Birds and Boats

Up ‘Til Now

Alright. I’m trying to catch up a bit here.  Alot has happened.  I’m on the other side of the world, the boat is in a marina.  Crazy, right?  I haven’t seen the ocean in a week.  In fact, I’m in the desert.  Talk about a change of scenery.

But back to catching-up.

Up ‘Til Now

Here’s the thing about writing publicly about your private life for no profit in areas with very limited connectivity – eventually it becomes a chore.  The day-to-day becomes uninteresting to me, so I don’t have the motivation to stop doing other cool/important stuff to share… The counterpoint to that is when we’re doing cool stuff – I find it remarkably easy to share.  I do understand that things I consider mundane are still often very interesting to others.  Just bear with me here.

PS – Since I was short on pics of The Hobbies, check it out below.

Me and my girls

Me and my girls

NOMAD in The Hobbies

NOMAD in The Hobbies

NOMAD, trapped

NOMAD, trapped

The Hobbies

The Hobbies

Hobbies

Hobbies

Ze Hobbies

Ze Hobbies

San Andres.  Meh.

So there we were in San Andres, Colombia.  It’s a small island off of the coast of Nicaragua – almost due West (a long ways) from mainland Colombia. Mike and Laura on Gilana (from San Blas) were there and I was very happy for their company.  They were enamored with San Andres.  Me?  Meh.

 

It was, certainly, our first touch with civilization for many months (excluding Cayman).  To that end, we were quite happy to have access to Chinese takeout, good beer, Internet access, etc.  The issue is that San Andres is a tourist trap.  The kind of place that drives me insane after a couple of weeks.   The antidote was Providencia – a smaller and more local island just North of San Andres.

The largest issue, though, was the lack of computer (two had taken a soaking, leaving me with none).  There was a shop in San Andres and none in Providencia.  That kept us in San Andres.  So we dropped off both computers at a shop in San Andres.  They told me it would be 4 days.  To avoid boring you with the back and forth – allow me to shorten the computer story:  nearly a month later I was still without a working computer.  True story.

For a month we were in a constant state of limbo:  it was possible we were leaving that day, possibly not.  All depending upon the computer.  To use a Texan expression – the computer repair shop was as useless as tits on a boar hog.

A month in limbo

So what does one do when in limbo?  We drank. We ate.  We provisioned.  We picked up small things for the boat.  We battled the watermaker and the freezer and the batteries and the lack of freshwater. We overpaid to have our clothes washed.  We ate.  We ate.  We ate.  We played lots of chess, averaging about three games a day.  To blow off some steam we took a boat-break and took advantage of hotwater showers and good WiFi in a couple of hotels.

We made up games to play.  One of them we called The Unicorn Hunt.  Ana and I would spend a good part of the day drinking and people watching – the goal being to find a good-looking member of the opposite sex.  Surprisingly it was pretty difficult in San Andres.  Whereas in Cartagena, Colombia… well… I will say that Ana made a good point – apparently good-looking male Colombians are in shorter supply.  The biggest issue in San Andres is that freediving is a challenge.  Being that freediving is my recreation and my exercise – this was more than a minor inconvenience.

Eventually, after all of the delays and fighting and waiting and frustration with the computer – I just decided to head to Bocas and skip Providencia altogether.  In Bocas life would be a lot easier, though more expensive.  I could put the boat in a marina and relax for a bit.  In Bocas I could surf and have some semblance of a social life. There were beaches to explore.  There were bars to become regulars at.  New friends to make, long nights to begin.

Eventually we got one computer partially repaired and got a refund for the other and loaded everything and took off on what we knew would be a crap sail.

The trip to Bocas

Very little to say. We knew we would have about 1/2 the trip motoring.  I hate motoring.  But since I’d had a month in limbo in San Andres – I knew exactly what we were getting into.  Well.  It was much the same as far as squalls.

So I was up most of the time, avoiding and managing squalls.  The other part of the time I was up paying attention to the mechanical boatstuff (which is part of the gig when you motor long distances).  Eventually Bocas came into view.  I was so happy.

We had a reservation at Bocas Marina.  So I anchored just off of the marina, went in and cleared everything, and then tied the boat up at the dock.  Now, this is the first time I have ever (willingly) put NOMAD in a marina.  Marinas are for softies or for storing your boat.  The kind of sailing/cruising I like to do is a polar opposite from what you see in the marinas.  But all of that said – marinas are comfortable.  They have hot water and plenty of it.  They have WiFi and electricity and people that can work on your boat.  In a marina you have neighbors (for better or worse).  It’s kind of a boat-neighborhood.

Even with all of the positives of a marina, they really aren’t my cup of tea.  Nonetheless I chose a marina.  I chose the marina because I was tired.  Tired of fighting everything. Tired of fixing everything.  Tired of crap crossings.  Tired of squalls.  Just f*cking tired.

And this relates to the lack of posting here as well. The truth is, I needed a break.  Living this kind of life is challenging for even a strong-willed couple.  Living this kind of life, and being responsible for so much, as a solo-sailor is an entirely different beast.  Those moments of terror and those periods of negativity weigh more.  Especially as a younger sailor.  I would say the average age of the cruising crowd is between 50 and 60.  Nearly twice my age.  Not a huge problem – but I’ve been doing this for over two years, full time.  All of this wears on you.  Add in the constant drain on your bank account (the water-based money-pit we call “boats”)…  Well, it was just time for a break.

Bocas Del Toro

Bocas is a rad place. A cool surf town.  It’s got enough gringo to make things easier (and more expensive), but not so much that you feel like you’ve transplanted from one American beach town to another.  I like it.  That said, there is no real spearfishing.  That’s a deal-killer, no matter how much I try to replace “spearfishing” with other things like surfing, kiting, etc.

BocasBocas

Bocas

Ana was on her way out.  She had a job on a boat in San Blas.  I was ready for a long Netflix marathon only broken up by surfing and eating.  We did a bit of cleaning up.  We did a bit of provisioning.  I repaired a few things.  And then Ana left and I started my Netflix/surfing/eating marathon. It was glorious and far too short.

Mas Bocas

Mas Bocas

In Bocas Marina there are three Lagoon 380’s, including the boat directly behind me on the dock.  Interestingly enough the one behind me is owned by a young Israeli guy.  My age, great surfer.  I know freediving, he knows surfing – and shortly there was one of those “I teach you X, you teach me Y” pacts.

Bocas Del Toro

Bocas Del Toro

Possibly more importantly, I recognized that the folks on the Israeli boat probably know a bit about hummus.  And when I say “a bit” I mean “a lot.”  I love hummus.  So I agreed to make a special dish for them if they’d come over and teach me hummus.  All was agreed and set and I got my hummus lesson. There was much to improve upon, apparently.  They have hummus down to an art.  A very tasty art.

Just a bit more Bocas

Just a bit more Bocas

I made a typical Nate-blunder when it was my turn to cook for them.  You see, I have an aversion to religion and all of the things that come along with it (divisiveness, strange hats worn for obscure purposes, food-rules established many thousands of years ago, early mornings, ritualistic cannibalism, etc).

And my special dish, which I was preparing for the Israelis, is a Filipino dish called Pork Adobo.  Right.  They are Israelis and I planned on cooking them pork and I didn’t, even for a moment, consider that some people don’t eat pork for religious reasons.   The reasoning is simple:  that’s a sacrifice I can’t imagine making.  Not eat bacon?  No pork chops?  Insanity.

In Asia they eat dogs, but in America dogs are treated better than many humans in other countries.  Nothing is safer than a pig in Jerusalem.  In India, they’ll starve and let the cows live with them like Gods.  The world is a strange place.

Needless to say, my pork dish didn’t go over so well with the Israelis.  Having spent so much time in the Middle East – you would think that little hiccup would have been more obvious to me…

Onward.

A Real Boat-Break

We’ve established that I needed a boat-break. Something, anything, off of the boat and without the daily fights and worries and challenges that come with managing and living (full-time) on a large boat in foreign countries.

The elixir came in the form of an invite from some very-good friends of mine, met in San Blas.  We also cruised with them extensively, and often exclusively, in Cuba.  Great people from a tiny and not-so-well-known country:  Namibia.

 

You see, Jaco and Cristelle (said friends), were going home (Namibia) for awhile.  I’ve always wanted to see Africa, but the real Africa. Not some organized tour-group the takes you between Radisson hotels and exclusive lodges.  I want to meet the real people and travel the country in a real way.  I want to see the challenges.  I want to shop in the local supermarkets.  I want to eat what the locals eat.  Do what the locals do.   I want to take an shot at really understanding some of Africa.  Which is what Jaco and Cristelle’s invite offered.

Eventually, after playing with some budgets, I managed to squeeze water from a rock:  enough dinero for the trip.  Tickets were booked.  I was flying halfway across the world to hang out with friends in their homeland.  An exotic place, surely.

I’m here now.  I’m in Namibia.  In Africa.  It’s both what I expected and not.  Stark contradictions.  A tough land that makes people tough.  Namibia is not as “settled” as other countries and in this is it’s beauty.

I can, again, confirm that the most beautiful places on the face of the Earth are those with the fewest people.  I’ll prove that in the next post.

Until then.

Hobbies

I know, I know…

Yeah.  It’s been awhile.  Apologies.  Because of the time between posts, I’ve come up with a great number of semi-valid excuses for the delay.  I could probably make an entire post out of excuses.  But let’s not and say we did.

So what’s happened?  Everything.  Now?  I’m in Bocas, playing with waves and surfboards.  Here are the CliffsNotes.

Last check-in was in the incredibly expensive but well-stocked Cayman Islands.  There I dropped off one crew member that wasn’t working out and Ana and I took off toward Panama – of course we took the long-way-round.  The route was to Bocas Del Toro via The Hobbies (Honduras) and then Providencia/San Andres (Colombian islands off the coast of Nicaragua) and then to Bocas.  The jumps were roughly 200 miles each.  No sweat.  Honestly, those jumps don’t even get my blood going anymore.  But complacency is dangerous, and I’m avoiding that.

Here’s what the route looks like on the charts (it’s been oversimplified, grossly – routes are never this straight):

The Route

The Route

Leaving the Caymans was tricky. We needed a specific weather pattern, apparently an abnormal one for this time of year.  We got it one day, but we were hungover from a little sailor get-together that was supposed to be “just one drink.”  There is very little worse than starting a passage with little sleep and a hangover.  We waited.

