By Capt. Norm LeBlanc
For Points East
This passage was a thought that I had in the winter 1955-56 while reading about sailboat races to Cuba in “Rudder” and “Yachting” magazines. I wanted to one day sail my own boat offshore, from Salem, Mass., to Cuba. Greg Cotraro, from Beverly, Mass., was the first to sign on for the adventure, and Dick Jeffrey – originally from Boston’s North Shore and now living in Jupiter, Fla. – followed as crew. Dick could not complete the trip with us, but he was aboard during the hardest part of the cruise. And sail to Cuba from Salem we did!
Our boat of choice was one that was not too big or too small, and one that sailed well. Other essentials were internal ballast, diesel auxiliary, new sails and a great rig, and new navigation aids. I had looked at many boats, including several Cal 2-30s, and I found one of the latter designs in good condition in Maine, which I refit for this trip. The boat, named Scooch, did her job very well.
Dick had to leave us at Miami Beach Marina, and at 1 p.m., on Monday, Jan. 24, 2016, Greg and I departed from that facility, bound for the Keys via the ICW. Winds were northeast, light but building, and we made it as far as the Key Largo area, with the wind now blowing 25-plus. At about 7 p.m., we found a safe spot where we could anchor out. The anchor was secure and holding, an anchor watch was set during the night, and all was good.
On Tuesday, our anchor was up at about 7 a.m., and we were bound for Islamorada, where we arrived in mid-afternoon. We stopped at Smugglers Cove Marina for showers, food and sleep. On Wednesday, it was still windy, but the winds were out of the north. We went outside into the ocean area and Hawks Channel. We had a quick sail, running aground twice in the channel, then headed toward Marathon .
The weather was expected to worsen, which it did. We were stuck in Marathon – at Faro Blanco Marina, a part of the Hyatt group – which had new docks and excellent service. At Faro Blanco, we received free breakfasts and ice, and lounge and computer access. We spent the first night there at the end dock. The next day, the dockmaster wanted us to move to a safer dock as winds were expected to be out of the west-northwest, blowing over 30 knots. We moved inside to a calmer area, where we stayed for three more nights.
We found that our autopilot, Otto, was not working, and we asked for help, got a wrong answer, so I took matters in my own hands and found a loose connection: Problem corrected.
Finally, north-northwest winds made for a fast sail to Key West, where we arrived around 4 p.m. on Tuesday to wait for a weather window for our departure to Cuba. The sailboat race from Key West to Cuba, with a start scheduled for Thursday, the 28th, was delayed because of high north-northwest winds. The race started on the 29th, and we planned to depart the next day, at 4 p.m.
On the second day in Key West, we found my Friends of Mallory Square brick that reads “Sailing is Life, Capt. Norm LeBlanc, Salem, Ma.” Near the boat, we found a great food place for breakfast/lunch/dinner called Harpoon Harry’s, with super daily specials.
On Saturday, the 30th, we made final inspections, finding that the bilge-pump auto-switch did not work. We replaced it with a spare and bought another backup spare. While in the dockhouse, we met Scott Cross, who was sailing alone to Cuba on a 2015 Beneteau Oceanis 36. He asked if he could sail across in company with us. We agreed, and both boats set sail at 4 p.m. from Key West Harbor, bound for Havana and Marina Hemingway.
Departure seas were confused, with five-foot following swells and two- to three-foot quartering seas, in winds out of the east-southeast at 10 to 13. It was hard steering, even for Otto. As evening wore on, the seas blended together, and winds increased to 17 to 20 knots. We had fast sailing all night, and Scott’s boat, Amazing Grace, could not get away from us. Both boats averaged 7.5 knots all through the night.
First light found us east of Havana and Marina Hemingway by 15 miles due to Gulf Stream effect. Light winds carried us to Marina Hemingway, where we arrived around 10 a.m. on the 31st. Cuban Customs was polite and quick, and we moved to our slip at the marina. Once docked, we met great people from everywhere.
Scott, who was new to sailing, had mainsail-furling issues. We helped fix them, and he bought us dinner at Ernest Hemingway’s favorite restaurant, La Bodeguita, in Old Havana. Old Havana at night was amazing. Old cars were everywhere, with more Chevies than other makes. Greg and I took a 1955 red-and-white Ford cab back to the marina.
