Enough already!

So far our time in Cuba has been an exercise in patience, first waiting almost three weeks in Cayo Levisa for the “augmented trades” to settle down a little, then cautiously making our way in short hops to Cabo de San Antonio at the westernmost tip of the island, looking forward to cruising east along the sheltered south coast for the rest of the season.

Help! We want to “give” you some lobster!

We enjoyed some nice sailing once we finally left Cayo Levisa, encountered our first lobster fishermen—actually, we thought the tiny open boat a good mile offshore was in some kind of trouble. There was a man in the water, and two men on the boat were waving their arms at us. We dutifully dropped our sails and motored over to them only to discover that all they wanted was to “give” us some lobster. The man in the water was a diver. He was tethered to the boat with a length of rope and pulled the boat behind him as he worked his way along the coral heads. I can’t imagine it was easy going—the two men in the boat were quite substantial and there was a heavy-looking one-cylinder diesel engine sitting in the bottom of the boat. But whatever they were doing, it worked: they had plenty of lobster.

Chris loves lobster…

They offered us two, which we gladly accepted, offering them a bottle of rum in return. Big smiles. Then they asked if we had any spare rope. Chris, who is very attached to his rope collection, wistfully parted with a length of old halyard. So it was lobster dinner that night, in a completely secluded anchorage. Until a rowboat entered the bay, two men from the local fish station with five lobsters. These “cost” us two shirts, a bottle of rum, and a can of Pringles. Cheap at twice the price.

The next morning, I made lobster-salad sandwiches before we pulled anchor—we were expecting a lively sail across a 25-mile bay between the reef and the mainland and I knew it would be too rough to go below and make lunch. I congratulated myself on my forethought as we unwrapped our sandwiches while rollicking along at seven knots—an amazing speed for us.

I soon wished I had gone with the usual crackers and cheese. Not long after lunch, Chris’s lips started to tingle. Then swell. Then he started having trouble breathing. Then he began having difficulty swallowing. We managed to get a Reactine tablet in him before his throat closed up, but his lips and face—and we have to assume his airway—continued to swell. He had to lie flat in order to breathe.

May I never have to attempt this.

In all the years we’ve been sailing, this is the most frightening situation we’ve ever encountered. I was trying to decide whether I would have the courage to do an emergency tracheotomy if things got worse, never mind have the strength to reduce sail—we were now galloping along wildly with way too much sail up—when slowly his breathing started to improve. Before long, he was able to sit up again.

…but lobster is not Chris’s friend.

“What are you doing woman?” he slurred with a lopsided grin. “You’ve got way too much thail up.”

It took until evening for the swelling in his face to go down. It took me a lot longer to get over what might have happened. I will admit that once we were safely anchored and knew he was out of danger, I turned into a sniveling mess. It was definitely a Kijiji moment. I think if we had had internet access, this boat would have been for sale.

So friends and family take note: Chis seems to have suddenly developed a serious shellfish allergy. No lobster, no shrimp, no scallops, no mussels, no clams—nothing like that, okay? At least until we can figure out what else he might be allergic to besides lobster. In the meantime, we’ve acquired an Epipen and we don’t go anywhere without it.

I felt better the next morning—and so did Chris—so that evening we set off as planned to sail around Cabo de San Antonio. You want to make this passage at dusk, when the wind is light, because once you’re around the point, you’ll be heading straight into… wait for it… the augmented trades.

We made it around without incident, except for some confused seas right at the point where several strong currents meet. Then before long we were sailing steadily into the wind, tacking back and forth all night—but under an incredibly beautiful star-filled sky.

Our friends David and Jacqui at anchor on the south coast, the only other boat we’ve seen in days.

The south coast is as pristine and remote as we had hoped, clear blue water, white sand beaches, never another boat in sight except our friends Jacqui and David. We’ve made our way along this coast slowly, in easy day hops, when the wind allows, no overnight passages. Because we’ve learned a new term here: diurnal trades. Not instead of augmented trades—as well as them. What this means is that in the winter months, the “normal” trades pick up in the middle of the night, reaching 20- to 25-knots before settling down sometime the following morning.

Waiting patiently at Cayo Largo.

