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Foreword:

It’s been a while since I’ve last posted here.  No problems, just a lot going on.  The day after returning to Key West after our Cuba trip we received a phone call from a friend of ours offering to buy our house…as is.  She knew we were returning to Texas to prepare our house for sale as soon as we returned from that trip and wanted to be a bit proactive.  She made an offer, we countered, she accepted, and we immediately started readying the boat for what ended up being the six weeks we were away.  Less than a week after our return from Cuba we were in a rental car for the 1356 mile drive back to League City.  We did it in two days…Key West to Tallahassee the first day, on to League City the second day.

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As we have/had a very nice home, complete with swimming pool and as our buyer was willing to buy the house as is and make the very few maintenance repairs it required herself, essentially we had six weeks to sort through all of our stuff deciding what we would keep and what we would discard before the closing.  And, then coordinate with the packers to pack everything else up and move into storage.  Since I had a major house cleaning in 2006 when I moved to Port Arthur, Texas for the Total project, the vast majority of personal sorting fell upon my husband and him getting his stuff together.  He worked hard on it and did a splendid job.  Nonetheless, we had a lot of stuff that needed packing.

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On moving day, ten men came the day of the pack out…it took them almost ten straight hours to pack everything up…it took two trucks for everything.  We spent the last night sleeping on our king size mattress and box springs…nothing else was left in the house, nothing.  The mattress was one of the few pieces of furniture we had decided to throw away.  We ordered pizza to be delivered and then retired to the pool for a cocktail.

At 8:30 the next morning we discarded the mattress to the curb, packed our bags in the rental, loaded up our two mollies and left for the closing…a few signatures later and we headed to our bank to deposit the checks from the sale of our automobiles…the house proceeds were electronic transfers.  Yep, my husband’s truck and my BMW Z4 were sold; we now own no house, nor any cars.  After the deposit, we were on the road to Biloxi, Mississippi.  We arrived well before dark.

At 4:30 the next morning we headed out for the 941 mile drive all the way back to Key West.  It was a brutal 16 hour drive, particularly once we hit Homestead and started down the Keys on a late Saturday afternoon.

It feels pretty good to have the house and cars sold and to now be full time live aboard cruisers. 

Our future plans?  Well, our daughter (my stepdaughter) is coming on September 4th for a week…we absolutely can’t wait to spend the week with her on the boat.  We are lining up a bottom job for Freedom for next week or the week after.  And, we will hang out here in Key West until the end of hurricane season or at least until the tropics calm down, mid-October to mid-November or so.

Then it’s on South into the Caribbean for the winter.

Wow…living and hanging in Key West for a few months.  There are way worse places to have to hang…like Texas.  And, way better places, as well.  But, we like it here in Key West.  Friendly people, beautiful crystal clear water, great weather, great food, good places to sail that are not too far away.  Just a cool place overall.

We struggle on…

The Trip to Cuba:

We arrived at Stock Island Marina Village   a full month before the rally, with seven boats, was set to depart on May 28th.  We like Key West a lot, enjoy scooting around on our rental scooters, which is really the only way to easily get around the island.  By the time the rally started we were firmly established in the marina and had cultivated a small but great group of friends.

Prior to our departure and at least a couple of weeks before the rally was to leave, we had researched the logistics of getting there and back with several of the locals who had made the trip numerous times over the previous couple of years…it seemed pretty straight forward.  As the week before departure came we began our weather worrying vigil.  By all of our means, the weather appeared to be shaping up to be perfect and as the day before departure came it firmed up nicely, even perfectly.

The afternoon before we were to leave, Justin Smith, the Marine Services Director for Harmony Yachts (they furnished several of the charter boats some were to be leaving on) dropped by our boat and indicated he was going to be leaving at 0400 on Saturday, May 28th, a full 15 hours before the rest of the flotilla and asked if we’d like to leave with him.  We immediately jumped on his invitation.  He was driving a Pearson 53, while we would be on our Tayana 52…we’d both have virtually identical hull speeds.

