Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Fisherman and the Dissident

To display some of the difficulties experienced with Cuban government, I would like to take you all back to my April 19th entry. As was proven time and time again, Cuba was not going to make things easy for us. After picking up my new crew near Pinar Del Rio, we eventually made our way back to the boat at Los Morros, arriving around 4pm. We were told the Immigration officer would be a little while getting there, and that my crew could not be officially signed on to the boat until he arrived. As I mentioned earlier, there was a strong front forecast to move through the area that evening. We waited and waited for this officer to come and do the necessary paperwork, all the while watching the lightning on the horizon get closer. The winds began to freshen and were soon blowing 25kts + from the northwest. I was beginning to get angry, because the safety of the boat was at stake and the longer we waited, the harder it would be to get off the concrete dock we were getting blown against, and the longer and more uncomfortable it would be to motor through choppy seas to the safe anchorage 5 miles away. At approximately 8pm, one of the marina guys came down to say the immigration officer would be arriving shortly, having completed an errand of dropping off groceries from Pinar Del Rio to the marina restaurant (apparently no job is too big or too small for government officials). Unfortunately by that point this was neither here nor there, as the boss in Havana who would have to give the final permission to allow my crew on board had gone home for the day at 5pm! So what we were left with was this: A) my new crew was not permitted to stay overnight on board, let alone sail away with the boat that evening. B) I had to leave the dock before the brunt of the storm arrived, which would be about midnight. C) For my crew to be signed on the next day, both ‘captain and vessel’ had to be dockside to meet with Immigration at 8am. So, what choice did I have? Leave my latest crew member at the dock with no place to stay (well, let it be known the bartender, Carlos, promised to look after him and would have a cot for him in the restaurant as long as necessary) and come back a few days later? In my mind, that wasn’t an option. In my crew's mind, it was the ONLY option, and he was adamant that I go, and not worry about him, and we’d sort everything out in a few days. After what has now been a few months that we’ve had the displeasure of getting to know one another, I’m not sure who’s more stubborn, but that night, it was me. My decision was to stay dockside through the storm and hope to clear immigration as early as possible in the morning and get the hell out of there.

We had an extensive discussion with a young dissident who was in charge of the marina that night. He had full empathy for the situation we were in, but explained the position I’d be putting all the employees in if I were to ignore their rules and take off with my crew to the anchorage (which I was all set to do as soon as I caught the first whiff of hassle, but then my crew intercepted, worried that his American citizenship may send the officials tattle-tailing, to the American government at a time where you're considered a terrorist if you step foot within the communist country). The marina employees would be held responsible, they would all face being fired and would lose their $20/month, and in some cases $10/month. This young fellow, I wish I could remember his name, went out of his way to get permission that provided my crew with a 1-night pass to stay on board the boat, provided I stay at the marina until morning. This all sounds so ridiculous looking back on it, coming from a free country. Why should it be such a circus to allow a crewmember to stay overnight on my own private boat? What right did they have to tell us ‘no’, and to put me in a decision to decide between my crew and the safety of my boat?

Having resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going anywhere, we pulled out what was to be our last bottle of Cuban rum, and passed it around while chatting with a couple of the local fishermen and watching the light show on the distant horizon.

It was a long, sleepless night, much of which I was on deck, kicking the fenders back between the boat and the concrete, as they constantly popped out of place as the boat bucked violently in the swell. I had extra dock lines made-off to various cleats across the dock, and whenever one would break, I’d throw on another one, and do the best to splice (repair) the broken one as quickly as possibly. I had made matters worse for myself by having more than my share of the bottle of rum, but after dealing with that over the port side of the boat, I eventually came to my own peace with the situation. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I was in pretty good spirits as I leaned against the cabin in the pouring cold rain at 4am with one foot ready to kick the next fender that popped up at my face.

In true Cuban style, when 8am rolled around, with no further ado and my crew below half asleep, his passport was handed over and we were told we could leave. They didn’t need to come aboard, or speak to him, or even see him, and I never did see Immigration. We got ready to cast off, and the fisherman and the dissident were there to see us off.

Three hours later we were reunited with Road to the Isles and Bacchanal in Cayos de la Lena. We sailed under a reefed main around the mangroves and into the narrow canal, rounded up into the wind and dropped the hook, congratulated by the cheers of our friends. It was an emotional moment, and the ensuing sleep was deep and well earned.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dream On

For those who know me very well, you know about my fishing shack. It’s on the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia, where the icy rollers crash into the granite much of the year, and the craggy trees cling to life, rooted in the ice-formed cracks of their supporting rocks. It’s a crooked one-room shack with multi-paned windows looking onto that every-changing and terrifying sea, from the comfort of a hundred-year-old building that has stood the test of the elements and time. There is a Franklin cast-iron stove in the corner, burning lumber cut by my own hands, and warming the kettle for my Earl Grey tea. Wooden walls, wooden floors, with every imperfection, containing knots that display many works of art, like the bleeding heart that hung above my head in my childhood bunk-bed at the family cottage. And, naturally, no inner ceiling to mask the sound of the tapping rain on the roof. Weathered cedar shingles on the outer walls, a simple stovepipe, and the backyard landscape is a forest of my own, subtlety divided by a small dirt road that is rarely used by more than a bicycle. Blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries grow wild is the scrubby bushes in the summer, and nothing grows in winter besides the night. My home library becomes evermore populated in these times, and I’m content in knowing that the changing seasons bring their own discoveries, that nothing is forever, and there is a reason for absolutely everything.

