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Molly, aka Florence Mary Avery

As a child, you see things up-close and remember them. A scratch on a tabletop, a chip in a skirting board. My grandmother was called Molly. She always had a powder tin to hand, to dab the skin-coloured pink powder over the tiny blue blood vessels you could see all over her nose. She wore nylon frocks and pinafores when she was cleaning. I noticed all of these textures and objects too – some of my earliest memories.

And in her youth Grandma was ‘a sort’, she told us, with a glint in her eye. She had grown up mainly in London, had seen the blitz through with two young kids. Her bright pink lipstick, flaky skin, and grimacing as she moved her arthritis and polycythaemia around her granny flat in the old peoples’ complex made us cruel kids want to get out into the gardens as soon as possible. But amidst all that pain, and the losing battle against the march of time, housekeeping chores, the head-on loneliness of bereavement blossomed into a heroic fight for fun in her last two decades.

In her mid-seventies, she became a character about town, happily compromised many of her principles in order to blithely campaign forwards and enjoy retirement. But underneath Grandma’s blundering old-lady appearance were two things. The most obvious was her fluttering social manner. With a nervous well-spoken aspirational demeanour, she was taken-in by feats of technical brilliance and awestruck by people with any inkling of society. She was a product of that strata of mid twentieth-century who were so useful in Churchill’s War Effort; easily impressed, and doggedly loyal to something they sometimes seem nowadays to have had little understanding of. But that blind faith won the war for Britain. And she was quietly brimming with pride over this.

The second more subtle attribute of Grandma was her canniness. And you wouldn’t have thought it would creep up on you, so long after having known her. She said things which were right, but sounded laughable at the time. She would grab your arm plaintively as she made a point. You couldn’t take her seriously, so embedded was her act of naivete.

Her maiden name was Avery, and there was a famous pirate with this name, John Avery, who we are all supposedly related to. And we probably are. But Grandma had had a series of bounders in her ancestry. Her deified mother – the concert pianist – had died when she was four years old. Her father, the Newspaper Foreign Correspondent had done a moonlight flit, leaving Grandma’s only good memory of childhood encoded in her mum’s practice on the black and white ebony and ivory keys of the piano. So obsessed with these objects was she that she was finally banned from tinkling by her adoptive aunt. And her aunt was never forgiven for this. They had no money for lessons, living in a flapper world of Mrs Dalloway characters, and so she became a secretary as everybody did in the 1920s, it seems.

Her bank clerk suitor (Grankie) whisked her away with his motorbike, salary, his wartime fire-watching derring-do, and eventually his farmer grin. He was a campaigner, too. His politics seem complicatedly right-wing neo-liberal to me now, but he did some good stuff. Grankie had escaped the drone-like life of a bank clerk in the city to become a smallholding fruit farmer, with the family in-tow. She had become a farmer’s wife, and they became forever identified as the ‘Darling Buds of May’. She got freckles in the Kent sunshine as she helped out in the orchard, and he replaced her christian name, Florence with Molly. (Mole-ley, geddit?). And that was who she became. Molly Lake. Forever.

But that was all over now, and as she sat in her ‘home’, with unruly and sometimes belligerent teenagers to control, she tried to take an interest. I was always the technical one (whether I liked it or not, and I didn’t) who was ‘like Grankie’, so birthday presents always consisted of tools.

But as I grew older, my understanding of tools became more serious. It was difficult to be the only boy, actually. There was expectation. It was also assumed that I would be more emotionally robust than my sisters, and wouldn’t mind playing second fiddle (almost literally) to an older sister in her musical endeavours.

So Grandma took to reading The Times. Principles be damned. Or maybe she had always taken it. Anyway, she always fell for the rubbish advertised in the back pages. China ornaments, meaningless medals, ‘collectibles’. And one year she gave me an extra christmas present: ‘I thought it was marvellous,’ she gushed, ‘and such good value for money. It’s meant to be one of the best brands…’. Hmmm.

I opened the heavy little package, the size of a harmonica case, and my heart sank. A ratchet screwdriver. Bright yellow plastic. A clicking mechanism. Small phillips and flat-head bits to go in the hexagonal holder. Plastic. Yellow. Great. ‘Thanks Grandma’.
Like so many things you hate, it went in the bottom of the toolbox. And like those things, it kept working long after I wanted it to. But to my extreme consternation, I unexpectedly started to see its uses.

When I first went on a film set as an on-set Art Director (Standby), it was always in my pocket or bag. And the ratchet never broke. People would ask me about it, and we would notice that it was made in the USA, and that you could throw it on the floor and it wouldn’t break. Time passed, and at some point, when I was supervising a trainee, I explained it to her, and we christened it ‘Molly’.

