For those in search of fair winds, an umbrella-laden beverage and an increased sense of adventure, Cuba provides. U.S.-Cuba relations easing in December of 2014 provided an opportunity for voyagers to sail the island. One year later, we arrived to our charter in the southern Cuba port of Cienfuegos to begin a 600-nm voyage to Havana. Booking our trip was relatively standard, and what obstacles did surface added to the romance of the experience. While it was our primary desire to explore Cuba’s coastline, our trip included touring museums, art galleries and a few architectural marvels from the Spanish conquest. Throughout our trip, we formed an unwavering respect for the spirit of the Cuban people, and the untouched beauty of the coastline.
S/Y Bella Signora, a 47-foot Nautitech built in 2004, was described to us as the fastest charter on the southern coast. Provisioning was expensive. The natural fruits and vegetables appeared to be grown without preservatives, and I did not recognize many food brands in the market.
The city of Cienfuegos sprawls across two square miles of old-world structures. Given its cultural heritage, the city was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the best example of 19th-century Spanish architecture and urban planning in the Americas. We had a dinner at Marina Puerto Sol that was bland, but a plate of chicken, rice, vegetables and fries with a beer only cost $3. After a swim in the marina pool, we hitched a ride downtown for some dancing.
A daylight passage
The following morning we departed Cienfuegos in darkness, navigating through a narrow passage into the Caribbean Sea, making our course for Cayo Largo located about 75 miles southwest. Our charter company recommended we make it in daylight since we needed a slip as our final crewmember was arriving from Havana, but all attempted communications with him had failed. The sun appeared as we sailed past the Bay of Pigs, and with it a breeze filled in. Our speed averaged 14 knots for most of the afternoon and drove breakfast from a couple stomachs aboard. Bella Signora was the only vessel in Alboran’s sailboat charter fleet allowed to make the trip to Havana, and the four staterooms and extra bunks made her a comfortable choice.
We arrived in the late afternoon at Playa Sirena, threw a hook and made for the restaurant bar — also finding a water sport rental business with jet skis, kayaks, sailboats and dolphins. We swam back to the boat and motored to the marina, where a port captain named Pire welcomed us like sons and guided us to a slip for $30 a night. Pire served in the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces during the communist intervention in Angola and the Ogaden War in Ethiopia, and he had a picture of himself with Fidel hanging behind his desk. It was clear Pire is a proud Cuban, yet he was open about how earning $20 a month as a government employee isn’t always sustainable.
The next morning, we motored to Cayeria los Majaes, home to the Cuban rock iguana. We tossed a football and fly-fished in the natural pools that form between the islands. Alex caught and released what looked to be a yellowhead wrasse on his fly rod. That evening we moseyed about the resorts, quickly realizing our preference for the marina and nearby dance hut, where our entertainment consisted of rowdy Australians, Swiss bankers, standoffish Italians and a bitter Canadian expat. A pair of vacated machinegun pillboxes lay to the west of the lively marina bar and restaurant, reminding us how recently hostilities between our nations had simmered.
Guarded by sandbars and reefs
Cayo Largo is home to several resorts and lies on the eastern edge of Canarreos Archipelago, a group of volcanic, coral and mangrove islands that make up the southern perimeter of the Gulf of Batabano. A series of sandbars make Cayo Largo’s northern coastline unnavigable, and the south is surrounded by a reef system where a catamaran sank the evening prior to our arrival, leaving 15 crew stranded and in need of rescue. The southwestern side, however, offers a comfortable anchorage and is a likely place where Christopher Columbus and Sir Francis Drake made their arrival five centuries earlier. Reefs and islands are marked, but most aids to navigation lack lights and are best cruised first in daylight. Andy’s arrival revived our morale and allowed us to continue westward. The wind built from the east and we made for Cayo del Rosario under a full moon, arriving on Christmas Eve to a marmalade sunrise.
We learned the long uninhabited island is for sale, but the Castros rejected bids from a Japanese sumo wrestler and a Latin American pop artist, among others. While surveying the island, a Cuban lobster boat approached Bella Signora and we signaled them to tie up. Cuba banned commercial fishing in 1997, but the small boats provide room for free divers to collect several hundred lobsters before returning to port. We bartered rum, coffee and beer for a dozen lobsters and set sail for Nueva Gerona.
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September - October 2020