June 2001: 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, either.

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.

We immediately 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.