Until then, only the most self-reliant mariners should venture into Cuban waters because, as the Laurences learned, nobody loves you when you hit a reef in Cuba. Self-reliance also includes some ability to communicate in Spanish if your intended route consists of 4,500 miles through Spanish-speaking waters.