Imagining Havana

Published: April 1996  Mid-Gulf Sailing
© 2013 Troy Gilbert
By: Michael Frankel

Note: This is our first in a series of re-publishing still relevant cruising stories from the publication, Mid-Gulf Sailing, which ran from the early 1980’s to the 1990’s.

Havana, Cuba — You can’t hang around Key West for very long without getting the urge to visit Cuba. There are Cuba Regattaconstant reminders that our “neighbor” to the south is only 90 miles away, a short hop across the Florida Straits and the Gulf Stream.

I had a special interest in visiting Cuba. Since the arrival of my first grandson I have been compiling information on my family history to pass down to him. I recently learned that my aunt went to Havana in the late thirties on an immigration detour from Germany to the U.S. The U.S. government wasn’t very sympathetic to the plight of escaping German Jews and often refused them entry at the last moment, even after a ship had set sail. Cuba was a friendly port of entry in the Americas, a place to wait out U.S. bureaucracy.

On a bright sunny day with an easterly wind, Sabra headed west to the Marquesas Keys, a convenient point of departure for the southward passage to Havana. It was a perfect sailing day for the start of an eagerly anticipated adventure. This was my second trip to Cuba, and I was looking forward to seeing what changes had taken place since the collapse of the communist empire, the country’s main benefactor.

Christl, my German friend, was with me, and we were sailing with Bud, the Southern Episcopal priest I had befriended in St. Petersburg. We thought Christl’s Deutsche Marks would be a good hedge for the prohibition against Americans spending dollars in Cuba. It turns out that the fine print of the law also prohibits foreign currency spending by foreigners traveling on American vessels. More bureaucratic nonsense.

Perfect sailing conditions never last; there’s always something lurking ahead to spoil the fun. This time it was a buoy from a lobster pot that decided to tangle with my rudder. Sabra had just passed Cosgrove light when suddenly she slowed to a crawl. It was like we were tied to the light. The sails were full and we were pointed in the right direction, but we were making no progress. Finally I saw the taut line under the transom and realized that we were dragging a pot.

After several futile attempts to free the line with the boat hook, I decided to go overboard and cut the line. With my trusty Marine Corps bayonet, an heirloom from Boy Scout days, I climbed down the boarding ladder. Reaching well under the water while clinging to the ladder with one hand, I slashed away at the taut line. It fell away in a few seconds, and we were sailing again.

The remaining 20-hour Gulf Stream crossing went by uneventfully. The Stream can be quite boisterous as the world’s most massive ocean current squeezes between Florida and Cuba, but on this occasion the Blue God was peaceful. Just outside Cuba’s territorial waters I called my friend Bill in Boston on the short wave radio and told him that all was well and that I was getting ready to hail “XXXX.” For the past few days we had been referring to Cuba as “XXXX” over the airwaves. Bill is an ardent conspiracy theorist and believes in taking precautions. “Paranoia,” he says, “is just a heightened state of awareness.”

I called Marina Hemingway on the radio. They replied promptly and in English with several questions: port of departure, size of boat, name of boat, and number of people on board. They then told us to proceed directly to the Guardia station at the mouth of the inlet.

The inlet is a narrow cut in the reef well marked by an entrance buoy and a pair of channel buoys. Finding the entrance buoy without satellite navigation would be tricky, but with GPS it’s like reading a street number. Once inside we tied up to a concrete wall in front of the Guardia station and played host to a string of Cuban officials that came aboard in twos and threes from customs, immigration, the coast guard, port authority, and agricultural inspection. Everything went very smoothly in spite of multi-part carbon paper forms, much rubber stamping, and repeated requests to see passports and the ship’s papers. The officials were friendly and courteous. One customs officer was pleased to learn that Christl was a medical doctor. He told us that he was a surgeon, but Cuba’s planned economy needed customs officials more than surgeons at the moment.

The total cost for clearance, including the visas, customs papers, and the agricultural seal was $45. The seal was a wire strap around two dozen eggs purchased in Florida and stored in camping containers.