And so Molly became part of my lifetime kit. And like so many other things I have hated, I came to love it, and thirty-four years after getting her for Christmas, fifteen years after Molly Lake’s passing, ‘Molly’ is still getting me out of trouble mid-ocean, in storms. So once again, as I tighten-up another inaccessible screw-bolt, stopping the boat from filling with water, I look back at that improbably wisdom of my ridiculous grandmother and silently thank her in the darkness. I get up out of the heaving hull, my own knees creaking now, and stagger back onto the wave-washed decks of my boat where my crew are trying to grasp the bucking wheel: ‘All done; fixed! I’ll take the wheel. What’s the course?’
Thanks, Molly.
Molly, fixing the fresh water pump on Sandpiper’s plumbing system

Greyhound Valentines Day

‘Passage’ 1. noun 1; the action or process of moving through, under, over, or past something on the way from one place to another >the action or process of moving forward… >a journey by sea or by air…
Oxford English Dictionary

A lovely ‘RV’ we saw in Jacksonville, FL
I wake up with a nudge in the darkness. I am on a strange boat. We are fifteen feet in the air. We are ‘on the hard’, ‘on the hill’. We are in the boat yard. Sodium light glows through the rectangular porthole. The heater fan is blowing, still. North Florida should not be this cold. Even in February.

Then I am on the stainless steel bus looking across the aisle at the dark skin of the lady who is talking.

‘Not ove’ he’, ove’ the’. Not ove’ he’, ove’ the’…’ She is making the point emphatically. Her overweight shell-suited friend nods.

The asiatic-looking man who changed my twenty-dollar bill earlier is looking-on. The younger, but toothless ‘hip-hop hoodie’, who also helped us get the exact change for the fare, left the bus, punching the driver’s fist with a ‘Later’ even before the bus had pulled-off. He had just got on to for the entertainment, like the downs-syndrome guys who sat on a seat chewing his McDouble for ten minutes. With no intention of travel, he was escorted, off the bus, with a hug from the driver, when it was time to pull away from the stand.

‘Not ove’ the’, she says again. Strip lights catch her straightened fringe, which protrudes over her forehead from the front of her headscarf. Like mature women all over the world, she has her trolley for shopping, and is dressed up for town. Her big african-american lips pronounce the impenetrable words with emphasis, and I imagine the environment where every word is understood. What does it sound like in her own living room? She will probably buy her weekly food from her regular ‘stores’, maybe get her hair done, or perhaps see a doctor or dentist. These people will understand her accent. It will be a nice day for her. Dawn is not here yet, and she does not fit in, somehow, with the sombre night-owl atmosphere on the municiple bus into Jacksonville from Orange Park, all sleek and shiny and shadowy.


Our bags are stacked in the aisle, heavy with two huge bronze sailing winches I cut from an abandoned boat in the ‘Back Lot’ of the boatyard yesterday afternoon. We will carry them all the way to Cuba. It is ironic to me that, in this fluorescent cold-lit ‘night-world’, there may be a Cuban who knows the village where we are heading, the backstreet lady who sells honey in rum bottles, garnered from her farm in the mountains, the cobbler in the empty storefront, or the busy tyre-fixing workshop. It is a thousand miles away, but Cubans get around in Florida, despite how difficult it is to come across the Straits from home by raft, or even windsurf-board.

The old lady gets up, and lumbers along to the driver. ‘Lemme off here, honey’, as he pulls to a stop. Maybe today she’ll buy some flowers for a wayward daughter, and give them lovingly with a ‘shucks, chile, Happy Valentines’. It is the fourteenth of February.


I had seen Baron in a blur through the darkness this morning, driving around the filthy boatyard, looking for us. I had overslept, and seconds before this, I was pulling my trousers on, staggering around, trying not to wake Michelle, or break anything on that unfamiliar boat. On deck, I had nearly toppled as I made my way to the ladder down. ‘Focus Focus Focus’. I carefully climbed down. Molly the dog had been pleased to see me, even at five thirty in the morning, as I dragged out our heavy bags from the back of Michelle’s massive covered pickup. ‘Damn these winches – I ached from the labours of the previous day – I had spent most the day before parting two massive bronze winches from a mast, like dumbells, to carry with us, however we were to do it, getting back to our boat.


Moonrise over Green Cove Springs, on a previous evening…

‘Yeah, Man, I was wondering where you were, so I got in the car and started driving around!’ Baron. What a guy. I have often said to Dorry I want to be like Baron when I grow up. The point being that at eighty-two, he has never grown up. I am so relieved that is here, and ready to go.


‘No problem!’, he had said, ‘I’ll take you to the Courthouse in the morning. Is that where the bus leaves from?’. Baron had seen me bringing the winches back from the ‘boat graveyard’ in the area they call ‘California’ of the marina property. ‘Lemme give you a ride, man…’ he had grinned, as he helped me stuff them into my bag…

We had introduced Baron to the Chinatown Bus service, connecting the ubiquitous chinese restaurants in every town throughout the United States, and connecting all the big cities with a ‘Chinatown’ district.

