More San Blas Sunsets on NOMAD

Family Fun, Sailing in San Blas

We’re sitting in Chichime now, resting a bit and cleaning. Always cleaning.  We just finished one of our most fun charters – a family of four from California/Costa Rica.  A really good time had all the way ’round.  There is some bad news though – there’s some major engine work in my near future.  Perfect timing.

Family Fun, Sailing in San Blas

The day leading up to the charter we did some vegetable shopping and then moved the boat out to one of our super-secret spots.  It’s G-10 classified.  There we cleaned a bit more, prepared some food, and I did some last-minute maintenance and then studied the weather a bit. This time of year the weather is inherently unpredictable.  I try to plan but really I just have to be very, very flexible.  The good news is that our guests usually understand this.

Around 11AM our guests arrived and the fun began. We start with a tour of the boat, some basic information, and then some safety points. Next we tried to get a handle on what our guests wanted out of the trip.  In this case:  relaxing, meeting the Kuna, seeing pretty beaches, a bit of snorkeling, and (yes) fishing.

A boat-natural

A boat-natural

I have one engine that is worrying me and another with a fuel issue.  It’s not a great situation, but I manage it doesn’t’ affect where we go and what we do. It just changes the order of some of the activities as we need to use wind power more than diesel power now.  Not a biggie, it is after all, a sailboat.  So we picked the days that would work for a 1/2 day dragging lures and then planned the rest of our trip (loosely) around weather.

Snorkeling in San Blas on NOMAD

Snorkeling in San Blas on NOMAD

Our first day was a bit of snorkeling, a smoked chicken, and then some sushi (two kinds of tuna in this one).  Then there was the champagne for the campaign.  Then a bit of Marissa’s margaritas (now called Marissaritas). Then it was time for sleep – an early wakeup the next day to pull lures and then explore Kuna villages.  We woke early and got a good start, but had a 2 knot current on our nose and I couldn’t get out of it.  So our progress was slow, almost as slow as the fish bite.

Sushi on NOMAD

Sushi on NOMAD

After a strikeout on the first fishing attempt we pulled back behind the islands and hung out with one of my favorite Kuna families. We swam and walked around the beaches and then came back to another excellent meal and even better drinks. The next morning we took a long dinghy ride out to a protected area where the snorkeling is easy and the coral abundant. There we did some kicking around – we saw a couple of lobster, I saw rays and a nice Dog Snapper and a Cubera Snapper.  The snapper were too smart for me, so we settled on three types of conch for conch fritters.

Hammock time on NOMAD

Hammock time on NOMAD

Then we came back to the boat and then our Kuna friends brought us some lobster and some crab.  Needless to say, we ate very well.  Then we had a couple of drinks and sat around watching the fish under the green light.  The next morning was a rainy one, so we played games and drank coffee until late morning, when the rain cleared.

After a bit of kicking around and some food we moved the boat again, this time not all that far.  Once again we were the only boat in the anchorage – but that wasn’t what made this evening cool.  What made this evening cool was that we anchored very close to a rip that was bringing water from outside the reef in – and with it bait and fish.  We watched a school of Bonita pound bait on the surface and then witnessed some mackerel do the same and then when we saw the Tarpon join in on the action – Mike and I agreed we should take a little dinghy trip.  We packed a couple of trolling rods and a spinning reel and off we went in the dinghy. As the swell was small and the period long – we took the dinghy out in the open water and pulled a couple of lures through the rip.

Dinghy fishing

Dinghy fishing

After about 20 minutes of trolling Mike had a nice fish on and the fight began.  The fish would take a little line, then run to us, then fight and take line again.  More than once we thought we lost him (he ran to us) and more than once he pulled line off the reel. But eventually we got him up next to the dinghy, at which point we both realized we hadn’t really planned for anything other than a) catch and release or b) a football tuna.  This was a pretty good-sized King Mackerel, who was putting up a decent fight and who had plenty of teeth which could do plenty of damage to both dinghy and/or feet.  Eventually Mike pulled up the Mackerel by the line and I pulled him up by the tail and we got him in the dinghy – but not before he gave us a shower. Once in the dinghy we had a moment of ‘what now’ and then used the anchor to give him a bonk.  Done deal.  Fish in boat, fisherman happy and exchanging high-fives.  Plenty of fish for fish tacos and sushi.

