Bonaire, Curaçao and Cuba
On our arrival at Bonaire we are accompanied by a solitary flamingo flying over us as we approach Kralendijk in the early morning. It's an odd sight, seeing such a long, bright pink stick with wings above your boat. When we arrive at the shore, we soon discover Rob and Ingrid's "Torn Too" and we pick the mooring right next to it. Once we've settled in and have checked in at immigration and customs, we pay them a short visit. We catch up on what has happened since we left Suriname until our arrival here and we agree to go scuba diving together and to rent a car to explore the island.
Every day for a week we start the day with a morning snorkelling trip around our boat. We see big parrotfish which seem to spruce themselves up every day with the most beautiful bright colours, specially for us. We also see various other very pretty fish, the names of which we don't know. Rob and Hans go scuba diving twice, while Ingrid and Dory go snorkelling. The underwater world around Bonair is wonderful.
On a Sunday, we explore the island in a little punchy yellow jeep. We drive through Washington Park and near the saltpans we see lots of flamingos but also little greenish yellow parrots, and the orange and yellow troupials regularly fly past.
But one of Bonaire's highlights is the Wattaburger, a real Dutch snack bar where we had a snack every day, knowing that we probably won't have another chance in the next few years to have a "frikandel speciaal", a "kwekkeboom croquet" or a "berenklauw met pindasaus".
After a week we leave Bonaire and sail to Curaçao in one day.
Christmas on Curaçao
We are a little nervous while we are waiting at the Chogogo resort. The bus will arrive in a few moments, carrying our friends Dick and Thea from the Netherlands. It's for the first time in a long while that we are receiving visitors from the Netherlands and it's something we have been looking forward to. The bus arrives without Dick and Thea, but fortunately we are told shortly afterwards that they are already at their appartment. We walk over there and it's a wonderful reunion. It's a bit weird at first, but soon it's as if we've been seeing each other recently. We agree to have dinner together on Christmas Day. It turns into a fantastic Christmas dinner, with fancy dishes we haven't had for a long time.
Together, we tour the island for a day in the car they have rented. At first, we have some trouble finding our way, but in the end we are able to do everything we had planned. We climb Christoffel mountain, the last stretch on our hands and feet, we snorkel at a small beach and on the northern part of the island we see the sea hit the rocks at the so-called bocas. It's a fantastic day.
A few days later we say goodbye and we continue working on our boat. Every day there are jobs to do. We celebrate New Year's Eve on board our ship in the Spanish Water, the enormous bay in which we are anchored; around us, we see lots of fantastic, very beautiful fireworks.
In the end, we spent nearly a month in Curaçao and as soon as the wind allows, we leave for Cuba. As long as the old boss there is still alive, we would like to taste this country's atmosphere before everything is going to change.
Sailing from Curaçao to Cuba
It has been quite a while since we made a long trip and we suffer a little from departure stress. But the weather forecast is good, the wind won't be stronger than wind force six during the next few days, so it should be a quiet trip. Unfortunately, on the first day the wind already rises to wind force seven or eight, and it stays like that for a couple of days. The sea around us is rough, the waves shove our boat around and we are back to living in a cocktail shaker. But once we're sailing between Haiti and Jamaica, it gets a lot quieter. The waves are no longer as high and the wind falls. We want to unroll the foresail a bit further and find that it is stuck. We start the engine and take the foresail down to repair the roller reefing system. While we are working on this, the engine suddenly stops. There is hardly any wind now, so Hans has to get in the water behind the boat with a snorkel and check whether something is stuck in the propeller. Which is ok, fortunately. The problems are not caused by the alternator either. So chances are our diesel is dirty and the filters are clogged. But we had better repair the roller reefing system first. Once we have finished that, there is still just enough daylight to replace one of the two diesel filters, and it's incredibly filthy! So that must have been the cause. The next day we finish the job and we are actually able to get the engine to work again.
After six days, Cuba looms ahead. We can see high mountains from afar. We are getting nervous now. What will it be like? What will it be like when they search our boat? Is Castro still alive or has the country been reduced to one big anarchist chaos? We try to listen to the news, but without success.
When we enter the inland waterway near Santiago de Cuba after having passed through a narrow channel, we try to contact the Guardia Frontera by VHF, but nobody answers, so we sail on. At Santiago harbour they ask us to anchor first, but because of the strong wind they soon allow us to moor at the jetty. The show can begin. First the physician and someone from immigration come on board, then the food authorities and pest control. And if that wasn't enough, six people from customs come on board. For three hours, they examine everything on board. The people doing this are inquisitive, but polite. The high point is when they bring a cute little tail-wagging dog on board to search for drugs, which needs a lot of encouragement to sniff around. At last we receive a note in our passport and we are free. Clearing through customs costs a total of more than 100 dollars, but we are now staying legally in Cuba!!!
