Sailing to Cuba conjures up visions of pristine tropical waters, pirates and rum. As one of the few Americans lucky enough to enjoy this adventure, Krystal Douglas tells Cuban Life what’s really involved:
Growing up in Florida with a gypsy-souled mother and a grandfather with a sailboat, I found myself island hopping and skippering through my school years. Although restrictions were specific on traveling to Cuba, sailing the entire Caribbean often provided experiences unfamiliar to others my age. Being just far enough south of the Bahamas to see the Cuban shoreline, my parents decided to introduce me to a vastly different culture that had been so nearby for so long. Cuba is a strikingly unique country, which is only 90 miles south of the USA. With restrictions for American travelers in the process of being relaxed, this is becoming an increasingly tempting journey.
Cuba has long been a haven for sailors, and with its beautiful, clear blue waters and overwhelmingly colorful culture, it’s easy to see why. In the past, travel to and from Cuba was difficult for Americans, and was done ‘under the radar’ by passing through the Bahamas first. Sailing gives you a unique, coastal experience of this huge island but there are several things, and several places, to keep in mind.
More and more seafarers are travelling between Havana and Key West without any problems, thanks to the new ‘person to person’ program. The program encourages travelers to learn more about Cuban culture and history.
If you’re traveling in a small sailboat, all ports on the north coast of Cuba are fair game. For larger/private yachts, you’re going to have trouble docking along the north side of Cuba due to the type and size of marinas. However, this also means that there are more safety issues while sailing on the south side of Cuba, due to the prevalence of larger boats. Inland, the cost of transportation is high, so sailing to visit the various destinations works well for travelers who want an all-encompassing experience. Cuba is ideally positioned to benefit from cool, dry weather from late October to early May, when solid winds make for some of the best sailing conditions.
Hurricane season runs from July to mid-November, so this isn’t the best time to make the trip, especially if you are a novice or haven’t traversed Cuba’s water before. It can be rainy, causing low visibility, and the humidity can put a damper on the vacation. So if it’s your first sailing trip from the US to Cuba, it’s best to go between October and May.
With tourism numbers projected to double within the next several years, the locals appreciate tourists, and are extremely warm and friendly in most ports. Havana Vieja is rich in history, off the beaten track, and is considered a must-see. Knowing some basic history about the embargo will give you a useful insight when it comes to communicating and exploring the area. Although Cubans are typically enthusiastic with visitors, learning more about their perspective will enrich your experience.
With the influx of new tourists to Cuba, many of the buildings in Havana have undergone restoration and new restaurants are springing up in their respective pastel colors. Cuba has an incredible amount of freshly caught shrimp, and at their current prices, $20-$30 CUC could easily feed a couple for an entire week. A typical seafood dinner can range from $6-$11 CUC, and the further east you go, the cheaper the seafood gets. Although cattle are raised in Cuba, you are unlikely to find it on a menu in a Cuban restaurant due to current laws. Cattle are considered property of the state, so it is illegal to slaughter for beef. Back in 2000, America authorized importing agricultural goods into Cuba, resulting in almost all of Cuba’s beef coming from the States. Cubans caught slaughtering cattle for meat will face a prison sentence, thus, most restaurants do not sell beef. If seafood isn’t what you’re after, you’ll mostly find lamb and pork on the menu, along with plantains and organic vegetables. But your best bet is to order whatever comes recommended, sit on the patio and soak up Cuban culture. Learning a handful of Spanish phrases will also go a long way, as many Cubans don’t speak English.
If your sailboat has a motor, you’ll be able to obtain spare fuel for around $1.60 per liter, depending on where you are. In 2014, the cost of bringing a boat into Cuba jumped to $55 CUC, undoubtedly because of the relaxed travel restrictions. One of the 12 applicable customs categories for US citizens now states “Support for the Cuban people,” which is an easy choice when you plan to buy goods from local businesses. Other options include “educational activities,” and “public performances.” Traveling to Cuba as a tourist is still ‘prohibited,’ but not enforced as it was previously. Docking your sailboat is cheap in comparison to much of the Caribbean at between 40 and 60 cents per foot per day for boats of less than 45 feet. When docking in Havana, there’s also a free shuttle from Marina Hemingway into Old Havana. Although Cuba’s beautiful coastline is extensive, docking up in canals, pocket bays and smaller villages is still not permitted. So if you are exploring smaller, more rural areas of Cuba is your goal, you must dock up and find your own mode of travel. Private cabs are readily available and provide a unique experience, seeing as most Cuban cars in use today are from the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Sailing from the Florida Keys is a common route to Cuba. Most sailors sail their boats down from Miami and dock up at Key West in preparation. Key West provides the closest logical path to Cuba by way of Havana (23°05.3’N, 82°30.6’W). The closest port of entry to Havana is actually Marina Hemingway, nine miles away from Havana. By heading south and passing Havana, you can angle yourself into the coastline and enter the marina. It is best not to enter at night or during the windy season, as the sea buoy is difficult to see even in good weather. By cutting straight south to Havana, you are setting yourself up to sail east, and dock up in Varadero (23°07.6’N, 81°18.4’W), with the option to continue along the northeast coastline to Puerto Vita.