Then we were gifted the right weather.

And then we left.

To The Hobbies

What can I say about this passage?  It was a rough one.  For a relatively short passage – it kicked my ass. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as the next one.  Before we get too far down this road – here’s a screenshot that illustrates why AIS is a good investment.

AIS

AIS

Onward.

We pulled out anchor around 2000 hours.  We motored for a couple of hours.  Then we caught the wind and we were off.  That night we were surrounded by squalls.  We had to keep a reef in the mainsail the entire time – which dramatically decreased our power when we didn’t have a squall pounding us.  We were averaging a little under 6 knots, which is  a horrible average for NOMAD.  But low speed and rough weather and lightning and big waves and crazy wind aren’t the issue.

The issue is that because of all of those things, when we’re getting smashed by squalls, I can’t sleep.  There’s only one person who sits in the captain’s chair when all hell breaks loose.  It’s a fact of life, and not one that I mind – assuming that it’s not day-in-day-out.  Of course, this was day-in-day-out.

There was a silver lining.  I was looking for it.  When you’re soaking wet and exhausted and on edge and hungry and cold you look for those silver linings.  The silver lining was that the waves hadn’t had enough time to grow to any incredible size.  They were staying between the two and three meter mark, with the occasional 3.5 M (11 ft) sneaker.  That’s doable.  They were a little steep, and on the passage I wasn’t happy about how steep they were – but I would learn on our next movement what “steep” really meant.

When the sun finally rose I was too tired to even let the fishing lines out.  I just heated up coffee and tried to read a little.  This was, to date, the most intense situation in which I had re-read Huckleberry Finn. I did, however, relate very keenly to Jim and Huck’s struggles on the river with weather and darkness and other boats.

Ana came up and we ate and she took a shift at the wheel.  I laid down in the cockpit and tried to catch a nap.

And then it was getting dark again and I could see squalls building on the horizon.  I flipped on the radar and quickly saw it was going to be another one of those rough nights.  It was.  Shocking.

This evening the pattern became pretty predictable:  we would be sailing in 10-15 knots of wind, surrounded by squalls and crumbling waves.  Then the wind would die, the sails would flap. Then I would get ready for some shit – usually just reef the headsail.  Then I would be in the shit.  Like a switch was flipped, the wind would increase to 30-35 knots from the direction of the squall.  I would run NOMAD in front of it until I got an idea of windspeed and then (assuming all was well) correct course, put on some clear glasses, and ride out the storm.

This.  Over and over and over.  It was very similar to my combat experience: long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.  Then the adrenaline fades and exhaustion kicks in until your next shot of adrenaline.

Then it was morning.  Finally.  And I could see The Hobbies.  I could also see hella storms all around us. Our stop in The Hobbies was supposed to be a relaxing time to regroup, do some epic diving, fill up on fish, etc.  But as we approached (with no real charts) it looked incredibly uninviting.   I knew by speaking with other sailors (and thanks to ActiveCaptain) the general area of the opening in the reef, but that was all.  I didn’t know where the wrecks were and I didn’t know where the coral heads were.  Not something you want to navigate when a storm is nipping at your heels and you don’t have light to see the reefs.  But that is what we did. And we made it to anchor.

We spent nearly three days in The Hobbies, which was the end of our weather information.  We did a bit of diving and took a couple of fish for the freezer.  Here I saw a Black Grouper that was big enough to scare me – certainly the largest I’ve ever seen.  And I managed to put a spear in him, but he managed to remove that spear after pretzeling it.  We also saw a massive Leatherback Turtle.  Other than that, the time there wasn’t super-remarkable.  If we had better weather info we certainly would have stayed longer and seen more.  It was beautiful.  It was remote.  And it was cool.  I lost the pictures taken here… Major bummer.  Here’s a picture from S/V Gypsea Heart that shows what the main island looks like:  It’s just lobster/fish traps.

Hobbies

Hobbies

And here was where I get to use my first long-time-since-I-posted excuse (barring the we-were-sailing-in-remote-areas excuse).  I left a hatch open during a sunny day in The Hobbies when we went diving.  Beneath this hatch was my computer.  Within an hour a storm blew in and soaked said computer.  As you probably realize, there are no Mac Stores in The Hobbies.  As a matter of fact, there are no stores.  There are no people.  There are no houses.  There is absolutely nothing.  Except birds and a bunch of fish traps.  Normally, this is the kind of place I like – but without a computer?  Not as cool.

To San Andres

Again, we were off.  We pulled anchor early (1700 hours) because I simply didn’t trust the area (remember I had no charts and came in with no light).  Naturally the wind was blowing 25 knots in our face as we left.  But once we got out that wind was on our quarter and it was damn near perfect sailing.  The waves were plenty large but we were moving nicely.

Then the wind dropped.  At this point, I knew what that meant (admittedly, I also saw the squall on radar).  And so the familiar routine began again. The first night wasn’t so bad.  I was well-rested and well-fed and knew what was coming.  I can also say that I’d had a bit of experience with the all-night squall-after-squall scenario.  So, we bumped and bounced and bashed and lurched toward San Andres.

The next day I rested a little and then later in the day we ended up turning on an engine as the wind gave out.

That night was the roughest sailing I’ve ever done.  That night was a real test.  They say calm seas do not good sailors make.  I hope there’s something to this.  Otherwise it was just the ocean testing the limits of my sanity.  After doing this for a couple of years, you get a feeling for most of the stuff.  Engines breaking when the wind is beating you in the face and the reef is behind you – check.  Autopilot failing while you’re singlehanding and trying to replace a fan-belt in the engine room – check.  The boom falling off while sailing – check.  The dinghy falling off in the middle of a crossing while you’re getting pounded by waves – check.  The list goes on.

 

But nothing (except similar experience) prepares you for taking a sound thrashing by the ocean.  You just have to live through it.

What made this night so shitty was something I recognized while planning our route, but didn’t quite understand the scope of.  Our route from The Hobbies to San Andres took us over a long, shallow shelf (much of it less than 15M/45ft).  Because of the strength of the weather previously – the waves had built and built and built in the deeper water.  And then when they came across this bank, they stood up straight and started crumbling.  What were 3M/9ft-4M/13ft, long-period waves in the deeper water were now larger, short period waves with faces resembling walls and tops that were breaking.

 

Here’s the bank, obviously the route is oversimplified again.  I didn’t go crashing through the islands.

The Bank

The Bank

The squalls had picked up in intensity, so much so that I was having to sail with the main double-reefed.  That kept our speed down to about 5 knots outside of the squalls(when we weren’t skiing down the face of waves while being pushed by 45 knots of wind).  The night was black. Very, very black.  Fairly regularly, though, lighting struck near us and illuminated our situation for a moment.  Just long enough to raise your heartbeat.  When the lighting struck it became apparent how tiny our little boat was and how big the ocean around us was and how little control we really had over the situation.

It was, literally, walls of water breaking all around us (and on us). There was nowhere to run.  When we were in the trough of the waves the next wave would be much higher that the arch my solar panels are on – way over my head.  And then they would crumble onto us.  I was wearing foul-weather gear, but at some point it doesn’t really matter.  After a few waves break over you – you’re soaking wet and just holding on and hoping for the best.

At the height of it all I said some words to the ocean, something that would have passed for a prayer when I was a religious person.  I remember that moment clearly now.  We had two reefs in the main, two reefs in the headsail, and the radar was orange and yellow all around us.  The rain was stinging.  I was wearing glasses to see through the water.  I was soaked to my bones and the lighting struck in regular intervals around us.  I noticed we couldn’t hear most of the thunder because of the sound of the waves smashing into us.  It was a hell of a deal.  The sound alone is incredible.  You can’t hear anything but the wind and the waves booming as they break on/over the boat.  It’s completely black and you’re pitching, then lightning strikes and you see white water on top of black walls everywhere – and then it’s all gone again in a second.

The wind went from about 8 knots to about 45 knots.

I was OK up to about 40 knots with both sails double reefed.  But 45 knots scared me a little and so I ran NOMAD front of it.  Even running in front of it, as we were surfing down the waves we were consistently doing over 11 knots.  The waves were breaking over us when we were in the troughs and all I could do was to hope.

We made it through it, mostly unscathed.  The boat can always take more than it’s inhabitants

Eventually my adrenaline washed away and I was exhausted.  I realized the next morning that my jaw was sore:  I’d been clenching my teeth all night. As we came into the deeper water everything smoothed out (but it was still very rough) and I could hear San Andres Port Authority telling everyone the conditions were “Red” and that all small boats should seek shelter.  That was very much our plan.  Much to my surprise there were fishermen (in tiny pangas) out in that mess with us.  I was impressed.  Some of these local guys are excellent watermen.  Some.  Others are just insane.

We eventually pulled into San Andres, where we saw Mike and Laura on Gilana.  It was nice to see a familiar boat and some familiar faces.

 

Awesome Crew Wanted

Want to be crew? Cool.   I’m usually looking for awesome people to do awesome things with – somewhere, at some time. Read on, carefully…

Reality Check

One other truth about cruising on a small boat across big oceans is that it’s much like a roommate situation, without having any previous experience with your roommates. Except it’s a small space, and you can’t just walk out the door to the nearest coffee shop when you need your space.

That is to say – it can be challenging.

Add in the occasional moment of terror, rough weather, the nature of sailing (some things need to be done right now), things are always breaking, varying levels of experience, expectations, and a large variance in personalities…

Needless to say, sailing this way isn’t for everyone.

Sailing, this way, isn’t a vacation. It’s not always relaxing, you won’t have people serving you, and you’ll have responsibilities onboard. If you want a sailing vacation, with people serving you and minimal responsibilities – you need to charter a catamaran. I do that too, but it’s very different and much more costly (10-15X).

If you are willing to work hard when required, are proactive, and can handle (with grace) the authority of the captain – maybe you’re a candidate.

You also need to keep in mind that I accept crew in order to make my life easier – so if you don’t do that or, God forbid, you add to the inherent challenges onboard: you’ll find yourself dockside with your luggage booking a last-minute flight. That’s not cool for anyone. I hate it, they hate it, we hate it.  That has happened, and in order for everyone to avoid that – please keep everything you read here in mind.

Think about this like camping, for extended periods of time, with strangers, sometimes in stressful situations. Good news: it’s usually in very beautiful places.

