Our Front Yard in San Blas

Catching Up in San Blas

It’s been a whirlwind around here.  There was so much to do to get the boat set up to host, so many recipes to nail down, so much gear to square away.  Just so much.  That’s not even counting the endless hours spent online tweaking the website and the various other channels.   But it happened – we got a last-minute charter request and so we were off to the races.

Catching Up in San Blas

Our first bit of time back in San Blas was spent catching back up.  We have friends in various places, we need to get reacquainted with our launcha contacts, we need to get reacquainted with the drivers from Panama City, and I needed to get reacquainted with all the fish and where they’re hanging nowadays.

First up we finally caught up with the girls from One World, and that was cool. They were keen to check out a dolphin that had washed up ashore in the Coco Banderos – so we sailed there.  Thus ensued the dolphin excavation, which I watched at a safe distance with a cold drink in hand.

The Great Dolphin Excavation in San Blas

The Great Dolphin Excavation in San Blas

Then we sailed back to the Swimming Pool to hang out with friends and do some diving.  I grabbed a few fish for our friends and for the smoker.  We did a dinner one night with our friends on Runner (thanks Deb and Reg!) and then we were invited (again) to another dinner in exchange for more of our smoked fish – but we had to decline as we got a last-minute charter request.

Dog Snapper Spearfishing in San Blas

Dog Snapper Spearfishing in San Blas

Black Grouper Spearfishing in San Blas

Black Grouper Spearfishing in San Blas

That request was welcome, but we weren’t expecting it on such short notice so it sent us into overdrive.  There were so many small things that had to be done.  So many.  And then there was provisioning.  And logistics.  To top it all off we were having trouble with the Interwebs, so we worked another day in the Swimming Pool and then pulled anchor and moved off to Kuanidup (Los Grullos on the charts) and then dropped the hook there where it was back to scrubbing and organizing and prepping.  We spent a couple of rolly nights there and then, suddenly, our guests were onboard.

It was a really fun couple from Canada, and we couldn’t have been luckier.  That’s the thing about chartering – it’s a bit of a lottery on both sides:  for the customer you’re never really sure about the captain, for the captain you’re never really sure about the customer.  No worries, but it’s a thing – which is where me having an online presence probably helps the customer.

This couple owned two boats in Canada and he was into freediving, spearfishing and line fishing.  So there was a good deal of understanding and there was plenty to talk about.  This was their second catamaran charter here in San Blas and it was the first place in all their travels they came back to, which speaks to the beauty of San Blas.  One of the first things they told us was the difference in experiences between our charter and the other boat – in food quality, personal attention, and level of activities.  In addition we were cheaper.  We take great pride in offering value, great food, and an unforgettable experience, so it was nice to hear them tell us over and over :)

Trolling and Offshore Fishing in San Blas

Trolling and Offshore Fishing in San Blas

After we had our guests onboard they went ashore and had a drink with some other visitors – enjoying the turquoise water and white sand beaches while  I smoked a chicken onboard.  Yes, we smoke food onboard.  I have a smoker onboard. And it makes all the difference in the world.  We ate a great lunch and then we were off, dragging a spread behind the boat and heading North to the outlying islands in search of clear water, easy snorkeling, and hopefully some big fish.  We found all of that.   But before we even got to that good stuff – we rolled a TON of fresh sushi and gorged ourselves on the freshest of the fresh sushi.

Fresh Sushi on NOMAD in San Blas

Fresh Sushi on NOMAD in San Blas

Now, there is no way I’m giving away spots or even areas – but let me say this.  On our first dive the following day we found amazing coral, a beautiful ledge, and saw large Black Grouper and Cubera Snapper. OUR FIRST DIVE.   I stuck a fish for ceviche and then we went back to the boat to prepare the ceviche and eat lunch.  After lunch we headed to a nearby island where I know the local Kunas – there we looked at the molas and jewelry and picked up a few lobster for dinner.

Another Beautiful Sunset on NOMAD in San Blas

Another Beautiful Sunset on NOMAD in San Blas

Then we were off again – sailing to yet another uninhabited island chain. I’d been watching the weather, so I knew we were in for a Southern wind (which is opposite of what prevails) and with this knowledge we anchored in my new favorite anchorage.  This place will remain a secret.  I can describe it though – it’s white sand beaches lined with palm trees :)  Of the three islands near this anchorage, two are completely uninhabited and the other is inhabited by one of our Kuna friends.   On one of these islands I dropped Marissa and our guests off and they had a beach fire and had a very interesting conversation with our Kuna friend on the history of their culture and the way it’s changing.  While they were having this conversation, I smoked a rack of ribs.