As I write this, last night’s 20-knot winds have just begun to ease a little. The seas outside the reef here will be huge—we know that because we’ve tried twice to set out mid-morning to make the run east to Cienfuegos. The first time we turned back when, in addition to having the wind on the nose, we found ourselves pounding into six-foot seas. The second time, we persisted a little longer, hoping the seas would drop as the wind abated. But if anything, the seas continued to build. When they reached nine feet, we turned back again.

The winds will be back tonight. And the night after. And every night in the foreseeable future. But we don’t care now. We’ve given up on the idea of moving east and are heading to the Cayman Islands in the morning. They are due south of us, so we’ll have the wind on the beam—and the waves too, unfortunately. It’s going to be a rolly ride.

But enough already. It’s time to go.

Waiting for weather

There are worse places to be pinned down.

We are making our way along the north coast of Cuba—at least we were until two weeks ago when the winds picked up sharply, kicking up the seas in the Straits of Florida. “Augmented trades,” Chris Parker, the weather god, calls them, and there’s little place to shelter from east winds along this stretch of coast.

Except for Cayo Levisa.

There is nothing on shore here except that rarest of things: a beautiful resort that actually welcomes sailors. When we went to shore to clear in with the Guarda Frontera, we were greeted by a young man who quickly became our best friend. He offered us pineapples, guava, papayas… and made it clear that he could get us anything else we needed.

Huevos? A slight frown. Maybe tomorrow.

But he’s a resourceful young man, and the next day he produced a flat of eggs, as well as half a dozen beautiful tomatoes and a handful of cucumbers. During our stay here, we have been provided with a steady stream of tropical fruit including the tiniest, sweetest bananas we’ve ever tasted. Chris makes himself banana pancakes for breakfast, I prefer a freshly sliced pineapple. The guava and papaya, I’m sorry to say, we politely decline. No me gusta. Whoever is offering it usually admits that they no gusta either.

In addition to an abundance of fresh provisions, we are welcome to relax in the cool lobby of the resort, use their wifi, dash back an espresso or sip a cold beer—or both. There are miles of beaches to walk, and a beautiful spot for an evening campfire while we watch the sun set.


One calm day, we took the ferry to shore with a nice couple from England, Jacqui and David, who are also waiting here to make the trip around the cape to the south shore. The four of us hired a taxi for the day—a great treat. We normally only see the coast of the countries we visit.

The interior of Cuba, with its oddly shaped limestone mountains, sculptured caves, pretty villages, and red-dirt farms was endlessly fascinating. We saw tobacco growing, bananas, pineapples, sugar cane. Most people travel on horseback, or in horse-drawn carts. The fields are worked with teams of oxen. If you avoid the tourist attractions, including an “indian” who will let you take your picture with him, you get a feel for another Cuba, so different from Havana.

Sure, there are a few other places further along this coast we could squeeze into, but why would we, unless, as the guidebook suggests, we were fascinated by cement works and the dust they spread. Or not troubled by large acid plants, which blanket parts of the coast in eye-watering exhaust. As exciting as finding the occasional beach defended by anti landing-craft devices sounds, I think we’ll stay here for now.

Chris Parker says surely by next week the weather will settle. No sense rushing off, I say.



So far from the Clyde

A speck just off the shore slowly resolves itself into a massive, rusting steel hulk as we thread our way through the narrow channel into Bahia Honda.

“What’s that?” I ask Chris.

“I don’t know. There are supposed to be a couple fishing weirs at the entrance to the bay.”

I pick up the binoculars, study it closely.

“That’s not a fishing weir.”

We’ve finally left Havana and are making our way slowly west along the north coast of Cuba. A shoreline studded with smokestacks and the smell of heavy industry has slowly given way to mangroves lining the shore, a mountain range rising behind them. We sailed past the first two “pocket bays” along the coast, heading for the unspoiled beauty of Bahia Honda. But it’s not completely unspoiled. We can see cranes inside the bay. And what is this thing we’re looking at?

“A ship gone aground?” I ask Chris.

“It’s certainly as big as a ship, but I’ve never seen one that looked quite like that.”

It doesn’t have a pilot house, just a series of little shacks along the deck. And the bow. There’s something not right about the bow. As we draw closer, we realize that the vessel, if that’s what it is, has two hulls. With only a skeleton of rusted steel holding them together.

