Thinking about sailing to Cuba in 2017? You’re not alone. It’s the hot topic right now. If you speak to ten sailors in south Florida, nine of them want to sail to Cuba. For the longest time I was one of them.
Many, many people we’ve met feel the same sense of attraction to this island. For so many years it’s been open to everyone except the Americans. For decades, Canadians, Europeans, Australians, Japanese and others have been able to visit — but not us. In Jaunary 2016, President Obama removed the final hurdle for Americans like me to sail their personal vessel to Cuba. That did it. That became our goal.
When we were in the Tortugas this past February, Melody and I said about a dozen times, “I can’t believe we’re here.” The years of doing the east coast, the ICW and then landing in St. Pete were great, but if I’m honest, it seemed like we were a bit snake bit. The dream of sailing to the islands, any islands, seemed to be slipping. Our cruising kitty kept getting hammered. Each year we’d fall a bit short of our goal to shove off.
Not this year. Come hell or high water we were leaving whether we had five hundred bucks or five grand. We were going as far as the money would allow.
In thinking about this blog post, I was dismayed about how I’d get it all in. How does one cover the specific “nuts and bolts” that everyone wants to know and do it in an artsy kind of way that doesn’t read like a to-do list. I couldn’t.
So, I’m breaking up the Cuba posts into a few different chunks. This one is going to be the breakdown post. The Reader’s Digest post for lack of a better description. If you wanna know about the check in process, the cost, the channel into Hemingway and the docks, this is the post that will have it. We’ll tell you everything we learned in our 12 days at Hemingway Marina. The last four days of our sixteen were spent sailing and anchoring along the north coast to Cabo San Antonio. That will be covered in a later post.
Let’s get to it!
The Coast Guard 3300 Form: Getting Permission to Sail to Cuba
Go to a hundred different forums and on every one, someone somewhere will ask, “Do I need the Coast Guard 3300 form?”
Let me put it this way. Do you need insurance? If you have it and never use it, then maybe your insurance might seem like a waste. If you do use it, then it was a godsend.
Think of the Coast Guard form like this — if they stop you crossing the Florida Straights and you don’t have it, you’re screwed. Or, you’re inconvenienced, hassled, and quite possibly turned back. For what it took to get it, I would say do it.
It was simple. Google “Coast Guard Form 3300” and the first thing that comes up is the link to the form. Better yet, here’s a link for it right here. Print it out. Fill it out and fax it in — they provide the number right on the bottom of the form. The USCG will email you back with any questions they have. They asked me to provide an itinerary and under which of the 12 categories of permissions I was traveling. As a musician and writer, I filled in People to People.
Yes, there are some questions that might not be easy to answer at first, like “At which Lat and Long will you enter Cuban waters?” I googled that, too and found a position approximate of where the Cuban waters begin about 12 miles from their coast. Just fill it in. It’s not a test and they’re not going to chastise you if you aren’t exact. Some guy or gal just needs to see the boxes filled in. The actual permit is the application you filled out. It’s just returned with a signature.
Do You Need a License from the Treasury Department to Sail to Cuba?
The simple answer is that you do not need a license from the Treasury Department if you plan to keep your boat in Cuba for 14 days or less.
Under the current rules (although who knows what Trumpet will do), if you’re on a recreational vessel and staying in Cuban waters for 14 days or less, you can use license exception AVS (Aircraft, Vessels, and Spacecraft), which means you are considered a vessel on temporary sojourn. You can read the press release by the Treasury Department regarding vessels on temporary sojourn and the license exception here under the section titled “Travel.”
On the form 3300 there is a place to enter your OFAC license number and the Commerce Export license number. In those spaces, I entered “AVS” to indicate that I had a license exception and had no problems or questions from the Coast Guard.
Now, this stuff seems to be changing weekly, so do your own homework. I’m a believer in having more than is required. I made a copy of the press release that explains the AVS license exception and I highlighted the particular information relevant to us and stapled it to my 3300.
Charts and Cruising Guides for Sailing to Cuba
Here’s what we either already had or bought to aid us in our sail to Cuba:
The Garmin chartplotter was basically useless for this trip. The Garmin charts in Cuba are vague at best. There are large blocks of dark blues and red lines denoting reefs, but no good detail. The channel and sea buoy for Hemingway are accurate if that’s all you need.
Our iPad is loaded with Navionics, Garmin Bluechart for the Western Caribbean, and NV Charts for the Northwest Cuban Coast (Chart 10.2). I found the NV chart book and electronic charts to be invaluable. They’re loaded with great information and detail, and we liked the usability.
The best tool we used to navigate Cuba fell in our hands by accident. Mr. Addison Chan, coauthor of the newest Waterway Guide to Cuba, happened to be docked on the sea wall at Marina Hemingway a few boats away from us. He and his lovely wife Pat joined us for some rum aboard V one night. When he found out we were headed to Isla Mujeres, he asked, “Will you deliver something for me when you get there?” I said, “Sure.”
It was the latest edition of the cruising guide he’d just finished writing with the help of Nigel Calder and a few other seasoned cruising veterans. He told us to use it if we needed it en route and I’ll tell you this, it’s the best damn book on Cuba out there!
We used his waypoints entering the tricky path through the shallows to Cayo Levisa and it was spot on. If you get the Waterway Guide and the NV Charts, you can do Cuba without a problem. Addison made it easy.
The Crossing to Cuba
If you’re a sailor, you know about the gulfstream. If you don’t… you will soon, and God help you if you get it wrong. We decided to cross from the Tortugas for two reasons. The first, and the most obvious, we wanted to visit the park. One never knows if and when one will get another opportunity to experience this lifestyle so we figured we’d do it while we could.
Number two, the crossing into Hemingway is a more direct route than it is from Key West. A crossing from Key West on a rhumb line of 203 degrees is approximately 100 nautical miles. That course has you beating a bit more into the stream than a departure from the Dry Tortugas. Our course was 166 T at a distance of 94 NM. To counter the effects of the stream, we steered a course of 175 T.
Before we left the Tortugas, the wind had been a steady 15-18 knots from the WNW for about 24 hours. It was slated to abate to 10-15 knots from the WNW for our crossing. We knew the seas would be up a bit but decided to go for it. The weather windows in February are small and close quickly, and we didn’t want to get stuck running out of water in the Tortugas.
For the most part, the crossing was uneventful although with big quartering seas, our auto helm had difficulty handling the course so we hand-steered for most of the night. Thinking the forecast would actually be correct, and the winds were going to die down a bit, we left around 9am. When the wind stayed in the high teens all night, we were forced to slow the boat so as not to arrive in the dark. A reefed main and rolled in jib does little to help the motion in those seas. Looking back, we should have left around noon and not at 9am.
Needless to say, we arrived at the sea buoy around 8:30am. The effects of the stream were not evident until we got to within 20-30 miles of the Cuban coast. At one point my heading on the GPS read 154 T. That will wake you up if your getting the least bit groggy on a watch. Not to mention the tanker traffic as you get close. It wasn’t too bad but we did have to jibe to miss two of them.
The Channel into Marina Hemingway
The first thing you’ll aim for is the red and white sea buoy that stands about a quarter mile outside the channel at a position approximate 23 05.4’N 82 30.6’W. This buoy is not easily seen and it’s closer to the reefs than it is to the channel. Don’t dick around here for too long. The ocean goes from thousands of feet deep to forty feet deep in a very short amount of time. When you get a visual on the sea buoy, you can try to hail the marina on 16. If they don’t answer, try 77. We tried for about fifteen minutes and finally raised the marina on channel 77.
Side note: I was told, and read in many places when researching our trip, to call the marina when you’re twelve miles out and request permission to enter Cuban waters. Good luck with this. They will not answer. For the most part, the radios in the marina are handheld versions. They won’t reach. I tried calling and got no response. When the St. Pete Regatta was coming in while we were there, we listened to several boats hail the marina, requesting permission to enter Cuban waters. Nobody received a response.
When the dockmaster answered our call, he was very helpful and spoke good English. He asked the name of our vessel, our last port, how many were on board, and whether it was our first time into Hemingway. When I said it was, he directed me to leave the sea buoy to starboard and follow a course of 140 T through the markers to G9, at which point I would turn to port and find the blue customs building immediately to my left.
This was all well and good except we were doing what everyone tells you not to do, entering with a boisterous NW wind and swell. Breaking waves will push you across the channel entrance, just as all the forums say they will. On either side of the channel, you’ll see breakers crashing and white water splashing 15 feet into the air.
We surfed in without incident although I did find the 140 bearing to be a little close to the reef. I may have not been on the correct angle when I picked up that heading. Needless to say, our CAL did a beautiful job of helping out on that one.
Check In & Clearing Customs
Clearing into Cuba was easy, fairly fast, and pretty painless. Docking at the customs/immigration building is straightforward, but do use ample fenders and keep them high.
We complicated our check-in a bit by traveling with a dog. Jet did great on the passage across, but needed to pee and poop as soon as we hit the dock. It’s difficult to explain to a dog that he can’t just jump off the boat and “do his thing.”
The custom officials took our lines and were pleasant, fun and amazed we had a dog that big on board. Once we swore up and down that he didn’t bite, the doctor took off his shoes and boarded first.
After a few mundane questions, a glance over all our boat documentation, passports, and Jet’s International Health Certificate, he took our temperatures and passed us on to the two young guarda frontera gentlemen. Those two guys were more amused by our boat name than they were in giving us any grief about our check-in. Apparently “Vacilando” has its own risqué meaning in Cuba. I had no idea.
We filled out the customs forms and headed into the nice, air-conditioned office where they took our photo and stamped our passport. We had to ask them to stamp it in lieu of the paper visa that they give most Americans, and they seemed somewhat surprised, but happily obliged.
With all the formalities over with, they let me take Jet ashore to some grass where he took his first international poop. Ever the ambassador.
Finally, one more officer boarded with a cocker spaniel to search for… explosives? That’s what they said. After a lackluster effort, he tossed the poor dog haphazardly into the cockpit and left without so much as a “piss off.” He was the only one I did not particularly like. I hope he treats his wife or girlfriend better than that dog.
Anyway… I only mention all of this because we went to a seminar about traveling to Cuba where they said the Cubans no longer search with dogs. Um… wrong. If you have a pet on board, and he/she doesn’t play well with others, (see: Jet) make sure you have a plan.
Also… don’t bring drugs or pornography to Cuba. If you get caught with pot or other drugs, apparently it’s an automatic 25 years in Cuban jail. Not worth it.
Finally, we got our slip assignment, and upon moving to our slip in Canal 1, the northernmost canal, we were boarded by two more officials, the agriculture guys. They didn’t steal our apples, onions, or our garlic. They did look in the fridge, but didn’t take anything. Ironically, they were more concerned with the ingredients in Jet’s dog food than with any of the fresh produce we had on board. Not kidding.
They were pleasant, and the only officials who openly asked us for a tip. We were over-generous, handing them $5 because we hadn’t changed any money yet. Don’t do like we did. Politely decline or hand them a coke or a cold beer.
Once the agriculture gents left, we had to visit the dockmaster and get all the fees sussed out. Here’s a breakdown of the check-in costs (which you actually don’t pay until you check out):
- Visa – $75.00 each
- Cruising/Boat Permit – $55.00
The marina is $0.70 per foot/per day for a vessel up to 45 feet. For us, that came out to $24.50 per day. It’s $1.00 per foot from 45 feet to 74 feet, and it goes up from there.
Water is .06 per gallon and yes, we filled our tanks with it, using it to shower and wash dishes, and drank it after filtering it through our Berkey. It was fine.
The power pedestals are new and power is billed at $0.35 per KW. We didn’t need to plug in. Our solar kept us at 100% the entire time.
We spent 12 days in the marina, some of them waiting for a weather window. When we checked out, our final bill came to $510.16.
Make sure to write down what the power meter and water meters read as soon as you land. When a front was threatening, we asked to move to another dock. The dockmaster who moved us was not the same as the one who checked us in or out. Once we moved, another, larger boat took our old space. Upon check out, they tried to charge us for a couple hundred gallons of water that the larger boat had used. They hadn’t made note of us moving and read the wrong meter. Thankfully Melody had written down all of our meter readings. She’s a boss.
Money Exchange & Currency
Cuba has two different currencies: the CUC (pronounced kook), which stands for Cuban Convertible peso, and the Peso. The CUC is the currency that is designated for tourists. 1 CUC = 1 USD. The peso is designated for use by the locals. 1 CUC = 24 Pesos.
When exchanging, the US dollar is penalized 10% and then charged another 3% conversion fee. So, for every 100 dollars you exchange, you’ll get 87 CUC back. Some people try to outsmart the system and change to Euros or Canadian dollars (CAD) before leaving the states to skip the exchange penalty. Right now, the Euro is an attractive conversion, but you’ll actually lose money if you change to CAD first because for every 100 CAD you exchange in Cuba, you’ll only get 73 CUC back (at the time of this writing).
Changing money is easily done in the hotel on the south side of Canal 2. They’ll match the bank rates and save you the wait in line. Some locals will tell you they can give you a better rate, but be wary. One of the dockmasters who shall remain nameless offered to change money for us. We took him up on this since we had just arrived and didn’t feel like hitting the bank (and didn’t yet know about the hotel’s ability to exchange). He exchanged at the same rate the bank and hotel would have given us. Had I known better, I would have negotiated a better rate since he isn’t penalized when converting US dollars and therefore was pocketing that 13%.
One of our friends (who speaks fluent Spanish) was in line at a bank waiting to exchange money when one of the guards said he’d do it for 91 CUC to 100 USD. A bold move tto make right in the bank, but he did it. I would not advise this.
Since there are two different currencies, when asking for the price of something, you’ll want to confirm whether the price is in CUCs or Pesos. We found that the touristy places typically gave prices in CUCs. The small, local places usually charged in Pesos.
When you stay away from the tourist areas like Havana, you’ll get Pesos back as change which is good, because you can get things much cheaper with Pesos if you seek out the local joints (i.e. breakfast for 10 Pesos, or roughly 42 cents!).
Many local places accepted CUCs (at the 24:1 exchange rate), but only if you had CUCs in small denominations (1s and 5s). For example, if you tried to pay for a meal that was 10 Pesos with a $20 CUC bill, they would have to give you 470 Pesos in change, and most didn’t have that kind of money on hand, so keep that in mind and try to keep small bills on hand for such occasions.
Some people warned us ahead of time that we might get ripped off, and that some locals would take advantage of unsuspecting tourists by short-changing them, or giving the change in the wrong currency, but we were never short-changed once. If we paid in CUCs and got Pesos as change, it always came out right.
It seems really confusing at first, but you get the hang of it after a day or two. Just be sure to keep your CUCs and Pesos separate.
Side note: At the time of our visit, there were no ATMs or banks where you could use your US-based card to access cash, so be sure to bring enough cash to sustain you for your intended time, and extra in case you get stuck for longer due to weather.
Clearing Out of Cuba
Whether you are clearing out of Cuba at Marina Hemingway or another port, the process is pretty straightforward, although different from some other countries.
If you’re cleared in at Marina Hemingway, and you’re headed right back to the states, the check-out process is simple. You’ll just visit the dockmaster, at which point he will give you your bill (which includes your marina fees as well as your visa(s) and cruising permit charges). From there, you just walk to the other side of the lobby to the secretary/treasurer and pay her. She’ll give you a receipt, and you’ll be on your way.
Side note: The dockmaster will automatically add a 10% propina (tip) to your total bill. This gets supposedly split among marina staff. It is not required and you can request that this be removed — the dockmaster will give you no problems. We simply stated that we had been tipping the staff throughout our stay accordingly, and wished that it be removed. Especially since the bill included our visas and cruising permit costs. Sorry… not going to tip on those charges. By the way, standard tip at restaurants, etc. is 10%. Most Americans tend to overtip, but we found the standard to be well-received.
If you are continuing on through other parts of Cuba (like we were), the process is a little different. When you visit the dockmaster, you’ll need to give him your proposed itinerary for the duration of your time in Cuban waters. Be sure to list every possible anchorage you may be staying at.
Your itinerary doesn’t have to be exact, but it’s important to be as thorough as possible. Along the way, depending on where you anchor, you may have to “check in” at certain ports (such as Cayo Levisa) which is nothing more than simply showing the guarda your paperwork and passport. There is no money exchanged, but if you stop somewhere that’s not listed on your itinerary and the guarda frontera stop you, it could raise some eyebrows.
Once we got to Cabo San Antonio where we cleared out of the country for good, the port captain was super friendly and made it very easy. He looked over our paperwork, made a phone call to Marina Hemingway to confirm that we had paid all of our necessary bills, and cleared us out.
Marina Hemingway: Useful Knowledge
You’ll hear stories about the dreaded Canal 1. “It’s horrible! The ocean will break right into your cockpit!” Not so. Canal 1 is quite lovely until a norther blows through. Since they only use the south wall of Canal 1, a strong norther will be pushing you onto the wall. And let me tell you, it’s a very hard wall. A nasty, jagged, scuffed up wall. That said, Canal 1 is closest to the bathrooms and showers (which are located in a building called the SnackBar).
We only requested a move from Canal 1 to the north side of Canal 2 because the front was going to be particularly nasty from the NE and it was going to last five days. Our freeboard is not so high that when low tide occurred we might have slipped under the lip of the wall. No amount of fenders would have helped.
The canals are long. Try for Canal 1 away from the tiki bar or the north side of Canal 2 for closest proximity to the bathrooms and showers. If you end up on the south side of canal 2, you’ll be on the same side as the hotel. Good for changing money but it’s a bit busy there and the walk to the dockmaster and showers is about half a mile. Canal 3 and 4? No mans land.
