CUBA, ARE YOU READY TO SAIL THERE?
JADE at Marina Hemmingway Guard in front of JADE Every week now there is new news about CUBA and, like every Florida boater these days, there is talk about when we can go?
I have been to CUBA six times, the last time was in 2003, and it became almost impossible to go by boat after that time. The first time was in 1979, when there was a sanctioned sailboat race from Key West to Veradero, Cuba. I remember having dinner at the DuPont range/ estate. The family bible was still in the study and there was much family memorabilia. Today it is a series of hotels that looks like Miami Beach.
The sailing trip we took is relatively easy. We would leave Tampa Bay around 7:00 am and get to the Dry Tortugas around 12:00 to 2:00 pm the next day, just one overnight trip. We would go discover Fort Jefferson, go snorkeling, take a long nap and have dinner. We would leave for Cuba around 9:00 pm that night and do another overnight trip to see CUBA as the sun came up.
Our destination was always Marina Hemingway and the entrance is straight forward. There is the sea buoy outside the reef. You make this mark your destination on your GPS. Once you are at this buoy you will see the range marker inside the marina entrance. Just steer dead center down the channel towards the range marker and turn left (port) into the Marina. The immigration, customs, health inspection, agriculture, etc. will be waiting for you. The last few times I went, I made 5 copies of my US Documentation, passports and insurance papers, thinking that would speed up the process…it did not. I asked the customs official why he was sitting on the boat after I had given him all he needed plus a beer (I offered him a Heineken but he wanted a Bud, the King of Beer as he called it), he told me it is supposed to take 20 minutes for each inspection, no less. It took about 1 ½ hrs to go through this but it was fun experience. All the officials were professional and friendly. Havana Harbor (don’t think about swimming) The Malecón
Having been there enough times I told them I wanted to be by the pool which is closer to the Dollar Stores, restaurants and of course the pool. The marina is guarded and you may have a guard right outside of your boat. I certainly felt safe while I was there and the staff is very friendly.
You are only about 20 minutes from downtown Havana and you can get a private taxi right outside the Marina gate. It has been 12 years since I last visited so now I am sure that the government taxies will come to the boat. One of the newest buildings you will pass on the way will be the American Special Interest Section; we don’t have an embassy but, back in 2003 there were 585 people working in this building working for the US Government. My wife and I tried to get a tour but, after having to sit in one of the offices for more than one hour, it was obvious they just wanted us to go away.
Eating at a Paladar For the Tourists
The people that we met in Cuba were very friendly and really wanted to engage with Americans. We went to the beach and met four people that asked if we would sit with them. Three of them were doctors and one was an engineer. We talked about the fact that they only made $25 per month plus one gallon of cooking oil, rice, bread and some other basic staples. When you are a doctor in CUBA, you better do it because you love the job, not that you will make money.
On one of our trips in 1997 we had the privilege to meet Gregorio Fuentes, the captain of Ernest Hemmingway’s boat PILAR. At that time he was 99 and he died in 2002 at the ripe old age of 104. He talked to my wife and I for about 45 minutes until he got tired and he told us some great stories. Check him out at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorio_Fuentes
Capt. Gregorio Fuentes and Jopie Helsen One of the Many Beaches East of Havana
The best restaurants to go to are the private ones that are in people’s homes called Paladar. Some even have guarded parking lots in their neighborhood although I think the guard is there just to make some extra money from tourist.
One of the things that quickly happens is you will get to become friends very quickly. On one of our trips we met Julieta, a University of Havana graduate who loved to practice her English and became our local tourist guide. We drove around in her Russian Lada, which actually looks like a large toy car. It is the first time I have ever lifted the hood of a car and saw a small engine with the road pavement all around. It was small for the 5 of us but it did work and Julieta was very proud of her possession. Within a short time we met her father, mother, aunt, sister, nephew, most of her friends, professors. To us it seemed that she knew most of the people in Havana. NOTE: Julieta now is very successful, living with her husband in Miami and is a librarian who is very proud that she owns a condo.
One of Many Beaches near Havana Julieta and Friends
Cuba is changing and it must. The Communist system is horrible for the people who live there; they get great health care but pay an enormous tax rate. They get $20 to $30 per month and the government gets everything else. Once we can go on a regular basis, things will change. I wonder how long the average tourist will put up with the bureaucracy of its system? The lousy service you get in government owned hotels and restaurants? As foreign investment gets hold, service will improve and so will capitalism. As for marinas, it is still a long way off from being able to go from one marina to the next; Marina Hemingway is great as is the Marina in Veradero and others are slowly being built.
Havana Old Town Cathedral Square
I can keep writing about all the memories I have of Cuba and I look forward in going back. It is a natural beautiful country with great beaches, beautiful royal palm trees everywhere, pristine reefs, clear water, friendly people who like Americans and much more – some positive and some not. I think it will be great when the average American can engage with the people and bring about change. It is a boating destination that can become one of the greatest in the Caribbean.
Top, Julieta’s Russian Lada, top right, playing dominoes in Julieta’s apartment, bottom a typical Havana street, bottom right having a mojito at Marina Hemingway.