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The two faces of Cuba

If allowed to return, U.S. cruisers will find a lost world of both beauty and bureaucracy

As Washington moves closer to lifting the ban on travel to Cuba, American mariners are increasingly optimistic they will soon be cruising and fishing in the land of “rum, rhumba and revolution.”

Maria la Gorda, on the Bahia de Corrientes, is home to an international diving center.

Like a lost world, nowhere else as close to home looks and feels like the undeveloped Caribbean of the 1950s.

Jeffrey Siegel, publisher of the online cruising guide ActiveCaptain, had been planning a voyage to Central America aboard Acapella, his DeFever Pilothouse 53, until recent news reports suggested a more interesting gambit. “If Cuba becomes a possible destination, I’m skipping the rest for now and heading there,” he says. “Fifteen hundred nautical miles of coastline would take years to explore, and I’d really like to see it before it changes.”

While projections vary, it can be safely estimated that thousands of U.S. boaters would follow Siegel’s lead — so many that Cuba might eventually supplant the Bahamas as our No. 1 foreign cruising destination. For its part, Cuba is preparing for the influx. Reuters news service reported in April that construction is under way on a 1,500-slip marina at Varadero, a beach resort 80 miles east of Havana.

Sheer novelty may be at the heart of Cuba’s appeal, but there’s also the fact that so much of the island is so close. (Its north coast lies only 90 miles from the Florida Keys.) So once the U.S. travel ban is lifted, cruising Cuba should be easy, right?

A local fishing boat outside of the Bahia de Matanzas, east of Havana and west of Varadero.

No way, Jose — not if the experiences of today’s Cuba cruisers are any indication.

While the movement of U.S. recreational vessels to Cuba has been virtually halted since the Bush administration began closing loopholes and vigorously enforcing the decades-old travel ban, small numbers of Canadian and European sailors, unaffected by U.S. restrictions, have continued to cruise Cuba. Their experiences — as reported to my Web site, — show how Cuban officials, apart from those at the handful of state-owned marinas, can be indifferent to the needs of cruisers.

Such could be said of other Latin American officialdom as well, but in those countries foreign boaters have two things working in their favor: Businesses in coastal regions are ready to lend a hand to solve boaters’ problems, and expatriate communities of Americans and Europeans are a resource for advice to help boaters get a fair deal.

Not so in Cuba, with few private enterprises and even fewer ex-pats. Get into trouble in Cuba, and you could find yourself doubly damned — whatever went wrong to begin with, plus the


Try getting a tow

Canadian Deidre Farrell tells how she and her husband, Steven Delong, their daughter and a friend had anchored their Mason 43, Whitestar, off Cayo Jutias on the remote northwestern shore of Cuba in early 2007. Winds piped up from the north one day, and the boat dragged onto a sandbar, where it remained stuck for eight days. As often happens, their problem was compounded. As Delong tried to use the boat’s engine to reverse off the bar, the propeller shaft came loose within the coupling attaching it to the transmission.

Experienced sailors, the Whitestar crew tried, but failed, to kedge the boat into deeper water. The nearby Cuban coast guard did not respond to their radio calls. Finally, with the help of a nearby Canadian vessel that had Spanish speakers aboard, they got their message through. As Farrell recalls:

The beacon Faro Cayo Paredon Grande, just east of Cayo Coco on the north central coast.

“They assured us that the only tow boat in Cuba would be dispatched immediately from Havana, 12 hours away. ‘Are there any large boats in the area that could assist?’ Steve asked. A definite ‘no’ came back. The fishing boats we had seen nearby in Santa Lucia did not have the winches and cable necessary to free us. Besides, being Cuba, they would have to fill in a mountain of paperwork to get permission to help.”

No tow boat came. Communication ceased. Frustration rose like a tide. The Cubans sent a team to try to kedge the vessel off the sand, even though it

hadn’t worked before. The team leader asked that Delong sign a salvage agreement.

“I was horrified and had images of a Cuban general sailing Whitestar,” says Farrell. “Steve just laughed and reworded the document to state they would refloat and tow Whitestar to Santa Lucia, five miles away. He also said there would be no payment unless they were successful. Three hours later the team gave up; they would send for the tow boat.”

Again, the promised tow boat never came. Instead, the Cubans said they would dispatch several fishing boats to free Whitestar, as Delong had originally suggested. They never came.

“By Friday morning, things were dark indeed,” says Farrell. “We were down to the last water tank, the last can of Coke, the beer long gone. It was pink gin for happy hour. No news from the tow boat captain. I know I wasn’t alone with my frustrations and concerns, but I was the first to break. Through a flood of tears, I told Steve we’d have to abandon our baby ship. Always the optimist, he said, ‘There’s a solution for every problem. We just haven’t found it yet.’ ”

Delong, who had been trying all along to fix the shaft problem, finally succeeded by drilling new setscrew dimples into the shaft. After four hours of back-and-forth motoring and kedging, Whitestar was free. A commercial towing service would have solved Whitestar’s grounding problem in short order, but the nearest TowBoatU.S. was in Key West. A medium-size fishing vessel, like those at Santa Lucia, probably could have done the job, too, except for that pesky paperwork.

In the end, despite friendly relations with the Cubans, these Canadian sailors were forced to rely on their own ingenuity to get out of trouble. Delong and Farrell decided that in remote waters they had best adopt a more conservative strategy — for example, routinely using two anchors rather than one. Despite their cautionary tale, Farrell and Delong say their Cayo Jutias experience will not deter them from returning to Cuba in the future.

