Opening Cuba will create a spectacular new cruising ‘loop’
By PETER SWANSON
Cuba Cruising Net
Published Dec. 16, 2011
The likelihood that U.S. citizens may soon be able to freely travel to Cuba makes Monty and Sara Lewis a tad nervous. The Lewises are a cruising couple who publish the Explorer Charts for the Bahamas and, like tourism officials and marina owners throughout the Caribbean region, they expect that “legal” Cuba will siphon off thousands of potential customers.
Indeed, according to one low estimate, 60,000 U.S. vessels of 25 feet LOA or greater will cross the Florida Straits to Cuba in the 12 months following the relaxation of Washington’s restrictions that effectively ban travel by U.S. citizens to the island nation.
Yet the Lewises may not be as vulnerable as that projection suggests because of the simple fact that all boating is not created equal. Most of those thousands will surely comprise sportfishermen and folks in center console boats coming over for tournaments or a quick sampling of Havana’s attractions, then speeding right back to the states. The audience for the Explorer Charts are cruising couples that set off for months, even years at a time in sailboats and slow moving trawlersthe kind of people who do “The Great Loop.”
Boats doing this popular circumnavigation of the Eastern United States go up the Hudson River, across the Erie Canal, through the Great Lakes, down the Illinois River, down the Mississippi River, down the Tenn-Tom Waterway to the Gulf of Mexico, through the Okeechobee Waterway to the East Coast of Florida then up the Intracoastal Waterway northward to their starting point. Not having to go back the way you came has tremendous appeal to anyone operating a slow-moving vessel.
Opening Cuba to American yachts will surely bring about a similar phenomenon; call it the “Bahamas-Cuba Loop.” Every winter hundreds of boats cruise the Exumas, a lovely 113-mile long Bahamian archipelago. More than 400, mostly sailboats, arrive at George Town on Great Exuma for weeks of socializing and organized events. In March, this partied-out fleet retraces its steps back to Florida.
END OF THE LINE NO MORE
Once the travel ban is lifted, the annual Exuma trek need not end at George Town. Instead, George Town becomes a mid-point. The Bahamas-Cuba loopers will be continue southward by cruising the Jumentos, another lovely Bahamian Island chain, crossing to the North Coast of Cuba, following the Cuban coast westward to Havana, then crossing the Gulf Stream to the Florida Keys.
The tiny settlement of Duncan Town in the Jumentos lies just 67 nautical miles due north of the Cuban port of entry at Vita, which already boasts a serviceable and friendly marina. Between Vita and Havana are dozens of decent anchorages and four marinas. And, of course, Havana is just 90 miles from Key West. This westward passage is downwind, down wave and down current. Late March and April, when the hoopla at George Town has faded, happen to offer the most settled weather along this route, so the timing could not be better.
The well-trod path to George Town would comprise first leg of The Bahamas-Cuba Loop, which, for the sake of discussion, begins and ends in Miami, Florida. From Miami to George Town is about 295 nautical miles. The second leg from George Town to Puerto Vita on the North Coast of Cuba is 196 nm. The third leg from Vita to Havana is 454 nm, and the fourth and final leg returns to Miami from Havana for another 263 nm.
“There's been a shroud of mystery around the island for most of my life, and I'd love to go back and see more of Cuba. You can be sure that my boat will be cruising in Cuba not long after the embargo is lifted,” says Milt Baker, former owner of the Bluewater Books & Charts of Fort Lauderdale, who now spends most of the year aboard his trawler Bluewater. “The Bahamas-Cuba Loop appeals to me in a big way. I've spent nearly 35 years cruising the eastern seaboard from Halifax to the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, the eastern Caribbean, Venezuela, Bermuda and the Mediterranean. I'm ready for some fresh new cruising spots, and the idea of seeing Cuba on my horizon once again makes my heart sing.”
The impulse for “fresh new” has convinced more and more sailors and trawler people to break away from the pack at George Town to reconnoiter the Jumentos, that second leg of the loop. And for that you can credit the Lewises and their Explorer Charts. In part for space reasons, the Lewises included the Jumentos in the same book as the Exumas, which means that most vessels bound for George Town carry charts for the Jumentos as well. Had they included this remote archipelago in their Far Bahamas edition, things might have been different.