Kuna Storytime in San Blas

Kuna Storytime in San Blas

Guests and Kuna friends in San Blas

Guests and Kuna friends in San Blas

Yep, we smoke ribs for our charters.  Damo – if you read this, I know you’re freaking out – the smoker is the bee’s knees.  Jaco if you read this, thanks for the inspiration!

Our guests and Marissa came back for a rack of smoked ribs and we gorged ourselves and then retired – we had a full day of beach and diving the next day.

We woke up in the morning and decided we liked this anchorage too much to leave.  There were huge fingers of reef that ran from 5M to 25M in depth, walls, shallow coral, and (as we found) the best fish were right under the boat.  There were white sand beaches.  And there was 360 degrees of protection.  But what really tipped the scales – was that there was a huge Cubera Snapper living right under the catamaran.  We could see him clearly on the bottom in 15M of water, he would come up in the water column and check out the boat and then drop back to the bottom.

Freediving under the catamaran in San Blas

Freediving under the catamaran in San Blas

First thing in the morning I worked with Jon (our guest) on his freediving and breathold.  I took him through his first contraction on the bottom and we worked through lowering heartrate and then technique underwater.  Then we went and dove the reef fingers outside of the anchorage and practiced what we’d just learned, and then we added some spearfishing technique to the mix.  Of course, when we returned the Cubera Snapper was back under the boat.

We saw the fish for the rest of that day and the next morning, as he really was an excellent fish.  Jon – our guest, took two shots at him over this time period – but this was a wary fish in clear water.  And he was a big fish hanging at the bottom in 15M of water – meaning a good shot was a necessity.  I decided not to shoot the fish – but I know where he lives and one of our charter guests will get another shot at him.  Because Jon had his spearfishing in the morning while Marie (Jon’s g/f) spent the morning relaxing and playing games with Marissa – Jon owed Marie the afternoon, and they spent this exploring the other islands in our anchorage.

Private Island for our guests in San Blas

Private Island for our guests in San Blas

That night our guests cooked for us – a hot pan-fried fish fillet laid over a bed of rice covered in a mango chutney.  Very, very tasty.  And then we had a glass of wine, told some fish lies, and learned a little more about each other.

The next morning was our guest’s last – but they elected to have the 13:00 launcha pick them up rather than the 08:30 launcha pick them up so we had plenty of time for morning fun.  We hung out and relaxed and talked over some fresh-ground coffee.  Then about 10:30 Jon and I went for our last dive – our Cubera friend had been sighted that morning but failed to give us another shot at him.  But after the dive, when we were coming back to the boat, I saw a Mutton Snapper under the boat.  It was 15M or so in depth and they usually run – but I dove on him and (because he was harassing an octopus) he turned around and swam within range.  I took a good holding shot and stuck him, but in the ensuing chaos he pulled himself free.

Success! Mutton Snapper Spearfishing in San Blas

Success! Mutton Snapper Spearfishing in San Blas

Mutton Snapper Spearfishing in San Blas

Mutton Snapper Spearfishing in San Blas

Jon saw this from the surface and was convinced the Mutton Snapper was still in the area – so we took turns diving and looking for it over the next half hour, our freediving practice earlier being key.  Eventually I saw Jon line up and take a shot and then we had it – the world’s toughest Mutton Snapper was on the boat.  Right at the buzzer.  While Jon and Marie got their things together, we prepared lunch and cleaned the fish – then we ate and then the launcha was here.  They were sad to leave and we were sad to see them go.

Picture Perfect Sunset on NOMAD in San Blas

Picture Perfect Sunset on NOMAD in San Blas

It’s great when clients turn into friends. The last thing they told us is that they were coming back, with friends :)

 

 

 

Casco Viejo Panama City

Panama City Guide

Alrighty, since we’re getting charter bookings (thanks!) we decided it is time to put together a quick guide to Panama City.  Getting to us (NOMAD) is simple and fairly quick considering you’ll be going from civilization to a part of Panama that you can only really explore via boat (San Blas/Guna Yala).  We handle this, though the cost isn’t included in our prices.  It runs about $60/person to get out to us from Panama City.

