|Alec bailing out tender after rain|
Well our last few days in Grand Cayman saw the start of the rainy season. Oh help summer must be on its way. We experienced an overcast day followed by a day of constant heavy rain with thunderstorms. Yes that lightening was flashing about everywhere. Then it was back to overcast days again. We did a big stock up of stores that will hopefully see us through our time in Cuba, and beyond. There were those last Skype chats with the kids as we will once again be out of contact with them for a while. We will keep in contact with our shore manager – son Murray – with the “iridium go” satellite system, plus get our weather through it. Actually my NZ Vodafone phone works in Cuba, so that will be my back-up.
|Refuelled and ready to leave|
|Our three stowaways|
Friday 21st April and we ride our bikes down to Customs in George Town from Mitchells Creek where we are anchored, and complete the ‘clear our’ procedures. One is given 24 hours to leave. They have not returned our Hawaiian Sling to us as one has to be seen sailing out when it is handed over. It is forbidden to use any form of spear gun here hence we had to hand it over when we arrived. We then ride around to a café for coffee. While there it starts to pour with really heavy rain, and we are stuck there for about two and a half hours. The following morning the sun is out, and we motor down to the Barcadere Marina where we pick up our duty free diesel and wait for the customs officer to arrive with our sling. He turns up right on the dot of 10.00 a.m. just like he said he would. Then we are on our way. It still takes us an hour to motor out across North Sound and through the reef before we can set sails for Cayo Largo. Then the wind dies – we have no more than 5-7kts. Help this is going to be a slow trip, and yes it is. We motor sail nearly the whole way 140nm!!!!! We have three swallows join us in the evening and they stay with us for the rest of the trip.
|Customs Officer with her Dog|
We slow right down as it is Sunday afternoon when we arrive back, so motor in through the reef again and drop anchor. We move SHAMAL into the marina the following morning and check in. This time it took a little longer as there were three boats leaving for Mexico, so we waited, and waited. The customs officer arrives with her dog for the clearance inspection on the boats leaving for Mexico - fish net stockings, mini skirt and wedge heel shoes, quite the pretty picture – see photo. Then she comes to us, dog and all, to clear us in. Once our clear in procedures were complete our final job was to walk across the road to the bank to change money to pay our check in fee. That was like walking into someone’s living room in a by-gone error. There was a two seater couch and two arm chairs covered in a floral green brocade. The curtains are mid blue and white stripped with yellow and turquoise sea shells on them. Only one teller was working and he had a guy with him who had lots of piles of coins and lots of small notes that all needed counting. This was going to be another wait. No one was in any hurry. The girls behind the desk – all three of them – were chatting away not worrying about the queue of people that were now lining up along the back wall. When it actually came to our turn, I was told very politely to sit down again as only one person could be with the teller at a time. Never mind, we were all finished by mid-afternoon, and then return SHAMAL back out to the anchorage.
The first couple of days are beautiful and we set off in the tender to explore areas we did not see before. We spend one day cleaning the hulls with our Power-dive. The water temperature is gorgeous at around 29 deg.C. Ashore Alec is able to get a stack of internet cards (which only cost 75 cents for half an hour) and we can sit under the coconut trees and send and receive emails. Well his computer works, mine - NO. We stroll over to the supply come souvenir shop to see what new supplies have been delivered in the six weeks we have been away. Not much, just an endless supply of adult diapers!! Wow someone must have ticked the wrong box on the supply form. Then we start thinking about getting ready to leave and the S.E. winds start to blow at 15-20kts – that is right in the direction we will be heading meaning winds on the nose!! So we sit and wait. It becomes a time of relaxing, swimming and just enjoying the area. No point getting impatient and heading out into those rough seas. In the evenings I put my line out. There is something out there that for three evenings in a row takes my hook and a length of line with it. No hard tugs or line running out, just a bite and it is gone. I do catch a nice fat mutton snapper which is enough for two good meals.