Our boat is more than ten kilometres from Santiago de Cuba and we can only reach the city centre using an expensive taxi, which costs six dollars. We visit some of the sights and learn more about Cuba's history, but in general we find the city to be dirty, it smells of exhaust fumes and industrial activity. The many musicians in the street do make up for a lot of this.
On Saturday morning we go to the vegetable and fruit market with Emilio, the harbour bartender. We use public transport, a lorry with wooden benches in the back, to go to the city. Once we are there, Emilio exchanges our Cuban dollars for pesos, which we use to buy very cheap vegetables, fruit and meat. One Cuban dollar (CUC) is 24 pesos.
The Cubans earn pesos and they can only use those to buy some of the necessities of life, which means they are very poor. The can exchange their pesos for CUCs and spend those in tourist shops, but someone with an average salary of about 250 pesos won't be able to afford this. Which means there is a lot of wangling and dealing on the black market.
We have a day out, together with an English couple from the "Sentinel". We hire a taxi for the whole day. First we climb the Grand Piedra, a high mountain with a big rock on the top, which can be reached by 465 steps. The we visit the "El Morro" fortress which we had already seen when we arrived; it was built by the Spaniards some time in the seventeenth century. We also visit a famous cemetery and have dinner in a nice restaurant.
After a week we cast off and sail to Cienfuegos, which is more than 300 miles away. We don't have to clear through customs and the harbour master is also happy we don't have to, because this means, to use his own words, that he doesn't have to start the whole show. We meet Gerjan and Ans from the "Spirit". We soon decide to go to Havana together, by taxi, bus or train.
Cienfuegos is a lot more beautiful and friendlier and even the authorities here say it's as if Santiago is in another country. The kindness of the people, the horse-drawn carts and the beautiful buildings make Cienfuegos a real treat.
Together with Gerjan and Ans we decide to go to Havana by taxi. We're in a car which is too small, a bit like a Russian Lada, causing us to have cramps in our muscles, but our arrival in the beautiful city makes up for this. We soon find a so-called Casa Privada, where we can get a room with a bathroom for 25 dollars. It is tidy and clean and close to the city centre. We spend two nights, three days exploring Havana's highlights. The Museum of the Revolution, the cigar factory, lots of art, cafes with music, the tourist market and of course the big Revolution Square where Fidel makes his New Year's speech every year. We have a lot of fun together and Gerjan shoots a fun film which he later edits together with Hans. On the way back we have a lot more space in an old Cadilac, thousands of which can still be found in Cuba.
After a few more enjoyable days in Cienfuegos we go back to sea, on our way to the Cayman Islands, a piece of England on a few tiny little coral islands.
The weather forecast is fine on the day we leave, but even before we have reached the sea we experience wind force seven, a head wind too, so we are cruising against the wind. Slowly but surely things calm down a bit and towards the evening we pass by a shoal. Even before we reach it, our depth gauge indicates that it is seven to twenty metres deep, at the most. That can't be true!! We compare the electornic map and the paper version, they do not correspond. We turn due west to get into deeper water as quickly as possible, but it seems to be shallow everywhere. So we turn back south again and after three hours of struggling the depth gauge still indicates shallow water every now and then. Could it have been enormous schools of fish? Fortunately, it's all over, but by now the thunderstorm we've seen in the distance all this time is getting closer. It's frightening, the sky continually lightening up and the thunder over our heads. We try to sail away from it, but we eventually decide to resume our course and cut right through it. Next, there are fierce gusts of wind and we suddenly realise that our sail is torn. The only solution is to reef it further, so we are left with a small sail. Once we have done that, the thunderstorm is farther behind us and it gets calmer, but it turns out we haven't sailed our course. The next day we struggle along with too little sail, in the wrong direction. We want to start the engine, but we hardly succeed, we are worried about the starting battery and the engine, but in the end everything seems to work fine, and both the weather and the sea are a lot calmer now. Since the wind vane doesn't work properly when there is not enough wind, we switch on the electrical automatic pilot. The driving belt snaps with a loud bang. Does it ever stop?? Do we dare remove the helm at sea? We just do it and we manage to get the automatic pilot working again using a spare belt.
We've had another good night's sleep and we want to make more water. The water maker had become filthy and with the right cleaning product we are able to get it to work again. Hans has already made nearly a liter of water when the plastic housing breaks with a loud bang. The over pressure relief valve probably didn't work properly, as a result of which the water maker exploded. So we end up arriving at the Cayman Islands with a torn sail, a broken water maker, a repaired automatic pilot and vague engine problems. Our trip was two nights longer than planned. After clearing through customs we hear there's a swell on its way, which means really high waves, and for safety reasons we have to go to the island's southern side. There we wait for three days without being able to go on shore.
But by the time we publish this story, we have finally been able to go on shore again.
(Translated from dutch to english by Percy Balemans)