There is something so reassuring about sunshine. It must tap a deeply buried and permanent part of our gray matter that simply knows that sunny days are just plain better. Not far ahead, beyond the spotty gray blanket we were sailing under, was a light blue world dotted with the happiest looking clouds. It was as if we were leaving the heaviness of the North, along with all our cares, and entering the lightness and innocence of the South, the tropics, the other world.
At any rate, there wouldn’t be any more rain or nasty looking clouds for awhile. By then I would say we were around 30 nautical miles (nm) south-southwest of Key West, Florida. We had been sailing along well, with a beam breeze, since leaving the Key West Bight Marina fuel dock at around 10:30am. We had what we calculated to be a 21-24 hour passage ahead of us, so by leaving then we could expect to arrive at our destination between 7:30 and 10:30am. Our fuel tanks, food provisions, and water tanks were topped off. We had a book for sailors on Spanish, we’d bought drinks and goodies for the officials, and we’d found a souvenir flag to use as a courtesy National Flag (to fly from our boat out of respect, a custom).
According to the oceanographic authorities and our water temperature gauge, we had been in the great North American Gulf Stream current for many hours now. As you enter the wide stream (around 30 nm typically) the water temperature rises and you notice a current that can run at speeds up to 5 knots (which would be a bear to deal with). The current could not have been very strong and we noticed very little affect on our course-made-good. The infamy of crossing the Gulf Stream comes from the tendency it has of producing very large waves. That happens when the wind blows against the current. The water basically ‘stands-up’ and creates very steep and close together seas. The conditions on this day, Tuesday, February 5, 2013, were not extreme, and in fact the wind was beginning to die off and shift from an east to a north-northeast breeze. Soon we had no choice but to douse the sails and begin to motor with the light wind on our stern.
We had begun our cycle of alternating shifts at the ‘watch’ at around 4:00pm. Our trusty Autohelm 3000 relieved us of most the steering duties, enabling us to monitor our surroundings and the boat itself… a good thing in a shipping-lane. We had already encountered two enormous cargo ships and an even larger ship that looked like a 1000-foot long garage (in gigantic letters the word AUTOLINER was stenciled on it’s side).
During my first watch I was treated to some of the magic of the Gulf Stream when I spied a flying fish. Supposedly very common, this was our first encounter with these amazing little athletes. Not at all what I expected, they would pop out of the water (startled by the boat) and zoom along its surface for up to 100 feet I would guess. And they do not soar or glide, as I expected, but buzz their pectoral-fin/wings very fast and fly level like a dragonfly. Their wings are silver-white and their torpedo shaped bodies are an intense translucent blue. In the dusky light they seemed to me like little fairies zinging over the waves. We would see many more of these aviators and other marine characters, like squid (eyes shining in the spotlight) and thousands of tiny engines of light glowing happily in our wakes.
By six o’clock the wind seemed a bit stronger from behind and we considered raising sail and running. It was the start of Nicole’s watch, but I stayed on deck to see what developed in case I needed to help with getting the sails up (which would involve the large spinnaker pole–my job). I was on the foredeck, considering this, when I first spotted the motor-yacht on the horizon. Until that moment I had more-or-less forgotten about the looming possibility that we could actually be turned back from our goal. Not by weather or mechanical failure, but by armed forces and a 60-year-old embargo. Still, I felt it was unlikely, and looked upon the ship as just a fisherman or a research vessel out in the Gulf Stream studying turtle migrations.
It was passed sunset, and the light was dim, but I do recall thinking that I could just barely make out a dark band marking the bow of this small ship in the distance. We waited and proceeded under power not sail. We joked about what it could mean, what it might entail, what we might say or admit to. We agreed that our only option, should it come to it, was the truth… we were just too far out to sea to spin any other yarn and be believed. I think we felt very vulnerable during those moments. Then the VHF cracked to life and the United States Coast Guard’s radioman requested contact.
“United States Coast Guard, United States Coast Guard, calling sailing vessel at approximate position North 23 degrees… etc, etc…” Since it happens very fast and we couldn’t confirm our position, that they were calling “us”, we waited for their second hail (also giving me a chance to compose myself). We saw that it was in fact our position, and that a USCG Cutter was hailing us, in the dead center of the Florida Straits, about 45 nm north-northeast of Havana, Cuba. Oh shit. “United States Coast Guard, this is the sailing vessel Erwin James, over”, I calmly replied into our radio mike. “Sailing vessel Erwin James, reading you loud and clear, please switch to channel one zero, over”. So we switched from channel 16 to 10 and began our “discussion”.
I will say up front that throughout this ordeal each person from the Coast Guard we dealt with was perfectly professional, courteous, understanding, and personable. The voice on the radio proceeded to request the name of the vessel, the flag the vessel was sailing under, the registration numbers, the number of people on board, and our names and dates of birth, our citizenship… pretty standard stuff. But then he asked me for our last port-of-call and our next port-of-call. The tail end of his request was garbled, so I wasn’t sure what the second request was for… So I replied, “Our last port-of-call was Key West, Florida.”
“Good copy on that captain, Key West was your last port-of-call… What is your intended next port-of-call?”
“Could you repeat that, over.”
Sounding just a tiny bit annoyed, he said, “What is your next port-of-call?”
Gulping, I replied, “Our next port-of-call is Marina Hemmingway, over”
“Ok, good copy on that… your next port-of-call is Marina Hemmingway, Cuba?”
“Ok, please stand by on channel one zero”
After some time, “Erwin James… Captain can you tell us the type of special permits issued to you, allowing you to travel to Cuba?” Doing the best I could, I radioed, “We do not have any permits. We may have been misinformed, but we were under the impression that we no longer needed any special permits to travel to Cuba. Over.”
It was hard to know how to feel. We weren’t ‘scared’ but we were apprehensive. We didn’t know what would happen next, and most importantly we didn’t know if there was a snowball’s chance in the Gulf Stream that we would be able to continue on our way. In hindsight it was idiotic to think they’d let us go on, but at the time we didn’t know for sure. They sounded so nice and lenient. We didn’t take it as a good sign when, a little later, the man on the radio asked us when we left Key West, and then asked “and your arrival time in Cuba was going to be tomorrow morning?” Somehow that past tense didn’t bode well for the Erwin James and her crew.
They told us to maintain course and speed, and let us stew for quite awhile. We handled it well and maintained good spirits, waiting and joking about what was next. Eventually, radio hailed once more, we were told that a boarding party was being prepared and would soon be coming over to us. Soon is a relative term, and for the USCG it to means something different than it means to me. I don’t want to be negative, but every step did take a long time… all the while we’re motoring along, southward, knowing we’d most likely be turned around in the end.
At long last we spotted a separate set of navigation lights (red and green) lower to the water. I would say the Coast Guard cutter was about a quarter mile away from us… within their firing range, but too far for us to mount any effective attack… I suppose. The Zodiac they launched seemed to zigzag it’s way to us at first, maybe looking for jettisoned contraband, but then straightened up and arrived at our stern. We had opened both entryways in the lifelines, and they chose to pull up to the port side (probably because that’s where Nicole was sitting, and she is far less repulsive). While two of the four dark-blue clad young men clambered aboard in their big boots they asked us if we’d ever been boarded by the CG. We hadn’t, so they explained that they would run through our safety gear, making sure we had what we needed.
As soon as they boarded, after introducing themselves, they asked me if we had any firearms on board. Now, our gun is a gun we were given and we have no documentation nor do we even know if we are supposed to have documents or a license for it. So, confidently as possible, I said, “Yes, we have a handgun.”
“Is it in a secure space?”
“Well, it’s up in the v-berth, in a soft-sided case.”
“Ok, sounds good. I need you to show me where it is. I need to secure it.”
