Cuba Bound

Key West to Havana is a grand tradition, a boater's delight, and a lively tourist adventure. Bon voyage!

There is no answer, but the ships begin to disperse, shifting course almost imperceptibly. Soon, only red port lights are visible. An hour later, the ships have disappeared. Dinner is served on the Irate Parrot to a deflated crew. If there had been something exciting going on -- say, an ethereal gathering of warships in the dark of night in the middle of the Gulf Stream -- the small sailboat has missed it.

It rains steadily during the rest of the night, and morning dawns bleak and drizzly. Shaw, Peggy, and Jeffrey practice skeet shooting with a shotgun, tossing pieces of blackened chicken into the air. By noon the Irate Parrot is within radio distance of Marina Hemingway, about seven miles west of Havana.

"I can smell Havana!" Shaw announces, tilting his head back against the morning breeze. "Savor this. Just savor this, 'cause this is so cool."

Thirteen miles out, Shaw begins calling the Cuban Coast Guard at the Marina Hemingway. After a few tries, the marina answers in an incomprehensible burst of static.

"Buenos dias. Yate Irate Parrot," Shaw tries again, employing his best Al Pacino imitation. "¨Que pasa, man?"

The Cubans answer in English, requesting information about the boat's position and the number of people aboard. Shaw responds in fractured but correctly pronounced Spanish. When he doesn't know the Spanish word, he mimics the Cuban accent in English. This will be his technique for the rest of the trip. If his listeners still don't understand, he repeats lines of dialogue from Scarface: "My name is Tony Montana. First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women. Fok you. No. Fok you!"

But the radio operator speaks English and has little time for chitchat. After a few rudimentary questions, the Irate Parrot is told to proceed.

"Okay, Captain Dave, welcome to Marina Hemingway."
"Okay, gracias, man," Shaw replies. "Standing by at [frequencies] 72 and 16. Irate Parrot out."

"Do you require assistance?" the Cuban operator asks.
"Negativo. Solamente perfecto. Over."
"Marina Hemingway out. Standing by 16"
"Gracias, man," Shaw says again before signing off.

Representatives from Cuba's Ministry of Public Health, as well as from Customs, Immigration, and the Coast Guard are waiting at the entrance to the marina when the Irate Parrot finally pulls in at 2:00 p.m. The trip has taken about 24 hours, an average crossing for a sailboat. The return to Key West is faster because the Gulf Stream gives boaters a boost, propelling them toward the Conch Republic with the efficiency of a moving sidewalk and shortening the run by at least eight hours. Powerboats, naturally, are faster yet, and Cigarette boats hold the record with spine-shattering three-hour trips.

Officials from the different agencies board the Irate Parrot one by one. Shaw offers them cold beers, which they drink thirstily as they fill out carbon copies of paperwork listing passenger names, passport numbers, boat registration, and so on. (The Cubans, fully aware of U.S. travel restrictions, politely refrain from stamping American passports.) He clowns with a plastic Halloween devil mask and shows them a Newsweek photograph of the former president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Shaw.

"Hey, did you know that I'm the presiden-tay of Mexico?" he remarks to one Customs officer. "Si, si," Shaw insists to the bemused official, waving the magazine picture as his punch line.

Shaw and Peggy have been back and forth so often they have made friends with the Cuban authorities. On a recent voyage, the Coast Guard gave the couple a puppy named Rata, a terrier-mutt who now lives on the Irate Parrot.

Formalities are straightforward and usually take between one and two hours. The Cuban government imposes a twenty-dollar customs charge per boat; tourist visas cost fifteen dollars. Boaters are also required to surrender any weapons they have onboard to the Coast Guard, which issues a receipt and returns all items on departure.

Docking at the marina costs 45 cents per foot per day, payable in U.S. dollars or non-U.S. travelers' checks, and includes electrical power, water, 24-hour security, and full access to marina facilities: restrooms, showers, laundry, restaurants, a disco, shopping center, tennis courts, a 24-hour fueling station, and a post office. In comparison, docking at Key West Bight Marina costs $1.50 per foot, with far fewer amenities. "It's more expensive and you're still in a dirt-filled, bug-infested marina, and every time you want to do anything, there's someone looking up your ass with a magnifying glass," Shaw huffs. "Marina Hemingway is nicer and cheaper."

Modeled on the more spacious European concept of a marina with recreational facilities, rather than on the American system of floating docks crammed with the greatest possible number of boats, the marina is centered around four canals, each a slender finger extending inland for about a kilometer. Boats dock along the sides of the canals, which border grassy areas with tennis courts and palm trees. Hookups for water and electricity are located every 40 feet.

The last agency finishes its paperwork around 4:00 p.m., and the Irate Parrot motors slowly down a canal toward her assigned slip. About 50 boats are docked at the marina, most of them along the main canal near the bathhouse and restaurants.

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