Mike's King

Mike’s King

Then we began working our way back to the boat, where I got a strike on my rod.  There was a brief fight and then we had a Barracuda up next to the dingy.  I managed to (eventually) get him unhooked and released without puncturing the dinghy. Then it was nearly dark and the wind increased dramatically.  We made it back to the boat in the choppy dark, where we took pictures and then cleaned the fish.  I was out early that night, again we were waking up a little early to drag lures outside the island.

The welcoming committee

The welcoming committee

The next morning we pointed the boat North and headed out of the islands toward open water.  As soon as we dropped the lures we hooked a Spanish Mackerel, boated him, unhooked him, and released him.  Ten minutes later Mike was reeling in another lure (to check it) and a Spanish Mackerel shot no less than 10 feet out of the water while we all watched him.  It really was an amazing sight – seeing a fish jump that high out of the water.  He resembled a rocket more than a fish.  Very, very cool.

We saw birds working and smaller schools of Blackfin and Bonita, but nothing that got our blood pumping or made the reels scream.  Alas.  That afternoon we pulled behind Chichime and dropped our anchor.  There we ate another excellent meal and I took a much-needed rest.  Later we walked around Chichime and did a bit more Mola shopping and then retired to the boat for our last supper.  First, though, we cleaned 3 different species of conch.  I don’t want to brag here – but Marissa can make some world-class Conch Fritters.  World class.

King conch cleaning on NOMAD

King conch cleaning on NOMAD

The conch-cleaning operation

The conch-cleaning operation

Then there was more champagne and more Marissaritas.  Then we dropped in the green light and watched the fish congregate around NOMAD. There were several Spotted Eagle Rays in the area and eventually the temptation was too much – so I dove in and swam with them and the other baitfish under NOMAD.  I enjoy night diving, but it’s always easier after a glass of Rum (or two).  Anyways, I did manage to hang with the Spotted Eagle Ray for a bit and even got some footage.  It didn’t take long before most of the crew was in the water with us.  Then, suddenly, it was late and we were exhausted.

Spotted Eagle Rays at night

Spotted Eagle Rays at night

The next morning came early, and before we knew it our new freinds were off.  Moving guests from the ‘client’ category to the ‘friend’ category is one of the pleasures of this business, and I’m very happy to say we were successful in this again.

 

 

Our islands

Sailing Charters in San Blas

Look at this:  another update!  It’s almost like I have time and connectivity (I don’t).    It, literally, took me four days to make this post.

Before you read anymore, I just want to say that I realize this site is a bit different now that we’re chartering.  Just want you to know I’m just pushing charters here, I’m also attempting to share experiences (which are now, you guessed it:  charters). I think there’s a difference and there is value in that.

Sailing Charters in San Blas

So we had a charter (very past tense). They were rad, which is where our last post left off.

Then we had another charter (not as past tense).  They were also rad.  This couple was Australian and I’m a fan of the majority of Aussies (especially you, Rob!).  It starts as they always do, with wind on the nose and chop on the beam – heading to Carti where we do our primitive vegetable shopping and then cleaned and then cleaned some more and then I did some work on the boat and then we cleaned again.  It really was leading up to this charter that I realized how much cleaning is involved in this business.  SO MUCH CLEANING.  It doesn’t help that I’m allergic to it.  It doesn’t help that we catch lots of tuna and bleed it (important for sushi-grade tuna). I cannot fathom the reason that boat decks aren’t a light grey (yes, sunfading – but we can send stuff to Mars.  I’m sure we can figure out this white-decked boat issue).

Moving on, we moved the boat over to another island chain that we like so we don’t name it.  Sometimes it seems if I share something here, we come back and there are boats crowded in there next time – which I’m not sure is related to this dinky blog, but it is uncanny.

At this unnamed place we picked up our guests.  They were bringing squid and glowsticks for our next whack at the swordfishing out here.  I’m determined and we’re going to get them. It’s tough now, for reasons I’ll explain later – but we’re gonna get’em.  Until then I’ll just be buying glowsticks and squid like a madman and burning fuel and breaking things.  But I don’t feel like my strange and unruly behavior surprises people anymore.

Our islands in San Blas, chartering in San Blas, Fishing in San Blas

Our islands in San Blas

Our guests showed up. There were squid and glowsticks with them, that’s a point for the home team.  We went diving and ate and then moved the boat a bit.  They quickly found the best spot in the house, as you can see.