The ideal candidate (onboard NOMAD) possesses the following:

  • a sense of humor
  • honesty, trustworthiness, tact, an understanding of when to speak and when not to
  • a thick skin (ie – when someone yells “grab that line, now!” you don’t take it personally)
  • a keen understanding of your role onboard (e.g. you are welcome to share this experience for a tiny fraction of the cost of chartering or owning your own boat – but that is because you are here to help)
  • the ability to cook well, no problem cleaning up after others
  • some experience in the working world (ie – you are financially stable, you understand how money works, you have experience being a subordinate in stressful situations)
  • zero drama/emotional baggage
  • experience onboard boats, in the ocean, and sailing
  • an adventurous attitude/spirit
  • the ability to be unattached from the outside world for extended periods of time (limited internet, limited phone conversations, etc)
  • low maintenance (no hair dryers, limited 110V, no Starbucks, limited freshwater, no hot water)

In addition to all of that, there are some things, specific to sailing on NOMAD that you should be aware of:

  • in order to support this, I write (and read quite a bit), this is one of my jobs onboard. Often I need peace and quiet and you will need to take care of things by yourself (and entertain yourself)
  • in order to keep food on the table (and provide exercise, recreation) I freedive/spearfish often. That is part of my job, most of my recreation, all of my exercise, and a large reason I am out here, doing this. Helping or taking part in this is very welcome.
  • captains that sail this way are typically strong personalities (obviously… they must be to give up everything, put all of their money in a depreciating asset and a mechanical liability, give up many creature comforts, and put themselves at the mercy of Mother Nature). I am no exception.
  • the captain has a long list of concerns onboard: safety, security, the anchor, weather, boat condition, provisioning, people, schedules, freshwater, electricity, propane, fuel, boat maintenance, parts-sourcing, boat maintenance, weather, weather, weather, money, etc … you don’t have most of those concerns, so give the captain (me) a break from time to time
  • your primary job is cooking and cleaning
  • your secondary job is capturing things via photo/video

If all of this is truly understood, and you’re still interested, there is the money-thing.

The Money-Thing

I do not pay crew to be onboard. That is ridiculous. This is not a professional position, though you can gain some professional skills.

This is a cost-sharing, experience-sharing position.

Simply put, I have no trust fund and so, I cannot support you. Every cent I spend shortens my trip.

The good news is that your habitation, your transportation, your water, your electricity, your gas, and your meals are all paid for onboard – with a daily rate that is typically less than the cost of a hostel alone. As far as traveling and getting to enjoy the ocean – this is a very cost-effective way of doing so (as crew).

Getting to and from the boat (ie flights, shore excursions, etc): your responsibility. Vice (alcohol, tobacco) is your responsibility. Your visas are your responsibility.

The best fits are always people who have spent their lives on the ocean. Salty folks. Surfers, sailors, freedivers, offshore fisherman, etc. Usually in combination with traveling.

The Relationship-Thing

Relationships are funny onboard, and onboard there is a relationship of some type with every person onboard. It’s a small space. Relationships vary with crew and timing and personalities and they can be anything from professional to very good friends to borderline enemies to intimate.  And that can change day-to-day.

Experience is how you figure out where you fit in that, there is no shortcut. Don’t come with any expectations, and you won’t be disappointed.

The Hierarchy

Hierarchies exist everywhere and they do change and you’re not always at the top but you can usually work your way up there, if you’re the right kind of person. You’re welcome for that life-lesson.

I once thought this was self-explanatory.

There is a hierarchy onboard NOMAD. To avoid confusion – the crew with the most experience onboard NOMAD is the person you (the new crew) will be learning from. You start at the bottom.  You can move up.

I’ll teach some things, but most of what you need to know won’t come from me.

No-Go

After much trial and error, I have a list of no-go’s. If any of the following pertain to you, do not apply:

  • Under 25 years of age
  • You have not worked in the “real-world” for a couple of years
  • Limited experience cooking
  • Don’t have some previous experience at sea, with references
  • Your commitment is less than a month
  • Not financially stable
  • Not willing to, or cannot do, a Skype interview
  • Your dates and schedule are not flexible
  • You are applying as a couple
  • You are strongly religious
  • You consider yourself sensitive, in any way
  • You do smoke cigarettes
  • You do not drink alcohol
  • You are in mediocre (or worse) physical condition (we are active)
  • You are a weak swimmer
  • You are not proactive, hardworking
  • You have someone/something “back home” which requires attention/connection
  • You bring negative stuff onboard: drama, emotional baggage, insanity, obscene ignorance, an alligator-mouth-that-overloads-your-humbug-ass, etc

This is a well-thought-out list. It is exacting. If it doesn’t work for you, there is some good news: you can buy/charter your own boat, put in the time and money, and then make up your own lists for crew. Novel, right?

All that said, don’t let it put you off reaching out if you feel you would really be a good fit but you don’t fit one or two criteria.   Nobody is perfect. Especially the captain.

If you honestly (please be honest with yourself for the sake of everyone involved) believe you are a good fit: reach out to me via my Facebook page, give me a summary of yourself, your skills, and your dates.

Then relax and be patient – my access to Internet is sporadic.

Let’s say you are the right candidate and you reach out at the right time. In that case, here’s a list of “bring” and “leave at home.”

 

Bring:

  • An awesome personality attached to an awesome person
  • Cash (more than you’d think)
  • Snorkeling/freediving/spearfishing gear (tell me what you have, I’ll tell you what I have – we’ll meet in the middle)
  • Gloves for sailing/diving
  • Sunscreen
  • A hat and a long-sleeve shirt to shade you (sun protection is important)
  • Lycra or wetsuit to keep from burning while diving
  • Polarized sunglasses (maybe two pair – Flying Fisherman are cheap/decent)
  • A favorite boardgame (we play lots of chess)
  • Any special spice or flavor or food you are fond of
  • Favorite recipes (or a good cookbook)
  • Books (ideally on an iPad, Kindle, etc)
  • Movies and music (have these on a harddrive or thumbstick – no Pandora, or other Internet source, even when you download it beforehand, works out here). BitTorrent is your friend, use a VPN.
  • Possibly a computer – but make sure it has a long-life battery

 

Leave at home:

  • Shitty, selfish, or unhelpful attitudes
  • Your Internet addiction
  • Your Starbucks addiction (we do drink excellent French-pressed coffee, though)
  • Your shopping addiction
  • Your Facebook addiction
  • Your reliance on fast-food, delivery, or take-out
  • Preconceived notions about this lifestyle or the people in it
  • Expectations
  • Schedules

 

Survival Tips:

  • don’t piss off the captain, that should be pretty self-explanatory – but since it’s not: I have worked very hard to make my life less complex and more positive.  I have sacrificed more than I care to remember.  To that end I don’t (nor do others) tolerate crew that adversely affects me.  Pretty straightforward, right?
  • resolve conflict by talking calmly, rationally, and at the earliest possible convenience
  • make life onboard more pleasant and you’ll secure a spot for as long as you want and for any time you would like to come back
  • appreciate every day you’re breathing, they all have a silver lining and we all need to be reminded of that

 

So there it is. That’s it. And if you make it onboard I can promise you three things:

  1. It will not always be pleasant, but sometimes it will approach perfection – we live for those moments
  2. For the right person it is an epic, eye-opening experience
  3. When you are old, you will tell stories about this
Havana Club

The Beginning of the End

It’s the beginning of the end. We’re in the process of leaving Cuba. Big provisioning runs. Goodbye parties. Boatwork. More boatwork. Diesel. Gas. Propane. Rum. New crew.

Leaving Cuba

I decided our route the other day: Cuba, Grand Cayman, Hobbies, Providencia, San Andres, Bocas Del Torro and then through the Panama Canal. A likely longer stop in Bocas for some boatwork.

The thing is – we found a rum that we really like and it’s relatively cheap. Cayman, Hobbies, Providencia and San Andres are all difficult, expensive or impossible to procure rum.

So this happened.

Havana Club

Havana Club

I can explain.

Since it’s difficult/expensive to get rum in the first part of our run – we need to have enough rum to last us over a month. When we really started figuring how much rum that would be – well… It’s a lot.

We bought one store out of rum, then started on the second store.

Add in a couple of cheap wines for sangria and some white rum for mixing. Then the mixers. Then a bit of beer. Suddenly you are sleeping with rum bottles surrounding your bed every night.

Anyways, onward. We are leaving as soon as the wind turns East enough, long enough. That looks like a couple of days away. We’re very ready, so sooner is better.

Moving on means getting all the “that can wait, but it needs to happen before the next sail” projects (which have been piling up) out of the way. Replacing the boom topping lift. Fixing the lifelines. New belts on the engines. Check fluid levels. Fill up fuel. Run the watermaker. Get ice, stockpile a bit of fish. Put things away (it’s amazing how everything seems to migrate out of it’s place and begins to slowly cover any horizontal plane). Tighten it all down.

I’ll be happy to be underway.

The first stop (Cayman) isn’t all that far. Then we’ll stop and reprovision and wait on weather. Than a longer hop to the Hobbies, where there is rumored to be excellent fishing. Then a blind (weather) run to Providencia, possibly with the wind in our face. That’s the most worrisome part of the trip – Hobbies to Providencia – as we will have limited access to weather reports (unless I get the SSB working and can pick up Chris Parker – fingers crossed).   But all in all – relatively short passages, relatively close to land. Much more like island-hopping than our crazy ride from Panama direct to Cayman.

So there it is.

The next time you’ll hear from me will likely be in Cayman, heading to the Hobbies (and then it’ll be radio silence for a bit again, until Providencia).

NOMAD

Obsessed

Alright. So we’ve been in Cuba for a very long time now, it feels like time to go. We’ve done everything we came for and more. I’ve had my fair share of this country, and I’ve enjoyed most of it. We’re running out of money. We’re running out of patience. We’re running out of things to see and do.

There is always the big-fish chase. The underwater sightseeing. The freediving, the underwater observation of the food chain and the reef. There is always that, at least.

It was at this point that my little brother decided to visit.

 

The Visit

 

You know how sometimes you are living in the moment so completely that you forget to take any pictures whatsoever? Nothing crazy happens. Maybe it was just a very peaceful and fun and nice few days and you want to remember that, but there wasn’t any big moment (which is what was so nice about it) – so you didn’t take any pictures. I don’t even know how to log those moments, those days.

