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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And with full freezers, full stomachs and fuzzy heads – we planned our next move down the Cuban coastline.
Trinidad is cool. It’s very touristic, which makes it slightly less of my-kind-of-place.
It’s quaint and beautiful and has real cobblestone streets, very narrow, that wind up and down hills. The sun roasts you, so you wear straw hats. There are tractors in the streets. Horses and mules are a big part of transportation.
During the middle of the day there is very little to do, and so you either walk and roast and burn looking at the sights – or you sit in the shade and drink too many mojitos and smoke fine cigars and watch people and listen to music.
We did a little of both, but I’ll let you guess which of the two scenarios I prefer.
In Trinidad there is a plaza. It is a fine place. But just up the hill from this plaza there is a stage and a place to drink and at the top of the hill there is the Casa De Musica. On the stage they play Buena Vista Social Club and people dance and sweat and smile. You can see excellent dancing, or maybe you can dance excellently and therefore you would be dancing excellently and I would be watching you dance excellently and drinking excellent mojitos and smoking fine cigars.
And we would both be happy.
There is a man with a donkey that so personifies Cuba that he charges money to take a picture. But he is Cuba, so the picture is priceless and we love him. Here is this man.
When he’s not standing in the Plaza, he is walking ever-so-slowly to a new spot in the Plaza or he is napping in the shade of a building or his donkey with his cigar falling out of his mouth.
In Cuba, you usually stay (besides hotels – which are really for the uber-tourist) in casa-particulars. These are typically a couple of rooms in a Cuban’s house that have been converted so that guests can stay there. We stay in casa-particulars. They are fine, and they have A/C (usually) and hot showers (usually). For me, those two things are very luxurious. And they let you smoke cigars there…
So we had A/C and hot showers. And during the day we were asked directions to the Cave Bar. We had no idea what it was, but quickly decided it was somewhere worth visiting. That night we found it and it was, as the name implies, a bar in a cave. Complete with bathrooms in cave rooms.
Not just any bar, though. It’s luxurious and clubby and it stands in stark contrast to virtually everything around it. Looking back, it’s a very strange thing. But it has a remarkable turnout and once inside you could just as well be in a club in Miami – which I used to frequent once in a while. We danced and sweated a lot and then ran out of money for drinks and were having trouble standing without weaving so we went back down the long hill and through the dark alleys to our room.
And on the way we met a Russian guy that was coupled up with a Cuban woman. They insisted that we eat with them. We were very drunk and not hungry but we agreed and I’m not exactly sure why. They were quite a pair. She kept telling us how in love they were, and it was in rapid-fire Spanish and I was having trouble understanding her. His English was even harder to understand so she did most of the talking as none of us spoke Russian. They had known each other two weeks and she had two children with another man and since she couldn’t leave Cuba and he wasn’t immigrating it made the whole thing seem very strange.
Then we left the restaurant with most of our meals in to-go containers and laughed and weaved our way back to our room where we slept in A/C, took hot showers woke up late still a little groggy.
Then we went back to the plaza and the stage and had mojitos.
Then it was time to get back to the boat.
Everything was how we left it and getting back to the boat was a major relief and it made me want to just sleep and read and play chess and drink Cuba Libre’s.
That wasn’t in the cards.
Instead we needed to plan and resupply and buy things and use the Internet (which is an adventure in itself). For all of this we needed to fight the money fight, which is tough for Americans and only slightly less so for Brazilians. That’s the thing about Cuba – it’s a pain in the ass to do anything.
We were desperate to leave and see the coast. I was desperate to freedive and explore the reefs and chase giant Grouper and Hogfish and Cubera Snapper. Without the diving and the sailing I was gaining weight and without eating fish I was in withdrawals. And without a beautiful coastline we both felt cheated. And without blue water under my keels I felt my time was being wasted. Why, if there is no bluewater under my keels, did I put all of my money in a rapidly depreciating maintenance headache?
So we hurried and rushed and ran and shopped and carried things too heavy. Then I worked on the boat. Then I found a variety of other problems so I did more boatwork. Then I fixed most of those problems and I found water in my starboard saildrive oil and that is a problem that I couldn’t fix and it infuriated me (it was my fault – fishing line in the prop again). But it was time to leave and time doesn’t sleep and so neither did we.
We pulled up anchor at 6PM that evening, with 15 knots of wind in our face. We knew we were going the right way, because the wind was in our face. That is, afterall, how sailing works in the Caribe. So we motored until we got out of the harbor.
The weatherman told us that the wind would die after sunset and then we’d motor down the coast. But he lied. Once we left the harbor the wind picked up. Now it was gusting 30 knots in our face and I was only able to do 4 knots into the wind with both engines. The waves were smashing us too. Things were bouncing around and knives were dropping and glass stuff was breaking. Jaco was pretty unhappy (Songerie has become our official sailing buddy) about the whole thing, but it was great to have him and Cristelle with us in the shit.
After a couple of hours I checked the engines and the saildrives and found that the starboard saildrive was worryingly low on oil. This was a major problem and when I shut off the starboard engine we were now doing 3 knots, sometimes 2.5 into the wind. I’ll save you the technical details, but some numbnut wrapped fishing line in his brand new oil seal (around the prop) which allowed water in and then experimented with a solution that made the problem worse and then that numbnut found himself in desperate need of both engines/saildrives. Of course that numbnut is the captain and that captain is me, just in case self-deprecating humor isn’t clear on the interwebs.
Anyways, now that I had heavy winds on the nose – I was trying to power NOMAD with only a single 29 horsepower engine. To make a long story short, I used some very colorful (and, I might add, creative) language and then we pushed on and then the wind let up and then we were sailing a little. Then the wind died and we were back to motoring and I was worried about everything and so we took a route that was shorter and motored all night and most of the following day.
Then we saw our destination. There was a reef line and it looked impenetrable and as if to emphasize this, there was a very recent wreck laying on top of the reef. Another yacht on the reef, another dream ruined. Another reminder to stay vigilant and not make mistakes and pay attention and think quickly and move even more quickly.
You can lose it all so quickly. That kind of heartbreak that will make you sick of love.
But we had some waypoints and we had some old charts and we had Songerie leading us in – they had beaten us quite soundly as we were down to one motor/saildrive. Coming through the reef made me nervous and then it was suddenly only two meters deep and that makes me nervous too. After an hour of tense single-motoring through coral-strewn shallow-water we dropped our anchor and looked around.
NOMAD and Songerie were the only two boats in 100 miles and it was stunningly beautiful and remarkably remote. Desert scrub turns to mangrove turns to beach turns to shimmering, crystal clear water over healthy and untouched reef.
And I remembered again why I work so hard to get to places where people haven’t screwed it up yet.
You guys can have all of the cities.
You can have all of the well-charted and well-explored and well-settled lands and waters. If there are roads there, it’s already ruined. I’m sticking to my guns: the most beautiful places on Earth are places where few humans have been and where none live.
You can argue with me if you want, but if you do – it just means you haven’t seen what I have. And that’s The Truth.
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 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.
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.
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.
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…
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.