1st – 5th February
We checked out of Casilda at 8.30am but then we waited until high tide before leaving the lagoon. We did make good use of the time though – Claire consulted ‘Nurse’ Anne on Argosea to see what could be done about a troublesome cyst that had developed on her back. Anne had let slip at supper that she had been on an intensive medical course prior to crossing the Atlantic and had learnt how to stitch, insert a catheter and administer intravenous drugs amongst other skills. Her verdict – Ouch! Needs lancing! Double ouch as far as Claire was concerned but we are pleased to report that everything is looking good and Claire is pain free!
We are now travelling with Argosea, (Anne and Tony in their 47′ Moody) who are heading in the same direction as us, and have had to say goodbye to the FABS group as they stay to explore Cuba. We decided to drop an anchor on the first night of the trip. We were just off Cayo Machos de Fuera. A beautiful Cay with a lovely sandy beach but we couldn’t get very close to the beach because of the reef and anyway, it was quite late by the time we arrived. Argosea came over for a sundowner, we saw our first green flash for this sailing season and we enjoyed fish goujons from our first catch of the season. For Argosea it was their first ever green flash … an auspicious start to our travels!
The next day we set off at first light and had mixed winds and seas. We caught another young barracuda but the seas were so bumpy we put it in the fridge to enjoy in calmer conditions. Supper was Coq au vin – from a tin – served in dog bowls! It was during the wee small hours that Argosea overtook us (they started 2 hours after us) but we managed to stay in contact until Cabo Cruz, the southern tip of Cuba. It was on our fourth day that we lost the wind altogether and put the engine on. However, James noticed water in the little bilge trap and investigated to find that the repair to the Vetus water siphon was not holding. We tried Sikaflex this time – used marine weld last time – but although that has stopped the flow it is only a temporary fix, we need a new part! We waited 6 hours for the glue to harden before starting the engine again. An hour later the wind finally came back and we sailed.
5th – 6th February
We arrived at the mouth of the Bahia de Santiago channel at first light, with the sun just rising behind the magnificent Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro. As with Cienfuegos, the entry to the channel is quite narrow. One can only admire the courage of the pirates as they brought their ships past the Castillo under the very noses of the Spanish to attack and plunder Santiago. We made our way to Punta Gorda where we managed to complete formalities and anchor very quickly which meant we could join up with Argosea for a taxi ride into Santiago and a look around the city. The return trip in the taxi cost CUK20 so not a cheap ride into town if you’ve forgotten to buy some milk!
Santiago is Cienfuegos writ large. Our taxi driver had dropped us off at the covered fruit and veg market where we bought bananas but decided to return at the end of our sightseeing to pick up tomatoes, cucumber and pineapple. From the market it was only a couple of minutes walk into the centre.
The Catedral de Santiago de Cuba is magnificent from the outside but we were really cross to find that it was shut on a Sunday afternoon and so we shall have to resort to Google to see what it looks like on the inside! We had a great view of the square – Parque Céspedes – from the roof terrace of the Casa Grande Hotel. Well worth a visit and the wifi was working too!
We didn’t go into any of the museums, although the Museo de Historian Colonial would have been interesting, instead we wandered the streets eventually stopping in a very pleasant street cafe for a beer and sandwich. On looking more closely we found a sign on a tree in the background saying ‘Park reserved for tourists’ reminding us rather starkly of Cuba’s restrictive regime.
We then wandered back to the covered market to pick up our veg only to find that it had shut despite being assured that it was open until 4pm. However, all was not lost. An elderly man came to our rescue, ran across the street to a derelict building and the next thing we knew he was bringing back a sack with cucumbers and cabbage. After a little more discussion with the growing number of folk eager to help, two pineapples were produced. The prices were very reasonable and by the time we had paid our taxi driver had arrived so everything worked out very well.
On Monday we went to see the Castillo de San Pedro Del Morro. What a great little outing. First we caught the local ferry from just opposite where we’d anchored Ocean Rainbow so a great photo opportunity as we drove past her! Then a 10 minutes ferry ride to the landing for the castle before a fairly strenuous walk up steep a track to the entrance – well actually the back entrance as we discovered! We were met by two security guards, one of whom escorted us up the four levels of stairs to the main entrance where we duly paid CUK4 each. Then we wandered around the castle with all its halls, chambers and ramparts before going to the restaurant made famous by Paul McCartney’s visit!
Then we went to the souvenir stalls and divested ourselves of our last remaining Cuban currency – Tony got a bit carried away and even spent his ferry fare home! Luckily James’ ‘just in case’ CUK10 came to the rescue!!
Our ferry ride back was brilliant as we found ourselves being taken on a circular tour of Cay Granma, the island in the middle of the bay which we’d decided we wouldn’t have time to visit if we were to get our exit papers sorted out in good time for our departure in the morning.