‘Shit man, I had no idea, and I been travelling around this country for the last eighty years.’
Statue of Liberty, New York, from seat number 6c of a Chinatown Bus. Note the sign: ‘We are not responsible…’

‘Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, We’ve all gone to look for America’ (Paul Simon)…

Baron used to smuggle cigars from Cuba in his tiny sailing boat, then use the money to head for Europe to hang out amongst the artists and poets of the Parisian Rive Gauche. Word is that he had broken many a french girl’s heart, and undoubtedly is still doing so with dynamic and humble abandon, age clearly being no impediment to him. Baron’s tales are legendary. The story of how he ended up in france explains some of his life – a job interview got by his probation officer in the US, for a position in Cheltenham, in the UK, on condition that he leave the USA for a new liffe. It had gone so well that he got drunk on his way back to London on the train, and ended-up, inexplicably, in Paris, for THREE YEARS.

‘I met the love of my life, man. What you gonna do?’


Baron, with Phil Rees of Anju in the background

Baron’s own wayward daughters keep him busy and anxious in his old age, and he is the first to admit that this is probably down to the fact that he disappeared on them, and stranded them and their mother in England during this time. He is paying his dues with paternal steadiness and ingenuity, making money as an unofficial taxi for cruising sailors to get to and from airports and seaports from the boatyard. His daughters are in their late fifties. The family is close, loving and insane. Just how he likes it.

Baron has a cheap car and a solid boat. And lots of friends in both high and low places. And he shares with us a love of fine strong cheese and british motorbikes. Amongst other things. Right now, I am looking at the headlights of his car, making a positive identification. He winds down the window. It IS him.
‘We’re just over there, opposite the work area’. (There is a communal workbench with grinding wheel Bench Vice.)
‘You can see our bags behind the truck. I’ll be there in a second, just going to the head.’
The Work Bench the year before, with our engine raw-water strainer ready to refit.

This morning is falling into place nicely. I run into what residents laughingly refer to as the toilet block. Termite ridden, with one toilet serving upwards of two hundred people at times, including old and infirm retired sailors. I have had times of extreme stress in here, dodging work for two minutes, mulling-over frustration after fustration over five long years of boat projects. In this building I have waited in excruciating pain for old men to finish on the toilet, I have called hopeful numbers written on adverts on the communal corkboard, I have researched engineering solutions and marine suppliers, hiding in the air-conditioning from the intense Florida heat in High Summer. I have ransacked the free-table, where people leave unwanted clothes and sailing kit, both furtively and savagely. I have dug splinters from way up the back of my fingernail, cutting up the nail with a stanley blade, trying not to faint on unsteady legs, with no option but to avoid infection and hospital fees at all costs, And I have taken shelter from the world in free books from the bookshelf, sitting in the easy chair as my laundry has whirled round and round in the back room, and cockroaches have scuttled and mayflies have flown round the ceiling fan in the evening-time.
Bottom Dave’s Truck in the Boatyard
And now the hand dryer is making that unbearable high-speed shriek, and I wonder if this will be for the very last time that I try to avoid the stains on the wall with my freshly-cleaned hands. I have seen this toilet block in all sorts of states. I have cut down my own fingernails to remove splinters, my face blacker’n Bottom Dave’s. But for all its quirky fascination, the marina can be too much for me these days. Too many ordeals, too much stress, so last summer, for the last time, we launched and sailed our shiny, lovingly finished boat out of the launch slip and south to the Caribbean.


Bottom Dave

Bottom DaveAnd that is where we are heading, having made some calls here and seen some wonderful old friends. I run back to the truck, and Dorry and Baron are loading the car. We head out of the yard, and up to the highway, past Megan and Steffan’s tiny trailer/caravan, and past John and Laura’s massive RV/Motorhome. Two opposite properties from one world in which the goal and the soul are the same the same; forced by the need for living life fully to find a way which makes more sense than a controlled, ‘hooked-in’ existence. Megan and Steffan have been improving their boat in the yard whilst adventuring into the interior of the continent, and the Rocky Mountains. John and Laura too have reports of exploring the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and the Yukon. John and Laura travel by R.V. Megan and Steffan by old-fashioned train-hopping. They know all about the dangers and delights of box-cars and sidings. John knows the same amount about Russian Oligarch business partners and Swiss numbered accounts. Both couples are looking for a better way.

