Sunday, March 30, 2014

Nassau - Chance to restock and see the sights

Next stop was Nassau which is on New Providence Island and is the capital of the Bahamas.  .  First we had to navigate back out the shallow channel with Amanda shouting instructions from her lookout.

Amanda providing lookout
We had not stopped here last year, we thought it would be shame not to as this is probably the place that most tourists visiting the Bahamas see – via a Cruiseship.  We also needed to stock up  on food although we had left the States with a huge amount a lot had been eaten in Cuba and although we loved the cheap fresh fruit and veg in Cuba we were almost out of some essentials like Mark’s beloved cereal and some not so essentials like crisps and Coke.  So with a cold front forecast we decided we would splurge and go into a marina, the unfortunate thing about Nassau is the crime rates are high and a number of people had recommend not anchoring as boats are often boarded and robbed.

Highrise on the horizon
The trip there was stress free once we had navigated away from the island, past the conch fishing boats and where into the Tongue of the Ocean, an area of water which is up to 3000M deep, one minute you are in 5M and next you are off soundings.

What makes Nassau most visible on the horizon is the hotels, in particular the Atlantis resort on Paradise island plus what look like large hotels but are actually a range of cruiseships. On arrival we decided we could anchor in a Delaport Bay slightly west of Nassau, as always we were trying to save some money, unfortunately this made for another bad nights sleep as it was a rolly one.  Still we were up early and heading for the harbour once we were granted to permission to enter we motored in observing what is not the prettiest of ports but interesting all the same.

Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island

After the row of cruiseship there are a few small marinas that take smaller yachts and based on a recommendation we stayed in Nassau Harbour Yacht Club, sounds poser than it is.

Most of our time in Nassau was spent stocking up on food, it felt like we were never out of the supermarket but we were like kids in a sweet shop with the variety of food available, everything you could want but at a price.  Everything cost more than in the States or the UK so although we wanted to buy lots of yummy stuff we really limited ourselves. It was also very funny to see Waitrose products again, I really would have loved a whole selection of Waitrose biscuits they looked amazing but I see Waitrose as a extravagance at home let alone when I have not been working.

So enough about food, we did have time to walk into Nassau centre and our overall opinion is that it has been spoilt.  There are some remaining colonial buildings and some of the government buildings are pretty but mainly it is full of tat tourist shops, a few luxury brands like Gucci, a few duty free shops and lots and lots of tourists from the Cruiseships.  There were 3 ships  in on the day we visited and it was over-run by people.  We did attempt to head a bit off the main strip and walked to the Art Gallery and then onto the Distillery and onto the Fort, an improvement on the main street but not that exciting.

John Waltings Rum distillery

Governors House - we think
We also had a surprise visitor in Nassau, our friend Robie on Cilest who we met last year in the Bahamas had just arrived from the States and was anchored in the harbour so he managed to pop over for a glass of rum.

We appreciated the fact that we had shelter during the cold front, it was great to get stocked up with food and drink but not sure we would be rushing to return to Nassau.

Very Merry Berry Islands

An unexpected first stop in the Bahamas at the Berry Islands, when we finally reached Frazer Hogs Cay, we dropped our anchor on the south of the island around lunch and decided we would not be moving anywhere until both rested, so we hoisted our yellow Q flag but made no attempt to check in.  

Mark finally able to relax after some tiring days at sea

Sunsets like these make it all worth while - I say that now but not at the time!
We slept like babies and woke in the morning ready to navigate along the west coast of Frazer Hogs Cay which is a small island is the south of the Berry Islands which are made up of around 30 Islands or Cays as they are called here.  There was a very small marina which comprised of a few berths much too shallow for Magnum and some mooring buoys.  These were managed through the Berry Island club which used to have some small cottages attached to the club but we understand that it closed some years ago and have only over the last couple of years re-opened on a smaller scale.  We could have anchored in this area but we needed to get checked in and if we took the mooring the guy who manages the marina would take us to check in.  Sounds simpler than it is, there is a fancy marina at the other end of the island at Chub Cay, here you can pay $100 to dock just to check in but at the Berry Island Club, Howard will drive you across the bumpy roads and get you checked in at the airport which actually takes hours our of his day but is done for only $20.

