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Island Time - Charting out ‘The Next Great Loop’

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This vagabond cruiser sees the Jumentos as the stepping stones to a Cuba cruise once the island opens up

This vagabond cruiser sees the Jumentos as the stepping stones to a Cuba cruise once the island opens up

Surely it is true that many dreams of sailing the Caribbean Sea have died at George Town over the decades, as the challenge of island hopping beyond this Bahamian anchorage seems to take the wind out of many a cruiser’s sails.

But something was happening there this year that belies that reputation. While the regular crowd was doing the typical hyper-organized George Town thing, a steady stream of more adventurous souls was coming from and going to the Jumentos.

From every description I have heard, these cays resemble the Exumas before Hollywood stars, Eastern European “businessmen” and others began taking over the cays.

Here’s a dismissive quotation from a Bahamas cruising guide you should never buy: “The Jumentos Cays pose more problems for visitors than the prize of ‘being there’ warrants.” This author, who seems to favor high-buck marinas and access to boutique shopping, has little else to say about this 50-mile arc of unspoiled cays.

Credit another cruising guide author, Stephen J. Pavlidis, with having stirred the nascent interest in the Jumentos. His guide, “On and Off the Beaten Path: The Central and Southern Bahamas Guide,” is simply among the best ever written, with superb harbor charts and navigational directions.

Credit also weather guru Chris Parker, who provides daily forecasts for each region of the Bahamas, often including the Jumentos by name.

The third member of this holy trinity are the authors of the “Explorer Charts,” who have assembled the absolute best charts for these islands.

Whether by design or for reasons of space, the “Explorer Charts” include the Jumentos (also known as the Ragged Island chain) in the same region as the Exumas, which means that every vessel bound for George Town gets an education on the Jumentos as well. I’m not certain the interest in the Jumentos would be as vigorous had the authors included the Jumentos, say, in their Far Bahamas chart book instead.

I’ve always wanted to visit the Jumentos, but we couldn’t this time around because of commitments in the Dominican Republic, where I am now typing this article aboard Rio, my 41-foot ketch. When sailing toward the Caribbean from George Town, going south is a bad strategy because doing so puts you squarely in the face of contrary easterly trade winds and prevailing currents. That’s why it’s called the “thorny path to windward.”

I did, however, receive this in a message from David Allester, a veteran Caribbean cruiser, who also ekes out a living by writing: “At Water Cay now. We’re the only boat in a little cove near the south end of the cay. There are about 10 boats at the north end of the cay (thankfully) out of sight. The other boats are parked where the little anchor symbol is on the chart. Thank God for lemmings, or we’d never find solitude,” Allester wrote from the Jumentos.

The point is this: Here’s an anchorage that in the past might have seen 10 boats a year, and in April 2006 it had 11 at the same time. Water Cay is in the north Jumentos. Heading south in an arc that is at first southwesterly then curving to the southeast, you will pass cays with names such as Flamingo, Buena Vista, Raccoon, James, Margaret, Double Breasted and Hog. The terminus for a Jumentos cruise is usually Ragged Island, with the only settlement in the Jumentos, a place called Duncan Town.

If you’ve heard anything about the fishing village of Duncan Town, it’s probably the fact that it boasts a saloon called the Eagles Nest with a DC 3 aircraft planted on its roof. Otherwise, it’s a hardscrabble little place with just a few dozen inhabitants, but that will change, I predict, when someone or something dies.

That someone is Fidel Castro; the something is the U.S. policy of preventing U.S. citizens from visiting Cuba.

‘Someday’ cruising grounds

I’ve long had a passion for Cuba as a cruising ground; there would be none better were it not for foolish policies administered in both Washington and Havana.

I’ve traveled to Cuba by boat, but a more strident Bush administration meant that my second trip to the Cuban North Coast had to be by commercial airline and rental car. Still, I’m convinced when Fidel meets his maker, events in Cuba will surely result in a lifting of the U.S. embargo.

Personally, I would be equally happy if our own leaders could find the courage to recognize the failure of more than 40 years of embargo and reverse course. Either way, the outcome will be the same.

U.S. boats will flock to Cuba. Cruisers at first will grumble about the woeful lack of infrastructure and failure of the Cubans to understand their needs. As the Cuban economy awakes, marine services will follow along its 2,000-mile coastline. Eventually, if I know sailors, they’ll begin grumbling that the marinas are too expensive, but that will take a while.

My point: Duncan Town is 67 miles due north of the Cuban port of entry at Vita, which even today boasts a serviceable and friendly marina (though administered by a subsidiary of the Cuban military). The bay itself, like so many on the North Coast, offers 360-degree protection. The countryside is typical: gorgeous green hills and valleys; the people are warm and friendly.

Bruce Van Sant is a friend and author of the definitive passage guide to the Caribbean, “The Thornless Path: A Gentleman’s Guide to Passages East.” Van Sant has explored the Cuban North Coast in his Schucker trawler, Tidak Apa, and reports that there are at least 56 viable anchorages from the easternmost point of the island to Havana, most of which lie in the 450 nautical miles between Vita and Havana. If you anchor at the 17 that he singles out for this stretch, your longest passage will be about 32 nautical miles.

Van Sant’s anchorages were proposed for yachts heading eastward against the Trade Winds (Van Sant’s particular specialty), but the same 17 would serve just as well for a very leisurely westward passage to Havana. Whether under sail or power, a westward passage along the Cuban North Coast will benefit from the rarity of robust and favorable wind and favorable current.

Just 67 miles separate Duncan Town from Vita, that first Cuban port, but a possible anchorage halfway between might lie in the lee of Santo Domingo Cay, the last bit of Bahamian dirt before deep water. (I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who anchored there or is otherwise familiar with Santo Domingo Cay).

Lay it out on the chart and you can see the potential for a new cruising “loop.”

No doubt readers are familiar with The Great Loop, which, starting at the Statue of Liberty, takes a vessel up the Hudson River, through the Erie Canal, across the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi and other inland waterways to the Gulf of Mexico, then up the Intracoastal Waterway back to Miss Liberty.

The Jumentos and the North Coast of Cuba, I predict, will be legs in the “Bahamas-Cuba Loop” of the future. As it stands now, most of those folks stalled in George Town for planned activities will return to the United States by retracing their steps through the Bahamas to Miami or West Palm Beach.

The next era in U.S.-Cuba relations will mean that George Town need not be the terminus for cruisers returning stateside. They would be able to head homeward by transiting the Jumentos and coasting to Havana, then crossing the Gulf Stream to the Florida Keys.

With today’s electronic equipment, such a voyage would be no more challenging than a cruise to the Exumas, but with Cuba in the mix the 1,200-mile Bahamas-Cuba Loop will be vastly more rewarding.

As villa development, privatization and megayacht marinas consume the Bahamian islands, Cuba will offer cruisers a glimpse of the Caribbean the way it looked in the 1950s, and Duncan Town will benefit from its strategic location along the way. See you at the Eagles Nest in ’08.

’Til next time.

Peter Swanson, 51, grew up on Cape Cod never wearing shoes in summer until he shipped off to college. Besides his journalism credentials, he holds a 50-ton Coast Guard master’s license. His ambition to cruise the coast of Cuba is so premature that he founded a Web site dedicated to this virtually non-existent pastime: www.cubacruising.net .