Cuba by sea

cean, which probably includes a major portion of American yachts currently in use. This warning is particularly appropriate during the winter season from December through March when the Straits of Florida can be anything but a Florida playland. Volatile weather patterns, a variety of navigational challenges, a night passage across a major shipping highway, and the ever-present Gulf Stream stretching almost all the way across to Havanaall these factors can combine to make the crossing a true challenge, especially for inexperienced skippers or crewmembers.

Even so, it really is only around 100 miles, and almost anyone can endure the approximately 24 hours that might be required for a passage in unpleasant conditions. In good conditions some boats can rocket across in 16 hours or lesspowerboats even less, of course. A safe vessel in which to make this or any other ocean crossing is one that can heave-to at sea and wait. Instead of striving for the fastest possible crossing, crewmembers should be comfortable with the idea of simply stopping their vessel’s progress and waiting until, say, daylight, or until conditions are right for entry into port, or until a sudden onslaught of bad weather like a squall line passes. This is true for power vessels as well as sail yachts.

The passage across to Cuba is roughly at latitude 23° N. This puts it at the northern edge of the band of trade winds that blow from the east or northeast and actually extend much farther south across the Caribbean. Because of this, winds across the straits south of Florida may often be from some easterly quadrant, making for a nice reach down to Cuba, and maybe a close reach on the way back. However, these easterly winds just as often seem to be elsewhere as soon as one makes the decision to head south toward Cuba. Since the straits are not well embedded in the trade wind zone, those steady winds that regularly bathe the more southerly Caribbean islands are often interrupted off the Florida coast by cold fronts associated with passing low pressure systems farther north, or by transient lows or even hurricanes.

Since most Americans or Canadians would wisely tend to do their voyaging to Cuba during the Cuban dry season, which begins more or less after hurricane season, one should be especially mindful of the passage of cold fronts or northers (nortes in Spanish). A cold front is the leading edge of a moving mass of cold, dry air. These fronts can be, but are not always, associated with low pressure systems far-ther to the north. During the North American winter, masses of cold air regularly move down from cold Canadian latitudes and generally progress from west to east along with most other weather. Low pressure systems can form along the fronts where cold air encounters masses of warmer air, and these also move from west to east with the fronts.

During winter months, when lows pass across America’s midsection, there is almost always a trailing cold front hanging down in an arc on a general northeast-southwest axis. These cold fronts sweep regularly across the southern U.S. and Gulf of Mexico and move out into the Atlantic. They rarely make it farther south into the Caribbean than Cuba or Puerto Rico, but they definitely sweep with well-marked predictability across the Straits of Florida.

From a sailor’s perspective, the action begins as the cold front approaches from the west or northwest. Along its leading edge is often a band of very nasty weather. The easterly trade wind pattern will be broken as wind shifts into the south and then southwest, thus blowing more or less parallel to the pressure gradients associated with the approaching high pressure air mass. At times a line of squalls can be found moving out ahead of the main front, but, unless one were to see these marked on a weather map as a heavy dashed-and-dotted line parallel to the front, it might be hard to distinguish them from the general frontal action.

No matter what’s out in advance, when the front arrives there’s no mistaking it. Depending on the speed of the front and its pressure differential, one might experience a perioda few hours or half a dayof rain and persistent southwesterly winds at first, or one might get hit very suddenly with violent winds shifting to the northwest with squall lines and rapidly building seas also from the northwest. The period of squalls and extreme wind gusts could last for several hours before things settle down to just a hard, cold, and unfriendly breeze of Force 6 or more lasting sometimes for a day or two, gradually veering clockwise to the northeast or east as the trade wind takes over again.

These cold fronts are the most common weather phenomenon experienced by sailors crossing between Cuba and Florida in winter. It’s true that a northwest breeze, such as that generated by a cold front, is a fair breeze for vessels heading toward Cuba, but its strategic value may be discounted by rough sea conditions on the way across and by possibly difficult sea conditions for entry into Cuba’s northern harbors. For those returning from northern Cuba a cold front can make the passage difficult, with progress to the north or northeast likely to be made under dramatically reduced sail, possibly motorsailing to windward on the port tack. For those heading north around Cabo San Antonio, Cuba’s extreme westerly tip, the northwesterly is a bit less of a headwind (once around the cape) if steering for Key West or Miami, but it may be tough going for a while.

