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Cuba and Marina Hemingway

By Sue Richards last modified Sep 16, 2009 08:37 PM

Published: 2009-09-16 20:37:14
Countries: Cuba

Sent by Capt. P. D. Brown, Sept. 2009

Contemplating cruising to Cuba always seems to be a matter of intense review and discussion. There has been much hype, both positive and negative, none of which is surprising since the largest “gathering” anywhere of cruising yachts is American, existing with doubts and frustrations about the subject, just 90 miles from that island nation.

Essentially, Cuba being the largest island in the Caribbean, with an extraordinary history and architecture like nothing else there, having unbeatable panoramas of the very varied country-side and its’ cay-dotted coasts - not to mention the genuine hospitality of the people - including their officials!- there is no reason from any “physical” point of view, that anyone should not visit there. Some two million or more people do so every year. For US citizens, the decision to go to Cuba is a personal matter as an American must still consider their current legislation affecting their travel to Cuba.

As such, no attempt is made in this text to encourage anyone of any nationality to visit this or any other place; the facts are as presented and one can make one’s own decisions. In that light, herein are listed various points to consider if a voyage to Cuba is being contemplated.

Making for Cuba

Cruising along the Hawke Channel, heading “down” the Keys, the weather forecast for at least the next few days was for SE winds at about 15 knots. Blowing against the Gulf Stream this would mean some lumpy seas but with no North winds in the forecast, we turned SW just off the approaches to Marathon, crossed the reef there and away we went. It was about 4:00 p.m.

Be cautious of the weather; Marina Hemingway has a well-marked but narrow channel on a North-South line through the fringing reef, so in a “Norther” one can arrive on a classic “lee shore”, with heavy, breaking seas to either side of the entry-channel.

During the night we became aware of the sound of heavy diesels somewhere very close; suddenly we could make out a motor-vessel pacing us, running without lights - and at the same moment (they) switched on a blue light and the VHF came alive. It was a USCG vessel who asked us our boat-name, flag and - where were we going? We simply answered -“Cuba”. They radioed back - “Have a nice trip!” - and sheered off. It was a bit unnerving, mainly because we felt it was - well, unseamanlike for them to be running around without lights, scaring people. Later we met others, Canadian and US who, that same night, had been similarly approached and hailed.

Seas were a tad lumpy, but reaching across the Strait was straight-forward and uneventful; raising the Cuban coast just as the sun arose, we could see the skyline of Havana off to Port and excitement grew.

Approach to Marina Hemingway

From Marathon or Key West, one passes Havana itself, angling in to the coast and approaching Marina Hemingway, (the Port of Entry, not Havana Harbor!) - as mentioned, it’s some 9 miles further West of the City. Making for the Marina, and a sea-buoy off the entry-channel, wait until you are fairly close to the Marina before calling-in.

The reason is, the Harbormaster is the person who will answer and he’s usually busy around the huge complex and operating with a hand-held VHF! - so be patient, allow for a hand-held’s “range”, then call “Marina Hemingway” and clearly and slowly state your boat name - on VHF Ch. 16 - (and in English, not to worry!). If you don’t immediately get an answer, wait a bit and try again.

The answer will come (in English) in a rush - & will include a “Welcome to Cuba - Welcome to Marina Hemingway” - and then instructions regarding the location of the sea-buoy off the entrance, the course to follow to the entry and a description of the other buoys to guide you through the reef, into the marina, plus where to tie-up for the clearing-in procedure. The instructions are simple (and are described below), but if unsure of anything, do not hesitate to ask for clarification. You’ll discover the Harbormaster to be as welcoming - if not more so - than anyone you’ve ever dealt with.

Well, here you are: you’ve just run the channel having peered anxiously for the sea-buoy to show up, which it finally did, (somewhat hard to find visually against the back-drop of low buildings, trees and the white-water surf along the beach). There’s no evidence of a channel until you’re almost at the sea-buoy. And then you realize the red/green channel marks after the sea-buoy are pretty close to it and close together; the run through them might not only have been a bit “rolly” as you cross the reef but offset at times by the possibility of a right-to-left current, (West to East) - so there may have been a few tense moments - but power on in - the entry-channel isn’t all that long and, quite suddenly you arrive into calm water with lots of room to slow down into what appears to be a wide lagoon - and make a hard turn to Port around the buildings on the portside - and a very a lengthy “face” dock appears before you - to berth against. This is the Customs dock.