A big Lagoon 380 upgrade

A big Lagoon 380 upgrade, rear seating over the water

Then we went diving again. Then we went and visited our fave Kuna village. Then we went on a scavenger hunt for heavy things – as we needed weights for swordfishing (that weren’t lead or expensive).  We found a couple things, but really – I have to start making weights from concrete. Which is perfect because I have so much time now.  Sigh.

Good people, good conversation

Good people, good conversation

 

There was a sushi meal, then some smoked ribs, some great conversation, and then we dropped off our guests to sleep on hammocks on their own private island.  I went to work rigging swordfish baits (dude, this is hard, smelly, thankless work).

Swordfishing Baits in Panama

Swordfishing Baits in Panama

Lots of debate on swordfishing.  What I end up doing is using a circle hook as the main hook, ran with 150-250# mono/floro leader, and then a wired stinger (130# wire) with a J hook crimped to the main hook.  I may change this as we keep loosing hooks to sharks (normally, this is the point of using mono over a wire leader – not having to pull up a shark from the depths – they just chew through the leader and move on).  But that’s not sustainable out here where getting quality gear is so damned difficult/expensive.

Anyways I rigged in the sun for a while, then our guests came back and we talked through the rigging.  I’m no expert here, but I’ve done my homework and I’m handy with, hooks, lines, crimps, a rod and reel.  I’ve also, recently, done a ton of swordfish research (scientific papers) about eating habits, depths, and migration patters.  Fun fact:  all larger swords are girls. So when I say I’m out ‘looking for the big girls’ I could be talking about swordfish :)

When there is bait involved on the boat, it’s especially nice to have a fish-table a long ways away from everything.

Another major Lagoon 380 upgrade - the fishing table

Another major Lagoon 380 upgrade – the fishing table

Then it was time to get out there and put our work to work.  On the way out I drug the  fishing lines through the dusk light and over the best fishing spots.  We got lucky.  One reel went off (slowly) and Debbie pulled in a smaller Black Jack, which (after releasing it) I realized would have been worth a shot as live bait. Oops.

Not a giant, but a fish

Not a giant, but a fish

So we released our first fish.  I updated our heading and then our other reel started screaming. Screaming.  ‘FISH ON’  The sound of a screaming reel topped by those words makes the hair on my arms stand up.

Back to the story:  there are two fish that run that way – taking off so much line without breaching, large tuna or wahoo.  A large tuna isn’t so likely in this area, and usually they just sound (dive deep) and stay there.  This was a smoking run.  Nothing broke the surface – so not a marlin or a dorado (mahi, dodo).

Wahoo. Had to be.  I was stoked. They’re hard to get around here, specifically at this time of year, on this kind of tackle (we were running a monofilament stinger behind a Sterling Tackle Spreader Bar).  Second time we’ve hooked very toothy creatures on Sterling Tackle with mono stingers.  But look at this picture – it’s what happened to my first Sterling Tackle Spreader Bar when a big wahoo decided he wanted it- one second I had a Spreader Bar full of squid and hooks and ball-bearing snap-swivels.  Then I saw the water break and the wahoo hit the lures and then he destroyed my gear.  It was a cool thing to watch, but it was a major gear-bummer..  Don’t look at Marissa, she’s just a distraction :)

One of these is not like the other

One of these is not like the other

 

Darren vs the 'hoo

Darren vs the ‘hoo

There was the first, smoking run. Then he ran towards us, then when he saw the boat he ran again.  Then we got him up behind the boat, we were doing about 2 knots, and I missed the first gaff shot but got him solidly on the second.  Boom.  Wahoo on deck!  Those are good words to say.  As happy as I was about Darren landing this fish, I was even happier when I saw the pictures – the wahoo was lit up.  Usually in pictures the fish’s color fades. Wahoo are beautiful (and tasty) animals.

Wahoo!

Wahoo!

This was all on the way out to our swordfishing grounds.

Next up was the actual swordfishing.  We found 1500 feet of water, then I figured our drift.  Then we dropped three lines off the side of the boat (it’s a little easier than the back of the boat when we have the dinghy up). Here’s a picture that shows how we fish, but please excuse me for the lack of photo credit, it’s just the picture I keep on my desktop when I’m thinking about rigging..  I’ll figure out where it’s from and update this (sorry whoever made this picture). The main difference is that we fish off of the side of the boat rather than the back, it makes more sense (our boat is 38 foot long and 20 foot wide – there’s more space, duh). But most folks that fish for swordfish are: a) commercial fisherman with longlines  b) Serious sportfisherman with sportfishing boats.  It’s hard fishing off the side of those.

