From the ships log: Our first landfall with pristine wi-fi
The following is a description of the landfalls, passages, and day to day activities that have filled our time aboard Winnie over the past 30+ days.
We are so far behind on properly updating our travels, it is hard for us to recall every important event, or to summarize it into a readable blog post. It has been surprisingly difficult to pull out a camera when battling at sea, or even the extra weight and liability of bringing it ashore. Our ships log has massive gaps, as we plot our course, make our meals, take watch, and save the energy it would take to make descent entries into the log. We will work on it, but anyhow…
One of our last real posts with what we are doing was from Florida somewhere, and we are a long ways from there now. Currently, we sit in San Pedro, Belize, recapping the last month from memory.
We spent 10 days in Key West, anchored off of Wisteria Island, getting rolled around by the passing catamaran booze cruises. We spent time with friends, strolled Duvall St. plenty of times, did some snorkeling, watched the South Florida Symphony play, and finished just enough boat projects to feel safe enough to weigh anchor and get the hell out.
We departed Key West around noon on March 31st, heading south to forbidden waters. We’ve been avoiding the details of this section of our trip for a while now, but I think it is reasonably safe to let the secret out now. We made our first foreign landfall in Cuba, and spent 2 weeks exploring the country. During this time, Obama was shaking hands with Raul Castro in Panama, and many Cubans thought we might be the first wave of Americans that would be visiting their country. It was very clear that both the citizens and the government officials were welcoming of Americans to their country, as they have been for many years now. Despite the embargo, both trade and tourism has been happening for decades, whether over the table, or more commonly, under the table.
We knew Cuba would be a vastly different country to visit than any place any of us had been before, yet we were still surprised and perplexed by the strange ways life carries on there. No matter how many books, websites, or travel journals you read, it is impossible to learn the ways Cuba operates without seeing it firsthand. Superficial first thoughts come to mind such as Cuban cigars, old American cars, rum, history of revolution, “a country frozen in time”, Fidel’s system of government, socialism, national healthcare, etc. True, but these things sum up Cuba like fast food, football, and democracy sum up the United States.
After a 26-hour smooth passage, we carefully entered through the channel, following an exact heading from a Red/White buoy, which marks the entrance. Dangerous reefs within 20 yards on either side; we safely pulled up to the customs dock and began our check in procedure. It was a mix of 8 different people, from 4 different departments, filing their necessary paperwork. They were more concerned with whether we would tip them then the actual documentation, health, agricultural products, or potential drug smuggling aboard Winnie. The “drug-sniffing” dog was a pregnant, mixed cocker spaniel- dachshund, who wandered the seawall until the customs official put a leash on her and lowered her into our boat to sit patiently in the cabin until released back on shore. It took about 2 hours, and we finally relaxed our nerves as we tied Winnie along the canal walls.
We typically anchor out, so this was the first marina we have stayed at. It is called Hemingway Marina and it is located 9 miles west of Havana. It was really nice, convenient, and a good way to integrate into the sailing community. We had daily showers, a 10 minute walk to a good meal costing about $1 USD, a secure tie off to a concrete wall, almost zero threat of thievery or safety concerns, and a cheap bus ride into Havana. It was a hub of English speaking travelers from all over, many whom sailed long distances to get there. We were definitely a couple decades younger than the average, but they recognized us as sailors and didn’t care our age. They offered lots of advice and offered help however they could, and for the first time, didn’t question whether we were capable or experienced enough to do what we are doing. They respected us for having the ambition to cast our lines off, yet still not being fully prepared for the sea and what is to come. For instance, we had still not figured out a proper way to reef our mainsail, so in heavy weather, we had been forced to pull down the main sail completely and continue under jib alone, or sail very overpowered (dangerous). While at the marina, we met a couple who we enjoyed hanging out with, and they helped us sort out our reefing issue, and provided us with invaluable information on Mexico and Belize (our next ports of call).
We spent about three days wandering the streets of Havana, doing lots of walking, but being too cheap to take advantage of any tours, taxis, cigars, or tourist-driven itineraries. The prices in Havana were geared toward tourists, who wouldn’t blink at paying $10USD for a meal. We noticed the locals eating street pizzas, which costs about $1USD for a simple low quality bread-sauce-cheese-ham personal pizza. We stuck to those. The buildings were generally not up kept, but no more so than most Central American countries. Somewhat frozen in time, however, those old American cars are most often powered by newer Hyundai engines and a combination of random parts under the hood. Only the shell remains, which is very symbolic.
