Sailing back to USA

by Glen

Friday – Sunday 15-17 April, Cuba days 10-12: Preparing to depart Cuba, and very wet sailing across the Gulf Stream to Key West, Florida.

In the previously days we had done a road trip to Trindad on the south coast of Cuba. One of the reasons we had decided not to stay another night in Trinidad was to pay the marina bill on a weekday before our planned departure on Sunday. Meaning we had to be back in the marina today, Friday. Then, having returned especially for this, it annoyingly took us 3 trips to the marina office before we could actually pay. First time no one there. Second time the lady who needs to take the payment had not come in, third time she had very reluctantly been pulled in from her home, especially to take our money. Without a completed payment, we would not have been allowed to depart on Sunday, which is about the only weather window we have for at least another week to 10 days. One of the many challenges when planning a passage.
Our bill is in line with our estimate: $54/day for marina, 2 x $78 for our visas, $57 for cruising permit and finally a 4% charge for paying by credit card, even though no other payment option was allowed! It all adds up to quite a lot. But, pretty good value for money when you think it allowed us peace of mind to leave the boat while we go travelling around the country.

For the remainder of Friday, our last day with our rent-a-wreck hire car, we complete our Havana to-do list: taking a classic car tour during the day, then in the evening finally getting to see jazz played at La Zorra y el Cuervo, which was actually rather disappointing. All of this is described in our previous blog relating to our trips into Havana city.

Saturday, we return the car and prepare for departure. Oana does some laundry, bakes bread and cakes and prepares a ready meal for our crossing to Key West tomorrow.
In the afternoon, while I potter on the deck, the Swedish sports fisher boat that moors next to us returns from another day’s sport fishing. This time, the Swedish owner and his Cuban boat-boy have quite the beast in tow. Not being able to physically pull it on board, they resorted to towing their enormous blue marlin catch-of-the-day (actually: catch of the decade, if you ask me!) back into the marina, wrapped in several ropes. Dead, poor thing. Apparently while trying to land it there had been quite a drama. To “run with the fish” they had put the boat in reverse which resulted in the whole aft deck getting flooded by a wave which then ran into the engine room below, stalling one engine and damaging electrics, including the bilge pump circuitry. So, for a while, they had just forgotten about the monster fish fighting on the end of the line and instead gone into survival mode, just trying to save the boat!
Now back in the marina with their prize, they are all smiles. It took all the marina staff (maybe 12 people) to haul this huge fish out the water and up onto the dockside. And by-god, it is indeed huge. It must be 3.5m long and weigh at least 600lbs (300Kgs). And what a stunningly beautiful fish it is, with its sword nose, sailfish dorsal fin and blue/sliver colour. Such a shame really. And later in the day, I learn that most countries don’t allow sailfish like this to be landed – instead insisting they are tagged and released. But not in Cuba, and the Cuban boat boy is beside himself with joy, jumping around and babbling non stop like a child on steroids! He couldn’t be happier. Meanwhile, the word gets out and a horde of people are soon gathered to look. Then the dissection starts, with a very skilled guy armed with a long sharp knife, a hatchet axe, and a hammer. It’s quite the operation to watch and before not long, the headless, tailless and finless gutted body is ready to be divided up. Strangely, a bus turns up and about 15 women climb out with plastic food bags in their hands. Each gets given a large steak. Others put large pieces in bags and head off on their motor bike, one with a fin dragging on the ground behind him. In among all this rather grotesque activity, the captain of Cloudy Bay is given what looks like a prime piece of fish steak which is quickly taken below for Oana to put in the fridge. That will make for an interesting dinner, or 2!

The following day, Sunday, we are up before dawn preparing to depart. The weather window we have is a windy starboard beam reach initially, then the winds ease off but will leave us tight on the wind coming into Key West. The passage across the Gulf Stream will be 100nm and I estimate our transit time to be 12 hours. So, we must leave by 7am if we are to get anchored before dark.
We slip our lines in the marina, then proceed to the customs dock. Here we attend the exit formalities, which go smoothly, and we are all done in just 40 minutes, heading out the marina channel and back into open water by 07:20.
At first, close to the coast, the wind is light. But just a mile or two out, it picks up and within an hour we have up to 23kt gusts and big chaotic seas, resulting in a rather wild ride. The true wind is beam-on (90 degrees) but the apparent wind is well forward of the beam and waves are coming at us too. This means we are riding up the steep wave faces, over the top and down into the next valley, then repeat, repeat repeat….. Thankfully, because of Cloudy Bay’s 30 tons weight (yes, she’s a heavy girl) she doesn’t “slam” like so many light-displacement yachts would do. Instead, she pushes hard through the waves, often dipping her bow in and throwing green water back down the deck – sometimes even reaching the cockpit screen, and the occasional one even going up screen and over the spray hood. [note: green water is a sailor’s term for solid water on deck and not just spray]. Needless to say, Oana and I are clinging on tight while Cloudy does her stuff, completely sailing herself on autohelm. What a machine she is, in these conditions.

This continues for the rest of the morning until we finally get to the northern edge of the Gulf Stream. It’s this strong current that is making the seas so short and steep, especially so with the wind against the flow of current. The positive effect is that the current is also pulling us eastwards, helping us to make miles upwind. Without it, we would have been tacking across to Key West rather than managing to lay the course in one straight leg.

As the day wore on (and as we wore out!), the wind lightens and swings further east, leaving us very hard on the wind (meaning sailing as close to the wind as possible) as we approach Key West. As we pass over the outer shoals of the Keys chain of islands, I realise we cannot quite lay the town without tacking. But rather than do that, we decide to furl the sails away and motor the last 4 miles into the wind.

We arrive at our chosen anchoring spot, tucked into the west side of Wisteria Island, just before sunset. Perfect plan and execution, if I may say so. And it had to be done today. For the next 10 days forecast there would be no better wind to come across. So as rough as it was, it was worth doing rather than being stuck in Cuba, in a marina where costs would add up. Here, at anchor, we stay for free, as we will be waiting on weather. That same wind patten (strong easterlies) that would have stopped us leaving Cuba after today, will now stop us leaving Key West. But that’s for the next blog.

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Steve May 5, 2022 - 4:25 pm

Sounds like quite the wild ride indeed! Glad CB made it safely along with both of you! And we won’t take off points for motoring the last 4 miles haha

Peter M. Nangeroni May 6, 2022 - 4:17 pm

Hi Oana & Glen,
I hope Oana didn’t turn too green on the crossing and that fish is known as an Atlantic Marlin, same species of that in “the Old Man and the Sea” by Hemingway.
Have a safe trip up the coast……

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