Our actual departure from Santiago and Cuba was definitely memorable! After some negotiation with the Marina Manager and the Immigration official we were allowed to have our exit papers ‘zarpe’ at 5pm on the understanding that we would be leaving at first light the next day together with Argosea. Normally you have to leave within a couple of hours of collecting your zarpe. We then returned to Ocean Rainbow, packed Puddle away and stowed her below decks ready for a sea passage, had supper and went to bed early. At 9.30pm we were woken from a deep sleep by the constant sounding of a klaxon, we peered out of our cabin to find the local ferry virtually parked against our bow with a fairly irate immigration official on the front, gesticulating at us, wanting to know when were we leaving! A communication failure of the first order! James did his best to explain but the official was having none of it and asked for our papers. With great reluctance they were handed over but when the official, still clutching our papers, indicated to the ferry to move off (which, incidentally, he’d ‘hi-jacked’, having no boat of his own), a serious amount of sweet talking took place and James managed to get the papers back! Suffice to say, our agreement with the Marina Dockmaster and Immigration to leave Cuba at first light was rescinded and we had to weigh anchor there and then. As we motored out of the anchorage we were able to raise Argosea and tell them what had happened. They decided that, discretion being the better part of valour, they would follow us out.
7th – 12th February
This ended our sojourn in Cuba! And so to another sea passage as we make our way towards Puerto Rico. Our intention had been to get to Ile a Vache (Haiti) and spend one night there before heading on to the Dominican Republic (DR) for a stop at Isla Beata however the weather put paid to that. First we had no wind and then too much. We were fairly beaten up in the swell and waves as we sailed hard on the wind trying to make our way east (prevailing winds are from the east so we have to tack along the route and therefore end up travelling half the distance again). The trip took far longer than expected and we received a weather report that meant we really needed to be tucked up somewhere sheltered for the weekend so we changed our plans and sailed past Ile a Vache heading towards Barahona and a bay protected from the predicted north easterlies.
And, that’s where the plan took a fairly dramatic change of direction – literally. At 9.30pm, we were sailing through the cut between Isla Beata and Piedra Nedra (a substantial rock off the island) when we had an involuntary jibe. We couldn’t understand it as Humphrey Hydrovane was in charge and he very rarely lets us down. We tried to get back on course and found that we could turn the wheel but the boat wouldn’t respond. Now we were worried as Ocean Rainbow was moving at 2kts straight for the rocks and we were unable to stop her progress as, with the wind behind us, we couldn’t drop the mainsail. A powerful torch shone into the water revealed our problem. Heavy duty rope from a lobster pot was wrapped around the rudder and acting as a brake. There was nothing else for it, we had to cut ourselves free. With a rope tied around his waist and secured to a cleat on the boat, his trusty sailing knife suspended from his wrist, James went down the bathing platform ladder into the water. Holding the ladder with one hand he managed to grab the nylon rope with the other. He then held it between his legs which allowed him to use one hand to hold the knife and saw through the rope and the other to hang onto the ladder. The moment the rope gave way, Ocean Rainbow leapt forward at an alarming rate making James’ climb back on board seriously tough. Once he was back on board it was a very swift process to get Ocean Rainbow back on track. 30 minutes longer and we would have been on the rocks – a very narrow escape. Our reward for our endeavours, a sizeable chunk of flapjack!
We spent the rest of the night trying to make progress to Barahona but with the winds screaming past us at 35kts+ and the seas mounting up to heights we’d never seen before we decided it was time turn around. It’s a really horrid feeling to turn around and watch yourself go back over ground you have spent hours struggling to cover but it was the only sensible thing to do in the conditions. We needed to stop beating up the boat, get her sailing comfortably again and we needed some sleep. By 9.30am on Saturday we were in the lee of Isla Beata (having kept our eyes peeled for lobster pots and nets as we sailed between the island and Piedra Negra once again), we dropped our sails and went to start the engine. Nothing! Unbelievable, not even a splutter. James immediately went down below and switched the shunt to link all the batteries. We tried again and, somewhat reluctantly, Victor started. Phew! We anchored and then began the task of sorting out Ocean Rainbow. Salt spray gets everywhere and OR was looking decidedly grubby. While James cleared up outside, Claire set to inside wiping down everything. After two hours we were shattered and ready for lunch and a kip but we were happy, Ocean Rainbow had been transformed from bomb site back to home.
