Cuba: The Other Side of the Divide

From the time of the tale of Adam and Eve, there is something about a forbidden fruit that makes it all that more enticing. Likewise, our curiosity was stoked about stories of sailing to Cuba, and the cruising experience on the other side of the divide.

In our French sailing circles, as well as in the French sailing press and "cruising" magazines, Cuba was touted as a great place to visit with a sailboat: far from the West Indies' madding crowds, inexpensive, a genuinely friendly population, new things to explore and discover, and not to forget, the history. Needless to say, in 1988, Cuba was still an American nemesis, almost a cartoon-type archenemy scenario. Despite this politically charged propagandized press coverage, some American sailing magazines as Cruising World occasionally published articles about yachties who managed to sail and spend some time there. The articles would even highlight pointers and serve as "how-to" primers of circumventing the official deterrents to go there. Our intrigue grew, so we put Cuba on our more immediate radar list.

After a three-year sojourn in Central Florida, anchored at the locally famous Dragon Point landmark in Eau Gallie near Melbourne, we finally chose one fine November day just after Thanksgiving to lift anchor and head down the Intracostal Waterway from Central Florida to Key West. Key West would be our last stop in the U.S. for a long time, and our springboard to jump the 90 miles to Cuba.

Prior to beginning this trip and truly envisioning sailing to Cuba, we needed to find out the real scoop about whether or not we really could travel to Cuba, and how to go about it, legally. I first made a phone call to the State Department, inquiring as to if it was really forbidden to travel to Cuba. If other American boats had gone there, how was it possible? I was told that the U.S. government couldn’t forbid an American from going anywhere. The State Department in many cases issues warnings when there are safety concerns, and in the case of Cuba, the stipulation was that should Americans venture there, they were not allowed to bring back any items purchased there, and would be subject to a fine and the items confiscated if so. Fine. That wasn't much of a deterrent for us since we wouldn't be coming right back to the States. Next we contacted Cuban authorities to find out what visa was required, if any, and how to go about procuring that.

Unbeknownst to many, there was (and probably still is) a diplomatic representation called the Cuban Interests Section office in Washington D.C.,  then located within the Czechoslovakian Embassy. However, since Michel was doing some architectural work at the time for NASA in Cape Canaveral, he thought it more prudent to avoid calling this Cuba antenna in the States and opted to contact the Cuban authorities at their embassy in Paris. They informed us that it was not necessary to obtain a tourist visa before going to Cuba, either for French or American citizens, and that sailing directly to Havana is very straightforward. All we needed to do was hail the port authorities on the VHF radio as we approached the harbor, and they would give us instructions from that point on, no strings attached. Hmmm, this really seemed too easy. There must be a catch.

Armed with that information along with our valid passports, we prepared to venture forth to the land of the infidel Fidel.

Setting sail from Key West in the morning for basically an overnight trip, that did indeed prove to be the case as the Cuban coast came within our sights by daybreak. In fact, it went even faster than that as we could see lights of Havana at 1:00 a.m. Not wanting to enter an unknown harbor at night, we sort of “paced” back and forth for most of the night until daybreak.

It did seem strange to set out from a U.S. harbor, out into the open sea with a compass direction straight for the "enemy" and no one to stop us. I kept expecting a Coast Guard vessel to ominously loom just over the horizon, accosting us with a menacing PA system, inquiring as to our intentions. Instead we quietly slipped out, and just as unceremoniously hailed the port of Havana once we were within proper VHF radio distance the next morning.

Our arrival and welcome from the Cuban authorities was one of the most unexpected and gracious experiences we ever encountered in our six years of sailing up to that point. Our only other such memorable warm welcome was in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It must be the Latin nature of the beast. Once hailed on the VHF radio, and the proper language connection established, the Havana port authorities informed us they were sending out a military escort to guide us to the Marina Hemingway, 10 miles west of Havana. We weren't too sure what to expect from this "military escort." Would we be seized after all? Would there be hefty fines to pay? Would we be suspected spies? We were sure they would be brandishing guns, demanding to do a full search of our boat.

One distinct advantage we had over many other yachties, as we had experienced over the years, was our two young children on board. They often seemed to serve as a "free pass"—something like a "get out of jail" card when customs or immigration authorities and the like would come on board. I admit that we often used this angle, purposely taking them with us when conducting entry and exit formalities with harbor officials. It just made things easier, and in the Latin latitudes, our redhead and blond boys were always popular curiosities.

The Guarda Frontera patrol boat crew proved to be very courteous. They simply bid that we follow them to the marina channel, where a young man in a small outboard came out to meet us. From there he took over, and the military escort bid us good-bye. He continued to lead us into the marina channel, and signaled that we tie up at the entrance, in front of the customs office. Still wary up to this point as to the consequences of our being here, we thought that now the trouble would begin. Several customs officers came aboard, extremely cordial and matter-of-fact in their manner. There were just a few papers to fill out, an obligation to hand over to them for safekeeping during our stay the .22 rifle we kept on board, and a quick perfunctory inspection of the boat. I pointedly asked if there was a problem that we, on board an American-flagged boat, were in Cuban waters with the intention of staying for a while. “None,” they answered. We were as welcome as any other tourist from any other country. “We don’t have a problem with you being here,” an officer told me. “It’s our governments that have a problem with each other.” Once these first formalities finished, we were instructed to continue on to the immigration and health authorities’ station inside the marina itself.

Firing up the engine again, we continued briefly down the channel and turned the corner, revealing quite a site. An expansive, completely empty marina lay before us after clearing the jetty. There were hundreds of slips, and including us, only three boats at the time. Incredibly clean, bright turquoise water framed canals and canals of decay: decaying docks, upended chunks of broken cement with rusted iron rebars poking through, dilapidated buildings…30 years of neglect.

We prepared our dock lines to tie up to the spot they indicated. Several impeccably uniformed officers appeared one after the other. They inspected boat papers, passports, and without ceremony, issued temporary tourist visas. Again they were very polite, pleasant, and not at all surprised or alarmed that we were on an American boat. It was a non-issue for them.

Once we were deemed legal, a certain Nadia, the government marina pubic relations official, appeared and officially welcomed us with her excellent English and informed us that she would do the necessary paperwork to procure our official permanent tourist visas. However, she wasn’t alone. Nadia was accompanied by a young man, dressed formally in pressed white slacks, a white waiter vest, a white apron, sporting a large, elegant serving tray laden with coffee, orange juice, water and mojito cocktails, complete with a serving towel dressed over his arm! He made quite a tableau framed by the hot sun and decaying cement. We didn't know what to make of this. Never in our right mind could we imagine an American marina welcoming a foreign traveler in such a manner.

We delighted in this unexpected pleasure and honor and settled in at the Marina Hemingway, aptly named for the celebrity whom Cubans seemed to hold so dearly in their hearts. The marina itself, it seems, was Ernest Hemingway’s old stomping grounds. He would set out from here on his regular fishing trips. Along with the marina honoring his name, there was also the Hotel El Viejo y El Mar (Hotel the Old Man and the Sea), Restaurant Papa’s and various statues erected in his memory.

The next day Nadia returned with our visas, valid for one month and good for two subsequent renewals, thus good for a total of three months! That should fit the bill since we intended to stay a while in order to sail around as much of the island of Cuba as we could. First we would get to know Havana, spend Christmas here, and learn the ways of the locals and the culture before heading out for coastal exploration and total immersion into a Cuban experience.