We never ever understood why the rally was leaving early evening at 1900 hours on May 28th, essentially wasting three quarters of a day sitting at the dock.  It just never made any sense to us.  Why on Earth would one want to sit around wasting the day, and then leaving at seven at night to cross the Gulf Stream?  It just never computed for us.  Though we were the only boat with just two on board, and even considering that the other five boats had at least three crew – one had as many as five dedicated crew – a one night overnighter is energy taxing.  Those who were to leave late would be fairly exhausted when they would arrive in Cuba the next morning.   Leaving at 0400 instead of 1900 hours meant that the sail across the Gulf Stream to Cuba would be, in some respects, just another day sail…and would put us at Marina Hemingway  before dark on the same day we left.  For the record, the sail over to Cuba, against the Gulf Stream, was estimated at fourteen to sixteen hours…the sail back, with the Gulf Stream current boost, was to be around twelve hours.  Leaving at 0400 instead of 1900 hours meant we’d be on approach to Marina Hemingway about the time the rest of the boats were just leaving Key West.  We were all in on the early departure.

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A couple of weeks before departure we’d moved the boat to the fuel dock and topped off our tanks…and the boat was way provisioned by the time we were to leave.  The plan was for Freedom and Jacaru (Justin’s yacht) to move to the fuel dock the afternoon before we left.  That would eliminate negotiating Stock Island Marina at night.  The marina fuel dock is lined up with the Safe Harbor Channel, meaning at departure we’d have a straight run out of the lighted channel when we left at 0400 in the morning, in the dark.  Easy peasy…cool beans.

On the afternoon of May 27th, the day before our departure, Chuck and I strolled over to the fuel dock and sat at the rail, waiting for the afternoon fishing boats to finish fueling up and for the dock to clear so we could move our boat over.  While standing around, we ran into Larry McCart, a Facebook friend of mine…we’d never met Larry but took an instant liking to him and his buddy Jim Mitchell.  As it turned out, we spent a fair amount of our time with the two of them while in Cuba…great guys to hang out with.  Larry was from Indiana and Jim lived in Michigan.  Just after meeting them it was time to move Freedom over to the fuel dock for our early morning departure, Larry came along to help with the lines.

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At 0400 hours sharp, Jacaru eased away from the dock, and not a minute later we slipped our lines and followed them out…not five minutes later one of the charter catamarans, Sea Dame, followed us…they had decided to leave early as well.  We set the engine at 1600 RPMs, unfurled the head sails, grabbed a huge cup of coffee, and we were off.

All went well, the three of us in line, with Sea Dame easing into the lead, then Jacaru, and then us.  Via radar we were spaced out about five nautical miles, neither of them had AIS.  The cat, predictably, eased over the horizon around noon and, due to a mainsail malfunction at almost the half way mark, sometime after lunch so did Jacaru.  Radar showed Jacaru to be about 10 miles ahead of us.  Our burp is easily spotted when reviewing our tracks on our Delorme tracker .

Upon getting the mainsail back in the bag, our chartplotter showed an ETA of well after midnight…totally unacceptable.  If we arrived at the sea buoy marking the Marina Hemingway entrance after dark we’d have to circle out in the Florida Straits all night for entering that particular channel at night was most definitely not recommended.  We upped the engine to 1850 RPMs and with me at the helm and constantly adjusting the headsails and course I milked every last drop of speed out of Freedom in a stupendous effort to get to the Hemingway Marina channel entrance sea buoy before the sun set.

As the afternoon progressed, our efforts seemed to pay off as the chartplotter ETA slowly but consistently dropped.  Finally, we hit the counter current that flows southwest about the time that the Havana skyline popped on the horizon some 15-20 miles out.  By the time we got within a few miles of the coast our ETA started dropping and our speed increased to over nine knots.  We spotted the sea buoy around 1930 hours and entered the Marina Hemingway channel at exactly 1951 hours.  That was just nine minutes shy of 16 hours of sailing.  I can’t tell you all how relieved we were to be able to get to the marina before dark and not having to circle until the next morning…though in hindsight, the entrance to the channel is highly overrated in the calm seas we had.  The channel is well lit, and in all probability, after we saw it from outside, we’d have probably run it…darkness or not.

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This was our first time clearing into a foreign country on our yacht and even though we’d read numerous accounts and talked to people about the procedure we were a bit stressed as to how things would go.  The worries were for naught.

