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Suffer the system, love the people

After cruising Cuba’s northwestern coast, one correspondent of mine rethought his plan for a passage to the South Pacific.

If he didn’t enjoy the need for self-reliance just a couple hundred miles from U.S. shores, he surely wasn’t going to enjoy the rustic pleasures of islands with a 2,000-mile ocean crossing as prequel.

Marina Siguanea on the west coast of Isla de la Juventud.

“We have been here two months and can hardly believe that we had planned for three … that would have been way too much,” wrote Wendy and Graham aboard the S/V Bravo 2, describing the challenges of isolation, going aground, luckless provisioning and dealing with officials.

“There have been six ‘official’ marinas in the 750 miles we have traveled and, unless you are in some remote area, the Guarda [Cuban border patrol] will not let you ashore in many other places. They come aboard to check your boat everywhere, and you must clear in and clear out at each stop. Well, at least they take their shoes off.”

One would be tempted to ascribe the system of internal port-to-port paperwork requirements and armed scrutiny to the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. It actually is a hangover from the Spanish imperial system and was probably designed to prevent the king’s loyal subjects from looting his treasure galleons as they stopped en route back to Spain.

Mexico had a similar system until recently, when its marine industry successfully lobbied for a one-stop cruising permit system nearly as liberal as that of the Bahamas. The Dominican Republic, part of the second-largest Antillean island after Cuba, continues to administer a port-to-port clearance system that non-Spanish-speaking cruisers despise because they feel — sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly — they are being shaken down for bribes by Dominican officials.

Bruce Van Sant is author of the classic cruising book “Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South.” He’s made two small-boat passages along the Cuban north coast to study wind trends and develop cruising strategies. As part of that process, Van Sant rated 20 key anchorages, based on protection, marina accessibility, provisioning and the presence of a Guarda Frontera post. He indicates that the absence of a Guarda post should be considered a positive factor in deciding where to drop the hook.

I asked Van Sant if he had any recommendations for dealing with Latin officials, since he has decades of such encounters under his belt. Some Spanish language ability is good, but fluency in Spanish creates a dynamic that works against you, he says. He also implies that while men are from Mars and women from Venus, those armed and uniformed Latin Americans inhabit a third planet altogether.

“Answer official questions from Latinos as you would converse with your spouse — carefully but directly,” he says. “You answer trick questions not trickily but dead on. And you accept the consequences, which often [surpass] those that would have come had you answered deception with deception. It works.”

Don Barr is probably best known for having spent 20 years as skipper of the Canadian tall ship Bluenose II. He built his own 62-foot Herreshoff schooner, Road to the Isles, which last year completed its 11th Cuba cruise. Barr has consulted on several projects involving foreign boats having work done at Cuban shipyards, and he has been satisfied with his dealings with officialdom there.

“Yes, I have seen a few people having problems in Cuba almost every year,” Barr says. “I think the main reason is they just do not understand the system. It is a strong totalitarian government, and we North Americans are just not used to those kinds of restrictions. If the answer is ‘no,’ we want to know the reason why. In dealing with the local officials, it is important to understand that they are just doing a job and also do not know themselves the reasons why. They are all very friendly, and when you understand the procedure you must go through entering or leaving etc., the time it takes, and just roll with it — we have never had a problem.”

A Dutch novelist and sailor, Geert van der Kolk, in 2007 completed a “semicircumnavigation” of Cuba aboard Sea Scout, his 30-foot Dufour Arpège built in 1968. As in most happy Cuba cruises, Sea Scout was a crowded boat with three people co-existing in her Spartan accommodations. Afterward, van der Kolk wrote a short piece for me headlined, “Ten Tips for Cruising the Cuban Coast.”

Tip No. 10 puts a positive spin on the issues raised here, making for a good conclusion. Tip No. 10 was “Love the people.” Here it is, courtesy of van der Kolk:

“I know this sounds flaky, but I mean it. Even in Havana, where the officials seem to be much more officious than anywhere else, we had a good moment. A uniformed guy came to the boat with a pile of forms and a female assistant. ‘So, what do you do?’ he asked. ‘What’s your profession?’

“ ‘I’m a writer,’ I said.

“ ‘You mean a reporter?’

“ ‘More like a novelist,’ I said.

“ ‘Like Hemingway?’

“ ‘Well, kind of, but here in Cuba Cabrera Infante comes to mind.’ ”

(Guillermo Cabrera Infante was the greatest Cuban writer of the last century. He supported Castro’s revolution but later, after his books were banned, was forced into exile.)

“The uniformed official didn’t blink, but his assistant did. She looked over her boss’s shoulder while he was filing out his forms, nodded at me and smiled.”

See related stories:

"The two faces of Cuba"

"An advocate in Havana"

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue.