Sailing Cuba’s Northwest Coast

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When we finally were able to get out the channel at Marina Hemingway, we were full of both excitement and a bit of anxiety about sailing Cuba’s northwest coast. We’d read and researched the trip to within inches of its life. We understood it was mostly a downwind run and we knew that entering the anchorages through narrow passages with few navigation markers would be tricky.

The reef that extends west doesn’t really come into play until you get to Cayo Levisa, and you are not allowed to go ashore anywhere on the north coast (west of Hemingway) except at the resort of Cayo Levisa and at Cabo San Antonio when you check in or out…but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

When we turned NNW at the sea buoy outside Marina Hemingway, we had the morning southeasterlies to push us along. The westward setting current I read about really wasn’t apparent yet.

Once we hit the waypoint we created letting us know it was safe to turn WSW, we beared off to a heading somewhere around 242 degrees. The wind stayed between 100 and 120 degrees on my wind indicator and our CAL loved every minute of it.

Sailing the north coast was some of the most spectacular as well as the most challenging sailing I’ve ever done. The mountains tower off the port side. They are lush and green. Completely unexpected.

Cuba's northwest coast

The winds here build so predictably, one could set their watch by them. SE from the land as the sun rises — a light 5-8 knots. Around 10am you’ll notice a shift to the east and a slight freshening. By noon, 12-15 knots of easterly winds fill in, and by mid-afternoon those winds are close to, if not every bit of 20 knots.

The sea state is easily provoked and before you know it, calm rippling one-footers have shockingly popped up to 5 feet. It’s all fun and games when you’re surfing and howling with joy on that downwind ride. Then you realize at some point soon, you have to turn beam to and transit over a reef where depths might be 8 feet at best. Those five footers now wanna wash you straight across that narrow channel or bounce your rudder off the reef looming just below. It becomes a whole different kinda howling.

The first stop west, and quite possibly my favorite, was Bahia Honda. I’m not sure why, because there is literally nothing there. They’ve done away with the guarda station there so we didn’t get boarded or even contacted when we entered the harbor.

Bahia Honda is a ship recycling port. The main landmark you’ll see when you get close is the massive, rusting hull of a grounded tanker at the harbor entrance. From a distance it looks like a chunk of coast line. The channel is “well marked” with good depth. Well marked in Cuba means one or two indicators somewhere close to where they should be.

Once inside, if you tuck in behind the shoal in the northeast pocket bay, you’ll be rewarded with calm water, fresh breezes and beautiful scenery. The water in Bahia Honda is deep but if you proceed with caution, you can find an area of thirteen feet to drop the hook a few hundred yards off the tree line. The bottom here is grass. (If you don’t have good ground tackle, you’ll have restless nights all along the north coast.)

Bahia Honda anchorageBahia Honda’s beautiful anchorage

The mountains of Cuba are green and rippled like you’d expect to see in Hawaii. They creep close to the coastline here. I was in awe and so wished we could have gone ashore to the small village of Santa Teresa just off the bow. We were teased by the sounds of roosters, dogs barking and pigs squealing.

Our second stop west was Cayo Levisa. The sail from Bahia Honda to Levisa might have been my best day sailing ever. The morning was gorgeous, the cloudless sky was a bright blue, and the water matched its splendor.

The ocean here is deep. Very deep. Thousands of feet deep, in fact, and it can be a bit nerve wracking. One minute you’re sailing in water so deep the depth sounder goes blank and the next minute you have a crystal clear view of the bottom when you cross into the shallows of twenty-five feet. At times, it looks as if you’re in five feet of water. Limestone flats and small coral heads pass by in the shadow of V’s hull.

On this particular day, the wind stayed at 120 degrees all day. The jib was full. The main was eased and drawing like a freight train. Our CAL hit 7 knots and hovered around that number all day long. We entered the reef on the east end of Cayo Levisa with the waypoints from the Waterway Guide to Cuba. While we did see some shallow spots of six feet or so, our trip into the anchorage was without incident.

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The afternoon winds freshened as expected, but by that time we were already swinging on the hook. Our attempt to take Jet ashore was met with a member of the hotel staff telling us the guarda had already left for the day and we’d have to wait until mañana to “check in” and until then, we couldn’t come ashore.

Yes, even though we had already checked into Cuba at Marina Hemingway, you still have to “check in” at each port or anchorage in Cuba that you stop at that has a guarda station. All they do is check your paperwork and passports, and fill out a little paperwork of their own.  If there’s no guarda station, you might instead be boarded by guardas on boats to check you in, but not always.

We returned to the boat but within the hour were hailed by a whistling guard to come back in. The afternoon ferry from the mainland brought him back and he was willing to check us in that afternoon. It was swift and quite pleasant speaking with him. He asked me if I had any baseball gloves on board. He said his boy was playing little league and his glove was completely worn out. I so wish I’d had a couple of gloves to leave with him.

Sailboat in Cayo LevisaVacilando at anchor in Cayo Levisa Cayo Levisa docksThe dock at Cayo Levisa

With our check-in done, Mel and I walked the spectacular beach and had a couple cervezas in the incredibly upscale tiki hut at the ecoresort on the island. Completely beyond anything I’d have imagined. We entertained the idea of renting one of their villas on the beach, then we saw what they cost and promptly dispensed with any more of that foolishness.

