The mad shopping sail runs from Cuba to Key West by Denis Dextraze
As previously mentioned, Cuban tourist visas were only valid for two months. At the onset of my stay at Marina Hemingway a few boaters would get together, clear the Cuban formalities to legally leave the country and go out to sea beyond the twelve mile territorial limit. We would then drop the sail or turn the engine off and drift with the current while fishing and sleeping for twenty four hours before re-entering the Marina. This ruse was soon discovered by the Cuban authorities and the Cuban Immigration started requiring that our passport be stamped by another country before they would issue a new Cuban visa.
Therefore, we started sailing to Key West, the closest sailing distance. Key West not only offered us clearance stamps but also had many large stores, like Walmart and Sears, where we could resupply our boats. During those days, even a large Cuban city like Havana did not offer much variety in food supplies. The Marina duty free store only had liquors, cigarettes and dry goods. So, when we visited Key West, we would rent a car together and go on what we called a “Mad Shopping” spree. I remember discussing the difference between the various satellite dish receivers with a Sears’s salesman. After he finished his pitch, as a well trained pushy salesman, he indirectly asked me for an order in the following term: “Which model would you like, sir?” To his surprise, I answered, “I will take three of this model”. I had made his day!
The “Mad Shopping “could take all day because not only the three or four of us had long shopping lists but we also had other lists given to us by needy and begging neighbors in the Marina. Sometimes, we had to make two or three runs from the stores to the boat to complete our shopping spree. Once back at the Marina, we were allowed to transfer the goodies to other foreign boats providing that we made a detailed list of the transfer by boat’s name, lined all the items on the pier and had Customs inspect, stamp the list and witness the transfer. Of course, some money would discreetly change hands…
As previously mentioned in an earlier story, I made many trips on Jerry’s Hot Potato. We were once grounded for a week in Key West on account of very bad weather. Indeed, when a strong northerly wind came up and met the strong current of the Gulf Steam heading in the opposite direction, it created a terrible cross sea. Unlike a sailboat, Hot Potato was not built to challenge these extreme conditions and we were not interested in meeting the same fate as the many inexperienced Cuban balceros who never made it across. We would hang low and had nothing to do but call on various bars. We tried to keep away from the typical and expensive tourist traps and hung around places frequented by local patrons. One such a place was the Veteran’s Club. The fauna of this smoky and noisy place not only included war veterans of various ages but also local bikers and hippies of another age. We would purposely dress very casually in old and worn out cut-off jeans to blend in with these bums and never got bothered. We fit right in. We were like sailors on leave.
During one of those trips, Jerry took me to his Little Rock home with the SVU he kept in Key West, to check on his business and bring back some supplies from his restaurant, mainly Black Angus porterhouses. He showed me the ”Power Room”, the soundproof dining room that he had specially built for Bill Clinton when he was Governor of Arkansas. We spent a few days around Little Rock visiting his daughter and family. He gave me a tour of his hunting/fishing lodge that he rented exclusively for “business purpose” to members and lobbyists of the Democratic Party. The large house and estate featured six bedrooms. A cook and a maid were included in the rental. I guess that after hunting hours, entertainment was limited because he told me that one of the groups once ran a five hundred dollar bill for porno movies during a three-day weekend.
We spent part of the last day in Little Rock vacuum packing frozen Black Angus porterhouse steaks, picking-up two large and long foam coolers, filling them up with the steaks, packing them in dry ice and putting the two boxes that looked like coffins back in the large restaurant’s walk-in freezer. We got up early to make good driving time back to Key West and we probably both felt a bit queasy from the short night’s sleep and the overindulgence in Jack Daniels the night before. We put the two white foam “coffins” full of steaks in the back of the car and headed on the highway. We hadn’t driven for more than thirty minutes before I felt unusually dizzy and sleepy. This was more than a hangover. When I mentioned that to Jerry, he told me that he had the same physical sensations. That’s when we both realized simultaneously that we were being asphyxiated by the carbon monoxide seeping from the unsealed “coffins” in the back of the car. So, we rolled down all windows, drove back to the lodge to pick-up some ropes and tied the two “coffins” to the rack on top of the SUV. Because of that drag, we had to slow down considerably on the highway but eventually made it. We had beaten the odds. The coffins were not for us yet.
If Jerry flew out to renew his visa, I would hitch a ride on other boats going across to renew mine. One time and one time only did I take a one-way ride. I paid for a passage on an old sport fisherman’s boat with a group of younger Americans. It had been their first visit to Cuba and obviously, they had no experience at crossing the Gulf Stream. The captain was probably nervous and going full throttle to get home in a hurry. At that speed, the boat did not ride the short waves but banged its way from one crest to the other. I finally convinced him to slow down and the ride became much more comfortable, not to say less risky of breaking the hull apart. Once we got to the south end of the Key West entrance to the main channel, I realized why he was in a hurry while on the open sea. He reduced speed and manoeuvred through the shallow, tricky and narrow channels which he seemed to know like the back of his hand and finally got to the buoyed north entrance channel to the city. He did not want to report to U.S. Immigration and was re-entering the country illegally from the north, not the south, as if he had been following the west coast of Florida. I was really mad that he did not inform me of his plan because I was now in the United States illegally.
