Thursday, June 30, 2016

Making it Home - June 28, 2016

Making it home (after 2 months in Mexico and Cuba)

This post captures the last legs of our current (June 2016) journey which has taken us from Pensacola to Isla Mujeres (Yucatan, Mexico); then south down the Yucatan; back to Isla; across to Cuba; then returning home along the Florida west coast.  Since we have now done these final legs a couple of times and written about them in previous posts, I will try to keep this short and sweet.

Apalachicola to Port St. Joe

We had a great time spending a couple of nights in Apalachicola with friends from PYC on the "PAC III" (Pensacola to Apalachicola Cruise III).  We hung out with great friends Chuck and Peg from S/V Point of Sail and many others - Special thanks to Scott for again pulling this trip together.  It was great to catch up with fellow members of PYC on our way home!  We docked at the marina at Water Street and visited some favorite haunts, including Tamara's and Papa Joe's.
Shrimper in the Apalachicola River
Apalach is just a special place for me for many reasons - I just love it there: the food, people and tranquility of this little town is just very special.

Since daughter Helen was tagging us by car, we had a vehicle, so we took the opportunity to ferry the crew and friends to the Indian Pass Raw Bar for the best seafood and oysters.  Although I must admit that on this occasion, the oysters at Papa Joe's were just as good!

Cape San Blas Lighthouse, now at PSJ

As stated, one of the many reasons why I love the area around Apalach and Port St. Joe is the locals.  Many of the locals in our favorite bar (the Haughty Heron) remembered us from our extended stay in 2015.  This is of course always nice to catch up with good friends from previous trips - this time, including Karen and Tom who now have opened a fresh seafood and coffee business in PSJ.

And did I mention we ate at Provisions Restaurant - Helen's favorite?  Yes, it is now easy to remember why we got stuck here (locally known as Florida's Forgotten Coast) in 2015.  And it would be so easy to get stuck here again - probably the reason why we just had to move on after 2 nights!

Osprey  nest on the Apalachicola River 
We love to make the motor-cruise up the Apalachicola River from Apalach to PSJ.  I  know that comment is a bit out of sequence, but I need to mention it in the event that anyone reading this is thinking of heading in that direction.  I highly recommend not going on the outside of Cape San Blas for two reasons: (i) the San Blas Shoals make it a long trip to get out of the shoaling shallow water; and (ii) the trip up the Apalach River is a mini-amazon adventure that is just beautiful.  Trip time at about 6.5 kts is around 4 hours from Apalach to PSJ (via river and Gulf Canal).  The depth is a clear 8 ft min, and air draft is 64.5 ft (lowest bridge being the Apalach Bridge).  You just never know what you will see en-route: alligators, manatee, hawks, eagles, and if you miss those, then there's the refreshingly natural scenery and typically low traffic on this Cyprus-lined trip.

Port St. Joe to St. Andrew's (Panama City)

Sunset over Port St. Joe Marina
A wind-free motor boat trip unfortunately - but hey, it beats storms!  After filling up with diesel in PSJ Marina (which by the way is an excellent gem of a marina), we motored the 6 hours to St. Andrews, dropping anchor in Massalina Bayou - actually rafting up and using Chuck's anchor to be precise.  Entering the bayou requires a draw-bridge opening.  This has to be one of the least-used draw-bridges in Florida.   The bayou is nestled back in an older residential area and is protected on all sides. I am sure it is a very popular spot in a storm, but during our stay it was very quiet and peaceful.

We ate on the boat as nobody had the motivation to drop the dinghy........and there was food that needed eating up.

The following morning we set out for home - the last leg.

St Andrews (Massalina Bayou) to Perdido Bay

The last leg of this trip....hard to believe!  Was it a relief to be getting back or sad to be at the end of a trip?  I thought I would try to capture this thought before it fades.  Actually it seemed neither - perhaps some mixed emotions fueled largely by the positive emotion that it was a return to being able to catch up with great friends, family, "Salty", and being fortunate to have such a wonderful place to call "home"; but there is also a certain sadness that a great journey is coming to an end and a return to some degree of work/corporate life.  Maybe it is a successful trip when the two balance?  I don't know - but for those of you that can relate to what I am trying to express, well I now think I know, and have at least slightly experienced the feeling that Bernard Moitessier must have had back in 1968. If you are not familiar with Moitessier's story, its worth a moment to look it up.  Moitessier's was a famous sailor who became notorious after the Golden Globe Race of 1968.  He completed a circumnavigation in record time, but abandoned the race without crossing the finish line.  He sailed on for another three months.  Now please don't think that I am in any way comparing this trip to his accomplishment - I am certainly not, but when we crossed Big Lagoon at around 8 pm, I remembered his story and  commented that I understood how he must have felt.  It would have been very easy to simply continue onward

Back to reality - the wind was light and was annoyingly 20-30 degrees off our nose, meaning it would be a long slow sail.or a motor-sailing plod.  We elected for the latter as storms were forecast for the following several days and there was a one-day window to make it home.  S/V Point of Sail was following us and we maintained visual and radio contact throughout the day.  Brian was sailing with Chuck and Peg, so we knew we would have to do a crew transfer once we were in Pensacola Pass.