“I think it’s a dry dock,” Chris says. He’s right. The guide book confirms that it’s an old floating dry dock, run aground at the mouth of the bay. Bahia Honda’s main industry is a large metal scrap yard that strips and tears apart old ships. We pass a huge barge run aground on the shore, slanting sharply into the water. Several ships in various stages of decay, many of them aground. Tangles of rusted steel jut out of the water, the bow of a ship, the remains of a stern, something entirely unrecognizable.

“This place looks like a ship graveyard,” I say to Chris, as we pass more rusted boats, long stripped clean of anything of value and slowly being claimed by the sea. They’re beautiful in the late afternoon sun, in a sad kind of way. We come as close as we dare to a ship that looks like it could still be floating. I try not to think of what its last journey might have been like. Most probably it was towed here, but maybe it came in under its own steam.

We had our last supper the day of the beaching
She’s a dead ship sailing, skeleton crew
The galley is empty, the stove pots are cooling,
With what’s left of the stew.

I think Mark Knopfler’s song “So far from the Clyde” is the saddest song I know. It’s a poignant ballad about a ship from Scotland making its final journey to be beached in some third-world country, then stripped down and cut apart for scrap.

She lifts to a wave from her bows to her rudder
Bravely she rises to meet with the land
Under their feet they all feel her keel shudder
The shallow sea washes their hands

I can’t bear to think of what Monark’s fate will be. I have come to love this boat more than I ever thought possible. It happened gradually, I think, as we sailed cautiously through miles of thunderstorms off Antigua, pounded into the seas as we headed from Bermuda to the Azores, were pummeled by not one but two gales just before making landfall at Flores. Monark gallops through the roughest seas, slices through the waves, the sea breaking over the bow, water streaming out through the scuppers. In cross seas the boat rolls, rights itself, rolls rights itself. This is nothing, I can handle this. Bring it on.

I accept all of our boat’s quirks—the ever-leaking forehatch that regularly drenches the V-berth in salt water, the fragile drive train that can’t handle much more than 1800 rpm, the rust, oh the rust, that weeps constantly from under the cap rail, from the anchor locker, from many of the deck fittings. It’s a full-time job trying to stay ahead of it. But that’s just part of having a steel boat.

We have lovingly scraped and painted the bottom in boat yards around the world—in Canada, more times than we can count, in the Azores, in southern Portugal. We know every inch of the hull, feel grateful as we fair the occasional dent, apply a fresh coat of bottom paint. We’ve thought of other boats, lighter boats, faster boats, boats that require less maintenance. But we wouldn’t trade our sturdy steel boat for the world.

Who among us ever really knows when we’re on our last journey. Chris and I know we can’t sail forever. You may be surprised to learn that we’re not actually getting any younger. Neither is Monark, but I like to think that with loving care, the boat will go on forever, will never be just a stain on the sand somewhere.

Stripped of her pillars, her stays, and her stanchions
When there’s only her bones on the wet poisoned land
Steel ropes will drag her with winches and engines
Till there’s only a stain on the sand.




Market day in Jaimanitas

Saturday is market day Jaimanitas, a little village about eight miles west of Havana and right beside Marina Hemmingway, where we’re spending Christmas. Chris and I shoulder our backpacks and set out before the day gets too hot—but we’re already too late. We’re drenched in sweat by the time we reach the market square, which is crowded with people and cars and horse-drawn farm wagons. There’s a long line-up at the main produce stall, but we decide to see what’s on offer at the smaller stalls before taking our place in the queue.

It’s pretty much the same from stall to stall—carrots, tomatoes, eggplant, suspicious-looking potatoes, shaped like a sweet potato but pink on the outside and white on the inside. Lots of fruit, bananas, pineapples, papaya which you must not call papaya because in Spanish it means something else altogether, something rather rude. Bomba, you must say. We buy a bomba, then take our place in line for some vegetables.

This is what $10 of produce looks like in Cuba.

“Ultimo?” a woman asks me. It’s the system here, and it works pretty well. When you approach a line, you ask who is last in line, and then you are ultimo. But I have forgotten to do this so I have no idea if I am ultimo or not so I shrug. She looks at her friend and rolls her eyes. In time, the man behind the table takes pity on me and serves me. I gather up a big handful of tomatoes, some cucumbers, point to the huge pile of gorgeous carrots, red dirt still clinging to them. I signal to Chris to grab a couple of eggplants. We walk away from the market with all the produce we can eat in a week. For less than $10 Canadian. Unbelievable.