We had those days.   They were exactly what we needed. Quiet days anchored very far from people and very close to our dive spots.   And we have no pictures of those days.

Then my little brother was flying in for a short two days with us, then he was going back to Havana for a few days and then back to that grinding worklife. He flew in, I walked to the airport (which is something I appreciate), and then he was onboard.

I love having family visit. And friends. Wonderful stuff. My goal was to get my brother on some decent fish and let him spear one or two for dinner. Outside the wind was whipping , so while we made it outside the reef – it was rough and it wasn’t all that great of visibility. It was also deeper out there.

There were plenty of smaller Cubera Snapper, a couple nice grouper, and boatloads of smaller edible fish. My brother learned how to identify a couple of the target species and then the hunt was on.   I told him he could shoot one of the snapper schooling at the bottom – he tells me it seems small. Nothing was big enough for him, his selectivity made me proud.

Inside the reef we found calmer, clearer water and some smaller fish. A few decent eating-size grouper. More Cubera Snapper. Then I told my brother to take a shot at a Barracuda, if he saw one. He saw one, he shot. He missed. That repeated itself. Barracuda can be hard to hit.

A few minutes later I pointed out a Barracuda, my brother shot and missed and the Barracuda came right at me and I instinctively shot and then we had a Barracuda for chum. I didn’t expect much as I thought the water was too shallow to hold any big fish. 5M or so. Shallow. But I was wrong.

Nothing much was coming up our chum line – a couple of smaller grouper, a medium-sized Cubera Snapper. It was my brother’s mission to get this Cubera. He kept trying, but when a Cubera Snapper gets to a certain size (and they’re in shallow water) – they are wise and easily spooked. It was not meant to be.

But then I saw the largest Cubera Snapper I’ve ever seen in my life. Ever. He looked like a dinosaur in the face and seemed to have more in common with a Volkswagen than a fish. He was not interested in the chum, he was even less interested in hanging around me. I swam and swam and tried every trick in the book – but he was gone and my brother was done diving for a while and we needed lunch.

So we went back to NOMAD. We had lunch. I had a good idea: move NOMAD over to the spot with the giant Cubera and then stay there. We could dive off the boat in shallow/clear water, there were plenty of conch. And there was the giant Cubera Snapper.

So we picked up anchor and weaved our way through the reef and then we were in the spot with the Giant Cubera Snapper. I began diving and chumming and diving and swimming and then sitting on the bottom until I had blue lips. I was, as my brother later said, obsessed with this giant, skittish fish in this shallow, clear water.

The fish was a ghost. He would make an appearance at the edge of your visibility and then just vanish. One time he came up the chum line and grabbed a piece of chum and then vanished. It was maddening. Be gone or come in.

 

The Obsession

 

We were starting to run out of fish because I wasn’t shooting anything because everything seemed so small compared to this monster/ghost/dinosaur. I had some boatwork to do, much writing to do, but my brother was here and so that could wait. What we could do, though, is get this damned Cubera.

So I dove again. And my brother moved to a different spot and I decided to chum right behind the boat – maybe we could catch this fish on hook-and-line, since he was so skittish. He came into the chum line when I was almost out of chum. About that time my brother was heading back to the boat and he saw this fish and chased it, trying to spear it. We saw no more of this fish, but we saw plenty of other fish in the chum line and so we left a couple of fishing lines out – but we only succeeded in catching the bottom.

We smoked cigars and drank rum, played a game of chess, and then called it an early night – all of this diving had taken it’s toll.

The next day was my brother’s last day. We ate very well and drank great coffee and had a very relaxing morning as I taught my brother some chess. Then, with little else to do – we went freediving and spearfishing. Diving, diving, diving. We were running out of the stupid Barracuda in this area (for chum). The only thing left was smart Barracuda (they run) and small Barracuda (they aren’t worth it). But, eventually, we got one.

The chum line started again. The source of my obsession made an appearance and then vanished again. We ate lunch. We set out fishing lines. We dove again. Nothing.

That night, we had a long dinghy ride to the marina, where my brother could get a taxi and then get to the airport and then get to Havana. He would have a couple of days there and then he would go “home” to New York City and back to work. Work. Gross. Much better to be going broke smoking cigars and drinking rum while chasing giant Cubera Snapper around. At least that’s my take on it.

That evening the wind died and we could see every detail of the fish under the boat and the coral-strewn bottom from the deck of NOMAD. Every detail. Then Ana walked to the front of the boat to do some reading and she yelled, “There he is!”

Sure enough. The damned Cubera was cruising around our boat and we could see him very clearly and he could see us. Taunting me.

I had no reason to leave this spot (we were waiting on crew and weather to take our leave of Cuba), so we stayed. This hunt for the Cubera took on great meaning. I was writing and relaxing and then it would rain and then, later, I would have a chance to dive and I would see him and then he would disappear.

This continued for a week. Almost every time we get in the water, the Cubera is within sight for a brief moment – then gone.

Then one day I took a break in the evening to grab a fish for dinner (we were, for the first time in a very long time, completely out of fish). Ana loves triggerfish, so I took one for her. Then as I’m swimming back to the boat, I see the damned Cubera again.

At this point I have largely given up hope. I’ve broken two rods and several lines trying to catch him. We’ve hooked everything else – sharks, tarpon, jacks, grouper, the bottom. With all of that, I’ve never been closer than 15M from him in the water. He seems impervious to my tactics.

This dive in question was supposed to be a short grab-some-food-for-dinner dive. I had the triggerfish to clean. I was tired. It was starting to get dark. The Barracuda were wise to me, so I couldn’t get chum.  The current was picking up.

But I decided to give it one more attempt. I shot a Chub. I started cutting it up and the fish started to come in. A small grouper. A decent Cubera Snapper. Barracuda. Mutton Snapper. Lots of Yellowtail Snapper. But no dinosaurs.

Then he was there. Sneaking around on the edge of my visibility. In and out. Not coming close enough to the chum to eat, but attracted by it.

Of course – by that time – I was out of chum, except for the head of the Chub. The stingrays and sharks and grouper and other snapper had swallowed it all up.

I kept dropping the head of the Chub and watching it fall to the bottom. Sometimes he would come, intrigued by seeing something dropping, within 10M. Then I started dropping the Chub head and (when I needed to retrieve it) diving to the bottom and flattening myself out there. He was coming closer.

I did this over and over and it was starting to get dark and the other fish had started to leave. It was me, a shark, and two Cubera Snapper all interested in this last piece of chum – a Chub head. It was a game of keep-away and hide-and-seek played together, underwater.

I started dropping the Chub head on one side of a coral head and then diving to the other side and hiding there. He was getting closer. He came within 5M and offered me a marginal shot. I didn’t shoot. I was getting somewhere with this fish, and with a fish this size – you have to be close for your spear to penetrate far enough to hold him when he takes off like a freight train.

Yes, he will take off like a freight train.

Over and over and over we play this game. He comes closer and closer and seems to be growing more tolerant of my presence.   I’m starting to hope. No more shot-offerings from him. The shark won’t leave me alone and the other Cubera seems intent on committing suicide by swimming straight at the tip of my spear.

Ana is cleaning the triggerfish on the back steps of NOMAD. I told her I might get him, to be ready to toss me a line or a float or help me, in case I made a bad shot.

She is not very excited.

I try to get my heartrate down, try to push down the adrenaline. I need to be on the bottom for a very long time before he gets the nerve to come close.

My heartrate is down. I dive. I see him leaving my area on the way down, I wait forever on the bottom, and then I see his tail on the other side of the coral head. I guess where he will come out from behind the coral head and flatten myself on the bottom.

And then he makes a very large mistake and comes out where I thought he would. And I have this fleeting hesitation – Jesus Christ he’s huge, can I really handle this fish?

I don’t know how Jesus always seems to get mixed up in these affairs.

I pull the trigger. The spear hits the fish and it sounds like the spear hit some kind of metal. A solid thud that seems to reverberate a little under water.

And he doesn’t take off like a freight train. He goes and he does pull hard (the spear bends in a U shape) – but I already know, before I come up off the bottom: this fight is over. The spear went in through the gill-plate, he’s stunned by the impact, the spear is not coming out, I’m in control of this situation.

He circles under me and I’m straining to get him in. I finally get a hand in his gills. I let out a little whoop and Ana knows I have him. She gets the camera before I make it back to the boat. He flips and splashes and crunches my hand in his gills, but he’s mine.

He beat me for a week – day and night, over and over and over. He kept winning. But I only needed to win once, and I did. Finally.

The next day I shrink the picture and send it to Jaco and my brother. They’ll both appreciate it.

Though I can’t say that being obsessive about fish is a good thing, every now and then it pays off in a big way.

Cubera Snapper spearfishing

Cubera Snapper spearfishing

PS – please excuse the disheveled appearance and the constipated look on my face.  It’s hard holding a fish up, when it gets this size.  And I was far too busy chasing this fish to bother with things like shaving, combing my hair, and general life maintenance.

 

PPS – Oh, and the sail that’s uncovered in the background.  You see, boat maintenance is important, but not as important as dinosaur fish.

 

 

 

RUM!

Friends in Pictures

Finally, out of Havana. Back onboard NOMAD. Life starting to seem normal again. Back to the familiar problems: finding provisions, lugging around diesel containers, running out of water, everything corroding and breaking.

The normal, expensive boat problems.  Familiar, grinding, frustration. Long quiet periods shattered by moments of terror.

Back with friends. Then saying goodbye to those friends. I hate goodbyes and I’m horrible at them. I put on a plastic smile and shake hands or embrace and then just try to get through it. Or I just ghost out of goodbyes altogether.

Songerie

If you haven’t figured it out yet – we’ve made some friends, very good friends, on a boat called Songerie. We met them – Jaco and Cristelle – in San Blas, through Drummer.   Jaco is a superb freediver, likes fires, and can tell a good story. Cristelle drinks rum with us and smokes cigars with us and keeps us in line and organizes beach outings and cooks wonderful food for us. Cristelle and Jaco smoke fish with us and bring their dogs over to play where they (the dogs) go nuts trying to say hi to Ana. Their dogs understand Afrikaans (XXX), French, English, and (now – thanks to Ana) Portuguese. The dogs probably understand Dog, too.

Talented dogs.

Those dogs are more well-traveled than the vast majority of people on this planet.

Anyways.