Clearing-in

Blue-clad and khaki-clad officials of both genders will be waiting there and wave to indicate where along the face, you should stop. The whole marina is of concrete construction, with an even freeboard changing with the foot or so of tide, so put over the fenders and ready your lines - a crew may have to jump ashore to grab and make-fast springs and lines - but, take your time, there’s no hurry - there’s plenty of room to stop, drift, set up fenders & lines, and move alongside. Hola! - you’re in Cuba.

First aboard are at least two, snappily-dressed, khaki-clad Customs & Immigration officials; they may even put on “booties” over their shoes in respect of your shiny fibre-glass and/or teak decks . So they’ll look you over - the boat, that is, ask to see around, open drawers, look under things, check inside cupboards, etc. And this is most likely an awkward thing to say and suggest - but put valuables in a very secure place and designate crew to escort the officials as they tour your vessel. You have every right to do that. More on this subject later.

After they’ve departed, waiting patiently to see you is an official with Cuba’s Dept. of Agriculture, who will explain his purpose and mission over a lengthy, affable chat about regulations affecting the importation of certain foods. There may be a small fee for this “service” - a tip for the official??

Next will come at least two blue-uniformed members of the Guarda Frontera; they will also chat for awhile, look over your papers, and discuss how long you plan to visit Cuba, which Ports you want to visit, whether you have arms aboard - which they’ll take away and return when you’re coming back - (either they or the Customs people beforehand). Always, there are variations on the theme - they will tell you which Ports you can anchor-off along the way, listing these on a document you must keep handy FOR EVERY Port you want to stop at - (those which have a Guarda Post) - and which ones you cannot visit - but when you ask why you can’t stop at villages you might know about which are not on the list - well, they’ll shrug, be very sorry, and have some explanation which makes perfect sense to them. Let it go. (Or, make an issue of it and just lengthen the time you’ll be sitting at the Customs dock).

(At one non-listed village where we did stop to try & buy produce, on the beach the Guarda at first refused to let us get out of the dinghy, finally went to their nearby building and called somebody, and came back with permission for us to go into the village - for one hour. And the two of them escorted us, tailed us actually, until the hour was up. They were polite, the incident was not “threatening” in any sense, simply a frustration and somewhat amusing).

After them, the Harbormaster arrives, uniform white shirt, four bars of a Captain on his epaulettes, he is the Capitan de Puerto. He is your source for just about anything you need to know. He tells you approximately where your berth-location will be, asks about shore-power requirements, the daily, weekly, monthly rates in detail - (listen closely - the longer the stay, the cheaper the deals are) - and takes off on a golf-cart to race you to your berth where he will be waiting (with an electrician) to tie you up. Believe me, he needs the golf-cart: the over-all size of the Marina is mind-boggling.

So that you don’t sit all day at the customs-dock, you can suggest to the Harbormaster that you have some questions and that you’ll see him at the berth-location or his office, (which is close to the yachts’ berthing-areas, not at the Customs dock).

Settling into Marina Hemingway

Finally, after a couple of hours with officials, (the time affected by how chatty everybody is), you let go and motor slowly toward one of four canals. Most likely they will site you in No. 2, the middle of four canal-like berths. Canal No. 1 is closer to the sea and can be subject to spray from waves breaking on the rip-rap. Canals 3 & 4 are reserved for Cuban craft, Club Nautico and such like. These wide and long, gently curving canals are in fact closed-off at the landward-end, but the four of them look like canals. It won’t take very long for any newcomer to site the facilities, (laundry, small chandlery, showers, bar, restaurant) - and to meet “in the know” other cruisers.

The concrete “faces” have, in many places, eroded quite a bit at their water-line; the harbormaster will berth you at locations where any fallen concrete won’t affect your hull. Take some time to check how your fenders will perform at high & low water - and whether your springs and lines will need anti-chafe “gear” where they come in contact with the concrete.

