Thursday, April 1, 2010

Clearing Into Cuba, Clearing Away Some Myth

March 31, 2010
Puerto de Vita, Holguin, Cuba
Meredith's arrival in Cuba was divine both aesthetically and procedurally.
Visually Cuba is stunning. We came upon the island just as the sun rose at our backs. Cuba is green. Very green. It has hills - lots of hills. In the early morning light the layesrs of mist shrouded hills rival the best scenary our Canadian maritimes has to offer.
Cuba smells terrific. After even 24 hours at sea you can smell an approaching island. The soil and flora unique to each island and outpost in the ocean exude an equally unique olfactory personality to that island. Cuba has the right smell.
We shared some trepidation at the process of clearing in. I mean Cuba is Spanish speaking and from all reports excessively bureaucratic and even perhaps a police state.
All reports are wrong. Totally dead ass wrong.
If you ever again hear a boater decrying the inefficient clearing in process or the corruption of the officials just ask the moron when and where he last actually put into Cuba. You will quickly find the idiot mumbling about having good friends who were there just last year or some other cop out.
The process is very precise and well executed. Each step makes sense when you consider it from the Cuban point of view (whose country is it after all?). The officials are knowledgeable and efficient and the crew of Meredith will not sit by again when someone. There is a lot of paperwork. However this country does not yet have much of an internet capability. How much information do you suppose is transferred to how many agencies when you clear into Canada or the USA? In Canada passports are checked by computer and the appropriate govenment departments are informed by computer transfer. In Cuba it is still done on paper.
Choosing a Port of Entry
Not every port in Cuba is a Port of Entry. You must enter the country at such a port. On the North shore of Cuba we are aware that you may clear in in Havana (Marina Hemingway), Veradero or Puerto de Vita. Nigel Calder's book is no longer correct that Baracoa is a port of entry. It was when his book was published in 1998.
We chose Puerto de Vita on the North East shore of Cuba as our Port of Entry. Our selection was made after listening to a presentation at Annapolis by Canadian sailor Wally Moran. We later met Wally in Vero Beach and spent an evening at the Riveside Cafe with him and his charming wife.
Wally's theory is that the wind and current move from east to west along the North shore of Cuba and that it makes sense to sail the coast this way. It is silly to go first to Havana and then beat your way down the North coast. The day before we left for Cuba we overheard a call from British sailboat Foxglove on the SSB. We contacted them and grilled them on air so to speak for information. The well informed and erudite captain of Foxglove cleared into Puerto de Vita and was unstinting in his recommendation. Meredith has joined the fan club.
Of course, if all you want to do is visit Havana then go to Marina Hemingway. The clearing in process will be different in degrees, eg. more officials will board your boat, but essentially the same.
If, however, you want to sail Cuba, even if it is the South coast we suggest you consider Puerto de Vita as your Port of Entry.
Why Choose Puerto de Vita?
- The officials are knowledgeable.
- There are fewer officials who will board your boat. Being a smaller community there is less need to create jobs so there are fewer officials than there are at many other ports.
- Marina Vita which services the port is a clean well serviced marina, reasonably priced and well staffed. Cost of the Marina is $.60 CUC per foot per day including electrical and water. At current exchange rate the marina costs about $25 CDN per day. When you arrive at the marina (more on this later) you will meet Tina. Tina takes a personal interest in all her guests and has a nice presentation at the ready to clarify life in Cuba. Tina is good enough you should choose Puerto de Vita as your Port of Entry just for the introductory talk.
You can use Puerto de Vita as a terminus to drive all over eastern Cuba, north and south. Car rental is readily available and taxis are plentiful and reasonably priced. Today we are taking a taxi to Holguin, a provincial capital. The trip is 45 minutes each way and the cost will be $40 for each of two couples. Yesterday we took a cab for the entire day to Guardalavaca, a neighbouring resort town leaving at 0900 and returning at 1530. Cost was $20 for each of two couples.
Entry to Puerto de Vita
The harbour is an easy entry. Water is deep, respectably wide and the channel is well marked. You must stay in the channel as the 35 foot depths shallow to 6 feet in a very short distance outside. Markers are large, steel and well marked. This is not the Bahamas where you can see the bottom at all times and so steer yourself. Cuban water is as opaque as Canadian water. Cuba takes its buoys seriously.
