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.

Jardin De La Reyna

Jardin De La Reyna

So. We were in a remote anchorage along the Southern Cuban coast – somewhere in the Jardin De La Reyna. NOMAD and Songerie were the only two boats in sight. NOMAD had only a few inches of water under her keels, and we had a ton of chain out – so we were completely secure.

Jardin De La Reyna

As soon as we dropped our anchor Jaco called on the radio and asked if we were diving. I told him that I had too much work to do on the boat – just seeing if I could get a rise out of him. He called my bluff and thirty minutes later Cristelle, Jaco, and I were heading to the outside of the reef.

On the way we talked about the fish species in the area, sizes, depths. The prevailing wisdom was that there were many a grouper in the area – primarily Yellowfin and Black Grouper. I asked about Nassau Grouper (my favorite), but Jaco hadn’t seen many in the area last time ‘round.
The goal, today, was nice a nice grouper or two and a nice Mutton Snapper. Hogfish were on the menu, but we weren’t diving in prime Hogfish area. Cubera Snapper were common in the area as well – but we didn’t have enough info on Ciguatera, so today’s hunting was like a trip to the grocery store (and not like a big-game safari); we were shooting tasty fish that were good table-size.

And, as I dove into the water I told Jaco what the old Mexican fisherman told me a lifetime ago in Mexico: the first one in shoots twice. I saw him flash a smile as I rolled of the dinghy.

As soon as I was in the water I saw a good Mutton Snapper and before Jaco had his wetsuit on we had a Mutton Snapper boated. I reloaded and was off again. Within five minutes I’d found and cornered a nice Yellowfin Grouper. The fish was deep in a hole and I was having trouble getting my speargun angled correctly – but I did it. Of course – shooting the fish is only half of the battle, the other half is getting them out of the hole. Twenty minutes a few curses later, the Yellowfin Grouper was boated as well.

With the immediate dinner-need satisfied it was time to explore and begin being selective. I did what all experienced spearfishermen do – I headed to deeper water and looked for The Wall. Really, just any structure in deeper water that would hold fish. After a bit of kicking, I found it.

On the way to The Wall I saw several Nassau Grouper, but – as hard as it was – I refrained from boating them thinking they may be rare here. I was wrong. At The Wall I saw several more and eventually decided that I really wanted a Nassau Grouper sandwhich. And so, when I was sitting on the bottom and the fifth Nassau Grouper visited me, I put a shaft into him.

At one point in this dive Jaco was sitting on the bottom, and I was watching from the surface as a school of 100+ pound Tarpon came and visited him. In that moment Jaco had two large Dog Snapper, two Yellowfin Grouper, and a Hogfish all within range. But a real spearfisherman isn’t made by the fish he takes, but by the fish he leaves. Selective shooting and selective hunting is important. He let them all pass, looking for the right fish. And I was proud to be diving with him.

And I was so f***ing happy to, finally, be diving in untouched waters. The amount of marine life here was exceptional. We earned this.

Ana, the fisherwoman

Ana, the fisherwoman

The first-day grouper haul

The first-day grouper haul

Mature Hogfish

Mature Hogfish

A perfect dinner

A perfect dinner

For a couple of days we stayed and dove and hunted and ate and drank together in this paradise. But then a Northern threatened and so we took the dinghy and scouted the area looking for a way into a protected lagoon, to sit out the high winds that were coming.

We checked depths and holding and entrances to the lagoon, and then – holding our breath and gritting our teeth – we eased through the shallow water with Songerie and NOMAD – into the lagoon where we dropped anchor in complete protection. Once there, Jaco and Cristelle brought out their smoker and we commandeered a decrepit fishing shack to smoke our fish, smoke fine cigars, and drink Cuba’s excellent rum.

Jardin De La Reyna

Jardin De La Reyna

Fish-smoking, cigars, friends, rum

Fish-smoking, cigars, friends, rum

And with full freezers, full stomachs and fuzzy heads – we planned our next move down the Cuban coastline.

