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Mission Ocean: Cruising Cuba - Part 1 - Santiago

by Mission Océan 24 Jul 2019 00:43 UTC

The two humpback whales were easily the size of a bus. When they popped up beside Contigo as we left the bay of Samana in the Dominican Republic, curious as to what kind of double-bellied whale we might be, we cut the engines and coasted gently away, until several hundred meters separated us from the giants.

This breath-taking close encounter announced the beginning of our four-day sail to Cuba. The trip was otherwise quite uneventful; after following the Northern coast of the Dominican Republic, we gave Haiti a wide berth and entered the Windward Passage on the Cuban side. Sailing past Guantanamo Bay, well outside of the exclusion zone marked on our chart, was a rather odd and sobering moment for us both, and the searchlights raking the sky were clearly visible despite the early morning light.

There was very little wind in the Passage, and we ended up motoring most of the way through. In the five weeks that we spent in Cuba, we experienced two types of wind: far too much, or none at all.

Our first port of call was Santiago de Cuba, roughly halfway along the Southern coast. A long natural creek, whose entry reminded us of Bonifacio in Corsica with its square fortress high on the cliffs, the approach was well buoyed and presented no difficulties (except for the clogging sargassum weed which we were now so used to). After calling for some time, we managed to establish contact with the marina (I employ the term very lightly to this shallow concrete quay with few facilities), and we were welcomed alongside by a cheerful customs officer. We had heard and read a great deal of horror stories about the administration and bureaucracy in Cuba, and were expecting the worst on arrical. In reality, our check in was long - almost four hours from start to finish - but in no way disagreeable. In fact, much of the wait was due to the customs' archaic printer, which took twenty minutes to produce a side of A4. The officers seem to find this just as hilarious as we did, and the little machine's whines and squeals set us all giggling.

When we finally emerged from the office, the sun had long set, but that did not seem to dissuade the Cuban administration; we were joined by a female doctor, whose duty was to take our temperatures and check us over for any contagious diseases before we could be allowed to lower our Q-flag. But somehow, none of that came to pass, and our time with the good doctor was spent drinking beer, listening to salsa music and talking with surprising openness about Cuba's environmental policy, and the doctor's admiration of Fidel Castro. I should point out that Henrique speaks fluent Spanish, having worked in Spain and lived for a time in Barcelona. This of course helped us no end in Cuba, although we came to discover that some people spoke excellent English and French, especially in the tourist areas further north.

An hour later, the doctor hopped back onto the dock and climbed up into her painfully high heels. With a wave of an elaborately manicured hand, she told us we could drop our Q-flag. And with that, we were in! We were not subjected to any onboard inspectons, nor were we visited by sniffer dogs (although we were told that we would have been, had we come from Jamaica). The next day, another customs official came on board to seal our drone and satellite phone in a bin bag, not to be opened until we departed Cuban waters. This was verified by the officials weeks later, on our departure. We were also issued with a strict code of conduct for our time in Cuba, which incuded keeping our AIS on at all times, and reporting to the local Guarda military office every time we changed location. Our experiences with the Guarda over the next five weeks would be mixed, and even included being escorted back to the boat and forbidden to come ashore in one village...

But for the moment, we were in Santiago to collect a couple of friends who would sail with us for the next ten days, along Cuba's south coast, through the Jardin de la Reina to be dropped off in Trinidad. As they had next-to-no sailing experience, it would prove quite a challenge for us to keep them entertained on the windless days and safe on the wild ones, whilst negotiating complex, poorly charted anchorages and jumping through the Cuban administrative hoops.

Santiago de Cuba was a pleasant surprise; a ten-minute taxi ride, or a forty minute ferry trip from the marina, the town is large and industrious, with a pretty historical centre and broad shopping streets. Relatively untouched by tourism due to the distance from Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Havana in the north, the shops aimed at visitors are full of artisinal wood carvings and handmade painted fans, rather than cheap plastic tat. We had no issues finding wi-fi in the main squares, and at the marina the neighbouring small hotel had a reasonable connection (although it did not quite reach the dock). Provisioning in Santiago was another matter, however, and we did not find any fresh produce in the town centre. It proved much easier to get hold of fruit, vegetables and eggs in the smaller towns and villages than in Santiago, and indeed - with the exception of Cienfuegos that had an excellent market - this proved to be true of Cuba in general.

We departed Santiago in a flat calm after two rather expensive nights on the dock (the only anchorage in the bay is also run by the marina, is obligatory and is only slightly cheaper than the dock). Our next stop along the southern coast, Chirivico, would prove much more eventful than expected...

Mission Ocean is proud to be supported by: Boero, Doyle Sails Palma, Rotary District 1730, Navigair, OctoMarine, Battery World Service, Victron Energy, Sovedis Aquatabs, Spade Anchors, SeaTech & Fun, Plastimo, Furuno France, Pejout Marine Services, Lyvio, Storm Bird, Aethic, Corsica Yacht Services, Astrolabe Expeditions, AGL Marine, and

Mission Ocean is Laura Beard and Henrique Agostinho. Their three year plus mission is to share their love and respect for the ocean with others, through education and scientific research. Neither is a stranger to the water, so they have combined all their skills and passions in this bold, courageous and inspiring project. is delighted to be with them for the journey of their lifetime. You can also find out more on their Facebook page: and Instagram account @missionocean06

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