Curlew has been stuck on the North coast of Cuba while we have been waiting for the endless cold fronts to let up. In an attempt to get some Easting we decided to try to sail through two large bays which lie behind a string of protective mangrove cays, Bahia de Cardenas and Bahia de Santa Clara. They are supposedly navigable by vessels of up to 2 metres draft, but there are lots of shallow bits, on many of which we ran aground.
I knew there were two vital passages to get through. The first was the Pasa de la Manuy, which connects the two bays, and the Canal de los Bracos, which connects the bays to the Atlantic. Little did I know we were going to need outside help to get through them both.
As we approached the long, low shore of mangroves I studied the route through binoculars and I saw something bright pink. Something that seemed to move. To my delight a huge flock of flamingos came into view. In the declining sun their plumage glowed in the light as bright pink as the 1950’s neon signs we saw outside the Havana bars. It seems extraordinary that their colour comes from the shrimps that they eat, and if fed other shellfish their feathers turn white.
Shortly after this sighting we went aground, despite following the line of decaying posts standing drunkenly in the mud. I cast around desperately, very aware that the tide was on the way out and we could be left high and dry. Going hard astern got us off, but we kept on sliding into mud banks. The depth sounder wasn’t helping, showing shallower and shallower water as we neared the Pasa. Like a river delta, the worst of it was just outside the passage, and I knew that we only had to get into the channel itself to find deep water again. “Graham!” called Gina “look- dolphins!” I spun round and saw the backs of three dolphins repeatedly rising over and over again near one particular post.
I don’t know how to explain this without feeling foolish, but we both felt they were trying to tell us something, so I turned Curlew and tried again near where the dolphins had been gambolling. At once we slid into deeper water- and we were through.
If I sound anthropomorphic then I plead guilty. These are clearly intelligent creatures and there are other incidences of whales – and boats- being led into safe waters by dolphins. We were both convinced that their behaviour was intended to show us the right way, and I for one feel very grateful towards these creatures.
We had an eventful night as the tide emptied the contents of one bay into another through the Pasa. Moored by two anchors bow and stern proved a mistake as we were swept sideways in what looked like a swiftly-flowing river. That’s how I found myself running naked around the deck at four in the morning rearranging the stern anchor. Such is a skipper’s lot.
Running aground was much in my mind as we approached the second passage a couple of days later. Very soon we were in the same kind of fix. There was no sign of the dolphins this time so I had to fall back on technology.
As you know, we are testing some Garmin GPS gear on this trip and the chart plotter has been absolutely brilliant. This time we got the hand-held Oregon GPS unit out, and went exploring for deep water in the inflatable dinghy. This is how we did it. While I drove the boat and dipped for deep enough water with the boat-hook Gina marked each deep hole with a way-point on the Oregon. After a while she saw there was a line of soundings that we could follow in the yacht. Once again the actual channel was quite deep.
We raced back to Curlew and I steered while Gina called for left or right along the line of waypoints. Once again we were through.
This channel through the mangroves felt far from civilization and so we were surprised to see a ramshackle sort of hut on stilts in the middle of the water. It looked like the witches house in Hansel and Gretel. As we approached we spotted a bunch of fishermen hanging off one side. “Any lobsters for sale?” I enquired innocently.
I still don’t really understand the roar of laughter that followed this question. Had I asked for something obscene in my very bad Spanish?
We chugged round the hut and found another channel to drop anchor in. As the North winds roared overhead we were safely snugged down, wondering what was going to come next.