Sailing to Cuba, en famille

By Megan Rosenfeld
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 22, 2010; 10:44 AM

It was probably my stepdaughter, Doony, who had the idea, but the proposition was greeted so enthusiastically by other members of the family that it would be hard for her to claim exclusive ownership at this point. "Why don't we sail to Cuba?" she said. And we answered, "Why not?" True, Washington and Havana are officially on the outs, but the journey seemed so inviting. We are, after all, practically neighbors: Cuba is only 90 miles from Key West, Fla., and our boat was only two days' sail from there, in West Palm Beach. We just ignored the blog that said: "You'll be bucking both the current and the prevailing winds. It makes for a very tough passage." It should be noted that of our crew of six - five adults between 22 and 69 and one 31/2-year-old - all except for me are hardy sailors with saltwater coursing through their veins, and stomachs of steel. My husband, a.k.a. the Captain, has done five transatlantics, including one last year with our daughter, Marina. Doony and her husband, Jamie, have both been sailing since they were tots. Although I knew I would be out of my element (some would say out of my mind), I wanted to join the crew anyway, to share an adventure with family and to see Cuba.

My husband's 40-foot cutter is a former racing boat but has room for all of us to sleep at the same time, as long as at least two bunk together in a double berth. There's a neat little galley with an alcohol-fueled two-burner and a lovely Italian cooler that we fondly call the Friggy Boat. After a few hours of shopping at Costco and Publix in West Palm Beach, we are provisioned for two weeks at least. I'm embarrassed to see how many boxes of macaroni and cheese we still have.

The first few hours out of Key West on May 1 are sunny, peaceful and pleasant. Josie, our little granddaughter, reluctantly submits to the Law of the Sea: When in the cockpit, she has to wear both a life jacket and a safety harness tethering her to the boat. The others prepare for the night-long sail by reefing in the mainsail and checking out their own safety harnesses.

By early evening I begin to feel queasy. Dinner is literally lost on me. I excuse myself to lie in a bunk below, the only way I feel any part of me under control.

As darkness falls, the wind seems to pick up and the waves swell. The sailors are having a high old time as they steer through the black night toward Cuba. "Rock and roll!" I hear them say cheerily. "This is fun, Mommy!" calls Josie as she frolics in her berth up front. For 12 hours it's a riotous ride across the Gulf Stream, with a strong trade wind from the northeast filling the sails for hours and keeping us rolling along at roughly eight knots - about 10 miles per hour. That's fast for a sailboat. They sound exhilarated by the challenge.

As for me: Well, imagine a washboard. Then imagine an ant trying to traverse the washboard. Picture both ant and washboard lashed to a bad-tempered bronco, bucking its way through the racket of Times Square at rush hour. The ant: c'est moi. Or in this case, soy yo.

In the middle of the night, they take the mainsail down entirely to slow the boat; we don't want to arrive too early in the morning.

Terra firma at last

The guidebooks (following standard sailing procedure) say to use our two-way radio to contact the Marina Hemingway, the only Havana anchorage available to tourists, when we are three miles out, which we do. We look for the sea buoy that marks the narrow channel to the harbor. Scanning the horizon with our binoculars, we see many fishermen in tiny boats bouncing around, but no buoy. Finally we spot something that looks like a floating chunk of old jungle gym, bobbing in a sea alive with trash.

"That must be it," says Jamie. "Must be," agrees the Captain.

We make our way to the customs outpost, tying up there at around 8:30 on a Sunday morning. Soon there are at least six officials talking to each other under a dockside canopy. As the sun rises higher and fiercer I long for the shade they enjoy. Other sailors have reported the entrance procedure as taking anywhere from half an hour to 90 minutes. Ours lasts three hours.

The first aboard is an elderly doctor in a white coat. He takes our passports, leaves for a while, then brings them back. Then come a couple in cloth face masks, she from the veterinary department, he from agriculture. All very friendly, cordial and efficient. Once again, passport numbers are scrupulously noted, a cursory look given to our food supplies and, I assume, a notation made that we have no cows or sheep aboard. As they leave, the guy from agriculture asks for a tip - in American dollars, please. We give him $20.

Then the third team boards, two men in uniform, offering to remove their black military boots if the Captain so desires. They take two hours.

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