Now I am on the Greyhound Bus, and I look out of the window at the sun flashing off of the windscreens of cars passing across the freeway, and the deep blue sky behind the sandy highrise buildings along Interstate 95. I am starting to feel the heat of the day through my woolly sweater, and realise that we are heading into the warm country at last. The shocking and vulgar hideola of Orlando’s ‘beltway, the latino chic of Miami, then Key West, then Havanna. We are on the way back to our boat. All we have to do is find a boat heading across the straits to Cuba, upon which we can ‘work our passage’. It may be hard; it may be easy. We don’t know yet, but we’ll find out…

Repowering with a Yanmar 3hm35f in Florida; Engine Transplant!

‘Commission’ 2. Bring (something newly produced) into working condition…

Oxford English Dictionary

This is the tale of replacing my old italian Arona fishing boat engine with an almost new Yanmar 3hm35f.


We are safely back in the water, and all the unknowns of the engineering, propulsion and transmission, fitting into the boat, and re-wiring are now over, and it is working like a song. We have to haul out one last time, as there was a small water-weep from a ‘thru-hull’ – as in one of the many valves that allow water in and out through the body of the boat (for example, the engine has to suck in cooling water, and we have to let out sink water and waste from the loo or ‘head(s)’).

Also, the engine, which seems to run perfectly, needs a smaller propeller, as it can’t turn it to its full speed. But what an engine!!!


Having been bought in the UK from a boat inbound from Trinidad, then shipped, after testing in Wales, back to the USA, it was shoe-horned into the boat by me in the intense heat of Summer two years ago. The boat goes like a rocket ship and will be the safer for getting us out of trouble.



I have recently been pawing through all of my drawings, notes, measurements, photos and sketches made in the process of trying to fit one of options for an engine into the space on the boat, and realised what an undertaking it was.


Once I had reckoned it would fit from photos, and a very basic schematic in the UK, I had to sketch an engine bed, then make a foam-board model once back in the US.


I got some basic dimensions from a google search, and committed to buying the engine.

Yanmar 3hm35f

I got it as far as Newbridge on Wye – 30 miles from home, before my trailer collapsed outside Andy Woodward’s Antarctic Adventure stores. We got it running in his workshop; I found someone to ship it to the boatyard in Florida, and we made a crate for it and its parts.

I then went on ahead of it, to take out the old engine:



Then I started to get the model together in Florida. This model became known as the ‘Starship Enterprise’ in and around the boatyard, because of its space-age design and elaboration which was necessary to get the flywheel to fit into the wineglass-shaped hull.


After many weeks of mad Redneck negotiation, heartache, and sweaty midnight deals over a bottle of rum, it was it was finally welded together, and the engine seemed to fit.


This is the wooden dummy engine; the method I used for working out the height ‘datum’. I then had to lift my rear engine mounts, and step the aft of the bed up to make an ‘ape-hanger’ type mount for the back of the engine to sit on. The alignment has to be within three thousandths of an inch. There was a quarter-inch gap between the engine and the hull of the boat. I am very proud. It fitted perfectly.


That is just one of the upgrades. The engine can heat hot water, which has meant plumbing the boat. Last night there was hot running water coming from a tap at full pelt for the first time in the boat’s 40 years.


The batteries were charged to full power with our brand-new 80 amp super-power Alternator. When you put the boat in reverse, it stops dead in the water. Perfect for collision-prevention.Compound curve carpentry

Even the hot water tank mount was complicated! It has to be strong enough to hold six gallons of hot water while the boat pulls G-force factor eight!


The engine hasn’t budged on its mounts, the cushion covers make the inside look perfect, and most of all, we put the name on yesterday, using Dad’s handwriting to do the text. The story of Cantre’r Gwaelod, where Ynys Las boatyard is, is raising a lot of interest around the yard, with its tell of ghostly church bells and sunken villages, and drunken gatekeepers.

20130611_155946 20130612_131914

We still have a lot to do on the move. The wind generator needs to get mounted, and the solar panels. We will need the Radar and particularly the SSB High Frequency radio will be needed in Cuba, where there is very little Wi-Fi on which to receive warnings of coming storms.

It looks like we might finally have a fridge this weekend, and we are trying to get an Epirb and Liferaft – we have an old one, but it is way out-of-date. So we hope to do some kind of part-exchange. We meet more and more people who have spent many happy months in Cuba, and we pretty-much have a cruising plan coming together. There is only 90 miles of ocean passage between Marathon or Key-West and the Cuban coast. We drop in the water for the last time tomorrow morning.

How to Fetch Cuba Under Sail

Arriving in Cuba under sail from Florida
‘Landfall’ – the first sighting of land when approached from seaward. By extension, the term is sometimes used to refer to the first contact with land by any means, as by radar.
Boater’s Pocket Reference
As the afternoon wore on, and we got more and more stressed about making it in time, we reefed less and less. The last squall, we sailed under full canvas. The boat dealt with it well, and we steered into it. It was about four in the afternoon. Four hours til nightfall, and still no sign of land. There was a large shipping lane which we were in the middle of, but thankfully it was empty of ships, and indeed we wished we could come across a fishing boat, to tell us we were coming to land at last.

