Passage from Cuba to Key West, United States of America

9 -10th May 2004

Leaving Havana to cross the Gulf Stream to Key West in Florida, we were expecting to have a tough trip and we weren't disappointed!    During the first half of our overnight trip, the wind didn't drop below 25 knots, which is no fun at the best of times, when you're beating towards the wind .   When combined with big seas, the waves slamming on the side of the boat and a Gulf Stream current of two or three knots opposing both the wind and waves, life aboard was pretty uncomfortable and wet.   For the first time in almost three years, we put on our foul weather gear to protect us from the waves, which even managed to find their way through our cockpit cover.    As we beat our way towards Florida, fairly quickly it has to be said, due to the strong winds and assistance by the Gulf Stream, we found ourselves battling through a serious of tricky and sometimes surreal problems!

Our first challenge was reefing (reducing the area of) the genoa or foresail.   Luckily, we'd left Havana with the mainsail already reefed.   Reefing the genoa is not usually an issue with the help of our roller reefing system but on this occasion a spare halyard, used for the cruising chute, managed to get wrapped around the sail as we rolled it in.   This meant we had to let the sail back out again and to make the process of doing this and then rolling it in again easier, we decided to put the motor on.  This would enable us to motor into the wind and empty the wind out of the sail while maintaining steerage.   

Half way through this task, the motor decided to cut out but we finally managed to get things untangled, reef the genoa and get under sail again.    Of course, Phil then had to go down into the engine room and bleed the engine, not a pleasant task at sea in rough conditions, made worse when the engine room fell off its slider and landed on top of him.    A short time later, the engine was ready for action again and the engine room door was passing its time on our bed, until things calmed down a bit.   The first time we've been envious of a door!    

Next, we noticed a ship on our radar which seemed not to be moving and to which we were creeping ever closer.   Finally, worried about the risk of collision, we managed to hail them by VHF, only to be told they were "just drifting until 22.30 hours, when they would make for port".    As we were forced to tack to avoid them, we found ourselves impolitely wishing they'd picked another spot in which to drift.    Eventually we were able to tack back on course and as we hauled in the genoa sheet, the port winch seized up, leaving us unable to haul in the sail as needed for beating.    

We decided if we ran the sheet across the cockpit, we could use the starboard winch to harden the sail.   Christine went to turn on the cockpit light in preparation, one hand in sodden sailing glove on the light switch, the other used to steady herself by holding on to the steel of the cockpit.     Twelve volts passed up one arm and down the other until it reached the steel, then the cockpit light stopped working for good.   Fumbling around in the gloom of a torch we managed to get the job done.    

Finally after midnight, things began to calm down a little to a more manageable 20 knots, we ate the sandwiches we'd prepared for dinner and Phil was able to rest after his exertions in the engine room.    

By dawn we were approaching the Florida Keys, where the water gets pretty shallow but we were out of the influence of the Gulf Stream.    The approach to Key West is an area of small islands and reefs but luckily the channel is well-buoyed.   Very luckily it turned out!   We didn't have the USA charts for our dedicated chart plotter and were relying on the charting software we have on our PC.    We'd (not surprisingly) been unable to obtain paper charts of Florida in Cuba before we left, but some friendly Venezuelans we'd met had kindly donated some paper charts they had used.   These charts were definitely not Admiralty quality but were fine as a back-up.    We ended up making our approach using those charts when first the DC adapter for our PC stopped working, followed by the DC to AC inverter, leaving us unable to power the PC.   We later realised that they'd both been unable to cope with the higher voltage produced when the engine was running. 

When we finally neared Key West, we were advised by a local to use an anchorage behind Wisteria Island (confusingly known locally as Christmas Tree Island).    We didn't have a complete chart of that anchorage but it was just around the other side of the island from our position, so we stressed ourselves out by feeling our way between shallow spots, using the depth sounder.  

At last, the tranquility of Key West's anchorage.

It had been quite a night and by the time we were finally anchored at around 10 am, we were exhausted.   We had no chance to rest, however, as the master of the ship was required to report his arrival to US Customs by phone.   We put the outboard on the dinghy and Phil went ashore to do his duty.     Only the captain was allowed ashore until the vessel was cleared in, so Christine stayed aboard, tidying up the mayhem from the previous night.

Captain was soon back.   The first office he'd visited was Immigration, who wanted to see all the crew, so he had to dinghy the mile back out to the anchorage to collect the crew who wasn't allowed ashore.     We'd been nervous about clearing into the States when arriving directly from Cuba but had no problems whatsoever, despite all the cruisers' horror stories we'd been told.     By two pm Anju and her crew were legally in the States and very happy to be there!

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