Underway and in touch again

It’s Sunday morning and Pandora is clipping along at over 6kts on a broad reach and as we are being helped by a favorable current, our speed over the ground (SOG) is nearly 8kts.  That’s good as we have a long way to travel today as we make our way from Cayo del Rosario to an anchorage on the western tip of Isla de la Juventud, a large island on the south side of Cuba.  I should note that the “bottom” here is 13,000 feet below us and we are, amazingly, only 5 miles from shore.  Actually, even if we were less than a half mile from shore it would be over 3,000 feet to the bottom.   That’s deep.

Our destination today will put us more than ¾ of the way along the south shore of Cuba and will bring us to the point to where we will “turn the corner” and head NE toward Havana, our last stop prior to heading back to U.S. waters in early May.

Today’s run is nearly 80 miles so we had to get off to an early start, leaving by 07:30.  We plan on anchoring on the ocean side of the furthest tip of land on the largest island in Cuba, the nearly 100 square mile, Isla de la Juventud tonight.  The southern coast of the island has no harbors so we have to be sure that we can get all the way prior to nightfall or we’ll have to keep going overnight to the next anchorage which is about 100 miles further to the west.  However, as we are making good time so far, we should be able to arrive this evening with some daylight left.

After that, our next port will be Maria Cabo San Antonio and will mark our arrival at the most western point of Cuba.  To get there from Isla de la Juventud will require an overnight run as it’s over 100 miles and we can’t make that much distance during daylight hours.  Our plan will have us leave in the late afternoon so we’ll arrive the next morning.  And, with the best winds for sailing commonly occurring in the overnight hours here, we should have a good sail. Interestingly, as we round the western tip of Cuba, we will be only 100 miles from the Yucatan in Mexi co.  Amazing.

To that point, it’s been very interesting to meet fellow cruisers recently who have been to Guatemala and all over the Caribbean.   The “cruising horizon” for folks we have met here as much broader than anything we have found in the past with many having crossed the Pacific and a good number having been all the way around the world.   And, they talk about it as casually as though they had just gone “to the grocery”.  “Oh yeah, the snorkeling is great here but compared with Polynesia where we were last season…”.  It’s a very different perspective than anything Brenda and I have ever encountered.

The two couples that we had aboard for dinner the other night are good examples.  Monique and Garth, aboard Heartbeat began their travels in New Zealand, crossed the Pacific and have been all over the Caribbean.  They are making their way to Northern Europe and, after leaving Cuba may not stop until they reach Bermuda.   Another couple, Martin and Lisette aboard L’Eau-Dace came to Cuba from Honduras, where they had become friends with Garth and Monique,  They will be heading to Guatamala soon where they plan to spend the hurricane season.

The perspective of these cruisers couldn’t be more different than the folks back home “Oh yeah, we cruise a lot.  We cross The Sound most weekends to Greenport LI and go to The Vineyard for a week each summer”.  Both are fine perspectives, but WOW, these folks are HARD CORE and different in every way.

Our run yesterday, to Cayo del Rosario was not particularly long and we arrived there by mid-afternoon.   I had heard that the snorkeling was terrific there so after dropping hook, I headed off to a small reef nearby.   And as has the been the case in other areas I have gone, the fish life was remarkable, and much more substantial than anything that I ever saw in The Bahamas, even in the protected areas.

As Cuba is so lightly traveled and fished, the reefs are much like you might have seen perhaps 50 years ago in the Caribbean with abundant life of remarkable variety on the reefs.  The water isn’t as clear as it is in the Bahamas but it’s clear enough, with perhaps 50 foot visibility, to make for quite an experience.

After touring that spot, I headed off to another nearby where I saw a group of swimmers from one of two catamarans anchored nearby.  I prefer to snorkel with others but as Brenda doesn’t like to, I try to tag along, or at least be in the water near others.  As there are so few boats sailing around Cuba, it’s been tough to find others to tag along with.

The second spot that I tried was a larger reef that came within a few feet of the surface and then a 20′ abrupt drop-off to a sandy bottom.   The reef was quite dramatic, particularly so as a result of a wrecked boat that had foundered on the reef years ago.  It was a heavily built wooden boat with huge timbers and it’s “bones” were scattered over a wide area.  I have to say that I found the scene quite intimidating and decided to cut my visit short.

Perhaps the deciding moment was when I happened on a large ray, similar to one that had “stung” a Russian on charter boat a few days ago.  I understand that he had approached a ray and ended up with a “barb” that entered his upper arm and came out the other side of his arm.    It was a very painful experience and he ended up being flown back to the mainland for surgery to remove it.  We had enjoyed meeting him and the rest of the crew on that boat on the dock in Cayo Largo prior to his accident and were sorry to learn about what had happened.