Passage Making – The Labours of a Gimballed Galley Stove
‘Gimbal’ (also gimbals) noun. a contrivance for keeping an instrument such as a compass or chronometer horizontal in a moving vessel or aircraft…ORIGIN C16: var. of early gimmelgemel ‘twin hinge’…
Oxford English Dictionary
Finally, as Dorry was resting in the saloon, I reckoned I had caught sight of something. I had assumed Cuba was quite mountainous, and had been getting increasingly de-moralised. We were close, it seemed, and now, coming west, were hoping to catch Gulf Stream counter-currents, going the other way. In the distance, through the haze, I finally saw what looked like a while post. I thought it was perhaps a marker, but it soon became clear it was a lighthouse, and the chart said it was Cayo Piedras, at the entrance to Bahia Cardenas! We had made it! But the lighthouse also said we had a long way to go to the west. The engine was already running, but I pushed the throttle forward a bit more, willing us to get there, longing for my bed in the bright sunshine.

‘Why do we do these things?’ I wondered, and as I write this, I know why: because we always forget the worst bits and remember the best. And the best bits are worth it, it seems.

As we clawed our way along the coast westwards, landforms slowly became clear. At this point, twelve miles from Cuba or so, was my big moment as skipper. We had read instructions in the pilot guide about how to make contact, but everything about Cuba seemed shrouded in mystery. ‘It’s very old-fashioned’ was the general impression, and I knew that the Coastguard, Harbourmaster, and Port Authorities would expect to treat me like a sea-captain, but in Spanish.

It had been a long time since I had used the few words of Spanish I have which get me through basic sign-language conversations, and, fatigued, queasy, and stressed, I had to gather myself for a role I had never before played. I thought of Joseph Conrad and Scott of the Antarctic as I took the microphone of the VHF radio, tuned to Channel 16 and said, ‘Marina Darsena, Marina Darsena, Marina Darsena, this is the british yacht Sandpiper’, into the mouthpiece.

There was silence, apart from our engine throbbing away, hot and bothered under the floor . One of us had a sudden though, and hurriedly took the flag-set out. We needed the Quarantine Flag. The plain yellow flag for the alphabetical letter ‘Q’, has for centuries been used to represent a boat which is still its own oceanic nation state, which remains isolated and requests official ‘clearance to enter’ a country. We still flew the Stars and Stripes of the American courtesy flag from our ‘yard arm’.

The second channel Cuban Port Authorities working channel was Channel 72, so I tuned the radio to that. I knew that ‘Yate’ was the word in Spanish, and wanted to emphasise that we were not american. Given the almost superstitious way with which Cuba is viewed by american sailors, I more than half-expected a gunboat, and certainly a boarding at sea. I had chosen my words carefully.

The radio honked with voices over the noise of the engine. I strained to hear, pressed ‘Transmit’ again, and repeated my hail.

‘Now listen to me very carefully.’ A clear voice finally came out of the radio in English. What are your vessel details? How many aboard, length, beam, type of vessel were questions I expected. Not all the questions were clear, but I tried to guess what they were, and give the right answers. I still had no idea if Cuba would ‘accept’ us, that we might somehow not be legitimate.

‘What are your intentions’ came the question. ‘Peaceful?’, I wondered… Then I knew I needed to describe where we wanted to come in. ‘We intend to enter Marina Darsena’.

‘Which way do you intend?’ confused me, as there is a way in for mast-less boats from the Bay of Cardenas. But we needed to come in through the Sea-inlet. I was very nervous of this, the ‘Pasa Malo’ or ‘Bad Pass’, as we had read of its hazards. But the Coastguard understood immediately. As he asked me about my arrival time, I saw, horrified, a huge bank of dark grey storm clouds looming out of the east. We had an hour and a half before dusk to make this tricky entrance into an embargoed country, in another language, after thirty-six hours on the go, in the middle of a lightening storm. And what a storm it was. Our jubilation at seeing the cuban coast appear was completely swamped by our complete consternation as to how to get in. As we neared the entrance, we saw what must have been local boats scuttling into harbour, presumably to escape the looming storm. As I now know, they were coming out to look for us and possibly help to guide us in. If our customs people went off-duty at 8pm, how would we sign-in?

I decided, as the first storm hit, that we would have to go out again, so we turned around and motored full-speed north, trying to escape the vicious bolts of lightning which were raining down on our destination. We have known many boats hit by lightening. It is a life-changing event, and will disable you for years, whilst you gather resources to refit your boat. We had just escaped the boatyard. I knew we had only half an hour to get back in, and another storm appeared immediately behind the first. But we had no choice. Heaving-to all night in the Straits of Florida in that relatively busy shipping area was possible, but we were so tired I felt as if we could loose everything at the drop of the hat. We had gone all-out for Cuba so far, so I turned the boat around, and in we went. At least we had seen the red and green markers of the entrance.

