We have at last found freedom in the cays along the south coast of Cuba. The sail from Santiago along the east coast was enjoyable with a few picturesque anchorages on the way, but everywhere we stopped the guarda police were rowed out by a willing fisherman, to sign us ‘in and out’ of the anchorage despite us not being allowed ashore. Our first stop in the beautiful bay of Portillo which is surrounded by mangroves and backed by mountains was eventful when the guarda brought a rather nervous spaniel to check for drugs. Our first mistake was to allow the fisherman to tie up his own boat and come aboard, with the guarda and sniffer dog checking things out and completing our paperwork, we hadn’t noticed the fishing boat breaking loose and scratching down the entire aft section of Joy despite having fenders out. The excited spaniel tried to go one better by attempting to scratch every varnished floor board possible, and when they left he launched himself off the deck into the retrieved fishing boat before his handler could grab the lead.
We were looking forward to a stop in Tiburcio bay as other cruisers had done, the bay was surrounded by reef so very protected. It was a good job we had recorded our track on the chart plotter going in, as at 5pm the same guarda dog handler turned up to tell us that we were not allowed to anchor there. There was one other boat in the bay and we were both forced on to the next bay at Pilon where there is a town and guarda post. Our final stop on the mainland was at Cabo Cruz on the south east corner, the reef extends out by over 2 miles but makes a nice wave break to anchor behind. Despite being anchored almost 2 miles offshore in a 20 knot brisk breeze the guarda was soon on the scene with his trusty rowers. The father and son fisherman were easy to understand with the help of our phrase book, and we soon established that the belt had broken on their engine, lucky for them we have a good supply of spare V belt for our generator and Jez gave them the length they needed. After a celebratory shot of Jamaican rum each and a strip of paracetamol for the forthcoming headache, they were towed off by a fellow fisherman back to the village. The guarda had invited us ashore in the morning to collect our paperwork, usually forbidden anywhere without a marina. Within an hour a diver appeared at the boat holding up two lobsters for us. All he wanted in exchange was some soap for his 3 year old child, we threw in some toothpaste and a small amount of money and he disappeared into the waves. In the morning the new shift of guarda, unfortunately for us, had other ideas about us going ashore and had rowed themselves out at 7.30am to return our papers, we had to move on. With a strong wind but variable direction we set out along the coast in shallow waters to our first night of freedom.
Our first week away from civilisation was spent cruising through the Golfo de Guacanayabo, 130 miles of day sailing, occasionally through some well-marked channels avoiding reefs and shoals and across remote shallow areas keeping a sharp lookout for isolated coral heads. Our electronic Navionics charts have been very accurate so far, we also have raster charts from GeoCuba viewed on our PC with Open CPN. Cuban waters were surveyed very accurately by Russia some years ago, with the odd hurricane moving shoals since and of course coral growth. An important reminder when we sailed past a very visible coral patch after leaving Cabo Cruz that was not shown on any of our charts or cruising guides. Conditions have been so glorious, mainly flat seas and bright sunshine, we are out of the trade winds completely here with the wind starting off from the east in the early morning (offshore) and clocking around to a west/north west in the late afternoon (onshore) despite being out of sight of the mainland. We have sailed on and off our anchor most days without the use of our engine, something we haven’t had chance to practice anywhere else in the Caribbean. Remote cay after remote cay, all with good holding in thick grey mud impacted with shells. The deck wash has never been used so much, and we have never had so much lobster to eat, exchanged with the fisherman for soap, rum, toothpaste and cold drinks.
Last week we made our way through the Canal del Pingue, a long marked channel through reef and shoals, into the Golfo de Ana Maria, feeling our way off the channel into a very protected deep water lagoon for the night.
This was the first time in 10 days we had spotted another cruising boat, two infact following us in the channel. With a light down-wind passage we hoisted the asymmetric sail until the wind died approaching our next anchorage at Cayos Algodon Grande, where another two yachts were already tucked up in the bay. Once through the shallow reef-fringed entrance the lagoon opens up with 4-5 metres of depth and plenty of room, although this definitely is not the prettiest anchorage we have had as a large proportion of the mangrove is dead so it looks a little gloomy. We had read that a shallow channel leads through the reef and mangroves almost to the beach on the north coast of the cay, so the following day we explored with the dinghy and found the channel, the sandy beach it leads to is stunning with crystal clear water, the water in most of the anchorages has been quite cloudy so it was great to finally have a swim.
Today we have arrived at Cayos Cuervo which will be our last stop on the ’inside passage’, there is a north wind forecast for a day or two so we are staying put tucked up in the lee of the cay in front of 10 huge shrimping boats and their 3 supply boats. Once the weather system has passed we will sail through the Canal Boca Grande, a shallow channel through the outer reef leading out into the Caribbean Sea for the last leg of the journey along the northern part of the Jardines de la Reina, a 70 mile string of hundreds of cays which separate the Carib Sea from the Golfo de Ana Maria. Our supplies are lasting very well, but we have to be in Cienfuegos just over a hundred miles away before the end of the month to renew our visas.