We wander through the little village, follow the sound of music to the park, then follow our noses to a bakery down one of the sidestreets. Bread is all they sell, and there’s lots of it. We buy half a dozen soft rolls. Down another sidestreet we come across a man selling meat from a wheelbarrow. He slices pieces off a fresh, bloody carcass covered with flies. I see us becoming increasingly vegetarian on this trip.

The truth is, I’m suffering from culture shock. The houses in the village are nothing more than a jumble of crumbling concrete and tumbled-down stone. At first it didn’t seem possible to me that people lived in them. Then I saw laundry hanging in one of the tiny dirt yards and strung across a rooftop. I watched a woman turn onto a dirt path into what looked to me like an abandoned warehouse complex, struggling with her heavy market purchases and a sack of rice from the co-op. A mangy dog ran out to greet her.

The dogs. I can’t get used to the dogs. They are everywhere, running free, wandering onto the road, jumping out of the way of cars at the very last minute. Some aren’t fast enough. We see many dogs with broken legs. Cats who can barely walk, so skinny and sick that surely they should be put out of their misery. If only I had a magic wand.

The bakery is easy to find. Just follow your nose.

We head back to the market—we decide to get a pineapple after all—and there we meet friends from the marina. David says something funny, and the four of us laugh, and I notice that people are looking at us. Then I realize that we haven’t heard laughter all morning. The villagers are quiet as they stand in line, resigned, it feels like. I’m embarrassed at our backpacks, our arms laden with purchases, our happiness. We have put some pesos in the pockets of a few farmers, too few pesos for what we were given. Why didn’t we offer more?

I wonder if I will get used to the real Cuba, so different from the resorts in Varadero, my only experience of the country before this trip. I know we will have given away all our money before we head home, and any supplies we have left, and the laundry basked full of gifts we brought with us—clothing, coffee, soap. Possibly the laundry basked itself. But is it enough.

I don’t know how the people of Jaimanitas will celebrate Christmas. Until recently, Christmas was banned in Cuba and it remains a pretty low-key celebration. Ours will be quiet as well. We won’t be wandering far from the boat, which is tied in a sort of cat’s cradle of lines in the narrow canal here at the marina. Big northwest winds are predicted, and in those conditions a surge big enough to lift boats over the concrete wall rolls up the river and into the marina. So far the winds are just giving the palm trees a comb-over, not bending them in half as they will soon. We’ll be keeping our eyes on our lines and having a quiet dinner as we wait out the weather—seafood risotto and a glass of prosecco—and thinking of all of you at home.

Have a wonderful Christmas.


Running the gauntlet

“Are you ready to go?”

“I think so,” I say uncertainly.

“Tomorrow looks like a good day. Winds from the north. Sunny. Cool. Let’s do it.”

I’m reluctant to leave the anchorage at Peck Lake, where we’ve spent a quiet week walking on the beach, reading, napping, doing boat chores. There’s nothing else to do here, which is perfect. But we need to keep moving south if we hope to get to Cuba by Christmas, so we begin our preparations.

First, we make a list of the lift bridges we will have to clear between Peck Lake and Lake Worth. There are seven of them. The first three open on demand, but the last four have strict opening times, which they follow to the minute.

One last walk on the beach before we leave  Peck Lake.

But the bridge that really matters is Jupiter Federal Bridge, an aged bridge smack in Jupiter Inlet, where the tides flow in and out from the ocean, and subject to big currents and shoaling. We’ve run into trouble here before.

Once, when we requested an opening, the bridge operator told us there was an ambulance coming and he had to wait until it had cleared the bridge to open it. Now we’re all for giving way to emergency vehicles, but there was a good chance we’d end out needing an ambulance if we couldn’t keep ourselves off the bridge while we waited. The tide was flowing in, doing its best to sweep us into the bridge which has a 26-foot clearance when closed. We are 54 feet tall. Problem. Reversing at full throttle, calling on everything our 36-horsepower engine can give us, kept us just off the bridge. Just. That wasn’t something we wanted to experience again.

I studied the tide charts carefully.

“Slack water is at 1:30. So if we leave here at 10:30, we should get it just about right.”

