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.

In the steamy cabin below, they painstakingly record the serial number of each of our six emergency flares, in triplicate, with carbon paper. The flares are confiscated until our departure.

Eventually, with smiles and handshakes, we are declared bienvenidos and directed on to our berth at Marina Hemingway.

This marina was built in 1958 and appears not to have been repaired since. We are directed to tie up on one side of the quay that defines the marina's canals. Our Captain is perturbed, visualizing the crumbling concrete wall grinding through his boat's protective rubber bumpers. In the United States, marinas are usually built by driving pilings and erecting finger piers of wood; here they've used a far more difficult method of digging four parallel canals along the lowland shore and armoring them with concrete.

But we have no choice but to stay where we're told. Anchoring out is not permitted, nor is inflating our rubber dinghy. And we are warned not to leave the boat carrying a compass, a GPS or, I suppose, even a sextant. Apparently they think that some poor Cuban could escape by crossing the Gulf Stream in our 9-foot rubber dinghy.

Dreams denied

In the outward canals we find the legion of the lost: scores of untended, abandoned and half-sunken boats, apparently left to rot in the blazing sun and the humid nights. Long-missing owners and crews have painted names and home ports on the concrete, giving an eerie sense of a graveyard of sailing dreams.

At this odd marina, guards are stationed in stifling boxes that look like old U.S. phone booths. Every gallon of water is metered and paid for, on top of our very reasonable daily fee of about $30.

Much of the information we'd found on the Internet about Marina Hemingway is seriously out of date. There is no swimming pool, just a cordoned-off section of the boat canals. The "modern facilities" are hand-held showers without heads and - as we will find everywhere in Cuba except in expensive hotels and private bed and breakfasts - the toilets are without seats or paper. Only one of the six sinks in the ladies' room works, with the broken faucets of the others lined up uselessly on a windowsill. The chandlery, which in most marinas is a store for boat owners to buy items such as paint, rope and turnbuckles, sells only rum, beer and Bailey's Irish Cream.

But by Sunday afternoon we are sipping mojitos at a table in what we have dubbed the Tiki Hut, a thatch-roofed patio around the swimming hole. Women in bikinis show enviable hip flexibility as they dance vigorously to loud music. Josie makes friends with the squad of skinny boatyard cats that are slinking around, and a welcome breeze dries our sweat for a bit.

The guidebooks say that the best time to visit Cuba is between November and April, but May was the only time we could all go. The whole week we are there, the weather is like Washington at its worst: temperatures in the 90s but with so much humidity that it feels like 110. Even in the shade. I'd impulsively bought a small battery-powered fan in Florida before we left, and by the end of the trip I'm carrying it with me everywhere the way Josie does her security blanket. It's also useful in combating the mosquitoes that prey upon us at Marina Hemingway during the night.

Cuban mysteries

Much of what we see in Cuba is as delightfully mystifying as the marina. For our first experience with money-changing, we are directed to a hotel at the end of the marina, el Viejo y el Mar (the Old Man and the Sea). It's a charmless Soviet-style high-rise about half a mile from our boat. "Bienvenidos Hermanos Venezolanos" reads a sign in the lobby, where men in wheelchairs or on crutches - presumably Venezuelans - mill about. There is also an impressive array of fish tanks. The receptionist says that we cannot stay in the hotel. It's not for foreigners; we would have to go across the quay to the Hotel Acuario.

She changes our dollars for two kinds of Cuban money: In our shorthand, one currency is Real Money and the other is Fake. (Hardly anyone will take the Fake Money, only some vegetable sellers.) Ten dollars in Fake Money is worth about 25 cents; Real Money is roughly equivalent to dollars. There is also a hefty 20 percent bite taken out of our dollars because our two countries can't get along.

Officially, Americans may travel to Cuba only with a license, obtainable for journalistic purposes, for academic research or to visit relatives you've been sending money to. The problem is that you are not supposed to buy anything in Cuba unless you have a license. This is not as hard as you might think, because there isn't much to buy. The grocery store in the marina, for example, although gleaming and air-conditioned, has beautiful displays of toilet brushes and bottles of rum, but no milk for Josie.

Much has been written about the glories of Havana, the fabulous but fading Spanish architecture, the amazing old American cars, the friendly people. All true. But don't expect to buy a piece of fruit to tide you over until lunch, and don't forget to take your own toilet paper - and if possible, your own toilet.

We find wonderful music everywhere - on the street, in restaurants and bars - and the public restaurants are generally in the most beautiful settings, old courtyards or under thatched roofs. But the food in them is pretty dreadful: The worst I had was a grilled fish covered with a sauce that looked and tasted like library paste, with a side dish of canned vegetables doused in vinegar. Friends who had visited Cuba had advised us to go to paladares, small restaurants in private homes. For a tourist, finding a private home that happens to have a restaurant is a little daunting, but the one we do find is through a waiter in a really bad public restaurant. Aside from the meals we cook on the boat, it's the best food we have in Cuba.

We rent a car for a few days from the state-run Cubacar. It's the first car rental agency in our experience to instruct us to remove the antenna and the radio whenever we leave the vehicle, and to do our best to avoid potholes. Whoops! Too late. Driving on the highway we take south is like slaloming on skis to avoid the craters in the road. But it is blessedly free of traffic.

There is life on the streets: children playing outside instead of staring at video games, a woman with her hair set in old-fashioned metal crimpers giving herself a manicure, a boy climbing to the roof of a collapsing house to tend his pigeon coops. I wonder how they can keep those old cars running but not the water faucets.

That's the thing about Cuba. For every discomfort or inconvenience, there's a flip side, a charming scene or a delightful contradiction.

Eventually we leave Havana for a smaller port, Varadero, another 18-hour sail. Here we fiJnd picturesque beaches, fewer officials and a far more comfortable marina. By departure date, the Cuban officials have become characters, nearly friends.

It's always sad to set sail for the last time. So it is when our boat bends her tall mast to the trade wind and takes the first dollop of water over the bow as we head east. The green coast retreats to a shape, to a line, to a shadow.

And then the island is gone.

Rosenfeld, a former Washington Post reporter, is a freelance writer.

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