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.