We sailed around together in San Blas. Then we bumped into each other in Puerto Lindo. Then again in Panamarina. Then again in San Blas – were we waited (impatiently) on a weather window to sail to Cuba (together).   Then we sailed to Cuba and both stopped in Grand Cayman. In Cayman we waited on weather again together (impatiently) and went fishing, terribly hungover, on NOMAD. Then we met in Cienfuegos again. Then sailed to Cayo Cuervo and Alcatracito. Then back to Cienfuegos together.

And after Havana we met each other again in Cayo Largo. Then we sailed with Jaco and Cristelle (and Kantala – we miss you guys too!) to Rosarios, then further to a secret spot. Then Kantala left our merry crew and we were sad. Goodbyes suck.

Then the unthinkable happened: Songerie had to leave. F***! It’s strange because the goodbye happened so quickly that it seemed surreal. All that time together broken, possibly permanently, by a few words and a final beer with the final CUC and then Songerie motoring out of the marina, now on a different path.

The thing is – Songerie isn’t heading to the Pacific. At least not quite yet. They have a big circle that they do, here in the Caribe. The circle takes them to Venezuela so they can get the best, cheapest, rum. Then the circle takes them to back to Cuba when they run out of good cigars. And then back to Venezuela for rum.

You’ve gotta have priorities.

I am heading for the Pacific. I need bigger fish. I’ve seen as much of the Caribe as I care to see. I’ve dove on enough fished-out reefs. I’ve paid the Gringo tax. I’ve fought with manana-time. South and Central America is cool, but most of it is well-traveled. Like the rest of the world, too many people. In the Caribe there are too many “cruisers” – not enough adventurers. Too many liveaboards, not enough voyagers. It’s time for a change. Sometime I’m going to have to start across that little patch of water we have so ironically named “The Pacific” – when it is anything but.

And so began the different trajectories of Songerie and NOMAD.

It took a long time for it to sink in, but we really miss Songerie. Suddenly we didn’t even have a reason to keep the VHF on. No more dinner parties. No more sundowners that last ‘til sunrise. The rum stayed on the shelf a little longer. Jaco wasn’t making fun of me for sleeping in and then convincing me to dive with horrible hangovers. No smartass VHF conversations. No more sailing with buddies and marking fishing spots on our fishfinders and helping each other find the entrances and the exits to the reefs. The fish wasn’t being smoked and there were fewer reasons to go to the beach. We learned how to clean and cook our own conch. My morning weather updates weren’t coming in through Songerie. My freediving became shallower because I no longer had someone with me that could dive past 30M, recover anchors at 35M, and fight the big fish up from the depths. Jaco is a hell of a freediver.

We worry, due to our separation, the dogs are losing their ability to understand Portuguese.

We had so much fun together. It felt like family, but a family that we chose. Then they were gone and we all couldn’t help but think it might very well be the last time we see each other.

Ouch.

In this lifestyle, sometimes the connections are immediate and strong. The goodbyes are always hard. Usually permanent. But the strong connections, those are very rare in any lifestyle.

We miss Songerie and Jaco and Cristelle and Coco and Canella.

But before they left we had some damn good times.

And since it’s been so hard to get reliable Internet connection here I haven’t posted in a while. And since I haven’t posted in a while, it would seem tedious to relate all of the insane and crazy and fun stuff we did. Rather than do that, here are some pictures that’ll be better than my words.

You know what they say about pictures and words. I’ll keep the words to a minimum.

Friends in Pictures

There were a great many beach parties.

Beaches and parties

Beaches and parties

More beach parties

More beach parties

House-party

House-party

More beach parties

More beach parties

More beach parties

More beach parties

Mas fiestas del playa

Mas fiestas del playa

 

There were a great many boat parties.

Boat Parties

Boat Parties

RUM!

RUM!

Boat Parties

Boat Parties

More boat parties

More boat parties

So many parties my head hurts

So many parties my head hurts

There was the time we putted in my dinghy for hours, getting to this wreck. Jaco got some nice fittings, we managed a piece of Tupperware and a good jar.

The wreck

The wreck

Jaco was always getting great fish, and we both took massive Cero Mackerels one day. Mine came in at 12.5 pounds and Jaco’s a little less. Massive Ceros.

That huge Cero

That huge Cero

Big Cero, big fillets

Big Cero, big fillets

Jaco, Hogfish, and the mankini

Jaco, Hogfish, and the mankini

Big ol' Cube

Big ol’ Cube

Black Grouper

Black Grouper

Dinner

Dinner

 

There were the days that Jaco and I went and looked for lobster for our lobster parties. The one day I was trying not to throw up as I looked, inverted, underwater in holes with a horrible hangover. And we bitched about how much we hated looking for lobster and how we didn’t even really like it. Better to be chasing grouper and snapper. Lobster is for those who can’t get it everyday. Conch is so for the connoisseur.

Lobster

Lobster

More lobster

More lobster

There were a great many fish taken. That is what we live on.

Mas Cubera

Mas Cubera

Cubera Snapper spearfishing

Cubera Snapper spearfishing

There was the day the Great Hammerhead chased me up from 20M and I let him chase me rather than challenging him so that I could show him to Jaco and then I realized Jaco was a very long way away and the Hammerhead was very close and very interested in me. And on the surface, I yelled “Shark!” to Jaco and he thought I was talking about the little reef shark that had been taking his fish.

I wasn’t talking about the little Reef Shark.

Shark snacks

Shark snacks

There was some hook-and-line fishing.

Mahi

Mahi

Trolling

Trolling

Fishing with the fishing dogs

Fishing with the fishing dogs

The fishing dogs admiring the catch

The fishing dogs admiring the catch

And there were the days we would only pull in half of a fish, sharks and Barracuda were taking our fish before we could boat them.

Half-fish

Half-fish

There was some epic diving. That’s a big school of Tarpon swimming over Jaco. What the picture doesn’t catch is the big Dog Snapper on his right, the Hogfish underneath him, and the two grouper just out of range. But they were all there. Jaco lost that wetsuit in Cayo Cuervo, during a storm, in a near-collision with a French boat (it really seems like the French are always anchoring too close and dragging their anchors into other boats). We’re still asking fisherman if they’ve seen his wetsuit.

Jaco and the Tarpon

Jaco and the Tarpon

There was the day our three-boat entourage day-sailed on the inside of the reef to another spot and Songerie left first, before the regatta started and without any warning, and we overtook them and sailed by them and we played “Eye of the Tiger” very loud and I stood on the front deck showing them my ass. Which is the way you should overtake any sailboat, friend or foe:  bare assed, blaring “Eye of the Tiger.”

"How to Overtake Other Boats"

“How to Overtake Other Boats”

It was a great time. Songerie – we miss you guys.

Rum Tasting

Rum Tasting

The beaching of NOMAD

The beaching of NOMAD

Songerie, Jaco, Cristelle

Songerie, Jaco, Cristelle

NOMAD and the sunset

NOMAD and the sunset

And Jaco, Cristelle, we didn’t talk about it – but I’ve decided to make it a life goal to visit you back in your home country and we’ll bullshit and smoke fine cigars and drink our good liquor straight (maybe over rocks) and cook over an open fire and hunt in the bush and talk about “The Good Old Days” when we sailed together and drank too much. We’ll tell great lies about good fish, like real fishermen do.

So, I’ll see you again.

And it will be glorious.

 

 

Hotel Nacional

The Thing About Havana

Havana. It’s a strange place. The entire city is a bustling, dirty, noisy contradiction.   The people live in complete poverty and relative fear of their government. There’s a guy named Che (not even a Cuban!) that is one of their minor Gods. Something like a saint. Or maybe just a martyr. I’m not sure, after much consideration, what is the true difference between the two.

The people. Some are surprisingly beautiful. Superficially, and some deeper too. Some give when they have nothing. But, sadly, the vast majority are looking for the nearest handout, which could be you – if you are traveling there. Even if you don’t dress flashy, and do speak decent Spanish, and don’t make eye contact. Anybody well-dressed is a walking dollar sign.

And since, after spending a couple of weeks there – I became too familiar with all of it’s history and it’s noise and it’s grime and it’s corruption and it’s contradiction – allow me to digress from the typical “we did this and that” post. If you want the highlights of Havana, Cuba – try the Moon’s Guide for Cuba. This is not that.

The Thing About Havana

 

The history of Cuba, and it’s bizarre relationship with the US, is … well… sordid. There were the glory days, when the mob had influence. When Tropicana ruled the nightlife of the rich and famous – and the dancing girls were still nude there. When Hemmingway fished and lived and wrote and drank here. When the casinos were among the best in the world and the cars were new and many of the people were oppressed and some were rich and the rest were standing on the outside looking in. When racism was rampant. That was Cuba’s peak.

Hemmingway's house

Hemmingway’s house

And then there was a revolution.

This revolution was a big deal. It changed the course of Cuba, completely. If you haven’t seen the effects of a revolution, you can travel around Central/South America for a bit. You’ll see the after-effects of revolutions, and, if you’re open minded and interested- you’ll see what the North Americans have done here, for better or worse. Often for worse.   It’s a strange thing to walk around a place that is (relatively) fresh from revolution. It makes you think differently about the word “revolution” and the concept.

But recent revolution is cake compared to active revolution.

It’s a dangerous thing to walk around a place that is actively in a revolution. But, to understand it, you really have to see it. Let me recommend Venezuela, it’s a short flight from the States.

That was sarcasm in case you didn’t catch it. Don’t go to Venezuela.

I went, a while back – even then it was a rough place.

Back to Havana…

The Hotel Nacional

The Hotel Nacional

If you’re curious, and not completely politically biased – that is to say if you hold politics at an arms length and seek understanding rather than follow a particular party with religious fervor (I’ve met very few people like this, but they do exist) – then communism (which they call socialism here) is mildly interesting. It is, if nothing else, a case study in how you can truly screw up a country’s long-term prospects, on the world’s stage. That’s true if you’re a country with remarkable natural resources (Russia) or a country with few natural resources (Cuba). It’s especially true of the latter.

It’s also a case study in how you can keep everyone at the same level. And, assuming this level includes basic health-care and a fair level of education – well… Maybe it’s not so bad. Right? Maybe. But not from what I’ve seen.

The thing is, by trying to create a common denominator – they’ve created the lowest common denominator. You can’t bring anyone up, without bringing everyone down.

So Havana, Cuba is a giant political/economic petri dish that sits only a few miles off of the coast of the United States of America.