This was a great place for us to stop as we had use of the washing machines in the club, they had wifi which was a luxury after so long and even the shower seemed wonderful – even through this was cold, in a wooden hut that drained through into the ground and you had to have the door open as there was no light but we had just come from Cuba so weren’t expecting much!

Berry Islands Club

Berry Islands Club from the water 

Would love to day it was a perfect start to our stay in the Bahamas but the first night we had strong northerly winds, all would have been fine but the tide runs very strong , and against the wind it mean that the buoy was pulled under the hull and the chain was scrapping along the keel, we were up running around the deck with head torches trying to move the buoy, this worked for a while and we were able to rest but as the tide turned again and the wind increased the buoy was causing a lot of surging on the lines and by 3am we were up having tea, biscuits and trying to do all we could to make the motion more comfortable and not damage the boat.

The next few days we did as little as possible to have time to recover, you could have a few short walks on the island – we saw a raccoon which was quite exciting. We could have taken the dingy to other islands but we did very little other than relax.

Taking it easy

About time we relaxed
We did enjoy our stay here, Howard was more than helpful and to date (from the previous year) had been the most helpful Bahamian we had met.  He was visited frequently my people from the large Bone Fishing boats and small power boat to enjoy a meal at the club, he was supposed to be an amazing chef.  We also enjoyed watching the conch fishing men, one day they had engine problems and it was amazing to see them empty their catch overboard to keep them alive, Howard told us there were around 2500 Conch onboard but full catch would have been closer to 4000, how there are any left in the sea is amazing.

The pile on the deck is the Conch

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cuba to the Bahamas

Amanda and I had been fretting about this leg of our journey for months. It was only 200 miles to Bimini where we intended to check in, but with the prevailing winds from the NE this time of year we looked to be in for a long upwind slog. We had dallied so long with our visitors that our visas were due to expire and that put pressure on us to leave asap.

We were lucky, the day after Amanda said goodbye to Cheryl and family, the weather gods decided to send us a change. Light Sw winds were forecast for 2 days before turning light northerly. We rushed around, paid our bills, booked a 5am checkout with the coastguard and spent the last of our CUC (on rum and pizza!)

0430 we were up but the coastguard arrived late and took nearly 40 mins to complete the paperwork but by 0600 we had cleared the harbour entrance and set sail for Bimini. 

Sun rising as we leave Cuba
We motored for a few hours then hoisted sail and motor sailed for a bit before the wind filled in and we had a few hours spinacre sailing in sunshine and flat seas.  Lovely to be moving again.

Eventually the wind died and we motored along but we were now in the gulf stream so with reduced engine revs we were still making 7-8 knots as darkness fell. At midnight as Amanda came off watch the wind filled in and we again set sail and roared towards the Bahamas at 8+ knots.
The wind continued to build and we continued to reduce sail as our speed meant we would arrive in the dark unless we slowed down. As daylight broke we could start to spot the land but alas the increased wind (30 knts) was driving a large sea which made the entrance to Bimini very dangerous. With a sigh of disappointment we decided to continue around the top of Bimini and eastwards onto the Grand Bahama bank, to make use of the predicted drop in wind and the swing to the north.

All was going well, the wind dropped, it swung north and we made good progress.
As the wind was now <10knts we decided to anchor out on the bank for the night as we were both exhausted. We stopped made dinner and went to bed.

A couple of hours later Magnums motion indicated the wind had strengthened, so by midnight we upped anchor and were once again underway.
It was one of the darkest nights either of us could remember and with the wind now in the 20’s the short steep waves were not very pleasant. We put a scrap of sail up and kept progress deliberately slow to ensure we reached the narrow passage off the bank in daylight.

