“Tomorrow is my wife’s Birthday, and I want to buy her a really nice present.”
Ten tips for cruising Cuba
(This article is by Geert van der Kolk and a crew of friends made a clockwise semi-circumnavigation from Santiago de Cuba to Havana. His boat is a 30-foot Dufour Arpčge, built in 1968. Geert is a Dutch novelist who lives in Washington, DC)
By GEERT VAN DER KOLK
1. If you find water, grab it.
Our port of entry was Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second largest city. We stayed for five days, and that entire time the city was without running water. Cuba’s infrastructure and basic services are in terrible shape, but the people have learned to live with it. They all have cisterns, and as soon as the piped water comes on, they fill big barrels in their backyards. From one of those barrels we eventually filled our tanks as well.
2. Bring Euros or Canadian Dollars, and in cash.
US money is far less useful, and you get a worse exchange rate. Cash can be exchanged anywhere, and curiously, there is no difference between the official price and rate on the street. There may be an ATM or two in Havana, but I didn’t see any on the South Coast.
For your real money you get “convertible pesos,” which you need to buy diesel, pay marina fees, etc. At a bank called “Cadeca” you can exchange some of these funny pesos for “national pesos,” the money the Cubans use. There is nothing to buy in the stores, but every town has a street market with bread, fresh fruit and vegetables, rice, beans, potatoes and onions at incredible prices.
3. Anchor out.
This is not only cheaper, but also more pleasant than staying at the rather grim official marinas that always seem to be located in the middle of nowhere. Plus, only at anchor will you be able to have Cuban guests on board. We became great friends with a couple of fishermen in an anchorage near Cayo del Rosario. Later, in their hometown of Nueva Gerona, the guards didn’t even allow them on the dock, let alone on our boat. Cuba is a wonderful country, but also a police state. Which brings me to the unavoidable subject of bureaucracy.
4. Make sure you have your “sellos”.
After you’re cleared in at your port of entry, you get a “despacho.” a cruising permit, which is only valid to the next harbor. At every port of call you have to go to the commander to get permission to proceed, which he’ll only give you after another round of inspections, and… after you give him your stamps, or “sellos.” These you have to buy yourself, at a local post office or bank. It’s different in every town. I think this incredibly cumbersome system dates back to the Spanish colonial days, when the government tried to reduce corruption by separating the giving of an official permit from the payment for it. In any case, if you find “sellos,” buy a lot of them. You need them for every leg of your cruise, and for every new crew member.
5. Make sure your bilge is accessible.
It may not happen in the first or second port, but eventually an official will ask you to lift those floorboards. In every port officials will come on board, and check the same things their colleagues checked a few days earlier. They come alone or in groups, with green of brown uniforms, or white doctor’s coats, and with dogs to sniff for drugs, explosives, and stowaways. I think cruisers should make it very clear that this is no way to welcome visiting sailors. My crew David, a young guy, blew his top at the officials. We had had a very tough passage from Isla de Juventud to Havana, we were exhausted, and not in the mood for officials. They came aboard in force anyway, overstayed their welcome, and David gave them a piece of his mind. Of course I had to whistle him back, but he was right, and I told him so.
Beyond that, a sense of humor seems the best defense. And these officials are sometimes hilariously funny. Three days after we arrived in Santiago, a guy came up to fumigate the boat. Fumigate? Yes, he said, to make sure you don’t bring any diseases into the country. But, we said, we’ve already been ashore many times, we’ve been all over town. Yes, he said, but I couldn’t come sooner, because my bike was broken. He sheepishly pushed down on his aerosol can once, I signed his form, and then we talked. He was a very nice guy, in fact the one who took us to his mother’s backyard to fill our water jugs.
6. Keep a few five convertible peso notes handy.
Compared to the pervasive corruption in Haiti and the Dominican Republic (where we just came from) Cuba is a very clean country. In the Dominican Republic, officials wanted money at every turn, and they were not at all embarrassed to ask for it. The port commander in the nation’s capital Santo Domingo, a high ranking officer, came on board, sent all his men back onto the dock, and then held out his hand and said: ‘Between you and me, as friends, a little present, please.’ He wore an impressive uniform and a very big gun on his hip, so I didn’t argue or ask for a receipt. In Salinas, a fishing village further west, the local commander said: ‘My assistant had to go all the way to city hall to get your papers, and now the moped’s gas tank is empty.’