|Top Cuba Sailing Tip|
You MUST be extremely cautious when sailing northeast of Varadero, as there’s underwater steel and concrete near the shoreline of the guard shack on the eastern side of Varadero.
The north side of Cuba is overwhelmingly picturesque with pristine, clean beaches, and has several safe ports. Another favorite route is via George Town, located in the middle of the Bahamas. Many avid sailors love to do the full loop, and push off from Miami, passing through Bimini on their way to Nassau.
- After pushing off from Nassau, you can make your way southeast to George Town to stock up on supplies.
- You can then follow the island chain south to Duncan Town, which is about 131 nautical miles south.
- Duncan Town provides the last stop before arriving in Puerto de Vita (21º 06.00’N, 75º 57.95’W), just 65 nautical miles further south.
- You’ll know you’ve reached Puerto Vita when you spot the lighthouse in the bay’s entrance.
- Docking in Puerto Vita puts you in an official port of entry into Cuba, and a safe shelter from hurricanes should you find yourself on the edge of a storm.
- You can then hop along the Cuban coast up to Cayo Guillermo, Varadero, Havana, and back north towards Key West/Miami.
- Sailing the southern side of Cuba, although possible, isn’t necessarily encouraged, because the distance from a northern port around the East side of Cuba and around does not have a port to dock up at.
- The area surrounding Guantanamo Bay is prohibited, and should only be considered a port in dire emergency.
Certain areas near the southern side of Cuba have been known to hold pirates, who have been known to attack civilian boats. Because the southern side of Cuba has more options for larger vessels, pirates try to take advantage of novice captains/sailors who do not know the area. This poses an incredible threat to sailboats that cannot outrun these vessels. Although it is much less likely these days, pirates of the early ‘90s would quickly raid boats that could not outrun them for anything from supplies to weapons. Thankfully the once serious threat of piracy to Havana has been overcome.
If you’re looking to see the southern side of Cuba, you may want to approach the trip from the west side by leaving Havana. This will provide places to dock at should you need to. Dropping down around the west side allows you to visit Cayo del Rosario, Cayo Rico, and Cayo Largo, all of which are beautiful. These islands have some of the most stunning beaches in the Caribbean.
Its diverse culture paired with gorgeous turquoise-blue waters make Cuba one of the most accessible places to sail to. If you’ve never been to this area before, I would encourage you experience sailing to Cuba for yourself, and discover for yourself why sailors love these waters. Take your time, snorkel the reefs and explore untouched beaches. The experience of sailing to Cuba will stay with you for years to come.
Recommended Cuba Marinas
5ta Ave y 248 Santa Fe , Havana
Tel:+53 7 209 7270/7928/7201 Fax:+53 7 204 5280 ,VHF Channel 16, 77
– There’s no water/power at canal #1. Try to get the north side of canal #2, it’s the most convenient because of its proximity to the showers.
– Fuel is provided if needed.
Marina Internacional Puerto de Vita
Tel:(53 24) 3-0445 / 46 Fax:+53 24 30 446 or 53 24 30 475 ,VHF Channel 13, 16 (24hr)
– 38 slips
– Includes unlimited water usage, fuel, electricity, Wi-Fi, laundry
– Local restaurant within walking distance
Marina Gaviota Varadero
Peninsula de Hicacos Km 21, Varadero
Tel:(5345) 667755 ,VHF Channel 16
– This is an official port of entry.
– Brand new, and is now Cuba’s most modernized marina to enter.
– Laundry, local restaurant and bar. Dive center.
– Boatyard has a travel hoist and will make repairs if needed.
Marina Puerto sol Darsena de Varadero
Carretera de Vía Blanca, km. 31 , Varadero , Matanzas
Tel:(534) 566-8060 ex 661 ,VHF Channel 16, 19, 68, 72
– Is an official port of entry.
– Has water, electricity, fuel, a lounge, and repair facility.
– Is only walking distance away from the town and various markets.