The weather gods reaped their vengeance for our easy passage from Cuba and sent 35knts winds, driving rain and zero visibility. It was a very tense 6 hours until daylight, it was darker than a miners armpit and 20 miles to leeward Andros and an area for very shallow sandbanks. We sailed along as slowly as possible trying to limit our slippage downwind just relying on our instruments alone, thank you US government for GPS.

Daylight dawned the wind disappeared and Mark left Amanda to pilot us through the NW channel and on to Frazer hog cay whilst he collapsed exhausted in the bunk.

Cuba Final thoughts

Just a few final thoughts on Cuba:

The transport never failed to entertain us in one way or another, Varadero is full of tourist targeted vehicles, this includes immaculately kept 1950’s cars were the outside as well as the inside are beautiful and these are used as Taxi’s along with cars that look like they are Model T Fords, they are actually some sort of replica but still pretty.  We were told by a Cuba that some of the well maintain cars are worth $40,000-$50,000.

Lovely Cheryl posing by lovely car

Loved seeing this pink Cadillac outside the local burger van 

Not quite a Model T Ford but looks fun
The horse and carts troll up and down the main strip, these are the pretty carts where the passengers sit on comfy seats facing each other not the more interesting local carriages which have benches running down the sides these are still used by the locals as taxis.  In the town bicycles taxis are also widely used by the locals, it was great to see them all waiting at the central transport hub.
Cars, horse and carts and bike taxis all waiting for passengers

So many horse and cars
There are still lots of old 1950’s cars on the road but funny that you see them with tied down boots or doors that don’t shut and if you drive at night do not expect these to have any lights but cars are still a rarity outside of the more touristy areas and large towns.  Cubans mainly use public transport which come in various forms and mainly people stick there thumb out and hope for a lift, can you imagine having to do this everyday to get to and from work.  The trucks and transport vehicles are used between the larger towns and villages but there is little comfort.  You also can’t imagine the fumes from the traffic in Cuba, we often rode our bikes locally, you came back filthy and often with a sore throat from inhaling the smog.

This is a local bus filled with locals

Waiting to board the bus

Another bus, we have seen these crammed full of workers in the mornings going into Varadero

It was great to see and for us it made us appreciate what we have at home when you have your own car to drive to work, yes you have the massively frustrating traffic but you can get there without having to rely on other and the public transport available is much more luxurious!

Politics – On leaving Cuba people constantly want to understand more about how people live in Cuba, the effect of the relationship with the US, how and when it will change.  Many of these points we just can’t answer but by visiting Cuba you do get a better view on how the long term politics in the country have affected the Cuban people both now and in the future.  It is difficult to explain how you feel about things that you see as an injustice or the inconsistency of the every day living in Cuba, these best way is to provide some example.  You visit Varadero and other tourist areas and the locals expect you to have you hand in your pocket all the time, whether that is using the toilets in a local building, parking a scooter at the side of the road where the local cars do not pay, giving you directions if you have taken a wrong turn or generally tipping for service, and yes many of these things you would be happy to pay for if they suddenly didn’t look at you like a bottomless wallet or refuse when you offer them less that they expect – 1 CUC to use the bathroom is only the equivalent to 60p UK/ 1US$ but when you know the local doctor, vet, trained professional is getting paid 15-30 CUC a month!! Why is the toilet attendant not happy with the 50 peso that you gave her!  You also know that if you visit a bar in Varadero one day you might get charged 1CUC for a beer, the next day it might be 1.50 CUC, yes amazingly cheap and happy to pay 1.50CUC if that is the price but not to think you have just been ripped off, these happens everywhere you go.

So these things do start to irritate after 2 months trying to get to understand the locals and how they live, also the service that is often provided in the tourist areas is nothing special but more frequently outside of the area the locals can be amazingly helpful, generous and welcoming.