  • Dinero – Money-wise, Panama operates mostly on the US Dollar.  If you’re American, you’re cool.  Bring a bit of cash, but there are plenty of ATM’s around, just be sure to call your bank and let them know you’ll be traveling to Panama. In Panama City you can use your credit/debit card almost anywhere.  BUT – if you’re coming out to see us in San Blas/Guna Yala, BRING CASH.  The last part of your payment for the charter is in cash and there are no ATM’s out here.  Also bring small bills to buy things from the local indigenous folks (who are wonderful) – the Kuna/Guna.  They make awesome artwork (molas).
  • Language – it’s Central America, so it’s Spanish.  That said, Panama City is nearly fluent in English.  Nearly.  Download Google translate offline and you’ll be just fine.
  • Getting around – cab it.  It’s easy.  If you cab it, negotiate.  Uber exists too.  If you are planning on renting a car, rent with an American Express card (you’ll be insured for free), decline the insurance at the rental place, and download and use Waze (it’s like Google Maps, but better for S/Central America). Google Maps offline is helpful too.
  • Safety – Panama City is safe.  That said, exercise the kind of caution you would in any big city.  If you feel uncomfortable in an area, just take a cab/Uber.  If you don’t know an area, take a cab/Uber.  Don’t be flashy or get obviously drunk and then stumble around dark alleys in the middle of the night.  You know, be smart.

Let’s walk through getting to the boat.

Getting to NOMAD

  • Most importantly, you’ll fly into Tocumen International Airport.  Let’s say you fly in on January 1st.  There is almost always a travel day on the front end of the trip – meaning you’ll spend your first night in Panama City (1/1 in our example).  Tocumen Airport is on the outskirts of town – so you’ll pay anywhere from $15-30 to get into Panama City, to your hotel.  As far as hotels go – it’s probably best to use one of the popular hotel sites to book (AirBnB is a viable option too).  I prefer staying in El Cangrejo – which is central and has some decent restaurants and some good bars. Via Argentina is good for bars and nightlife. Another (maybe the best) option for a night’s stay is Casco Viejo.  It’s an up-and-coming area with some great bars and restaurants.
  • Your night in Panama City is the time to do any last-minute shopping for food and drinks.  Specialty foodstuff or anything you may have forgotten should be picked up this evening. If you’re looking for specialty food or spices – ask any taxi driver for Riba-Smith.  All other shopping can be done 24 hours (yes, grocery stores are open 24 hours) at a Super 99 or an Exito or an El Rey.  Too easy.
  • The next morning (1/2 in our example), fairly early, a 4X4 which we will have pre-arranged will pick you up and you will begin your trip to San Blas/Guna Yala.  The 4×4 trip is a fun one, through the jungle on some windy roads.  You’ll have to pay a small entrance fee to get  into San Blas, and then you’ll be moved to a pre-arranged water taxi that will drop you off onboard NOMAD.  That’s it.  Super easy.  You’ll probably be onboard around lunch, so we’ll have food and a welcome drink waiting on you!

Then your experience onboard NOMAD begins.  And it’s our job to make it unforgettable :)

Leaving NOMAD

Going home is basically the opposite of coming to see us.  Who’d have thunk it?   There is one difference though – you can leave NOMAD early in the morning (8-9AM) and make it back to the city by 1-2PM with a reasonable degree of certainty.  Meaning you can, 98% of the time, leave NOMAD and Panama on the same day – assuming your flight leaves Tocumen sometime after 3:30PM.  

It’s your call.

A Quick Panama City Guide

What to see

Should you decide to stay in Panama City for a night or two – here are the things I think are worth seeing/doing:

  1. The Panama Canal – let’s be honest, the canal is the reason Panama is what it is.  It’s also a very impressive example of engineering and perseverance.  I’ve visited it (and plan on going through it), there’s a museum and you can watch a boat go through the locks if you time it right.
  2. Visit Las Perlas – this is an island chain on the Pacific side that’s an easy day-trip or a weekend getaway.  They are pretty and it only takes 90 minutes to get there and come back. There are two companies that run trips out there:  Sea Las Perlas and Ferry Las Perlas, just pick one.  PS – there are whales here during whale-watching season (August through October).
  3. Casco Viejo – this is the coolest area of Panama City for sure.  Stay there or stop by during the day and walk around.  There’s plenty to see and do and eat and drink.
  4. The Fish Market – very close to Casco Viejo is the fish market of Panama City.  Stop in to get fresh ceviche or your favorite fish meal.