In Cuba this happened only once. In Marina Hemingway in Havana we had a drug enforcement guy on board. While his very cute Brittany spaniel was sniffing about in the forward, he said: ‘By the way, my wife’s birthday is tomorrow, and I want to buy her a nice present.’
7. Check your charts.
The Cuban chartbooks, published in the early 1990’s, are very good, but not perfect. For instance, the Pasa de Quitasol, the main cut between Cayo Largo and Isla de Juventud, is simply missing. It fell between the cracks of two charts in the book. Fortunately, Nigel Calder describes the pass in his guide. His book “Cuba: a Cruising Guide” is very thorough and reliable, but not getting any younger. He collected his data more than twelve years ago, and naturally, things have changed. Which is great, and part of the excitement of cruising. In Haiti we used charts from 1911.
8. If you can, stay away from the North Coast in winter.
Big cold fronts followed by strong Northerlies occur almost every week from mid-December till mid-March. After cruising the Bahamas some years ago, talking to experienced sailing friends, and reading the Admiralty Pilot and Nigel Calder’s book, I decided to aim for the south coast of Cuba. The sailing was superb, but even there we were at times forced to take cover from 30 knot Northerlies. If you go south, and want to reach Havana, you have to pick your weather really carefully. I did not. Here is an excerpt from our blog:
“The forecast called for 15 knot easterlies; we got 25. We hoped to get a boost from the Gulf Stream; we got 12 foot waves dead on the nose. It took us four days to sail the 180 miles from Cuba's western capes to Havana. We tried riding the stream, we tried sailing inshore, looking for calmer seas, we even tried to motorsail—a pathetic mistake with a 15 HP engine. We damaged two sails, the self steering vane couldn't deal with the waves, the engine quit when the fuel line got clogged. In the end we did it the hard way: tacking toward and away from the reef under stormsails and steering by hand, doing one to two hour shifts. One night David got so tired he started feeling sick. Another night a wave threw me through cabin and I busted my finger so badly that I lived on heavy duty painkillers for a while.”
9. Bring fishing hooks.
In tourist areas, you’ll meet Cubans who are only interested in your money, and blatantly so. Off the beaten path, the people are wonderfully open and generous. They invite you to their homes, help you find and fix things, and are excited about it. This creates an obligation. So you have to bring presents, and the best present (at least on the South Coast) is fishing hooks. For some bizarre reason, the socialist economy is unable to produce them. Little flags are also good, especially for kids.
The nine-year-old son of our fisherman friend in Nueva Gerona was studying flags of the world in school. He pulled out his textbook and quizzed me on Qatar, Brunei and Slovenia. We have a locker full of courtesy flags, so I asked him which one he would like most. Cuba, he said, but that was the only flag I couldn’t give him. It was up on our right spreader. So next he picked Haiti. Why? I asked. And the boy said: because the Haitians fought for their freedom.
His family was not black, but kind of brown, in the middle, which in Cuba means lower class or barely above it. From my observation, the racism in Cuba seems just as acute as in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, or the Virgin Islands.
10. Love the people.
I know this sounds flaky, but I mean it. Even in Havana, where the officials seem to be much more officious than anywhere else, we had a good moment. A uniformed guy came to the boat, with a pile of forms, and a female assistant. So, what do you do? he asked. What’s your profession?
I’m a writer. I said.
You mean a reporter?
More like a novelist, I said.
Well, kind of, but here in Cuba Cabrera Infante comes to mind.
Guillermo Cabrera Infante was the greatest Cuban writer of the last century. He supported Castro’s revolution, but was later, after his books were banned, forced into exile.
The uniformed official didn’t blink, but his assistant did. She looked over her boss’s shoulder while he was filing out his forms, nodded at me and smiled.
For more information and photos of Geert van der Kolk’s cruise, go to his website