We made that transfer underway right at sunset.  Point of Sail headed east into Pensacola Bay and Bayou Chico, and we continued west to Perdido Bay.  We fumbled our way in the dark into the narrow canal entrance and were greeted by neighbors who helped tie us up.  We were off the boat by 10 pm.  The trip was complete.  Below is a summary of our route.  According to our DeLorme (one of the best inventions since sliced bread), our total trip distance was 2,057.46 miles.
Our Route
S/V Midnight Sun II
Mexico/Cuba 2016

S/V Midnight Sun II
Copyright - Hannah Graham Photography

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Starting The Return Home

It was time for us to start the return trip home.  We are now into Hurricane season and have already seen a couple of named storms, including Colin that formed essentially over us, disrupting our planned crossing to Cuba.  Not only that, but there is that four letter word starting with "W" - but it does pay the bills!

Our return trip took us from Veradero to Key West, with a night in the party town - then on to Marco Island, Tarpon Springs, cross the Big Bend to Apalachicola (which is where I am while starting to write this).  So I will cover those legs pretty briefly in this post.  PS note - finished this blog in Apalachicola, (June 26).

Veradero to Key West

Approaching a Storm
Leaving Veradero we encountered our worst storm so far on this trip.  We always try to sail conservatively and avoid bad weather, but this one caught us.  Leaving the marina, we saw the storm, but it appeared as though it would pass ahead of us quickly.  We considered holding off on exiting the channel/bay just outside of the marina, but pressed on.  Interesting side comment/thought - I have learned that when you have such "gut thoughts", it is often good to listen to them.  This was certainly the case when we abandoned out first attempt at crossing to Cuba.  But this time we pressed on.  We motored (good decision), waiting for the storm to pass before putting up the sails.  As you may have guessed by now, the storm turned, chasing us and quickly we found ourselves in the middle of it all.  Using the radar to check on its extent - yes, we were well into the middle and it seemed to be traveling with us.  It was black behind, in front, and to the sides.  Lightening was increasingly frequent. 1-2-3-flash; 1-2, flash; 1-flash.  It was intense and nowhere to go.  The winds started to build - 20, 25, 30, 35 then gusts to 38.  We were motoring with bare poles, suddenly with a following sea we were doing 8.5 kts.  After about 2 hours, things subsided and a "notch" appeared ahead of us - this was visible on radar and as a clearer area of sky..  It was in our direction of travel, so we stayed with it.  The storm started to dissipate and veer off our course.  Another 30-45 minutes and we were back to clear skies. All was well.  Of course the cameras don't really come out that much in a storm, but we did get a couple of shots taken just before things really hit..

Our overnight crossing to Key West went pretty well from this point onwards.
Screen shot of AIS Display
 The most notable things were the strong current of the gulf stream at times, and the very heavy traffic in the Florida Straights.  Once again, thank goodness for AIS.  A screen shot of one of our heavier areas gives an idea of what we were up against.  At one point, I counted a stream of 7 freighters that we had to cross.  One-by-one, I pointed at their sterns to ensure they would cross ahead of us.  It took us several hours and took us about 5 miles off our course to ensure a safe transit across this busy shipping lane.

One freighter called us on the VHF to tell us he was stopping his engines and drifting as he had to wait for his port entry time.  He was slap bang in the middle of the shipping lane and right ahead of us.

Approaching Key West at Sunrise
We arrived in Key West the next morning to a beautiful sunrise.  We were in the slip at Conch Harbor Marina by around 9 am.  At nearly $200 per night - this was a one-night stay!  We relaxed by the pool and toured the town - except that me and the Admiral were suffering from a stomach upset.  We puzzled over what we had eaten different to the rest of the crew - the only thing we could put it down to was a frozen lemonade just before leaving Veradero.......maybe they used unfiltered ice? who knows, but we did miss out on the Key West nightlife in favor of Peptobizmol, ginger ale, and an early night!

Checking in to Key West - three of us had registered with the Small Vessel Reporting System (SRVS).  So we called the 800 number to check in.  I had also filed the voluntary float plan......but, two of us had renewed our passports since registering.  The Department of Homeland Security requires an in-person visit as there is no way to update your passport online, so we had to make the taxi-treck to the Key West airport.  I got a grilling over trash disposal..."what trash did you bring back, fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products?"...."we ate it all, our only trash is plastic drinking water bottles"...."what did you do with that?"........"disposed of it at the marina".....wrong answer - apparently ALL trash has to be disposed of in 3 mil black plastic bags and then disposed at an APHIS-approved facility (Key West Airport in this case).  Oh well, too late - the agent told me she would make a record of it in my SRVS registration, and gave me a copy of the regulations.  I also called the USCG as the instructions with the USCG permit to Enter Territorial Seas (CG330) said they "recommend we report in to inform them of our safe arrival".  The USCG seemed surprised at our call, and didn't even ask the name of the boat.  Oh well, we informed them!  Interesting that coming home was much more of a hassle than checking in to Mexico or Cuba - in both cases, the officials came to see us, were polite, friendly and courteous taking shoes off to board the boat.  In the US, we had to take taxis to see them, and got our wrists slapped!
While in Key West, we saw our name-sake,  "Midnight Sun".  We had heard them on the VHF, but unfortunately the owners were not on board.  We left them a boat card and a note, but have not heard from them.  What a nice looking classic boat!

Key West to Marco

Midnight Sun II at Marco Yacht Club
The next morning, we set sail for Marco Island.  on previous trips we had encountered constant crab traps, so although this was a long leg, I wanted to make the trip in daylight.  Having been in to Marco in the dark before, I was not too concerned about a nightfall arrival.  As it turned out, there were very few crab traps on the route - I am not sure why, but maybe there is a season.  Those that we did see could have been ones that were lost or not retrieved for some reason.  This leg was about 92 miles, and with some motor-sailing, we managed to make the inlet by 8 pm, just ahead of sunset.  Being members of Pensacola Yacht Club gives us privileges to use other GYA Yacht Clubs, including a free night of dockage.  We took advantage of this benefit, making use of the pool and laundry facilities before heading out on our next long leg of the voyage home.  This would be from Marco to Tarpon Springs, FL.