So I lead him into the v-berth’s hallway and showed him the case above the hanging locker on the port side. He told us that he simply needs to keep us away from the firearm, and that they’d be positioning themselves between the gun and us. Therefore their ‘area’ was the central cabin, and ours was the companionway or out in the cockpit. He asked me later if it was indeed a normal single-shot pistol and not an automatic weapon, but he never looked at the gun.
Fire extinguishers, PFDs (we were each wearing one), placards, and other things were checked out. We didn’t have any standard violations or shortcomings. Then, leader guy, asked a bit about our intentions concerning our traveling to Cuba. I told him about our newspaper and told him that I intended to write a nice story about visiting Cuba for all our readers. I also said that it has been a dream of ours for a long time to sail to Cuba and see it firsthand. I think he simply wanted to know whether it was business or pleasure (or something sinister), but I was trying to do a little selling… curry some favor, catch a break, fingers-crossed you know. The second guy, backpack guy, sat at our navigation table and was filling out paperwork most of the time. He took all our pertinent information down, including our mailing address, social security numbers, etc.
We were in the 80-degree water of the Gulf Stream and it was hot down below. So we all got out into the cockpit eventually. There we were, with two Coasties on board with us and two in an orange Zodiac off our stern quarter. I said hello to the Zodiac crew and commented on the amazing stars out tonight. They were cool, and said they were just talking about the stars too. These four were apparently the ‘operations’ arm of the cutter crew, doing the hands-on face-to-face work while the decisions are made by the upper-brass on board the cutter and on shore. We chatted amiably with the two seamen aboard while we all waited for word from the Mother-Cutter (as Nicole calls it). We talked about the constantly changing situation concerning vessels going to Cuba, and how the USCG responds.
Leader guy said their stance has been more relaxed under this current administration. He was from Boulder, Colorado, and was formerly stationed in the western Aleutian Islands of Alaska. This came up by way of chatting about the enormous tides in Alaska and elsewhere. Backpack guy had been stationed in Maine, and commented on the big tides they dealt with. As we rolled with the seas, I asked them if the Coast Guard tested recruits to see if they are prone to seasickness. We laughed, but it turns out that backpack guy worked with someone in Maine that wasn’t able to captain one of their heavy-weather cutters (due to debilitating motion-sickness) and subsequently was discharged from the Coast Guard for not being able to perform his required duties.
It was pleasant but tedious. We still held out hope, and it even seemed these guys were rooting for us (privately). Eventually they received a radio call. They took it in the cabin so we couldn’t listen in. After they got some paperwork together, and then leader guy actually seemed to pause awhile to steel himself for the next part in this drama. They came up to the cockpit and laid it out for us. We will not be allowed to proceed. They gave us each a document to read that spelled out all of the regulations concerning Cuba, trafficking people and drugs, Cuban waters, etc. We had to sign it and he gave us a copy to keep. Then, almost comically (though it did not seem so at the time), leader guy asked us to verbally acknowledge that we understand what we’ve been told and to promise not to sail into Cuban waters (within 12 miles of the Cuban coastline). We promised.
Up to this point we were not surprised by what he was saying, but we certainly were by the next statement… “Unfortunately, even intending to travel to Cuba is a violation. Therefore you may be contacted by a USCG hearing officer concerning any repercussions deemed appropriate” (or something like that). So he handed me a document with all our information on it that looks to be the standard ‘ticket’ you’d get if you didn’t have enough life jackets or your fire extinguishers were too old. I would think they’d have a special document for people trying to enter Cuba, but I guess they don’t differentiate. Though we shall see. We could receive a large fine, or even jail-time, according to the document.
After that they wrapped it up pretty quickly. Nicole commented about the enormous backpack, so he replied, “Yeah, I know, and I only used one little pamphlet!” He hefted it out of the cabin and they went to the rail to be picked up. I said, “Be safe” and they replied in-kind and where gone without another word.