The hypothesis was fair. The reasoning behind it sound and just. The attempt was valiant and brave and courageous in a way that other South and Central American countries have never been. It stands out in the Caribbean and Spanish speaking countries as – what could have been – a beacon of hope. It could have been the only country, or maybe just the first country, that defied American Imperialism and survived.

It could have been.

But it’s not. In reality, in every possible way, it’s a failure.

I don’t care what you read. I don’t care what they tell you about good healthcare here. I don’t care what they tell you about good education here. I don’t care how uninformed you are. It’s propaganda.

Cuba is a country that is stuck in 1959. Mired. Completely.

Taxi Ride

Taxi Ride

Since their revolution, which the citizens have been taught/forced/brainwashed to revere – they have been leeching off of the progress, the work, the movement, of the pre-revolution. There is nothing else. To say it’s like stepping into a time-capsule is far too simple. It’s like stepping into a time capsule where there are tourists from the future who destroy the fragile image of the people that live within the time-capsule, thereby destroying their concept of self.

Even that doesn’t capture the contradiction.

Classic cars from the 50’s and 60’s, but nothing original. Engines in classic Dodges that are small Korean diesels. Interiors imported from China, installed by Cubans – in colors that would make your grandmother blush. Everything a shade of gaudy.

Cuba is a bum wearing a poorly made imitation Armani suit. Trying. Trying so hard, but with the lack of mercy inherent in nature, failing. Failing publicly and openly. But still worth seeing. A trainwreck you can’t look away from.

Instead of being a beacon of hope and anti-American Imperialism, they’ve willfully turned themselves into an socio-economic freak-show.

But it’s a freak-show that’s worth seeing.

To be fair – they have figured vice. Vice is completely and beautifully understood in Cuba. It’s handcrafted here. That’s something you can’t get in the “civilized” world; you can’t get handcrafted vice. But in Cuba, it’s something that’s designed just for you. Custom vice. Bespoke. Fine. Elegant. Vice done right. Handrolled cigars that are the best in the world – or at least among the best. Handcrafted rum, steeped in tradition. The aged of which is widely known as a world contender for the finest of rums.

Vice in Havana

Vice in Havana

If you walk around on the streets, as a man, without a woman – you will be approached, again and again, by a remarkable variety of women seeking… well… You can guess. I was warned about this, and on the few times I ventured out alone – the propositions were endless. Anything for the almighty dollar. However you want it. Bespoke vice.

It’s far worse to be a woman walking around without a man, though.

Other things in Havana

There are other interesting effects of communism in Cuba. One being how often things “fall off the truck.” Another being the amount of counterfeits. And meeting in the middle is how often you find counterfeits being presented as the real thing that fell off the truck. Since there is no profit motive – ie workers get paid the same (low wage) whether they produce 8 widgets or 300 widgets – there is immense temptation to sell some of their widgets on the street, some personal income that can prove to be many multiples of their gov’t wage.

To give you an example of the level of poverty – when we made our last provisioning stop we purchased olives. The cashier (a lady in her mid-fifties) asked us if we had ever eaten black olives, or if this was our first time. She had never tried black-olives before – they are too expensive and not part of their gov’t allowance. The black olives cost $2.25.

Then there is the potato, cheese, and lime thing. You see – they are always running out of potatoes and cheese and lime. I’m not sure how much, if any, is allowed in their gov’t ration – but the point is, the locals usually don’t have it, can’t afford it, and therefore it exists only on the black market. As you walk down the street, people whisper to you – “Papas? Queso? Limon?” It’s the same whisper, the same secret, and the same tone they use in Colombia to sell cocaine.

Another, related, thing is the level of corruption that quickly takes hold as the populace (consciously or not) rejects communism and turns (semi) capitalist. In that, I mean the Cubans rip you off any chance they get. What they weigh as 1 pound of produce at the grocery store hardly makes ½ pound. When they exchange money on the street they regularly short-change you. In restaurants they overcharge religiously. All with a straight face. And when you catch them and call them on it – they just shrug their shoulders.

Recently we’ve encountered a specific breed of corruption that is especially frustrating, over and above the standard rip-you-off-every-chance-we-get. Recently we’ve been hassled by “park rangers” posing as actual government officials. They are employed by a company called Fly Fish Cuba (or something like that). The company in question brings tourist around in a luxury yacht, from which they launch small bay boats to fly fish the South Cuban coast. When they are in your area, they bring by these impostors and the impostors tell you that you can’t fish in this area. The entire thing is a ruse, designed to keep the fly fisherman (who pay copious amounts of money to fish in an “untouched” area) from seeing you fish said “untouched” area. When challenged, some of these fools produce a sketchy, worn document with a single line that reads “you may not fish in protected zones.” Of course, there is no map outlining protected zones, the impostors regularly get confused when attempting to recite the boundaries – and to top it all off – at every marina we have asked: you are allowed to fish and spearfish everywhere except the immediate area surrounding Cayo Largo. You could argue that it’s capitalism that is corrupting the communism, but the larger issue at hand is that this political system has entirely failed to recognize the profit motive of the individual – and in doing so, it has entirely failed.

But, well, what are you going to do?

Then there is the begging.

I was asked the other day, after nearly two months in Cuba, if I had any Cuban friends. I had to answer, after thinking, negatively. I do have one Cuban who I believe is honest enough that I could call him a friend. But every other Cuban interacts with you for the chance to get money.

The other night, in an attempt to get to know a few local Cubans – I brought a bottle of rum out onto the street with some ice and a glass. I drank it there and gave rum to anyone who stopped and chatted with me on the street.   It was a great experience, and it even gave me the illusion of having made friends. Of course, the night ended in most of my new friends asking for handouts. And the next day on the street, one of my friends from that night greeted us with “And you didn’t bring me anything? At least give me a dollar…You’re not my friend!”

Cuba, in a picture

Cuba, in a picture

The truth is, that’s not my responsibility. If it’s really that bad – they better damn well do something about it.

 

In the picture above, notice how long the scaffolding has been there, and note that this is on the same street as the CAPITOL BUILDING (you can see the building on the right).  Think about that.

Prison Camp

There was a boat in Cienfuegos named Harvey Gamage. It had a crew of young people. Good young people. Happy and positive young people. Idealistic young people. And one of these young people brought up the argument for communism, and it was apparent he strongly believed it. He believed that Cubans were better off in this system. I disagreed, having spent more time and more money and more energy here – but it’s a debate I was willing to entertain. And so we talked.

His belief was that the country was in good shape. It had education for all, healthcare for all. And for a Caribe country with few natural resources – they were doing alright.

I asked him, why then, were Cubans not allowed to leave this paradise? Why then do they continue to flee this paradise, despite the seriousness of the consequences? Why then is there no one trying to immigrate to this paradise? If you didn’t know this already – Cuba is a giant prison camp. And though they are making strides to open it up (and have, already) – it continues to be a prison.

Even if the healthcare and education were good and free, if this ideal is carried out successfully – you are still a prisoner. That, to me, is hardly acceptable.

Cuba.

It is challenging. It’s full of contradictions. It can be expensive and time-consuming. Nothing is done correctly. Waiting in line is a pastime here. The food is atrocious. Personal connection is rare. Corruption is rampant.

But, I’m not here to change the world. Merely to observe.

So I spent a couple of weeks in Havana. I went to Buena Vista Social Club (twice). I stayed at more than a few different places. I drank in famous hotels. I followed in Hemmingway’s footsteps. I danced and drank and ate and talked and sweated and cursed. I visited the tobacco factory and the rum factory and several museums. I argued with taxi drivers and told people “no, gracias” more times that I can count. I spent way too much money. I saw the underbelly, which isn’t all that well-hidden. I ate local and dined out with politicos and lived in the ghetto and saw the lavish houses of those in government.

THE Buena Vista Social Club

THE Buena Vista Social Club

Hemmingway and I

Hemmingway and I (and Castro)

The infamous PIlar

The infamous Pilar

 

And to that end – despite the many, many frustrating things about Havana, Cuba – I do love Cuba (outside of Havana, Cuba). From my vantage point (NOMAD) where I smoke the fine cigars and drink the great rum and have access to some of the best fishing in the world – Cuba is a fine place.

That’s Cuba. It’s changing already.

And when that change is complete, it just won’t be Cuba.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Black Grouper Hunt

At this point we had some epic sailing. Some epic diving. Remote spots. Not-so-easy boat maintenance. New friends. Full freezers. Great beach parties. And an epic success (thanks Jaco) in targeting and acquiring a specific and sizeable species. A personal best and trophy Cubera Snapper. And everyone rejoiced with us and enjoyed the fresh fish.

All was well.

Of course, with my recent success – and because Jaco had checked himself to help me out in our last hunt – we now needed to find a suitable trophy for Jaco. That’s the way a good spearfishing team works; it’s all mutually beneficial.

The Black Grouper Hunt

Since we found out that our Cubera Snapper didn’t have ciguatera – we were hopeful that we could find and boat a big Black Grouper for Jaco. The plan was fairly simple: go to where we last saw the giant Black Grouper (The Deeeep Ledge) and attempt to locate him again. We felt confident. And though Jaco uses a similar speargun (I use a Rob Allen Snapper 130 and he uses a Rob Allen Snapper 120) – I let him use the “big gun” – with two (short) rubbers and set up Hawaiian breakaway. I would be using a smaller gun and my primary job was to chum, backup, and serve as the safety for our diving. We were, afterall, diving deep and long. That is, freediving deep and freediving long. Not for the inexperienced or faint of heart.

Our confidence diving that way; a direct product of our combined experience and understanding of, what can be – a dangerous sport.

And so we went.

We dove and dove and chummed and chummed and dove. We saw many grouper. We got close to many a grouper. We checked our fire on Cubera Snapper, Yellowfin Grouper, Black Grouper, Nassau Grouper. Looking for the Big One. Despite our depth, our experience, our understanding of the local water and the underwater topography – we failed.

The diving, as it were, was epic. It was beyond beautiful. It was fishy. It was healthy and fun. But it was, for the desired target; fruitless. I was, again, impressed by Jaco. The man has lungs like I’ve never encountered. Without training, he dives deeper than most that compete. And he does it hunting. In this he is among the elite.

But we had a backup plan (as you learn to have, when adventuring in remote locales).