The next morning we’re up early, one more quick walk on the beach then stow the dingy and check the oil and grease the thrust bearing and check the bolts on the drive coupling and top up the steering fluid—the last thing we want is a mechanical failure when we’re fighting the current—and we’re off.

The lighthouse in Jupiter Inlet, decked out for Christmas.

The Hobe Sound Bridge was not a problem. Some current running against us but we expected that, and the bridge operator was patient with us as we motored through at 3.5 knots. One down.

I went down and made coffee and we relaxed as we motored for seven miles through mango groves, very pleasant, lots of osprey and pelicans to amuse us.

Next, the 707 Bridge, which we passed through easily, the current was slowing nicely. Then a short stretch to Jupiter Inlet, which takes careful attention at the helm—the waterway is very narrow and if you wander outside of it, you’ll be on a sandbar.

“Here we go,” Chris says, as he makes the turn into the inlet and calls the Jupiter Federal Bridge. The bridge operator immediately stops the traffic and starts the long, agonizing process of raising the decrepit bridge. The A1A, a major highway, crosses the waterway here, and all four spans must be fully open before we can pass through.

Going up…

But they don’t snap to attention like they do on most of the other bridges—they creak up slowly, one by one. It’s rather like watching a yoga class for seniors. And the current is still flowing a little, urging us towards the bridge. Chris does a masterful job of keeping us off the spans but we do slip through before the last one is fully open.



The Federal Bridge at Jupiter Inlet, “fully” open.

Uh oh. Now the tricky turn. If you don’t get it right, you’re swept onto another bridge, and it’s not a lift bridge. But this time we were expecting this, and Chris keeps us out of trouble and manages to find the mouth of the Lake Worth Creek, where the waterway continues.

But the fun isn’t over. Now we’re into a series of tightly spaced lift bridges that open only on the half hour and the hour. If you get there a minute late, you’re out of luck. If you get there too early, you have to somehow sit still in the narrow channel until opening time. If you hold 6.5 knots between the first three bridges, you can slip through easily. Sometimes we hit 6.5 knots under full sail with the seas behind us. Sometimes. Our top motoring speed in the waterway is maybe 4.5 knots. Chris throttles way back and we accept that it’s going to take us all afternoon to get through this 10-mile stretch.

This is a small boat.

But there’s lots to watch. We are entering North Palm Beach, with its many excesses—huge mansions with lush gardens, some very tasteful, others merely ostentatious. Big power boats, bigger power boats, even bigger power boats. The afternoon is sunny and cool and it’s all very pleasant. By 4:30 we’ve cleared the last bridge and we’re entering Lake Worth, another of our favourite places to anchor, though very different than the nature preserve at Peck Lake. Here we’re surrounded by condos and monster houses (Trump’s villa isn’t far away.) But there’s a West Marine within easy walking distance, a darling French bistro, and a huge Italian grocery store.

Chris loves the Italian grocery store.



Bottom painting day!

All geared up and ready to paint.

It’s not like face painting, Chris and I are not painting little maple leafs on our behinds, though that might be fun. This is much more exciting: We’re putting anti-fouling paint on the hull of the boat, the last step before launching tomorrow.

As Chris mixes the paint and I gear up—gloves, goggles, a long-sleeved shirt, most important a ball cap so I don’t get bottom paint in my hair. A young man who has been hired to paint the boat beside us, a beautiful 54-foot ketch, wanders over to see what we’re doing. In fact, he does a lot more wandering around than painting.

“You doing that yourself?”


“You have a boat like this and a nice car and you do your own work.”

“Uh huh.”

The young man runs his hands through his hair and shambles over to the next boat to see what’s happening there. It’s not clear to me that inhaling paint fumes every day has done him any good.

We always do our own bottom work—actually, we do all our own work, but painting the bottom gives us a chance to inspect every inch of it, check all the through-hulls, make sure all is well. Because if the bottom isn’t sound, nothing else matters.

It also gives us a chance to reminisce about the past season.

“Remember the reef off Athol Island?” I say to Chris as I paint over a sizeable dent in the front of the keel.

“Yeah, that was dumb,” he says.

