Friday, January 24, 2014

Night crossing to Cuba

 Posted by Scot.  Written Jan. 5, 2014.

Sailing in the dark.
We timed our night passage to Cuba to coincide with the only real calm weather we had seen in a couple of weeks.  The forecast was for light winds out of the north, which would be perfect for pushing us along as we started out.  The winds were then to swing around to the east, but remain light, which would bring us in to Cuba on a nice reach.

We had read that the check-in process to Cuba could take quite a while, so we wanted to arrive in the morning.  We figured, based on our usual speeds, that the crossing would take somewhere between 13 and 15 hours.  So, the plan was to raise our anchor at 6:30 p.m., before it was totally dark, and we could see what we were doing.  Then, we would have a nice, leisurely night, and arrive in Cuba when it was light enough to find our way into the marina.

The plan worked perfectly.  For about the first 5 minutes.  Just as the last of the day’s light was fading, we pulled up our anchor in the calm of Hog Cay (the one near Duncantown, not the one near Hog Cay Cut – try and keep it straight).  As we motored into the gathering dark, Sara let out a shriek on the back of the boat.  Instantly we all thought someone had somehow fallen off.  Fortunately, it was just our horseshoe bouy life preserver that had somehow tumbled off of it’s bracket into the dark and shallow water.  We swung around and grabbed it with the boathook, then headed out once more.  As I steered the boat out into deeper water, Christopher brightly said “I sure hope that isn’t an omen of things to come!”  (Because I wasn’t stressed enough already.)

The next few hours went as planned.  We navigated through the shoals and coral heads off the southern point of Ragged Island, heading into the 8,000 foot depths of the Old Bahama channel.  The wind was light, and from behind as predicted, so we let our engines give our sails some help to keep us moving.  Once we were in deeper water, Sara and Katie went to get some sleep.  The boys took a watch from 8:00 to 10:00 p.m., as I relaxed in the salon, a few feet away.  There was just a sliver of a moon, and the night was pitch black.  The sky was filled with so many stars that there seemed to be more of them than there were spaces in between.

A very dark night.

At 10:00, I took over, and the boys went to bed.  The wind had picked up, again as predicted.  Pretty soon, we were making 7 knots of speed.  At that rate, we would arrive in Cuba earlier than predicted.  I gladly shut down the engines and sailed along in the peace.  Our speed dropped to between 5 and 6 knots, which was closer to what we had planned.

It is hard to stay awake on a gently rolling sailboat, with only the warm tropical breeze to perk you up.  I put on some headphones, and CBC podcasts kept me company as we sailed through the night.  Every 15 minutes, I scanned the entire horizon, checking for freighters or cruise ships, which apparently are common in the Old Bahama Channel.  In keeping with the rest of our trip to this point, we were the only boat out there.  There was not another thing to see by eye, by radar, or by AIS.

At 2:00 a.m., Sara woke up to take over, and I gladly reclined on the salon sofa.  The wind had continued to pick up throughout my watch, and the waves had risen as well, so at first it was hard to fall asleep.  It didn’t take long for fatigue to take over, though, and I was soon out of it, as the rocking of the boat increased.
Sara woke me up once to check out some lights on the horizon.  It soon became clear that we were seeing the only other ship we would see all night.  The AIS revealed it was a 150 foot yacht making it’s way east in the Old Bahama Channel, but it would pass no closer than 1.5 miles, so we were not concerned.  Sara did point out that our speed had risen again to well over 6 knots as the wind picked up into the 20s.  We still had quite a way to go, though, so we figured if we got there too soon, we would slow down closer to Cuba.
Just after 4:00, Sara woke me again.  Our speed had picked up to between 7 to 8 knots as the wind continued to climb.  We were now only about 9 nautical miles from the Cuban coast, and at this speed we would be there well before daylight.

We furled the jib, and continued on with the mainsail alone, but were still making between 6 and 7 knots, in rising winds and seas.  It was too dark, and too rough to safely have one of us go on the foredeck and pull the mainsail down, so we decided to turn into the wind, and lengthen our course to Puerto de Vita.  This unfortunately meant turning into the waves, too, and the ride roughened considerably.  There was no way I was going back to sleep, so I sat up to keep Sara company.

As we sailed on into the night, we started to feel a few drops of rain.  Moments later, the wind climbed to 40 knots, and rain was sheeting down all around us.  The boat took off, as we adjusted the main to try and spill some wind.  A few minutes later, the squall was gone.  By the time we thought to check the radar, we could see the storm disappearing behind us, as we continued to speed towards the Cuban coast.  We could now see the lights of settlements lined up ahead of us.

By about 5:30, we were within a nautical mile of the coast.  Since we weren’t sure how accurate our charts were, we turned around and headed back out to sea, trying to use up some more time before daylight.  Finally, just after 6:30, we turned back in, and headed for Puerto de Vita.  As the sun came up, we amused ourselves by tossing the last of our eggs overboard, since we had read that we wouldn’t be able to bring them into Cuba.  One slight misfire created a bit of a mess, as an egg smashed into the bottom of our bimini.  Oops.  (Sara wasn’t too impressed with my aim.)

Anyone for egg cooked over the engine?
Light at last.  It is hard to get a good picture of waves at sea.  These ones were a lot bigger than they look.
The Cuban coast was a beautiful sight.  The rising sun highlighted the green mountains and hills, which were a stark contrast to the flat, scrubby islands of the Bahamas.  As we drew closer to the lighthouse marking the entrance to Puerto de Vita, we saw two small rowboats manned by a couple of fishermen each.  They were a long way off the coast, in big seas, straining hard at the oars.  To get there that early in the morning, they must have set out around 5:00 a.m.

Early morning fishing trip.
As we approached the lighthouse, a voice hailed “Sailboat, sailboat” on the VHF.  In broken English, he told us the entrance to the bay was just west of the lighthouse.  We were happy to know there was someone there to guide us in so early in the morning.  As the sun came up and we motored in to the calm waters of Peurto de Vita we breathed a sigh of relief.  The land on either side of the narrow channel was green and lush.  A herd of cows came down to the water’s edge to greet us as we followed the markers into the marina.

The Cuban welcome wagon.

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