Saturday, 19 May 2018

Heading North, The Bahamas To Chesapeake Bay, USA

Smooth Sailing In The Bahamas
Crystal Blues will depart from Great Sail Cay, in the Abacos, Bahamas, early tomorrow morning. Right now we're sailing WNW across the top of Little Abaco Island, in brisk (25 knot) south easterly winds. Its a sleigh ride, smooth and quick with just a tiny staysail set and we're over 6.0 knots of boat speed.

The passage to the Chesapeake should take just over 4 days, subject to winds and the ever present Gulf Stream current. We'll clear in to the USA in Norfolk, and then head up to Reedville in Virginia for a break.

Havana Cruising - The Automotive Dreams Edition

Tourist Rides, Central Havana

After almost two months in Cuba, the sight of these 1950's juggernauts still makes me smile.

While Havana has thousands of beautifully restored tourist taxi's, the city also has many more un-restored versions, doing just what they were built for, more than 60 years ago.

A fair number of them have been skillfully re-worked under the hood, and improved to boot. An aussie friend in Havana runs a private tour operation using a beautiful 1956 Chevrolet - only it has a Toyota diesel engine, Toyota 5 speed gear box and 4 wheel disk brakes. Its also air conditioned, a rare luxury. On top its a '56 Chevy - underneath its a Toyota SUV. The only 5 speed column shift I've ever seen!

Stunning, Glowing, Local Transport

Don't get too excited - dreaming of buying one of these and bringing it home? The Cuban government has banned the export of these classics. They'll stay in Cuba forever.

If you're interested in these machines click the link below for more images.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Havana Cruising - The Community Arts / Gaudi Edition

Cuban artist Jose Fuster decided to decorate his neighborhood with tiled art - now the world comes to see his creation. He worked with his neighbours and the local community to extend the concept to the streets around his home.

Now referred to as Fusterlandia, the district is heavily decorated, from the bus stops to the roof tops. Predictably, Fuster's own home is the most impressive of all, but still it pays to sit back and soak up the district.

 The art is intensive and quite pleasing, and the locals are of course happy that their decorated homes attract the tourists. At times the streets are crammed with 1950's tourist taxis - every one seems to be wearing panama hats and smoking big cigars.

 However it really is spectacular, and if you come to Havana you simply must see it. Check out the Admiral on horse back - I never thought I'd see the day!

The Admiral On Horseback

 What style this art emulates is now hard to say - Gaudi is in there, but others say Picasso and Dali are also represented.

Even The Bus Stops Are Decorated - With Andrew & Caroline From SV Askari

Tourist Cruiser
On these streets it is a competition between the flash cars and the flash houses - which is the most artistic? I'll take the car....

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Havana Cruising - The Magical Arts & Music Edition

Music For The Street, So Much Energy

Havana absolutely rocks with music of all types - every second restaurant has a resident band for the lunchtime crowds, and usually another band for the evening session. So many musicians, so much energy, its hard to relax. I just wanted to hear all of it, to drink it all in, but it simply isn't possible.

Late Night, Roof Top Bar, Hotel Inglaterra

In any afternoon you can hear five or six bands at as many venues, all playing to the street and the crowd inside. The guys in the  first image above occupied almost half the floor space in the bar - in another bar the band occupied the entire space, and the patrons sat on stools outside on the sidewalk. The younger bands are mixing newer sounds into the traditional Cuban mix, adding saxophones and much younger interpretations of the Cuban classics.

Havana Ballet Center

Of course it is not all Latin rhythms - visitors can take in the Ballet, there are symphonic concerts, Jazz of all kinds. So many talented performers in one small nation, its hard to comprehend. I understand the government pays selected musicians a monthly stipend (yeah, probably only around US$20.00) and then schedules them to play where required - government owned restaurants, community festivities etc. However many musicians are also part of the new economy, playing in bars and restaurants where they gather tips in the breaks plus (the big earner) selling CD's of their own music direct to the crowd. Those CD's are a kind of variable - sometimes you get what you heard, other times the music on the disk is completely different. No way to tell, but its worth buying the memories, and great to support the talent in a direct way.

Sheet Copper Artworks - Hotel Lobby
Visual Arts

Sophisticated Graffiti
Other art forms flourish here - from sculpture to lino cut printing, oil painting, even street art is an accepted genre.

Galleries and artist collectives are everywhere, creative processes are underway around every corner. Usually with an eye to the dollar, though not in a blatant way - these are educated people, subtle and proud.

It could be argued that even the traffic barriers in Havana Old Town are artistic - here they stop cars with canons.  Old canons, hundreds of them, artistically buried / planted in the narrow streets to place limits on vehicle traffic, returning the streets to the people and creating a beautiful traffic free ambience in much of the Old Town.

Hundreds Of Canons, Stopping Cars

Which leads us to that most complex of artistic disciplines - architecture. Havana can boast a good collection of Soviet inspired brutalist concrete structures from the 1960's, and then there is the Russian Embassy in Havana, which has to be seen to be believed (what were they thinking?).

However it's the older architecture that is so compelling, with fine restoration work proceeding apace on almost every block. In the heart of town the old Capitol Building is beautifully restored, along with a collection of significant buildings, including the oldest hotel, the Hotel Inglaterra (do not miss the rooftop bar at night).

The Havana Ballet Parapets At Night

Take That Paris - The Havana Ballet - Art On the Inside And Outside

Not Bad, Eh?
Now to something more mundane, but far more personal.

At lunch in the Old Town, a young woman sat across the street and produced a sketch of me, then presented it at our table. This was not something we'd requested - she was an opportunist. Some minutes later she returned, and I asked how much she wanted - the answer was enlightening.  "How much do you think it's worth? Give what you think, or give nothing, it's yours" she said. So of course I over paid. Go figure.

So capitalism is alive and well, and the people have a certain charm that allows them to prosper when they spot an opportunity, and Cuban art is a big opportunity.

In the past few years the internet has become widely available, and far less expensive, and the younger generation are right into it.  This will rapidly impact their expectations, influence the art and change the country for sure - go see it before it changes too much if you can.

Finally, I believe that the Cuban people have raised vehicle maintenance to an art form - the massive number of 1950's vehicles (and older) that are still running is a tribute to their talent.

Need to see more? For more images of Havana arts and music, click the link below.

Way Cool Transportation

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Havana Cruising - The Mojito Coast

Line Ém Up - Mass Mojito Mixing Every Few Minutes

After the quiet dignity and charm of the Cuban south coast and cities, arriving in Havana is a shock to the system - specially the liver. This is a party town, where the bars mix Mojitos in bulk and rum is cheaper than mixers, so each glass carries a delicious kick.

We arrived in Havana at Hemingway Marina on April 27, and wisely resisted hitting the Old Town for a few days - rest and repairs took precedence initially. Of course getting to the city isn't simple - with the marina about 15 miles out of town, a fairly battered 1950s Chevy will cost 25 bucks each way. So after an initial day visit we decided to book a room in the Old Town and stay for a couple of days next time.

1950's Chevy Taxi, This One Still Had The Original Engine & Transmission

And so the fun began - Havana Old Town is a world class destination, with thousands of historic buildings, many now restored, and a lively culture that welcomes tourists. A non-profit foundation has managed the gradual restoration of the Old Town with great sensitivity. Its a huge area to manage, but the planning policies have given it a living breathing heart, ensuring that the local population are not displaced and that schools and community facilities are included in the development mix. So yes there are tourists (thousands of them) but there is also nearly half a million locals in the old city, so the visitor gets a "warts and all" education in pretty quick time.

Plaza Vieja - Restaurants, Bars, Boutiques, Hotels, Home Stays & A Primary School - Life Must Go On

Of course mixing the haves and have-nots occasionally creates predictable social challenges, however the Cuban people are not without pride and dignity, and they handle even the ugliest tourist behaviour with great patience. The financial differences between the citizens and the visitors are enormous - a school teacher in Cuba might earn US$40.00 per month, a doctor say US$80.00 per month. Many tourists spend that on drinks in a single day.  But the real imbalance occurs when restaurant waiters earn, in a single day (and just in tips), the equivalent of a teachers monthly salary. How does that work? Yes, social change is coming, and its driven by tourism, which in turn is driven by the culture, music and history of the place.

Opposite our guesthouse, just minutes from the beautiful Plaza Vieja shown above, was a small store selling tourist nick nacks, cold drinks and local crafts. We spoke with the two sales staff, who on that day was a pleasant husband and wife team with excellent English skills - they were both University Professors, and she had a Doctorate in Mathematics, yet in one day selling stuff to tourists they earned more than their monthly government stipend. Something has to give.

Local Transport In The Old Town

Despite the rampant inequalities between the base level Cuban worker and the growing middle class, people are happy. They all have a decent education, they all have access to above average health care. Basic food stuffs and consumables are price controlled by the government so that every one can eat - just not in the new restaurants.

Havana is not to be missed - staggeringly beautiful buildings and plazas, amazing culture, food and drink that was frankly much better than expected and a musical culture that is without par. And it is the Mojito capital of the world.

Want to see more? Click the link below for more images of Old Havana.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Cuban Cruising - Sunsets & Thunderstorms

Cayo Largo Marina Sunset

Thunderstorm Formation
From the marina at Cayo Largo these thunderheads do look lovely. We were two days out from Cienfuegos and spent a couple of days in the small marina at Cayo Largo, before moving on westward again.

Our plans to explore the reefs and cayos changed rapidly when strong winds were forecast, so we changed tactics and course, heading instead to Havana after rounding Cape San Antonio at the extreme western tip of Cuba.

Around the cape, now heading north east, next afternoon the weather became decidedly dodgy, with thunderstorms forming right in front of us. These are things we like to avoid, as the accelerated winds and lightning they contain can be quite dangerous.

One in particular gave us grief for many hours - first came the the incredible cloud formation, followed by heavy rain nearby. We altered course, further offshore, monitoring the storm's movement on our radar as we traveled.

Then a fantastic waterspout formed, snaking across the ocean surface and sucking water furiously up into the clouds.
Waterspout On Starboard - We Last Saw One Of These In The South China Sea

This was not something we wanted over the top of us, so the radar tracking took on extra importance. Below is the basic radar image of the storm - note that the green rings on screen are each set 2 nautical miles apart, so the storm on our starboard side is only a mile or so away - that water spout was close.

Often we want a more informed view on screen, specially at night, so the radar image can be over-layed onto the electronic chart display, giving us a more detailed view of the navigation environment. In the image below the radar information is displaying in pink, whilst the vessel, it's track, course and heading can be seen on screen. These display systems are now common on many cruising boats - we all benefit from the improved safety information and situation awareness. And it helps to keep those nasty waterspouts away.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Cuban Cruising - Charming Cienfuegos

Tourist Rides, When They're Running

Like every city in Cuba, Cienfuegos is full of beautiful old cars, though keeping them running seems a constant task. We anchored off the marina just south of the city and spent 10 days exploring and relaxing, with the usual range of boat jobs thrown in. This was also a great city to re-provision, for our next passage to the west.

Cafe Prado

The city is relaxed, safe and surprisingly sophisticated, with a great range of restaurants, cafes and bars. Yes, it is Cuba, so nothing is perfect, but the city has a sense of prosperity and optimism that was infectious. There is quite a lot of tourism, but its low key and chilled.

You could spend weeks just sampling food at the dozens of privately run restaurants and paladars.  The architecture in the central city is grand and well preserved, though you only need to move a block or so to find the classic Cubano crumbling edifices. Two hours drive to the east is the city of Trinidad, the oldest Spanish city in the new world, well restored and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

As usual we chased down all the music we could find, and on any night in the town square you could easily listen to four or five different acts.

There is never a cover charge, unless you visit one of the late night clubs.  The bands are paid a government stipend, which they creatively augment with CD sales and tips from the crowd.

On our first Saturday in town we came across a local community center cultural event, in a residential side street away from the city center.  Basically a classic Cuban band playing for the local residents, who really know how to dance. These folks have standards though - long pants and a collared shirt were required for entry - we fit the bill and were invited in for a wonderful night with the locals. After dancing all night we pulled up kinda tired the next day .... but we did return again the following Saturday.

For two days we explored the countryside around Cienfuegos on a rented scooter - traffic is light and generally slow, much of it horse drawn, so we felt safe riding. The farming town people made us welcome, ignoring our lack of Spanish and trying very hard to support us.

Crystal Blues departed Cienfuegos on April 22nd, bound for Cayo Largo.
For more images of beautiful Cienfuegos click below.

A Great Wine Cellar - Another Cuban Surprise

Palacio de Valle

Cuba's third largest city, Cienfuegos sits at the top of a protected bay. The marina is nothing fancy, a spread of concrete wharves in fairly poor condition, so we were happy to anchor off the shore, with the majority of visiting boats.

Just north of the anchorage was the Palacio de Valle, once a private home but now part of a large tourist hotel, Hotel Jagua.

After the very basic infrastructure we'd seen over recent weeks on the Cuban coast, this area was like arriving in Disneyland. The Palacio even boasted a serious wine cellar, where we were able to re-stock with reasonable wines.

Cellar Door
The cellars are absolutely original, built into the basement of the Palacio, behind heavy locked doors.  The basement also hosts a Tapas Bar - ask at the bar to look inside the cellars. You can purchase wines at very reasonable (wholesale) rates here, the range is OK and the storage is all air conditioned so we don't expect any losses.

El Jeffe, President Castro, had a holiday residence nearby and would come to these cellars for his wine, even eating in the cellar dining room. We figured that was good enough for us, and held a tapas dinner there with cruising friends, in the same tiny room, full of character and history.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Musical Cruising - Manzanillo To Cienfuegos

Making Music With Our Fisherman Friends
We departed Manzanillo in company with the English catamaran Miss Molly, heading for Cienfuegos via the Golfo De Guacanayabo and the Golfo De Ana Maria.

Miss Molly
The total straight line distance is around 250 nautical miles, however the thousands of cayos and reefs in this region mean that a straight line course is impossible. So we dodged and weaved our way to the north west, traveling in the daylight and anchoring up each night where ever protection could be found.

Philip and Monica Shorter aboard Miss Molly are members of the Ocean Cruising Club, as are we, so we had a lot of cruising gossip to share each evening. Phil is also a guitarist, so he and I were able to share music and belt out some favourite songs between beers and gossip.

In total we spent seventeen days among the reefs and cayos, and covered around 300 nautical miles. The weather was mostly benign, with little wind, so most of the traveling was diesel powered. On the upside, the water was clear, warm and blue, the fish plentiful and we convinced ourselves to start swimming again.

First Swim Of The Season For Admiral Ley
 The northern hemisphere summer is approaching rapidly, and we're starting to set sun shades on deck again, even running the aircon some evenings to cool the boat when there is no wind.

At Cayo Breton we purchased five crayfish from local fisherman. Next night at Cayo Guayo the same fishing boat happened to be nearby.  Captain Phil and Admiral Ley, the fishing experts, went to visit the local boat and were invited on board. Ley was given a number of coral trout, so we reciprocated with cold beers. Then, in the early evening, the fisherman presented us with a beautifully prepared platter of grilled fish, with tomato paste, onion, garlic and fried plantain chips - a gift from the chef on the fishing boat.

Before another hour had passed Phil and I started a music session, jamming away, and the fisherman joined us onboard Miss Molly. The evening ramped up into a regular floating party. The ladies danced with the fisherman and the rum bottles was eventually emptied. This is the cruising life...

Typical Waters In The Gulf Of Guacanayabo - Kinda Reefy

Sunday, 22 April 2018

In Manzanillo, Cruising For Cuban Music

We're cruising the world to meet good people, drink good wine and listen to good music.