The Straits of Florida are within range of U.S. VHF weather broadcasts, so no vessel should be without weather forecasts. This is especially true regarding cold fronts, since the U.S. Coast Guard issues very early warnings over powerful transmitters, sometimes even going to the extreme of broadcasting warnings from aircraft cruising the straits. Most small vessels already in Cuba would probably elect to stay there until after the passage of a cold front. Those waiting in Florida might have a different tactical situation, but only the most seaworthy of vesselsthose capable of reefing, setting storm sails, heaving to or remaining underway and generally remaining functional (though not necessarily graceful)in 40- to 60-knot winds should deliberately leave port in advance of an approaching cold front.

While cold fronts are a legitimate source of concern for Cuba-bound sailors, the Gulf Stream is not. It is always there and it’s a known phenomenon that doesn’t change from day to day except as influenced by weather. In many situations the Gulf Stream can be a sailor’s strategic ally. In other situations its effects can often be minimized.

The section of Gulf Stream between Key West and Cuba is that which has passed northward around the western tip of Cuba through the Yucatán Channel. Flowing at anywhere between two and five knots, it is tracking northward, constrained by the Bahama Islands, and will run parallel to the Florida coast for hundreds of miles before eventually turning to the east in the vicinity of Cape Hatteras.

Leaving Key West, one can expect to encounter the Gulf Stream about 10 miles outside of the barrier reefs which, themselves, are about five miles outside of solid land. On the far side, the Gulf Stream extends almost all the way to Cuba’s beaches. (Remember the old fisherman in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, being swept to the east by the Gulf Stream while just a few miles offshore). It’s true there are countercurrents running along either shore, but they generally don’t amount to much. Beginning a few miles off the Florida reefs one will encounter a steady parade of large ships, all headed south inside of the Gulf Stream. The Florida edge of the Gulf Stream actually provides a clear-cut traffic divider. All vessels inshore of the Stream will be headed south, while all those within the current will be headed north. It kind of helps, at night, to keep that in mind! Shipping traffic along Cuba’s north shore is minimal by comparison.

A Gulf Stream crossing with a goal of coming out at a desired destination will require one to steer 10° to 15° "up-current" to compensate. Most often, however, it is conditions of wind and sea that equally dictate a small vessel’s course, so navigation across the stream may not be such a precalculated process. More typically one sets out upon the best possible course given conditions at the time and simply keeps track of position as time goes by.

While the Gulf Stream should not be feared by yachtsmen, it must be respected, especially when winds have been blowing from a direction contrary to the flow of the current. A strong easterly or northeasterly trade wind, for example, can build up lumpy conditions in the Gulf Stream guaranteed to send squeamish crewmembers rushing for the rail. Winds from other directions may not have such a direct effect, but a hard blow from any direction will invariably make things just a bit more wild within the Gulf Stream. Just remember that nothing lasts forever, and at least the sea water is warm as it hits your face!

Since many yachts will naturally leave Florida in morning or midday hours, it is likely that one will initially approach the Cuban shore before dawn. Approaching the Havana area at night, the first sight of Cuba will invariably be the bright beacon of Castillo del Morro at the entrance to Havana. This powerful light can be seen 15 to 20 miles out to sea, given decent visibility. It flashes white at intervals of twice every 15 seconds.

This beacon, plus the glow of the city of Havana, will signal that the end of the voyage is approaching, even though one may still be some distance offshore.

The light tower at Castillo del Morro was completed by the Spanish government in 1884, although the fortress itself is centuries older. It remains today a manned light and radio station servicing the commercial port of Havana, and it is one of 17 manned lighthouses scattered around the island, in addition to 64 automated lighthouses. However, for a typical visit to Havana and Marina Hemingway, it is the only lighthouse to be encountered.

In the planning stages of an expedition to Cuba, Havana would seem to be one of those magical ports that one must visit. The history and romance of this famous harbor and capital city, under Spanish control for the majority of its history, would seem to exert a magnetic attraction upon all visitors with an interest in the seafaring past. Unfortunately, sailors are likely to be frustrated in the pursuit of historic inspiration. Although it is Cuba’s best-known port, Havana Harbor is not receptive to visiting yachts. The harbor has no yachting facilities, no easy way to get ashore, and its water is often foul with oil, industrial pollutants, or worse. Boats working within the harbor all have black stains on their hulls extending a couple of feet above the waterline. Customs and immigration officials in Havana Harbor deal almost entirely with arriving and departing commercial ships and are not prepared to handle the needs of visiting yachts. Nor are they prone to issue visas to visiting yachtsmen eager to get ashore. Even if a crew of yachtsmen could get visas in Havana, and even if they were allowed to take their dinghy ashore (unlikely), they would, upon landing in downtown Havana, immediately find themselves surrounded by curious youngsters, panhandlers, beggars, prostitutes, or worse. Few things would more flagrantly attract attention in downtown Havana than a show of yachting-style affluence.

