CRUISING NOTES ON NORTHWEST CUBA
These notes are a result of a short cruise that we did in Cuba in January 2013 on “Alba” our Hallberg Rassy 42. Our draft is 2.0 metres (6’ 8”).
This document is available online at: http://www.thehowarths.net/albacronicles/cruising-notes
An article describing our trip is available online at: http://www.thehowarths.net/albacronicles/2013-western-caribbean/december-2012
We cleared in at Varadero and then went anti-clockwise.
We used Calder’s cruising guide which we found to be accurate, especially on approaches. Our electronic Navionics charts were mostly accurate, but sometimes were up to ½ mile out.
The greatest challenge is to get the authorities to give permission to visit anchorages. We speak very little Spanish and struggled to get permission to visit anchorages especially on the North coast. The authorities don’t appear to understand that we don’t want to go ashore at every place we stop. Their permissions seem to be based on where we are allowed to go ashore.
In Varadero they would only give permission to go to Marina Hemingway and in Marina Hemmingway they would only give permission to go to Cayo Levisa. In Cayo Levisa we were told that we could only go to Marina Los Morros, but after a protracted discussion they allowed us to stop one night in anchorages in between. The trick seems to be to get them to give permission to go to your next port of entry and then get verbal permission to make some overnight stops. We never received written permission for overnight stops.
NORTH WESTERN COAST
The Guarda Fonteras will not allow anyone to stop along this section of the coast except at ports of entry. We asked about these places and were told not to stop – we had to go to directly to Cayo Levisa.
- Bahia Honda
- Cayo Morillo
- Ensendada de las Cochinatas
- Cayo Paraiso
We were told in Marina Hemingway that we definitely couldn't stop in Bahia Honda even overnight. We asked several times because it’s 85 miles to Cayo Levisa which meant an overnight sail for us. We were told that it’s a military base and also that it’s dangerous to go there – we’re not sure if it’s navigationally dangerous or militarily dangerous…
- A British boat, Yindee Plus, later told us that they had managed to get a special written authority to enter Bahia Honda. They arranged this through the commodore of the yacht club in Marina Hemmingway, who rang the head of the Coast Guard.
- An Australian boat, Liberty, went into Bahia Honda anyway, said that they had someone with seasickness and didn’t encounter any problems - the Guarda Fronteras were very friendly. They told us that the entrance to the bay is littered with wrecked, rusting ships.
- While we were in Cayo Levisa, the Guarda Fonteras gave us permission to go to Cayo Paraiso provided that we cleared out of Cayo Levisa and then cleared back into Cayo Levisa, but we thought that it was too much hassle to go back for one night.
Marina Darsena, Varadero
PORT OF ENTRY. Nice marina, if a little quiet. Some of the docks are in need of repair, but the majority are good concrete docks with vertical walls clad in wood. There is a good, inexpensive restaurant and small state run supermarket on site. Excellent security – they even give you a small identity card.
The clearance procedures were very straight forward, with everyone arriving very quickly. Some of the marina staff speak very good English and all are friendly. Debbie from “La Vida Dulce” (Canadian) has lived on her boat in the marina for many years and is very helpful. She helped us to arrange trips inland and showed us around the local town.
The local town is called Santa Marta and is a ten minute walk away. It is a local Cuban town with a small market, various shops, horse drawn carts everywhere and a small bank – very convenient. Varadero is a two mile walk away and is a holiday town with hotels, restaurants and banks. There are a couple of cash machines near to the bus station.
Marina Darsena is a good place to go to see the south and east side of Cuba. There is a Viazul bus station in Varadero from where you can travel to various parts of the country including Havana, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba.
Marina Hemingway, Havana
PORT OF ENTRY. Nice marina, but there is a hotel (Acuria) right next to the main dock where transients are put. They play loud music all day by their swimming pool, so make sure that you are well away from this. There’s another night club near to the other hotel (The Old man and the Sea) which plays loud music until four o’clock – try to get between them…
Some of the docks are in need of repair, but the majority are good concrete docks. However, there is a nasty overhang on all of the docks which is difficult to fend off – ideally you need a couple of large ball fenders and tie them to the dock rather than your boat. The marina used to give a 30% discount on the docks near to the sea where there is no power and water, but we were told that the discount is now only 5% and the docks are in poor condition.