Our setup

Our setup

There were some smallish (see: large) issues.  One – our glowsticks weren’t working.  Two – the squid were small and old (guessing by the smell).  Three – my weights were mediocre at best.  Four – sharks love me and my baits, whichever is in the water.  Five – I had a smoky, knocking engine (more on this later). It was midway through our adventure that night when I noticed this very important detail.  That said it was a calm sea, nearly a full moon and a wonderful night drifting.

Working up to full moon

Working up to full moon

So we caught a decent shark, 1.5 meters.  It was exciting but it stole my hooks and it made me way more excited than I should have been (I suspected it wasn’t a sword, but it could have been).

Darren playing tug of war with a shark

Darren playing tug of war with a shark

Then we got (what I strongly believe was) a swordfish bite.  The line buzzed for just a second (we leave the reels just above freespool with the clicker on).  Then nothing. Then a tiny buzz again, then nothing.  We waited.  Then we reeled and teased a little, but nothing more from the fish.  When we checked the bait, it was cut, but not eaten – which is a classic swordfish move – whack it, kill it, but leave it.  Swordfish are notoriously vicious.

So we lost one rig to a shark and the other to a passive-aggressive swordfish and I was rigging and keeping the boat on the right drift and trying not to fall asleep.  Oh, and cleaning that wahoo from earlier.  I might have had a glass of rum.  Just one, really.  Then I had a bit of coffee as I was nodding.

No more clean decks...

No more clean decks…

Darren and I chatted, then we pulled the lines and went for another drift.  No dice .  So we moved on.  With the waves and speed and not-quite-right engine our time back in protected waters (where I could finally sleep) was just after dawn.  To that end I asked Darren if he wanted to hang outside the reef for a bit and wait for light, so we could troll over the structure for one last shot at a fish.  He said yes and then took a nap. I putted around marking good bottom structure and then when dawn broke I sighed a sigh of relief and pointed us toward our anchorage and held my breath for one more good fish.  Apparently we burned our fish-luck early with the wahoo.  I’ll take a quality fish on deck over the possibility of a record fish, every day.

Finally (long nights seem longer when you’re listening to the ocean and the rumble of diesels) just after 7 AM, Marissa got up and took her shift – which is cooking and cleaning.  She made everyone breakfast and then I dropped anchor, ate, and took a much-needed nap.  A couple hours later I was up and we were back to full-blown charter mode.

We were among friends at this anchorage, so we loaded all our friends up with wahoo.  This is a not-so-secret pleasure of mine – feeding friends with the best seafood on the planet, which we catch. Then there was island time and fun time and then there was dive time.  I took our friends out to a super-secret dive spot and then we made a drift dive.  After a wonderful drift full of Moray Eels, Cuttlefish, Stingrays, Lobster, Conch, etc.  Darren expressed an interest in spearfishing, so I brought out the gear.  We talked about species and fish identification.  Then we talked basic safety, then we went for a little dive through a channel which is usually productive.

Darren's first spearing-dinner

Darren’s first spearing-dinner

There I watched Darren locate, identify, and stick an Ocean Triggerfish on his FIRST spearfishing attempt ever.   Color me impressed.  We loaded the fish in the dinghy and then took off again.  Darren found a respectable Barracuda, identified it, and then he was in full-blown hunting mode. He took the shot and hit the fish but it was a grazing shot that only irritated the fish.  Missing the Barracuda was a blessing in disguise as they are difficult to deal with.  It’s a very cool thing to watch people locate, identify, and take their own food from the wild (at Whole Foods, they call it ‘Free-Range’).

Then, suddenly it was our last day with our new friends.

We moved the boat the next morning and drug the lures the whole way.  We caught two Spanish Mackerel, but we were full of fresh Wahoo so we released them. They aren’t hard fighters so we don’t slow the boat, reel them in as quickly as possible and release them as quickly as possible – unless they’ve been mortally hooked, in which case we eat them.

We're often a taxi service

We’re often a taxi service

The next morning our friends left and Marissa and I refused to clean for a day. Then we moved and resupplied and then moved again.  Then we confirmed the knocking in one engine that was worrisome.  Then I spent four days in the engine room working on isolating or identifying the issue.  No dice.  Turns out I’m in for an engine overhaul. Not cool, not simple, not cheap. I can’t write the words I say when I think about that engine.

Because I’m through my period of ‘freakout and worry’, I can say that I have a few ideas and if it comes to the absolute worst-case-scenario, I can deal with it. Much of troubleshooting boat-systems is not jumping straight to worst-case scenario. I’ll update when I know more, have connection and have time. Or at least two of the three.  For now, we’re about to receive more guests.

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.

 

Jacko and his Mahi

Onwards – To Cuba

There are two primary factors that decide my schedule: weather and boat condition. Especially on a longer crossing – other considerations are secondary, at best. People’s schedules, people’s desires, flights, holidays, weekends, day or night – none of this really matters.

Waiting to Cross

And so we waited on weather. Longer than we would have liked. Damo was on a schedule, so we considered leaving a bit earlier – but the seas were 3 meters + and that makes crossing seem more like bullriding – for five days.

So we waited.

We pre-cooked food. We did last-minute boat repairs. I charted and re-charted our route. We got fishing gear ready for any eventuality. We burned trash. We recycled cans. We organized the decks and checked sails and reefing gear.

We waited.

Then, it was time to get underway. The waves were still 2 meters +, and the wind was on the nose at 15 knots. But we were so ready to move, we just did it. Outside we dropped lures back behind the boat and got the first taste of the short-period beam sea that we would take for the next 5 days.

620 nautical miles was our route. That’s a long ways. Even in a car that’s a fairly long drive. But a sailboat is hardly a car, the ocean hardly a road. There aren’t any rest stops. No gas stations. No roadside restaurants. No tow trucks to call.   You can’t call an ambulance if someone gets sick or injured. There aren’t mechanics in the middle of the ocean.

It’s between 4-6 days of open ocean. No land in sight.

We planned, based upon weather predictions, an average speed of 5.5 knots. That’s not too hard to do in this boat, and it gives us a little wiggle room in case we hit a bad current or have an engine failure or the wind doesn’t cooperate. At 5.5 knots we were looking at just over 4.5 days of open ocean sailing. Our worst-case calculations put us there a bit over 5.5 days (4.5 knots average).

Onward to Caymans

Our first day we just motored against a 15 knot headwind and cursed the weatherman. We were averaging 4.5 knots with both engines giving us everything. Then we lost an engine. Naturally, the boat was bucking and pounding through the waves, making mechanical work painful and frustrating. When a diesel engine dies, assuming you maintain it halfway decently, the first things to troubleshoot are fuel and air. If you keep a diesel engine cool, give it clean air and clean fuel – it will last forever.

So I changed the airfilter. No dice. So I changed the fuel filter. No dice. So then I was forced to pull off fuel hoses and start sucking on them – hoping to get diesel in my mouth. I found the clog, blew it out, bled the engine and sure enough – we were back in business. Of course, at this point I was bleeding and bruised from being repeatedly smashed against the engine in the beam seas. But we were moving again. Crawling along at 4.5 knots.

We lost the same engine twice more over the crossing – all related to the black, nasty fungus that grows in diesel here. This is despite my using the anti-fungus diesel additive. But, fuel problems are easy to diagnose and relatively easy to fix – so I prefer them over more serious issues…

Damo was on the edge of seasickness the entire time. Ana got a touch of seasickness, but it passed. I, despite working on the engine and sucking on diesel hoses – avoided seasickness altogether. The first twelve hours we motored with a headwind and a beam sea which burns diesel, has a horrible motion, and adds a level of stress (what’s going to break next?). And at 4.5 knots, we weren’t going to be getting to Caymans (on the way to Cuba) anytime soon…

But soon the wind shifted to 35 degrees. And NOMAD, surprisingly enough, sails at 35 degrees. And 40 degrees. And at 60 degrees she flies. Very few people believe this, until they sail with me. And even then they have a hard time accepting what the gauges and numbers show. But the proof is in the pudding.

Over the next few days and nights we would spend most of our time bashing through seas. At 8-10 knots. Read that again. In winds under 20 knots, in the open ocean with steep, short period swells, in a catamaran pointing into the wind, with only 37 feet of waterline – we spent our time sailing between 8 and 10 knots. I, for the first time, saw 11 knots on NOMAD. It was exhilarating. And surprising.

