Happy New Year! We had a lovely start to the year with all four boats having drinks and nibbles on Makani (after the Skipper’s meeting) followed by dinner ashore at a little waterfront restaurant where they served delicious BBQ meats with salad. The town itself was really quiet after dinner so we all went back to Harmonie to await the New Year. Come the moment critique we had a glass of champagne to hand and watched a fabulous firework display on the shore – all the more surprising as we were told there would be no fireworks because of fire damage in previous years. We then made our New Year wishes with mince pie, brandy butter and marzipan surprises before returning to OR to catch a bit of sleep before weighing anchor for Cuba.
It’s great that once again we are starting the New Year with an adventure. In 2016 it was the Suzie Too Rally from Curacao to Belize and for 2017 the Rainbow Rally Belize to Cuba. We are sailing in company with Makani (Claudio and Janine), Harmonie (Dennis and Edith) and Telefine (Enrico, Birgit, Sannna – 13yr old daughter and Arena, the dog) so we are a mixed bag of nationalities and languages. English is the common language but our conversations are a ‘rainbow’ mix. It’s fun to be using our German and French on a daily basis – but it’s not doing our Spanish much good!
We set sail on January 1st from Cay Caulker heading for the San Pedro pass through the reef. It was a great sail to the pass then we motor sailed through the reef which was reminiscent of our exit from Turneffe Island last year. Really big waves that lifted the boat up only to drop her down so that her bow was firmly buried beneath the water. We had much more depth beneath the keel but it was still ‘nervous making’. Having cleared the reef we set sail for Cuba. The catamarans had decided that they would head up the coast for Mexico and motor sail across the Yucatan Strait (180nm of motoring) but the monohulls (Telefine and OR) set off on a direct line for Cuba. The winds weren’t kind to start the trip – where was the easterly that had been forecast?! – so it was hard work. We soon lost sight of each other and it was only in the evening when we all checked in on our mini-net that we realised we were on our own, Telefine had misunderstood a conversation we had with Harmonie and thought we had changed our minds and were heading for Mexico so they altered course. OR was now the only boat pressing hard against the wind and heading for Cuba.
We had two days of hard sailing with two very nasty squalls but then a day of respite when there was no wind at all and we just drifted in the ocean. Very peaceful and a chance to swim and marvel at the colour of the water … and the miles of water beneath us!!! The wind came back for the evening so we were able to gently sail towards our destination. We finally dropped our hook off Punta La Majagua on Thursday at lunchtime to wait for the others to catch up. They had an easier trip with an overnight stop at Cozumel and another one at Isla Mujeres but then they had to motor across to Cuba – not an option we would have enjoyed at all – but it would have been nice to stop off for a quick peek at the Mexican islands.
We were all reunited on Friday morning with coffee and biscuits onboard OR. The social meeting very rapidly turned into a skipper’s meeting as we all exchanged weather information. Andrew had been doing an excellent job of sending updates to us via our satphone which, when combined with the others’ information resulted in a rapid decision to move to a more protected anchorage for the predicted blow. Ensenada de los Barcos was the only location near us that the guide book said would provide protection from all directions. We had a lovely sail there, anchored and dug ourselves in ready for the storm. The winds duly arrived with 40knots being recorded at one stage. The waters became quite bumpy and very muddy – no swimming! – but we were all safe on our boats. Puddle remained very firmly stowed down below out of harm’s way. It made the night much easier not having to worry about the dinghy turning upside down etc. Except for one afternoon when we all played Mexican Train Dominoes on Makani, our socialising was limited to radio contact with the other boats – we whiled away the time doing boat jobs, reading, sewing and playing cards!! Sounds a bit like a holiday in UK!!
Finally there was a bit of a break in the unremitting 25+ knots and we took it ….. We’ve had some wonderful sailing but oh my goodness the nights have been something else! We made it to Nueva Gerona and anchored in the shelter of the quarry and were preparing to go ashore when we were contacted by the Port Captain who said we were not allowed ashore until we had checked in and we couldn’t check in there so we should sail on to Cayo Lago! Hmmmm, not what our guide book had indicated and, had we known, we would have made our way to Cayo Lago in the first place! To add insult to injury, during the night we were hit by bullets of wind which pulled our anchor out so we then had a really exciting time in crazy conditions trying to reset it. An hour later, and frozen, we had a cuppa to warm up then repaired to bed having reset our anchor alarm, thankfully we stayed put for the rest of the night. Our next stop was Punta del Novio where some local fishermen came to sell lobster and crab. For a 250ml bottle of rum they were happy to part with 4 lobster! We had no room for more fish – oh to have a freezer – so we hope we meet more kind fishermen along our way. The anchorage was lovely, bathed in the light of an astonishing full moon, and the waters were calm, even though the winds howled, we slept really well.