And you will meet two other types of “officials“: - all day and all night, strolling along the concrete top next to the boats, are blue-uniformed “security” men, their two-way radios emanating endless, high-pitched, urgent-sounding messages. Their role is uncertain. They hardly know it themselves. They’ll tell you they are there for the protection of the yachts.

They quickly recognize new visiting crews, but all others, such as taxi-borne tourists, - if they get into the marina through the main gate in the first place - are not allowed to stroll next to the visiting yachts. They have to stay in the parking lot. But you can go ashore, head for the showers or the full-service bar, walk along the dock to visit with other cruisers - with no problem. And, if you encounter any land-bound, (that is - parking-lot-trapped) - folk you would like to chat with further, well, you either continue standing in the parking lot, or, quickly usher them aboard your boat. They can’t stand next to you on the dock and chat. The security are generally trying to make sure no Cubans get on your craft except of course, those on legitimate business such as the Harbormaster. However, they can tell a Cuban from a tourist - and they’ll stroll along to closely check out anyone standing there, but won’t hassle a tourist. It’s strange, but that’s the way it is.

The second type of “official” - and the hardest-working, with a huge area to cover, - is Caesar, the garbage-man. He can stroll the dock right next to the yachts - it’s his job to check the garbage-containers at each berth - he’ll call down from the dock each morning to see if you have any garbage - and therefore he takes full advantage of his special authority to stop and chat. And chat. A gentle man with excellent English, he is “the” inside source for any little things you might need to know - where the money exchange is, where the (free) bus to downtown can be found, when the discotheque at the end of the marina has live entertainment… all the important things like that. And since the security-men speak little or no English, as they stroll by they’ll get Caesar to slip them little tidbits of info to satisfy their curiosity, this is nothing “official” - they’re just simply curious and it’s a break for them as they roast in their uniforms in the sun.

Of course yachts come and go - during recent visits there, the greatest percentage of “flags” were US, tied in number with Canadians, with the rest a mix of Spanish, British, Australian, German, Swiss, Swedish, Norwegian, French, South African, Brazilian and Venezuelan.

Occasionally some visitors are truly huge - such as more than 100-ft. Perini-Navi sailing-yachts and mega-yachts which “back” into the Canal-berths to facilitate their egress - which speaks volumes of what the depths are in the lagoon-entrance and in the berth-locations. Some yachts are annual “repeaters” - because the marina is very cheap compared to rates in the US and elsewhere. One US yacht makes a trip there and back about once a month!

When you look around…..

The whole situation, the “look” of the place, one sees buildings somewhat run-down, things unpainted, toilets missing seats - (bring toilet paper!! - there is none to be had there!) - there is no incentive on the part of the people there, to fix anything and there’s no money to do it. But things work, although fresh water dockside might not always be turned on for parts of a day, the water is good, the laundry (done for you by the several ladies who run the crew-services building), will be expertly attended to as quickly as they can do it - (we heard a knock on the hull at 1:00 a.m. one time - our laundry being delivered!!) - and the folks seem busy, (what they are doing is anyone’s guess), well-dressed, polite and - well, the Corona beer is cold, cheap and readily available! (Almost all products, including Coca-Cola come through Mexico).

Security

Closing on a negative note is as a caution to protect from the possibility of losing things like underwear, shirts - (or much more valuable items like watches) - regarding the escorting of officials who tour and inspect the interior of your yacht and the drawers and cupboards in it. It is a matter of fact (that) there have been problems at more isolated locations where there are Guarda Frontera stations. At any location, if the inspectors go below, be prepared for at least two officials who may tour the interior at the same time, one going forward, the other going aft - so, if you have crew, designate people to be ready to closely “escort” each official.

Summary

A summary of the coastal cruising, the life-styles, the experiences ashore - this could take volumes; two subjects will suffice - you will feel safe and welcome in Cuba, whether cruising or strolling downtown any City - and you’ll be amazed at the huge, “pocket” bays along the coast, each almost the size of the Chesapeake, pristine, ancient and empty of boats. Go there.

Capt. P. D. Brown
Sept. 2009

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