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Fishing & Boating in Cuba (part 2 of 3)

IdlewildeIdlewilde Posts: 1,357 Officer
Here's some information most people don't know or won't tell you about boating and fishing around Cuba.

Yes, there is some good saltwater fishing left in Cuba, but the problem is the infrastructure in Cuba - basically there is no infrastructure. There is good blue water fishing 50+ miles west of Havana (once you get away from the long lines), and 100 or so miles east of Havana, and in many places along Cuba's southern coast. And in my opinion, there are lots of world record size bottom and near shore fish swimming in Cuban waters, but there are several problems in getting to these fish. The problem for boaters and anglers who are not self-contained (ie. big boat with sleeping and cooking capability) is that with very few exceptions, there is no fuel, water, ice, food, places to stay, etc. available once you leave Havana. What the Cuban government wants is for a tourist to fly in, get on a bus and go to and stay at an all-inclusive hotel - they don't want individuals roaming around the country (although it is easy to do and many do), as they are not set-up for independent travel, either on land or on the water For the boater, you go to Havana's Marina Hemingway and stay there, and with few exceptions, that's where your boat stays.

Cuba is approximately 600 miles long east to west, (Florida as a comparison is about 450 miles north to south) and for a boater there are only 3 places along Cuba's 600 mile northern coastline to get fuel. 1.Puerto San Antonio on Cuba's western tip (assuming they are open - and assuming they have fuel, which they do not always have) - this is 170 miles west of Havana, 2.Marina Hemingway(Havana), and 3.The Varadero area - a large resort hotel area on the coast 60 miles east of Havana. Forget the south side of Cuba unless you have 3-4 weeks, as it is a looong way around by boat, and fuel is with a few exceptions, non-existent - and that along with finding food, a place to stay, etc. can be a real problem. And ice, to keep things fresh and cool? You have to be kidding, as Cuba is not set up to provide ice for boaters. One thing you need to consider if you go by boat is repairs and parts if you have an engine problem. Spare parts in Cuba? Forget about it, if you don't have whatever you need with you, you will not find it in Cuba. And do not forget that Cuba is a third world country with third world fuel. Think about that, ie. octane level and debris in the fuel. So if you go, go prepared.

One interesting boat trip out of Havana that is doable is to head 70 miles west along the coast (and do not come closer than 2 miles to the coast - that's their rule) to Cayo/island Lavisa, where there is a neat little thatched roof motel, beautiful beach, and awesome shallow water reef for snorkeling (virgin staghorn coral, and others), but other than the beach and reef there is nothing else to do there. The shallow waters surrounding Cayo Levisa look fishy, but there are none due to heavy netting. The island itself is a pleasant break from the hustle & bustle of Havana, and the kind of place where you might expect to run across Jimmy Buffet strumming his guitar and singing in the restaurant at night. The island just to the east of Cayo Levisa is Cayo Paraiso where Hemingway anchored from time to time on his boat Pilar, watching for German subs during WWII. The downside? While there is a restaurant and small motel, there is no fuel, no ice, no snacks, no nuttin - like in most of Cuba, whatever you need you will have to bring with you. You might be able to buy some ice, assuming the ice machine in the restaurant is working, and if not, you will likely hear the words "es Cuba."
If you go to Cuba by boat and see fish activity on the way down, mark the location, as you won't find anything to fish for near Havana.

Hints on clearing in by boat. When(if) you go, you do not go to Havana per se as the Havana harbour is off limits to private boats (and just FYI, it is likely the most polluted harbor in the world - would probably eat the bottom paint off of your boat). You go to Marina Hemingway, located 8km west of downtown. Protocol dictates that you call the marina - "Marina Hemingway" when you are 12nm off of the coast/Sea Buoy, and you should do this - call Marina Hemingway on VHF ch 16. Chances are 95% you will receive no response as the dock master knows it will take you between 2 - 4 1/2 hours to clear in once you arrive, so once you have made one call you don't need to call again. Plus the dock master uses a hand held VHF and while he will hear you, he knows that you will not be able to hear him even if he responded. Be sure to raise your yellow quarantine flag when you enter Cuban waters (ie. at 12 miles) as they are very strict about this and sometimes have naval boats offshore watching.