By the time we pulled up to the Immigration and Customs dock it was around 2015 hours.  The dock had no other boats on it.  There were three dock hands standing by to handle our lines.  Docking was uneventful.  Almost immediately a female medical doctor and an Immigration and Customs agent were on hand and asked to board out boat, most politely.  Then, only momentarily, there was some confusion over who was the Captain of our boat, me or Chuck.  The confusion was because I was at the helm; I drive our boat almost exclusively and almost always dock it…though there is no rule on this, generally the Captain on the boat drives it.  That sorted out, the officials did their thing.  Tourist visas were filled out, Passports were produced, and, separately, both the doctor and customs official went below decks and performed a cursory walk through asking the errant questions now and again.  Both spoke pretty good English and were most courteous, polite, and patient.  Then the doctor took our temperature.  (As a side note, Cuba has some of the best medical care in the world.  In country, there are two types of medical assistance, one for the Cubans, and one for those that aren’t Cuban.  The care is the same, there are just special clinics for non-Cubans.  There is no charge for the medical services should one require them.)

Next, Chuck, as the Captain of our vessel, was required to walk into the customs building and have his photograph taken.  After, our passports were returned to us and we were finished clearing in…almost…we still had to drive the boat down to our slip and dock.  We were assigned dock space and told to “hurry up, the Dockmaster is waiting for you.”

As I drive the boat, I was a bit stressed at having to dock our boat as by the time we cleared in it was pitch black dark and the slips, located within one of the four canals that make up Marina Hemingway, were not lighted.  Having no choice, I cautiously eased Freedom down Canal C and on to slip 315…while Chuck stood on the port side rail with a light anxiously looking for our slip number.

Within a couple of hundred yards we spotted Jacaru just finishing their tie up, and in front of them was Sea Dame, safely moored to the dock.  All of the dock space at Marina Hemingway is “side tie”, not really a slip, per se.  I eased over and behind Jacaru to, again, three waiting dock hands who grabbed our lines.  This docking was also uneventful except for the fact it was well after dark.

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Once again, officials politely asked to board our boat.  This time it was the Cuban veterinarian official, the Cuban Agricultural official, and the dockmaster (not to be confused with the harbormaster.  The vet inspected our two cat’s vaccination paperwork, the agricultural guy inquired about the food we were bringing in.  And, the dockmaster had a bit more paperwork.

While the officials were below decks and in addition to the three dockhands on the dock, an electrician showed up to hook us up to shore power…they had modern marine shore power pedestals just like any other marina one might go to.

By 2130 hours, everyone was tipped and gone.  All of the officials, every single one of them, were as nice as could be, most polite.  We had no problems clearing in.  It took about an hour and a half to clear in from start to finish.

And, just like that…we’d sailed to Cuba.

I had a glass of wine, Chuck had a beer and we just sat in the cockpit with the cats taking everything in.  Our first foreign country we’d sailed to.  Pretty overwhelming once we thought about it.  The first of many countries we will visit on the boat…hopefully.

The next day, Sunday, May 29th, the rest of the group was to arrive…and they did.  However, it seemed a couple of boats had had a hell of a time with Cuban Customs.  You see, one just can’t go to Cuba for just anything…not because Cuba has a problem with it, but because the United States does.  Remember that CG3300 form I talked about a post or so back, the one that actually gives one permission to go to Cuba.  That is the Department of Homeland Securities Permission to Enter Cuban Territorial Waters form that gives one permission to go to Cuba.  Currently, there are twelve reasons one can go to Cuba legally:

  • Family visits.
  • Official government business.
  • Journalism
  • Professional research and meetings.
  • Educational activities.
  • Religious activities.
  • Public performances, clinics, workshops, exhibitions and athletic competitions.
  • Support for the Cuban people.
  • Humanitarian projects.
  • Activities of private foundations or research for educational institutes.
  • Exporting or importing information or “information materials.”
  • Travel related to some authorized export transactions.

In our case, the reason we gave in order to complete the CG3300 form was based on “Support for the Cuban People” above, specifically:  “Educational supplies in support of the Cuban people.”  That was how it was listed.  Just that simple one sentence. In order to do that we bought 12 spiral ring medium notebooks and 12 plastic rulers (centimeters and inches) from K-Mart before we left to pass out.  Most brought a little something along.  Some, however, brought a lot of stuff along.  We didn’t even declare our notepaper and rulers.

