Rescue on the High Seas
May 20, 2004
For sometime recluses like us, Cuba is the perfect place to cruise. We haven't been bothered by big crowds since we left Puerto Vita in early April. In fact, up until a few days ago, we've either anchored alone or have been in the company of exactly one other cruising couple, Bob and Viviane on the ketch "Varuna 1". While we enjoy being on our own, if anything goes wrong it's handy to have another boat or two around to help out. Our recent visit to Cayo Blanco -- our last planned stop before the big resort centre of Varadero -- provides a good case in point.
We had agreed to meet "Varuna 1" at Cayo Blanco. The beach at the southwest tip of the island is a lunch stop for day charter boats based in Varadero. When we approached Cayo Blanco in mid-afternoon we could make out four monster catamarans moored off the beach, each over 60 feet long. On shore, two hundred scantily clad, once white bodies were turning pink. Bob and Viv anchored in front of the beach. We decided to round the corner of the island and continue another quarter mile up a mangrove-lined channel to anchor. By the time our anchor was set, all of the baked flesh had piled back on board the catamarans and the boats were on their way home. We called "Varuna 1" on the VHF radio to inquire about conditions on their side of the island.
Bob replied, "It got really empty really fast when the charter boats left, but I see another cruising boat coming in to anchor about a mile further up the shore from us."
It turned out that the newcomers were a British couple, Richard and Susan, on the 30 foot sloop "Paradise". Since their presence had just doubled the number of cruising boats we had anchored with in Cuba, we thought we should give them a call. In the ensuing three way radio conversation with "Paradise" and "Varuna 1" we learned that Richard and Susan had anchored far away from us not because they were antisocial (or we seemed repulsive), but because their auxiliary engine wasn't working and they wanted lots of manoeuvring room.
"I think the impeller on my raw water pump is shot," Richard said. "We'll have to sail back to the marina in Varadero to get a replacement." He admitted there were at least two complicating factors. First, the marina is located in a concrete boat basin that's connected to the open ocean by a narrow, current swept channel. "It should be a downwind sail to the entrance of the channel, but then we'll have to make a dogleg and head directly into the wind to reach the docks," Richard predicted. The second wrinkle was the weather forecast: a cold front was due in a couple of days. "If the wind clocks to the west, we'll be on a lee shore without an engine here at Cayo Blanco; we really don't have much time to spare." He and Susan sounded pretty glum.
"Well, we're planning to sail to Varadero tomorrow," David volunteered. "We'll help out any way we can, although I'm not sure we can be very useful. It sounds like it's going to be too tight for us to tow you behind 'Little Gidding' and our geriatric four horse outboard isn't going to help much if we try pushing you with our dinghy."
Bob jumped in, "We have a 15 horse outboard on our dinghy; if the wind fails, we should be able to power you through the channel."
A plan was hatched. Of the six of us, Eileen spoke the best Spanish, so "Little Gidding" was assigned responsibility for reconnaissance and international relations. We'd go first, check out conditions in the channel, and clear everything with the officials at the marina. "Varuna 1" was put in charge of operations; they'd follow us to the dock and, if conditions required his assistance, Bob would immediately go back out in his dinghy to help bring "Paradise" in. Given the recent pattern of strengthening afternoon winds, we decided on an early start; fortuitously, this meant that by the time we reached the channel, we'd have a rising tide (in case we ran aground) and a flooding current acting in our favour. The only factor we hadn't accounted for was Cuban officialdom.
We weighed anchor at dawn the next morning and were soon broad reaching under near ideal conditions: ten to fifteen knots of wind aft of the beam, two to three foot seas on the quarter. Three hours and 18 miles later we were at the marina entrance channel. After passing through the channel into the boat basin, David called "Varuna 1" and "Paradise" on the radio. "The sea conditions at the entrance are pretty benign," he reported. "You'll have about three quarters of a knot of current helping you once you're in the channel and you should be able to sail close-hauled along the first section. But just before you reach the turn in the channel, you're going to get blanketed by two high-rise hotels. At that point, 'Paradise' will be dead in the water and probably need help."
The check in procedure at the marina was fairly expedient by Cuban standards: only three officials and no dogs. We were done in time to catch Bob and Viv's dock lines when "Varuna 1" arrived. That's when we discovered the only glitch in our otherwise well conceived plan: foreign boaters aren't permitted to operate their dinghies in the boat basin; in fact, we are not even supposed to put them in the water. Eileen's Spanish got thoroughly tested; negotiating an exception to the rules meant working up through several ranks of officials. Every 15 minutes or so David radioed a progress report to Richard and Susan, who were patiently sailing back and forth outside the channel entrance. It took an hour for Eileen to convince the officials that our friends were in dire circumstances and about to perish at sea. It's just possible that a few details got exaggerated in the translation. Finally, the word came down from the Port Captain that we could launch a rescue mission.
David and Bob jumped into Bob's dinghy and roared off to save "Paradise". They hit the open ocean chop just outside the entrance breakwater and within seconds David was soaked with spray. "I think it makes more sense for us to wait for them inside the breakwater," he suggested. Bob did a U-turn. By this time, "Paradise" had dropped its main sail and was leisurely sailing along under headsail alone. Bob pulled up alongside the sailboat once it was in the channel and David secured a breast line. Richard and Susan looked remarkably relaxed for a couple who had just escaped certain death. "Wasn't that a brilliant sail?" Richard remarked.
At the turn in the channel, the wind died and Richard furled his headsail. Bob increased the throttle on his outboard and Richard steered us towards a big empty space at the marina docks where a sizeable crowd had assembled. "Paradise" drifted gently into a vacant slip and everyone cheered. The boat hadn't sunk and no one had drowned.
After they had completed the check in process, Richard and Susan came over to invite us and Bob and Viviane out for dinner. They knew of a nice place in town overlooking the beach. Having subsisted for a few weeks on a diet of seafood and canned vegetables (see last week's entry, "Living Off The Sea"), we promptly accepted their offer. It was a great meal; David ordered the combination plate that featured several kinds of meat and NO fish. To top it off, we all lit up hand rolled cigars. None of us smokes normally, but the cigars came with our meals and it somehow seemed to be the appropriate thing to do.
Richard insisted on paying for dinner. We objected, but he stood firm. "It's the least I can do for your having come to our rescue."
"Well, okay, if you put it that way," David conceded. "After all, it's pretty tough being a hero." He casually inhaled on his cigar, coughed suddenly, and put the stupid thing out.