The next morning we set off early to go through the Canal de la Cruz with Makani in the lead to check the depth. The guide book said the bar at the entrance was 1.9m and the satellite pictures indicated a clear channel so plenty of water for us but it’s always good to have the information confirmed. Unfortunately, our sense of well being was rudely shattered when both the monohulls stopped moving! We were both firmly stuck in the mud. The catamarans came to the rescue but both, in the process of manoeuvring themselves, touched bottom so we now think the channel has silted up and is no longer navigable for draughts greater than 1.30m. As far as Ocean Rainbow’s concerned, she has lost a little antifouling on her keel, but otherwise escaped unscathed. We had some difficulty getting a line on board Harmonie because the deeper water was on the windward side and our throwing power wasn’t great enough to land the line whilst allowing Harmonie to stay clear of OR. Assistance was provided by Enrico – once Telefine had been rescued – who launched his dinghy and took our line to Harmonie. Then it was ‘plain sailing’ as we were pulled into deeper water and could once again take charge of OR. A bit of a drama for the start of an otherwise wonderful day’s sailing. Our anchorage that night at Cayo Tablones was lovely and calm and we slept well again …. but not until we had fixed another small problem on OR!!
We were searching for some cable to lend Harmonie (they have a blockage in their heads) when we found a locker in the starboard stern cabin had a significant puddle of water in it. Further investigation revealed a pinprick hole in the seam of the waterlock (provides a water siphon to the engine exhaust). The waterlock isn’t under pressure so we’re not sure when the hole appeared but it is now fixed with marine sealant and looks good for the time being. Another item to add to our ever growing shopping list when we reach civilisation again! Harmonie, sadly, are still struggling with their heads problem so James has volunteered his services as he feels he is eminently qualified for the job of unblocking pipes after his successes on OR!
And so we continue towards Cayo Lago but not before stopping off in Cayo Rosario. We spent an extra day there as the weather calmed down and we were able to go off snorkelling. We have been spoilt with our snorkelling in Belize and the San Blas islands but it was good to be in the water again and see some brightly coloured fish.
We shouldn’t really have lingered on a day when the winds were calm as we ended up making the final leg of our passage to Cayo Lago in really tough conditions, the seas mounted up and the wind howled as we sailed hard on the wind. Ocean Rainbow deals with all the conditions like the true professional she is! Eventually, with time running out and after 6 hours of battling the waves, we re-entered the reef protected waters and had to turn on the engine and motor the last 10nm through the narrow channels to the wonderfully protected anchorage just outside the marina at Cayo Lago. We are now waiting to complete all the formalities …. so far we’ve had – and passed – inspections from the doctor, the sniffer dog and the agricultural ministry, we await customs and immigration who are currently fully occupied on a cruise ship!!
18th January – 23rd January
We finished all the formalities by 4.30. It was strange to have so many layers of officialdom actually on board the boat and even stranger to have to show an inspector my rice (checking for weevils), my tins (not sure he was too impressed with some of my expiry dates!), asking about fruit, eggs, dairy goods, fresh meat. We also had to sign a piece of paper saying we didn’t have any ants! We seem to have got rid of our ants from Guatemala (thanks to s/y Arkouda who gave us some effective ant eradicating stuff from the States) but we don’t think George the Gekko has jumped ship yet. Luckily he didn’t put in an appearance while we had officials on board. In fact we haven’t seen him for a while so hope he’s rugged up somewhere eating mosquitoes and keeping our boat bug free! He was in the anchor locker but that’s been pretty wet of late with all the waves breaking over the bow so we suspect he’s found somewhere more comfortable.
So, once we were free to move we went to the fuel dock and refilled the tank. Not much fuel used but we Iike to keep the tank full – rather more expensive than we’ve been used to though at £1.20 a litre. Then back out to the anchorage. What a beautiful location. Icing sugar sand, turquoise blue sea and pine trees on the islands rather than mangroves. There are, of course, mangroves too but it’s lovely to have pine trees as well. Our first official night in Cuba and we slept like logs.