Our backup was a shallow(ish) reef that sat in about 10 meters of water – but moved into 5 meters of water. At this depth, hunting becomes about stealth and tactics and understanding terrain. You must use all of this to spot, and then sneak up on a fish that has grown large by not being snuck up on. It’s challenging. From a freediving perspective, this kind of hunting is immensely easier than freediving and spearfishing at deeper depths. From a hunting and spearfishing perspective, this can be much more challenging.

We had a limited amount of time before the girls, who often stay on the boat for trophy-hunts, became annoyed with us. There is no boat large enough for a man to escape a woman who has become annoyed with said man. This boat does not exist. Sometimes a country isn’t big enough. And as such, it is wise for men to avoid annoying the women with whom they share a boat.

So we cruised the reef. At first, it was fruitless. At this depth we were hunting separately. Either of us was allowed to take whatever (giant) Black Grouper we were lucky (or skillful) enough to get close to. It was a free-for-all. With some level of preference to Jaco, who had helped me immensely in landing my trophy Cubera Snapper earlier.

So we searched solo. I shot, early, a Barracuda, for chum. I began scattering chum about and managed to attract quite a following among the Dog Snapper, the Yellowtail Snapper, the Mutton Snapper, and the smaller grouper species. They became docile when they realized (as species lower on the food chain, but still hungry, do) that I was more of a food-machine than a threat.

Jaco found our Black Grouper.

But, as large Black Grouper can be – he was onto us. He was wily. He knew his terrain better than we did. That is to say he knew his backyard. At one point I found Jaco when he found the giant Black Grouper. It was in a hole with a million tunnels leading a million different ways to a million exits. And so, we eventually gave up. Big fish, when smart and pressed, can be remarkably evasive.

So we kept moving.

I found, by accident, the virtue of leaving a fish-head alone for an extended period of time – and then returning stealthily to the spot in question. A large Barracuda head has the quality of being food, but being too large for all but the largest reef fish to consume. And so – they all mill about, picking at it, and it gives the stealthy spearfisherman a chance to, minimally, see what is in the area.

This, accidental, tactic allowed me within range of trophy Nassau Grouper, Mutton Snapper, and Dog Snapper. And it allowed me a glimpse of the – always evasive – giant Black Grouper.

Of course, upon recognizing me (and they see you before you see them) he went into turbo-mode and vanished into a hole that I never would have guessed he would fit into. Jaco found the fish as he made his escape, but having seen a much large Black Grouper earlier – checked his fire. At this point I realized that the Black Grouper I had seen was a minor trophy in comparison – so my enthusiasm waned.

We returned, over and over and through many different routes, to the last place Jaco had seen the giant Black Grouper – but to no avail.

And so we packed up and headed back to the boat, empty-handed. Despite the incredible variety of great fish which had presented themselves. I’ll say it again – a spearfisherman should be judged more by what they do not take than by what they do. Inexperienced or spearfishermen without virtue are prone to taking what they can, instead of what they should. Discrimination is virtue.

Moving On

So, thwarted, we picked up our anchors and moved to our next spot with Songerie and NOMAD. We were moving further Northwest – closer to Cienfuegos – where we needed to resupply and wade to the obligatory redtape.

We were able to sail, and it was much appreciated. As we sailed in I stayed in the helm the entire time, marking spots which showed an abundance of fish life at depths we could dive. This was, as always, a wise decision.

NOMAD arrived first, with Songerie a bit behind.   And when I called Jaco to tell him we were going for an hour dive, he told me something not-so-unexpected: he needed to do boat maintenance. He would skip this one.

So Anna and I went, and because Anna was with me – we went to a bit of a shallower spot.

When I asked Anna to drop the anchor – she told me it was “just sand.” But, I knew what I had seen on the fish-finder. So we dropped anchor and slid into the water.

When I first saw what was underneath us, I was ecstatic. It was a coral head holding medium-sized but dense fish life. And I dove and dove. I checked my fire over and over. But for Anna – this was a perfect ground to progress. She took two great grouper and lost one nice snapper.

As I met her at the dingy to chat – she told me to go just one coral head further. I did.

Here I found huge schools of Tarpon, what had to have been a breeding ground for Schoolmaster Snapper. Large Cubera Snapper were milling about. And then I caught a glimpse of a very respectable Black Grouper in the middle of the water-column (which isn’t very common).

The Black Grouper was milling about in a school of Spadefish and Tarpon. And as I approached, he veered. He moved further as I approached. He was getting further and further from my grasp as I slowly kicked in his direction. So I stopped. And at this point, his curiosity got the better of him.

I saw, what is always the best moment in spearfishing, his decision to investigate. He stopped moving away. He turned. He began paralleling me. I covered one eye and feigned disinterest. Out of my peripheral, he closed the distance. I began having contractions.

And then there was the moment when I hoped (but felt) that he was within range. Practice makes perfect here – as I turned and aimed and fired with one fluid movement. He didn’t move a muscle. Not even a shake of his tail.

When the spear hit him, he rolled.

And as I surfaced I felt guilty that Jaco hadn’t been here to take the fish. As I boated him I actually considered not showing the fish to Jaco. There’s nothing worse than being denied a spearfishing opportunity, only to learn that it was productive for everyone else.

But, one way or another, it would come out that we had found the fish.

So we headed back and showed it to Jaco. He was, obviously, fired up. It was decided then and there that we would make another attempt in the AM for a Black Grouper for Jaco.  Spoiler alert:  he was successful, despite high winds, strong current, deep diving and poor visibility.

Here’s the fish.

Spearfishing Black Grouper

Spearfishing Black Grouper

That evening a large (160 feet) traditional sailing boat came into the anchorage.  They were Harvey Gamage. And they wanted fish.  We cleaned the grouper and gave it to them.  And they brought us a bottle of much-needed rum.

Life was good.  Again.

 

The angel NOMAD

Spearfishing Cubera Snapper

It was nearing the end of our adventures in Jardin De La Reyna. We needed to get back to Cienfuegos to renew visas. We were anxious to visit Havana, and we’d been remote for long enough that people were likely starting to worry about us.

So much had already happened. There was the time that we traded liquor for shrimp in Cayo Cuervo, and since we traded with only one of the shrimpers – they received a fair amount of alcohol. And they proceeded to drink it immediately – we heard them laughing and shouting and playing music all day, deciding the shrimp could wait.

There was the time we had sundowners on the beach and then had rum and played chess onboard NOMAD until late at night. Then we watched a movie and went to sleep. And then when the wind picked up the French boat started dragging down onto Songerie and they called us on the VHF in a panic and I took the dingy and pushed the boats apart and the crisis was averted.

There was meeting new friends onboard Roxy and Kantala.   There were many days of diving and putting off boatwork. There were so many great fish. So many great dinners and so many cold beers and aged rums.

And after all of that, we were back where we started in Jardin De La Reyna. And this was our favorite spot, and we were with our favorite people. And just a short dinghy ride away was our favorite reef with our favorite dropoff where we could find any fish we desired.

Tons of stuff was broken. Emails and messages and phone calls and banking was piling up. We were out of most vegetables and our stock of cheese was dangerously low and our wine non-existent. Diesel and gasoline and propane were nearing panic-levels. We were many miles from what you guys call “civilization.” We were much further from our families and friends and our “homes.” But we were so happy.

Our Favorite Spot

Even mediocre fisherman, those weekenders and amateurs and wanna-bees, don’t give away their fishing spots. At least they don’t keep doing it. Fool me once. So I can’t tell you where we were. Forgive me. But we were in a good spot.

We had mere inches of water under our keels. We were tucked in close to the island. The water was clear. The VHF was quiet, until our friends had something worthwhile to say. Our fridges and freezers were full of tasty fish. Maybe we could have spent more time on boat-maintenance, but I’m convinced that’s not something I’ll wish I did more of on my deathbed. So, the real concern here was bagging a nice Black Grouper and a nice Cubera Snapper.

Preferably something that resembled a dinosaur and tested us thoroughly.

 

The Dives

We have, at this point, began placing a relatively high value on chum (or burley). We handle this one of two ways: we drag small lures in our trolling spread or we shoot a fish for chum early. Our preferred target is barracuda – but in a pinch you can use anything. Then we drift and scrape and cut and see what happens.

I can’t say that we’ve actually boated anything as a direct result of this method, but it moves the fish around and gets them out and about. It’s a worthwhile tactic. So when we our spot on the deep ledge (it was only Jaco and I), we came with chum. We dropped the dinghy anchor in 30M of water and then we pulled out all the gear and then we began diving and searching. We found the spot. Then the real diving began.

The honest truth is that I’m not a great freediver. Most of the guys that are serious, that I dive with, are deeper divers. Jaco is one of the deepest spearfisherman I’ve ever dove with. It’s a remarkable luxury to dive with someone that is better than you, one I appreciate very much. And so he did some of the gruntwork scouting and diving and hanging on the bottom – while I did the chumming and kept an eye on the mid-water.

We shot a nice Yellowtail Snapper for sushi, then we moved back to Cubera hunting. They did come into the chum, but they were wary. Grouper were everywhere. But this wasn’t a tablefare mission. So they all swam away unscathed, but with full bellies.

And then the current pushed us over a new spot. This was the Deeeep Ledge. It went from 25M to infinity. Huge caves. Massive overhangs. If one kept diving a spot like this, they would encounter massive fish. But it was deep and if you shoot a fish at that depth and it runs over the Deeeep Ledge – you’re effed. Either you: a) likely drown trying to pull it up or b) you lose your gear and your fish. Outcomes not worth pursuing.

This is where we saw our first giant Black Grouper. Jaco and I, in a rare move, both dove at the same time – but at different ends of the chum slick. And I saw a huge Black Grouper approach Jaco. He held his fire. At the surface we talked – it was too big.

And today was Cubera Snapper day.

So we kept diving. It was exhausting.

Spearfishing Cubera Snapper

And, at the end of our diving, as the sun was setting; it happened.

I saw a school of fish passing beneath us. They were deep, just in front of the Deeeep Ledge. They were so deep and so big and there were so many – I was sure they were Tarpon. But they weren’t. Jaco dove. When he surfaced he looked at me and said: “Nate, there are 26 Cubera Snapper – that I could count – that are over 15 kilos.”

He had a shot, but had waited for me to take a dive on them. It takes a mature spearfisherman to do that. and a friend. So I dove. And at 25M I hit the bottom. I waited. And as the contractions came, so did the Cubera.