Marco to Tarpon Springs and other sources showed good conditions for a crossing - light winds, but not in the best direction.  So we decided to leave after spending the one night in Marco Island.  We swam in the morning and left in the afternoon, planning an overnight crossing for this 170 mile leg.  

Conditions were good overnight, although we did have to motor.  Throughout the night we heard messages from the USCG about a swimmer lost in the water off Charlotte Harbor entrance.  As we passed that area, we noticed helicopters searching the area.  We kept an eye open, but saw nothing of any help.  Apparently two young men had been out swimming and a jet ski had rescued one, throwing a lifejacket to the other.  But when he returned for the other, he could not be found.  I am not sure of the outcome to this story, but suspect it was not good.

We saw little traffic and conditions were pretty much as expected.  In the early morning hours, the wind became more favorable and we put out full sail and turned off the engine,  We spent several hours sailing making good progress.  As we approached Clearwater, conditions were deteriorating - counter to the forecast for decreasing winds. It was gusting to 25 kts (forecast 7), so we elected to take the Clearwater entrance and continue on up the Intracoastal Waterway.  The wind persisted all the way to the Anclote River entrance.  We called ahead to several mariinas, but didn't get much response.  Finally, the City Dock at Tarpon Sprigs called us back and had space.  We went up river several miles to the city centre and found our spot in the small city marina.  The dockmaster, Mike was very friendly and helpful.  The location was excellent being right on the riverfront area of the town.  It was time for the crew to take a breath from long legs, so we decided to stay 2 nights and savor the Greek food and culture of Tarpon Springs.

 If you have not visited Tarpon Springs, it is well worth a visit.  Although it is certainly "touristy", the Greek food is pretty  authentic, and the bakeries are a sight for a sweet tooth!

We celebrated Tanner's birthday at Dimitri's, and sampled a couple of the local bars.  The next night we ate at Hella's Restaurant and Bakery.  Both served excellent food and we really enjoyed our time here.  My daughter Helen came to visit us here with her dog Belle - so we had a boat full!

The next day, the boys departed for Apalachicola while the girls took the car.  This is perhaps our last real long leg of this trip before we get home.  It was another overnight crossing of about 170 miles.  We left in the early afternoon.

Tarpon to Apalachicola

After celebrating Tanner's birthday in Tarpon Springs, it was time to head off on our next long leg to cross the Big Bend.  Our planned route was from Tarpon Springs (exiting the Anclote River), to Dog Island, then up the inside of St. George island to Apalachicola.  This was an overnight crossing with a total distance of about 170 miles.

We left downtown Tarpon Springs in the early afternoon, filling up with diesel on our way out.  After exiting the river and getting into the gulf, winds were light and on our nose.  Typical!  motoring again.  Seas were at least very small (1-2 ft), so it was comfortable ride.  As the sun set we settled in for the night crossing.  This leg was just myself, Brian and Tanner, so we elected to have 2 in the cockpit and one sleeping with a 2 hour rotation. This worked pretty well, giving everyone time at the helm, relxing in the cockpit and some sleep.

We had two notable events during the night.  I had been watching another vessel ahead of us on the AIS.  It was about 10 miles ahead, but we were slowly closing in on it.  Hmm....perhaps another sailboat? 4.5 kts., pretty much the same course as us.  Then, I spotted a bright orange light in the sky - dead ahead of us.  I jumped forward to investigate, as did Tanner.  We saw it for about 5 seconds, then it rose upward quickly and disappeared.  Strange!

After a couple of moments, I decided to call the vessel ahead of us - maybe it was a flare?  I called them, but they had not set anything off, nor had they seen anything.  I asked if they were a sailing vessel.  "No, we are a tug boat with two barges on a one mile tow"....Crap - we were gaining on them and a one mile tow line at night is something to keep well clear of.  The wind clocked adn we could sail, but this barge was leeward and we didn't want to slide towards it or loose speed.  We elected to continue motoring and get past it.  Of course, with a 1-2 kt speed difference and several miles between us, this was a slow process - actually about 8 hours.  While I was sleeping, Tanner and Brian heard another vessel call in "3 flares spotted" at about the same position we had seen the orange glow.  After some grilling about what the other vessel had seen from the USCG, they offered up a possible explanation of "military activity".  Based on past research of charts, its my understanding that the Big Bend is often used as a "fall-out" area for NASA launches from Cape Canaveral.  I have not seen anything published for a launch at the time we saw this - but who knows....UFO?

Monday, June 20, 2016

Touring Havana, Cuba - 1957 Chevy Bel Air

Our Tour Driver Alex and his 1958 Chevy Bel Air

What's the best way to tour Havana - in Alex's 1958 Chevy Bel Air of course!  So why not give our driver/tour guide and entrepreneur a plug.  He's one of Cuba's new generation of private business owners.  Alex is a former English teacher who decided to start his own business using the Chevy that has been in his family for three generations now.  He told us that under Raul's new regime, he is now allowed to open his own business as a taxi/tour operator but is subject to very high taxes - but still, this beats his incredibly low salary as an English teacher in the Cuban school system.