As we got close, I radioed the port again. ‘Hurry up, as the customs will go off duty soon.’ was the reply. But we were, quite frankly, terrified of going in too fast. Afterall, the entrance was called the ‘Paso Malo’. All I knew was that we mustn’t go there in a north wind, which I had studiously avoided, but as we steamed in as fast as we could, not really knowing how far the dock was after the entrance, I was flumoxed by the lack of hazards. ‘What’s the catch?’, I was thinking, as we turned carefully up the channel, and saw the dock, half a mile up, clear, and easy to negotiate.

Looking ‘down the barrel’ of El Paso Malo from the bow of Maggie M on our second crossing to Cuba.

‘Even if we have to anchor in the inlet, it will be safer than out here’, we had decided, and we had our anchor and chain loose and ready to shoot. I had been under the impression that there were miles of inland canal to negotiate inside the inlet, but as we rounded the corner of the jetties, with their hazardous rock outcrops, and Dorry calling to be careful not to cut the corner of the turn because of submerged rocks, the marina pontoons were clear in front of us, up a clearly-buoyed channel, and as we approached, we could see the numerous officials waiting on the dock for our arrival.

There had been nothing particularly difficult about ‘El Paso Malo’, except our tardiness, and as we glided up to the dockside, and ropes were seized by expert nautical hands, I was relieved, if still apprehensive, to have arrived. I went to step off the boat, and as I did so, I was signalled back-on. Then the procedures started.

Clearing-in Procedures

I have been around enough to know that procedures are a necessary evil, but it was still fascinating to see how the sequence of clearances was followed to the letter in Cuba. There are no concessions made for pleasure boats in Cuba, which may be why there is a myth of beuaucracy in the USA. If you are clearing a boat in, then you are the Master of the Vessel, and responsible for all ‘souls’ on-board, its cargo, and its safety. Having learned about the sea from british maritime adventure books, I quickly recognised it as part of the vocabulary of the sea. Perhaps for americans it feels like an assault on their freedom, and for us british like reassuring conformity. Either way, being treated the same way as a merchant sea captain brought home both my sense of responsibility and also a comfortable sense of immense pride; I had completed my first international commission!

The lines were still being tied when the first officials came aboard, as I had asked to ‘spring’ the boat to tie-on mooring warps to stop the bow of the boat from riding into the pontoon, and to allow it to rise and fall with the tide. First the Doctor came aboard, politely taking his shoes off. Joel spoke good english, and by the end of the visit we were clapping eachother on the shoulder and arranging future social meetings once we had rested and cleaned the boat. He checked our health with a simple series of questions related to personal backgrounds as well as recent exposure to disease. A cursory look at both of us showed him that we weren’t jaundiced or diseased, and I think it helped that we wee a couple, and that our boat was clearly an organised home. Immigration, accompanied by Guarda Frontera came aboard next. It was fun to see the Guard, Kalashnikov under his arm, courteously taking off his boots , and stepping aboard deferentially, with holes in his socks! We went through our boat documents registration and passports with them. Sweat always pours off these officials as they struggle in the their immaculate uniform in the intense head, and handkerchiefs are abundant. Our customs lady was meticulously glamorous, with unfeasible false nails, and a veryflattering uniform. I think Fidel Castro had deployed an amazing design department for his official uniforms. Don’t get me started about how cool the motorcycle police look in their outfits!

They were wonderfully friendly, and Ismaeli, the dockmaster, entertained us with friendly jokes in english, which made the whole experience fascinating and fun, even though we were beat. Our final visitor was the handsome young military-looking guy who had waited at the dock since the beginning.. My head was reeling with fatigue, and I wondered if this was the nightmare moment I had been encouraged to expect. It had all gone too smoothly to believe so far. He seemed the most senior person, and was quite serious.. He was the Harbour Master, representing the Port Authority for this area of Cuba. But he checked the boat efficiently, looked in a few cupboards, asked us about guns on board, and safety items, and gave a broad smile very soon.

He was the last to leave the boat, with a promise of a morning visit from the last Immigration Official. The vet would come and check food and stores for cheeses, yoghurts, eggs and such. We had heard nonsense about not being able to buy food in Cuba, and hoped she wouldn’t take it all away or imprison us. All she would ask about when she did come was spices. She didn’t ask – and we didn’t tell her – about anything else. As the Port Captain disappeared we wondered if we should – or indeed could – go over and see our friend Vito whose boat was almost next door, but we decided we just needed to sleep so we collapsed into bed, exhausted but elated. Cuba.
Dorry douses the ‘Q’ flag next morning, once finally cleared by ‘Ministerio de la Veterinario y Agricultura’. Note gangster Al Capone’s house in the background.
Me, ‘bending’ the Cuban courtesy flag to the ‘Yard Arm’ (Starboard Sreader)

Crossing the Gulf Stream to Cuba Under Sail, Avoiding Collision and Squalls

Gulf Stream:  warm ocean current flowing in the North Atlantic northeastward off the North American coast between Cape Hatteras, N.C., U.S., and the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, Can. In popular conception the Gulf Stream also includes the Florida Current (between the Straits of Florida and Cape Hatteras) and the West Wind Drift (east of the Grand Banks).