The school was largest I’ve ever seen. They split as they approached me. Some came almost in range, then moved off. Others, smaller, came within range. I waited. The contractions were getting stronger, but Jaco was above and we had one shot at a monster. So I tried to push down the adrenaline.

Then, finally, came the right fish at the right distance presenting the right shot. I fired, but they were moving so quickly – rather than hitting him with a spine-shot (which is lights-out) the shot went further back. Before I even realized I’d hit the fish, he was running over the Deeep Ledge – which is to say he was leaving my reality, with my gear.

In a moment of pure luck, I managed to grab the floatline as it sped down and past me. It was at this point the disagreement between this fish and I hit its pinnacle.

You see – he really wanted to disappear into the deep and then into a cave. I really wanted him to come up to the surface with me so I could eat him and share him with my friends. The disagreement was fundamental and not-so-easily resolved.

The good news is that Jaco was watching me from the surface, so if I did blackout – I had a very high likelihood of surviving it. The bad news was the fish was almost my size and was certainly a stronger swimmer. That became clear very quickly. And so, in an environment which I cannot breathe, we played tug of war. Him down, me up.

After what seemed like an eternity (but was only seconds), I realized I couldn’t gain ground (get to the surface) without giving him something. The best I could do was to hold him out of the hole/off the ledge and get a breath, then fight him to the surface.

The progress was slow and exhausting and the contractions were powerful – but I could see that Jaco knew what was happening and he moved to assist, if needed.

I broke the surface. I breathed. Jaco asked: “Big?” I had no breath, but could just get out the word. “Yes.”

The fish kicked my ass all the way to the surface. Then at the surface he kicked my ass some more for good measure. Then he met a humane end and we struggled to get his mass into the dinghy.

I couldn’t have been more happy, at that moment, if I’d been declared King of the World. The rest of the night we spent running around and showing off the fish to our friends. Then it was time for rum and fine cigars.

PS – in the pic below, check out those canines…

Cubera Snapper spearfishing

Cubera Snapper spearfishing

There are two issues with shooting a fish this size: a) ciguatera b) making use of this much meat. Problem a is solved by someone being a tester (not a cool job, but if you shoot a fish this size – I think it’s your responsibility). The tester tries a small amount of the fish one night. If they get sick, it’s cig. If not, they try a little more the second night. If they get sick, it’s cig. If not, the fish is declared safe for human consumption. This one was, thankfully, safe for human consumption.

We solved issue b (making use of this much meat) by a) giving it to friends, b) freezing a portion of it c) smoking a portion of it.

Which meant that we had a very good excuse to pull the beach gear back out and have another fish-smoking, rum and sangria-drinking, cigar-smoking, beach party. And it was glorious.

The beach bums

The beach bums

 

Cayo Cuervo, Cuba

Sailing Cuba’s South Coast

Hey there, glad you’re still around. The connectivity here is causing major problems. With that said, Cuba is now much more connected than it’s ever been. And as that connection increases, the culture will fade – so what is a struggle is the very thing that keeps Cuban culture alive.

For me, that’s fine.

But for people that have become accustomed to internet access everywhere, at any hour, for free – Cuba is a frustrating place. And it’s hard for them to imagine having to fight, pay, wait, for severely-limited access to the Internet.

Online banking? Nope, that credit card will just have to pay itself. Regular posting on the website? Can’t do it. Instant messaging? Not with any regularity. Checking emails? Once in a Blue Moon, at which point you’ll have 1600 emails to scan and a few minutes in which to do it (1,637 was my number). What about researching and planning? Better make wise use of your connectivity. Can’t get distracted.

But – back to sailing Cuba’s southern coast.

 

Sailing Cuba’s South Coast

So we planned our next move down the Cuban coastline. But we had a day to kill before we traveled and I had marked several promising spots with the my Garmin fishfinder. We needed to try them. But they were deep, some upwards of 25 meters.

Since we were hunting deep, we decided to use a bit of chum to help our odds a little. At the depth we were diving, it’s impossible to chase fish – and so you must either a) spot them before you begin your dive or b) have a rough idea where they will be when you leave the surface. Using chum helps with both scenarios.

So we decided to take a particularly large Barracuda that was using our boat as a hiding spot to surprise baitfish. I loaded a speargun for Ana, she dove in, lined up and took a shot. She nailed it and the Barracuda took powerful run, Ana and the Barracuda pulling opposite ways in the water and neither making any progress.
We did get the fish though, and with that we had chum.  It was the size of Ana, as you can see.

Ana and the cuda in Cuba

Ana and the cuda in Cuba

 

The Deep Ledge

Diving deeper ledges is only possible when you a) know where they are b) have someone experienced with you and c) can hunt at that depth. The stars aligned when with Jaco and I both being fairly serious divers (and Jaco being much deeper than myself). And since I could use NOMAD’s bottom machine to read depths and structure and mark it all – we were in business.

Jaco and I took off after hearing the weather report. We dropped the dinghy anchor in 25 meters of water and started chumming. The Yellowtail Snapper were our first visitors. Then some larger Dog Snapper, Barracuda, Queen Triggerfish, and a host of smaller grouper (on a single dive I counted six on the bottom).  But none of these were the target, and so we waited and dove and waited and practiced our trigger discipline. It’s amazing the fish that will come in to you when you aren’t hunting them!

Cubera Snapper came in next, and this was our target. But they were fast and sneaky and since they can breathe underwater, all they had to do was outwait us. So we dove deep and dove long but we were outfoxed by these big fish.  And we couldn’t get away with diving forever…

And so we moved inside the reef, deciding to settle for Hogfish and lobster. Which really isn’t a huge sacrifice.

Looking back – I realize we took such great fish from the area, but I have few pictures of them because the whole thing became ordinary.

Let’s suffice it to say we ate very well, as did everyone in the anchorage, and we have a healthy supply of smoked fish. When Songerie leaves NOMAD we’ll be very sad to see them go – not just because they are great friends but also because we’ll lose our access to Jaco’s smoker and their Venezuelan Rum.

Onward, to Cayo Cuervo

So, eventually, we picked up anchor in paradise and set out to Cayo Cuervo. Here we would go and trade with the local shrimpers for fresh shrimp. And here, I had decided, I would beach NOMAD to change the oil seals in my saildrive (which I had destroyed with fishing line, again).

After motoring against wind and a strong current with a single engine – we eventually arrived in Cayo Cuervo. Here there were many more sailors, some shrimpers. There was also mediocre visibility and less fish.

For the first two days I planned and placed sticks in the sand to mark tides, as I needed to put NOMAD up at the highest point and then do the necessary work at the lowest point of the tide. Then the Cubans went ashore and removed my sticks and I was back to square one…

So I started marking tides again.

And within a couple more days I had a fair idea of what high tide was and what low tide was. Then I swam the beach and marked my route to the beach, then I waited for high tide.

These days went by quickly and there were parties and new friends and great food – but all day, every day, were the thoughts and worries and concerns about beaching NOMAD, doing the work, and all of the things that could go horribly wrong.

Parties on the beach

Parties on the beach

We called it "planning"

We called it “planning”

At high tide, on the big day, I maneuvered NOMAD to the beach, and slid her up as high as she would go. Then we pulled the anchor and chain a long way across the beach (which is great exercise) and then put out a stern/side anchor to brace her against the strong winds that we knew were coming that night. Before sundown we were all set and with nothing else to do but wait – we decided to have a party onboard.

Naturally.

NOMAD beaching party

NOMAD beaching party

And this night, like many before, we had great people onboard with great food and great drinks and engaging conversation until the wee hours of the morning.

The next day, around 2PM I decided to start work. The tide was much smaller than expected – meaning that all of the work was done underwater. But I was prepared for this possibility.

The first step was to take the prop off. Then to remove the prop shaft and seals. Then I had to fashion a press to remove the ruined seals. Then use the press to (VERY carefully) press the new seals onto the prop shaft. Then put it all back together. Of course, since the prop was underwater, seawater had entered the saildrive – which isn’t ideal, but wasn’t a major concern as it would all be soaking in oil and the exposure to seawater was minimal. That said, getting the seawater out would require some trial and error and some ingenuity.

At that point of re-assembly, we used a Shop-Vac to blow air (from the top of the saildrive) through the bottom of the saildrive, and then reassembled it all and sealed it. Then, we filled the saildrive with oil. At that point, the work was complete – but, as with anything fairly complex done with a time-constraint in less than ideal conditions – the true test wouldn’t come until we had tried everything…

But I was fairly confident in the work and all indications pointed toward a successful job. The only issue was that, because I was working underwater, I couldn’t put the Max-Prop back on and was forced to use my backup, 2-bladed fixed prop. That would hurt sailing speeds a little, but in a country without access to a marina and very limited resources – it was the best we could do.

Waiting for high-tide

Waiting for high-tide

So that night at high tide we pulled NOMAD off the shore and motored to our anchor spot – with everyone watching and hoping that it all went well. It all went well. Not even a drop of seawater in our saildrive oil – meaning that the seals were holding and we had succeeded in getting the water out of the saildrive before reassembly while the saildrive was below the waterline.

At this point, I could relax again. And at this point I could start dreaming and planning and scheming about getting back to my own piece of paradise where the water was clear the reef was beautiful and the fish were big.

Two days later we pulled our anchor in Cayo Cuervo and headed back south to chase the elusive giant Black Grouper and Cubera Snapper. It was a regatta of sorts – with all of our friend’s boats (3 in addition to NOMAD) sailing back to the same spot.

That morning I annouced the beginning of the regatta on the VHF, and we were the first to take off with the rising sun.  The regatta was a downwind sail and I was able to experiment with downwind sailing, using some rigging and some lines to wing-and-wing downwind and making excellent time. As our buddies on the monohulls rocked and rolled their way South, we sped downwind with near-perfect stability. It was a pleasurable sail that ended with us tucking in behind an island in remarkably shallow water. We sat in 1.5 meters of water and watched our friends come in and anchor in much deeper and less protected waters – as the drafts on the monohulls prevented them from getting any shallower.

Catamarans aren’t always the answer, but in the last few days – we did things that monohulls can’t do (with style): we beached for maintenance, hosted comfortable parties, sailed downwind with speed and ease, and then  navigated through and anchored in very shallow water.

And after all of this, I began my second game of chess with large reef fish on the southern Cuban coast.