Strange signs

Trinidad, Cuba (and other stuff)

Sorry for the delay in posts. I was sailing through a remote part of the South Cuban coastline. Can’t tell you where because the fishing was too good. But I will, eventually, share some pictures. It might be paradise.

One more thing: I’m taking a step backwards on the Cuban coffee. It’s good. But I really do prefer Colombian (and even some Panamanian) coffee. So there.

And since we’re sidetracked, as you can see in the picture – if you turn left, you’ll find your chariot to heaven.

Anyways. Where was I?

Trinidad, Cuba

 

So we woke up very hungover and very tired from our night of rum tasting with Jaco and Cristelle on Songerie (there, finally, I’ve spelled the names right) in the harbor of Cienfuegos. And then we had coffee and threw stuff in backpacks and then it was time for the cab and we were on our way. Much of this part of Cuba resembles desert and on the road there are land-crabs that migrate in droves and the smell of the unlucky ones on the road is so strong you smell them before you see them. The smell is similar to seaweed that has rotted and then been heated.

Sundried crab

Sundried crab

Trinidad is cool. It’s very touristic, which makes it slightly less of my-kind-of-place.

Trinidad, Cuba and transport

Trinidad, Cuba and transport

It’s quaint and beautiful and has real cobblestone streets, very narrow, that wind up and down hills. The sun roasts you, so you wear straw hats. There are tractors in the streets. Horses and mules are a big part of transportation.

Cuba's only Harley

Cuba’s only Harley

Moto

Moto

The market

The market

Cars!

Cars!

During the middle of the day there is very little to do, and so you either walk and roast and burn looking at the sights – or you sit in the shade and drink too many mojitos and smoke fine cigars and watch people and listen to music.

We did a little of both, but I’ll let you guess which of the two scenarios I prefer.

The winner

The winner

In Trinidad there is a plaza. It is a fine place. But just up the hill from this plaza there is a stage and a place to drink and at the top of the hill there is the Casa De Musica. On the stage they play Buena Vista Social Club and people dance and sweat and smile. You can see excellent dancing, or maybe you can dance excellently and therefore you would be dancing excellently and I would be watching you dance excellently and drinking excellent mojitos and smoking fine cigars.

And we would both be happy.

The spot

The spot

The spot

The spot

There is a man with a donkey that so personifies Cuba that he charges money to take a picture. But he is Cuba, so the picture is priceless and we love him. Here is this man.

Cuba, personified

Cuba, personified

When he’s not standing in the Plaza, he is walking ever-so-slowly to a new spot in the Plaza or he is napping in the shade of a building or his donkey with his cigar falling out of his mouth.

For rent, photos

For rent, photos

In Cuba, you usually stay (besides hotels – which are really for the uber-tourist) in casa-particulars. These are typically a couple of rooms in a Cuban’s house that have been converted so that guests can stay there. We stay in casa-particulars. They are fine, and they have A/C (usually) and hot showers (usually). For me, those two things are very luxurious.  And they let you smoke cigars there…

Cigars and our room

Cigars and our room

So we had A/C and hot showers. And during the day we were asked directions to the Cave Bar. We had no idea what it was, but quickly decided it was somewhere worth visiting. That night we found it and it was, as the name implies, a bar in a cave. Complete with bathrooms in cave rooms.

Not just any bar, though. It’s luxurious and clubby and it stands in stark contrast to virtually everything around it. Looking back, it’s a very strange thing. But it has a remarkable turnout and once inside you could just as well be in a club in Miami – which I used to frequent once in a while. We danced and sweated a lot and then ran out of money for drinks and were having trouble standing without weaving so we went back down the long hill and through the dark alleys to our room.