Outside of Havana, it was unlikely to find anyone able to speak English. We became friends with a Cuban English teacher, who gave us insight into the countries history and current politics. It is amazing how many versions of history can be recounted, depending on whom is doing the recordkeeping. We met many Cubans who had family in Miami, or who had at one time tried to make the journey across the 100 miles of water separating us from them.
The country is built upon revolution after revolution. It has been ruled by many foreign powers, but the people have still barely been heard. They have laws preventing them from travelling outside of the small district they live in, laws about how many Cubans can congregate in one home at any one time, what is legal and not legal to say about the government, laws about how much money they can make, what prices they charge in their businesses, how much farmland they can farm, animals they can raise, and jobs they can perform. The government owns any and all cows in the country, so in turn Cubans almost solely raise pigs, meaning no beef in the country. The government as recently allowed citizens to own their own homes, however, any crops grown on the land greater than the 1 square km around their home is still government owned…so many people don’t bother to farm it, as their income would be the same. There is very little motivation to be an entrepreneur, or focus on basic supply demand economics that we are accustomed to. The people have found creative and sometimes sad ways to live life making money under the table, such as selling off stolen diesel fuel from government trucks, driving taxis for cash only, bribery, prostitution, running illegal restaurants or other small unlicensed businesses out of their home, exchanging money to benefit from the exchange rate, and so on. Interesting fact: doctors might make about $30 USD per month, whereas a taxi driver may bring home close to $1,000 USD. Everyone in Cuba is given a beans/rice/pork ration, free housing, and adequate healthcare. Life is changing relatively quickly considering the last 50 years. My impression is that as Raul Castro took over around 2008, he has worked at bringing Cuba into the 21st century, and it is slowly working. He has announced he will not run for another term, and someone else will take power after the next election. They are set up for a fair, well-balanced system of government, but only time will tell. My impression is the average Cuban would like the trade embargo lifted, but there are a small handful of both Cubans and Americans who would really enjoy things staying exactly as they are.
Economic problems in Cuba are sometimes funny, like when a friend of ours had a cardboard box he needed to pack his bicycle in, and wanted to know where he could buy some packing tape. They are always missing something, but make due with what they have. At any one time, the entire country could run out of a basic item we would not think possible in any other country. Plenty of cigars but good luck finding a lighter.
Anyhow, we wrapped up our trip to Cuba by taking a car 3 hours west to Vinales, which is famous for its mountains in the Pinar Del Rio Province. Our only night off of the boat, we found a “casa particular” which is similar to a bed and breakfast, which cost us $15 USD for a room for all 4 of us.
As we were checking the weather reports and planning our day of departure from Cuba, we also added a crew member. An American girl named Ansley had hopped on another sailboat from Isla Mujeres, Mexico as crew and was going to stop in Cuba and onward to the BVI’s. Unfortunately, the ship she was crewing on ran hard aground on the dangerous reef at the harbor entrance. Everyone made it safely to shore in a life raft, but the ship and everything inside was a complete loss. This was the 3rd ship in the last 5 weeks to run aground on the reef. I will try to make a more detailed blog post on those events later. From Cuba onward, Ansley has been with us, sailing, taking watches, exploring ports, and living aboard Winnie. So yes, 4 people can live aboard a 35’ sailboat comfortably.
From Cuba, we watched our new friends sail away as we were getting ready to sail out as well. We had our good friend and mentor Dennis, sailing his 38’ boat across the Atlantic single-handed via the Azores. Paul was another single-handed sailor taking his little 26’ Contessa across the Atlantic, stopping in Florida first. Don and Tricia were headed back to Florida aboard their 62’ staysail steel schooner with a crew of about 5 who needed rides back to the states. They were extremely knowledgeable and friendly and had made over 17 passages to Cuba, including at least one circumnavigation of the island. Paul and Heather generously gave us a pound of ground beef and a bottle of wine before they headed for Florida. Bob and Debbie were the only other sailboat headed westward, following a similar route as us. We may see them again in Rio Dulce.
We settled up our paperwork and departed Hemingway Marina on April 15th, averaging about 5 knots across the northwestern coastline, about 5-10 miles offshore. We caught a small barracuda (~30”), which we then marinated and ate with a mango/cabbage salad. It was smooth sailing, but we did have to adjust for a pretty strong 3-knot northward current as we crossed the Yucatan Strait. We made landfall in Isla Mujeres, Mexico after a 74-hour smooth crossing on April 18th.