Encyclopedia Britannica

When I bought our boat I had little knowledge of what I was about. I could see its obvious strength, and I knew ferro-cement was a literally bulletproof and, in fact, light material. Everything on it seemed overbuilt when I first saw it. It looked as if it could handle anything, but what did I know? There has always been a lingering doubt in the back of my mind that maybe I had got it wrong. Our first real squall was in South Carolina, somewhere near Moon River, when we were pushed sideways across the Intra-Coastal Waterway and had to motor head-on, just to keep off the shoals. We have been thrown about in a few windy showers since, and had tested the boat under full sail until she was overpowered on the Indian River in Florida. But now we were crossing the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf Stream. During Hurricane Season. In the middle of it, more or less. In a hand-made, one-off boat which had never previously left Chesapeake Bay.


The Unmistakeable Colour of the Gulf Stream (seen here off Tulum, Mexico, 2014)

We often hear of the effects of the Gulf Stream on the weather. Sailors talk, and I have seen this, of a hard line of current where the colour of the water changes. For us, midnight came and went, and we simply found ourselves in it. We first knew about it from calculating that we were getting pushed sideways. We must have entered the Gulf Stream before we had really finished stowing and making ready for a passage we were already on. The helm was needing constant attention, but the night seemed short because of all the fuss of departure. We had been meant to phone or text back to the USA and Dawn and Bill at 11pm, but were far too busy to remember. It was 1am before we had a moment to consider it, and too late by then. Oh well, we’d try when we got there… The watch finally caught me reflecting a bit, in my exhausted state, about what we were doing. This time for reflection is the reason I have taken-up sailing.

There is an inevitability when trapped on a ‘slow-boat’. I believe it is our generation’s responsibility to make the best of our massive privilege. Because of certain experiences I have had, I know every day to be a gift. But with that comes a responsibility. It can be difficult to find peace when there seems so much opportunity for fulfilment of so many dreams.The one place where I feel I am doing justice to this responsibility is when I am communing with ultimate forces; cosmic forces. It sounds hippy, but it’s beyond anything like that. The gulf stream is created by the spinning of the earth; the tides by the moon. The ‘Air Ocean’ we live in glugs, sloshes and whirls because of a combination. As a human, to wind-sail an ocean is to enter a part of one of these liquid forces, to become malleable of mind and fluid of thinking is the only way to survive them. This must be combined with the solid discipline of good principles. Sailing practise has been gradually designed since humans walked the planet to allow them to bob about in this unchangeable stew and live to tell the tale.


Cabin-top Repairs, North Florida, 2010

I caught myself musing that in a good boat, it is possible to cross any ocean in almost any weather, as long as the crew are up to it. I reckoned we were capable, but the stress of whether the boat was up to it was also on me, and has been for the past eight years. I have no formal technical training, and have been on one actual sailing course. So all of our voyaging has always been based on google. We have rebuilt the boat from the keel up, more or less. I have put a whole new engine bed and new engine in. I had no idea how to do it before I tried. We have completely re-wired. We have installed refrigeration, Navigation, rigging changes, re-sheathed the decks, ground-out corrision and re-built ferro-cement areas, installed new tanks fuel and water, new plumbing, changed ballast, rebuilt sections of the cabin. We have never employed any help, and if anything goes wrong, we will have only myself to blame. Contrary to common belief, there is no such thing as ‘Insurance’ at sea.

Night Sailing in the Florida Straits

There is no doubt that I should be scared, and doubting words constantly ran through my head. I stared into the dark, looking for stars to distract me. Every dock we have ever pulled-up at has had its share of nay-sayers. ‘When did you last replace the rigging?’ ‘Why haven’t you got a fish-finder/chart-plotter/satellite phone?’ etc., etc. But you start to believe it. All I have ever had on my side is a resolve to try and try again, and a determination to not be afraid to fail. I have out-worked all of my companions in boatyards, to make my boat flawlessly strong. It was this stamina the best years and energy of my life, maybe which I had to trust in. Nothing more, but also, nothing less. One thing I have learned, I hope, is the value of a job thoroughly done.