Streets

Streets

Gator-stairs

Gator-stairs

And on the way we met a Russian guy that was coupled up with a Cuban woman. They insisted that we eat with them. We were very drunk and not hungry but we agreed and I’m not exactly sure why. They were quite a pair. She kept telling us how in love they were, and it was in rapid-fire Spanish and I was having trouble understanding her. His English was even harder to understand so she did most of the talking as none of us spoke Russian. They had known each other two weeks and she had two children with another man and since she couldn’t leave Cuba and he wasn’t immigrating it made the whole thing seem very strange.

Then we left the restaurant with most of our meals in to-go containers and laughed and weaved our way back to our room where we slept in A/C, took hot showers woke up late still a little groggy.

Then we went back to the plaza and the stage and had mojitos.

Then it was time to get back to the boat.

Back Home

Everything was how we left it and getting back to the boat was a major relief and it made me want to just sleep and read and play chess and drink Cuba Libre’s.

That wasn’t in the cards.

Instead we needed to plan and resupply and buy things and use the Internet (which is an adventure in itself). For all of this we needed to fight the money fight, which is tough for Americans and only slightly less so for Brazilians. That’s the thing about Cuba – it’s a pain in the ass to do anything.

We were desperate to leave and see the coast. I was desperate to freedive and explore the reefs and chase giant Grouper and Hogfish and Cubera Snapper. Without the diving and the sailing I was gaining weight and without eating fish I was in withdrawals. And without a beautiful coastline we both felt cheated. And without blue water under my keels I felt my time was being wasted. Why, if there is no bluewater under my keels, did I put all of my money in a rapidly depreciating maintenance headache?

So we hurried and rushed and ran and shopped and carried things too heavy. Then I worked on the boat. Then I found a variety of other problems so I did more boatwork. Then I fixed most of those problems and I found water in my starboard saildrive oil and that is a problem that I couldn’t fix and it infuriated me (it was my fault – fishing line in the prop again). But it was time to leave and time doesn’t sleep and so neither did we.

We pulled up anchor at 6PM that evening, with 15 knots of wind in our face.   We knew we were going the right way, because the wind was in our face. That is, afterall, how sailing works in the Caribe. So we motored until we got out of the harbor.

The weatherman told us that the wind would die after sunset and then we’d motor down the coast. But he lied. Once we left the harbor the wind picked up. Now it was gusting 30 knots in our face and I was only able to do 4 knots into the wind with both engines. The waves were smashing us too. Things were bouncing around and knives were dropping and glass stuff was breaking. Jaco was pretty unhappy (Songerie has become our official sailing buddy) about the whole thing, but it was great to have him and Cristelle with us in the shit.

After a couple of hours I checked the engines and the saildrives and found that the starboard saildrive was worryingly low on oil. This was a major problem and when I shut off the starboard engine we were now doing 3 knots, sometimes 2.5 into the wind. I’ll save you the technical details, but some numbnut wrapped fishing line in his brand new oil seal (around the prop) which allowed water in and then experimented with a solution that made the problem worse and then that numbnut found himself in desperate need of both engines/saildrives. Of course that numbnut is the captain and that captain is me, just in case self-deprecating humor isn’t clear on the interwebs.

Anyways, now that I had heavy winds on the nose – I was trying to power NOMAD with only a single 29 horsepower engine. To make a long story short, I used some very colorful (and, I might add, creative) language and then we pushed on and then the wind let up and then we were sailing a little. Then the wind died and we were back to motoring and I was worried about everything and so we took a route that was shorter and motored all night and most of the following day.

Then we saw our destination. There was a reef line and it looked impenetrable and as if to emphasize this, there was a very recent wreck laying on top of the reef. Another yacht on the reef, another dream ruined. Another reminder to stay vigilant and not make mistakes and pay attention and think quickly and move even more quickly.

You can lose it all so quickly. That kind of heartbreak that will make you sick of love.

But we had some waypoints and we had some old charts and we had Songerie leading us in – they had beaten us quite soundly as we were down to one motor/saildrive. Coming through the reef made me nervous and then it was suddenly only two meters deep and that makes me nervous too. After an hour of tense single-motoring through coral-strewn shallow-water we dropped our anchor and looked around.