The clearance procedures were very straight forward. You pull onto a clearance dock just inside the harbour entrance and everyone arrives very quickly. Some of the marina staff speak very good English and all are friendly. We were asked for a little “gift” by the immigration officer but we just said no.
There are some state run shops on site and the marina has very good security – lots of guards hanging about.
There are some local shops within walking distance where you can get essentials such as bread, eggs, vegetables and pork. Turn left outside the marina, walk along the main road for ½ mile, over a bridge and turn left at the first crossroad. 400 metres along the street, there’s a junction with the shops. Saturday seems to be the busiest time.
There’s a cash machine and a bank in the same area – walk along the main road, past the crossroads and there’s another junction on the left before you get to the roundabout. Take the road that runs at 90 degrees to the main road and you’ll come across the cash machine on the left after 400 metres. The bank is almost opposite – you’ll know it by the queue outside.
Marina Hemingway is a good place to go to see the west side of the island. There’s a travel agency in the Hotel Acuaria, who will arrange bus trips for you at a reasonable cost. It cost us $15 each for a one way ride to Vinales.
You can get a taxi into Old Havana for $15 or you may be able to get onto the courtesy bus that the Hotel Acuria lays on for its guests. In January 2013, the bus left at 1000 and returned at 1730.
The Guarda Fonteras initially told us that we could only go from Cayo Levisa to Marina Los Morros, but after a little bit of discussion they verbally said that we could stop overnight at various anchorages on the way as long as we didn’t go ashore.
Quebrado de San Carlos
REEF ENTRANCE. The Navionics charts are showing the red entrance buoy in the correct place - the approximate position of the buoy in Jan 2013 was 22° 52.72N 083° 35.18W. However, the positions of the other marker posts are slightly incorrect on the Navionics charts. We followed Calder’s directions by heading south and leaving a broken marker post to port (approximate position 22° 51.63N 83° 34.89W). We then turned south east and left a green marker post to port before heading east towards Cayo Levisa.
From here, the water is murky over sea grass and it’s difficult to gauge the depth. It stayed between 4 and 6 metres until we were south of the western tip of Cayo Levisa when it was more shallow.
It is very shallow from a point south of the western tip of Cayo Levisa (approximate position 22° 51.83N 83° 32.73W). We encountered depths from 2.1 – 4 metres until we got into the anchorage. There were many places between 2.1 and 2.3 metres deep.
Navionics charts are showing the shallow patch just before the anchorage in the wrong place - we went hard aground while following the charted depths. I would estimate that the shoal is 0.25 miles further west than shown on the charts. In Jan 2013, when we were approaching on a northerly bearing, there were two small sticks marking the western end of the shoal, so you should leave these to starboard coming in.
We anchored in 7 metres of water in good holding mud, just to the west of the hotel dock. The ferry from the mainland approaches from the south east, so bear that in mind if you want to anchor to the east of the dock.
The hotel staff on the dock will ring through to the Guarda Fronteras, who will come over to see you on the next available ferry from the mainland. At first they weren’t going to let us off the dock until we had cleared in, but then let us wander to the hotel for a beer while we waited. A guy from the Ministerio del Interio arrived and we sorted out the documentation on the dock – he didn’t need to go aboard.
When we cleared out, we got the hotel staff to ring the Guarda Fronteras at 0700, which gave him enough time to catch the ferry that arrives at 0830. This was a nuisance because we couldn’t leave until 0900 which made the passage to our next stop tough because we had to maintain 6 knots average to get there in reasonable daylight.
The hotel is nice and has a lovely white sand beach. There are a couple of bars and a store selling the usual cigars and rum. We asked about buying bread, but it seemed to be too much effort.
The island is covered with mangroves and the water on the anchorage side is murky. We couldn’t find anywhere to go snorkelling on coral that was within dinghy distance. The beach side was rough when we were there, but it looked to be shallow sand and sea grass.
Quebrado Ines Des Soto
REEF ENTRANCE. We were going to use this entrance to get to Ensenada Las Playuelas, but were told by the dive boat operator in Cayo Levisa that it was unmarked and shallow. He suggested that we’d be better off going down to Cayo Jutias and using the Quebrado De La Galera, which is what we did.