Where to Stay

I touched on this earlier, at the top of the page.  I don’t spend much time in Panama City, but when I do – I stay around Cangrejo.  I usually go out to bars on Via Argentina or in Casco Viejo.

  1. Casco Viejo – If I were visiting Panama City for the first or second time, I would most certainly stay in Casco Viejo.  It’s the hippest area around and there you can see some shocking contrast – the up and coming, freshly remodeled places directly next to the derelict.  There are good bars (including rooftop bars) there, some great eats and you can find places to hang out during the day and through most of the night. Specific recommendations for hotels/hostels aren’t my cup of tea – but I’d start with AirBnB and then check out TripAdvisor for reviews.
  2. Cangrejo – If you want to stay somewhere more central (meaning you want to shop, or in my case:  find boat parts) you should check out the Cangrejo district.  It has plenty of places to stay in every budget, restaurants, bars, etc. Here you’ll find casinos too.  Again – Via Argentina for bars and entertainment.

All ’round contacts – I have several taxi drivers in Panama City that speak excellent English and are very reliable.  Just ask and I’d be more than happy to share them or arrange just about anything for you in advance.  Here is another one-stop shop for everything Panama City:  https://bedsboatsandbeyond.wordpress.com/

So. Hope that helps.  Ever more, hope to see you down here soon!

-Nate

Charter NOMAD

NOMAD is up for Charter

It’s finally happening.  We (Marissa and I) are offering customizable and fully crewed charters onboard NOMAD.  For the time being we’ll be in San Blas (Kuna/Guna Yala), Panama.  There may be some other locations in our future (think Cuba) – but for now we’re happy to have the white sand beaches, the palm trees, the turquoise water, and the amazing reefs of San Blas.

To catch you up – I took a break from the boat about six months ago, starting in Africa and ending up in Colombia (with a few stops in other countries).  At the end of all of that I decided it was time to put some money back in the cruising kitty – so here we are.

As far as charters go, we’re on a great platform (the Lagoon 380) for it.  And NOMAD is a very well-equipped example of the world’s best selling catamaran.  We have two queen berths and a full berth (meaning we can offer charters for groups up to 6).  Two heads, one with a walk-in shower, and a third shower on the back deck.  We have a ton of solar – so we don’t ruin the peace of San Blas with a generator.  We have a huge fridge and a large separate freezer, meaning we can keep hard-to-find foods and drinks cool.  We have all the toys – from underwater lights to heavy-duty fishing tackle to our two-person fishing kayak to our aluminum RIB w/Yahama 15hp outboard.  Even a couple of surfboards.

Most importantly, I know these islands, the people, the Kuna.  So whatever it is you want to do – I can get you to the right spot for it.  We’re specializing in three areas – freediving and spearfishing, offshore fishing, and exploring the remote parts of San Blas.  We’re especially capable in those departments – and if you’ve been following my progress for any length of time, you probably need little convincing.

Getting here is simple – fly into Panama City and let me know when you’re coming in.   We have all of the contacts to get you out to the boat quickly and efficiently.  Note – we are happy to make the arrangements, but we don’t cover the cost of getting you to the boat in our prices.  How it works is:  you fly into Panama City and usually spend one night, then the next morning a 4×4 picks you up and takes you to San Blas (2.5 hours, a fun drive) and transfers you to a water taxi which drops you off right onboard NOMAD (.5-1 hour).  Usually you’re onboard before noon of the same day.  Easy, right?

At that point we sail you to a beautiful anchorage and drop the hook – and you’re off on a vacation you won’t forget!

To charter NOMAD we need at least two people and our rates start at $225/person/day.   That includes everything onboard – lodging, 3 large and healthy meals per day (plus snacks), drinks, and a moderate amount of alcohol (including a welcome drink).  We’ll even help take pictures and video for you and give you a USB with all of your pictures and video, to take back home and show off.

Oh – and if you’re on my mailing list, you get a discount just for being awesome.

So, what are you waiting for?  Come visit us!

 

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.

 

 

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.

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.