Unfortunately bad weather was again predicted so our stay in Cayo Lago was destined to be short. We spent Thursday exploring the islands. The beaches have bright white sand and, despite the fact that Cayo Lago is obviously a tourist destination, it was possible find one’s own spot of unspoilt beach to set up camp – should you so wish. There were some small brown jelly fish in the water which rather spoilt the idyll but we were ashore to stretch our legs and walk, so it didn’t matter. We went ashore on iguana island where the numerous – and really quite large – iguanas have turned the sand into something resembling a fortress with lots of tunnels, turrets and ramparts – or so it appeared to us. And, for the geographers reading this, the strata was fascinating with layers of whole shells covered by sun baked sand followed by more shells. That evening we had everyone on board for sundowners to say goodbye. It was a somewhat raucous occasion! We have had a really lovely time sailing with the FABS Rally. It’ll be strange sailing on our own again and we’ll definitely miss the friendly international banter, the technical expertise and the lobster and octopus donations but it’s time to brush up on our Spanish and become independent again.
We set sail at midday and had a lovely overnight sail to Cienfuegos. We were even able to sail into the anchorage as the wind was from the south. We set our anchor at the first try and put out 55m of chain in 3m of water having driven back on our anchor at 1500revs to make sure it was well dug in. Mind you, we did that in Nuevo Gerona and we still managed to break free so we didn’t make any assumptions that our anchor would hold in the approaching storm and set the anchor alarm. James went ashore to check in, find some shops and internet. We are really hooked on Cuban white bread! It’s very light and fluffy and just disappears at the rate of knots! It’s probably not very good for us but it tastes delicious especially after the plastic bread we have been buying. (I know, we should be making our own, but life is too short and gas for the oven too difficult to find to squander it on bread making!)
We went ashore on Sunday (after a few squalls had come through and the wind dropped) with the bikes, cameras and sturdy shoes. Unfortunately our Bromptons are not enjoying the heat. It wasn’t long before a spoke snapped on James’ bike and shortly afterwards two went on Claire’s. We have followed all the advice from Brompton and still the spokes snap. So frustrating as it takes ages to repair as the gear train has to be disassembled. James is getting quite proficient at it but even so it’s a real chore. We did, however, manage a great tour of Cienfuegos to get a feel for the city.
We went to the Parque José Marti and saw the Gloriana, Thomas Terry Theatre (there’s a story there somewhere but not one we know yet!), the administrative buildings with museum, a magnificent pair of lions and the Cathedral (in a state of repair) before setting off to find the municipal market. We managed to change some CUK (tourist pesos) for local currency pesos bought bananas, limes and oranges. Compared with Guatemala the market was very poor indeed, reminiscent of Santa Marta, Columbia but worse. However it is food and we shall enjoy it.
Then we went off to the bus station to find the price of a bus ride to Havana. £20 each for a 4 hour trip in an ancient bus – we might be taking a taxi!! After that we found the baseball stadium, watched a local softball match at a municipal park, cycled past the football stadium and made our way to the Hotel Jaguar to do Internet (no luck with Skype despite using a VPN so no Emily and Rory fix for the doting grandparents – have to confess we are missing them!) and then home to spend the rest of the day mending the bikes!! We had a lovely surprise when we got back to the marina to find Telefine in the anchorage. They’d left Cayo Lago early to beat the bad weather.
On Sunday night the wind ramped up quite a few knots giving us a disturbed night as boats around us dragged their anchors. OR held firm …… until coffee break on Monday! Claire saw 45knots on the wind instrument as we struggled to hold our dinghy down and then the anchor alarm went off. We were moving but then so was everyone else – so much for the “good holding” reputation of Cienfuegos! It was the next best thing to mayhem. Enrico said the winds hit 65 knots at the worst point so it isn’t surprising everyone moved! Luckily there was only a short burst of rain so we didn’t have to cope with poor visibility as well as mounting waves and a boat that had turned into a bucking bronco as we manoeuvred OR into clear water. The squall passed through and we were left to sort ourselves out. We are once again firmly anchored, have set the anchor alarm and just hope that the grib files are accurate and the weather will calm down.
Another thing that fascinates us – transport. It comes in many shapes and forms – all of which we tried …. well, perhaps not the bike and sidecar!
And so continues our Cuban adventure!
24th – 28th January
James managed to negotiate a berth for us in the marina, taking the slot of a yacht that is out on charter for a week. Very lucky as other yachts (including Telefine) are moving on to Trinidad so that they can leave their boats in a much more secure anchorage than Cienfuegos. We tied up OR in her temporary berth and left the marina at 10am in a communal taxi (CUK20 each) for the 4 hour trip to Havana. The six lane highways – with pedestrians crossing at will – were virtually empty so we made good progress with our driver avoiding most of the potholes. We passed through miles of scrubland with cattle interspersed with oranges, sugar cane and beans. The soil looked really good but no idea where the produce goes as there is precious little available to buy in the markets! We had thought we would be able to buy a greater variety of fruit and vegetables while in Havana but, despite searching high and low, we were unable to find anything other than the usual carrots, cabbage, green peppers, beetroot and cucumber. Nor could we find apples, although one of the most widely available jams is apple jam. As an observation, there is more variety in the flowers available on the market stalls than in the fruit and vegetables! And, while on the subject of availability in Cuba, fresh milk doesn’t appear in the shops. It’s powdered, tinned or longlife whole milk. The shops have very little on the shelves and when something special has come into the shop there is a serious queue of people outside. Bags are checked going into the shops and coming out where the receipt is inspected and checked off against the goods in the bag. It is so reminiscent of our visits to East Berlin before the wall came down. Shop windows filled with goods but the shelves in the shop empty.