One friend we made, our buddy Larry, brought 20 baseballs and baseball bats, a few vinyl baseball gloves, and a handful of Frisbees.  After several hours of discussion with Cuban Customs he was finally allowed to keep the sports equipment and hand it out to the children.  Another boat, however, brought 500 baseballs and 500 baseball bats.  After hours of arguing with Customs, he was not allowed to bring in the equipment unless he paid $10 US for each and every bat and ball…the following Thursday night, in an attempt to essentially smuggle them off his boat he was busted a second time by Customs.  In the end, this boat ended up returning to the States with all of the balls and bats.

Though there are twelve official reasons an American can legally travel to Cuba, the bottom line is that almost any reason one wants to give, as long as the CG3300 is filled out, seems to be approved.

Sunday night, May 29th, there was a dinner held for all in the rally at the Hemingway Yacht Club .  The Commodore of the club welcomed us to Havana…it was pretty cool actually.  The food was superb.

On Monday, May 30th, we all went for a tour to the Havana Historic District, then lunch, and then a school for underprivileged, poverty stricken young children.

The historic district was just too much to take in during the short time we had to do it.  Havana and Cuba have so much history it’s mind boggling.  We saw so many historic stone buildings it was impossible to keep track of the importance of all of them.  Old Havana was somewhat like the New Orleans French Quarter on steroids.

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Tuesday was a down day for us to do anything we wanted to.  Friday through Monday were long days so we just hung around the marina, enjoying the pool, and eating.  Both meals and drinks are quite cheap in Cuba.

On Wednesday, June 1st, four of us, me, Chuck and the two friends we’d met on the trip, Larry McCart and Jim Mitchell, rented a tricked out ’55 Chevy and, along with another group of 10 who’d rented a small minivan and a guide, set off for Vinales Valley  located 150 miles or so southwest of Havana.  Vinales is a World Heritage Site   and was touted as a “don’t miss” by most we’d met.

It was a long drive but quite enlightening to get out of Havana and see the real Cuba.  On the way there we stopped and visited a tobacco farm…one that just so happened to have been chosen by Fidel to make his cigars during the revolution.  Note: We met no Cuban who referred to Fidel Castro as either “Castro” or “Fidel Castro”…they always referred to him as simply “Fidel.”  We bought two of the cigars Fidel was supposed to have preferred at this place. (We bought them for two friends we have back in Texas.  We managed to hook up with one of these guys to give him his cigar when we went back a few weeks ago, and contacted the other guy letting them know we had something for him…but he never called, we assumed he was either busy, or could care less for or about the gift…live and learn.)

Also on the trip to Vinales we had fresh Pina Colatas at the cliff murals…after they made the drink they set a bottle of their best Havana Club rum on the bar for everyone to add ever how much rum they might want.

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In Vinales we ate at a paladares, or privately owned restaurant and toured a somewhat hokey underwater cave in which one walked into, but rode a boat out of.

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The trip to Vinales was sobering.  The poverty was overwhelming.  It’s startling to see the primary mode of transportation in the Cuban countryside to be horses, either alone or pulling a small two wheel cart.

On Wednesday, we learned that Jacaru and all of the rest of the boats were leaving early the next morning, arriving back at Key West Thursday afternoon.  That seemed early to us, but that was what it was.  Unlike every other boat, we had permission via our CG3300 to stay a full nine days more so we didn’t sweat it as the other boats planned to depart…and, depart they did.  However, the Thursday morning they left we finally acquired internet service and, when we did, things weren’t looking so good weather wise.

On Thursday, our weather sites forecast a tropical storm for the following weekend and into the early part of the next weeks with a 90% chance of rain for four days in a row.  There was mention of 13’ seas and 45 knot winds in the Florida Straits. That storm ended up being TS Colin  that later dumped on Panama City, Florida.  We had a decision to make.

The weather was not forecast to start going downhill until Sunday morning.  So, if the weather was what it was forecast to be we had two more days, Friday, June 3rd and Saturday, June 4th of good weather…and possibly Sunday, June 5th, if things went well.  If the weather didn’t go as forecast, we’d have one more good day, Friday, June 3rd, before the weather started to deteriorate.  In both cases, after Sunday, June 5th, nothing but rain was forecast for Havana for the remaining week.  All things considered, we decided to bail early the following day, Friday, June 3rd, for the trip back.  Departure time was set for the very earliest we could safely extract ourselves from the marina…that ended up being 0545 hours.