The next day, we were back downtown to look at the beautiful buildings and meet people. One church had three bell towers: The first tower had three bells; the second tower, seven bells; and third tower, two bells. We found a garage fixing old cars, one of them a 1953 Buick Roadmaster, then had lunch at France Restaurant: lobster, shrimp and fish, washed down with Aqua water.
It was very hot (in the 90s) and humid while we were in Cuba. Stupidly, we also ordered Virgin Pina Coladas – a great drink, but we forgot about the ice. More on that later.
We took a ’53 Chevy cab back to the marina. We decided to skip going to the resort town of Varadero, to the east, and leave for Bimini, Bahamas, on Tuesday, Feb. 2. The weather forecast was for excellent sailing conditions: 12 to 15, east-southeast. We cleared customs easily, and sailed the next two nights bound for Bimini, 290 miles to the northeast. So we thought.
Once clear of Marina Hemingway, the winds were east-northeast, light, and we waited for the wind to shift to east-southeast, as predicted, but it never did Instead, the winds blew from east-northeast to north-northeast, increasing to 25 knots. High winds pushing waves against the force of the Gulf Stream stacked building seas against us all night long.
During our longest night ever, Greg stayed below decks, and I was at the helm until dawn. Spray flew in every direction, and water seeped into every orifice on me and on the boat. I remembered our boat motto: “May your faith be stronger than your fear.” I never doubted it, but it was still a night to remember.
First light: I could finally see our position, and was very surprised. Because of the Gulf Stream lift, I expected to be at least 60 to 90 miles northeast of Key West, and offshore by at least 30 miles. Nope: We were two miles offshore and only nine miles away from Key West.
We were exhausted, and decided to sail on to Key West for much-needed rest, and to dry out a very damp and wet boat. Scooch was amazing, and she kept us safe at all times.
We arrived in Key West around 8 a.m., and docked back at Conch Harbor Marina for much needed sleep – or so we thought. I fell asleep on the dinette and woke up suddenly with Montezuma’s Revenge, which lasted five days. Greg waited another 36 hours before Montezuma took him over, too.
So think about two guys on a 30-foot sailboat, both with Montezuma’s Revenge. It is not a pleasant thought. Meanwhile, the weather gods also were not being kind, serving up heavy rains and northwest winds of 30-plus for three days.
At Key West, we had to clear customs. We made an appointment for Key West Customs at Key West airport. All went well, except for one detail: We did not know we needed to file a cruising permit for $37 with the U.S. Coast Guard. Next, we met up with two other boats that left Marina Hemingway the same day we did. The skipper of a 70-foot motor yacht – a retired destroyer captain – said it was the worst night of his life, too. A French couple with a new 43-foot catamaran had just sailed to Cuba from France, and their worst night was the crossing from Cuba to Key West. Another sailboat left when we did; by morning, all that was found from it was an EPIRB: no boat.
Now we were starting to feel better, and we were anxious to sail back north. It was now Feb. 4, and those recalcitrant wind gods were not allowing us, or anyone else, to leave Key West. Forecasts said that winds might slow down by Feb. 8, so we watched the Super Bowl at Harpoon Harry’s.
We were up early on Monday, the 8th, determined to leave regardless of the weather: Enough was enough. And we were pleasantly surprised that, while the wind was head-on, we still could power along. We progressed back to Marathon and Faro Blanco Marina.
The next day felt like winter: 50 degrees and cold northwest winds. We bundled up and kept moving, finally anchoring out off the backside of Key Largo after a long day. On Feb. 10, we were up and under way early. We had a headwind, north-northeast, but we kept moving, heading for Miami, where, at 5:30 p.m., we arrived at Miami Beach Marina. The next morning, we headed out into the ocean at 8:30, but heavy seas and winds forced us to retreat to the ICW, in which we made good progress, arriving at Lighthouse Point Marina, in Pompano Beach, at 6 p.m.
On Friday, Feb. 12, a long, slow day with timed bridge openings found us at Juno Beach, where Dick got us a marina slip. Thus ended this journey for Scooch. We would do it again with Scooch anytime.
We accomplished what we set out to do 16 months earlier – and we survived. And our mission could put another check mark on my bucket list. Thanks to all who followed us and wished us well. The Cuban experience is beyond words at this time. Just do it while it has not changed; change is coming fast for the Cubans, who are great people. All is well. Mission accomplished.
Lifelong sailor Capt. Norm LeBlanc is an accredited senior marine surveyor with offices in Danvers, Mass. He is a charter member and past president the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS).