Welcome to Cuba
On June 2, we headed west from Luperon, Dominican Republic,
with our friends Dennis and Jodie Hollinger-Lant aboard. We had gotten
the VHF fixed, and most of the electrical problems resolved. We had
no depthsounder or stereo system. The former was a concern; the latter
was, at most, an annoyance.
We figured it
would be about 40 hours until we made landfall. Jodie and Dennis
settled in quite nicely to the routine of nonstop sailing. Perhaps
part of their comfort came from the fact that we had absolutely
no wind. We motored for nearly 24 hours, and even stopped at one
point to go for a swim to cool off. Finally, after dinner on June
3, as we were crossing the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba,
enough wind developed for us to sail. Jodie and Rob went below to
sleep and Dennis and Andi were on watch under an almost full moon.
As is our custom, we did a 360 degree scan of the horizon every
5 minutes to look for ships. At 10 pm, Andi was startled to see
a dark mass just behind Akka, somewhat obscured by our US flag.
It was too small and low to be a dark cloud, but much bigger than
a fishing boat. It showed no lights, and there had been no radio
transmissions. Alarmed, she called Rob on deck. As he came on deck,
the shape turned on its navigation lights and a huge spotlight "shined"
Akka. We in turn used our spotlight to shine them back. Our hearts
were in our throats when a very American voice came onto the VHF:
"This is the United States Coast Guard vessel Tampa to the sailboat
on our bow. Please identify yourself." We were immensely relieved
that the shape was not a pirate ship, but a 275 foot USCG vessel!
After we provided them information about our boat, registry, number
of occupants and nationalities, they informed us that they were
sending a boarding party over and that we should all be on deck
when they arrived. So we woke Jodie and got into the cockpit and
greeted the large Zodiac with its 6 occupants. They were extraordinarily
polite and efficient as they reviewed our documents and "performed
a safety check" for lifevests, flares, EPIRBs, radios, etc. Rob
asked that he be allowed to accompany anyone going below, and they
agreed with an "of course." Following the safety inspection, they
used a "non-invasive" ion-something swab technique to go over the
boat to look for drugs or explosives. When one of them who was on
deck removed his life vest, the radio from the "mother ship," which
was lurking some 150 yards astern immediately advised him to put
it back on. Pretty good night vision binoculars! It turned out that
the crew was based out of Portsmouth VA, about 15 miles from our
home port of Hampton, so they definitely warmed up as we chatted.
They were aboard for about an hour, and left us with thanks for
our courtesy, a copy of their safety inspection report, and wishes
for a safe journey.
It took a while
for our adrenaline rush to subside. Andi and Dennis were particularly
alarmed that a 275 foot ship had approached so closely so unnoticed,
while they were keeping watch. They realized, however, that they
had been looking for lights, not dark shapes, and that the "Tampa"
undoubtedly had noise-suppressed engines. We never heard her leave,
Just as we were
about to enter Puerto de Vita, Cuba, the engine refused to start,
so we came up the narrow, winding channel under sail and anchored.
The immigration officers came alongside in a skiff and took our
passports. They said that "the others" would be out shortly.
started working on our non-functioning starter, covering most of
the countertops and table surfaces with tools and dirty parts. Of
course, that's when the second skiff arrived, bringing representatives
from the Guarda (Coast Guard), customs, and agriculture. Also with
them was another guy with a cocker spaniel (customs? Guarda? we
didn't know). He stayed on deck while the others came below, each
with a sheaf of paperwork to complete. They passed the ship's documents
around amongst themselves, verifying details like length and width.
Most of the paperwork seemed redundant, but we patiently repeated
the same information to each official. The Guarda needed to know
about all of our communications equipment: number of SSBs, GPSs
(one portable and one fixed) , VHFs, radar, satellite phone,and
computers (one working, one not). They wanted to secure the portable
GPS, so they stuck it into the flare container and sealed the container
with evidence tape. They tried to secure the SSB, too, so we couldn't
transmit, but couldn't figure out how to do it. Maybe we could have,
but we didn't try hard to help. After a good half hour of paperwork
and questions, they said something like finito and called down the
guy and the cocker spaniel. The dog then searched the boat. Meanwhile,
the agriculture guy wanted to see all of the vegetables and fruits
we had aboard, and to know where we'd purchased each item. He carefully
examined every pineapple, orange, onion and tomato, scrutinized
the stalk of celery in the fridge, and told us not to bring any
of it ashore. Then, he and the guy and the dog went on deck and
the Guarda and customs guys proceeded to open drawers and cupboards,
and to pull up any removable floorboard. Of course, they missed
quite a few cupboards and items, but did have quite a time trying
to puzzle out the portable Scrabble game. It was a pretty thorough
search, and we learned that the 2 other boats (one American; one
Canadian) which arrived at the same time that we did were not subjected
to anything like it. We have no idea why we were singled out.