In the 20 odd years since the Buena Vista Social Club (both the music album and the documentary) made Cuban music famous again, we've dreamed about the great live music we might experience here.

The fun started in Santiago De Cuba, where we found that a few venues and bands were playing to the tourists, while very many others (often just around the corner) were performing for the love and joy of entertaining friends and locals. That's the music we wanted to hear!

Of course there are many styles of Cuban music, with cultural roots that spread from Spain to Africa and the Caribbean. Across the country, these influences can be heard in every town. On a recent Sunday morning, the food, wine and music all came together for us in the form of a regular local performance.

Strolling through Manzanillo town, looking for a restaurant for lunch, the music simply came roaring down the laneway at us, around the corner and across the cobblestones. Lunch was quickly forgotten as we squeezed into a crowded old bar, with windows open to the street and a beautiful courtyard within - all very Spanish.

The patrons shuffled tables and chairs around and made space for us, some offered rum, placing glasses of the clear and delicious local alcohol on our table. Cruising friends soon arrived, also attracted by the sound, and ordered a bottle of rum to share with our neighbours - and so the party developed. The band was outstanding, crowds gathered on the street outside to listen, while we were hosted by locals and danced our feet off in the limited space available. This is Cuba. Nothing fancy, just a heartfelt joy and great community spirit.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Cuban Cruising - The South Coast To Manzanillo

Fresh Dinner
We departed peaceful Marea Del Portillo on a fine forecast - in fact it was a little too fine and we motored the 30 nautical miles westward to Cabo Cruz. On arrival the anchorage there didn't look so attractive, so we continued on around the Cape, heading North West to Manzanillo, a small city to the north west.

Now we were in the Gulf of Guacanayabo, at the eastern end of a chain of Cayos and reefs that extends almost to the western tip of Cuba. Our immediate target was Ensenada Guano, a small bay that would provide shelter in the prevailing winds.

The approach to the bay looks straight forward, however sailors should be careful of some coral heads rising up from the depths as you close the shore - visual navigation is essential. After anchoring in the late afternoon we were reminded why the Cuban south coast is popular in sailboat cruising circles - the locals are very supportive! Just before sunset two fisherman came by in a tiny rowboat and offered very nice sized spiny lobster - we traded for two, a few pesos plus a couple of T-shirts to cement the deal. Our dinner plans changed for the better, and the locals rowed home happy with their bounty.


Next morning we worked our way north through the narrow channels under engine power, before breaking out into the wider bay and enjoying a brisk windward beat for five hours toward Manzanillo. On arrival we took the dinghy to shore, landing among the fishing boats on the stony beach, eagerly assisted by fisherman and kids. They guided us to the Guarda Frontera office where we were heartily welcomed and cleared in by a very capable young officer with excellent English skills - a rare thing in these parts.

Local Fishing Boat
 A word about the local boats is in order - while there were many traditional planked wooden fishing boats with single cylinder diesel engines, there was also a fleet of smaller styrofoam vessels, some with sails, available for rent. Against all odds, the Cuban people are inventive and determined to enjoy themselves. 

Our guide book said that Manzanillo was a typical small rural Cuban city, with less vehicles and a relaxed atmosphere. This proved to be true, as the locals were incredibly friendly and proud to have us in their city.

The city itself was a beautiful collection of traditional wooden, brick and stone buildings, many crumbling, set on streets populated mainly by pedestrians, bicycles and horse carts.

The city center featured a grand square of parkland and pedestrian walks, the Parque Cespedes, with shade trees and seating areas. In the park was a stunning tiled gazebo, The Glorietta, with classical Moorish design features. As in every Cuban town, around the square were arrayed museums, restaurants, bars, banks, churches, ice cream shops and government offices.

The streets near the square hosted small traders and shops, some excellent small restaurants and many homes that also served as "Casa Particular", the classic Cuban home stay. For us, the shopping and provisioning was quite adequate - we bought vegetables from street traders and packaged goods in the stores. This was a fine city, and though the beach landing was through fairly dirty shallow water, that was soon forgotten once among the friendly locals in this city of fading grandeur.