Speed

Speed

Then we broke our boom topping lift. That doesn’t seem like a big deal. But with a catamaran like mine – the boom topping lift serves as a partial backstay, helping to strengthen the rig. So. After I noticed this I watched and listened and debated. Climbing the mast in these kinds of seas with this kind of wind, in the open ocean – is a little bit challenging. It’s also a bit dangerous, and definitely painful. Minimally you’ll be beaten against the mast, or you’ll fall or you’ll get tangled in the rigging.

The only thing that’s guaranteed is that it won’t be fun.

Watching and listening and thinking I decided to let it go for a few hours and catch some shuteye. Afterall, the wind was no more than 15 knots.

That evening when got up from my nap I could hear a creaking in the mast that didn’t inspire confidence. And the wind was increasing. And so I woke up Ana, and I climbed the mast to replace the boom topping lift. I was right – it was painful. But I didn’t fall and after a few bumps and bruises and a couple of mistakes – the boat was moving along with all of her rigging intact.

I was limping for a couple of days, though.

By day three we were all in the zone. Wake-up, make coffee, eat something quick and get into the cockpit for your 4-hour shift. Then you read or fish or do something else to pass the time. Then, when your shift is over – you relax and lay around or go below and take a real nap.

Meals are really snacks. Sleep is really naps.

And then, almost suddenly, we could see Grand Cayman. Land! We joked about how in a few hours we’d be drinking beer at an actual bar. There would be real grocery stores. People would speak English. People might even be friendly.

We were stoked.

Grand Cayman Port Security guided us into a dock. We tied up NOMAD and proceeded to do our paperwork. Then they casually told me that they would bring the canines to search my boat. I told them I had nothing to hide, but that I’d like to just be done so I could shower and have a beer and get some real sleep.

The Grand Cayman Customs guys are jerks (and there are better words for them).

They are the Customs equivalent of the guy who was picked on in highschool so he becomes your hometown police officer and now gets off on over-exercising the limited amount of authority that should have never been granted to him. Such a cliché.

Their first words to me were: “I hope you don’t have any plans today.” I told them my plan was to drink a cold beer at an actual bar. The main-guy, a clear example of someone that seeks to make other people as miserable as himself retorted with: “So you think you’re getting out of here today? Ha!”

Whether you’re a criminal or not, when you’re treated like a criminal and somebody is tearing apart your boat and bringing (not one, but two) sniffing dogs through your entire boat (including letting the mangy mutts on your beds) – it’s makes you feel like a criminal. It makes you feel like you have something to hide. It makes you nervous the way having a cop follow you on the highway makes you nervous. But worse.

Way worse.

Eventually these Customs agents, so clearly frustrated with their position in life and so intent on abusing the limited power they have – they left. The boat was in shambles. Ana and Damo were stressed. I was exhausted and furious. But also relieved. Knowing what I know now, though – I suspect my next encounter with these gentlemen won’t be so one-sided.

But. We made it.

Soon enough we were walking through Grand Cayman and marveling at the grocery store and the marine store and the bars. Then we were drinking a cold beer and connecting to WiFi. I downloaded weather and found that I wouldn’t be leaving Cayman for a week… Damo found out that he would be leaving from Cayman, rather than from Cuba.

Two nights of going out and drinking led me to abort any future drinking missions. Rather than drinking at the overpriced bars, I decided to spend my time fishing (and drinking – a little) on the boat. So after Damo returned home, our friends Jacko and Crystelle jumped onboard and we headed out to the Twelve Mile banks for some trolling and drifting.

Skirted Ballyhoo

Skirted BallyhooSkirted Ballyhoo

Fishing Dogs

Fishing Dogs

I made an early mistake and lost a nice fish, but we made up for it with a nice Bull Mahi later in the day. Then we spent an enjoyable evening drift and bottom fishing.  Then there was champagne to celebrate the Caribbean circumnavigation of Jacko and Crystelle.

Jacko and his Mahi

Jacko and his Mahi

Champagne on the water

Champagne on the water

And after all of that was done – it was suddenly time to get ready to go to Cuba.

Onwards To Cuba

Now we’re back to the present. And tomorrow, at 6 AM, we’re dropping our mooring here to sail to Cienfuegos on the Southern coast of Cuba. And we couldn’t be more excited. It’s about damn time.

So – I’ll update again when possible, but we’ll be back to sailing remote and beautiful islands with limited connectivity.

Which means it may be awhile before another update. Try not to hold that against me.