The quip about sailors’ plans being written in sand proved itself again these past two weeks. Our three days in Port Antonio, Jamaica were bittersweet. We explored the town as best we could on foot, but ditched our plan for hiring a driver to tour the Blue Mountains due to concerns about coronavirus exposure.
Snowballing coronavirus border closures and state imposed lockdowns prompted us to set sail from Jamaica for West Palm Beach, Florida.
We knew our chosen 670 nautical mile route would be an upwind slog for the first 200 miles, and expected the Windward Passage to be the most difficult of that stretch. We were willing to beat into the wind and waves to get to West Palm faster as well as to gain heavy weather sailing training while Capt. Tanja “Tatiana” Koster was still onboard with us.
Alas, about 18 hours into the trip, a supporting leg for our D400 wind generator came loose. An hour or so later, the other leg came loose. After that second stressful scramble in the dark to heave to and stop the boat in 12 foot waves to hang off the stern to re-screw bolts and jury rig supporting lines, we decided to seek safe harbor shelter in Cuba to make sturdier repairs than we could at sea.
Our concern? That the upcoming pounding through the Windward Passage would knock the wind generator pole all the way off, rip holes on Vinyasa’s stern, and also rip off the davits, since the jury rigged davits fix that we’d hooked up before departing The Bahamas relied on the D400 pole. Multiple holes on the stern of the boat in big seas? Definitely not good or safe.
Mindful of travel restrictions against U.S. travel to Cuba, Allan contacted the U.S. Embassy in Havana via IridiumGo to let them know we needed to make an emergency stop at Marina Marlin in Santiago. After asking if everyone onboard was safe, the Office of U.S. Citizens Affairs said they would relay our information to the U.S. Coast Guard in the area. Santiago is not far from Guantanamo Bay, so we’re guessing the Coast Guard is stationed there.
We started hailing the marina 12 nautical miles offshore, and finally received a response as we were about to turn into the channel adjacent to El Morro de Santiago, a beautiful sight in the late afternoon light.
The state-run marina’s harbormaster granted permission to enter port after we assured him over the VHF that no one onboard was sick with any flu-like symptoms – or anything else.
The problems we’d been having furling our mainsail grew exponentially worse as we pulled in. My human error with an outhaul clutch ripped a block at the end of the boom from its rivets. Dang! One more thing to get sorted in Cuba.
Once at the marina, the harbormaster asked us to anchor and wait for the Health Department’s clearance. A friendly doctor came onboard 5 minutes later wearing a rudimentary face mask. She swiped our foreheads with a digital thermometer, asked a few questions, and lifted our quarantine.
The harbormaster then offered the choice of pulling up to a pier or remaining out at anchor. We chose the pier, and received a rousing welcome from a Canadian boat that had seen us in Warderick Wells. Risky Business, a modified British racing sailboat, which had been on our dock in Jamaica, was tied up on the opposite side of the pier.
We paid $75 per person for visas, and $55 U.S. for Health, Customs and Immigrations fees. Our dock fees were $33 U.S. per night, including electricity. U.S. Credit cards are not accepted in Cuba, and we had to exchange our U.S. dollars for Cuban Convertible Pesos, aka as CUCs, before paying for anything at the marina.
The next morning, we engaged the services of Damex, a large Dutch-Cuban boatyard. A Damex manager came onboard to assess our needs, took away our companionway door (its bottom wood support had come undone during the passage) and promised to send someone over “in half an hour or so” to work on the boom, the wind generator support pole, and figure out a temporary fix for the broken davit pole. We figured that the extra weight on the D400 support pole from the line we’d rigged for the broken davits was contributing to its repeated issues, and wanted to avoid a reoccurrence as we sail to Florida.
After a few hours, Tanja and I walked the mile or so over to Damex, under the pretext of finding out if we could pay for their work with a credit card or if we would need to convert U.S. dollars to CUC’s. The word after we cleared two guarded gates? We had to convert. Fortunately, the manager asked Otto, the technician coming to do the work, to drive us to the airport in Santiago where I could exchange currency.