Wi-fi & Cell Service
This is gonna be short — don’t count on it. The hotel on site sells ETECSA wifi cards for $1.50 CUC. This is the cheapest we found. Each is good for an hour but if it works, it’s slow at best. Doesn’t really matter how close to the antenna you are. We have a booster and it didn’t make a difference. Some days it was great. Some days it didn’t work at all.
We have T-Mobile and although we did have cell service (very limited), calls were $5.00/minute while in Cuba (so we only made one very short phone call to let my mom know we arrived). We were able to send and receive texts under our unlimited plan at no charge but I’m not sure about other cell providers and what they offer.
Taxis & Transportation
Cuba is a funny place. It’s not unlike any other big city. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you might get hustled. If you are a gringo standing outside Marina Hemingway and one of those cool 1953 Chevys stops and you say, “I wanna go to Havana!” They’re gonna charge you 20 CUC. Mel and I did okay. We never paid more than 15 CUC and our best was 13. At least know your Spanish numbers, it’ll help with change as well.
You can get a “local taxi” in a more run-down car for cheaper, often squeezed in among a few strangers. They only operate within “zones” so to get to Havana, you might have to take 2 or 3 different taxis. Our Columbian friend Victor can get a ride halfway to Havana on a local taxi for 50 Pesos, or about 2 CUC.
There are several local buses, but we never rode them. Honestly, after two trips to Havana, we wanted to stay away from the big touristy stuff. We did a lot of walking. If you don’t like to walk, your trip to Cuba will be expensive.
The hotel in the marina offers a shuttle bus but it seemed pretty pricey for where it dropped you off. Cabs regularly circle the marina so you’ll have no trouble getting a ride.
Poop & Toilet Paper
Yes, it’s its own category. Bring your own TP with you. Everywhere you go. Havana, Jaimanitas, bars, restaurants… doesn’t matter. You won’t find toilet paper. The marina does a great job with what it has but I will be upfront about this. Most mornings, the water is off. You’ll walk into the bathroom having to “go” and the toilets will be full. Yes… with poop.
After searching the six or seven stalls, you’ll be confronted with the frightening reality. There is nowhere to poop unless you poop on top of other poop. Sadly, that’s the case. If you know how to remove the lid off the tank and flush the toilet by pulling the chain, you can sometimes get one last “flush” out of the toilet even when the water’s off, but don’t count on it.
Some mornings your anxiety will be unfounded as you’ll get there and find an unmolested toilet bowl. That is a good morning.
Your quads will get an awesome workout while in Cuba as well, because rarely will you find a toilet seat. They’ve been stolen or the establishment has removed them to keep people from pooping and then clogging the toilets with paper. Never throw your paper in the toilet. Toss it in the waste basket next to the toilet. The plumbing can’t handle it. Sorry… that’s the downside.
We met some of the regatta people from St. Pete Yacht Club who were simply stunned and completely mortified at this reality. They promptly left. Their precious posteriors just wouldn’t be subjected to such inhumanity. Not gonna lie, some of the women’s faces were priceless. Cheap entertainment at its best.
Marina Hemingway offers a laundry service inside the Snack Bar building on the western end of Canal 1. It’s a drop-off service, and somewhere along the lines of 5 CUC per load (wash and dry), although I can’t recall exactly, as we didn’t use the laundry service there.
Lastly but certainly not least is the weather. The entrance to Hemingway faces NNW. If it’s been blowing from that direction, don’t attempt the entrance. If it’s blowing hard from the east, you might also want to think twice. The break will be across the channel and it’s a bit intimidating, not to mention dangerous.
If you plan to visit Cuba in January and February, the weather will be the challenge. You may get stuck at Hemingway for longer than planned, or you might be lucky and get in and out without a hitch.
In February, the days were warm and sunny, and the nights actually required us to pull down the fleece blankets. We couldn’t have asked for better temperatures. The only hitch in our giddy-up was the front that kept us pinned in for an unplanned five extra days.
When we look back, we are glad we got stuck. We got to know Victor and Cathy aboard s/v Kisma, Jeffrey the Dutchman aboard s/v Running Free and Alex Peacock, captain of the tallship Lynx as well as so many others. We wouldn’t have changed a thing.
I know this was long-winded, but there is so much to talk about and more to come. If I missed something you wish I had addressed about sailing to Cuba, ask a question in the comments because someone else may have the same question, and we’ll answer it there.
Thanks for following along. We’re trying to update as much as possible. Internet access is sparse so thanks for your patience.
As always, stay in touch. Let us know where you are.