We’d been sailing all day, it was getting dark, and rather than going the extra distance to the anchorage at Rose Island, which is easier to enter, we were trying to pick our way into the tiny anchorage at Athol. Chris admits that he shouldn’t have taken the shortcut through the reef.

But no harm done. Our keel is solid steel and it can take a lot.

As I work away, painting the seams and the rudder and around the through-hulls, I think of all the other places we’ve painted the bottom, the most memorable in the boatyard in Portugal. We were a curiosity there too, doing our own boat work. A crew of North Africans was sandblasting the boat beside us, pop music blaring. But at dusk, everyone left and we had the boatyard to ourselves. We’d sit in the cockpit and watch the fishing boats coming in, watch the sun set behind the church on the hill in Lagos.

Sightseeing in Titusville.

Here, when we’re not working on the boat, we go walkabout, taking in the sights of Titusville, the man who lives in a van in the park beside the marina and feeds pigeons and squirrels and curiously, egrets, who you wouldn’t really expect to beg for peanuts. We give the ponds in the park a wide berth, and never go wading—we have a healthy respect for alligators. Some days we wander through the town, admiring the murals.

One stormy day, we drove across the Intracoastal Waterway and through the wildlife sanctuary on Merritt Island to the ocean to check out the surf. There was a huge storm out in the ocean, with 9-meter waves (yes, those are kind of big) and there was supposed to be a big surf running, but it wasn’t as spectacular as we had hoped.

The bottom is painted now and Chris has been up the mast to install new spreader lights and check the rigging. I’d say we’re good from top to bottom. And we’re pretty much provisioned, ready to launch in the morning. Believe me, trying to figure out what provisions we’ll need for five months in Cuba, where foreigners can’t really buy anything, has been a daunting task. But I think we’re good. We can live on chickpeas, if need be. Sailors don’t die of scurvy any more. Do they??

I guess we’ll find out.

Here’s what five months of milk looks like.
Where in the world is MonArk?

The Winnipeg readers festival

My growing pile of books. I don’t know where to start!

I was thrilled when I was invited to participate in Thin Air, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival. Few things give me greater pleasure than reading to an attentive, engaged audience—okay, that’s not entirely true. I would read to three birds, if they perched on my windowsill. I just love reading my stories aloud. Bonus if some creature, even a little bird, is actually listening.

Well there were appreciative readers aplenty at the festival. I read at noon at the library downtown to a roomful of people, some of whom may have come into the library to get warm, others who were curious about this woman who had sailed across the ocean, still others looking, perhaps, for a quiet place to eat their lunch. But all of them listened politely and asked good questions. The half hour flew by.

That evening I was driven out to Gimli, a small town on the shores of Lake Winnipeg about an hour north of the city. There a crowd had gathered in the Unitarian Church, the heart of the town’s Icelandic community and once the mother church of the Unitarian movement in Western Canada. There were sailors in the audience who nodded as I read my account of our first storm at sea and shared their stories afterwards as we gathered at the front for coffee and some home baking.

The Carman United Church, a peaceful and beautiful space.

There was another church in store for me. The next day I was driven to Carman, a very pretty prairie town about an hour south of Winnipeg, and there I read to The Wednesday Group, a couple dozen people who get together once a week to listen to speakers, think about big ideas, and ask questions. They asked some of the best questions I’ve ever fielded. You said you were never going to put yourself in the way of a broken heart again. Why did you? How do you provision for a month at sea? Were you ever lonely out there? The discussion continued over a lunch of homemade soup and fresh bread.

But as much pleasure as the readings gave me, I think sitting quietly in the audience as other writers performed was just as satisfying. So many stories. So many different voices. I was transported to the Great Bear Rainforest on the west coast of Canada in search of Sasquatch, to a modest house in Saskatoon built in 1928, inside the mind of a woman struggling with schizophrenia. To a boxing match in Las Vegas, to a horse farm in southwestern Ontario, on a walk through Winnipeg’s urban forest. From a small beach just outside St. John’s, Newfoundland to almost every place the ocean touches.

I promised myself when I came here, my suitcase already overstuffed, that I wouldn’t buy any books, but I couldn’t stop myself. The pile in my hotel room is growing steadily. It’s a good thing I’m going home today—I couldn’t carry any more books! But the festival continues until Monday. There’s still time to head down and collect your own armload of books.

This should really be called the Winnipeg Readers Festival.