Quebrado De La Galera
REEF ENTRANCE. This is a couple of miles south west of Cayo Jutias. We used this entrance to go to Punta Alonso de Rojas. We didn’t go to Cayo Jutias because we were trying to get further south to clearer waters where we would be able to go snorkelling rather than staring at another island of mangroves.
The Navionics charts show the green entrance buoy and reefs 0.4 miles further to the west-south-west. The approximate position of the buoy in Jan 2013 was 22° 41.00N 084° 05.80W. Following Calder’s directions, we made our approach on a bearing of 160°M and left the buoy 30-50 metres to our port. We had 8 metres of water up to buoy and then the water depth varied between 10 and 4 metres – the shallow portions were where we passed over submerged coral patches.
Punta Alonso de Rojas
After entering the reef using Quebrado De La Galera, we turned south-west at 22° 40.00N 084° 05.53W and had a minimum of 5 metres over sea grass until the approach to Punta Alonso de Rojas.
The red buoy marking the shoal was at a different position to the Navionics charts - the approximate position in Jan 2013 was 22° 37.33N 084° 08.71W. We left the buoy to port and headed into the anchorage. The water gradually shoaled and we anchored in 2.5 metres on grass and mud. The Navionics charts seemed to be correct for the position of the bay and headland.
The anchorage is uninteresting – you have to anchor a long way from the shore because of the shallow water.
Punta Alonso de Rojas to Cayo Rapado Grande
We did this passage in fairly settled conditions, leaving at nine o’clock in the morning and arriving in the anchorage at two o’clock in the afternoon. It’s all inside the reef. We followed Calder’s advice and headed out to the reef to avoid the shallows of the Bajo Del Medio. We investigated Cayo Restinga de Carruyo, but when we got there, we decided not to stay because there didn’t seem to be any interesting snorkelling. It’s a pleasant cay with lovely water colours, so it’s worth passing close.
We then headed towards the Punta Tabaco light and found the water to be much deeper than the 2.2 metres shown on the charts – we had over 4 metres for most of the way. We didn’t bother to anchor next to Punta Tabaco because as Calder states, there’s not a lot there.
Carrying on towards the Cabezo Seco light, we encountered shoals, which we had to skirt around. The water depth dropped to 2.6 metres at one point, but it’s easy to skirt around the obviously light coloured shallow areas.
We finally found a shallow coral reef just south of the Cabezo Seco light and tried to anchor in 3 metres of water, but the wind was picking up to over twenty knots and we dragged on the first attempt, so we ran away.
Cayo Rapado Grande
The approach is fairly straight forward. From south of the Cabezo Seco light continued heading west in 7 metres of water until we got to 22° 30.76N 084° 21.90W and then headed south towards the 5 metres deep Bajo La Vinagrera. We didn’t encounter any water less than 3 metres and we avoided light coloured patches.
Once in the slightly deeper water of Bajo La Vinagrera, we followed Calder’s direction and navigated around the sand spit that sticks out on the south side of Cayo Rapado Grande – it’s a long way around. I was impatient and cut the corner, so we ended up in water that was only 2.3 metres deep but, by following the darker water, I found a 2.8 metre channel very close to the spit that got us out of trouble.
The approach to the anchorages is 3.5 – 4.0 metres deep and very consistent. We anchored in 3.0 metres of water next to a small, isolated cay in weed and mud. The anchorage is very peaceful, surrounded by mangroves and we were able to anchor close to the shore for a change. We couldn’t swim because there were hundreds of jelly fish around the boat. We took a dinghy ride into the large lagoon, but there wasn’t very much of interest unless you like staring at mangroves.
Cayo Rapado Grande to Cayos De Buenavista
There are no problems in navigating this stretch of water inside the reef – we never encountered any water shallower than 3.5 metres (which was to the west of the Cayos De Buenavista.)
We went out to the “reef” to try to find some elusive coral and anchored at 22° 28.15N 084° 26.27W next to a charted shallow patch. Disappointingly, this turned out to be a patch of weed and sand, so the snorkelling was uninteresting. However, it was a pleasant diversion for lunch and the water colours were spectacular. There were no difficulties in navigation out to this point – the water is around 6 metres, much more than suggested by the charts.