The Americans often think that Cuba would change for the better if the embargo was lifted and perhaps it would but things need to change so much more, potentially the Cubans working in the tourist industry would just get more money through tips and everyone else would still remain on the same level of wages. It is difficult to accept that a chambermaid is the richest person in a family when there are others who have spent years at university getting a profession and are then too proud to do a menial job. You hear stories all the time that make you want to know more but you would need to be in Cuba a lot longer that 2 months to really understand how things are, how they have progressed and what the Cubans hope to see change in the future.

Corruption,  just a word of warning to any cruisers who might visit Cuba, yes there is still corruption and people may want you to give them something from your boat or cash but this did not happen at Marina Darsena and the staff her made you feel safe and secure in the marina environment.

Ismelli (might have spent that wrong) the manager of the marina is a genuine and welcoming person that it was sad to say goodbye to, his English was really good and he made life easy for us. The amount of security they have at the marina is ridiculous with possibly 4 people working 24 hours a day which was bit overkill BUT they were all lovely and again made you feel very safe – it was slightly odd at night when we had a security guy sat outside the boat all night!  And to make life even easier for cruisers in Cuba, Debbie Armstrong is a Canadian who has lived in Marina Darsena, in Cuba for over 10 years and just makes the transition so easy by providing you with maps, explaining the currency and generally helping you live if Cuba, just such a generous person.

Ismelli and Mark, couldn't have been nicer
We were sad to say goodbye to Cuba and yes even on the last day when we had to have the coastguard and immigration come to the boat to check up out and ensure we were not smuggling anyone out and were inevitable late and held up our departures, it was still really nice that all the security guards on the night duty came to wave us goodbye along with the coastguard and immigration, we can never say we didn't meet so really lovely people in Cuba, if we ever return I will make sure I make more of an effort with my Spanish – adiĆ³s amigos.

Oh one final thought, Rum Yum J

Friday, March 7, 2014

Fantastic Friends

The final few weeks before we left Cuba were still all go although unfortunately Amanda was not well on her birthday so that came and went without celebration.
A week went by with the final few boat jobs and a few visits to the beach but not much else until Cheryl, Paul, Finlay and Molly arrived.  They were staying at the Allegro Occidental hotel in Varadero so we our first get together was at the hotel and yet another over protective hotel where we were not allowed to move from reception.  After almost 3 years of not seeing each other there was lots to catch up on, not least the fact that Paul and Cheryl had moved from the UK to Rhodes at the same time we left on the boat and during this time Finlay had grown from a toddler to a full grown 5 year old! And there was now Molly, how exciting.

So over the next few days hours were spent chatting and more chatting.  We visited the beach in Varadero and also had a trip to the park but the kids were amazingly patient as we just talked and talked.  Finlay loved the fact that he had another child to play with in the sea, Mark is the biggest kid ever and Molly seemed quite happy with her new friends.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

More time at being a tourist in Varadero plus superb diving at Bay of Pigs and another day drinking rum in Havana

We should have been sharing stories of amazing diving in Maria Gorda on the west coast which we had booked between Barry and Moira and the kids arriving but on returning from the hotel Amanda had a severe bout of food poisoning so we could not go away which was very disappointing, so we had 3 days of cleaning, tidying and recovering.

We hired a car to pick up Dan and Abbie from the airport, not very exciting point to share but just a word of warning, the police are often on the look out for an unexpecting tourist, we took a wrong turn at the airport, it was very badly signposted and the police obviously waited at this spot as they knew.  They pulled us and babbled in Spanish, we knew that we had done something wrong, they indicated that it was a 60 CUC fine and it was very serious, you felt like they were going to cart you off to jail! But then suddenly if we paid the 30CUC on the spot they would let us go¸ we had little choice, when you know 30 CUC is a lot more than they get paid for 1 months wages you know it has been their lucky night, as probably every night is as they lie in wait at that junction!  But at least Dan and Abbie did not need to deal with getting a taxi or sitting on a bus for hours after the long journey.