Apparently Cubans think American poultry standards, with their overcrowded chicken coups, are a source of poultry diseases. The inspector also carefully examined the oranges on board. They had similar concerns about American citrus growing practices. I was taken aback by this turnabout: an impoverished third world country challenging the food standards of a first world country. But I suspect the Cubans have a good point.

I gave every official who came aboard a retractable ball-point pen. They really appreciated the gift, clicked the mechanism a few times, and stuck it into their shirt pockets with a smile. I had read somewhere that pens and playing cards were good gifts for border crossings in developing countries. During the two hour check-in procedure a gardener tending the grounds hacked off two coconuts from a nearby palm tree, chopped the heads off, stuck in straws and presented them to us. It was a very friendly welcoming gesture.

The coconut milk had no taste; it was more like soft rainwater. A few minutes passed and the gardener returned asking for a Coke. How could I refuse? I gladly gave him a can in return. It wasn’t until much later, when I saw him trudging off with a sack of soft drink cans, that I realized what a clever tourist scam this was: trading free Cuban rainwater for expensive American soft drinks. It was a hustle, and I was outhustled.

For $10 you can get a cab ride into downtown Havana in a “particular.” This is a private car licensed to carry passengers. Unlike real cabs, which are often Mercedes, a particular is anything that moves. Ours was a nondescript rustbucket strikingly similar to a former East German-made Trabant. It sounded like one, it smelled like one, and it performed like one. The cabby was friendly, and we hired him to pick us up after a day’s sightseeing and for the next couple of days.

The eight-mile ride into town was like moving backwards through time. Most of the cars are at least forty years old or older. The exhaust fumes are overwhelming. It feels like the worst days of Los Angeles summer smog before air pollution controls were established. The noise from trucks and buses and cars without mufflers is also deafening. There are many more people walking or on bicycles than in cars. Most of the bikes are of Chinese origin. The streets and sidewalks leading into town are crowded, but traffic seems to move smoothly and orderly despite the crowds.

The route passes some of the most elegant districts of Havana, including many of the embassy buildings. But once in town you need a lot of imagination to appreciate the city. At one time it must have been a beautiful city gracefully following the curving Atlantic coastline. You have to imagine the city before the rust took over the decorative wrought iron grill work; before the crumbling of building facades; before the deep pot holes in the streets and sidewalks; before the subtle pastel painted stucco walls faded and peeled; before garbage was left uncollected in the street; before bare electrical wires dangled from graceful lampposts; before communist cement block architecture interrupted elegant 16th Century Spanish grandeur; before 50-gallon drums had to be strapped to apartment verandas to supply water; before everything turned a dull, crumbling gray.

The three of us stopped in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It had four tables and a window to serve sidewalk customers. The tables were in what must have been a formal sitting room to a private residence. There were intricately carved wooden moldings and an elaborate fireplace mantle.

We had what looked like three small pizzas and sweet Cuban coffee. Both were excellent, and we told the proprietor how much we enjoyed the lunch. He came back with complimentary rum and some sort of mashed corn stuffed and steamed in its husk — it was very good. We were also pleasantly surprised by the low bill. It was a thoroughly enjoyable lunch in what was obviously a non-touristy restaurant.

On my last visit to Cuba in 1988, it wasn’t possible to visit a non-tourist restaurant. Tourists were not allowed to experience what there was of the local economy. Now everything is open, and all enterprises that come in contact with tourists operate on a dollar economy. Everywhere you turn there’s an opportunity to spend dollars, but there’s nothing to buy except for a few drinks, cab rides, and restaurant meals. Book stores are flourishing, and books are very cheap, confirming the high literacy rate in Cuba.

At the Revolutionary Square there is a huge monument to Jose Marti, the country’s hero during the Spanish revolt. Leading up to the monument is an outdoor food market. Judging from what people were buying, Cubans seem to live on plantains, some potato-like tuber, and very little meat sold unrefrigerated from the backs of trucks. There were long lines for these items.