Hoist your Cuban courtesy flag and your yellow Q flag. The proper order in Cuba is Cuban flag above Q.
Make sure you have your Cuban flag correctly aligned - the flag must be flown with the single point on its 5 point star pointed to the top. If you have the twin points of the star to the top you are flying the flag upside down. This is a declaration of war on Cuba as it is on any country whose flag you choose to fly upside down. It would be silly to find yourself shot because you do not know which way is up.
A lighthouse marks the entrance to the harbour. It was not lighted as we approached but it is very tall, very white and unmistakable. If it is dark you will not be entering the harbour anyway. Will you?
Approach the harbour from well offshore - a mile or more - to get your bearings and avoid the shoals to both sides of the mouth of the entrance. Look for the first green marker (if you have your binos focussed it is conveniently numbered #1). Green #1 is very large. A safe course into Vita will have you set up on 134 degrees magnetic on Green #1 buoy. When you reach Green #1 steer for the middle of the channel, ie. midway between the greens and reds. Easy Peasy.
A couple of miles into the harbour you come upon a very large bifurcation marker - Red, Green, Red. As you pass this marker you turn 90 degrees to Starboard and continue along the side channel which is marked as well but with large plastic buoys. At this point call the Guarda Frontier or the Harbourmaster to announce our presence and request practique. (for any non sailors practique is when the doctor of the country you sail into boards your boat and inspects for infectious disease or health concerns. The "Q" flag is called the Q flag because it literally marks your boat as under quarantine). The call is made on channel 16 and we made it to the "Guarda Frontier". They will already have seen you and will have been tracking you for several miles. It is likely they will not respond to your call. Do not be concerned.
When you reach marker Green #7 you will see the Marina Vita on your left, down a little creek. Do not go there!!!!! Not yet.
Instead anchor your boat in the bay just past and to starboard of Green #7. The chart shows the depths to be 5 to 8 feet but we found nothing less than 16.5 feet.
Then tidy up your boat, get your current paperback and a cold drink. Sit down and relax. Soon you will clear in. Just be patient.
Clearing into Cuba
The clearing process has 3 stages:
1. medical clearance,
2. inspection of your boat, its systems and contents,
3. customs and immigration.
The process takes or at least it took us about 3 hours. Before you erupt in indignation ask yourself how long you waited to clear US customs at Pearson Airport last time. Relax and be patient. Life is good. You have just sailed into a Caribbean paradise. What is the hurry?
1. Medical Clearance
No one may leave your boat until the doctor has boarded your boat, inspected crew and boat and given a health clearance.
The doctor comes when he can schedule it not when you want him to. He is a doctor and has many important tasks to attend.
The doctor who inspected our boat was teaching a course in epidemiology to 34 Bolivian doctors at a school in Holguin until 1000 on the day we pulled in. After this he had to drive 45 minutes from Holguin to Vita, board a launch and get to Meredith. We were pleased when he could attend to us.
The doctor, a specialist in epidemiology, was very personable. He asked a number of questions that may seem odd.
They are not odd if you live a country bordered by Haiti, the DR, Mexico and Honduras where Dengue fever, Yellow Fever and Plague are not uncommon.
Besides, the questionnaire is merely a device to get hiim on your boat so he, an epidemiologist after all, can have a look around. He knows that if one of your crew has died from Dengue fever while you were underway that you will lie about it. His job is to protect Cuba. It was my sense that the doctor was very good at his job while being pleasant and personable.
We passed inspection. The doctor instructed me to take down the yellow flag and waited until I did so. This was so he could chat with my wife alone and out of my control.
We were told by the doctor that the fee for his services would be 25 CUC which we could pay after we had been to the bank. More on this later.
A common thread in the clearing in process, beginning with the doctor, is the repetition of questions and the asking of the same question in several different ways. I was not surprised, 2 hours after the doctor's visit, to find the customs agent verifying my answers against a sheet of information in the doctor's handwriting.
2. Inspection of Boat and Contents
Having cleared the medical inspection we were permitted, and in fact required, to proceed to Marina Vita where we would be boarded by a number of government inspectors.
Marina Vita uses a modified Med Mooring system. You approach a mooring ball set off a dock. You tie a bow line to the mooring ball and back into the dock where you tie stern to the wall. Easy. The marina staff are there with launches to help you. You might, as a precaution, put down your dinghy before approaching the marina. This way if you run into trouble one crew can use the dinghy to carry lines or tug a recalcitrant bow or stern into proper line. We had lots of help from the marina.
Once tied to the dock you find your book, pick up your paperback and cold drink and wait. Just like you do at home when you go to a government office.
The officials arrive in very short order, no more than 15 minutes after we had docked. They request permission to board and ask before boarding if we want them to remove their shoes. We never do. Four officials boarded. The customs dog had to wait until these four were done.
Much of our discussion with the officials was in English. This being their country it is not necessary that they speak English but that we speak Spanish. We are sadly deficient in this and were grateful for the courtesy shown us by the Cuban officials. Communication was not a problem if one paid attention.
The officials on our boat were competent, thorough and professional. The Guarda Frontier completed a large number of forms in short order and in the process conducted an investigation. The usual questions: what were your last 3 ports, when did you leave each. What was the last port in the USA? WHen did you leave? What equipment is on your boat. What are the details of your boat. How much fuel. How much fuel for the outboard?
Then the Veterinarian discussed pets and addressed a number of questions to the Budget Committee on food products that we might be importing. She examined several packages and cans to ensure they originated in countries with adequate public health procedures. Since all of our food sourced from Canada, USA and Bahamas we were cleared.
There was a moment's hesitation over the Budget Committee's large store of Basmati rice which originated in India but because it was purchased in the USA it was deemed fit. The same situation arose over the BC's store of chorizo sausage sourced from Mexico but because it was purchased in the USA and therefore had been subjected to public health inspection the veterinarian passed it.
Cupboards were opened, storage bins were examined and the fridge was inspected - not only for its contents but to ensure it was in good working order.
The Guarda Frontier took full details of the boat and crew. We had prepared copies of passports, ships Registry Document, list of electronic equipment, printed details of the boat, dinghy and all crew for the convenience of the officials. These copies were appreciated. We had prepared them in Spanish when we had access to Google translation and Babelfish.
We were questioned often about our prior ports - they wanted dates and place names. It seemed a comfort to the officials when I pulled out the boat's log for reference. That our log was complete and offered up freely seemed to improve our status with the Guarda.
Most questions were posed by the Guarda Frontier officer and the Veterinarian but this may have had more to do with their facility with English than anything else.
Once the inspections were finished the officials left the boat taking our passports with them.
It was time for the dog inspection. The dog ran unrestricted through the entire boat. It's job is to sniff out drugs and firearms. It found none and did not linger in any location except it did spend more time on our heads than the BC would have liked to see. Dogs. What can you do?.
When the dog was done I was escorted to the Customs office.
3. Customs anb Immigration
Once your boat and contents have passed inspection you attend with the Customs official.
Our customs agent was a classic. He was also very efficient and quite thorough. A dossier had been created for each of our boats and copies of passports, Certificates of Ownership and handwriting from each of the BC and me were to be found therein.
We discussed the length of our intended stay in Cuba, our intended sailing plan and other related matters. The customs agent took special note of the fact we had 3 hand held GPSs and 2 handheld VHF radios.
While we were talking the Immigration official presented himself with our passport and a visa for me. I examined the Visa and passport. Concerned the official assured me that he had not stamped the passport with evidence of our entry into Cuba. That way he said "there will be no problem in USA". I asked him if he would please stamp my passport and he did.
Eventually the Customs agent finished with our file and presented the documents I would need to proceed. The rules for our travel were explained:
1. we were cleared for 30 days from Puerto de Vita to Veradero and then Marina Hemingway.
2. Enroute we could stop to sleep and swim.
3. We should not go ashore.
4. No Cuban citizen, except Guarda may be permitted to board our boat. Ever. For any reason.
The Customs agent then attended at our boat to seal our handheld GPSs and our VHF radios in a locker so we could not access them during our stay in Cuba.
We were done.
It took 3 hours. No one was officious, angry or petulant. No one was unreasonable.
Nothing was taken from our boat nor did we ever perceive the need to "watch our stuff" while the officials conducted their searches.
We were in Cuba. Hasta La Vista, baby.

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