STRATEGIC DUNCAN TOWN
A year ago when they arrived at Duncan Town aboard their Mainship 34 Saranade, the Lewises actually found 15 cruising vessels anchored in the roadsted off Duncan Town. “We visited Duncan Town this past winter and had a much more favorable impression than we did 15 years ago when it seemed to be largely controlled by the drug trade,” Sara Lewis says. “Now it is friendly and welcoming and has a few more services to offer boaters. There are some enterprising folks on Ragged Island who just might be encouraged to provide even more services if the traffic were to increase.”
Credit another cruising guide author, Stephen J. Pavlidis, with having stirred our interest in the Jumentos. His guide, “On and Off the Beaten Path: The Central and Southern Bahamas Guide,” is a classic of the genre, with superb harbor charts and navigational directions. Credit also single-sideband weather guru Chris Parker, who provides daily forecasts for each region of the Bahamas, often including Jumentos-specific weather information.
Here’s how Pavlidis describes the “croissant-shaped chain of islands” in his book: “Here you can relax, enjoy life at your own pace and rarely see another human being except for the local fishermen who frequent these islands in great numbers. This is my favorite island chain in the Bahamas. Giving away the navigational information to allow cruisers to have a safe, enjoyable, memorable cruise through these cays is like giving away my daughter.” He describes the fishing, diving and beachcombing as superb.
“The Loop from George Town to Cuba and Key West will certainly become a popular route, making Cuba’s North Coast anchorages available to those who would enjoy a downhill run,” Pavlidis says in an interview for this article. “Those that head to Havana from Key West, will be hard pressed to enjoy those same anchorages without the burden of going against wind and sea.”
An overnight run from Duncan Town lies Puerto Vita, the easternmost port of entry on Cuba’s North Coast. Vita is one of Cuba’s many pocket baysanchorages that feature a narrow entrance that opens up on the inside, usually surrounded by some combination of mangroves, woodlands or pasture. The small marina here is friendly and accommodating. There are no major cities nearby, but rental cars are available for the nearby beach resorts and the countryside is lovely.
The run to the west features a few more pocket bays and then transforms into an entirely different landscape. For more than 100 nm, the westbound skipper will have the Camaguey Archipelago to port, hundreds of cays and fronting reefs representing both opportunity and danger. Ernest Hemingway saw it thus. This is the stretch where the late novelist hunted German U-Boats during World War 2 aboard his cabin cruiser Pilar. Part 3 of his novel “Islands in the Stream,” a fictional account of his sub hunting days, is awash in description of these beautiful cays, which are little changed since the 1940s, except for a few resort developments.
At the heart of Hemingway Country lies the only marina between Vita, 175 miles back, and Varadero, 150 miles ahead. Wally Moran, a Canadian doing the Loop in 2009, brought his 34-foot sailboat into one of the seven transient slips at Marina Cayo Guillermo, which can only accomodate shoal draft vessels. Moran says he managed to bump his way in and out through the shoaling entrance channel. Deep draft vessels, however, can anchor nearby and dinghy ashore.
Cuban marina officials say they have plans to eventually create a new facility nearby since dredging has proved to be a temporary solution at best. The marina has only a tiny grocery but, according to Moran, nearby all-inclusive resorts offer unlimited meals and mojitos to cruisers who purchase a day pass.
About 125 miles to the West, those with vessels drawing 6½ feet or less and wishing to avoid ocean swell may enter a protected 25-mile passage to Varadero through Santa Clara and Cardenas Bays.Varadero itself is a beach resort spread over the 9-mile Hicacos, Peninsula. Varadero is Cuba’s Cape Cod, Jersey Shore and Florida Keys all rolled into one. It has two marinas accepting transient vessels, one of which, Marina Gaviota, is the subject of an ambitious expansion plan. According to Cuban officials, Gaviota will have more than 1,200 slips by 2015, making it the biggest marina in the Caribbean.
From Varadero, Havana’s Marina Hemingway is a 70-mile passage away. To describe the attractions of the Cuban capital is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say, a layover at Havana would be like the grand finale of a fireworks show, especially if there’s any money left in the cruising kitty after months of island hopping on the Bahamas-Cuba Loop. Home is always a welcome sight, but after tasting Cuba Libre, the fleshpots of South Florida will surely feel a bit anti-climatic.
NV CHART DETAILS FOR ANCHORAGES AND PORTS ALONG CUBA’S LEG OF THE BAHAMAS-CUBA LOOP
READ ABOUT A POTENTIAL ‘NEW’ PATH TO THE WESTERN CARIBBEAN FOR SMALL BOATS