Anyway, I was in no danger as I wasn’t “playing” with the ray but, never the less, that combined with the wreck, kind of freaked me out, alone in the water.  Ok, enough of that for now.  How about a walk on the beach?

And what a beach it was.  I had heard that there were many conch on the beaches there and I was stunned to see literally hundreds of fully mature conch everywhere in the shallows near the beach.   These conch had clearly not been bothered for many years as their shells were worn smooth by the surf.  In the Bahamas, most conch are harvested when they are barely mature, perhaps 6 years old, so their shells have quite sharply defined contours.  These, by contrast, looked like they had been abandoned by their owners years ago.   However, in nearly every case they were still occupied.  It was an amazing sight to see conch spread out as far as the eye could see and in such abundance.

I also found a few “helmet” conch with their dramatic brown markings and took them as the shells are amazing.  I also passed an area with snails on rocks, literally thousands of them.  However, unlike the Bahamas, where they tend to be about 1-2″ around, these black and silver shells were as large as an orange and they were everywhere, with perhaps 20 in a square meter.  It was quite a sight.

This is the “haul” and I only picked a few shells.  A remarkable discovery indeed.   The largest in this group are a foot across.   Clockwise, beginning upper left, conch and helmets.  In the middle, very large turbans.  In front, a small tulip and a lovely piece of coral.  Not sure about the names of the others.   Really nice shells and more “gems” than I normally find in a single day on the beach.

To see so many shells in a single area was a sight that probably hasn’t been seen in other areas of the Caribbean and Bahamas in over 50 years.   With improving relations between Cuba and the U.S. I fear that this won’t last long though.

The winds here in Cuba follow a pattern, as is the case in other areas of the Caribbean, where the trades tend to blow about 15-20kts and higher  from an easterly direction during the day and then shift to a more northerly direction overnight as the nearby mountains cool and the wind cascades down toward the ocean.  These “diurnal” winds occur near the larger islands so the wind direction changes at night and, in Cuba, you often have more wind at night than during the day.  It also means that finding an anchorage that is protected from both the trades and night winds can be tricky.

There are plenty of anchorages that are protected from the trades but few that are also sheltered from the diurnal winds and our anchorage last night was no different.  To make matters worse, we were anchored in turtle grass, a particularly tough bottom to get the anchor to hold well.

So as the wind piped up to over 25 knots last night, we began to drag ever so slowly with each gust which peaked at nearly 30kts.   I stayed in the cockpit until nearly midnight, with an anchor alarm set, and didn’t finally settle in until after the plotter track confirmed that we had finally stopped dragging backwards.  All and all, we probably dragged a few hundred feet and never actually broke completely free.   With several miles of shallow water behind us, we were never in any real danger of hitting anything.

There were three other boats in the very large anchorage so I was able to also watch the relative position of their anchor lights to see how we were doing.   It turns out that one of them, the one without an anchor light had some troubles of his own and this morning, when it became light, I saw that he was at least a mile from where he was when it got dark last night.  As he had dragged so far, I expect that he had no idea he was moving and was probably shocked when he woke up today.  Better him than me.

This post is the first in a month that I have been able to do when we didn’t have WIFI as my SSB e-mail modem (Pactor IV) is working again.   I have been having trouble with the unit since December and it’s been very frustrating, to say the least.  That combined with no cell services in Cuba for American phones, and we have felt very out of touch.

However, yesterday morning a fellow cruiser, Martin from L’Eau-Dace, came over to have a look at my installation.  After about a half hour he determined that the problem was likely centered on the USB plugs on my laptop along with the “old” cable that ran from there to my modem.  The good news is that I had another cable that had come with my new printer so after trying that one on the modem it worked perfectly.  I had predicted that the problem would likely turn out to have a simple fix but after fussing with it for weeks, I had run out of options.  Thanks Martin, for setting me straight.

With no form of communication available to us without the SSB e-mail when we were outside of WIFI, which has been just about all of the time, Brenda and I had been feeling like we had spent the last month in Cuba going around with a brown bag over our head.
Anyway, fingers crossed that the “fix” continues to work.  It will be great to be able to communicate more easily.

I should also mention that the easterly trades, which have eluded us for the last month, have finally filled in again.  This is good as now we have been sailing much of the time instead of motoring.  It is a very welcome change.

And it’s also a treat to be able to write this post underway and send it off to our son Christopher so he can put it up for me.   Of course, as the SSB is a VERY SLOW way to send messages so I am unable to include more than one picture.

I guess you will just have to forgive me and just read along.

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