By DEIDRE FARRELLl
We woke early to the sound of a north wind that within minutes whipped up to a gale. The anchor was dragging. Steve jumped up to start the engine but by the time it fired up, we had dragged onto a sandbar one hundred feet from our original position. Waves splashed over us as we tried to keep our Mason 43 Whitestar from dredging further into the mangroves. “The dinghy on the deck is acting as a sail,” Steve yelled. “Take it down now.”
Don and I wrestled it from the foredeck. By late afternoon the wind lessened enough to allow us to reset two anchors and drop two more. The high winds and waves meant kedging in the dinghy was impossible. For the next few hours, we continued to reset and secure anchors. The unpredicted norther proved how unreliable the weather forecasts are in this area. We settled down to an evening punctuated by waves crashing into the stern.
Next morning, under a clear sky we gazed at our track through the sand. Steve swam around Whitestar to see how badly we were stuck. When he stood in five feet of water, I got the picture. “We cut our way in, can’t we just back out?” I wondered aloud. We tried to reverse out but the motor was not giving propulsion when in gear. Steve found a key at the bottom of the bilge. Usually part of the propeller shaft, it had fallen out leaving us with no working propeller. Then he noticed the set-screw in the transmission hub was not aligned with the shaft dimples. There was no way to hold the shaft onto the hub, particularly in reverse. The four of us sat in the cockpit pondering our predicament. We had no choice but to call for help.
We radioed the Cuban police/coast guard, the Guarda Frontera. No response to our beginner Spanish. We knew Canadian boat Bicho Feo was near the town of La Esperanza, twenty miles to the east, and hailed them. They relayed our predicament in perfect Spanish until the Guarda Frontera responded. Through Bicho Feo, they told us they would come to our aid only if we needed to be taken off the boat. But all we needed was a tow off the sandbar. They assured us that the only towboat in Cuba would be dispatched immediately from Havana, twelve hours away. “Are there any large boats in the area that could assist?” asked Steve. A definite “no” came back. The fishing boats we had seen nearby in Santa Lucia did not have the winches and cable necessary to free us. Besides, being Cuba, they would have to fill in a mountain of paperwork to get permission to help.
We waited all day for a towboat. We kept our spirits up by swimming, exploring the lush peninsula, kedging and trying new ideas to turn the boat toward deeper water. The only sign of life was a Guarda Frontera watching us from the white sandy beach, a lighthouse keeper, and a small fishing boat in the distance. If you were looking for peace and tranquility, this was it.
On Tuesday afternoon we anxiously awaited the arrival of the towboat from Havana. There was no cell phone coverage and no further contact from the Guarda Frontera. We
had to keep busy to distract ourselves. We continued to kedge, rig the halyards to heel the boat over and use the sails to turn the boat a few degrees. Our full sails and static motion drew a small tourist boat alongside.
The boat captain knew of our plight and offered to pull us off with his little Honda 60 engine. Steve explained that Whitestar weighs 15 tons and has a full keel. The captain radioed “someone” and told us that the towboat would come from Havana tomorrow. Imagine our surprise; it was due to arrive any minute and now we hear it is still in Havana. The lack of communication was frustrating.
On Wednesday morning we dinghied over to Cayo Jutias to see the lighthouse. The lighthouse had a phone with a direct line to the town. It was a military phone, however, and we were not allowed to use it, or even have the keeper call on our behalf. Red tape and bureaucracy rule in Cuba. On our return to Whitestar a small runabout approached with a Guarda Frontera and five men onboard.
They prepared to climb up uninvited, but the sight of our big yellow lab rising from his sleeping position in the cockpit deterred them. They were from the towboat company in Havana. “We need to see if we can get you off ourselves before sending the towboat; as it’s very expensive,” the captain said; yet he couldn’t tell us how much. Steve explained we had already tried what they were proposing. But this is Cuba, and there is a process for everything. The captain handed Steve a form to sign giving the company (or really the government) rights to salvage.
I was horrified and had images of a Cuban general sailing Whitestar. Steve just laughed and reworded the document to state they would refloat and tow Whitestar to Santa Lucia five miles away. He also said there would be no payment unless they were successful. Three hours later the team gave up; they would send for the towboat. The Guarda Frontera took our landing papers, a typical procedure at every stop in Cuba. It’s one way they keep track of you … although we weren’t going anywhere!
On Thursday the towboat captain radioed that they were sending seven small fishing boats instead. When did the plan change? By now, normally easy-going Steve was getting annoyed. “Go ahead,” he said, “but you better have a backup plan as this won’t work.” The seven boats never appeared. We wondered what they would do next.
By Friday morning things were dark indeed. We were down to the last water tank, the last can of Coke, the beer long gone. It was Pink Gin for happy hour. No news from the towboat captain. I know I wasn’t alone with my frustrations and concerns, but I was the first to break. Through a flood of tears I told Steve we’d have to abandon our baby ship. Always the optimist, he said, “There’s a solution for every problem. We just haven’t found it yet.” I felt better, I think.
Don dinghied to the peninsula and walked for an hour looking for a phone to call home. He was going to miss his flight back to British Columbia. The power was out in town, so he hitched a ride to a small dive resort. Here, to his delight, he found beer and rum. The staff said the towboat team went back to Havana last night and would be back today or tomorrow with the tugboat.
Funny how everyone else knew what was happening, but us. Don arrived back on the back of a Guarda Frontera’s motorbike. He handed up the case of beer and climbed onboard. Things were looking brighter at last.
Steve and Don continued to work on the shaft and used the existing setscrews to secure it to the hub. The setscrews however would not hold, as they were misaligned with the shaft dimples. They came up with a last ditch plan to put the hub in place, drill new set screw holes over the dimples and friction fit new set screws. To their surprise; it worked. We now had forward and reverse motion. For the first time we were in a position to get ourselves off.
On Saturday morning we snorkeled around Whitestar. Steve measured the depth of the shallows to our right and the deeper water beyond. The tide level varied by one foot. Aubrey and I dinghied to the lighthouse to fill up our water containers and share newly baked bread. On the way back to Whitestar, we realized she was facing the lighthouse and moving. The guys were using the stuck-in-a-snowdrift method: Create a rut and move to and fro until you have a long enough momentum to drive out. Steve and Don turned the boat 180 degrees to face deeper water. The tide and sun were going down so we called it a night. For the first time since our ordeal began I felt that soon we would be free.
We swam around the boat again on Sunday morning to check progress. As soon as the tide rose, we used our kedge anchors and a line tied to the mangroves to help us reverse. Four long hours of moving back and forth while tightening and releasing kedge lines resulted in a new path through the shallows. While Steve shoved the throttle to full power, he yelled to cast off. Amid hundreds of feet of lines and anchor chain, I heard, “We’re off, we’re off.” It took a minute to realize Whitestar was floating again. Our anchors and lines retrieved, we headed out fast, not taking time to celebrate our freedom. Later, Steve summed it all up when he said, “Don’t you just love life, it’s such an adventure!”
What did we learn from our experience? Sand and bar are great words but not necessarily together; we would use two anchors in future; the human spirit is very resilient; and yes, we would sail Cuban waters again!
Steve, Deirdre and their dog Chance were living in Madagascar when Deirdre wrote this story. Their plan was to rejoin Whitestar in Portugal and sail the Mediterranean.