Tips for the Havana Daydreamer



Now that U.S. sailors can so easily can go to Cuba, the question remains should they go? I think most cruisers would not want to miss the chance. To explore the reefs of the fabled Jardnes de la Reina, to reach close along the green mountains between Punta Maisi and Boracoa, to wander the streets of La Habana- what more could the cruising life offer than to explore far (and not so far) corners of the world under sail? I was raised in Miami and my step-family is Cuban, so I can understand the deep bitterness that many exiles feel toward the Castro regime, but given my own experience bicycling through the Eastern Bloc at the height of the Cold War I also see the value of a ground-level exchange of ideas between ordinary people.

Ive begun my own plans for my first trip to the island. Its a straight shot from my homeport of Sarasota, about 300 miles on the rhumb line, with a chance to pause in the Dry Tortugas about midway.

For those planning a trip, few sources are as knowledgeable as Peter Swanson, the editor at Passagemaker, who has been writing about the political web restricting U.S. sailors access to Cuba for some time. Passagemaker is organizing several rallies to Cuba this year, and they appear to be filling up fast. You don't have to join a rally to sail to Cuba, you just have to meet the requirements laid out by the State Department. Joining an organized rally streamlines the process.

If navigation worries are whats holding you back, you need not be overly concerned. One of the unexpected benefits of Cubas Soviet experience is the GPS-accurate surveys of the island. This does not mean that you can steer blindly through passes by watching your chartplotter cursor, but it does mean that there are surprisingly accurate charts and guides to the area, in many cases more accurate than our own. (The problems with US coastal charts is discussed in depth in the April 2016 issue of Practical Sailor.)

Although the island is terra incognita for many Americans, it has been a popular destination for Canadian and European cruisers for more than a decade. In planning my trip, Ive been using three different guides to map a route.

Cuba Bound: The North Coast Ports of Entry and Anchorages ($40) is the newest guide in my library. It is from the publishers of the Waterway Guide, which was highly rated in our most recent comparison of guides to the Intracoastal Waterway. The Waterway Guide has a relatively strong online component with an active community of contributors, so even if you don't buy the guide, you can use their website for updates on marinas and other relevant information. Wally Moran, a regular contributor to the Waterway Guide with multiple trips to Cuba under his belt (he is a Canadian citizen), contributed much of the information to the guide. The book itself is relatively thin, with glossy photos and helping fill out the 100 pages, but like all of the Waterway Guide publications, it is pleasure to read, and covers the essentials in an intelligent format. Waterway Guides long experience with creating chart books is evident in the brightly colored chartlets covering main ports and anchorages. This is not a comprehensive cruising guide suitable for exploring nooks along the coast. The primary focus is on getting there and arrival, and the information centers around main ports of entry. It features details on typical routes, navigation guidance for ports of entry, and tips on clearance formalities, provisioning, and living aboard.

Yacht Pilots Cruising Guide to Cuba by Capt. Cheryl Barr ($50) is another relatively new book, published in 2013, and it has updated some of the information in Nigel Calders guide (below) that is no longer accurate. It covers the north and south coasts of western Cuba, describing the counterclockwise route around the western tip, Cabo San Antonio. The book is 224 pages long and filled with dozens of detailed chartlets and specific navigation instruction. Offering tips on everything from where to buy fresh-baked bread, to making windward progress along the coast, it is about as good a combination of navigation/travel guide as youll find for cruising. The publication is well balanced, with more emphasis on chartlets than the glossy photos that characterize the Waterway Guide book. Capt. Barr has a website with regular updates to her guides. The website also has some lovely photos of her familys steel Herreshoff schooner Road to the Isles that will make the lover of classic boats turn green with envy. Yacht Pilot Publishing also publishes guides to the Canadian Maritimes, Down East Maine. A second book in the Cuba series, completing the island circuit is due out later this year.

Cuba: A Cruising Guide by Nigel Calder ($57) is the oldest book in our library. Published in 1999 by Imray Laurie Norie & Wilson, the same publisher of Don Streets familiar guides to the Caribbean, this is the thickest guide to the area, with detailed descriptions of anchorages, even ones that the other guides miss. It is, as far as I know, the only English-language cruising guide that covers the entire island. Calder, who is probably best known for his indispensable textbook The Boatowners Mechanical and Electrical Guide (available in our bookstore), is an experienced writer and cruiser, and it shows in his work. Except for a centerspread series of alluring photos, it is populated mostly with chartlets and descriptions of anchorages. The only drawback is the dated nature of some of the information, especially regarding shore facilities, as much has happened in the past 15 years. Barrs book helps fill in the gaps.

Buying all three books costs close to $150. If I were to skip one to save money, it would be the Waterway Guide, although it covers east coast entry points that Barrs book omits, so if you are coming down the waterway and through the Bahamas, it is worthwhile. Certainly, you could get by with Calders book alone, but Barrs updates come in handy and her chartlets are well rendered.

If you want to dip your toe into the Cuba cruising without spending a dime, there is also a free guidebook online (via from Amaia Agirre and Frank Virgintino. Its more than 500 pages long in PDF format, and although it lacks the polish of the printed versions, it makes up for it with quantity of information. And its free, so who is to complain?

In terms of charts, NV Charts (also available in digital format) are highly recommended. They are based on data from GEOCUBA, Cubas highly-trained hydrographic and geodesic service. Cuba distributes its own paper charts, but they are not as easily available in the US.

Finally, for word-of-mouth updates for cruisers who have been there, the Seven Seas Cruising Association is a great resource. The organization held a gam late last year on cruising Cuba and offers a wealth of information for sailors. If you have other resources for cruising to Cuba, please share them in the comment box below. Although our anti-spam software automatically blocks web links, any resources you list by title or name can be easily found with a Google search. Or you can just email the link to me at

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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