Although Havana is available as a harbor or refuge in rough weather, mostly when the entrance to nearby Marina Hemingway is impassable, it is generally not available as a port of entry for recreational vessels.

It is possible that Cuban officials would permit a yacht to enter Havana from sea for a quick tour, especially if the vessel had already cleared in with the government and arranged permission upon landing. The easiest way to accomplish this would be to obtain permission to cruise into (and then depart from) Havana harbor in calm weather after clearing out to leave the country. If it could be arranged it would be worth the effort. (Hintall such arrangements are much more easily made by a Spanish-speaking crewmember).

The lighthouse and surrounding fort, called Castillo del Morro, at Havana are easily distinguished by day from several miles out at sea. There is no fairway buoy signalling a centerline approach to the entrance, but there are small red and green buoys immediately at the entrance and farther in. The actual entrance itself is about 600 feet wide with substantial surge where it meets the ocean, even in calm weather. Upon final approach a first-time visitor might not be able to discern the actual entrance (see up the channel) until within a mile or less. Cuban chart No. 1730 covers the approach and entrance channel, while Cuban chart No. 1729 covers the inner harbor.

The entire coastline in the Havana region has deep water right up to within a half-mile of shore, which makes cruising along the coast a pleasuregiven the right weather, of course. In the Havana area yachts are almost always received at the Marina Hemingway facility on the Barlovento Basin, roughly seven miles west of Castillo del Morro. The entrance location is known as Santa Fe or Punta Barlovento.

Because it’s a bit removed from downtown Havana and because it’s a government-run ghetto of sorts for visiting yachties and tourists, the destination is perhaps less than ideal. However, there really is no other choice available. The fastest and easiest way to visit Cuba, as is necessary for boat crews with only a week or two of available sailing time, and the closest available port of entry to Havana, is Marina Hemingway.

This is definitely a harbor to be entered in daylight with good visibility (not during a rain squall or just after nightfall). Electronic nav devices can get a boat within spitting distance of the entrance, but careful inspection with binoculars may still be necessary before charging ahead.

The conspicuous, beige hotel is key to getting comfortable with this area. It’s just west of a beachy area known as Playa Mosquito. The four-story hotel, perched right on the shore with a government radio tower constructed on its roof, is the Hotel El Viejo y el Mar. It is less than a mile east of the harbor entrance and it is actually located within the gated complex of Marina Hemingway.

There is also a navigational light atop the hotel that flashes once every seven seconds, visible for 15 miles, according to local charts. The hotel is mostly a haven for European tourists and visiting yachtsmen.

This entrance leading into Barlovento Bay is not easy to spot for the first time. It tends to blend in with the shoreline. The channel can be found where the shore makes a little indent and just offshore, visible against a land background, is the red-and-white vertically striped entrance buoy. It has a single-ball topmark and flashes a Morse-A light characteristic. It is one of more than 600 lighted buoys along the Cuban coast, according to GeoCuba, the organization which handles charting and aids to navigation for the government.

From the sea buoy the entrance can be found on an inbound heading of 140° True. (Variation here is about 1° W) The channel becomes quite narrow and shallowwith waves breaking on shoals to the side and considerable surge in the actual channel, especially with a northerly windbut it is fairly easily passable.

A pair of posts mark the sides of the channel on the way in. In places the channel is only about 100 feet wide. Depths range from 10 to 20 feet throughout, but in heavy swell conditions, deep-draft vessels could suddenly feel the bottom. It only takes a few minutes, since the police and customs dock is about 1,200 feet from the entrance buoy.

Once inside in calm water, a sharp, 90° turn will place the arriving boat right on the dock with the first Cuban officials politely approaching.

From then on it’s an entirely different kind of adventure. Welcome to Cuba!

By Ocean Navigator