The View from Havana


Darrell Nicholson

Do they check your boat when you go back to America?

They do, I said, though I had no idea if anyone did. And I think the Cuban customs officials bring dogs on board, before we leave, to make sure no one is hiding on the boat. I didn't know this either. Something in a cruising guide Id read. Probably out of date.

It was late. We were standing under a dim yellow streetlamp at Marina Hemingway, where Lost Boys, the 42-foot Endeavour wed sailed from Sarasota, Florida, was spending its last night in Cuba before sailing back home. The boat was squared away. Only the goodbyes were left.

Julio, a 28-year-old father of two, leaned against the hood of his car, a tired blue Lada idling diesel exhaust into the hot night. He pointed toward Lost Boys and the dark sea and sky beyond.

I can swim. Ill meet you off the coast.

I pretended I didn't understand. In 10 years of cruising, calling on ports with living conditions far worse than those in Havana, no one had ever asked if they could stow away on my boat. I put my hands in my pockets. I didn't know how to respond.

You can pick me up in the water, and when you get to Cayo Hueso, you can just leave me near the beach, I can swim from there.

Cayo Hueso?

Key West.

I felt a tightness in my throat. I couldn't tell if it was desperation or simply a desire for a better life that drove my new friend to want to take such a risk-I supposed it was a little of both.

I tried to tell him how things were changing in Cuba. I explained that a young man like him, full of energy and ambition, would surely find success as the Cuban economy improved. I believed it. Julio had been our man in Havana. He and his partner Enrique cheerfully drove us around the old city, slipping us in the back door at the Buena Vista Social Club, dropping us to El Morro just after sunset to hear the canons fire, laughing out loud when I mentioned that the Russian Embassy resembled a giant watchman.

Its not so easy in America, I told him. We have plenty of problems, too.

He looked offended, like Id mistaken him for a child who knew nothing of the Shangri La that lied across the Florida Straits. Oh no. I need to get to America, he said. If I can get to America, I know I will make some good.

There were no dogs at customs. Just two bored soldiers, just kids, from Vinales in rumpled fatigues. When Lost Boys cleared the sea buoy, I looked back toward the marina and thought I spotted Julios blue Lada parked near the marina breakwater. I imagined him and Enrique leaning against the cars front bumper with the sun on their backs, two young Cubans staring across the Gulf Stream toward their magical America.

I pointed the bow north and switched on the autopilot. In an hour the only sign of Cuba was gray smoke from an oil refinery. A brisk easterly filled the main. It was still early, and the distance we had to sail wasnt so far. I realized that if Lost Boys could keep up this speed, we might catch a glimpse of Cayo Hueso before it became too dark.

About halfway across the Strait, when we were in the middle of the Gulf Stream, my eyes began to play tricks. The sea reflected an impossible blue as if in competition with the sky, and no matter how much I squinted, I could find no line between the two. When I fnally discovered the horizon, broken by the fuzzy shape of a distant ship, I was struck by the notion that of all the reasons to sail, the wonder that it works on perspective is the one I cherish most.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


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