What had transpired was strange enough, but it was truly surreal to be left alone, in the dark, bobbing through the Gulf Stream above thousands of feet of seawater, straddling the world–45 nautical miles from Cuba and Key West. What hit home for me was looking at the nighttime horizon to the south and clearly seeing the city-lights glow from what had to be Havana, Cuba. A dream dashed. While in the opposite direction glowed the smaller but brighter devil’s-den of Key West, USA. I was surprised it didn’t glow red.
During the hours long ordeal we had slowly accepted our defeat, so when it was ended we set to the work of heading back northward. Many days later I would read in Steinbeck’s “The Winter of Our Discontent” an apt description of how I felt as Cuba slipped away from me…
> My long-planned perfect structure turned to dust before my eyes the way a long-buried artifact does when the air strikes it. … It’s a shock to throw out a plan so long considered, so many times enacted that its consummation is just one more repetition, but I tossed it out, threw it away, closed it off. I had no choice. <
Though we considered returning to Key West it somehow made it all feel even worse to just plod back on the same path we’d left on. A few jumps up the Keys (eastward from Key West) were the Saddlebunch Keys and a little anchorage recommended to us by Mark, a live-aboard back at Turner Marine in Mobile, Alabama. We needed to be away from ‘the things of man’ and gain some perspective, so Saddlebunch Harbor sounded perfect. We put up the mainsail for stability in the moderate seas and motored north-northeast. We were both very tired so we started our watch shifts right away. The night was gorgeous and the stars tented us in a dome of glory that certainly helped raise our spirits and give us energy.
We had some fun using the spotlight to shine the water, exposing the big eyes of squid (an assumption) and the streaking flying fish that seemed to be everywhere. Fittingly, in the dark, the things that grab and mesmerize you are the things a-light. Nicole glanced to the black water near the boat and noticed more glow in the frothy wake than the mast-light could account for. At first I didn’t see it, then it got stronger, brighter, and much more beautiful. Little creatures in the water, being disturbed by the boat’s turbulence, reacted by generating their naturally occurring bioluminescent glow. It’s the light green glow you see in those plastic sticks you crack and shake. We’d seen it before, in front of our house on Vashon Island, on Puget Sound, but this was the first on this trip. A little later, while I was alone on deck, I was startled by an extraordinarily bright falling star. It shot straight down in the Northern sky and was so bright and large that I felt it must have been very close to me or a very large chunk of whatever. I only saw the one. Nicole saw some others later on, but not anything out of the ordinary. Oddly, the Coast Guard issued a Secüritié radio announcement stating that there was a significant meteor shower currently over the Florida Straights. Since we can assume they didn’t announce it for the mariner’s entertainment, it must be a hazard or of some concern to shipping.
On another shift of mine, much closer to the Keys, I heard a radio call similar to the one we received way down south. I checked our position, and sure enough, the Coasties were calling us again. I had seen a ship’s lights ahead, and was half expecting this call, so I was ready to respond. This was the layer of ‘defense’ that the Coast Guard has to contend with vessels that are coming into the US (Key West) on their way back from Cuba. I replied, they started in with the questions, and I shortened the process by letting them know we were boarded 40 nm south of here and everything was taken care of. They asked the name of the unit that boarded us, I told him it was the Kodiak Island 1341, and he bid us a pleasant morning. I would say you’d need a submarine to make it to Cuba or back by way of Key West, but maybe they use sonar too!
We stayed south of the reef bordering Hawk Channel until daybreak, simply to avoid motoring through all the crab and lobster pots that are strewn everywhere in the shallow waters of the Keys (and all of Florida). When it was light we navigated this ocean-pox northeastward to Saddlebunch Harbor, our “next port-of-call”. Anchored, and slept the sleep of the dead.
*If you’ve read this far, maybe you’re curious enough to look up exactly where we made it to out in the blue. You can use Google Earth to enter coordinates.
We were boarded at approximately: North 23º 55.962 – West 082º 08.028
Our southernmost point reached was: North 23º 55.367 – West 082º 07.043