|Common Sense crew, on the morning of their arrival in Havana|
While Terry and the crew were battling their way through the Atlantic swells, I was having a nice land-based visit with my mum in as different an environment as it is possible to be in -the Arizona desert. At least it used to be a desert. During the ten weeks I was there we had so much rain that the whole place had turned green and the dams were filling up. Spring should see cactus and other wildflowers in full bloom and critters everywhere. Already on our daily walks we spotted coyotes, jackrabbits, eagles, roadrunners, quail, ground-squirrels and dozens of songbird species. Mum and I enjoyed ourselves walking, watching movies, cleaning out the house with a huge garage sale and indulging in occasional lunches at the local casino. Each day I had a call from Common Sense on the satellite phone. I would receive their coordinates, relay them the weather report from Predictwind, then send out emails about their progress to family and friends. Captain Dave Renoll, our old friend from back at Mears Point Marina, very kindly helped me out with interpreting the weather charts and helpful suggestions for the passage – how’s that for quality after-sales service?
Finally the end of the voyage was drawing near. Common Sense had made landfall in the BVIs and was only a few days from her destination, Marina Hemingway in Havana, Cuba. Again I worked through my complex journey plan: catch a bus from nearby Laughlin to Las Vegas, fly Vegas to Fort Lauderdale; fly Lauderdale to Havana; taxi to an AirBnB I booked as near as possible to the marina. I was concerned about communication in Cuba as internet access is difficult and my US phone sim would not be usable, but solutions were at hand. A WorldSim card worked fine in Cuba, and the lovely family I rented the apartment from turned out to have a taxi as well, and David was there to meet me at the airport. Another hugely valuable resource was Addison Chan’s “Cuba Land and Sea” Facebook page and his excellent new edition of the Waterway Guide to Cuba. His advice to have a letter from the skipper explaining that I would be joining the crew, plus a copy of the ship’s papers, meant that I could take a one-way flight without any hassles or holdups. I also gleaned valuable tips about the currency, protocols of queueing, eating out, gifts, markets and a useful plan of the marina.
With all the anxieties about getting lost, stranded or arrested settled, I could finally relax a bit and look around. First impressions: third world airport but friendly and helpful staff. The 1950s cars everywhere – rustbuckets held together with wire and gaffer tape belched smoke alongside lovingly maintained and restored American classics. Fine old Spanish buildings, some in decay, some looking like organic growths with added-on bits constructed from whatever was available, some well-tended and surrounded by lush tropical gardens. Contrast these with grey Stalinist concrete boxes and towers, generally crumbling and neglected. Fortunately my apartment was in a small block next to a school in the Playa district. It was simple and comfortable, within easy walking distance of a market and some good cheap restaurants.
My first task was to make my way to Marina Hemingway. On the flight over we had experienced strong easterly crosswinds and I had looked down uneasily at the whitecaps on the seas below. Now at the marina it was blowing a gale. Waves were crashing over the breakwater and the entrance channel looked like a cauldron – and Common Sense was somewhere out in that! I made my way out to the Dockmaster’s Office and explained that the boat was about 100 nautical miles to the east (my best estimate) and that I was worried about them in the current conditions. He wasn’t all that reassuring. “Now I am worried too!” he said. They had closed the marina entrance that afternoon, diverting any vessels to Havana, 8 miles back. He promised to look at for CS on radar and AIS, and to call me with any news.
I returned to my apartment after buying some fruit at the market and taking a diversionary walk around the neighbourhood. Dinner was a pizza and a glass of acceptable wine for about $3 from a paladar, small family-run restaurants that are a thriving business in Cuba today. The people I met were very friendly and welcoming, but there was no escaping the sound of the wind howling and the waves crashing on the nearby beach, and the thought of our little boat and her four brave crew out there. I kept reassuring myself that the winds were with them, and that they had the skills and experience to handle it. I finally managed a couple of hours of sleep, then was wakened by a very welcome call from the Dockmaster: Common Sense had arrived in the early hours of the morning, and, after a harrowing entry, was safely tied up in Canal 4 near the coffee shop.
