Shipwreck in Cuba
Dream of the tropics turns into a two-week nightmare
By RAY OLIVER
As a lad growing up in Newcastle, England, I read the novels of Ernest Hemingway and imagined traveling the world, with Cuba being one of my dream destinations. After sailing the Atlantic in 2000, and landing in Barbados, I knew that one day I would have to travel north to see Havana for myself. This is the story of that misadventure.
My boat Cymar, an 11-meter Amel Kirk I bought 10 years previously in Port Carmargue, Southern France, carried me across the Atlantic. I cruised the Med with my wife, until she died six years ago. Since then, I have sailed alone most of the time. A 66-year-old yacht master, I have worked for Sunsail in the Solent and Canaries during the summer months, returning to Cymar to winter in the Caribbean.
After a bout with cancer in summer 2001 and a subsequent successful recuperation, I was fit to sail my lovely boat again. Cuba here I come!
I sailed through St. Martin, the British and American Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. One of my favourite places in the Caribbean is Luperon, near Puerto Plata. I spent some time there and so didn’t make it to Cuba that year. Luperon was a safe, cheap place to leave the boat, so I returned to England to build up the sailing kitty.
I set sail for Cuba on January 8, 2004. Good trade winds and currents took me northwest, but within a few days, a cold front with strong north winds and big swells was forecasted, so I didn’t stop in Haiti as planned. I sailed two good days and nights along the coast of the Dominican Republic, Haiti then on to Cuba
Exhausted, I arrived in Baracoa, which, according to my pilot book, was a port of entry. As I was dropping anchor there, the Cuban Port Authority ordered me to leave and go to Puerto de Vita, the new port of entry. After explaining my need for sleep and that foul weather was expected, they allowed me to stay for a few hours. Next morning, they ordered me to leave, despite bad weather.
After an exhausting day and night in enormous swells, I was still about six miles from my way point to Puerto de Vita. The mainsail snagged as I tried to reef it in, and the boat drifted inshore without my realizing. Motor sailing was difficult, as the waves repeatedly pummeled Cymar and thrust her across a reef. With the cockpit awash, I ran aground about 50 meters from shore.
Mayday! Mayday! I grabbed bag, money and passport and had to leave my beloved Cymar at 9 am on Monday, January 12.
Two men ashore shouted for me to throw them some shoes so that they could walk across the coral to help me. One of them climbed aboard to speak Spanish over the VHF to assist my rescue. While wading ashore, chest-deep in water, the coral cut my feet raw. I couldn’t ask for my shoes back from the Good Samaritan. (Though he returned them to me two days later, gleaming like new.)
Within minutes of arriving ashore, the Cuban Coast Guard and Customs and Immigration officials arrived with a doctor. For the next 10 hours, they asked me countless questions and filled in endless forms, totally ignoring my pleas to let me save my boat. Later, an immigration officer escorted me to a local hotel. Despite my protests that the $140 a night was beyond my budget, he insisted that this was the only place to stay.
Next morning, I witnessed the Coast Guard stripping my wrecked boat. In the mangroves, they had constructed a makeshift tent from my cruising chute, piling up my belongings inside it. The Commandante insisted that my boat was a write-off and requested that I write him a letter to this effect, plus stating that I would leave the boat and all possessions to the people of Cuba. This I did, as the ordinary people had been so kind and were so poor. (Imagine how exhausted and low I was feeling, angry with myself for losing my boat—my home.)
I was soon to learn, however, that I was being played. On examining the damage to Cymar, I found she had only been scraped by the coral and not holed at all. I knew that I would have to act quickly to save her, while the big seas receded. Otherwise, the coral would eventually break through the hull. But the Commandante insisted that he could not get a crane onto the beach to lift the boat. (Three days later, he managed to drive a truck down this same track to steal my mast, engine and the rest of my belongings, including clothing.)
A few days later, I phoned the British Consul and then began to salvage as much of my expensive equipment as possible: SSB radio, GPS, VHF, winches, auto helm, Aries wind vane and dinghy with outboard. Three Cuban hotel beach staff helped me carry the equipment to my room, though they were afraid to be seen helping me. If the Coast Guard had been aware of this, they would lose their jobs.
I also salvaged several music CDs to give to the doctor who had treated my coral-cut feet. He accepted my gift, but asked for a written consent; otherwise, the authorities would confiscate them.