|Lighthouse Cayo Guano del Este|
Finally after a week we are able to check out and be on our way. We have had thunderstorms about, but they have been missing us thank goodness. The winds are not perfect and we have an easterly swell of half a metre, but it is time to move on. Before we reach our first anchorage I have six strikes on the fishing rod. Mainly barracuda which we release, but I lost a tuna and something else – not too sure what it was. It is only a 34nm sail to Cayo Guano del Este where we anchor under a lighthouse which looks more like a red and white striped rocket ship. We have time to take the tender ashore and explore the Cayo that afternoon. The winds are light and we decide to spend the following day here and visit the lighthouse. The lighthouse is manned and we climb the 234 steps to the top to take in the view. It is manned due to the fact that it still has to be wound up at least once a night like other lighthouses around the Cuban coast. It is a crystal clear day and we can see for miles. Also the waters around the Cayo are some of the clearest we have seen and you can see the reef line so clearly around the whole Cayo. Later we snorkel the reefs.
The following day we set sail back up to the mainland and the city of Cienfuegos, one of Cuba’s larger cities which is situated on the southern coast. For this leg we skirt along the edge of the “no-go” zone which takes you into the Bay of Pigs. Approaching the coastline one can make out the unfinished structure of a nuclear power plant which we believe was started during the period when the Russians were present in Cuba. The entrance into the bay here is through a channel with cliffs hiding the bay behind. No wonder it was a popular hide out for pirates of old, it is really hidden until you enter inside. The Spanish built a fortress inside the entrance in 1745 which commands a perfect view over the channel. Below the fortress are rundown but quaint homes now occupied mainly by fishermen. There is also a Russian style hotel built on the opposite shore which commands a great views over the channel and bay. As we are coming through the channel we met a cruise ship departing. We cross the bay and drop anchor in front of Marina Jagua, then take the tender ashore to check in. Once again everyone is polite and helpful, and this time very quick with procedures. The marina is also home to a reasonable size charter fleet of mainly catamaran yachts. It is situated on Punta Gorda, the area where the pre-revolution wealthy built their stately homes, many of which have been restored with the help of UNESCO money, as the city is now another World Heritage Site. It was founded in 1819 by Don Louis D’Clouet, a Frenchman from Louisiana who brought with him about 40 families to establish the city. Hence there is a wonder flamboyant flavour with some of the older buildings. We walk the 10 minutes into the centre of the town which is being restored. The main traffic street is wide, then you turn and entre the walking boulevard which leads to a beautiful park with its very own Arch of Triumph at one end.
This square is surrounded by some beautifully restored old buildings. The people are delightful. We are not hassled. Sometimes someone will stop and ask where you come from, or if you would like a ride in their ‘bicitaxi’ – that is a bicycle rickshaw. We opted to walk most of the time as we felt we needed the exercise, even if the temperatures were 30 deg. c plus.
We visit the Hotel Jagua, just a couple of minutes’ walk from the marina, so Alec can do the Wi-Fi. In the grounds of the Hotel is the Palacio de Valle, a magnificent building which was originally the home of one of Cuba’s wealthiest sugar merchants, built in 1913. The guy was extremely eclectic when it came to taste as he has had Gothic, Venetian, Arab-Spanish and an array of other architecture thrown in. But it all works and he ended up with a lovely home. Today it is a restaurant and part of the Hotel.
We spend two days in Cienfuegos before checking out and heading south east along the coast to Casilda. Here the coastal hillsides are covered in trees right down to the rocky shoreline. The high Trinidad mountain range stands out behind. The entrance into Casilda takes us back in behind the reefs again. We are now at the very north western tip of the Gulf of Ana Maria. We motor sail back up the channel which takes us to Casilda, a fishing port that sits just outside the town of Trinidad – Cuba’s third settlement in 1514. We motor into the basin where the Cayo Blanco marina is situated. Oh help we must have entered “Bug Heaven”. In here we are totally surrounded by mangroves. Well we will see once evening approaches !!!! Again we need to check in here. Our official arrives by boat from across the bay some half hour later. Once the formalities are complete we walk across the peninsula to the Arcon Hotel to check the Wi-Fi. Then it’s back to SHAMAL in the swamp, and yes come sunset the bugs arrive. We close up, put all the mosquito screens up on the hatches, and turn on the fans. The temperature is now around 34 deg.C. but we survive. Unfortunately if we want to swim we need to go back to the hotel and swim off its white sandy beach and this evening, I can’t be bothered.