After three days of walking the city streets and imagining Havana as it once must have been, we decided to leave. I took a few parting photographs to remind me of the accelerating deterioration since my last visit. It was amusing to see that the “new” communist structures were looking just as old and run down as the old Spanish-styled buildings. I also saw the same anti-U.S. billboard that I had photographed on my last visit. It was on the oceanside boulevard facing north and had a Cuban fighter brandishing a rifle and shouting at a caricature of Uncle Sam: “Mr. Imperialist: we are absolutely not afraid of you.” Old hatreds never die.

Marina Hemingway was pretty much as I remembered it. The big difference was that in 1988 there were three boats in the marina. On this trip I counted close to one hundred boats with thirty flying American flags. The rest were from Germany, Italy, Canada, Spain, and Mexico. (The Miami Herald recently reported that over 560 American boats had visited Marina Hemingway in 1995.) In 1988 the grounds looked more like a military compound with a barbed wire fence around it and plenty of uniformed guards. Now the fence is gone, and the grounds are completely open to locals. There is even a condominium development under construction on the marina grounds. The local grocery store was reasonably well-stocked with expensive foreign canned products. And. I am told, there is a brisk trade in sex. Cuban authorities would like to stop it. But hookers flourish at the marina.

One of the new marina additions is a shower and toilet facility for the convenience of boaters. It is a modern building with six stalls in the men’s room. However, only one worked as toilet parts were cannibalized from the others to keep one working. The water pressure in the showers was more like a slow leak, and toilet paper was carefully doled out a meter at a time.

Exiting Cuba was even easier than entering. Several officials came aboard to check passports and the ship’s papers. Surprisingly, they didn’t check to see that the seal on the Florida eggs remained unbroken. They checked the lockers, supposedly for stowaways. One official took me aside, after putting away his rubber stamps and stamp pad, and in a friendly but conspiratorial voice, said, “You have seen how conditions are in Cuba. Things are hard for us. My wife is pregnant. Can you give us a gift of some sort?”

I thought about it for about ten seconds and gave him $10 and rationalized that by Cuban standards it was a lot of money, but it could hardly be considered a bribe in case I was being set up. At best it was another rainwater hustle.

The 90-mile sail back to Key West took only 16 hours in a brisk easterly wind. The winds were good, but the Gulf Stream waters were very lumpy. All the way back I wondered what to do about U.S. Customs. Before heading for Cuba I visited my government to get their latest reaction to Cuban travel by Americans. I recalled the encounter:
A very friendly official in a dark blue uniform and sidearm pistol told me, “I can’t tell you anything.” He gave me four photocopied pages of small print from the U.S. Code of Federal Register on the “Trading with the Enemy Act.” Aside from this paper he wasn’t going to say anything. I kept asking questions, and he kept referring to the stapled package. The small print contained dire warnings about $250,000 fines, ten years in jail, and seizure of boats. I told him that all the people along the waterfront — chandlers, fuel dock attendants, cruisers — all say No Problemas. “So what’s the official story?”

“I know you want me to help you,” he said with a smile. “But I’m not here to help you. I have nothing to tell you.”

“How many boats have you seized in the last year?” I asked.

“One.” he said. Apparently it was carrying contraband, but he wouldn’t elaborate. Probably cigars or rum. What else does Cuba have?

He was very friendly but also very unhelpful.

Sabra sailed into the Key West anchorage very late at night, too late to call U.S. Customs. The next day was New Year’s Eve and Customs was probably closed, so I busied myself with boat chores and stayed out in the anchorage to celebrate New Year’s Eve with the priest on Cavale. The day after (New Year’s Day) U.S. Customs was definitely closed. I still had not set foot on U.S. soil. I could not decide whether to bother Customs with my brief foray into the “Trading with the Enemy Act” or let a sleeping dog lie. In this instance, I figured, two wrongs might make a right and a lot less hassle.

Bill, my Boston lawyer friend, thought my math was correct. He also thought it was an interesting 5th Amendment question: he said if I comply with the reporting requirement, I incriminate myself on trading with the enemy. Bill reminded me that Al Capone had a similar problem with the IRS. I hoped that’s where the similarity ended.

Even if the Cubans can’t restore Havana to its former glory in the near future, I hope our governments can get together and open up the beautiful cruising grounds of the largest island in the Caribbean.


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