Here's something you need to know that you will not find in any book about Cuba. The Cuban government is paranoid about fast boats approaching their coastline to pick up and smuggle people back to Florida, and in this regard, they have what they call Coast Watchers. These are people employed by the government who are stationed high up in a building, on a hill, or on some high point every couple of miles along the coast who have high powered binoculars and watch for boats approaching the coast. They also have radar stations along the coast, but many are without parts and non-working. If you read Nigel Calders book (see below) you will learn that you should not approach within 2 miles of the Cuban coastline. Once you get closer than 2 miles, you will will be seen and activate their warning system and a fast boat with armed soldiers will be dispatched to greet you. There are a few exceptions, to this, such as when approaching Havana and Marina Hemingway, but the best policy is to always stay 2 or more miles off of the coast.

The Marina Hemingway Sea Buoy is 23.05.44 and 082.30.57 or thereabouts unless it has moved a little, which it has previously (remember "es Cuba"). Be sure once you go past the Sea Buoy that you stay in the marked channel into the marina as the channel is cut through a shallow reef (this is assuming that the channel markers are still in position!). After you have gone thru the reef and into the basin you will see a low building on your left, and there will be a soldier directing you to his position, or around the corner to the left. Head over towards the seawall and stop and secure your boat where he tells you too. Then, after a short period of time (5-30 minutes) uniformed officials will appear and you will start to fill out forms and clear in through 6 different agencies. Clearing in can take anywhere from 2 to 4 1/2 hours, and every agency person who comes on your boat will be friendly, but looking for a bribe, and you will have less of a hassel if you comply (PM me on how to handle this if you are interested). Cuba is very strict on International documentation, so be sure you have the original and copies of your boat documentations as they sometimes want a copy. Every person needs a passport - no passport cards or birth certificates - only passports with at least 6 months remaining prior to the passport expiring, and don't even think about getting off of your boat here without asking permission - rest assured there will be a guy behind a tree, behind a building, or somewhere where he/she can see you, and he will be holding an automatic weapon (they are paranoid that you might be a spy). And God help you if you have any drugs onboard as Cuba is very strict on no drugs anywhere in the country, so don't even think about it, or about buying some there. At some point while clearing in they will put a drug sniffer dog on your boat. Also, do not take any chicken on beef products on your boat - they are paranoid about Mad Cow Disease and Bird Flu, and yes, I know it is no longer a problem, but the Cuban Agricultural person who inspects your boat will tell you it is, and will remove any chicken or beef products that you have on your boat (including canned chicken & beef).

After you have finished clearing in, you will proceed into the (hugh) marina, and the dock master will miraculously appear and direct you to your mooring spot along the seawall. Once past the check-in area and as you enter the marina you will see the seawall where you get fuel, and you may want to re fuel at this time as the fuel guy is not the most dependable. Next is the best advice I can give you about your boat, so read carefully. The channels are very deep, so draft is not a problem, but the seawall in Marina Hemingway is like one you have never seen before. There are no finger piers, no pilings, no nothing except a Russian designed concrete seawall that has a shape that requires LARGE fenders/bumpers, even for small boats. The seawall is not a straight up and down seawall like you might find in the rest of the world, rather it angles back under the edge/lip, and in order to avoid damage to your boat along this seawall during 18-24" tide changes you will need 3 or more of the following size fenders, and these are minimum sizes: 15" x 35" if you have hot dog/oblong style fenders, or 24/30" diameter if you have round/tear drop type. If your fenders are not at least these sizes you risk damage to your gel coat/paint. Large sportfishing boats should have larger fenders.


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