|Cobblestone Streets of Trinidad|
The following morning we return to the hotel to see about a tour into Trinidad, but it is Sunday and no one turns up to the tour desk. We also discover this hotel is an all-inclusive one. You pay a price beforehand which covers sleeping, food and beverage, plus trips. Never mind, we take a taxi into town. We do our own walking tour with guide book in hand. It is the quaintest place with cobbled stone streets. Because of its isolation time has really stood still here, but again it has been declared a World Heritage Site and money has been put into restoring the wonderful old buildings. We visited one of the mansions which was built in the 1820’s – which is now a museum - with its grand Italian marble floor entrance hall, a beautiful courtyard and a tower with a rather rickety staircase leading to the top with fabulous views over the town and down to Casilda and Peninsula Ancon, where the marina is situated. Again another lovely clear day with great visibility.
The town may have been founded in 1514, but it was not really until about 1850 when hundreds of French refugees arrived from Haiti as they were fleeing a slave rebellion, set up small sugar mills in the Valle de los Ingenios, which lies 12km to the north east of Trinidad, and were soon producing a third of Cuba’s sugar on the fertile plain.
Later that afternoon we head back to the Hotel to down load a weather forecast, and have a swim. Then it’s back to face the bugs again!!
The following morning after clearing out, we leave the mangrove enclosed lagoon, and head out. We spend the next nine days moving southeast through the Golfo Ana Maria which takes us through the Archipielago de los Jardines de la Reina ( the Garden of the Queen ) and into the Golfo Guacanaysbo. In the northern section we move inside and outside the reef anchoring in the shelter of different Cayos. We move from the northern section into the Golfo Guacanaysbo inside the reef navigating our way through well marked channels among the reefs. At Cayo Brenton a fishing boat comes past just on dusk and sells us 6 large crayfish for $15, a bottle of Rum and a hat – good trade. The following morning we get up to find hundreds of baby red crabs crawling all over the back steps and the cockpit. I get out a brush and herd them all back into the sea. Maybe they were attracted by our solar light which we place in the rod holders at night. That day we have a lovely run down the outside of the reef line doing 6kts. I catch 4 barracuda and something we could not identify. All went back. It is lovely to see so much sea bird life again.
We spend another night in the shelter of Cayo Cuervo – home to the prawn fishing fleet. The mother ship sits outside the reef while the six big prawn boats all come inside. We are here with another catamaran. Again that evening we are visited by the fishermen who ask “what would you like?” We put in an order for prawns and crayfish. The following morning when the prawn boats return with their night catch, the fishermen turn up with 7 fresh crayfish and 2kg of prawns. Cost a bottle of ex-Tunisia give-a-way whisky 2-3 euros, a bottle of rum, and $5.
Another stop is Cayo Anclitas. We have now entered the National Park area. No fishing or taking of anything in this area. There are a couple of big dive boats also anchored, and later three catamarans arrive traveling in the opposite direction from us. Again we take the tender off for to explore of the area. We check the anchor is dug in with our glass bottom bucket and find just before it is a rock with two crayfish sitting under it. Poor Alec – NO – remember we are in a National Park. Later we return to SHAMAL to find not one, but two huge barracuda have moved in under the boat. And there they stay till we move on again. The couple off one of the catamarans – “SANDY TOES” - comes over to say hello. They tell us about an anchorage only eight miles away where we will see the “friendly” crocodiles. Help we have been swimming lots and did not realise we were in croc waters. Well one can’t miss an opportunity like that, can one. So the following morning we motor around to Pasa Piedra Grande. We anchor in the channel between two Cayos. The holding is not that wonderful and there are lots of coral bommies about, but with care we put out lots of chain on a grassy spot and check the holding before going off to find our crocs. After about half an hour of motoring in between the mangroves we are nearly ready to give up, when in front of us a medium size one swims out of the mangroves to say hello. I get my photos. Now “SANDY TOES” told us they had entered the channel from the inside, scraping the grass bottom as they came through. They draw a the same as us, so the following morning we took the tender out to check the depths across the bank. It seemed OK so we decided to give it a go in SHAMAL. Alec was not happy with the idea of scraping the bottom so when the depth sounder showed 00 depth under the keels and we were kicking up sand from the bottom, he decided enough is enough. We turned around and followed our track back the way we had come and into deeper waters. We motored back into the channel and picked up a dive boat mooring buoy we had passed, and had lunch. We then sailed back on the outside of the reef and spend another night at the northern end of Cayo Anclitas. Then we were on our way again, on the inside route. We passed from the Golfo Ana Maria into the Gulfo Guacanaysbo and anchored in the shelter behind Cayo Grenada.