In case you’re thinking we’re being ostriches and ignoring our engine problem – we’re not! On Sunday morning, having checked the voltage on the battery (12.6) we tried starting the engine again. With a splutter and complaining just a little bit, Victor fired up without using the shunt. We’ve checked the starter motor for loose leads but nothing looks amiss and short of dismantling it and checking the brushes (which we are not doing while still in the wilds of nowhere!!) there’s nothing more we can do. We can’t be sure but we think that our power level was low the previous morning after our night at sea with the winds too high to run the wind generator and that the charge on our engine battery (which is 5 years old) had dropped too low to function. Our battery monitor only shows the overall level of charge – not ideal it would now appear.
However, back to run of the mill stuff! A fishing boat came up to us and offered snapper and lobsters. We bought the snapper (big enough for two meals) for a couple of beers and some biscuits. Seemed a good deal to us and the fishermen were happy so smiles all round! James went up the mast (in 20kt winds) to sort out the navigation lights – they’d been flickering on and off for a couple of nights so there was obviously a loose connection of some sort. All sorted now, we hope. We made a ‘tuning’ adjustment to the spinnaker pole release mechanism. We emptied lockers where we found damp patches – one caused by a leaking can, another by a leaking sachet of washing up liquid and the third by a loose pipe in the heads. And Claire had a ‘cook-in’ session in preparation for the next leg of the trip!! Other than that our two nights at anchor have been idyllic!!!
13th – 18th February
We set off at first light on Monday heading for Isla Saona. No dramas this time and the winds were fine so we were able to make good progress tacking along our run line. Life on passage takes on an easy routine with one of us on watch and the other sleeping or relaxing. In the afternoon, if its calm enough, we play a scrabble or backgammon and then it’s early supper so that the washing up is all done by dark and back to one asleep and the other on watch. It’s amazing how quickly the days go by. Just before leaving UK, we were given the Andrew Robson Social Bridge instruction book which we have had fun reading and trying to assimilate and practising with the help of a bridge app on Claire’s iPad. Not sure if we will be be any better when it comes to a real game, we shall have to see. Oh, and there’s sudoku. We are improving but we won’t be entering any competitions just yet!!
Isla Saona is a beautiful island that by day is overrun by tourists brought out to the island by catamarans, ferries and motor boats but at night it turns into an idyllic desert island with fabulous sandy beaches. You just have to ignore the million and one deck chairs lined up along the waters edge!! It was nice to stop for a night but there was a lot of swell so not a particularly comfortable night’s sleep. Argosea arrived in the anchorage just after us so we got together for a sundowner on OR and swapped stories. They had managed to stop off at Ile a Vache and Barahona!
Off we set again the next morning. With fickle winds we made such slow progress and failed to get to Ponce on the 17th as hoped, instead arriving in the morning on the 18th having motored during the night because the wind totally disappeared. Our total trip from Cuba has taken us 12 days to sail 870nm although 35 hours we had the engine on! Not our favourite pastime but sometimes it just isn’t worthwhile sitting and rolling around in the swell and towards the end of the trip the current was pushing us landward so drifting was not an option. We are now looking forward to fast internet, fast food … most notably chips!! …. and a fast laundry service! Hmmmm that’s always supposing we get checked in as we have now been waiting 7 hours confined to the boat tied to a pontoon in the marina!
19th – 26th February
Well it was a bit of a saga trying to book in but finally customs arrived on Sunday at 12.30 to release us. We had initially tied alongside the fuel dock in Ponce Yacht Club and reported in to Customs, then waited, and waited, and … we finally moved to a pontoon, having refuelled and waited some more. We didn’t leave the pontoon until finally at 5pm patience wore thin and we phoned customs and immigration and asked what we were supposed to do about food etc if we were confined to our boat. “Oh don’t worry, you can go ashore tonight, customs will be with you at 9.30 tomorrow.” Well, that was it. Off we went with Argosea to ‘Cat’s Meouw’ a 70′ catamaran for sundowners. An amazing boat and a really lovely evening thanks to the generosity of Don and LeVonne. Then we went to the ‘boardwalk’ in search of a little local food and entertainment. Not sure we found quite the best food emporium but it was a fun and memorable first evening in Puerto Rico.
On Sunday James had actually gone for a recce on his bike when customs turned up so there was a little bit of sweet talking needed but all was well and we were given our cruising permit ($19). Luckily we already had our US visa otherwise that would have cost more than $500 each!! Then it was on with the chores and admin until Tuesday when we had the share of a hire car with Argosea. We spent an afternoon doing the laundry (4 loads for us and 3 for Argosea) and the shopping. What a difference it makes having a car and being able to put everything in a boot and not on our backs!! On Wednesday we all went into Ponce, took a ‘trolley’ bus tour, wandered the streets, checked out the markets and climbed a mountain to the Vigia Cross… well it felt like a mountain!!