The next few days we spent pottering around Varadero and Santa Marta, visiting the beach and doing our weekly shopping at the market which is always an interesting experience especially with our limited Spanish.

Hussle and bussle buying your onions

Beans and rice

Pineapples one of the best buys  - would cost less that 10 pence
We even hired scooters for a couple of days, one day we headed west from Varadero to Playa Coral where there is some great snorkelling.  At some point it looks like there could have been a restraint and bar on the beach front but that has been derelict for some time but enterprising Cubans sit on the beach offering sunbeds, snorkelling gear or cold beers, it is a little annoying at first but actually they are very nice and up for a bit of bartering and seems not to bother you once they have made you aware of everything on offer.  The snorkelling is wonderful, there is easy access to the beach and you can see plenty of fish without even going outside the reef but if you head out just past the reef there are lots of tangs, parrot fish, sergent majors, wrasse, all sorts of reef fish that are just as interested to see you.  Dan got to try out his new dive camera and took some great photos.

So many blue tangs
Lots of wrasse

It is Mark all the way down there!
Dan looking a little pale in the water
It was nice to have the scooter to buzz around Varadero so Abbie and Dan could see a bit more of the Peninsula, with it over 10 miles long you could easily just see a small area.

Dan on scooter with Varadero egg taxi in background
We had a fun night, off to a good start with Pina Coladas.

Mmmm Pina Colada

Then food at Casa Miel where the food is cheap and reasonably OK, never had carrot or cabbage on a vegetarian pizza before but it was surprisingly good and for 2.70CUC for huge pizza you can’t complain. More rum cocktails at the bar which was good because it was not too long before the very jolly Cuban singer decided Abbie was going to join him on stage.

Dan and Abbie also sampled a Cuban cigar to ensure for an authentic evening.

Dan enjoying Cuban cigar

Abbie enjoying Cuban Cigar
We wanted Dan and Abbie to see a bit more of Cuba so we headed off to Bahia Cochinos, this meant we had to drive for hours through rural Cuba which is great for seeing the horses and carts, bikes everywhere and how people live outside of the tourist area.

We were staying the night at the hotel in the Bay, this is the only hotel and had arrange this directly with the Customer Relations manager we had met when we had popped into the hotel a few weeks earlier, he was exceptionally helpful as were all the staff at the hotel.  BUT the hotel was a bit grotty, the rooms felt dirty, the bed covers were awful, I shower with my flip flops on and we were joined by a cockcrouch plus the food was pretty basic BUT it was cheap 66 CUC all inclusive 2 people for the night.

What was fantastic was the diving which we booked through the hotel, the equipment was all ok, the instructors were very good, it was very cheap at 25CUC a dive and the dive site was beautiful.  We dived on a wreck and a coral wall drop off of 300m.  There were lots of fish but what was particularly memorable was the giant moray eel which they fed, the huge lobsters which were hiding in the rocks, amazing coral, the hundreds of tiny fish on the wreck and the 3 of us being able to share this.


Moray Eel

Amanda and Mark



Parrot fish

Wreck and lots of tiny fish


Cool coral
The best bit of the trip for Abbie, along with the all the all inclusive cocktails was the tiny kittens which were living in the hotel.

Our final day with the kids was spent in Havana before dropping them at the airport.    We did all the normal sight seeing around the old town, drank more rum this included freshly pressed sugar cane with rum which almost woke Abbie and Dan up, we admired the lovely cars, we visited the capitol building and Gran Teatro and even had time for a drive along the Malecon where the water was breaking over the sea wall and there were a newly wed couple admiring the views.

Sugar cane and rum - the press is behind Mark's head!

Mark and Dan
A variety of vehicles racing off the lights in Havana 

Another cool car

Enjoying the sunset on their special day

Sunset over the Malecon with waves washing onto the road