Law of the Sea

Two years ago, a more disturbing incident was reported on the north coast of Cuba. A U.S.-flagged Gulfstar 50, with a family of five aboard, put into Bahia Manati with what was described as “serious rudder damage.” Manati is not a port of entry, and recreational vessels are apparently not welcome there because Cuban authorities tried to force the vessel to put back to sea, despite a problem that likely had rendered it unseaworthy.

Besides putting lives at risk, this suggests either ignorance of, or indifference to, the Law of the Sea, whose conventions for “innocent passage” provide that mariners in trouble are to be provided refuge while their problems are sorted out or, in the case of bad weather, storm conditions abate. Official Cuban policy is to welcome mariners of all nations, including the United States, but this and other incidents reveal inconsistencies in the application of the policy.

As reported by a knowledgeable individual who must remain anonymous, the Americans responded to Cuban bullying by calling a stateside station using their vessel’s single-sideband radio. Details of the distress call were relayed to the U.S. State Department and the Coast Guard. Despite the lack of diplomatic relations with Havana, Washington maintains a substantial “interests section” in the Cuban capital, housed in the Swiss embassy. Coast Guard liaison officers intervened on behalf of the American family, and the vessel was reportedly towed or escorted to a repair facility instead of being forced back into the North Atlantic. (It may come as a surprise that in all of the U.S. government, it is the Coast Guard that may well have the best working relationship with authorities in Havana.)

‘I was being played’

In another example, worse still, British single-

hander Ray Oliver blames official Cuban misbehavior for the loss of his sailboat, a 36-foot Amel Kirk. Vastly experienced, Oliver is a career charter skipper who wanted to spend his offseasons cruising the Caribbean at the helm of his beloved Cymar, so he sailed her across the Atlantic and cruised the Caribbean.

Common sense dictates that a nation’s first harbor along a sea route should be designated a port of entry, and so it had been with Baracoa, the easternmost seaport on Cuba’s north coast. For reasons that remain unexplained, Havana withdrew Baracoa’s port-of-entry status at some point in the 1990s, but word of this change was slow to spread. Now, to clear in with Cuban customs and immigration, recreational vessels must proceed 80 nautical miles farther west to a government marina at Vita Bay.

In January 2004, after two days and nights on passage from the Dominican Republic, Oliver dropped the hook in Baracoa because weather forecasts were calling for northerly winds and building seas. Baracoa is a snug harbor in northerly conditions, thanks in part to the hulk of a ship that had been scuttled to form a breakwater.

No sooner had he arrived than port officials ordered him to leave the harbor. The British sailor, in his 60s and exhausted, pleaded to be allowed some sleep. The Cubans gave him until the next morning, when he would have to leave despite deteriorating conditions. And so he did.

“After an exhausting night in enormous swells, I was still about six miles from my waypoint to Puerto de Vita,” Oliver wrote. “The mainsail snagged as I tried to reef it in, and the boat drifted inshore without my realizing. Motorsailing was difficult, as the waves repeatedly pummeled Cymar and thrust her across a reef. With the cockpit awash, I ran aground about 50 meters from shore.”

Oliver made it safely to shore, where he underwent a different type of ordeal. Ignoring his pleas for help refloating his boat, officials questioned Oliver for hours and packed him off to a resort hotel he could not afford. The next day the local comandante convinced Oliver that his boat was a total loss. Tired and depressed, Oliver agreed to the comandante’s request that he write a letter saying he would leave Cymar and all of its gear to “the people of Cuba.”

“I was soon to learn, however, that I was being played,” Oliver says. “On examining the damage to Cymar, I found she had only been scraped by the coral and not holed at all. I knew I would have to act quickly to save her. While at Vita, I met two experienced Canadian fishermen with a 45-foot fishing boat who offered to rescue Cymar by towing her off the reef the next day at high tide. All hopes were dashed, however, when the comandante told me that the fishing boat was not allowed to tow me. The Canadian crew had no work permits.”

The Cubans stripped the boat, but Oliver doggedly pressed his case until some of the gear was returned to him for shipment back to Britain. “While I had lost my boat, I had managed to stop the Cuban authorities from stealing all of my possessions,” he says.

In hindsight, Oliver’s biggest mistake was trying to cruise Cuba by himself. Even an experienced hand needs help when things go wrong, particularly in a place that is 50 years behind the times. Oliver did not foresee that his experiences sailing Cymar elsewhere in the Caribbean had not prepared him for the realities of Cuba.

Aboard the Mason and the Gulfstar, adversity was matched by strength in numbers. Their bigger crews — four or five people on each vessel — shared the burdens and bore witness to the actions of Cuban authorities. (Most of the cruisers with whom I have spoken who report positive experiences in Cuba have had at least four people aboard or had buddy-boated.)

In February 2004, when President Bush announced a crackdown on U.S. vessels visiting Cuba, his proclamation cited the potential for bad behavior on the part of Cuban officials, including an alleged willingness to impound foreign vessels and use deadly force. Most mariners who have visited Cuba would scoff at the notion; year after year, many Canadian and European sailors have reported positive experiences cruising Cuba’s coast.

Isolated as they may be, however, incidents such as those described above, which show an inability or unwillingness to render basic assistance and outright refusal to grant safe harbor to boats in distress, can only serve to tarnish Cuba’s image as the outstanding boating destination we hope it will be.

Peter Swanson, 53, has been sailing since he was a 10-year-old boy on Cape Cod, Mass. He holds a 50-ton Coast Guard master’s license. When he’s not writing for Soundings and other boating magazines, he delivers sailboats and trawlers. On his next cruise aboard Rio, his 1977 Morgan Out Island 41, Swanson hopes to circumnavigate Cuba.

See related articles:

"Suffer the system, love the people"
"An advocate in Havana"

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue.