Our Big Cuba Sailing Adventure
In May of 1998 Joanna, Jack and I crewed on our friend Tom's stoutly built 1978 Pearson 31 "Olde Thompson as an entrant in the 3rd annual Havana Cup 280 mile race from St. Petersburg, FL to Marina Hemingway's in Cuba. Not to worry, this was a fully hosted event(we didn't spend any US dollars), so we were OK to go as far as Uncle Sam was concerned. There are Cuba pictures taken during our trip under the Photo Album area as well.
There were over 100 sailboats, some race and others as cruise, that had entered the event with approximately 80 racers at the race start in St. Pete. The 3 day non-stop sail from St. Pete to Cuba was a fantastic experience. We split watch schedules into shifts, 2 hours on and two hours off. Offshore we saw loads of dolphins and a couple of huge sea turtle among other things. The only lumpy part of the sail down was across the Straights - the infamous Gulfstream. The forecast was for 15kts out of the east with the stream approximately 35 miles wide. Well, we didn't see below 20kts sustained with gusts to 25+kts. For those that are familiar with the Gulfstream, east is the worst direction to have the wind blowing. We had 12ft confused and cresting seas that we were surfing while doing 6kts with a double reefed main. Ever since that experience old Tampa Bay doesn't seem as intimidating now, even on those really nasty days.
Being well offshore as we were one would think that that commercial vessel traffic would be minimal. Let me tell you that we saw several huge commercial vessels. You had to keep a constant watch through the Straights. I guess it stands to reason that cruise ships and the likes that come from Mexico use this path and, depending on their direction, use the current in the stream to save fuel and speed their progress.
Since we were crossing the Straights during the night so we could end up at Hemingway's in daylight, we were able to see the glow of Havana on the horizon about 30 miles offshore. Let me tell you we were happy to see that glow. As it turned out, we shortly would be able to smell Havana's pollution several miles offshore as well(pinched nose).
Once we arrived at Marina Hemingway's and cleared Customs after several hours, we followed a guide boat to our mooring spot in one of the four canals in the Marina which is capable of handling over 300 boats. We were shocked to find that there were new hotels and a restaurant on the marina premises. As it tuned out, these were probably the newest buildings on the entire island. I should note that all the people we encountered during Customs clearing and at the marina were super friendly and polite, which is what I had always heard. Oh, I forgot to mention the Customs boat. You got to check it out under the Cuba photo area.
After a well deserved rest we decided to head in to Havana for some site seeing. Our first impression as we approach the city was that Havana must have been beautiful back in the 50s. The Spanish architecture was fabulous, but is being lost as the city is literally crumbling to the ground. You get first hand exposure to just how poor the Cuban people are. There are old Russian cars and trucks everywhere, polluting like crazy. Speaking of cars, there were lots of old America classic running around. Old Chevys, Studabakers, etc. A real working slice of American history. I don't know how they keep them running, but they do.
During our visit in Havana we decide to check out the El Moro Castle. This is the castle that guarded Havana Harbor and protected Havana. From the castle you can get a great view of Havana and Havana Harbor. The Harbor Master even let us look through the huge binoculars at the city at a landmark miles away(There are some photos in the photo album area taken from the castle). The castle was an interesting piece of Cuban history to visit.
Since we were part of a hosted event, we could only legally stay in Cuba for a few short days. We went to Havana one more time to check out the Revolution Square and some other sites, but before we knew it was time to sail back to the states. Our clearing out with Customs was almost as slow of a process as clearing in. We heard some stories from other participants of it taking 8-10 hours to get cleared. Someone even said they cooked a turkey while waiting, if you believe that. Luckily it was only a couple of hours for us.
Our sail back across the Straights was pleasant with moderate winds and then the wind completely dying out about 20 miles from Key West. We did have an interesting conversation with the captain of the cruising ship Xanado that was returning from Cancun while we were in the Gulfstream. He hailed us as "tiny sailing vessel off my starboard bow". Well, I guess compared to he massive cruise ship we were tiny. Anyway we had a pleasant conversation and he actually provided us with an up-to-date forecast and Gulfstream details. I think this was cruise ship that recent caught on fire on Miami a in 1998.
Anyway, just after sunrise we were heading in to the main shipping channel at Key West. We pulled in to the Galleon Marina to clear Customs. We decided to stay overnight to get some rest before our 2 day sail back up to St. Petersburg. The next morning we left Key West and after two full days of offshore sailing we were back at our home port.
I can honestly say that this adventure was a great experience, both from a sailing and adventure point of view. My wife and I have a lot of great memories as a result of this trip and built a closer bond with our friends. The only regret we have is that we didn't have enough time to see more of Cuba and its friendly people. A reason to certainly go back one day!