Cayo Levisa beachThe beach at Cayo Levisa

Cayo Levisa Beach

The next morning, we were required to do a quick check out with the same guard that checked us in. We were told the ferry would arrive around 8:30am. We got up and over there way early so we sat with a local fisherman who marveled at a cat who simply would not leave Jet alone. This cat came within inches of a certain realignment several times. The check-out process went quickly and we weighed anchor around 9:30.

This next leg west was the longest leg of the journey and the one that had me most concerned. I knew the run to Cayo Jutias would take most of the day and that meant we’d be turning beam to into the anchorage well after those late afternoon winds got going. The sea state would be raging.

There are a few stops in between at Esperanza if you go inside the reef, or just inside the Pasa de la Laja, but it makes for a very short day and I wasn’t really happy with the protection either one provided for how far out of the way they were. While we weren’t in a rush, we were trying to make a really good weather window for our crossing of the Yucatan Channel. Had we not been aiming for that, we’d have stayed another day in Levisa or made one of the closer anchorages.

Overall, the trip to Cayo Jutias was uneventful. With the winds light and dead aft, I hoisted the main and fired up our awesome iron genny. We throttled up to 1800 rpm and maintained a steady 6.5 knots all day. That got us to the entrance at the Pasa Rocondora (about 8 miles west of Jutias) around 4:30 in the afternoon. Yep… The winds were 20 knots and the seas were every bit of 5 feet. We’d have three to four miles with seas abeam before we got in the lee of the huge mangroves that are Pasa Las Barbacoas.

We eased the full main and turned beam to. Jet took up residence in what we call his “battle station,” which is the cockpit well. It’s lined with a yoga mat so he doesn’t slide around when the boat rolls.

There really wasn’t an opportunity to reef down at this point. We had to deal with the conditions and steer the boat. Traveler down. Mainsheet eased. Throttle back. Vacilando screamed into the Rocondora, eager as we were to be resting on the hook. Mel drove us in while I called out headings and spotted the one red marker to starboard. She did a spectacular job of keeping the boat steady.

Once inside and in the lee of the mangroves, we turned northeast and doused the main and headed into the small cove, where we waved at some passing fisherman. With our Mantus firmly set, we poured some rum and enjoyed another spectacular sunset.

Day four saw us traveling inside the reef all day. We got going early. For the first few miles we had the escort of a few official looking Cubans in a well-armed launcha shadowing our boat. They never got closer than half-a-mile, nor did they contact us.

We were making great time under sail with the wind again at 120. Mel tossed a line off the stern with a shiny lure and within minutes was reeling in what turned out to be one nasty barracuda. We were told never to eat them because they carry the dreaded ciguatera toxin. I was later told that in Cuba it is safe to eat the small barracuda. We turned the snapping little bastard loose.

Once past Cayo de Buenavista, you enter the Golfo de Guanahacabibes where you can point a little more south of west. This is a big bay and if the wind is opposing the currents, it can probably get quite nasty. We got close to shore to avoid the afternoon swell, which does occur inside the reef. Don’t let ’em kid you that it doesn’t.

Around 2:30, the wind was blowing at 18 knots, heading for its usual climax as we entered the Ensenada de San Francisco and ultimately our anchorage at Ensenada de Anita. Again, Mel drove us into the anchorage as I prepared to drop anchor. There is some shoaling in the area, but the NV Charts will keep you honest. We didn’t see anything to be concerned about. We found 8 feet and set the hook.

On our last day in Cuba, we cruised out of the anchorage and immediately pulled sail, bound for Los Morros and Cabo San Antonio, the point at which our travel in Cuba would meet its official end. On our now familiar heading of 241 degrees (which you’ll carry most of the way) we passed clear of the Cabezos de Plumajes and landed at Los Morros just after noon.

The dock was freaky scary with its rusty chains dangling and opposing concrete walls but the dock hands are capable and swift to tie you off. The harbormaster was kind, funny and quick with the check-out process.

While he finished up with the official business, we took on fuel, water, beer, and one last bottle of rum. Word to the wise, Don’t buy rum or beer from the bar! Mucho expensivo. Ask them to open the small store attached to the bar if it’s not already open.

With full tanks and our papers in hand, we offered Neptune a little of our rum in exchange for safe passage and headed out the Pasa los Morros. Many folks come and go via the Pasa Sorda, but it’s a bit shallow and Mel and I were done with shallow. We wanted some deep water so we elected to go the one mile more to the sea buoy.

Sailing Cuba northwest coastLeaving Cuban waters was bittersweet

Melody and I were really quite sad to leave Cuba. We entertained the idea of turning SE and heading down the south coast. While it was tempting, we decided to go with the plan in place. We wanted to see Mexico and Belize.

We watched as the coast fell off our stern and then quickly regained a passage mentality as traffic separation zones, tankers, and cruise ships were now the order of the day. The ride to Isla Mujeres would have us transiting the famous, or should I say infamous Yucatan Channel where current is swift, the water deep, and the traffic stressful.

Once we crossed over the three nautical mile mark, we doused our Cuban courtesy flag and prepared for the night’s passage. Next stop. Mexico!

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