Sailing to Belize from the USA by way of Cuba

by: Tom Vidrine

Click here for pictures from this trip
It was quite an experience. As many sailing, pirate, and other sea adventure books that I have read, it did not come close to giving me an idea of what it is really like to be out there in blue water in a sailboat.

The trip from Miami to Cuba was a breeze. Sunbathing out on the deck, catching fish, and having fantastic evening meals on the deck with a bottle of wine. Not giving me a clue as to what was in store for us.

Arriving in Cuba, I was amazed at the similarity to Spain. Beautiful old buildings, stone arches, and old churches. The early stone forts guarding the harbor, with a modern skyline of tall buildings was a surprise. We went through five sets of officials, taking about 5 hours to be allowed to dock the boat. Philippe is such a fool! He laughs and jokes with all those officials. The head of the Coast Guard had a toothache and asked if we had anything for pain. I got a couple of aspirin for him. Philippe took them and told the official to pull down his pants, that for them to work, he had to stick them up his butt. The guy looked startled for a moment, and then everyone busted out laughing. I was a little nervous!

One official wanted an apple. One wanted flashlight bulbs. They had never seen a pear, and got a kick out of tasting one. The medical officer did confiscate all our eggs. Finally we were allowed to land. The people were wonderful; the streets narrow and cobbled. Time stood still there after the US embargo. The cars are right out of the fifties. Our cab was a 1949 Chevy, and it was one of the nicer ones Many cabs were 3 wheeled bikes, kind of like rickshaws. I felt like I was in an old movie, looking for Bogart to appear around the corner. The buses were 18 wheeler trucks with windows cut out of the trailers. One was the shell of a very old school bus, pulled along by horses.

We were met by Philippe's friend, and were treated like royalty. Every meal and drink paid for (Of course we had smuggled in a laptop computer for him). He took us around Havana, and we walked the streets.

There was music everywhere in the small alleys, along with artists, cigar makers, carvings, and fabric. The average worker earns about $27 per month, but they seemed happy and content. There are very few grocery stores, and a very limited selection. The one we finally found did not allow Cubans to shop there. We could not find milk, or even sugar to stock the boat. It was a little strange since sugar is their largest crop.

It began to rain as we left Cuba. That night we hit a storm. The first thing to go was the autopilot, which meant someone had to be out on deck to steer. Of course it was my watch. The other three guys stood in the cabin and laughed as the wind tried to blow me away, and waves crashed over the entire boat. I was drenched, and for some reason, the storm always got worse during my watches. Without the autopilot, we had two hour shifts for the next 3 days. It is very difficult to get any sleep with only two hours to fall asleep, which wasn't really possible anyway since it seem like we were on an eternal roller coaster ride. My portal popped open, so my cabin was drenched anyway.

By the next day, we had lost the wind indicator, speedometer, depth gauge, and both radios. That wasn't too bad until the radar went out. As many tankers that crossed us on the Miami leg, it was a little nerve-racking to sail around in a storm without radar. Needless to say we had to keep our eyes peeled, not that it really would have helped because by the time we would have seen one, it really would have been too late anyway.

By the second day the sail was begining to rip, and one of our engines quit. That wasn't so bad, we were running out of diesel anyway. As we limped along at about 5 knots (roughly 6 mph), the problem was we were in a three knot current going the other way. So making about two miles an hour, we headed toward Mexico. By this time about the only thing still working was the CD player, so at least we had some tunes. Keep in mind that you cannot cook in high seas, so we were getting a little hungry too.

I kept a running diary on my computer, along with digital photos of Cuba and the trip, but a particularly large wave sent it slamming across the galley. Now for some reason it no longer boots up.

Finally we saw land. The lighthouse there is nice, I only wish they had lit it. But we found a cut in the reef, and made it through. It was my watch again so I was steering. Two of the other fools, Malcolm and Randy were out on the bow, telling me to turn port or starboard. One of these days I will figure out which one is left, and which one is right.

We anchored out about two miles from shore, and lowered the little plastic boat I bought for Sari. The little 15 hp engine started right up, and Philippe and I headed for land. The town was flooded, but the beer was cold and the people were great. One guy took us to the mayor's house that looked allot like an old garage back in Louisiana. Except this garage had more cardboard, and much less tin. But he was gracious and agreed to sell us the fuel the town used for their generator (which only operated 3 hours a day). With 50 gallons of diesel in plastic containers, our bellies full of tacos, and a case of Mexican beer, we headed back. Once we were re-fueled (which is a whole story in itself), we decided to stay overnight and get some rest (and possibly check the weather).

We woke up to a Mexican patrol boat circling us with machine guns. They turned out to be great guys, and I even got to go on board. They did have the weather, and it was more of the same, but no worse. At least we now knew that we weren't in a hurricane! I checked the engines and found the filters full of water and trash. So much for Cuban diesel. After about 3 hours, Randy and I got the other engine running. There is allot to be said for owning a dozier with a diesel engine.

With both engines running, with what sail we had left, and a compass we headed back out to sea. From there it was more of the same, and we finally saw Belize. Upon arriving we discovered that the bottom of a hatch had been knocked open, and dumped all of the contents somewhere in the ocean. Luckily we did not need the stuff. It was only our life jackets, emergency beacons, and and the satellite distress locator. Philippe and Randy's wives had chartered a plane for the next day to come look for us. Homecoming was fantastic! The pier was loaded with people welcoming us home, and we could hear the cheering as we made the cut into San Pedro. No one can really appreciate land, a dry bed, and a hot meal as much as we did. I began to understand why sailors get drunk upon returning home.

Click here for pictures from this trip

It was a trip of a lifetime. I can't wait until we sail again.

Tom L. Vidrine

Click here for a story on driving to Belize from the US through Mexico.

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