NOMAD and Songerie were the only two boats in 100 miles and it was stunningly beautiful and remarkably remote. Desert scrub turns to mangrove turns to beach turns to shimmering, crystal clear water over healthy and untouched reef.

And I remembered again why I work so hard to get to places where people haven’t screwed it up yet.

You guys can have all of the cities.
You can have all of the well-charted and well-explored and well-settled lands and waters. If there are roads there, it’s already ruined.  I’m sticking to my guns: the most beautiful places on Earth are places where few humans have been and where none live.

You can argue with me if you want, but if you do – it just means you haven’t seen what I have. And that’s The Truth.

Hecho en Cuba

Hecho En Cuba

This post was made in Cuba. As is an ever-increasing amount of stuff onboard NOMAD. Coffee – what might be the best in the world (or at least that I’ve tried so far) is onboard, made in Cuba. A good, and reasonably priced aged rum is onboard, made in Cuba. And cigars. Good God.   We have all the best cigars, hecho en Cuba.

Our first day we vowed to spend watching movies and eating and not working and not moving and not preparing. Our literal vow was “we won’t do shit.” Writing that sentence makes it seem badly worded and more profane – but that was our vow. And we kept it. Of course, it was an easy vow to keep as we were both exhausted and slightly hungover – a product of the combination of our passage and our night at the marina bar.

Then it was time to explore. Jacko and Crystelle came by and took me into town to meet their friend Lili. Lili runs a Casa Particular (like a hostel) and she can make arrangements for inland travel simply and economically. She’s a good woman to know.

Then we stopped in for a beer ($1 Presidente, ice cold, with a fabulous view). Then it was on to the cigar guy. This being my first time in Cuba and having only a passing interest in cigars previously – this was a treat that I didn’t understand the value of. But as I tried a few cigars with a good sipping rum, and priced the high-end, handrolled Cuban cigars we were getting against the actual street value of these cigars – I realized how important it is to know the cigar guy. The cigar guy is important.

Because we know the cigar guy, our stash went from this:

The beginning

The beginning

To this:

Ever-growing

Ever-growing

And some of those cigar boxes contain 25 cigars that are sold here for $30 per cigar. Stateside? More. You can do the math, but, basically, we have a very nice collection of cigars. And it cost us a tiny fraction of what the average person pays on the street. So if you’re a cigar type and you bump into me out there and want to smoke a genuine Cohiba Maduro… Well, you should say so. Maybe you prefer a Cohiba Esplindido (Castro’s favorite). Maybe a Romeo Y Julieta (my favorite, and Churchill’s). Cohiba Robusto? Montechristo number 2? Montechristo Master? Hemmingway liked the Montechristos.

Believe it or not, the coffee was harder to get our hands on than the cigars. The (good) coffee really isn’t available to the average Cuban. One of our new Cuban friends told me something I remember hearing in Colombia. Our Cuban friend said: “All of our best things are for export, in Cuba we’re left in prison with the rejects.” In Colombia, another friend told me all of the best cocaine and the best women were exported. Patterns, for better or for worse.

We finally found the coffee in a hotel catering to gringos.

Drummer!!

Drummer was here. We met them in San Blas, and they introduced us to Jacko and Crystelle – so when the Drummer crew returned to their boat – a party seemed inevitable. It all started when Amber rowed up to our boat. She told us about her travels inland. She told us about Cuba. She told us they were leaving soon.

And that night Amber convinced us to go out. We walked and drank and talked. The next night there was a party, a dinner, on NOMAD. Jacko and Crystelle and the Drummer crew and another young Southern gringo and his girlfriend (who was Australian).   Beer and wine and good food dominated early, but later in the night high-quality sipping rum and cigars got the upper hand. Then everyone was trying to figure out how to get home before the sun rose without interrupting the flow of the party.   The party-veterans began sipping water.