The Key West residents were divided politically regarding their position about Cuba. Feelings were strong on both sides. People like me were seen as traitors by a segment of the local population regardless of the fact that I was a Canadian and legally allowed to go to Cuba. So, I found myself in that quagmire where, being illegal in the U.S., I was being very low-key in trying to find a ride back to Cuba. I would not argue if business owners would not allow me to put my ad on their notice board. The marinas would not allow me to leave my bulletins on boats even if they did not carry an American flag. As a result, it took me more than a week to get a ride back. In retrospect, considering the hotel and food expenses, it would have been cheaper to fly the Miami-Nassau-Havana route. This would be the first and last time that I would take a one-way boat ride out of Cuba. I had learned my lesson.
There is no doubt that for long offshore outings, sailboats are the preferred choice over power boats. Sailboats are safer, noiseless, do not roll, will not flip over, can take foul weather and rocky seas and, more importantly, do not run out of gas. However, most of my round trips to Key West were on board power boats because most of the sailboats in Marina Hemingway belonged to cruisers of various nationalities using the Marina as a stopover on their worldly voyage; They would not come back once they left Cuba. Therefore, most boat owners in the Marina needing to renew their visas were American with power boats.
One exception was Cor, a Neo-Canadian born in The Netherlands, who had spent ten years building his superb forty-five-foot sloop in his Toronto backyard. His older age did not show since he was a body builder and a vegetarian who took good care of himself. Having worked in the movie industry at designing sets, he used his artistic talent to design the interior of his boat. Some of his ideas were ahead of their time. For example, way before flat screen televisions were invented, he had designed his own. His ingenious system was using a regular large television hidden in a closet with the screen up projecting on a large mirror on the wall. In front of the television, he had designed an s-shape long chair perfectly ergonomically perfect for his short, stubby body shape.
One day he asked me if I would join him as a crew for a run to Key West. He knew that I had been there many times and I knew how to come in. Since the timing was just right for me to renew my Cuban visa, I gladly accepted to help. He took on board two paying American passengers. Robert had sailing experience and John who was bringing his Harley back had none. As soon as we were out the tricky channel, the engine quit. I knew that he had had engine problems but a Cuban mechanic had apparently fixed it. During a short strategic meeting with Cor, I convinced him that now that we were on open sea, we might as well continue and sail across. The cost of a tow in Key West would be cheaper that in Cuba and he might be able to fix his engine along the way. So, Robert and I got busy hauling the sails and Cor disappeared below to fix his bad engine. Cor spent hours cursing down below but the engine never roared.
After a night of good sailing, when we came close to the white buoy marking the entrance to the channel leading to Safe Harbour, I told Cor that it would be a good time to call for a tow. Cor was a cheap skate. He had had engine problems many times but he refused to spend money replacing it. His answer to me was that he knew my reputation for having sailed in an out of many harbors with my big boat and that he trusted that I would be able to sail in. What he was telling me was that he did not want to spend the money on towing and that he was delegating the responsibility to sail in to me.
I was not familiar with his boat and did not know what was the minimum speed at which we would lose steerage. So, with Cor at the helm and Robert on the winches, we did a minimum speed test while we were still in an area where we had sea room to maneuvre. Robert would reduce sails slowly until Cor would feel that the boat was no longer reacting to the rudder. Finally, we set the sails for minimum controlled speed, probably around three knots, which was much more than I cared for. My plan was to come to the T end of a familiar pier that I had been tied to previously. I had about forty feet of pier to stop dead this heavy forty five foot boat. As we came closer and closer, I ran a long mooring line from the last back cleat to the front and stepped outside the life lines standing on the gunwale with the line in one hand and a shroud in the other. As the boat came closer to the pier I ordered John to let the sheets loose and free all sails. I was still three feet from the pier when I jumped, slipped, quickly grabbed some protruding steel, crawled on the pier and quickly wrapped the line around the bollard. The boat stopped dead. It was still shaking and swaying when John threw the front mooring line to me. We had arrived. I was shaking too thinking of what would have happened if I had not been able to recuperate from my slip. I would have fallen in the water and been crushed against the pier by this heavy boat. I swore to myself that I would never take that risk again.
We stayed in Safe Harbor for a few days while I did some “Mad Shopping” and Cor had his motor repaired again. My suggestion to take advantage of the fact that he was back to civilization where everything was readily available to buy a new motor was flatly turned down. Cor told me that he did not have the money. I knew that it wasn’t true because he had loose money to spend building a new house for his girlfriend in Cardenas, near Varadero and Darsena Marina, our next destination Therefore, this was the direction that we took when we headed out of U.S. territory. As soon as we got in open sea, the engine quit again. I was getting used to the routine of cruising with no engine. So, after a night sail, we came into the entrance of the channel heading for Marina Darsena on the south west side of the Varadero peninsula and sailed in towards the pier. I kept to the promise I had made to myself. I told Cor that it was his turn to jump with the mooring line in hand. The manoeuvre was much easier than in Key West because the pier at where we were aiming for was at least one hundred feet long not forty. I could get the boat really close so that Cor did not have to jump at all but literally walked on the pier to tie the boat down and stop it.
I visited Cor only once in Cardenas before I found out the he had left alone for Key West. I was surprised that he did not call me to request some help. Because of his great physical shape, Cor looked much younger than his age. I used to say that he was no longer multi-tasking. He could only do one thing at the same time. The story he told after he came back to Cuba is that his engine quit again, his batteries died and the navigational equipment became inoperative. He got lost in a storm and his boat ended up beached after jumping over a coral reef bar. Since he abandoned the boat, a salvage company came to pick it up and legally took possession of it. Because they threw away all the wet and damaged contents, he lost all his personal effects like family pictures and memories. What is the moral of this story? Don’t be cheap with Neptune!
Mad shopping run to Key West