Here's a shameless plug - if you visit Havana or Veradero and want a great tour, contact our new friend!
Sr. Alex Rodriguez. Cell +53 5281-3523  email:

Alex took us on a great tour of old Havana, leaving the marina at Veradero at 8:30am, it was about a 2-hour drive to Havana in his 1957 Chevy.  Alex told us he was very fortunate as the car has been in his family for 3 generations.  There is no open market for cars in Cuba - no car dealerships.  The only way new cars get in to Cuba is if the government buys them (for government use or for rental cars), or if foreign diplomat bring them.  Private sales of cars is allowed (or if not, happens under the table).  This explains why there are so many old cars in Cuba.  "So is the car original Alex?".....well not exactly, yes - the body is original, its powered by a 4 cyl. toyota diesel engine, has Toyota brakes and even an aftermarket air conditioner (that works except when the car is climbing a steep hill).  The inside was immaculate, but clearly has been re-upholstered.  Alex told us that he can pretty much buy anything for the car with sufficient cash.  He could sell the car in Cuba for $45-50k - so when Cuba opens up more, don't think there's a market for going over and buying a cheap old Chevy, as the Cubans will probably be in the USA buying ours!

Our first stop was to a roadside restaurant overlooking a river.  I don't remember the name of this other than it is locally knows as "mother-in-law bridge".  The bridge was apparently American and UK designed.

 Here we had the best Pina Colada, while enjoying the view of the river gorge - then onward to Havana.

In Havana, we had the opportunity to visit old Havana, Revolutionary Square, and of course the Floridita - one of Hemingway's favorite  bars.  Here we enjoyed a daiquari, while listening to the local band, Los Hermanos.  I bought a CD, with permission to use it on my video of the trip.  Maybe I will be able to upload this to YouTube....usually they kick me out because of my use of copyrighted music.....Ok, that's just a pet peeve of mine.

We ate at a very good restaurant  - food better than my definition of "Cuban-good!".  The name was La Guarida.  Located upstairs in an old ornate building, and they had definately adopted the Hooter's hiring policy!  I have photos somewhere.....but not immediately at hand!  Maybe I will come back and add them at a later date.

Daiquari at Floridita
Below are a few photos of our tour.  During the day, we had plenty of time to chat to our driver/tour guide Alex.  This gave us a great insight into Cuban life, tradition, politics etc.  Alex seemed to have had a pretty unique life experience.  He had spent some time living and working in Finland doing construction work.  During this time he had saved his money, then returned to Cuba, using his savings to buy land, build a nice home, and start his taxi/tour business.  He seems to represent the "new Cuba", but hopes that change will be slow.  He still values some of the Cuban benefits, including free healthcare, very low crime rate, no guns, near zero drugs.
Carriage Rides

A Car Show every day - just visit the square!

Home of the Cuban Ballet

Plaza de la Revolucion - Revolution Square
Our Motley Crew - return to Veradero 
Ok, the next post will be about sailing again.  Our next leg is from Veradero to Key West.  Coming Soon!

Our Time in Cuba (Los Morros to Veradero)

Sorry to those that like short and sweet posts - this one is a long one!  We have just returned from Cuba and I did not have wifi in Cuba.  I was writing my posts and keeping it as a word file until I could upload it.  We are now in Tarpon Springs, FL and I just had a brief opportunity to upload.  So I have an hour or so to read over what I wrote, do a little editing, add photos and post this.  If you are reading this today (June 20), I am still a few days behind, but working on catching up!

Last drinks in the Soggy Pesso, Isla Mujeres

June 8-9

We left our slip at Isla Mujeres at around 12:30 pm to head out for Cuba.  This was our second attempt as we had turned back several days previously when the weather deteriorated.  At the time, we were not aware that this was the prelude to Tropical Storm Colin, which essentially formed close to over us on the Yucatan Peninsula (see previous post).  Thankfully Colin left without any marked impression on us or Isla, and very quickly transited – thankfully, and headed north up the east coast as it dissipated.  We did hear that it dumped a lot of rain on Cuba with ome pretty strong winds - so again, thankful we turned back on our first attempt.

Second attempt – this one looked better!  We left with forecast winds of 7 kts out of the SW.  We saw 7-15 and more out of the SE, but it was not a major issue.  We headed directly from Isla to Los Morros.  One of the guide books recommended motoring south to a point of Cozumel, then picking up the gulf stream.  I am not sure that would have been a better strategy – although the gulf stream made us crab to maintain our course, and it did at times give us a considerable kick forward (2-3 kts on average.).  We had a fairly smooth crossing but had to motor most of the way with the main up as we did not have a good enough wind direction to sail.  We also wanted to make this crossing in the minimum time – so a few gallons of diesel were not that important.  Although I don’t have data to support it, I get the feeling that “optimum conditions” for this crossing are rare, and typically one of the key factors is missing (i.e., light to moderate winds, wind not against current, low chance of storms, moderate wave height).  Based on my short-term observations, the west end of Cuba just seems to get slammed by anything coming up the gulf stream (winds, waves, storms etc.).

Our night crossing went well without any real issues other than high traffic in the Yucatan Channel – particularly on the east side, about 30 or so miles off Cuba.  At one point, we had 6 or more commercial ships within 10 miles or so of us, based on the AIS.  We elected to call two ships on the VHS to make sure they were aware of our position.  Both were very polite, one adjusted course to avoid us, and we adjusted for the other to ensure that we passed with at least 2 miles clearance.  At night, with rolling waves 2 miles looks real close, and a vigilant watch is essential.  We did find that the AIS lost contact on occasion – I am not sure if this is a function of my antenna location and height, the position of the antennae on the ships/boats, or a combination.  I suspect it’s a combination.  So while the AIS is a fantastic tool that I would not be without, I cannot stress the importance of a vigilant watch.

Arrival in Los Morros
We timed our arrival pretty well.  In the early hours of the morning we sported a flashing light.  Our waypoint was for the middle of the inshore traffic separation zone, and Brian thought this was a marker.  It turned out to an on-shore lighthouse Cabo de San Antonio – on the west tip of Cuba.  We turned north to avoid reefs and shoals before making our entry.  Daylight came at the right time and we were able to visually see the straightforward entry to Los Morros.  As a post-script note, we were using iNavX with Navionics charts as our primary navigation and the charts were very close to our actual observations on depths etc.

Los Morros was pretty much as anticipated, except that the topography in this area was very flat, with arid vegetation and mangroves.  Los Morros is a “forgotten little place”.  A dilapidated concrete dock, and sparse to very sparse facilities.  that's probably being polite!

It was flat calm so we tied up at the dock.  In anything but flat conditions, I would definitely anchor as there were various bits of rusted chain, rebar, and fittings protruding from the dock.  The official Guarda Fronterra arrived within 5 minutes and started the check-in procedure.  The dockmaster introduced himself and explained that he was dockmaster, chef, mechanic, hotelier, currency exchange etc. - a real nice, friendly guy.

The check-in procedure was straightforward and similar (but less automated) to what we had experienced in Hemingway in November.  First, a visit from the doctor, then the Guarda Fronterra took passports, then the agriculture and sanitation inspectors with their dog.  Some questions about our produce – where did we get it (Mexico was OK, but not the US), we were asked to show receipts for recent provisions, which fortunately we had kept.  without the receipts, I suspect we may have had to turn over a few items. 

They took a quick look in the top of the fridge, asked a few questions, gave us forms to sign, and we were done.  The whole process was about an hour.  We then had to go see the dockmaster to pay for visas and get our passports back.  Interestingly, the Visa fee has gone up since November – which we were told about in Isla.  As of June 2016, the fees were $80 US per person for the visa and $55 US for the boat cruising permit.  We were offered visas for $40 US in Isla, but there was some question about whether they would be accepted.  We elected not to chance it and to buy locally.

Payments were made to the dockmaster and our passports were returned.  Since he was also the chef, we asked about breakfast……….but they had not had water for some time, so no food.  Beer for breakfast – they had Bucanero and Crystal.  I asked for a Bucanero…..the dockmaster suggested Crystal, because the other was old and out of date!  I guess he was saving it for obnoxious guests!  which he told us he got on occasion.  

He was a really nice guy and very helpful  Between his English and  our collective small amount of Spanish we were able to communicate quite well.  His name is Clauver Luis Cruz, and he told us he works 7 days on and 7 off.  When on duty he is on 24 hours/day and at the end of his 7 days, he travels 120 km to his family by bus.
Pier at Los Morros

After clearance, we had a quick breakfast.  Before we left, the dockmaster arrived with a bucket and asked if we could spare a gallon of water.  We gave him that and a baseball cap – which he really seemed to appreciate.  We exchanged email and phone numbers before leaving.  Apparently he has to go to town to get email – one of 3 locations in the entire Province.

We set sail, generally north-east in search of an anchorage for the night.  We decided upon Caya Zapata or Ensenada de San Francisco. We made the anchorage by about 6:30pm, just before sunset and in time for us to anchor in daylight.
Anchored at Cayo Zapata


Cayo Zapata - nothing but Mangroves!....and bugs!

We were back in the mangroves – a beautiful spot with nobody around.  We took a dinghy ride to explore a little but then decided it was “bug:30” and we needed to get back before sundown.  We cooked fresh tuna – Patrick’s catch on the grill and had rice and vegetables with it.  As the sun set, thee bugs arrived.  A quick pack-up and get inside to avoid being eaten alive.  Other than the bugs, it was a superb anchorage, with good holding in the marl/mud/sand.  We slept well, other than the heat.  We opened up the hatches with screens, but airflow was not great.

June 10-11

The next morning we set sail for our next destination.  We had decided to visit Cayo Levisa.  A small Cay on the reef just off the mainland that has a Cuban-run resort and anchorage.  A day sail got us there.  With light winds, it was a combination of sailing and motor-sailing.  Winds were light, but we did run into a rain storm towards the end of this leg.  It was short-lived – maybe 15 minutes, but hopefully enough to get some salt off the decks.

Midnight sun II at anchor - Cayo Levisa
We arrived in the anchorage.  We had bought a Cuba cruising Guide from an English couple we met in Isla.  Thank goodness we did as the information on the way in and the location of the anchorage was invaluable.  The electronic charts were definitely off by a few hundred feet.  We got into less than 5 ft of water, but somehow didn’t ground……….but we did stir up some mud (we are 4 ft. 11 in draft).  The first attempt at anchoring was unsuccessful - the hook was just not catching.  With some hand signals from the onshore local mariners, we got to a better spot (the charts showed 3 ft), and the anchor caught good.  We were set for the night, anchored in 10-12 ft of water.

When we went ashore, we were told we needed to check in with the Guarda Fronterra, but since it was late, our crew was allowed to use the resort facilities and we could check in the following morning…We checked out the amazing beach, partook in the buffet dinner (not bad – and cheap at 10 CUC each ($10.15).  Then we sat and watched an amazing lightening display
Patrick, Tanner, Brian and Neil - beach at Caya Levisa
over the Straights of Florida.  We were thankful that we were not out there in it!.  We met a real nice couple at the bar – Paula and Germaine.  Paula was on assignment in Havana at the Swiss embassy.  Her husband Germaine was a “computer guy”, but told us he was not permitted to work while in Cuba.  They had escaped from Havana for a long weekend to Cayo Levisa, because it was so layed back and non-touristy.  We agreed – it was certainly that.  The food was OK, the bar was cheap, staff friendly, and the sea and beach were excellent.  And it was really cheap – no cost to anchor and use the facilities, with cheap bar prices.  Food in Cuba – well, its not gourmet, its borderline fresh, and generally served with not much flair.  At least that had been our experience so far.

Beach - looking SW

Beach walk (NE end)
The next day was a day of relaxation.  Patrick, Brian and Tanner went on a snorkeling excursion, while we decided on a beach day.   We explored along the beach to the NE of the resort area walking a couple of miles.  At the end of the beach was a deserted beach with a few beach chairs and an abandoned beach bar.  I am not sure if this was an area of the resort that had been lost in a storm or if it was simply dis-used.  I suspect that a storm had claimed it at some point and it had not been re-built.  Either way, it made for a “Robinson Caruso” moment.  We spent the remainder of the day relaxing, swimming in the ocean, then cooking our Mexican burgers on the boat’s grill (not the best burgers!)

Abandoned Beach Bar - NE end Cayo Levisa

The following morning we made ready to leave, headed for Marina Hemmingway, just west of Havana.  First we had to check out with the Guarda Frontera who had promised to be here on the 8 am ferry.  It actually arrived at about 8:30am, but he was onboard, as promised. 

Check-out seemed a confused process.  The Guard was trying to communicate something to us about a couple of anchorages between us and Hemingway.  He seemed to think we would not make it to Hemingway before dark and at one point he said Hemingway was closed.  Hmm, what did he mean.  This was a bit worrying.  He would not hand over our papers until he made us understand - in a very nice and polite way.  He was not for letting up on the conversation, until the ferry started to leave - honking his horn at us as the captain knew the Guard wanted to be on it.

Then suddenly, our papers were found, signed and returned to us with a handshake and a smile. Tanner's first dinghy captain experience was to transfer the Guard from our boat to the moving ferry. He did a fine job!

Ocean meets Sky NE end Cayo Levisa
While we were on the dock at Levisa, the dive boat operator had a conversation with us, offering to be our “practica” – we figured out this was a pilot.  He said the coral was tricky, and offered to pilot us for 50 CUC.  I had read the guide book and it said the pass to the NE was pretty straightforward except care was needed in crossing the reef.  Since it was a flat calm day with good visibility, I declined his offer.  We made the passage out without difficulty, staying in 15 ft. or more of water.  I think we did see a couple of 8 ft. spots but only very briefly.  We saw a couple of coral heads but they were at depth, for the most part, the bottom was sandy or grass. The water was like glass and merged with the horizon.  I don't think photos do it justice, but we did try taking a few to capture this rare moment at sea.

So it was off to Hemingway!  Our conversation with the Guarda had left is with a couple of doubts – could Hemingway be closed?  What were our options if it was?  The anchorages that the Guarda mentioned were not that great according to the guide book and one was a military area – but he said we could anchor only to sleep there.  The northern coast of Cuba has no real shelter once you get close to Hemingway.  When we got within about 25 miles, we tried Hemingway Marina on the VHF, but no answer.  We had cell service only on the boat phone (which has an “One-Sim” card for international use), but there was no answer from the number we had for the marina.  After trying a couple of numbers that we had, we were given other numbers by whoever answered (maybe the bar) – none seemed to work or be answered by the dockmaster. 

Our friend Larry that was giving us land-based US support via deLorme, provide us with yet another number (obtained from Active Captain) – that was finally answered by the dockmaster.  “The marina is full until June 20 – a fishing tournament”……crap.  “Can we come in and stay one night, or at least get diesel?” …….”not possible, no…maybe you can come in tomorrow morning for diesel, call me in the morning”.  OK, now the Guarda’s attempt to tell us about this made sense.  Essentially, Hemingway was closed.

Decision time – now what?  We had passed the anchorages the Guarda mentioned and they didn’t sound that appealing anyway.  We passed Mariel  - really not an option, described as very industrialized, power plant, cement factory (with lots of dust fall-out), and no yacht been in there for over 12 years.  Interestingly, this was also a port where there was a mass exodus of Cubans in 1980 to the USA.

I floated two options to the crew – both involved sailing overnight: (i) turn north, make our crossing back to Key West (110 miles); or (ii) continue on to Veradero, Cuba (about 70 miles further along the coast from Hemingway).  It was unanimous – Veradero, we were not ready to give up on Cuba just yet.  We sailed past the entrance to Hemingway and could see masts in the marina, soon after, we were passing the coastline of Havana.  It is an extensive city, bigger than I had imagined before I had been here last November.  I would say it is akin to Miami in size.  We saw the skyline from a couple of miles offshore and were able to make out a number of areas and buildings, especially the Russian embassy, which stands out like a giant “transformer character”, looking out towards Key West.  To the east of Havana lies Havana harbor – there was a fair amount of traffic in this area and we were amazed at the oil or gas bur-off flares from the numerous refineries east of Havana.  We followed the coastline 2-5 miles offshore.  The coast east of Havana was pretty heavily populated in contrast to the coastline west of Havana.  We also saw a great number of small (12-15 ft) fishing boats – some with no lights, others with a handheld spotlight or flashlight.   At one point, just after sunset, we saw 3 objects in the water, 2-3 miles offshore. Swimmers?  No boat anywhere in sight, no markers, no buoyancy aids.  We later learned they were often brought out by the small boats and dropped off to dive for lobster – then they swim ashore with their catch.  Our understanding is that this is illegal in Cuba, as anything caught by the fishermen has to be sold in the government run market – this was “black-market” lobster fishing, either to sell or to feed the family.