Sandpiper when first restored in Baltimore, 2006 (note the old cap rails, later upgraded in Florida)

I had dug-out the ‘Quick Reference Cards’ for recognition of lights, and we passed a couple of ships towards four in the morning. I had seen lights in the far distance and spent minute after minute just making sure they were far enough away in the first place. It is always disconcerting to see ships in the night, mid-ocean. They are always bigger than you, and by necessity faster. There is not always a visual watch to be trusted, and they have to be avoided, or you will die. It is simple. The second of the ships, disconcertingly, was making way on what seemed like a collision course, on our quarter, and at about the same speed. We were converging on a common point, and as time wore on, I started looking for a way to change course without completely deviating from the southerly direction or sailing into the storms I could see. The act of changing sail in the middle of the night can be very tiring indeed, but it is dangerous to ignore a need to do so. If you change course, the wind will hit the boat differently, so sail-change is inevitable.


The ship was coming-up fast and silent. Sailing at night is a quiet business, made quieter by the contrast when you switch the engine off for the first time. There is always a creak or knocking to accompany the slosh of water along the side, but nothing more if the wind is mild. So it can be unsettling to see a set of lights coming towards you in the silence and know that it is a big factory ship, with lots of noise and smell which could suddenly be upon you.

We later found out from Vito, who had an AIS ship-recognition system, that this ship was probably a coastguard or navy launch, just curious. After an exhausting hour or so, it turned to port and virtually disappeared, but I wish they wouldn’t do that.

Vito, who made the same passage the week before us, had also encountered a raft of Cubans making for the USA and a new life. We saw some lights which disappeared in the night mysteriously, but all we heard was a bulletin from the US Coastguard that they were out there still. The boat was heaving along in the swell, and had a healthy heel for much of the night. It felt really good for her to move under our feet in this ‘stiff’, strong way. Slowly, years of theorising about her sea-kindliness in heavy weather was being confirmed, doubts refuted, and apart from the fatigue and seasickness, it felt like the boat could go on forever. Why stop at Cuba?


We started to adopt a hour-on hour-off watch system towards of dawn, and Dorry took the helm to let me rest for several decent periods. There was enough moonlight through the clouds to see the couple of showers in our path in the night, although it was impossible to see the famous blue of the Gulf Stream water until daylight. We managed to get onto the back of the showers, and as dawn came, more appeared, pushing us eastwards as we tried to avoid them. This ‘easting’ was making our voyage longer than it should have been, and we realised as the morning wore on, that we’d be hard-pushed to make it into Cardenas if we didn’t get a move-on. It was only meant to take eighteen hours or so, but with a short-handed ketch in the squalls which ensued, our passage was slow-going. It was quite exhausting getting the reefs in and out as the showers came and went. In the end, we took on the last squall under full sail, but for the entire passage, we didn’t dare use any foresail but the working jib, and there were long periods of calm in-between the 35 knot blows.

At some point during one of these lulls probably at around 7.30am, we started-up the engine and ran it for a couple of hours. We started making six knots again, motor-sailing with just a little power on, but we were still heading too far east towards Cay Sal The Bahamas. We had bought a Bahamian courtesy flag, in case we needed to anchor off in Cay Sal, but I had no intention of going ashore in case we were hit by a $300 cruising permit fee.


Squally weather convecting over the Cay Sal Bank, Western Bahamas.

No, Cuba it was, but shower and ship-avoidance in the night had put us quite close to the Banks, which seemed to stay on our beam for an age. A warship passed us on its way, probably from San Diego, through Panama, and up to Norfolk, Virginia, maybe. It was intimidating to see its flat ‘stealth’ lines, and good to see its transom disappearing on the horizon to port. At some time after about ten o’clock, I took over from Dorry, and it was soon after that the first squall hit us. We had shaken out reefs from foresail and main, as we were getting worried about making it to Darsena in daylight. We had read too much, and listened to too many theories about ‘going-with-it’ across the gulf stream, and now we were too far east. The wind nearly always comes before the rain, but a few fine spots started to hit us on this occasion. I ran up forward to try and reef the foresail, and Dorry did a heroic job of keeping the course. The rail was in the water, and Sandpiper was on her pins before I had even got clipped-on and up-forward. I unloosed the foresail halyard from the winch and swung forward, still holding onto it to keep control, as I find this Waterworld Tarzan approach works well with our high coachroof. I was getting thrown about all-over the foredeck, but managed to hook a foot under the lifelines and hold onto the sail. If Dorry lost the course now, I’d be chucked overboard by the sail. The only way I could see to douse the sail was to stand on it we have hank-on, not roller reefing, and so the foresail reefs along the foot. Amidst the cacophony of flapping sail, I managed to hook the reefing clew on, untie the sheet, and tie it back onto the reefing tack. This was the umpteenth time I had been up to the foredeck to do this, and I was cursing not having crew with the wind in my teeth as I came back to the cockpit.