By John Lark and Diana Borja • CM440 Joy
Joy, our 2006 CM440, hull #22, set sail for Cuba from Key West, Florida on February 28th, 2017. We left our homeport in Vandemere, NC in November and sailed south past Miami, then north to Tampa Bay prior to embarking on our passage to Cuba.
The process to gain legal approval to go to Cuba was relatively easy, and we had a good deal of time to prepare our travel plans for the journey and 14-day sojourn. There are only a couple of things necessary beyond what we normally do to venture beyond US borders. Our registration with the Small Vessel Reporting System (SVRS) was accomplished during previous journeys to the Bahamas, and we had purchased a border-crossing transponder from the Decal and Transponder Online Procurement System (DTOPS), making clearance a one-step process.
Two things necessary for Cuba are the General License and the Coast Guard 3300 (CG-3300) form. The General License can be obtained online and does not require submission to the government. To meet the requirements, you must fit into 1 of 12 approved categories; strictly being a tourist doesn’t qualify. Next, the CG-3300 is submitted, along with a copy of the General License. It took two weeks to receive approval signed by the Coast Guard. The approval form requires specific dates, together with ports of departure and return. While neither the US nor Cuba require boat insurance, we felt it important to have coverage of our CM440. At the time, our current insurer would not provide a rider for Cuba. Only two US companies offer coverage, and we talked with both Pantaenius and Falvey for quotes and conditions. Both require purchase of annual coverage and offer a rider for Cuba. Only after we moved our coverage to Pantaenius and received the annual policy, could we request the Cuba rider and pay the additional fee. In talking with other cruisers, we found that getting insurance was the biggest obstacle in planning to sail for Cuba, often because of an outdated survey or statements that a company would insure them that were later revoked. We met cruisers who canceled their trip because of insurance obstacles! Plan ahead, and be sure your company will provide the coverage necessary.
We moved from Tampa Bay south to Key West three days before our departure date to prepare the boat and provision. As we watched the weather conditions and prepared a passage plan, we became more excited about the opportunity to visit Cuba. Our destination was Marina Hemingway about 8 miles west of Havana. We decided to sail from Key West rather than the Dry Tortugas and studied the Gulf Stream conditions to choose our departure date. We planned to leave Key West on a southwest heading until well into the Gulf Stream, then a turn southeast directly for Marina Hemingway. We used SailGrib WR software, with a plan for Joy to arrive at our intended destination following a detailed track and waypoints.
Leaving in the early afternoon, we expected an overnight passage with a morning arrival. The night sky was dark, with the moon rising late, and we made slow progress under full sail for the first half of the trip, generally moving 4 to 5 knots against the Gulf Stream. We were surprised by the amount of traffic in the Straits of Florida. Throughout the night, our AIS continually displayed large cargo and tankers passing in front or near us though the shipping channels. Twice we had to alter course to avoid the large cargo ships running east or west. With the traffic, we were happy to see first light and the rising sun. As we approached Cuba in the early morning, we could just make out silhouettes of the high-rise buildings and Morro Castle in Havana. Our last waypoint took us directly to the entrance buoy at Marina Hemingway. We hailed them on the VHF and were given directions for entering the harbor and stopping at Customs. As we approached the entrance, the three masted schooner Thor Heyerdahl was exiting. Our greeting was a wave and port-to-port pass with the beautiful tall ship.
Diana speaks Spanish, and we had been told that officials are especially cordial if there is a Spanish speaker aboard. While the officials spoke English, they were obviously more comfortable speaking Spanish with Diana. Customs was a really interesting experience. Everyone was extremely courteous and very efficient. We tied up at the Customs dock and two men in uniform helped with the lines. The first to board was a Doctor who took our temperatures, “All ok, no one sick?” He also told us it was okay to have meat, vegetables, or fruit on board as long as we ate them on board and didn’t take them off the boat. Then came the Customs and Drug Enforcement officers, who walked through the boat and asked a few questions, accompanied by the most adorable black and white Cocker Spaniel drug-sniffing dog. He ran all through the boat, sniffing everything and was extremely well-trained! His handler simply pointed in a direction and the dog followed his hand motion. It was a real treat watching him! Then another Guardia in uniform came aboard. He asked about computers, phones, and whether we had a satellite phone. The satellite phone was not allowed off the boat, so he wrapped it in plastic and taped the covering so it couldn’t be used. Cell phones and computers were okay, just not sat phones. As he walked through the boat, they took note of dinghies and outboard motors. We carry two-fold up bikes in the generous CM440 “garage” (aka starboard lazerette). He was concerned about the bikes, wanted to see them, and told us that bikes were a precious commodity in Cuba and would be the one thing most in jeopardy for theft. He suggested we keep them locked. After inspections, we were taken to the Customs office, where they issued our visas, took a photo, and asked politely if we wanted our passports stamped. As legal travelers to Cuba, we emphatically said “YES!”
We were assigned a slip and released. We had previously made arrangements for someone at Marina Hemingway to keep an eye on the boat during our stay, a reference through Facebook’s Cuba Land and Sea site, and Joaquin and Jorge met us as we came down the canal, helped us tie up, and provided introductions all around. We rented an AirBnB in the Centro neighborhood of Havana, preferring to stay in-town rather than on the boat. The “Electrician” came to plug the boat into shore power, and two agriculture inspectors arrived. The Harbormaster stopped by with final paperwork, explained the marina charges, and provided a hearty welcome. After getting our dock lines and fenders in place, we locked up the boat and Joaquin drove us to our apartment.