Later, three friendly Canadians I met at the hotel helped me collect my possessions from Cymar. But when we arrived at the boat, we were horrified to find that it had been completely stripped, a total wreck. The engine, fuel tank, deck fittings, and even the interior teak work and headlining had been removed! Evidently, the authorities had taken everything to a warehouse in Puerto de Vita.
Next day, I took a taxi to Puerto de Vita, taking the equipment that I had stored in my hotel room, hoping to transfer this to the packing crate. I was still hopeful that I could retrieve more of the equipment from the warehouse. How wrong could I be! First, the workshop carpenter said that he could not get any wood to build the packing case. Second, while the customs officials recorded all the equipment that I had brought with me, the rest of my possessions taken from the boat were locked up in a secret military warehouse, to which I was not allowed access. This did not include those items that had been “appropriated” by various officials along the way.
I phoned the British Embassy again.
While at Vita, I met two experienced Canadian fishermen with a 45-foot fishing boat who offered to rescue Cymar by towing her off the reef next day at high tide. I prepared the boat by plugging the large hole in the hull and made a raft of logs to prevent further coral damage. If we could get Cymar afloat, the fishing boat could tow her to a small port with lift-out facilities, 20 miles along the coast.
All hopes were dashed, however, when the Commandante told me that the fishing boat was not allowed to tow me. The Canadian crew had no work permits.
Back at the marina, a public relations lady, Ernestina, helped me get a packing case from INTERMAR, a freight company that would also organize its transport back to England.
On Monday, January 19, the Commandante permitted me access to the secret warehouse to collect my equipment. Some fellow sailor friends agreed to take on board this equipment back to England. So the six of us waited at the warehouse for an hour. No one came. Finally, an official told us to come back next day, only to be told that the key was lost.
Because I could no longer afford the hotel, I planned to stay with a gracious older couple in the village near the marina. To my dismay, an immigration officer told me this was not allowed. At this point, the relentlessly unreasonable behavior of the Cuban authorities was wearing me down. They eventually allowed me to stay in Holquin (45 km away) or Havana (500 km away), but I was determined to stay in the area until my salvaged belongings were safely packed and shipped. Ernestina again helped me, finding me lovely B&B near the beach and only 10 km away at a very reasonable $20 per night.
On Wednesday, I was again permitted access to the secret warehouse. On arrival, however, I was not allowed to even see my belongings and was told that everything would be moved to a Customs warehouse. I was ordered to return “later,” and when I did, I was told that the following orders had come through from Havana: All items would be shipped to Havana and allow claimant three months to put in a formal claim.
In the words of Victor Meldrew “I don’t believe it!” I was dealing with children but their guns were not toys.
Before leaving Puerto de Vita, I called to say goodbye to the doctor. They had confiscated the CDs, despite my written consent. His good standing in the community seemed to mean nothing to those in authority. Pathetic, I thought, but apparently very common in Cuba. Despite this, the doctor helps again, offering me the name and address of his friend in Havana whom I could stay with.
Next day, I traveled to Holquin and paid INTERMAR $1,800 cash for the packing crate that would be ready “manana.” Three mananas later, it arrived. While we packed the salvaged equipment, the officials were still denying me access to some of the items, saying they couldn’t find this or that item in the secret warehouse and wouldn’t let me look for them myself.
After hours of my questions about the missing items, the Coast Guard officials eventually “found” them. I then made a mad taxi dash to catch up with my packing case before it was put on board the aircraft at Holquin. Without a moment to lose, INTERMAR repacked my case and arranged for shipment.
Despite all of this, I was determined to see Havana. I sat in the bus station waiting for the all-night bus, thinking no one would ever believe all this! I thought, what a shame about those who wore the official hats and guns. But, as I wound down and felt more peace, I thought of the warmhearted Cubans I had met, including Ernestina, who came to say goodbye. While I lost my boat, at least I had managed to stop the Cuban authorities from stealing all of my possessions!
My three-day stay in Havana was bitterly disappointing. My childhood dream was just that—a fantasy. Most buildings were falling down or in grave disrepair. The British Consul there experienced the same brick walls I had come up against. In helping me get a flight back to England, they experienced days of endless unreturned calls and unreliable officials.
Cymar had been my home for nearly 10 years and I will never be able to replace her nor the life I once led. However, I do have my excellent health, one packing case, and priceless memories that no petty official could take from me.