Cruising Cuba: Trying to go ashore when there’s no marina
Visit Cuba armed with a great deal of patience. Here, Peter Jespersen describes their first visit to Cuba in May 2013.
Published 10 years ago, updated 4 years ago
Our base is a 95′ classic yacht that draws 3.2 meters (11′). We left Tortola late on May 7, 2013, with 800 miles to travel.
The plan was to anchor off Cayo Guillermo, an alleged port of entry on May 12, only one day late for our first rendezvous with friends in Cuba.
Sure enough, on the morning of the 12th, we probed our way into the bay to the east of Cayo Guillermo and to the west of Cayo Coco, anchored in about 4 meters of water with poor protection from the NE breeze and started calling the authorities on all imaginable VHF channels with no response whatsoever. Poor cell phone coverage resulted in numerous sat phone calls to our incoming friends who were on Cayo Guillermo waiting for us. After they had spent several hours first finding and then negotiating with the Guarda and other authorities, they were finally told that clearing in at Cayo Guillermo was impossible if we did not tie up to their pier. They were also advised to tell us to leave the anchorage before the Coast Guard discovered us anchored in Cuban waters (with the Q flag up) without having cleared in beforehand. Apparently, that would have resulted at least in a lengthy delay.
We left and did the 200 nautical miles directly to Marina Gaviota on the NE tip of the Varadero peninsula.
Here the process of clearing it was conducted in a very friendly and efficient manner.
The only problem we had was convincing them that the boat’s insurance wasn’t American. Although it was purchased through an agent in the US, the insurer was clearly described as Lloyds of London. They finally declared that the insurance seemed to be valid also for Cuba. As a matter of fact, there was even an extra little clause in the insurance documents that the policy was altered and that the boat specifically was insured in Cuba and crossing the North Atlantic in June.
They confiscated all the frozen meat we had in the freezer but we were lucky – they failed to look in the fridge.
Marina Gaviota is being developed at speed with the surrounding area into a massive tourist trap. Until the US lifts its travel embargo however, I can’t imagine how they aim to fill the hundreds of berths they will shortly have there.
The 5-mile channel leading in from the ocean is well marked and lit. I did it in the dark the first time without problems. Anchoring just outside the marina entrance for the night is the best solution if arriving in the dark. The rates weren’t too bad either – 62CUC (62USD) per night for a 95 footer including shore power and water. Controlling depth is 4 meters but I still managed to touch something hard in the SE part.
Marina staff is very friendly and helpful. Tania, the front lady speaks fluent English and readily offers advice. Beer, ice, water and other groceries can be delivered to the boat!
With a fresh and very official looking despacho or sailing permit which clearly declared our next port of call to be Isabela de Sagua, we set off to discover Cuba. After a peaceful night at anchor behind Cayo Falcones, we arrived in Isabela in the late afternoon and anchored in the bay north of town. The dinghy was launched and I went in to do my stuff with the officials, or so I thought. I tried landing near a coast guard cutter but was brusquely denied even getting ashore. I was told to get back on the boat and wait for the bureaucracy there. They would be along shortly.
Darkness came but the officials did not, so the next morning I got back in the dinghy determined to get in contact with the right authorities to get checked in to this still distant dubious paradise on earth, Isabela de Sagua.
As I boldly stepped onto the pier this time despite the protests from the enlisted men milling around, the one who knew a few English words was summoned with haste. After showing him the desapcho which clearly had the town’s name on it and arguing that I needed some stamps and signatures for a while, he finally said I would have to walk to the Guarda Office building but I couldn’t do that from where I was because I was on the military property. I got back in the dinghy and went down to the only other pier that wasn’t wrecked and walked towards the Guarda building. Halfway there I was met by two very angry Guarda officers who hauled me straight back to the pier where my dinghy was tied up. It turns out the senior guy is the station Chief and he is very unhappy about having a yachtie lose in his town not to mention having a RIB with a 40 horsepower outboard tied to the public dock. Florida or the Bahamas in a couple of hours. Apparently, that was bait so strong that not even the strongest would resist it for long.
After at least 30 minutes of getting chewed out while they intermittently spoke on their VHF radios and their phones the boss agreed to take me to his office. But I couldn’t leave the dinghy there to be snitched, I was to take it back onto the military property and tie it up there. He met me there and we walked together in what had now become a respectful silence. Somehow I had been given very official permission to proceed to his neck of the woods and that was just not supposed to happen. Since they did not have a marina, the people on visiting yachts could not go ashore. I, of course, argued my side up and down explaining that we were quite happy anchored in the bay with our generator running and ice machine churning. We could stay parked there for days if we wanted – no problem at all even without a marina.
We are obviously speaking past each other.
Next, are two hours of waiting at the boss’s desk while he is on the phone both outgoing and incoming almost continuously.
In between, he explains repeatedly that because they do not have a marina we may not go ashore.
Finally, the General is on the line. The man actually took this to the top.
Definitely NOT the General proclaims (I can hear his mighty voice across the desk).
With my English-Spanish dictionary, the Chief wrote me a brief message before walking me back to the dinghy. It said, “I am sorry”.
This only goes to show that the new Free Cruising Guide to Cuba by Amaia Agirre and Frank Virgintino is current.
On Page 39 they say:
“NOTE: Cruisers cannot go ashore in most ports in Cuba unless those ports have marinas where you can check in. In the cays, you can pretty much wander around as you please but if you approach a settlement you will come under close scrutiny. Ironically, land-based visitors can travel and go just about anywhere they like in the country; the difference being that it’s unlikely a tourist arriving Cuba by air will leave with a Cuban hidden in his baggage.
There are now only 3 ports of entry on the north coast: Vita, Varadero (Gaviota) and Havana.”
Unfortunately, I did not have this new guide when I was there.
Anyway, after getting back to Marina Gaviota, the Guarda there shook his head in disbelief and said they were crazy out there. I think he was happy when I told him that Marina Hemingway was my next planned port of call. Checking out of Gaviota took about 30 minutes. Again I would like to praise the officials and employees there for their speed and friendliness. Checking in to Marina Hemingway took almost three hours despite the fact that we were coming directly from another Cuban port. The immigration officer even wanted to know if I had any gifts for him. I ended up giving him 10 CUC.
We had planned to go day sailing for three days with Marina Hemingway as a base but quickly realized this was wishful thinking as checking out of the marina took about as long as coming in. We have led a long way into the second channel from the sea. All the visiting boats and some very tired wrecks lived on this channel. I looked at the width of the channel going in and decided we would just barely have room to turn when we were leaving.
Before leaving I measured the channel with a tape measure – 97 feet wide. We had two feet of clearing and attracted quite a crowd when we winched her around.
Havana had some crazy attractions. We were lucky to meet the right taxi drivers and some informed people so that our short stay was interesting and fun.
After Cuba, we stopped briefly in Bimini before delivering the boat directly to Newport, USA.
It appears you tried your darndest to aggravate the Cuban officials and it’s a mark of their courtesy that you failed. And why, given what the charts show, would you even think of attempting to enter at Guillermo?
No matter where you come from, the process at Hemingway is always a full-court press – they have to do it right, even if you’re coming from Varadero or Cayo Levisa, the two closest marinas.
As for giving the Customs guy a ‘gift’…WHY do you encourage this stuff? Now the rest of us have to deal with what you’ve helped make into bad practice. If you say no, they won’t fuss about it because they are NOT supposed to ask, and they know that well.