During our time in Isla Mujeres, we ate plenty of tacos, drank Coca Cola, got a little bit of internet for the first time in a couple weeks, swam at the beaches, and hung out at the Poc Na backpackers hostel. We still all slept on the boat every night, and it was very convenient to park our dinghy right by the town center. Kassie and I took the ferry onto mainland Cancun to do some provisioning and find some supplies, but there wasn’t much to see aside from massive hotels and high traffic. All in all, it was a very tourist centered place, but laid back with nice beaches and people. The check in procedures took 3 days to complete, clearing customs, health, immigration, port captain, and agriculture in an order that no one seemed to understand and a few trips to make copies in between. It wasn’t overly stressful however, as all of the officials didn’t mind waiting until “mañana” to get things done. We met several other cruisers at “Oscar’s” for pizza night, and were excited to get a tour of a big catamaran, which was our first time seeing what those big cats are like on the inside. We also celebrated Dylan’s 25th bday with a seafood lunch and flan with candles. I couldn’t find a piñata but we did get a bday serenade.
We checked out of Isla Mujeres after spending 8 days there. We departed southbound along the coastline, against a 2-3 knot current. We had good wind despite fighting the current. On average we would make about 6 knots over water, but only 3 knots over land due to the current. We made two stops before Belize: Bahia de la Ascension, and Bahia del Espiritu Santo. In Ascension, we took our dinghy to the small fishing and eco-tour town of Punta Allen. We found a really nice trail with tree house lookouts, wandered the town, and took freshwater showers from the towns water tower overflow pipe? It was a short distance of 30 miles to the next bay, so I decided we would be able to tow our dinghy instead of deflating it on deck and stowing the outboard below. This turned out to be a bad move, as the perfect wave eventually hit and flipped our dinghy while it was being towed behind us. We righted it quickly, and gathered the floating pump and seat from the ocean, but we didn’t know the fate of the submerged outboard. We tried the few tricks we knew, but the engine was locked up, and we had to wait until Belize to get it worked on by a real mechanic. We made our last stop in Mexico in Bahia del Espiritu Santo, which has a little fishing co-op that is inaccessible by roads. We spent the day collecting coconuts on the isolated beach, breaking them open with our machete and filling our water bottles with coconut water. We made a delicious coconut curry for dinner that night.
We entered Belize through San Pedro Pass, which is a narrow break in the reef marked with a yellow buoy. Our charts didn’t show the break, so we just had to trust the guidebook, follow the waypoints closely, and visually make our way through the breaking reef. We made it through just fine, and have been spending the last 5 days enjoying San Pedro, on Ambergris Cay. Luckily very little corrosion took place inside the outboard despite being dunked in saltwater and then dried in the air. After the engine was taken apart, cleaned up, and put back together by a mechanic on the island, it worked just fine again. A good lesson learned about towing dinghies.
An update on Belize with more pics to come!
Posted by: Kyle Hahn
Wonderful, I’ve travelled this area, but long to do more. Keep posting updates. (Question: how many years sailing did you have under your belt before you attempted this trip?)
Hi Carole, Kassie here. Thanks for the kind words. I had no sailing experience before we set out. Kyle was more prepared. He grew up on a small lake and learned as a kid how to sail small Optimist Dinghies. About 7 years ago he purchased a 24 foot sailboat and put it on a trailer and brought it to the Pacific Northwest to sail off the coast of Washington and Canada for a month.
Very cool adventure and tour!!! Can you tell me who you stayed with in Vinales? I will be going over for 3 weeks in October and came across your blog because I googled for 3 days sail excursion in Cuba LOL!!!!
We loved having you guys aboard.. Not sure I would call our boat a “Big Catamaran”, but I’m glad you enjoyed it. You should have seen the 90 footer in Cuba. Now that’s a BIG CATAMARAN!
I will definitely be reading along and living vicariously through you guys till I can finish extracting myself from North American life.
Safe travels and fair winds.
Marvelous update!! Very happy that everything has been sooth sailing, except for the poor dingy. I would love to visit Cuba before it become too Americanized again. I can follow along in my mind pretty well. I used to fly over Cuba on the way to many ports of call to the South, into Cancun, arriving over Isla Mujeres, and have taken public buses from just Sout of Cancun to Belize City. I have also visited all the Central American Countries from your present location to Panama. But, not by sailboat. Looking forward to the next Captain’s Log entry. Safe travels!!!
As always, love reading about your adventures and following your path. You are a topic of conversation among our friends too! I didn’t see anything about sea sickness, so I’m hoping everyone is not suffering with that. Thanks for the update!