A cultural and visual spectacle

3. Bella Signora

For those in search of fair winds, an umbrella-laden beverage and an increased sense of adventure, Cuba provides. U.S.-Cuba relations easing in December of 2014 provided an opportunity for voyagers to sail the island. One year later, we arrived to our charter in the southern Cuba port of Cienfuegos to begin a 600-nm voyage to Havana. Booking our trip was relatively standard, and what obstacles did surface added to the romance of the experience. While it was our primary desire to explore Cuba’s coastline, our trip included touring museums, art galleries and a few architectural marvels from the Spanish conquest. Throughout our trip, we formed an unwavering respect for the spirit of the Cuban people, and the untouched beauty of the coastline.

S/Y Bella Signora, a 47-foot Nautitech built in 2004, was described to us as the fastest charter on the southern coast. Provisioning was expensive. The natural fruits and vegetables appeared to be grown without preservatives, and I did not recognize many food brands in the market.

The city of Cienfuegos sprawls across two square miles of old-world structures. Given its cultural heritage, the city was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the best example of 19th-century Spanish architecture and urban planning in the Americas. We had a dinner at Marina Puerto Sol that was bland, but a plate of chicken, rice, vegetables and fries with a beer only cost $3. After a swim in the marina pool, we hitched a ride downtown for some dancing.

A daylight passage

The following morning we departed Cienfuegos in darkness, navigating through a narrow passage into the Caribbean Sea, making our course for Cayo Largo located about 75 miles southwest. Our charter company recommended we make it in daylight since we needed a slip as our final crewmember was arriving from Havana, but all attempted communications with him had failed. The sun appeared as we sailed past the Bay of Pigs, and with it a breeze filled in. Our speed averaged 14 knots for most of the afternoon and drove breakfast from a couple stomachs aboard. Bella Signora was the only vessel in Alboran’s sailboat charter fleet allowed to make the trip to Havana, and the four staterooms and extra bunks made her a comfortable choice.

We arrived in the late afternoon at Playa Sirena, threw a hook and made for the restaurant bar — also finding a water sport rental business with jet skis, kayaks, sailboats and dolphins. We swam back to the boat and motored to the marina, where a port captain named Pire welcomed us like sons and guided us to a slip for $30 a night. Pire served in the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces during the communist intervention in Angola and the Ogaden War in Ethiopia, and he had a picture of himself with Fidel hanging behind his desk. It was clear Pire is a proud Cuban, yet he was open about how earning $20 a month as a government employee isn’t always sustainable.

The next morning, we motored to Cayeria los Majaes, home to the Cuban rock iguana. We tossed a football and fly-fished in the natural pools that form between the islands. Alex caught and released what looked to be a yellowhead wrasse on his fly rod. That evening we moseyed about the resorts, quickly realizing our preference for the marina and nearby dance hut, where our entertainment consisted of rowdy Australians, Swiss bankers, standoffish Italians and a bitter Canadian expat. A pair of vacated machine-gun pillboxes lay to the west of the lively marina bar and restaurant, reminding us how recently hostilities between our nations had simmered.

Guarded by sandbars
and reefs

Cayo Largo is home to several resorts and lies on the eastern edge of Canarreos Archipelago, a group of volcanic, coral and mangrove islands that make up the southern perimeter of the Gulf of Batabano. A series of sandbars make Cayo Largo’s northern coastline unnavigable, and the south is surrounded by a reef system where a catamaran sank the evening prior to our arrival, leaving 15 crew stranded and in need of rescue. The southwestern side, however, offers a comfortable anchorage and is a likely place where Christopher Columbus and Sir Francis Drake made their arrival five centuries earlier. Reefs and islands are marked, but most aids to navigation lack lights and are best cruised first in daylight. Andy’s arrival revived our morale and allowed us to continue westward. The wind built from the east and we made for Cayo del Rosario under a full moon, arriving on Christmas Eve to a marmalade sunrise.

We learned the long uninhabited island is for sale, but the Castros rejected bids from a Japanese sumo wrestler and a Latin American pop artist, among others. While surveying the island, a Cuban lobster boat approached Bella Signora and we signaled them to tie up. Cuba banned commercial fishing in 1997, but the small boats provide room for free divers to collect several hundred lobsters before returning to port. We bartered rum, coffee and beer for a dozen lobsters and set sail for Nueva Gerona.

While crossing Quitasol Passage, the sun escaped behind Isla de la Juventud, silhouetting two mountains and illuminating the moon behind us. The wind died as we entered the shallow passage and our depth read 2 feet beneath our rudders. It was my first time skippering a large catamaran, and her shallow draft proved necessary to navigate Cuba’s southern coastline. Just before dark, we radioed in our position to the harbormaster and requested entrance to Nueva Gerona, the capital and largest port on Isla de la Juventud. He explained that we must get approval from the Guarda Frontera (Cuban coast guard) the following morning, so we anchored in a cove a mile east to celebrate Christmas Eve over fresh lobster and rum.

Less than two miles southeast of our position lay Presidio Modelo, the prison where the Castro brothers were held after the 26th of July Movement failed to overthrow Batista in 1953. In 1959, Castro began filling the prison with those who opposed his government.

Permission granted

Christmas morning’s light revealed the guard station at the head of Río Las Casas, where a captain informed us we did not have permission to enter. After a tricky docking, I began telling the guard captain how we needed to provision and make repairs to our rigging, and after some head-scratching translations he granted us Christmas in Nueva Gerona to “make repairs.” Our charter company told us Nueva Gerona was off-limits to pleasure craft, but we had also been told that “in Cuba, anything is possible and nothing is for certain.”

As we motored upriver, the water became putrid and a rusted petrol depot and commercial freight dock emerged. We docked in front of a large ferry and a port captain thoroughly searched Bella Signora before clearing us onto the island. Each step outside the marina gates took us further back in time. Donkeys and horses were the transportation of choice, however, motorcycles and 1950s Chevys also puttered by. Children crowded Nueva Gerona’s central park, where an elegant museum borders the south side and a performing arts academy the west. We purchased ice cream from an honest vendor who returned a large wad of unfamiliar bills. Cuba maintains two official currencies: one for Cuban citizens, and another for foreigners and luxury goods sales. The USD is pegged 1:1 to the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), which is pegged 1:25 with the Cuban peso (CUP). Each of our ice creams had cost CUP$1 and we had tried to pay 25 times that. The limited scope of a Cuban citizen’s purchasing power washed over me, and their need for extra income explained the barter and yearly exodus of 50,000 young people — many of whom leave from Isla de la Juventud, a direct translation of “Isle of Youth.” I noticed tanks and AK-47s pictured on the currency, yet our taxi driver explained how all weapons were seized following the revolution. Our driver pointed out several dormitory buildings where students from other communist countries around the world once roomed as they studied medicine and agriculture. In the 1990s, the funding ceased and the buildings were converted into community housing.

On the southwest coast, Hotel El Colony provides a restaurant bar, swimming pool and tranquil beach. The hotel had not been repaired since before Hurricane Gustav’s 140-mph winds made landfall in 2008, but it is a charming place. Andy and I played soccer with a group of kids, and we ordered lunch and drinks from the pool bar. A mile south of the hotel, Marina Siguanea provides safe refuge and borders Punta Frances National Park. The Soviets built a missile site east of the marina fuel depot, and we found a system of defensive concrete trenches surrounding the area.

A simple feast

While in search of the fortifications we met two Swedes, Gabriella Bauer and Karolina Alpsjo, who joined us for drinks on Bella Signora that evening. Christmas dinner at Nueva Gerona’s most highly touted paladar was a simple affair — yet the upside was that 10 pizzas, appetizers and a few bottles of wine came to CUC$22. Following dinner we met up with Yorelis, a friend of the water sports rental manager I’d befriended on Cayo Largo. Yorelis is a baseball coach, and he showed us around and introduced us to his friends. Around 11 p.m., music beckoned us to the corner of Calle Jose Marti and Calle 24. We each paid CUC$1 cover and entered a lively courtyard, which connected to a bar and dancehall from where the thunderous sound emanated. As the only Americans present, we attempted to blend by hitting the dance floor — only to find out how outmatched we were. The reggaeton roared, occasionally dropping to salsa that sent everyone into an elaborate reciprocity of human energy, but not us.

On Boxing Day, we wandered in search of drinking water and food, passing long lines of people waiting to receive rations through Libreta de Abastecimiento, the Cuban food distribution system. It wasn’t until an Italian expat stopped us to determine our situation did we learn Isla de la Juventud had been out of bottled water for weeks.

We returned to the boat, purchased some diesel and sandwiches, and headed downriver to begin our 130-mile passage to western Cuba. The wind remained directly astern, and after tying a preventer into the main we sailed wing on wing, holding 7 knots through the night. The total lack of maritime traffic was eerie, especially at night. Shortly after dawn, large swells rolled; soon after, land appeared. Tacking around a point revealed Maria la Gorda, a scuba diving outpost in Guanahacabibes National Park. The large uninhabited area is home to more than 300 animal species, 700 plant species and dozens of pre-Columbian archaeological sites of the Guanahatabey indigenous peoples.

The Bay of Currents

We picked up a mooring and motored in for lunch and a look around. The resort was quaint, but guests seemed to be enjoying themselves. We departed to sail the Bay of Currents, an aptly named stretch of 25 miles near where the Gulf Stream forms between the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. A sudden wind shift shattered two mainsheet blocks during an uncontrolled gybe just as we crossed Roncali Lighthouse, Cuba’s westernmost point. Darkness moved in and a breeze continued to build on our starboard aft quarter — but as we cleared another point, greater pressure on our port beam formed and we fell off the prevailing weather. Through the darkness, a faint light marked Marina Los Morros and the end of the most challenging 40 miles of the voyage. In heavy chop and 30-mph gusts, we kicked on our motors and dropped sail to dock along a cement pier. Bella Signora was the only boat in sight, and our arrival was noted by Dutch and Ukrainian diplomats dining at the marina restaurant to whom we introduced ourselves.

The next morning, the port captain told me our papers were not in order and refused to clear Bella Signora from Los Morros. After considerable debate entirely in Spanish, I pointed to a phone number in my captain’s license and told him I would be reporting a diplomatic conflict to the U.S. State Department. I asked how long it would be before Havana would call asking why he was holding a group of innocent Americans. He fled his office shouting and drove off in a van. I called him over the radio repeatedly before another port captain from Roncali Lighthouse heard my transmissions, and after taking care to properly explain our situation he drove over to check us out. I would not know the reason for the port captain’s hostility until reconnecting with the diplomats in Havana. Although many Cubans favor restoring trade relations with the U.S., the fear of an Allied invasion like the Bay of Pigs remains a real concern for some Cubans.

Into the Gulf Stream we sailed to begin the 125-nm passage to Cayo Levisa, an island paradise accessible from Havana by a taxi and ferry. We found an anchorage on the south side of the island where we spent the night. The following morning, we sailed to the island’s beach resort, spending the day between the water and bar. That evening the resort served up a tasty dinner, and after a close chess game with two Italian brothers we dinghied back to Bella Signora. A favorable wind meant our departure for Havana, and we began a 70-nm night passage. As we motored out of the bay, a shallow unmarked reef trimmed a couple inches of fiberglass off our port rudder.

Sunrise in Havana

Sunrise illuminated Havana’s business district and Marina Hemingway, our final destination. Three miles out, the Guarda Frontera hailed us on the radio and instructed us to check in with them upon entering. Waves crashed all around the marina entrance, indicating a threatening reef system. As we neared shore, however, a narrow cut appeared and we concluded our voyage. We received our final search, and the dockmaster coincidentally directed us to our pier right behind Enticer, an 85-foot Trumpy owned by a friend from Newport. Marina Hemingway has restaurants and a hotel, but the five channels of docks and amenities require repairs. By 10 a.m., we were in a 1950s Chevy coasting along El Malecón, a roadway that borders Havana’s harbor. Cuba’s former capitol building is very similar to the U.S. Capitol and is best visible from the pool deck of the Segovia Hotel. In 1959, Castro relocated the politburo to Revolution Square, a series of concrete high-rises surrounding a pavement expanse. We visited the Museum of the Revolution where old fighter planes surround Granma, the 43-foot cabin cruiser Fidel and Che Guevara used to transport the 1956 revolutionary force from Mexico.

Across the street, the National Museum of Fine Arts boasts a large collection of modern and conceptual pieces. Most Cuban painters rely on mixing creative visuals with bright colors, and much of the collection depicts their revolutionary struggle. It was the first time I’d been in a museum where many of the artists were still living. Tomas Sanchez is a talented oil painter I approached to see if he might have interest in showing with Mariner Gallery, our family’s business in Newport, R.I., and the primary reason for our trip.

Held together by

Much of Old Havana is held together with scaffolding decades old, and some blocks look like Berlin after a world war. The squealing of pigs to slaughter echoed through exposed structures that housed artisans producing ceramics, textiles and food products. Everyone we spoke with said they had access to healthcare, food and education, but the lack of good employment opportunities was also a common theme we heard.

That evening, I joined the diplomats we met in Los Morros for drinks before meeting my buddies at Casa de la Musica Habana. Much of the nightlife is focused on entertainment, and we were sent to establishments called Shangri La and Las Piedras that had a vintage Las Vegas ambiance, and the dancing was impressive. The last day of the year, we stayed in Marina Hemingway by the pool and an ice machine mechanic let me take his motorcycle for a ride.

That evening, I accepted the Dutch diplomat’s invitation to a New Year’s Eve party at an Austrian diplomat’s residence. Talking to the people tasked with opening Cuba to their respective nation’s economies highlighted the constrictive nature of state-run communism. The regime is opening up new types of business licenses but primarily in tourism and entertainment. The general consensus of the diplomats was that Cuba is not ready for big change, and expediting the process would likely cause social unrest. No matter who or how I asked, nobody wanted to give their opinion of what the future would bring. I thanked my hosts and stumbled in search of a cab to join Scott and Alex at Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC). After exploring the maze-like structure of art and dance, the FAC became my favorite discovery of the trip. The massive venue contains nearly a dozen creative exhibits, three bars and two dance floors — and they know how to throw a party.

I spent the first day of the new year wandering about Havana, returning to Marina Hemingway in the evening to pack and prepare the boat for the delivery crew arriving the next day. In late January, my aunt Mariette called with word from a Pittsburgh friend whose daughter had coincidentally met a group of American sailors in Cayo Levisa over Christmas break, and one of the last names sounded like mine. As I remembered meeting the girl, I realized we were not alone. The invasion has begun, and those who get off the beaten path will find a lapse in material change that makes for a cultural and visual spectacle that exceeds all expectations. n

P. Andre Arguimbau is an executive recruiter in New York City and an owner of Mariner Gallery in Newport.

By Ocean Navigator