Then we explored Cienfuegos a bit more and took this picture.  It’s so meta.

Picture of a picture of a Nomad

Picture of a picture of a Nomad

Then it was time to go to Trinidad, Cuba. We needed to get a cab, get a Casa Particular, and needed to get our shit together to leave the boat for a couple of days. We needed to pack clothes and cigars and rum and electronics. We needed to empty the fridge. We needed to get things off the deck. We needed to lock the boat.

But that night, there was something that took precedence. When one lands in a place where it is cheap to procure a specific thing – say cigars, or rum. One must take the time to pick the right thing, and then buy as much as one can store (or afford) to either sell, give, or use along the way. And so, the night before our trip to Trinidad, Cuba – we had a rum tasting. So that we could all be sure of what the best rum for the best price is, so that we could then buy copious amounts of it so that we could have a large supply of good and reasonably priced rum.

Understanding that we needed to be productive in preparation for our trip to Trinidad, that we needed to be up early for said trip, and that we wanted to feel good for said trip – it may not make sense to have a rum-tasting the night before said trip. But life is short and you are dead for a very long time.

Carpe that f***ing Diem.

So we had a rum-tasting.

And so began our land-travels into Socialist Cuba.

Welcome to Cuba

Welcome to Socialist Cuba

And we did feel welcome. Much more so than we felt in the Caymans.

We finally got our weather window and escaped Grand Cayman. 7 days, more or less, in the Caymans. It was 7 days too long. So when the weather turned favorable, we left at our earliest convenience. Cayman may be nice and pretty and safe. But it’s hellishly expensive, entirely devoid of culture, and – when the cruise ships are in – overrun by people who go on cruises (see: people who don’t have good stories). Droves of Hawaiian shirts, horrific sunburns, white tube socks with sandals, and of course fanny packs. Inhumane lines. Those cruise-goers overweight and obnoxious. All part of a massive cliché.

And so we unhooked from our mooring at 6 AM. As we came around the island it the wind picked up a little and soon we had 10-15 knots of wind and were making 6 knots, dragging a wide variety of lures. Most importantly – I’d decided to drag my Marlin lure behind a teaser. We hit 7 knots and the sun rose. It was a beautiful day and the water was a deep blue and we were headed to Cuba and it all felt good. It felt free and adventurous and lonely in the way all good adventures must be.

On the trip it was only Ana and I. Damien had been recalled stateside and was probably abusing hot showers and cooking with obscure spices. Jacko and Crystelle were sailing with us (in their boat) – in fact – they had left an hour or so earlier and we had just caught up to them.

And then the big reel started screaming. Anything that eats a 14” squid lure and makes that big reel scream is something worth catching. Or maybe it’s something worth losing. Maybe in catching something like that you lose a little of the mystery of the ocean.

Certainly processing anything that size presents its own challenges. Those thoughts were not present though, as I yelled for Ana and moved over to tighten the drag – hoping to slow down the fish. We were losing line at an incredible rate. The reel was getting warm.

And we were still doing 7 knots.

Then the fish broke the surface and begin a spectacular display. He tail-walked back and forth across the water – shaking and slashing and dancing, his background music the screaming reel.

The rod came out of the rod holder and nearly went overboard. I could feel the power of the fish. It was unbelievable.

Ana came up and saw the big rod doubled over and heard the drag screaming. She grabbed the camera. Then she saw a fish pushing 600 pounds walking across the water with it’s tail.

Then she said: “Holy Shit!”

We were still doing 7 knots.

I was yelling at Ana – to turn the boat into the wind. I was losing line. The fish was dancing behind the boat, his body completely out of the water. I’ve seen and landed a couple of Marlin, this one was big…

The reel was already hot. I could smell it.

I’m yelling at Ana and she’s fumbling with the autopilot and I’m tightening the drag and having daytime nightmares about loosing all 1000 yards of line and my best Marlin lure and this fish.

And we’re still doing 7 knots.