Once aboard Vinyasa, Otto quickly replaced the rivets to secure the boom block, and reattached the support legs of the wind generator’s support legs.
Fixing the broken davit pole proved more complicated, so he went to Damex to get a tool and backup support from Edgar, who would complete the davit work the following day, as Otto was going on vacation when he clocked out.
When they had done as much as they could, Tanja asked if Otto could drop us off at El Morro. As the crow flies, the fort is quite close, but the road twists and turns for miles around the water’s edge, going up and down numerous hills. We greatly appreciated the lift.
The fort provided magnificent views of the surrounding sea and mountains, and Tanja and I were glad to have had the opportunity to roam its ramparts. We walked most of the way home to the boat, hopping in a publico for the last uphill stretch.
The next morning Edgar was back to verify the fit of a foot for the davit he’d carved from a chunk of nickel. After confirming that it was good he went back to Damex to weld it to the base plate they’d removed from the boat. By midafternoon, the job was completed and installed. Total charges from Damex were $80 CUC, a fraction of what we would have paid in the U.S.
Allan, Tanja, and I heaved sighs of relief, and took a cab to town for a bit of sightseeing and some Cuban food before departing the island.
People were moving about Santiago, but all major cultural activities had been cancelled or postponed due to the coronavirus.
Tanja bought a lovely fan from a small shop, and we followed the artisan’s recommendation to go to Restaurante San Francisco, a few blocks away.
Our early dinner of two grilled lobster tails, a shrimp entree, bottled waters and a beer totaled $35 CUC. We enjoyed the meal on a breezy, rooftop terrace, in the empty-but-for-one-other-table restaurant.
We also enjoyed a classical guitarist’s music on our way back to Plaza Cespedes, where we’d heard we could catch a taxi.
Searching in vain for a cab line, we heard a friendly man pop up with what’s become a familiar refrain in whatever port Allan and I are in: “Hey, I saw you at the marina!” With his help, we were soon on the roll in a vintage, turquoise fin-tailed cab.
Our final day in Santiago was devoted to passage cooking, passage prep and clearing out.
Seeking shelter from high winds and steep seas, we sailed in Cuba’s lee until we reached Guantanamo’s six mile box. That was the start of a salty sail that didn’t abate until we cleared the Windward Passage about 24 hours later.
What, you might wonder, is a salty sail? One in which waves and sea spray coat you and the cockpit time and time again. A salty sail makes one appreciate calmer days at sea and Vinyasa’s hot showers all the more.
We had one such day on Wednesday as we traversed the Great Bahama Bank west of Andros. Allan and Tanja put up our spinnaker, and I doused it for the first time!
The calm, turquoise waters on the Great Bahama Bank were beautiful, with a couple of dolphins lifting our spirits in the early afternoon. Standing watch every four hours is so much easier in calm conditions. So is eating! I lost my appetite during our three day passage to Jamaica, and again on the first three days of our longer passage to Florida.
All in all, we couldn’t have asked for better training conditions. We gained confidence in Vinyasa’s ability to handle high seas, and built our seamanship skills under Tanja’s watchful eye. Her teaching style emphasizes empowerment, which means she provides concise instruction and then steps back – ready to step in at a second’s notice – while we figure things out and build muscle memory.
For me, that included pushing through some fearful tears to hand steer with Tanja by my side in high seas. My paralyzing fear diminished day by day, as I spent more time practicing knots, increased my speed handling lines, learned to trim sails, and spent more time hand steering at the helm.
I’m typing while we are anchored for a few hours on the Great Bahama Bank, waiting for a better weather window to cross the 124 nautical miles from South Riding Rock to West Palm Beach. This last leg of our passage should take 24 hours or maybe less, and after being mostly disconnected from news and social media for the past two weeks, we are looking forward to catching up with family and friends.
Wishing all good health and loving comfort.