Visiting Cuba had long been on our bucket list but planning travel to this presumably off-limits place -much less chartering a sailboat – felt daunting if not impossible.
When we finally did the research, made the plans, and hit the waters off the Southern coast of Cuba for six nights we felt like we knew what to expect. We couldn’t wait to reach the unspoiled white sand beaches and snorkel for hours in the clear blue waters.
But things didn’t happen the way we’d planned, and while so much of the research we’d done to get there helped ease our minds about the journey logistics, there was much more that we wish we’d known.
We will return to Cuba. It is a beautiful, complex place. We cannot wait to sail out of the Cienfuegos Marina again, hopefully soon and on at least two future occasions: one to go East toward the Jardines de la Reina and one Westbound to Cayo Largo.
Next time though, we’ll be better prepared. Here’s what you must know before you go.
1. Verify that your boat has the horsepower you need
Whether you plan to sail East or West from Cienfuegos, you have a very long way to travel – at least 50 nautical miles – to get to your destination. In addition, there simply are not Plan B anchoring options if for some reason you can’t make the distance. If you don’t want to be sailing at night, and you want to get where you are going, you’ll need a boat with plenty of motor power to get you there.
On our first trip we failed to confirm this fact with our charter company, and our older 38-foot catamaran could only manage 3 nautical miles per hour into the wind. That was simply not enough. Make sure you confirm that your boat will motor at least 6 nautical miles per hour in all conditions to ensure your ability to travel the long distances required. That said, you’ll want to get the earliest possible start on the morning you leave the marina to give you the best chance to arrive by nightfall even if the wind and weather is not in your favor. Same plan for the way back.
2. Enlist the right crew
The recommendation for enough power is by default a recommendation for a larger boat, which potentially translates to inviting additional crew members to share the cost, the on-board tasks, and the experience. For Cuba sailing, be sure to take people ready for an on-the-water adventure that may involve some big waves and will necessitate some longer days sailing.
In our estimation, a Cuba charter may not be the best sailing trip for young children, people who are easily seasick, elderly relatives, or individuals who aren’t willing to apply a bit of patience and flexibility on the provisioning and coordination front. Take those folks on a beautiful sailing adventure around the BVI instead. For your Cuba sailing trip select a group that is excited about the adventure of it all with hopefully the willingness to lend a hand if needed.
3. Choose the right boat
The many shallow areas you’ll want to access for protected anchoring make a catamaran the boat of choice in this area. You’ll see a monohull here and there, but by a landslide, catamarans win the day in Cuba and we don’t disagree with this selection. The larger catamarans have the power needed (see number 1) and the shallow draft you’ll want on this trip.
4. Plan your trip for Cuba’s winter season
In Cuba there is a wet season and a dry season. The dry season is between November and April and you will find comfortable temperatures, little or no rain, fewer if any bugs and mosquitoes, and a perfect climate. You can charter in the rainy season but why would you? There are enough challenges to sailing in this area, don’t make being soaking wet one of them.
The one caution about the winter weather is the wind. It can really pick up in the January through April months. It is also unpredictable. The week we sailed we faced consistent high winds. The next week? Almost no wind.
5. Have sailing experience under your belt
Cuba is a beautiful place to sail and well-worth the journey, but it is not the ideal destination for a newly certified sailor. The distance to the initial destination coupled with charting requirements to avoid delicate yet damaging reefs is more than a new sailor is prepared to take on.
The biggest reason we advocate for adequate experience is that when sailing in Cuba you are truly on your own. There are no VHF channels if you get into trouble, no one to come to your aid. Having the place to yourself without the more crowded sailing conditions of the BVI or Croatia might be why you came, but that solitude comes with a risk. If you find yourself far from your destination in bad weather or with mechanical difficulties, you are the only one that can troubleshoot that scenario.
6. Know that a minimum of seven days is recommended
You will want a minimum of seven nights sailing in Cuba, and if you plan to head East, plan for more.