Once in Havana we had the challenge of the one way streets. Thank goodness for “maps.me” and the map of Cuba that we had downloaded in Guatemala when we had good wifi! It was extremely accurate and we were able to find our ‘Casa particulare’ without our driver taking too many wrong turns. Then we found we were not actually going to be staying at Casa Caty but at Casa Miranda which was even closer to Plaza Vieja! All for the same price but we had to keep quiet and not tell the other guests the price we’d negotiated!! CUK30 for the first night and CUK25 for the next two. With breakfast at CUK5 each we paid the equivalent of £110 for three nights B&B for a double room with en suite. We had thought that staying in a hotel might have the advantage of easier internet but, as it turned out, nowhere had easy internet and it was also extremely expensive at CUK5 an hour so we didn’t log on during our stay in Havana and were very happy with our accommodation.
What did we do and where did we go?! We walked miles getting our bearings, popping our heads into museums, churches, hotels, banks, an old pharmacy, restaurants, bars, tiny shops, supermarkets (with so little on the shelves) vegetable markets, meat markets and taking photos of statues, parks and people. We went on a bicycle taxi tour of the old town just to make sure we hadn’t missed anything , we took the Hop on Hop off bus to the Plaza de la Revolucion with its huge statue to Jose Marti and the images of Castro and Che, visited the Cementaria de Colon (well we only peaked our heads in as we thought CUK5 each was a bit more than we wanted to pay to see a bunch of tombstones of people we’d never heard of!), then off down the Avenue of the Americas with all the ‘Heads of States’ statues to Miramar with the National Aquarium (very small and shabby) to the 5star Panoramic Hotel which was right next door to two very shabby 3star hotels.
The beach wasn’t up to much either so we reckoned the guests would be using the indoor facilities and then catching taxis into the centre of the city. The area is being refurbished so was a mix of rundown and renovated. We went to forts and castles (which were very impressive), took the ferry across to Casablanca climbed the steep slope up to the Christ of Havana and then visited the Fort of San Carlos de la Cabana. We did actually go into a museum!! The Museum de la Revolucion where we sorted out our dates and the various events that come under the banner of the 29th July including Castro’s incarceration on Isla de Juventud, the assault on Santiago de Cuba and the Bay of Pigs. We managed to get into the Camera Obscura – despite being told it was shut due to lack of staff – and were given a very interesting potted history of the city.
Everywhere there is much evidence of the Spanish influence. 1868-1878 was Antonio Maceo’s rebellion; 1895 it was José Marti who inspired the rebellion (killed in the first 3 weeks!) then America stepped in with huge influence on the economy. The beautiful old buildings started to fall into disrepair. In the 1930s Cuba was led by Batista who was followed by Grau then Prio then back to Batista again. By this time the people were ready for a change and in stepped Fidel Castro. 26th July 1953 he and some friends attacked the police barracks in Santiago de Cuba. They failed and were imprisoned on Isla de la Juventud but released in 1955. Regrouping in Mexico, Castro inspired the assault on Cuba (arriving aboard the ‘Granma’ now on display in the Museum de la Revolucion) and the events (all under the banner of 26th July) leading up to 8th January 1959’s triumphal entry into Havana. Some of the old buildings have been restored and look wonderful but there is also evidence of so much poverty with buildings that would have been condemned in Europe still being used as family homes. Havana is one of the most amazing cities we have ever visited.
There is a huge artisans market – near the cruise ship dock – where every conceivable souvenir can be found. The most popular souvenirs are wooden items, paintings, bead jewellery and hats! Bargaining can be very effective if you declare you’re English, not American and if you shop early in the day when there aren’t so many people around to hear your negotiations and demand the same rates. It’s a mystery but Cuba must be exporting all their best cigars. The official shops didn’t seem to have very much stock at all and very little choice if you wanted to buy a box of cigars. We know nothing about cigars so we had hoped to improve our knowledge at one of the ‘museums’ but they were really only shops and we needed to be in the tobacco growing region of Cuba (Pinar del Rio) to get the full briefing! We did manage to find our way to a couple of cooperative shops …. shop being a rather loose term for the cloak and dagger approach to a doorway leading up some stairs into a dark corridor that opened out into a private living room where several boxes of cigars were on display. The prices seemed daft but maybe the sensation of smoking a Cohiba is worth it!
