Heavy weather in the Gulf of Mexico this past November resulted in an unexpected trip to Cuba for three sailors making a passage from Miami to the Florida panhandle.
Robert Mashburn of Arkansas asked two friends to join him aboard his newly purchased sloop Day Tripper on what promised to be a quick delivery to Destin, Fla., but a rash of problems diverted it to Havana.
Weather forecasts on November 11 were calling for strong northeast winds, which the crew of the 35-foot Ericson sloop hoped would expedite their planned voyage across the Gulf. As the vessel rounded northward from the lee of the Dry Tortugas, progress became difficult through the 15-foot seas, according to Mashburn, the vessel’s owner and captain.
A wave boarded from the vessel’s port side, filled the cockpit, and destroyed the link from the helm to the steering cable. This caused the boat to suddenly turn downwind and suffer a series of accidental gybes. The mainsail was destroyed from the gybes, Mashburn said.
“I bought the boat in Miami and wanted to bring it up to a lake in Arkansas,” said Mashburn. “I thought the boat was up to it, but I didn’t expect the seas to be that bad.”
Randy Hughes and Glenda Estell, both from Arkansas and self-proclaimed inexperienced sailors, were aboard for the trip.
“Once I realized that we hadn’t lost the rudder, I rigged the emergency tiller,” said Mashburn. “I tried to anchor at the Dry Tortugas, but we were swept past too quickly. I had to cut loose my big anchor.”Unable to make any forward way toward Key West using the engine, Mashburn attempted a Mayday call and found the radio inoperative. “My advice to others is to always carry two radios,” Mashburn said. He then decided to turn downwind and run before the weather. Under power with the vessel’s 21-hp diesel, they surfed across the Gulf Stream toward Cuba.
The engine began to overheat, so Hughes suggested they secure it until power was really needed. Following the glow of Havana’s lights on the horizon and referring to what Mashburn described as “poor quality, comic book charts,” Day Tripper closed on Cuba’s north coast.
Upon approach to shore several miles west of Havana, the engine was restarted but soon quit altogether. The crew was able to deploy another of the yacht’s anchors in 20 feet of water, Mashburn said, but they were unprotected from the ocean swell. The next morning the anchor rode parted and the yacht was forced ashore on a coral reef. As the yacht bounced hard aground, the trio stumbled ashore and were greeted by a group of Cuban soldiers. “Once they realized that we didn’t pose a threat they were incredibly helpful,” said Mashburn.
“Before we landed in Cuba we were really nervous about what would happen to us,” Mashburn said. “But the cooperation we found from the Cubans was excellent.”
Mashburn received an insurance settlement for damages incurred on the yacht and coordinated special permits through the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Treasury to allow him to arrange repairs in Cuba. The U.S. embargo prohibits American citizens from making purchases in Cuba, except by special permission.
After several days, Day Tripper was hoisted off the reef by a 45-ton crane and brought to a yard in the nearby port of Mariel, about 10 miles west of Havana. Mashburn hoped to return to the U.S. aboard his vessel after repairs were completed.
Crewmember Hughes said he would not be participating in the return trip to the U.S. aboard Day Tripper because of his new-found appreciation of the ocean’s power. “Sailing is hard work,” he said. “I now have a lot of respect for sailors and the ocean.”