Cayos De Buenavista
We had settled conditions with a 15 knot north-easterly wind, so we anchored off this Cay overnight. We had no luck in getting the anchor to set at the western end of the island – we think that it was thin sand over rock. However, we managed to find weed and mud at the entrance to the lagoon on the island, but we had to anchor a fair way off shore in 2.6 metres of water. (Approximate position 22° 23.42N 084° 25.30W.)
Cayos De Buenavista to Ensenada de Anita
This section of the coast has no hazards. We sailed along a couple of miles from the shore and had water depths of 7-10 metres all the way to the approaches to Ensenada de Anita.
Ensenada de Anita
We found the Navionics charts and Calder’s guide to be fairly accurate. The water depth gradually dropped to 4 metres as we approached the shoal patch marked on the charts to the west of Cayo Montano. The water was murky and the sky overcast, so we did not see the shoal patch at all. Instead, we tentatively inched our way in using the Navionics chart. We passed through a waypoint (22° 11.69N 084° 25.32W) to the east of the charted shoal and didn’t see anything less than 3.5 metres. We then headed roughly north and anchored in 2.6 metres to the west of Cayo Montano. This is another anchorage surrounded by mangroves with a grassy sea bed. Pleasant enough though and good protection from the south-easterly winds that we had.
Ensenada de Anita to Cayos de la Lena
There are no dangers on this section of the Golfo de Guanahacabibes apart from the reef called Cabezos de Plumajes which had a red buoy marking the north side of it. To the west of Cabezos de Plumajes is a strangely charted set of submerged reefs. Calder says that these should have depths of more than 5 metres and when we passed directly over them we saw nothing less than 8 metres.
Canal de Barcos, Cayos de la Lena
There was a cold front approaching, so we went into here for some protection. The approach is very straight forward with the shallowest depth being 3.5 metres. The waterway is about 100 metres wide and the 4-5 metre deep water goes close to the mangroves. We anchored ½ mile inside the waterway in soft mud – it took a couple of goes to get the anchor to hold, but once it's in, it's hard to get out. We put out a second anchor in a Bahamian mooring, but there’s enough room to swing to a single anchor.
This is a well-protected anchorage and very pleasant. Two large Cuban fishing boats came and joined us for a couple of days. They were very friendly and traded us a large snapper for a dollar’s worth of rum. We stayed for six days because another frontal system came through.
Marina Los Morros, Cabo San Antonio
PORT OF ENTRY. This is not shown in Calder’s cruising guide, but is now the only port of entry on the west end of Cuba – Maria La Gorda is no longer a Port of Entry.
It is very generous to call this a Marina. It’s a concrete dock that was used by fishing boats. The dock lies roughly north/south and there is approximately 150 foot of dock which could be used for yachts – the remainder of the dock stretching to the shore is really a breakwater, edged with rocks. The eastern side of the dock is untenable in the prevailing easterly winds because it is completely unprotected. The west side of the dock will fit three 40 foot yachts and was occupied by a local fishing boat, a sport fishing boat and a yacht, so we had to raft up on the fishing boat. To the west of the dock is fairly large area where it would be possible to anchor, but I was told that the sea bed is poor holding – a German boat that we met there had dragged onto the shore.
We started our approach from 21° 54.48N 084° 54.25W and motored towards the end of the dock on a heading of 210°M passing between a green and a red marker posts. The depth dropped to 2.5 metres as we approached the dock then increased to over 5 metres as we moved to the west of the dock. There was well over 3.0 metres of water alongside the dock.
The Port Captain/Guarda Fronteras is very efficient and helpful. We managed to come alongside and clear out for Mexico in less than two hours. There is a small bar/restaurant ashore where you can buy beer and a few other things.
The seaward buoy leaving/entering the reef at Los Morros was at 21° 57.15N 084° 56.86W, which is ½ mile from the position shown on the Navionics charts. We followed the Navionics charts past the shallows leading from Los Morros marina and it was accurate – it’s just the position of the buoy that appears to be wrong.