We had heard some fairly dire tales about the food in Cuba with very little choice and everything tasting very similar. To date we have enjoyed everything we have eaten with the best local meal being Ropa Vieja which is shredded lamb or beef or pork in a tomato, onion and green pepper sauce. We ate breakfast at Casa Miranda which set us up for the day. A large plate of fruit, another large plate with sausage, omelette, carrots and tomatoes, 2 bread rolls each, a small plate with cheese, butter, guave jelly and some apple jam, large pit of coffee and another of hot milk and a glass of juice. We found the most wonderful little shop selling mini pizzas on our first day. We also bought peanut cake and a delicious peanut fudge bar. Sooooo delicious. Then we couldn’t find it again which drove James nuts so we did spend a lot of time just checking streets in case we stumbled upon it again!! We didn’t – the only disappointment of our visit!!!
Perhaps 3 days is a little too short to do Havana justice but we think we managed a little bit of everything. Salsa and mojitos; museums and ancient buildings; markets and parks; churches and forts …… we loved every minute. Our taxi ride back to Cienfuegos went off without a hitch and OR was there, safe and sound, to welcome us home.
29th – 31st January
On the move again. Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba beckon, the weather looks good so we bought some bread, filled up with water, did some laundry and tried to check out of Cienfuegos. The authorities went to know exactly where you are sailing and annotate the boat’s ‘despacio’ accordingly. They also check that you have paid your anchoring fees …. yes, we have to pay to anchor even if, on going ashore, the showers aren’t working and the loos don’t flush! Actually, we were lucky on one occasion and managed to get a fresh water shower and James found a source of fresh water that was not linked to the marina and seemed to flow freely at the turn of a tap! Back to check out … for some reason the authorities got it into their heads that we were going to Jamaica not Trinidad, the town a mere day’s sail away. As a result we were very lucky not to have our visas cancelled which would have meant another £150 to get them reissued!! We had hoped to pick up the despacio before leaving the marina pontoon and going back out to anchor prior to an early morning departure. That was not to be. However we were promised that the despacio would be brought to the boat at 9.30pm! Not a chance but we did have a visit from Immigration complete with laptop and all ready to do the paperwork at 10pm! We were all tucked up in bed! This is when we discovered the Trinidad/Jamaica error. All too difficult for the official who took himself back to his office saying he would be back. And, good as his word, he did come back with a colleague but still filed to issue our despacio. We would have to go ashore in the morning and sort things out. Very boring as the meant we’d lost our early start. Suffice to say, we got our despacio eventually and left Cienfuegos for the lagoon at Casilda and our visit to Trinidad. A great sail it was too so the frustrations of officialdom were soon forgotten.
Arriving in Casilda we found the entry a little ‘skinny’ to say the least. We touched bottom 3 times despite following the guide book. It would appear that the entry has silted up considerably and it is highly advisable to only enter and exit at high tide. Tony, from Argosea, came out to us in his dinghy to lend moral support as we made our way into the anchorage. His dinghy has a very large engine so he could conceivably have pulled us off the bottom had the need arisen. Once inside the lagoon it took no time to anchor and sort ourselves out and, just as we were about to leave for supper on board Argosea, we were visited by immigration. What a bonus, no need to go ashore and queue in the morning instead we could just get on with the sightseeing. We had a lovely curry with Anne and Tony, agreed to be ready to leave for Trinidad at 9am and returned to Ocean Rainbow after a very full day! Actually, all the fetching and carrying was done by Argosea as we had collapsed Puddle and stowed her down below for the passage on open water.
So to Trinidad. It wasn’t quite what we had expected. After Cienfuegos and Havana we had expected a larger town, especially as it is a UNESCO heritage site. First settled in 1514 by we had expected a lot of history and museums, instead we found a small section of the town that had been restored and looked very pretty with cobbled streets, souvenir shops, restaurants, Cathedral, and Museo de la Lucha contra Bandidos (Museum of the fight against bandits) surrounded by very dusty, run down streets and homes. The view from the top of the bell tower was lovely with the Escambray mountains in the background and the red tiled roofs below but we definitely only needed half a day to visit.
So, back to Ocean Rainbow for an early night ready for the trip to Santiago …. and the beginning of another month!