|We are in shallow waters|
We are now only 55nm from Cabo Cruz, the Cape at the southernmost point of Cuba. It is from there we will turn east to sail to Santiago de Cuba. We are now having winds on the nose from the SE and once we round the cape they will again be dead on the nose which also makes for unpleasant seas as we move into the summer months. Alec starts to think that maybe this is not the right direction to be heading. That is reinforced the following morning when we up anchor and move on out from the shelter of the Cayo right into those pounding seas with winds at 20kts plus. So back we return to the shelter of the Cayo. Big re-think. Maybe Mexico, Belize then Guatemala would be the better choice. A new cruising area and we could end this season leaving SHAMAL in the safety of a marina up the Rio Dulce and into a lake, inland from the sea some 26nm. That is in Guatemala. It is one of the Caribbean’s most popular summer areas to leave boats. We are sad that we have not seen Santiago de Cuba, but we will return next season!!!!
|All good barbers have no hair!!!!|
|Passing through Squalls|
The next morning we up anchor and motor sail out through the reef and set sail NE bound back to Cienfuegos. It is our closest port where we can check out of Cuba and we need to keep our paper work in order. We will do an overnight sail this time directly there. It is grey and overcast with rain squalls about. We reef down and have a wonderful sail. At one point we are surfing down waves doing between 9-12kts. By evening we decided to put the third reef in and are still doing 9kts at times. The following morning we are anchored back in Cienfuegos after a 167nm run. The wind has now totally died, the sun is out and it is hot, hot, hot – temperature 38deg. c. We spend the next three days here waiting for a good weather window back to the Cayman Islands. We visit the old town again, this time taking a “bicitaxi”. Our first driver takes us up the back streets to his barber so Alec can have a haircut. For our return trip we learn our driver is a young chemical engineer. So what are you doing carrying tourists on a bicycle? He tells us as a chemical engineer he would earn $24 per month. His bicycle cost him $600, and he can earn between $300 -$600 per month carrying tourists. He does have to pay the Government $150 per month.
Having now experienced the “excesses” of capitalism with a democracy such as America, to the” insufficiency” of communism such as Cuba, we see that neither are close to a perfect system. Reforms have been made and now there are private businesses such as Homestays and Farmers Markets. With piecemeal capitalism now introduced into Cuba it will be interesting to see the effect on the country. Cubans would like to see a controlled move to capitalism more like the European style. If the sanctions are lifted from Cuba, these people will be able to improve their way of life and become contributing members of the region’s economy like many of their neighbours.
|A round rainbow!!|
Saturday 20th May, and it is time to once again say good-bye Cuba. The customs officer arrives out at SHAMAL at 0550 – minus dog – and hands us the paper work. We had made arrangements the night before with him. It is all completed in 5mins. We have upped anchor and are on our way out across the bay of Cienfuegos by 0630. Once through the channel and out of the lee of the land, the winds pick up and we are on our way. We are running on a beam reach at about 6kts with winds between 17-20kts. Seas build to about 3mts for a time, then during the night the winds drop. They pick up the following morning giving us a broad reach, but seas also build with the swells up to 4 plus mts. at times. We have picked up a mooring buoy back in George town Harbour, Grand Cayman the following day. As it is now Sunday, we are told it would be best to check in the next morning to avoid overtime charges. This we do.
|Bone Fishing, Cayo Largo|
So now we are gleaning as much information from the internet on our next destinations as we do not have any cruising guides for Central America. Mexico will be our next port of call.
Well we leave you all with plan C or D in place. That is part of the joys of cruising – we can change our plans as often as the winds change.
This is The Admiral and Commander signing out