By 0600 hours, we were approaching the Customs docks to check out of Cuba.  At exactly 0620 hours we entered the channel to leave the marina.  And, shortly after, we had course and sails set for the trip back across the straits to Key West.  It took us just one minute less than 12 hours for the return trip  (16 hours over, 12 hours back).  A little squally out in the straits but, otherwise, clear skies, good wind, meager seas.  A great sail.

We arrived at the Stock Island Marina Village fuel dock at 1819 hours and spent the night there before moving on into our slip the following morning.  Quarantine flag hoisted, the next day we rented our scooters and boogied to Immigration and Customs here at the Key West airport to check in.  That went fine…until we were asked if we had any fresh vegetables or meat on board.  We said we had no veggies aboard but did have almost an entire freezer full of meat.  That wasn’t the answer the officer needed to hear. 

The Customs officer, though extremely polite, informed us we would in all likelihood have to throw away all the meat, but that he would have the Customs Agricultural Officer meet us at our boat to make the decision.  He said to go back to the boat, continue to leave our quarantine flag up and wait.  We did.  An hour or so later, the inspector came.

When the agricultural officer came she was actually quite nice.  She looked all over the boat, though not in our drawers, asked a bunch of questions (Did we buy rum? YesDid we buy any cigars? Yes. etc.) and initially it didn’t seem as though she was going to even ask about the meat (the meat being the only thing we were sweating)…and, then she did ask.  We were honest, told her we had a whole freezer full of meat on board, and waited.  She opened the freezer, took perhaps half of the stuff out, and then declared everything as being OK as it was all sealed by the grocery stores we’d bought the meat from here in the states…she returned the things she’d removed from the freezer back.  She told us if we ever go back to another country and reenter the US with meat there will not be a problem at all if we just keep the receipt from the US supermarket we bought it from. 

This pleasant lady then told us she hoped we’d return to Cuba one day, told us we could now lower our quarantine flag, and bid us a good day.

We were back in the USSR…er…USA.  Easy peasy.

Thoughts:

We never, ever felt threatened…everyone was nice.  Hardly ever saw any police, and never saw any military where we went.

Needless to say, though we were disappointed that we didn’t or couldn’t stay longer, Cuba was a very fine place to visit.  Almost certainly we will go back as we head south this Fall.  But, the “Rally” part of the trip was a joke.  With that said, sailors in general are resilient and overall we’d give the trip a B+…had the weather not gone downhill, undoubtedly it would have been a solid A.

To this date I’m really not sure what we paid for.  We got a cruising guide that seemed next to being only slightly more useful than worthless.  We got a T-shirt.  We got a six hour or so tour of Havana.  We got one meal at the yacht club at the marina as a welcome.  And, we got the paperwork to legally go there.  But, if you break that down, it was in no way worth what we paid for it.  The tour of Havana was OK but way too hurried.  The best trip we had, to Vinales, was one that me, Chuck, Larry, and Jim put together on our own in a few minutes after we returned from the Havana tour; it was an all-day affair and only set us back fifty bucks each…not including lunch and the tip.

The Rally was put together by someone who claimed to have been to Cuba many times and probably has.  Yet he seemed way more absorbed with himself than actually chaperoning or offering any real assistance to anyone.  We met him once when while we were having lunch one day; he approached our table and joined Chuck and I.  It was the only time on the trip we ever saw him; he never came by the boat.

The travel agency that sponsored the trip was not much better.  There seemed to be little if any coordination between them and the gentleman who put the trip together.  The whole operation just seemed “seat of the pants” with the right hand not having a clue what the left was up to.  Justin Smith seemed to be the only one on the trip who had any real information; we very much appreciated his and Sher’s input on things.

Lastly, to be fair, maybe all sailing rallies are like this one…and we simply didn’t have the experience to recognize that beforehand.

We will most definitely go back to Cuba.  Having been to somewhere around fourteen foreign countries at this time, the Cubans were some of the nicest folks we’ve met and been around anywhere, bar none.  But, the next time we go it will be all on us.  In hindsight, we really wished we done it that way in the first place.

I’ve already posted pics on Facebook that others took on the trip and, honestly, they are essentially the same pics I took.  As time permits I’ll post some more of the pix that we took.

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