Wednesday, January 29, 2014

International Incident

Posted by Scot.  Written January 26, 2014.

“Vessel off my bow, vessel of my bow!  This is the United States Coast Guard!  You need to turn around immediately and go back the way you came!”

The spotlight shining directly on us lit up the night, but made it so I couldn’t see the vessel that was hailing us.  I could certainly hear him though.

“United States Coastguard, this is the sailing vessel Monashee.  We are bound for Santiago de Cuba, having left Baitiquiri tonight, and are hoping to get there by morning.  We request permission to continue on our current course,”  I responded hopefully, not sure exactly why we weren’t being allowed to keep going.

“Sailing vessel, you need to be at least 3 miles off shore.  You need to turn around and go back about 400 yards, then you may turn south until you are 3 miles off shore.  We will escort you until you are clear.”

The lights of Gunatanomo at night.  It looks like a big city from the water.  It is a remarkable contrast to Puerto Escondido, the Cuban naval station just to the East, which had a single light as we went past.
Oh.  OK.  I guess we aren’t allowed to sail right past Guantanomo Bay in the middle of the night.  Funny that there was no mention of that in either of our cruising guides.  One of them said you couldn’t sail into the bay, which seemed obvious.  The other, older one, said they requested passage in front of the base, and sailed right through to the Cuban town of Caimanera, deeper in Guantanomo bay.

I also hadn’t seen anything about staying 3 miles off shore on either of our electronic chart sets.  Later on, when I went back to look, I found that on one of the programs, at a specific zoom, there is a warning that you can’t sail through the marked waters without permission of the secretary of the Navy, or someone like that.  Oops.  I hadn’t seen that before, and had charted our course right through the forbidden territory.
By this time, Sara was up and helping me turn the boat around.  We fired up the engine, and turned right around.  Once we had verified with the coast guard that we were far enough back, we turned south, and then checked again before we turned back East.

A blurry picture of our chart plotter showing our course in front of Guantanomo, followed by a hasty retreat and a detour to the south.
So now the good vessel Monashee is documented in an American military computer somewhere.  And there are probably enough key words in this post that the hit count on our blog is going to go up significantly, as the U.S. government checks us out.  (For all I know, they are checking us out already.  I’ll have to look at our blog stats when I get back to the land of the internet). 

The U.S. Coast Guard was polite but firm, and we did apologize for our ignorance.  No harm intended gentlemen!  And hopefully this post will serve as a warning to any other naive citizens of the world – there are certain places where you have to keep your distance.  Fortunately, they didn’t feel the need to break out any major military hardware.  Right now, Sara is back in bed, and I am keeping an eye on the GPS and the lights of Gitmo as we sail past, the proper distance away.

Hopefully we can make it through the rest of the night without running afoul of any other foreign military powers.

The rising sun is always a welcome sight after a night at sea.
Epilogue: As we were beating a hasty retreat from the U.S. Coast Guard in the dark, I said to Sara, half joking “I wonder how much surveillance equipment is pointed at us right now.”  Only half-joking though.  We immediately started watching what we said, in case they could somehow hear us, even without the VHF.
At the same time, I wondered silently to myself how many weapons were pointed at us.

After we arrived at the Marina Marlin in Santiago de Cuba, we got at least a partial answer to the second of those questions.  We met a fellow, Giovanni, from the Icelandic boat (“Ja”), who we had previously met in Puerto de Vita, and again in Baracoa.  They had beaten us to Santiago de Cuba, arriving the day before us, while we were in Baitiquiri.

Anyway, when we asked him how his trip had been, without any prompting from us, he told us a story about passing in front of Guantanomo that was almost identical to ours.  They are using the same cruising guide as us, so I guess they also didn’t know you needed to be three miles out.

The only difference between their experience and ours was that they had been there in daylight, so they got to see the U.S. Coast Guard ship that ordered them to turn around.  Giovanni told us that the ship had been heavily armed with 4 huge mounted machine guns, and every one of them had been pointed at their boat the whole time, with serious looking young men at the triggers.  So I guess we know we had at least that many weapons aimed at us. 

Glad I couldn’t see them.

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