June 13-15

We made Veradero at about 8:30 am and pulled in to Marina Darsena. Long story short, we had called to see if they had space and were told yes, but when we got there, we were told that “you have to stay at least 15 days”.  Not going to happen!  A pretty female Guarda Fronterra arrived and she spoke better English – although she was pre-occupied with her make-up getting wet in the rain shower.  She explained that this was a long-term marina only and we would have to go to Marina Gaviota (about 20 miles further) if we only wanted to stay a couple of days.  But we now had to check-in and out before we could leave!  This time it was a quick process – we were on our way in about 30 minutes.

Entrance to Marina Gaviota
Arriving at Marina Gaviota was interesting.  We called on VHF – yes, plenty of space.  On the way in down the long channel (canal de Buba) we saw a Cuban Navy boat moored to a channel marker blocking 2/3 of the channel.  We navigated around him carefully. 

Binoculars were on us, and one guy manned the machine gun in the bow.  Nice welcome!  As we passed within 100 ft., we smiled and waved, but no response – just the binoculars piercing us.  Well, they didn’t stop us, so we continued onwards.  We were within a couple of miles of the marina now, and they were hailing us on VHF – but they were not hearing our reply.  We had heard similar situation with a couple of other boats that were ahead of us – first they talked to the marina, then their transmissions were broken up.  I am convinced the Cuban Navy were blocking our transmission – we were in sight of the marina and they could not hear us.  We tried several VHFs, including handhelds – same thing.  A mile out and we got a visit from another Cuban Navy vessel.  He came along side us just off our stern and shadowed us for 10 minutes or so.  Again, binoculars were on us.  No communication, then he turned off and left.  A few minutes later, we were able to contact the marina, and were given approach instructions. 

Marina Gaviota by night
(note fleet of 20 80 ft Cats used for day excursions)
We made it in without issue and were directed to the check-in area to await a slip assignment.  We waited there for 1-2 hours with visits from the dockmaster and Guarda.  Eventually, we were given a slip assignment “over the other side of the marina, by the Condoms” [which turned out to be condominiums].  It was Med-style mooring.  Oh what a fun way to end the day!, but with little wind and plenty of space, it was not too much of an issue.  We were told that local by-laws required Med mooring……very strange in an almost empty marina with space for 1,200 boats (yes, that’s not a typo!).  Marina Gaviota is a top notch facility, opened just a couple of years ago.  Not only was the marina quiet, but so were the condoms!  We were ready for a swim, and the beautiful pool was very inviting after an overnight sail.

Med-style mooring, Marina Gaviota
The facilities were excellent, the staff very friendly, and the security was active and obvious. We were given day passes to use the facilities.  Other guests had wrist bands and if the security personnel spotted you without a wrist band, they politely asked what you were doing.  the resorts are "all-inclusive" - free drinks, meals etc., so that was the main reason for the security.  there is a collection of restaurants available around the marina - some are for the all-inclusive guests only, and others allow cash-paying guests.  We tried a couple of these and they were "Cuban good" - meaning good, but don't use a US-scale, eat local dishes (don't expect good steak) and expect things to be a bit different than the menu describes.

Swimming Pool - Marina Gaviota
We stayed in Veradero, Marina Gaviota for two nights.  On our second day, we made a trip to Havana (see next post).  Havana is a two-hour car drive from Veradero.........but interesting.  Stay tuned, I am still writing about it!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Sitting, Waiting in Isla Mujerees - June 5

Today is June 5, 2016 (10 am CST) and we are sitting in the marina in Isla Mujeres.  We are carefully monitoring the weather as a potential tropical depression or storm forms pretty much over us right now.  We have been monitoring activity with the help of friends in the US mainland for the past couple of days.  We really appreciate any information we can get - so special thanks to Larry and Sean for keeping us updated.  Locally, we are monitoring a few websites and finding windyty to be very helpful.  Below is a screenshot from just a few minutes ago.  This figure is showing surface wind strength and direction.

As you can see, we seem to be just east of the center of this Low pressure zone and fortunately, land effects seem to be buffering us from the worst of the winds.  We are safely tied up in a marina that is very sheltered.  I think  we have a good spot as the Mexican Navy brought a couple of their rescue boats into the marina and tied up next to us last night - surely they know the good spots!....or maybe we should have renewed our visa???

Overnight, we saw squalls with winds around 20 kts and some pretty heavy rain.  This morning, winds are light to calm with showers on and off.  To me, this seems to confirm that the center of the Low is close to us, and based on the figure above, it looks to be over land and just West of us.  The worst of the winds also appear to be east of us, hitting the west end of Cuba - again, thankfully we did not go!  If the model projections are right, we are hoping the worst of this will be past us within 24 hours, and we will remain protected in our spot.  It then looks like it is going to turn NE over the gulf and head towards Tampa area, possibly becoming a tropical depression or storm ("Colin", if it becomes a named storm).

So - we are carefully monitoring things but we believe we are in a good safe spot.  Its looking like we will be here until Tuesday or I am sure we will find the bars we have missed to date and catch up on a few things.  The pool at the marina is open - as is the bar, and my tab!!