A quick trip in David’s taxi and there she was – what a wonderful sight! A big smile and a hug from Theo who was washing stuff on the deck, then Terry emerged, looking leaner, hairier and utterly exhausted. Johannes and Marie followed, then after a quick coffee and some calls home we set off in search of internet and an early cold beer or two. The chaos and mess aboard could wait.
After a basic clean-up, we headed out to see a bit of the local colour. An evening walk through the nearby town of Haimanitas took us to a cheap bar and (!) a Japanese restaurant on the river. The housing was very basic, but everyone seemed to have a front porch and a few rocking chairs for socialising of an evening, and people greeted us warmly as we passed. Terry decided my apartment was a more attractive option than the boat and he thoroughly enjoyed a few nights sleeping for eight hours straight in a comfortable, stationary bed.
Next day we caught David's taxi into Old Havana, where we took a long walk through all the major tourist sites, most of them featuring Fidel or Che, as well as the curious and quirky shops and markets that seem to occupy every available room, corridor or doorway. It's easy to spot the difference between the Government-run outlets (no service, random goods you don't want) and the small private businesses that are conducted with great enthusiasm. It still isn't easy to overcome the restrictions and bureaucracy surrounding any enterprise, but the Cuban people are hardworking and resourceful. The realities of day-to-day life really hit you when you go to a store for provisions. For a start, the shelves are quite bare, and there is typically only one brand of anything, spread out to occupy as much space as possible. You go in to get milk, butter, eggs, bread and potato chips and come out with none of them. Later you discover that the district's entire supply of milk has gone to a supermarket five miles away, and that bread is only available from the bakery and it sells out early (but the marina coffee shop may have some). You can get cheap eggs from a local restaurant, or expensive ones from the chandler. A large consignment of butter arrives at the butcher's shop the next day and disappears just as quickly. Basic shopping is a constant quest - an adventure for us, and a clear lesson in what happens when the State decides to break the laws of supply and demand - but I imagine it would wear pretty thin after a while.
|Threepenny Opera in Marina Hemingway|
Next day Pat and Addison turned up, and we got to spend some time with them and benefitted directly from their extensive knowledge of Cuba. The highlight was a three day trip to Vinales, a famous beauty spot about 80 miles from Havana, where steep limestone outcrops rise above a fertile plain largely used for tobacco farming. Of course we got to watch how Cuba's famous cigars are made, and to sample the product. It seems as though most of the private homes in Vinales have become B and Bs and ours was a delight. Marta and Chino provide a comfortable place and a first class breakfast for their guests. The town was full for the weekend as a festival was underway, and we enjoyed walking down the main street watching people celebrate - something. We never managed to find out exactly what it was, but it involved eating, drinking and music. And speaking of music, our dinner out at a local restaurant, with a brilliant Cuban band called Fantasma, was a really memorable night.
|A lot of the work is done by oxen|
|Pat relaxing at our B and B|
Of course no trip to Cuba is complete without a pilgrimage to Hemingway's house. We had no great expectations of this when we heard that you couldn't go inside, but it is actually well worth a visit. It's a lovely classic old Cuban house set in extensive gardens, and everything is set up so you can see all the interiors from the doorways and windows. All the original furniture, books, paintings and hunting trophies are there, and he had the best study - a three storey tower with views to Havana. His desk, typewriter and telescope are all as he left them. Hemingway's famous fishing boat Pilar has been fully restored and is on display in the grounds.
By now, Marie had departed for Panama, Theo was back in the UK, and Johannes was helping out at a hostel in Havana. We were enjoying Cuba, the friendly people, cheap restaurants and good music, but it was time to think about returning to the USA. We had decided to head for Tampa, and fortuitously had met up with Nick, one of the sailors on the Cuba Rally, who had very kindly invited us to stay at the Tampa Sailing Squadron. Our weather window was approaching, Johannes came back to see us off and we were ready for a bit of serious American consumerism again. So it was back out through a much calmer channel and a course due north. The weather was fine and we decided on a stop at the Dry Tortugas for a rest on the way.