Cuba was in the way. Open up a map or a chart and any boat coming from Florida or the Gulf of Mexico has Cuba standing between it and the Panama Canal. If you want to head south and sail around the world by way of the Panama Canal, as I did. You must work your way around Cuba.
The most popular tactic for sailors from the Gulf Coast of the U.S.A. or Atlantic Coast of North America is to head down the “thorny path.” The thorny path involves island hopping. That means slowly going east against the steady trades until you land in the eastern Caribbean. Once there, instead of motoring and beating into the wind, you can have a beam reach until you reach the Trinidad and Tobago. After 2,500 nautical miles up-wind from New Orleans, my home port, a boat will have to stop outside of the hurricane zone. It will surely have taken six months (or likely more) to get there.
Then, the crew still has a 1,000 nautical mile downwind sail across the whole length of the Caribbean Sea. On this downwind sail, the boat almost surely will have to sail through near gale or worse conditions past Colombia. There is a permanent Colombian low that often stretches from the Caribbean coast of Colombia to Jamaica that makes for a rough passage for most boats bound for the Panama Canal from the Eastern Caribbean. 3,500 nautical miles is a huge distance especially when you are mostly tacking upwind on a boat that is lucky to make 3 knots dead into the wind.
If all goes well, I would stop in the Eastern Caribbean after I had circled 90 percent of the globe. Right now I wanted to take the shorter path of about 1,500 nautical miles from New Orleans. That path went through Cuba.
I did not have the luxury of time. I was sailing around the world part-time. My wife and I decided that we did not want to quit our jobs. Since I taught, I had summers off. I could sail during the summers and my wife and my five-year-old daughter could join me for part of the summer cruise. My wife worked a more typical schedule. She only had a few weeks of vacation per year.
The earliest that I could sail was May. That was just one month before the start of hurricane season. I did not want to be living on or sailing on a boat in the most dangerous part of the hurricane belt during the height of hurricane season. June is historically the least active month of hurricane season. My new insurance company, Lloyds, required that I had to be out of the hurricane zone by July 1. Panama is outside of the hurricane belt. That meant I had May and June to get to Panama. If you factor in weather windows and going upwind, bypassing Cuba was out of the question.
In theory, you could just sail around Cuba, but the trade winds make that very difficult. Tacking on the bay is very different than beating in two-to-three meter (6-to-10 foot) swells in the Caribbean Sea. Plus the Yucatan current is stronger than the Gulfstream and it pushes a boat north at speeds of around three knots. Strong currents are prone to creating dangerous waves when wind opposes current. Thus a fair wind in the Yucatan channel west of Cuba would mean dangerous waves. If your boat’s top speed is 6 knots like mine, sailing upwind in such a strong current is almost impossible.
Being able to rest and refuel in Cuba would make sailing to Panama so much easier. We could use the barrier islands on Cuba’s south coast to break up the trade winds and swells much like sailors use the Intracoastal Waterway ICW on the eastern seaboard to make progress south to the Bahamas. The problem with the Cuba strategy was the half-century old embargo. The Cuba embargo prevented American sailors and U.S.-flagged vessels from visiting Cuba.
When Janna, Sophie, and I were sailing in the Bahamas during my sabbatical from teaching, the U.S. policy was changing on the executive level. These changes raised the prospect that I could legally sail to Cuba. This change upended fifty plus years of sailing orthodoxy that said that sailing the entire 1,000 mile east-west distance of the Caribbean Sea was the best way to sail to Panama. This orthodoxy was not brought about by good sailing directions, but in large part by the failed 50-year embargo that prevented U.S. sailors from visiting the largest island in the Caribbean Sea. We were prevented from sailing to the island that lay due north of the Panama Canal and due south of Florida. Sailing to the eastern Caribbean is sailing east to go south. It makes no sense except in the prism of the Cuba embargo.
This is a preview of Slow Boat to Cuba which will be available on Amazon in late November 2016.