Ponce will remain in our memories as the place where the smell of McDonalds and KFC permeated the lovely Plaza de Bombas but we did enjoy the visit. We were somewhat surprised by the market areas as the majority of the booths were empty so they weren’t the bustling places we had expected but we did find someone to mend the punctures (note the plural) in Claire’s rear inner tube and we bought two spares. As we have Bromptons with imperial sizes we really hadn’t expected to be successful so it was a bonus. And, there was a sewing machine repair booth too – wonderful resource for yachties with ailing machines!
We decided to go and visit the Serralles Castle Museum and Vigia Cross while Anne and Tony had a leisurely lunch. They are staying in Puerto Rico for another month so their sightseeing is not as pressurised as ours! The Castle is a heavily restored mansion that didn’t look worth the $8 entry fee to hear all about the family who owned it and made their fortune making rum! We didn’t have time to go inside so we don’t know! Then it was onwards and upwards to the Vigia Cross which was built originally in 1801 as an observation tower and then rebuilt in 1985 in the form of a mast but, as the name suggests, it really does look more like a cross. The grounds are only open Thursday – Sunday (despite guide book saying Tuesday – Sunday) so we couldn’t get inside but again time was running out so we just admired view and took some photos.
The one place we didn’t get to see, and would have liked to, was the Ponce Museum of Art. This is slightly out of town, in terms of walking, and requires time to do it justice. Perhaps another time?
On Thursday we all went to San Juan – and so did the whole of Puerto Rico’s student population! We had no idea that all higher education students were gathering in San Juan to protest the government’s plan to sell off the universities to raise capital to pay off some of the national debt! Parking was a nightmare and nearly scuppered our plans but then we had the bright idea of going to the Catano side of the port and catching a ferry across to the old town. Brilliant plan and only $1 for TWO seniors return tickets!!! We did go and watch the students as they cheerfully and tunefully marched around the city – let’s hope they are successful in their campaign.
Old San Juan is characterised by its adoquines, or blue cobblestone pavers, which were made with iron furnace slag that, according to historians, was part of the ballast of Spain’s sugar-carrying-ships. They really are so pretty and make walking along cobbled streets a pleasure. We walked along the city wall as far as the San Juan Gate where we took off up the cobbles to Catedral de San Juan Bautista. From there we wandered the streets admiring all the colourful houses until we reached the Castillo San Felipe Del Morro. We’d lost quite a lot of potential sightseeing time trying to find parking so we decided not to go inside this fort – a shame but can’t do everything. Then we walked along the wall past the Cemeterio Santa Maria and along La Perla to Castillo de San Cristobal. This is a great castle that has been well restored and gives the history of San Juan. Interesting to read that such great illustrious sailors as Francis Drake, George Clifford and Ralph Abercromby failed in their attempts to seize the city. It really is ideally positioned and and was very well fortified!
From there we wandered the streets again, sticking our heads into churches and archways and even managed to stop for lunch at a great little bar-cum-eatery and then we really pigged out on amazing pastries from Mallorca, the best patisserie in Puerto Rico. Then it was time for the trip home. A really good day out, after a rather inauspicious start.
On Friday we had the car to ourselves and went off for a great ride through the subtropical rainforest to the River Camuy Caves in Puerto Rico’s northern karst region. We had a tour (half price – $9 – for seniors!!) into Cueva Clara which was wonderful. A very different kind of cave system to those we saw in Belize but still amazing to see what a little drop of water containing dissolved calcium bicarbonate can do over millions of years.
Then it was off for a touch of James Bond 007 stuff. A visit to the Arecibo Observatory set deep in the karst mountains. No need to dig out a crater to house the enormous satellite dish, just construct it between a ring of mountains! Ingenious. And then to the really clever bit, the radio telescope. Although this is no longer the largest radio telescope in the world (China took that title last year), it is still the most powerful as it can receive and send radio waves. To date, they have twice sent messages into outer space in search of life. So far, no response!! Thoroughly educated we set off on our trip back to Ocean Rainbow.
On Saturday we went in search of a waterfall and succeeded! Certainly not the biggest one we have ever seen but definitely one of the prettiest, we found Survivor Falls down a well hidden track in the Carite Forest. Not one official signpost to point the way and had it not been for maps.me we would never have found them. We had the place to ourselves and thoroughly enjoyed our scramble up the rocks to the top pool and the swim. A lovely place for a picnic. Then it was off again to see Salinas and the mangroves. A really tranquil place to take a yacht if one only had all the time in the world.
Oh dear, shouldn’t have put the last sentence …. we are now in Salinas sheltering from big winds and waves!! However, before we get to that, we went to the Ponce Carnival and had a lovely few hours watching the floats. Claire even bought her of a carnival t-shirt!
Then it was back to the marina and out to anchor in the bay before an early morning start to Vieques. Well, that’s what we had planned! The weather thought otherwise so we are now watching and airtight for our weather window tucked up in th mangroves at Salinas.