And then the line is slack. And my stomach drops. But I see the lure resurface and I breathe a sigh of relief and admit to myself that I had no idea what I would do with that fish even if I could bring it in.

When I’d first purchased this reel and this rod (secondhand), someone in Austin looked at me incredulously and asked what I planned on catching with such heavy machinery. I joked that I was fishing for God. And we hooked him the other day. And we lost him and that was probably the best thing we could have hoped for.

The rest of the sail was relatively uneventful, though it was fairly slow and we did a bit of motoring as we got closer to Cuba. I don’t think I’ll ever forget coming up for my shift in the morning and seeing Cuba rising up from the horizon in front of us. It’s amazing how much work and time and sweat and tears and money went into this voyage.

It’s amazing that some, hardheaded, people don’t just take planes.

Thankfully there are people which still choose methods of transportation that are adventures in themselves. Traveling this way is the definition of making it about the journey and not just the destination. Traveling this way is an accomplishment. Anybody can do a roadtrip. Anybody can get on a plane. Anybody can RV. Even motorcycles don’t hold a candle to this kind of travel.   This kind of travel is called voyaging. And it is called this for good reason.

I used to believe that anybody could buy a boat and sail long distances. Now I know better. Not just anybody can sail across open ocean from country to country on their own sailboat that they chose, outfit, refit, and continue to maintain. It takes more than I thought it would.

But we did it.

We’re here, in Cuba. They call it Socialist. I think it’s Communist. I appreciate it, whatever it is. The people are beautiful and friendly. The cars are amazing. The rum is good, bordering on great. The cigars are glorious. The coffee might be the best I’ve ever tasted. Presidente (the Dom-Rep beer) is $1, ice cold, at the bar. The mojitos are top of the line. Life is good here, for foreigners at least.

Cars!

Cars!

Let’s finish the story, though. When we arrived, naturally, I found the watermaker had sprung a relatively serious leak in the endcap of the membrane enclosure. And my windlass decided not to work. And one of my battens had come off of the sailcars. Another of my sailcars had lost all of its ball-bearings. On just this single passage – a bit over 700 miles in total – an immense amount of expensive stuff was no longer serviceable.

Cienfuegos, Cuba

Coming into Cienfuegos

Coming into Cienfuegos

For many miles  we had called for the Port Captain or Port Authority. No answer. So we just dropped anchor (in typical fashion – far away from the herd) and I cracked my anchor beer.

A semi-official boat soon came up to us and told us to get to the dock ASAP. I explained that I had just laid out 50 meters of chain and that my windlass wasn’t working, so it might be a little while before I could get to the dock. And since we were going to the dock see the doctor – that if I did managed to pull in that 50 meters of chain quickly – I would likely be in much worse shape for my doctor’s exam.

Maybe it would be better to bring the doctor to us, if it’s a priority…

They agreed.

The doctor came and visited us, with the custom’s agent and a too-slick looking guy at the marina. We paid some money, he asked about our health. I gave them Panamanian coffee – they left the boat smiling and they didn’t tear my boat apart, top to bottom, nor did they threaten me.  The difference of 170 miles (Cayman to Cuba) seems to matter quite a bit.  It’s amazing how uncivilized civilization really is, and how much more civil people can be in places like Cuba.

With the doctor’s visit out of the way, we were now allowed onshore. So onshore we went. And there we found nice officials and a nice marina bar and some nice locals and some nice sailors at this nice bar. And at this bar I ordered The Liar’s Drink: A Cuba Libre (for, as we all know – Cuba will never be free).

I ordered the Cuba Libre in Ciegnfuegos, Cuba – before the herds of gringos made it. I think that’s worth remembering.

One Cuba Libre turned into a few when Jacko and Crystelle showed up.

Then we labored back to the boat. Then Ana fell off the boat as she was climbing from the dinghy onto NOMAD. Then we collapsed and slept a well-earned sleep.

In Socialist Cuba.

Booyah.