Here’s why. Your first and last nights will be on dock at the Cienfuegos marina, and your first and last full days will be long sails to your destination. With a seven-night trip that leaves you five days to enjoy the untouched islands, white sand beaches, and world-class snorkeling and diving.
If you want to head East and enjoy the spectacular Jardines de la Renia you will need more time. It is 120 nautical miles away and will take at least two days to get there depending on the stops you make on the way to and from this remarkable UNESCO World Heritage site.
7. Respect and understand the documentation process
When you charter a sailboat in Cuba you will need to participate in their security process that is managed by some of the friendliest people we met on our trip. It doesn’t take much time, but it is helpful to know what to expect.
Before you can take your bags on board, they will be scanned in a process similar to what you encounter at US airports. This is fast and simple.
The next documentation step is to obtain a form from your charter company where you will note the itinerary you plan to take. Keep in mind, this is not set in stone and if you need to make changes along the way, that is ok. But it is helpful for them to know whether you are going East or West, for example, and generally understand your intentions. This document will be reviewed and stamped by the official at the Cienfuegos marina the morning of your departure. The officials sleep at the marina and are available at any time of day or night you wish to depart. You must keep a copy of this form with you for your entire journey.
It is important to note that while you are allowed to visit islands with no additional documentation requirements, to come onto the Cuba mainland, you must use a designated port of entry. If you do go to another port of entry, such as Trinidad, that is not a problem but you must wait at the marina for the official to document your arrival. This may take an hour or two, so enjoy a cocktail or tidy up your boat while you wait. Before you leave that port of entry, you must again meet with the official who will return your documents, now stamped with a record that you were at that port of entry.
8. Understand and prepare for provisioning limitations
When sailing we always advocate for “less is more” from a packing perspective. Until now.
For our Cuba trip, we weren’t sure what to expect with provisioning, so we brought items that we knew we absolutely had to have (like sunscreen) along with certain additions that we expected would be difficult to come by. We were glad we did. Our next planned blog post will be dedicated to provisioning in Cuba with all of the details, for now, just know that you will want to bring a range of items with you including spices, trash bags, snacks, and even things like muesli, peanut butter and pasta sauce. You will absolutely need to come with your own sunscreen, bug spray, and soap.
While we did have a provisioning check-sheet ahead of time from our charter company, the state-run provisioning shop at the marina (and your only option) had about two thirds of the items on the list in stock when we arrived. So, while we had buns for hamburgers, there was no hamburger meat. We could buy pasta but no pasta sauce.
Come to Cuba with an open mind and some additional items in your bag. Realize that the fruits and vegetables are wonderful and plentiful, so stock up. Understand that the items you want on your provisioning list simply may not be available. Be delighted when things work out better than you expected. We assumed the wine would be expensive and not very good. It was good, and there was a nice variety to choose from. Based on the provisioning list, we thought there would be several types of beer. There was only one. It was also good.
9. Brush up on your Spanish language skills
Cuba is a Spanish speaking country, and while we did encounter some individuals in Cienfuegos, Havana, and Trinidad who spoke outstanding English, more often than not, the friendly people of Cuba have very limited if no English-speaking background.
The more you are able to communicate in Spanish, the better prepared you will be to navigate your way around this beautiful place and secure assistance if you need it.
As an extension of this, it is helpful to have an English-speaking connection in Cuba acting as a resource for coordinating transportation and as a back-up should you require help. Of course, your charter company can assist with this and we have resources to share as well.
10. Adopt the right mindset
The greatest key to success in Cuba is an open mind and making the effort to meet, communicate with, and learn from the citizens of this lovely country. Watch a few documentaries before you go, learn about Cuba’s government and history, and be a willing student as you enjoy the range of experiences in this evolving country.
An adventurous, adaptable mindset is critical. The places you will visit are special, so stop to appreciate the vast beaches that haven’t been spoiled by commercialism. Stop to contemplate your own good fortune for living in a country that affords you so many opportunities that others simply don’t have. Pause and be grateful that while you may not have pasta sauce for your pasta, there is beauty and kindness all around you in the unique, unspoiled country of Cuba.