Powerful sailing up to Cuba

by Glen

Sunday-Monday 3-4 April: 560 nautical mile passage from Honduras to Cuba. Part 1: Utila to Cabo San Antonio.

Sunday 3am our wakeup alarm goes off. Quite an un-godly hour to be getting up to start a long passage. The challenge with this passage is to get up to the eastern tip of Cuba, 375nm to the north, without being blasted by strong easterly trade winds which gust up to 35kts from a NE to SE direction, and definitely avoid the occasional very strong north wind that comes with a cold front.
This weather window we have for this trip has a short lull when the usually strong trade winds drop to 10-22kts, initially from the east then shifting southeast as we travel north. Tomorrow the east trade winds will again raise back to 30kts around the Bay Islands and fill-in northwards. By departing at 4am we should stay just slightly ahead of this stronger wind and hopefully we get around the tip of Cuba before it catches up to us. Then, once going east along the north coast of Cuba, the forecast is a gentle offshore southerly wind all the way to Havana, which should make for a close reach in calm seas. What is not going to be pleasant is the large swell which we will have to punch through for the first 24hrs. This swell is left-over from the last days where the trades have been blowing very strongly.

Looking outside at 3am, we wonder if there will actually be enough wind to even sail. Oddly, Utila often lies just to the south of the trade-wind line and that is how it looks this morning. Light wind here, but just 5 miles north it will be a different story.

So, initially we motor out of the bay and straight into 6kts of wind, and immediately directly into the swell. And we soon have the bow dipping into the short steep waves and throwing green water all over the deck. This motion instantly gets poor Oana sea-sick, even before we are 2nm away from Utila.
Once around the SE corner of Utila we can turn slightly to port, heading NNE, the engine goes off and we manage to sail in 10-12kts of east wind, but still ploughing into the short and steep oncoming swell. And for the next 2 hours even I have the notion “please remind me why we do this? It really is no fun!”
Once in the lee of Roatan the swell dies down for 2-3 hours before hitting us hard again once passed Roatan. To put it in figures: we were now fast sailing in 15kts, 80 degrees to true wind and 40 degrees to apparent wind with boat speed of 8 kts. Exhilarating sailing but also pretty rough on the crew. The bow wave continuously throws water into the genoa foot as Cloudy thumps her way through the oncoming waves. Even I had to take a seasickness pill and by now Oana has taken up position on the saloon floor, within crawling distance of the bow toilet ☹. Not a happy Bunny, I can tell you. We knew the first 12-24 hours would not be pleasant. But unfortunately, once Oana gets sick, she stays that way until the boat gets totally calm again, which means she stays unwell for the next 48 hours, until we reach Cuba.

We continue like this until midafternoon, when the wind thankfully starts to veer more SE allowing us to have the swell side-on rather than head on. Still not a pleasant motion but far better than bashing into it. Now we are on a beam reach (True=95, Apparent=60) we are really flying, with boat speed continuously above 8kts and often touching 10kts. Maybe today we finally break our 200nm per day barrier. We have been up to 198 before. In retrospect, I should have headed off the wind and gone more west allowing us to get into the edge of the Gulf Stream with 2+kts helping our speed. But I dreaded the wind catching us up before Cuba and having to again go to windward to round the tip of Cuba. So, we stayed conservatively to the east, allowing us to free off for the tip of Cuba should the strong winds catch up with us.

Monday: We sailed though the night in a similar pattern. The only things of note were that we went through a busy area of shipping for a few miles and at 4:15am, we had done 202nm. So we broke the 200 barrier finally! With Oana still out-for-the-count on a mattress on the saloon floor, I stayed in the cockpit all night. Luckily, I can sleep on command, so I set a timer for 30minutes, wakeup, look around, look at the sails and plotter, then set another 30minute timer. As such, I managed to get plenty of sleep.

In the early afternoon we have a visitor. A beautiful migratory bird, with deep blue wings, orange breast and a swallow tail. At first it landed on the dinghy but then got brave and came into the cockpit. And then got even braver and landed on top of my head, where it immediately started happily chirping. I think it though it had found its birth nest! Then it flew off inside the cabin and perched on the net hammocks that Oana keeps fruit in. Now, I don’t mind it inside the boat, but I do mind its poo in there. So it was quickly shooed out again. After flying around the boat a few times, it came back into the cockpit and settled behind the chart plotter.
Then, a few minutes later, another one arrived and landed on the life raft and soon the 2 birds were chirping at each other. Clearly the original brave one was telling the new arrival to come into the safety and shade of the cockpit. 10 minutes later both were in the cockpit, perched on the top of the plotter. I even had the feeling they were looking at the chart and discussing which way was north!
The funny thing was that each time Cloudy had a big heel, the 2 birds slide down the plotter with the end one falling off! It would then fly off and come back, this time sitting on the higher end of the plotter. When Cloudy heeled again, it was the turn of the other one to slide down and fall off! Occasionally the one that had fallen off fluttered around the one that was still on and pecked it, as if to say “don’t do that again!”

1 hour later, another arrived, this time perching on the dinghy until it was persuaded by the other 2 to come into the cockpit. At one point we had 2 birds on the wheel and one on the plotter. The 2 on the wheel had quite a ride because the autohelm was turning the wheel at least 14 turn one way then back again, causing the birds to flutter as they tried to stay on.
The whole charade kept me very amused for several hours until eventually all 3 birds found a cozy place in the corner of the cockpit and snuggled together and chirping to each other like they were back in their nest as fledglings. And there they stayed, sleeping all night, not even stirring when my head torch was turned on right next to them. They were so very cute. I did put a bowl of water next to them hoping they would drink, but they didn’t.

At 2am Tuesday morning we were at Cabo San Antonio, the cape on the eastern tip of Cuba. We took 46 hours to cover the 365nm from Utila. Pretty quick! And thankfully, we had arrived before the strong winds caught up with us. As soon as we were sailing north-east in the lee of the Cape, the seas flattened and peace descended upon Cloudy Bay as she slipped silently along in just 8kts of wind, hard on the wind. At this point it was tempting to just continue, but I decided to furl the sails and motor in behind the cape and anchor for the rest of the night, and let Oana recover. Also, because we had arrived to this cape 4 hours ahead of schedule, if we had continued we would have arrived to Havana in the dark. A few hours at anchor will also ensure we arrive after daybreak on Wednesday.
So, in the pitch black we gently motored 3 miles inshore, and anchored as close as I dared, just ½ mile in the lee of mangroves. Once the anchor was down and engine off it was totally peaceful. Oana came back to life and we headed to bed at 3:30am with alarm for 10am. Sleep blissful sleep.

You may also like