Every sailor has their alternative dream, what they’d be doing if they were home. What they’d be doing if the boat didn’t consume every reserve of energy, and every copper penny passed under the table or over. Well this is my dream, and some nights, following little more than a couple of lonely days, it's almost strong enough to draw me home. No crew, no autopilot, and two to three weeks at sea in my own company; yet it’s a feeling strong enough to make that possibility seem rational. But, alas, I know I won’t. Timing is wrong. This fishing shack has existed in my imagination long before I ever stepped foot on a sailboat, and the possibility of making it reality is not about to disappear in the passing of one more summer, autumn, and winter.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


I've observed that anger is an excellent instigator and motivator for me, inspiring me to get back to the notebook, and to complete many other jobs and tasks with uber-efficiency.

For the second time on my journey, I've been robbed. This time more blatant than the Cuban incident where it took more than 48hrs for me to realize I'd been robbed. Stupid is what stupid does, and leaving a purse on a table of a house porch was against my better judgement, if it was only for a moment to run and grab a ginger ale. When I returned there was a man on the porch, 'admiring the wood siding' and wondering what kind of wood it was. He had just put his hand in his pocket and I KNEW he had just taken something from my purse, but WHY I was not prepared to accuse, I really don't know and it's still eating at me three days later. He casually toddled off the deck and started up the street and I called out for my friend and his father Bill. Bill and I took off in bare feet, chasing him up the street as my friend jumped in the truck and gunned it, wrong way up the one way lane. Obviously an experienced grab-and-dasher, he lost us in no time.

All he managed to grab was my zip-up wallet, a little blue wallet with a white cat stitched on the side. It was part of my Christmas gift from Justine when we were anchored in St. Augustine. My credit and debit cards, and what turned out after some careful thought, a very small amount of cash, was all I lost. The numerous police officers who appeared a few minutes after Josh calling 911 were calm and friendly and did all they could be expected to in a hopeless situation as this one. Key West is a small place though, and I spend a fair amount of time cruising the island on my friend's bike, and I'm envisioning a bike-pedestrian accident someday soon.

Two hours after the incident, there was a very strange twist of events. Since arriving back in Key West about 2 months ago, I've been working periodically for a bike repair man, aka Tom the Bikeman. I cycle around town in a tricycle containing all the parts and gizmo's needed for fixing bicycles. Bikeman owns about 500 bikes at various Inns, B&Bs and Hotels, etc. All these locations rent them out to their guests, and he (or I, at the moment) pick a handful of them everyday to bike to and tidy-up, or fix-up, whatever the bikes need.

As I took my case # and phone number from Officer Fernandez, my phone rang and it was one of the Hotels. They had a missing bike, possibly stolen, but at that point there may have just been a mix-up with another guest's bike. This guest was about to leave for her flight, and was pretty upset that she was about to be charged for the replacement value of the bike she was responsible for. Which is why I was receiving a phone call; the Hotel manager felt bad for the woman who swore the bike was there a minute ago, and she turned around and it was gone. No time for someone to steal it, they didn't think, considering the backyard location and general unlikelihood of a thief being back there. Not being far from the hotel, I hopped on my bike and headed over to talk to both of them.

The woman was visibly upset on how it appeared her vacation was about to end. Perhaps in an attempt to make her feel not so alone in her situation, or at least to lighten it, I laughed and suggested, "Maybe the same guy who stole my wallet an hour ago stole your bike". The hotel manager turned to me and asked, "Does your wallet happen to have a cat on it?". She had found it a few minutes earlier on the veranda of one of her guest houses (containing everything but the cash) moments after seeing a man by the same description on the property 'just admiring the trees and landscaping'. It's funny that my wallet would end up in the hands of one of the hotels I was to attend to the next day, and my wallet thief chose their yard to duck into, and (likely) their bike to steal to make his getaway. I'm tempted to think there's some sort of sign in this whole event, the coincidences being what they are, but I don't see it just yet.

I haven't forgotten I've left you all hanging about the circumstances surrounding my arrival in Mexico. Some memories are harder to re-live than others, and despite all that had happened from Nova Scotia until the reef-crossing in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, there was no comparison in terms of the heartache involved when your boat feels the abuse of a shoreline, but SO much more importantly, the love and appreciation I felt for those who were there to help. They all knew knew how heart wrenching such situations can be, and came to my assistance ready to do anything, until they were sure my little ship was resting safely upon her anchor with at least a couple of feet of water beneath the keel.

I've had extraordinary experiences so far on this adventure, and I've had some horrendous ones as well. I've never believed in luck, good or bad. If I believed in bad 'luck' I am convinced that I would only be giving credibility to the hoards of negative thoughts that can sometimes do laps inside my head, and that inadvertently I'd continue to bring even more bad 'luck' into my life. But I do believe that most coincidences, or patterns of events, are actually signs that are offering us some kind of insight to where our personal paths are about to go. These signs are occurring with increased frequency lately, or perhaps I'm just becoming more aware of them. It's an interesting pass-time figuring out what meaning they hold, and more often than not they just point out the obvious, or are only showing me what I want to see, or telling me what I want to hear.

Either way, I'm going to begin to pay more attention to signs, even if they're as small and as seemingly obscure as a cherished bracelet falling off my wrist upon landfall in Key West.