Tuesday-Wednesday 5-6 April: 560 nautical mile passage from Honduras to Cuba. Part 2: Cabo San Antonio to Havana. Fish after fish after fish!
From our brief rest-stop behind Cabo San Antonio, we both wake up before the alarm with the boat rocking. The forecasted strong SSE winds have arrived and although I anchored as close to the shore as I dared last night, there is still a 1 mile fetch and the sea is already choppy. So by 8am we were on our way again, sailing back offshore, across the turquoise waters of the back-reef area. Even in this sheltered side of Cuba the wind is already 15 gusting 20kts, at first from astern, then as we are into deeper water and turn east, we are beam reaching towards Havana and back to full speed: 8+kts. Although land is now almost out of sight, we are in fact sailing just outside the reef that lies some 3-5 miles offshore of this NW Cuban coastline.
We continue like this all day, following the curve of the outer reef, gradually heading closer to due east yet managing to maintain a beam reach in a relatively calm sea. Sailing like this, just along the drop-off, we are in the very fertile fishing zone. And the other big plus is that there is no sargassum seaweed on this side of Cuba, hence none of the usual continuous hauling-in of the fishing line to clear weed.
During the rest of the day, we were greatly entertained with fishing. So much so that we lost count of how many we hauled in! The first was a large barracuda which I could barely lift onto the deck. We don’t like the taste of big barracuda, but unfortunately I had to kill it to get the hook out. Well, at least it will be food for something else – maybe a few Nemos get their revenge? The next few fish were either Spanish mackerel or yet more barracuda and finally 2 large blue runners. All of which I managed to get the hook out and put them back into the water where they happily swam off.
The prize that we are seeking is a nice mahi mahi, but maybe we are fishing too close to the reef, because almost as fast as I put the line out another barracuda grabs the lure. So we venture slightly deeper into 100+m of water. Out here the line stays out of several hours with nothing biting. Then, just before sunset we get a big one. I see the fish only once as it jumps a clear 1m out the water about 100m astern. It looks like a mahi! Then, it dives down deep and puts up a very strong fight. That’s the sign of a big-game fish. We reduce the sails to slow the boat and after 10 minutes I manage to get it halfway reeled-in when the line suddenly goes slack, and pffff, it’s gone. It somehow managed to wriggle off the hook ☹. I must learn how better to play these big fish, which often seem to get away from us.
Continuing on the theme of wildlife, which this passage seems to have a theme, as the sun was setting, we had another visitor of the feathery kind. This time, oddly, a bird of prey landing rather awkwardly on the lazy genoa sheet. It then continued to swing back and forth as it tried to cling onto the swinging rope. Why on earth it would land for a rest when land was in sight, we really could not fathom. Eventually the rope shook it off and it flew away, circled the boat then landed on the shiny surface of the aft-quarter solar panel. But this was not much better for it. Its claws had nothing to dig into and each time the boat heels it would slide from one end of the panel to the other like it was on a skating rink! Eventually it gave up and flew off in the direction of land. Silly thing!
And our final bird for the trip came just before I turned on the mast head nav-light. A huge seabird (like a seagull but bigger wings, maybe a frigate?) kept trying to land on the mast head, which is purposefully very difficult with all the antennas and devices sticking up. Each time it approached I shook the back stay as hard as I could, making it fly away, for it to only come around and try again. My next trick was to shine our spotlight at it. But it wasn’t until I put it on strobe-mode that it finally got the message it was not welcome.
After sunset and as evening draws on, we come into the wind shadow of the Cuban mountains making the offshore wind lighter but gusty, and we reef down to keep the boat as comfortable as possible in the gusts. Plus, we are in no hurry, our ETA is already close to day-break and we have no desire to arrive early then be hanging around at the marina entrance waiting for daylight.
When sailing way out at sea we really have no problem to sleep for half hour stretches knowing with certainty that any boat out there will have AIS switched on. This is not the case sailing close to the shoreline of a country like Cuba, where there will be fishing boats and very likely without lights. And to attest to this, midevening Oana says “there’s a light there, right in front”. I look out but declare to her that it’s miles away, possibly even on the land. Then, just seconds later a strong spot-light hits us from the same place and I suddenly see it’s a tiny open fishing boat just 50m in front of us. We divert just in time and their spotlight follows us as we pass them. OK, so we do need to keep a very goo look out! At the same time, we steer more offshore to be at least 1-2 miles away from the reef, where no one should be fishing.
At midnight the wind dies to just 4kts and we are forced to motor. But then 1 hour later it’s back up to 8kts and we are sailing again, slipping along tight on the wind. This time, whenever the wind drops to 5-6 kts we keep sailing, always managing to keep a boat speed almost the same as the wind speed. This means that while the wind is on our beam, the apparent wind is putting us hard on, with sails trimmed-in tight.
By 3am this gentle wind has swung slightly more east, and even hard on the wind we are not managing to stay parallel to the shoreline, we are instead gently heading out to sea in a ENE direction. I contemplate putting the engine back on because from previous experience sailing 38 degrees to the wind is as tight as we can get. But that was with the old sails. So far, with these new EPEX sails I have not had a light wind situation like this, so we experiment. We are sailing with autohelm on “wind” and I keep taking 2 degrees of at a time, and further trimming-in the sails and even bring the mainsheet track up slightly to windward of center. Astoundingly, I finally manage to get to just 28 degrees apparent wind and still sailing beautifully. In fact, still managing to match boat speed to wind speed. We are doing 6.5kts in 6kts of wind, and now managing to sail parallel to the coastline again. Amazing! Cloudy feels like a racing yacht than an ocean-slugger.
All along this coast we have been getting smells of the land. Either pine forest, or wood smoke and finally, but not so pleasantly, burning oil as we pass the power station in Honda Bay.
As the sun rises, we are perfectly heading directly for the Marina Hemingway entrance. It’s almost like Cloudy Bay knew she had to perform like this to bring us in. 10 miles from the entrance we make the required VHF call to the marina master and in very clear English he gives us precise instructions of how to enter the narrow reef channel and where to dock for the entry procedure.
The channel is indeed narrow, only 100ft wide between the reef either side, and there is a strong cross current to contend with too. But with a slight crab-track we make it through OK and get tied up at the customs dock, helped by the officials.
They are all very efficient and friendly. First the medic comes on board, dressed like she just came from an operations theatre. She asks lots of questions and is armed ready to give us a PCR test. But given we have no symptoms she does not administer any test. Then immigration lady for passport stamps. Then customs. There are 1000 and 1 questions about what we have on board then 2 of them and a sniffer dog go through the boat. Interestingly the dog handler puts protective socks onto the dog. At first, we think it’s to protect the boat for claw scratches but once inside the boat, the dog literally jumps onto everything, setees, beds, everywhere, so we are glad for the socks! For some reason, of all the equipment that we are asked about and declare, they only seem interested in our bikes. They insist that we take them out, where they take photos of them. No doubt they will want to see the bikes again when we depart.
The whole process was very quick and efficient and the staff very pleasant. Once completed we are assigned a berth and we are on our way into the marina, up the narrow Channel No.2, where several marina staff are there to take our lines. And finally, by late morning we are safely tied up and can relax. We are in Cuba at last!