Sunday 17 May, passage to USA day 3: A day for quite a variety with regards to sailing conditions. Lots of wind, no wind, motoring, squalls and dodging lightening storms.
At midnight we are motoring the last few miles to Cabo de San Antonio, the western most tip of Cuba. We had hoped to fly the Parasailor non-stop to this point. But alas, it finally collapsed when the true wind dropped below 4kts.
At 01:30 the wind comes in again at 8-10knts, this time on our starboard beam. Too shy for the Parasailor but just forward enough for the genoa to pull OK. So with water tanks full, batteries charged and loads of hot water, the engine goes off and we are back to silent night sailing. At 02:30 I go off shift, leaving Cloudy on autohelm steering by the wind. Oana likes it like this on her night shifts because she doesn’t have to be concerned about adjusting the sails if the wind shifts. Plus, we had a fright about this time last year when I left Cloudy steering on a fixed course and a thunder cell caused a dramatic wind shift, and Cloudy gybed in a 28kts gust with full mainsail and poled-out genoa. The gybe preventer worked thankfully, but the recovery in squalling winds left us both shaking and 2 bent stanchions. A defining event you might say.
An hour later Oana calls me because the wind has veered (not dramatically) and Cloudy is now heading too much north, or as Oana jokes: we are now heading to Florida via the over-land-Cuba route! I make the sail adjustments to get us back on course, then go back to sleep. But half an hour later it happens again. Only, this time, we can’t go any further off-the-wind and still keep the genoa pulling. So we set about rigging for a starboard pole.
After a lot of faffing around we are finally goose-wing sailing. The wind is adequate, 12kts from astern, but for some reason (probably due to the sea state) Cloudy is pitching all over the place and the sails seem more interested in shaking themselves to death than doing their job of pulling us along. Annoyed at all the effort and sweat for no result, I furl away both sails and put the motor back on, defeated 🙁 We continue motoring in the ever more confused sea for the last 25nm to Cuba. Like the windward passage at the east end of Cuba, this west end, jutting into the Yucatán Channel, also has mixed currents and swells making for an uncomfortable ride.
Finally, at day break, we can make the turn to the north, at the Cabo. This puts the wind back on the beam which allows us to sail conventionally again. With the main and genoa unfurled we are again pinned down and the rolling effect of the swell is greatly reduced. You see, when sailing, if you don’t like some aspect of the weather, you just need patience and Mother Nature (generally) comes back on your side. Talking of nature, the breeze coming from the land in this early morning is wonderfully fresh. I could stand there and feel that welcome cool all day!
As we pass Cabo de San Antonio lighthouse we get a VHF call in Spanish. I don’t answer and I don’t wish to wake Oana to find out if it’s us they are trying to contact. But then the hailing goes from Spanish to “sailing boat, sailing boat, answer please”. I’m really cutting the corner as we pass the Cabo, well into Cuban territorial waters, so I hope we’re not in trouble. But he just asks where we have sailed from, where is our next port, and how many people on board. After telling him, he politely responds “OK, you are free to go”. And that’s it.
Cuba was supposed to be our highlight Caribbean island this season. Certainly for Oana. And here we are, passing within a mile of it for the second time, yet not stopping. Currently, like most countries, they are not letting anyone in. Apparently, when Covid crisis first struck, yachts cruising in Cuba had 2 choices: sail away from Cuba or secure your yacht in a marina and come have a forced lock-down in a government facility. We were glad to be in Cayman at that time! It could so easily have been Cuba.
Once passed the Cabo we gradually turn east, running right along the edge of the extensive reef system that extends 10-15nm off the north Cuban shoreline. It’s a bit weird to be fast sailing in 5-8m of turquoise water yet we are only mid-passage and no plan to stop. Thankfully, as we keep adding a bit more easterly component to our course the wind also backs, keeping us on a wonderful super fast beam reach in very flat water, protected by the reef. We can almost feel Cloudy squealing with delight as she literally thunders along at a very steady 9+kts in 15kts of breeze. And at its peak, around 1pm, the wind is 19kts and we even think about reefing the sails. But no, this fast sailing is just too much fun!
As forecast, by mid-afternoon the wind decreases and by 3pm we are just about doing 6kts in 8kts of breeze. Still pleasant, but it feels decidedly slow after this morning. While it’s quiet, I spend some time looking at the gulf-stream plots and decide on a waypoint to aim for, so we get into the fastest current. Right now, we need to hug the Cuban coast for another 80nm, because offshore there are some quite strong back-eddies. Once passed those, we will venture offshore for our planned rendezvous with the gulf-stream conveyer belt, which we hope will whoosh us all the way to West Palm …. wind or no wind!
The gentle offshore wind finally dies completely about 5pm, then something weird happens. The wind completely switches 180 degrees. As we motor in flat calm we can see white caps ahead of us. It comes in very quickly and blows a steady 15kts. Not quite on-the-nose but close enough not to be able to sail without heading for the reef! So we stick with motor-sailing.
At dusk, Oana wakes me from my nap: “there’s electrical activity and very dark clouds around us”. The clouds really do have a fearsome look about them. On the radar, squalls are developing all around us and lightening starts. For the next 4 hours we play dodgems with the thunder cells, using the radar to see where they are heading. And we are quite successful. We have a bit of rain, and one squall, but we manage to avoid the center of any electric activity. As usual, we prepare the boat for potential lightening strike. Engine is already on, electronics into the oven (Faraday cage); masthead antennas disconnected. On a yacht, lightening is not your friend!
Finally, all the cells blow out to sea and no more seem to be forming. Oana goes to bed 11.30pm and I play with the sails trying to move in this fickle wind. But I give up and at midnight the engine is back on and we set a course out to sea, looking for the Gulf Stream.