Havana is a truly amazing place. We visited Havana Viejo, the old walled historic City, as well as the suburbs of Centro, Vedado, and Miramar. Each was unique and represented a distinct pattern of history as the City expanded before the 1960’s. There were diverse conditions, from large restoration projects in the historic town center, to renovations to individual buildings that were in dilapidated, nearly destroyed condition. It was interesting staying in Centro and walking through the narrow, busy streets. Food was at times a challenge. Finding a good restaurant was not the easiest thing to do, not because they didn’t exist, but because they all offered nearly the same food and quality, regardless of price. We ventured back to Marina Hemingway after a week, to check on the boat and pick up a couple gifts for our host landlord at the BnB.
We had originally wanted to sail the south coast to Cienfuegos, a World Heritage Site, but since Cuba is a big island, getting there would take a week or more by boat, eating into our two-week permit. Our landlord suggested a car and arranged for someone to drive us to Cienfuegos. We rented a “casa particular” (Cuban name for a BnB) and drove to Cienfuegos for the night. The city was beautiful and the harbor and yacht club quite spectacular. While there we met a Cuban captain who gave us directions for the sailing route to Cienfuegos for our next trip!
We saw a lot of Havana during our two weeks, and the one thing that struck us the most is how friendly and kind the Cuban people are. The police are young, don’t carry guns, walk among the people, and are extremely courteous, kind, and helpful. While poverty is everywhere, smiling faces and enormous pride are evident. The stories, both in Centro and Cienfuegos were extraordinary. Life in Cuba has been difficult, but the Cuban people love this island and have survived so much together!
Oh, the one thing I forgot! The old cars! Yes, they are everywhere! Not what we expected, old cars are taxis in Cuba. Many are beautifully maintained and since the relaxation of private ownership, operated by individual owners. Most of the drivers are extremely helpful and will make every effort to provide you with a unique experience.
Our two-week stay was near the end. We said our goodbyes to our new friends in Centro and headed back to the boat at Marina Hemingway a day before our scheduled departure. A cold front had moved through and the seas and winds were not conducive to a passage. We sent an email to the Coast Guard informing them we had been delayed due to weather and received an email back that “safety first” was priority. Upon arrival at the boat, we also learned that a few days prior, 73 boats had arrived at Marina Hemingway with the first St. Petersburg to Havana Race since 1959! The marina was buzzing, and we talked to a lot of the crews and skippers about their passage and experiences in Havana. Among the boats was a new Catalina 445, and we were told that one of the crew was Gerry Douglas from Catalina, the designer of our CM440. The next day, we heard a knock on the hull and to our delight, Gerry and his wife stopped by for a visit! They came aboard to see how cruisers are using the boat he designed. It was especially comforting to learn that he has purchased hull 60, the last CM440 built!
We stayed three days on the boat at Marina Hemingway, waiting for the seas to settle and favorable winds return. At the marina, you pay all of your fees on departure, so each afternoon all the boats preparing to leave have individual meetings with the Harbormaster to pay their bills. Everyone puts aside enough CUCs (“Kooks”; Cuban Convertible Currency) to be sure they can “get out.” The bill has to be paid in CUCs and credit cards are not accepted. Everyone was watching the weather, and we headed to the office one afternoon to find about 15 other boats thinking the same thing. It looked like the next day would be good for the passage. We paid our bills and talked about departure in the morning.
As predicted, the next morning looked good, with light winds and seas laid down. Ten or more boats left the harbor as we unplugged shore power, released lines and prepared fenders for the final stop at Customs on the way out of the Marina. Getting out was much simpler than arrival. After a quick inspection, they issued the “Despacho”, and we were released to head back across the Straits of Florida. As we exited the channel, we saw six boats in front of us and two more behind, all on 023° heading bound for Key West.
After an hour under full sail, the winds started to build. Thirty minutes later, we entered the Gulf Stream and the seas began rising. After two hours, we realized this wasn’t going to be the smooth passage we had envisioned. Seas continued to build to nearly 12 feet, with winds from the east opposing the Gulf Stream at 25 knots or more. The ride was uncomfortable as we took seas nearly abeam, neither of us able to go below. We changed course to 033° to try to get a slightly more comfortable ride with seas on the forward quarter. This caused our speed drop and then accelerate considerably as we climbed the waves and then dove into the troughs between. Other boats who left with us experienced problems. One broke a backstay and we stayed with them as they jury-rigged a temporary and a safety in case of further trouble. Another had impeller issues and still another rudder problems. As night fell with rough conditions, the AIS flashed with cargo ships crossing in front of us making the crossing even more difficult. At one point as we neared The Key West entrance light, a tug hailed us on VHF to tell us they were crossing in front of us with a 1200-foot cable towing a barge! He could only see us on radar, but cautioned that we needed to change course and go behind him. After almost stopping and moving west, we finally found him on radar and AIS....behind us all along! As we came out of the Gulf Stream, conditions began to settle down. Winds were still high, but the seas dropped to a manageable 4 to 5 feet. Sixteen hours through rough seas had taken its toll, and upon entering the Key West harbor at about 1 am, we immediately dropped anchor and collapsed to sleep for a few hours before morning.
With the morning sun, came calm seas and light winds. We made the call for clearance and were given a number and told to bring our passports to the Customs and Border Protection office in Key West. We were home and moved safely to a slip at Key West Bight Marina. Our passage the night before had been a bit harrowing, but we sustained no damage to the boat. With sails up all the way, Joy had performed admirably, handling seas and winds as well as any blue water cruiser we have seen. We were extremely pleased with her performance. The next day, as we washed off layers of salt, we had never been so happy to own a CM440!
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