I will update the blog as things develop of change and our plans for the rest of the trip and return home start to shape up.  Right now, safety dictates that "schedule" is at the bottom of our list of priorities.

As a closing note - I just heard a couple of cruisers making plans to head to the "Soggy Peso" at noon - since this has become our favorite watering hole, its sounding like a good plan!

Friday, June 3, 2016

To Cuba or not to Cuba - that is the Question?

June 2, 2016
After a great sail north from Aventuras back to Isla, we were comfortably back in our spot in Isla Mujeres,  The staff at the marina are great, and know us on first name terms.  We know the local restaurants and bars that we like - life was good.  But it was time to continue on our trip to Cuba.

We had been watching the weather, and it looked like a window had opened up for decent conditions.  June 2 was showing winds from the ESE at 7-14 kts, lightening up for our approach if we left in the afternoon.  The gulf stream taking its predictably north veering NE path.  I had some concern about wind on current, but since the wind was about as light as it seems to get, and the direction had seemed pretty constant from the trades, my thinking was that this may be just as good as it gets.

We cast the lines off at about 4pm and left the dock, anticipating an arrival in Los Morros, Cuba the following morning.  We followed our track from the way in to get back out into the Yucatan channel.

Conditions were about as predicted, with the winds being on the upper end of the forecast.  As a general note, we have been looking at and have noticed that in this area, wind strength has been a little under-predicted.  We have started to notice some patterns regarding depth and the gulf stream effects in this area that seem to be consistent, as follows:

  • depth less than 65 ft - stream effects are small (little current, but still noticeable);
  • depth 65-100 ft - confused zone, choppy waves in a confused state, current strengthens, but could be in eddies (direction squirly);
  • depth 100-250 ft - seas still confused, but bigger waves (short period), stream strong; and
  • depth >250 ft - seas become more organized, bigger waves, full stream strength (we have definitely seen 3++ kts in this area)
Anyway, I digress and must stress that these are just my own observations.  We had got well beyond the 250 ft depth line and into the 1500-2000 ft area.  We were about 25-30 miles offshore.  The sun had set and we had reefed the main sail for safety.  

Not too many photos on this leg, but before it got too rough,
Patrick caught a couple of fish, including this Yellowfin 
The wind was on our nose - first 25-30 degrees off the starboard side,then it shifted to maybe 15-20 degrees of the port.  We were not really sailing, but using the main as a stabilizer.  At 1800 RPM, we were doing anything from 6 to 8.5 kts depending on where we pointed.  We tried bearing off a 10-20 degrees to see if that helped with the seascape.  Although we picked up speed, the ride was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.  The sea-sickness pills were passed around and most took one - some of the crew feeling queezy, others as a precaution.  

Our admiral resisted saying "someone has to stay awake".  We were now approaching about the 1/3 point of the open crossing, and I asked the crew the question that I had been mulling over, but resisting, "so, this is the time we make a decision - go, or turn back.  Does anyone have a strong opinion or preference?".  

At first, there was silence, then one by one, the crew said, "I don't mind either way" - the truth was more that nobody wanted to give the first opinion.  We talked about options - bearing off more north to see if the ride improved (we tried it and it didn't really change things).  Given the seascape (seas still confused, wind building, wave heights building), there were not too many options - push ahead and deal with a crappy night, or turn back - they were really the choices.  Considering the crew, the stresses on the boat, and remembering that a schedule can be the biggest yet least important driver, I made the decision to turn back.  Nobody complained, and yet I personally felt disappointed.  Did I read the forecast wrong?, was I over-optimistic? were we just being wimps? had things changed that much?....we have done 30 out of the 90 miles - would this just mean we have to do it again?  All of those thoughts go through your mind.

After making the 180 degree turn, we started to see thunderstorms light up the sky behind us.  Confirmation of a good decision I think.  We were now motor-sailing on a beam to broad reach - still being tossed about, but not as violently as we were surfing down waves rather than plowing into them.  We felt as if we were moving fast, but instruments showed: 2.5, 3.0, maybe 3.5 kts - we were seeing a good 3+ kts of gulf stream current against us.  My knot meter (which reads boat speed through the water) is somewhat unreliable as its been reading low by as much as 2 kts.....but it showed almost 6 kts, confirming the current dead against us.

We saw a cruise ship that we got within a couple of miles of.
A poor photo I am afraid - low light, camera instability, windy, rolling - yes , all of the above!  It was lit up like a Christmas tree.  I hailed the captain to be sure he knew we were out there, and confirmed a starboard to starboard pass was OK with him.  He thanked us for hailing him and for confirming our intentions.

As we approached Isla Mujeres, we knew we would have to cross the reef and find our way back to either the marina or the anchorage.  While I would usually not do that at night, holding off for daylight, I had two tracks on the electronic charts, so could follow back the breadcrumb trail I had previously left.  We made it in just fine, with close look-outs, and slow speed.  We got back to the slip we had previously left, and tied up - 1:30am, but we were safe.  The crew did a great job! - thanks everyone.   - A beer, leftover pizza, bed.

June 3 - we are tied up and strapped in  - just in case we get a strong blow.  Its been raining and gusting, but nothing too significant as yet.  Several other boats have come into the marina from the anchorage or have moved up the bayou seeking shelter.

We will see what the next couple of days bring!  We are watching the weather closely, monitoring reports of a "Gyre" forming in the area, and possible low pressure heading up from Belize to the Gulf, Currently shown as Invest 93L.

We just spoke to the customs agent - seems we have 48 hours to leave or pay the check-in fee again.  My guess is we are paying the fee!