Varadero is essentially 100 miles due south of Marathon; at our average 5 knot speed, it would take us about 20 hours, so that meant an overnight passage. Getting there requires passing through the Straights of Florida, which funnels a lot of ocean through a relatively narrow passage. Add the Gulf Stream passing between Florida and Cuba, and the Straights can be a serious undertaking. This would be our first time crossing the Gulf Stream rather than riding its edges, and this section of the Gulf Stream is much wider than the section we would cross to go to the Bahamas. It was also our first open ocean passage; while we have sailed many miles of ocean, we’ve always been within 25 miles or so of a coast.
The weather forecast was for east/northeast winds in the low teens, seas 3-5 feet, and a wave period of 5 seconds. We weren’t thrilled with the wind direction or the wave period, but it just basically meant a less comfortable ride. The forecast conditions were well within our skill set, and it was the best window we had seen in weeks. The icing on the cake was a personalized weather/routing forecast from Chris Parker giving us the green light.
After last-minute groceries and laundry, we were ready to go. Everything was as secured as possible below, and I made up dinner and snacks ahead of time on the theory that with my tendency towards sea sickness, staying above decks was the smart idea.
We left Boot Key Harbor at around 1:30 PM and headed out in sunny, balmy weather. We had one reef in the main and the staysail rolled out and were motorsailing at a nice clip. As we entered the Straights, the seas were large and the wave period short; the waves were hitting us on the port beam or quarter, making keeping our balance a real challenge. Even sitting down was exhausting because every core muscle tensed to keep us upright every 5 seconds. The sails were doing their best to steady us, but they couldn’t fight seas like that.
The afternoon went smoothly, but the winds started picking up gradually during the late afternoon. After dinner, we began our 3 hour on/3 hour off watch schedule, and I went below to catch some sleep in the sea berth. I should have known better, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned in all of these miles of sailing, it’s that if things are going to get tough, it’s going to happen at night. I tried to sleep in the washing machine that was my berth and eventually gave up. Even cocooned with pillows, I was getting thrashed. For the rest of the night, whatever rest either of us got was in the cockpit on the low side. Going below to use the head was one of the more masochistic things I’ve done, but the bladder of a middle-aged woman will not be denied.
As soon as it got dark (of course), the winds shot up into the low 20 knots, sustained, with gusts into the high 20s. We put another reef in the main. The seas started building; because we had wind over current (wind blowing in the opposite direction to the prevailing current—in this case the Gulf Stream), the waves were getting to be 5 feet +. We had a bright half moon, and we could see the “marching elephants” waves as they roared past. The autopilot was having a hard time in the large seas and would occasionally disengage when we were in a trough, and the Captain ended up helming for 20 hours of the 21 hour trip. It was never scary, but it was sure as hell exhausting.
We can’t fault the meteorologists for being wrong on the forecast. The Gulf Stream in this area is essentially the Gulf Stream on steroids. The area between the Florida Keys and northeastern Cuba is where three strong currents meet. From the west coast of Cuba, there is a current from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. From the east cost of Cuba, there is a current from the Caribbean. There is also a rotating current in the Gulf of Mexico. This current craziness can make its own weather patterns.
We started hailing the Cuban Garda Frontera when we entered Cuban territorial waters (about 12 miles from land), but as we had been warned ahead of time, they did not respond. In their defense, it was something like 6 AM. As we got closer to land, we raised the dockmaster at Marina Gaviota, and he alerted Customs and Immigrations of our approach. We arrived at the Customs Dock at about 10:30 AM and began the clearing in process. I’ll go over that in the next post.