1945-1951     HAVANA


     Bluebird, Snipe Class #5181, never won a race against the world class racing competition we faced in Havana during the mid to late forties. The Snipe, designed by Crosby and 15 feet overall, was the most popular racing boat in Cuba, even more so than the Stars which also had a very active fleet. I tried and tried, came close, but never saw silver in anything but at our local club race events. Losing never held us down. We participated in every event and most were at sailing clubs ten miles up wind which meant that my crew and I had to set sail at least three hours before the starting gun.  

         One weekend in September 1947 races were scheduled for Saturday and Sunday at the Miramar Yacht Club about 12 miles from where I kept Bluebird. Up at dawn, Bob Harras and I were underway at 7 a.m., at first paddling in absolutely no wind. We made the start, but only thanks to a lot of sweat. The big boys led the fleet. At the post race festivities, the same gang took over the party. We sauntered home, Bluebird left tied-up at the Miramar Yacht basin.

Sunday was more of the same except that when we finished, hurricane signal II was up, winds were up to 25 knots sustained. The dense black clouds that shot by overhead confirmed there was more wind to come. The Club suggested, and we accepted, to haul our boat there until the storm passed. That night hurricane winds struck Havana. When we returned to Bluebird, we found the Club and the yard in shambles with boats and debris strewn all over. Though Bluebird remained in one piece, I didn’t get to sail my boat back until they cleared the yard a couple of weeks later. 

We got all excited when the 1948 Cuban national Snipe Class championships were scheduled to be held in mid-August off the Matanzas Tennis Club located on the south shore of Matanzas harbor, itself located about 80 miles east of Havana. Our Club committee boat towed six Snipes to Matanzas several days before the race, thus all that my crew, Bob Harras, and I had to do was to step aboard and sail across the bay.

The bus dropped us off in downtown Matanzas on Friday noon and it took us no time to find Bluebird tucked in under the streetcar bridge. Tied up across from a “bodega” which serves as a grocery store and bar, we settled right in. Between us we had $10.00, an extraordinary amount of cash at the time. Our first investment was a bottle of Yucayo rum at 65 cents, and two cokes. Next we picked up a five-gallon jug of water, a can of soda crackers, and a large bar of guava paste. This still left us with $7. Night fell, the rum and cokes took effect and we did what all sailors do when they hit port. That brought our capital down another $2.

All-you-can-eat-and-drink festivities followed the races Saturday and Sunday. We did exactly that plus stuff our pockets with emergency supplies. By 6 p.m. Sunday the party was getting too grown up for two teenagers so we lifted anchor in almost a dead calm and decided to head for Varadero Beach, about 15 miles away, to visit friends. It took all night to exit the harbor and crawl up the coast. Arriving at about 4am off the white sand beaches of Varadero and dead tired, we tossed the hook over the side and went to sleep.

“Went to sleep” on a Snipe, with but a small cockpit, meant spreading an old quilt out on deck and stretching out on opposite sides. Exhausted, we passed out only to awaken when the overhead sun threatened to bake us.  Dozens of people swan around the boat. A look toward shore proved that we had anchored 30 feet off the swankiest cabana club in Varadero, the Kawama. After a swim and a stroll on the beach, we upped sails and headed for our buddies home. But first we sailed by the Varadero Yacht Club and took pictures of each other with the Club in the background... just to prove to the disbelievers that we’d really been there. 

It was about 1 p.m. when we knocked on the back door of the Cora residence. Out popped Mrs. Cora who hugged us like two lost castaway sons and asked the key question, “Are you boys hungry?” Well, we had eaten our last meal almost 24 hours past and the dozen crackers that we tossed down since had had no effect. She read our “uh-uh” correctly and soon brought out two huge savory heaping plates of rice, beans and chopped meat. Mrs. Cora no doubt saw us establish a new world record for she rushed inside and refilled both plates. This now called for a siesta on hammocks that held us like the dead for a couple of hours. 

Once awake, we bid adieu and sailed away into the sunset. Varadero is a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean in a northeast direction. To the west, land drops away to the south some 25 miles towards the entrance to Matanzas Bay then begins to bulge out to the north as the coastline winds its way to the west. We decided to sail a direct line for a point about 30 miles west of Matanzas, which in addition to being a shorter distance, would keep us away from the backwash of waves that bounce off the high cliffs that line the coastline west of the harbor entrance. 

The wind was fresh, 15 knots out of the east, the waves about four feet. The whisker pole held the jib out to starboard while we strung the main as far as it would go to port. I tied our little kerosene lantern to a cleat aft of the tiller so that it would not obscure our forward-looking night vision. What it did do was illuminate the four to five foot waves that constantly overtook the boat and make them appear as if they were 10 feet high. I made it a point not to look back. 

All was going great. Bob sat to port and I steered from starboard. We passed Matanzas Harbor and were about in the middle of the high-cliff area when I heard a bang and noted the windward shroud had parted. I quickly jibed, had Bob run down all sails, and surveyed the situation. Thank heaven we were well off land so we had time. Meanwhile, the mast flopped around in scary circles. The wire had broken and we had no way to fix it. I got Bob to tie a knot in the wire, then to tightly lace one of our ropes from the wire to the chainplate. It took a couple of tries until we steadied the mast then upped the jib and got under way. 

Bluebird coasted easily down the waves, its crew undeniably shaken. As midnight passed I steered towards shore in hopes we could sneak into some small harbor to rest and await daylight. There, up ahead, we saw a signal lamp. We untied the kerosene lantern and began to signal with random flashes. The light off the bow signaled back. We closed to within several hundred yards yet all we could see on land was the light that blinked at us. Bob continued to signal up to the moment when we found we were caught in the middle of a series of breaking waves that washed us into shore. Bob quickly upped the centerboard as I removed and stowed the rudder.  

Three men jumped into the water and guided Bluebird around the spit of sand and into the quiet water of the small lagoon in Jaruco. To say we were shaken is to put it lightly. We had had one hell of a night. Both of us shivered and shook visibly. It turned out the people on shore used their flashlight to search for a big sea turtle that had tried to climb up on that shore earlier that evening. The family took us into their home, a palm-thatched hut with dirt floors but lots of hospitality. The main man pulled out a bottle of Fundador brandy and offered each of us a good pull.  

We told them our life story and they told us theirs. When it was time to retire they offered us their home, which we gracefully declined since there was no room even for the members of the family. Back on board, Bob and I assumed our position on deck, put our head down just as the mosquitoes found us. We lost no time draping the main over us, but the mosquitoes still got in. We swatted in every direction. Not even our perspiration kept them away!  

A couple of hours passed. Neither of us got one wink. Bob was one happy guy when I said, “Let’s get out of here.” We upped anchor, said goodbye to one of the family who fished off a cliff and headed west. Morning found us off Tarara Beach, home of high school chums, where we stopped to swim and mooch some food. At just after noon we slid the boat right up on the beach at Cojimar, a small fishing village made famous by Hemingway, and strolled over to one of the beach vendors specializing in mojitos.  

For ten centavos each we filled 2 coke bottles with local juices that kept our spirits up throughout the rest of our ‘small boat cruise’.

© William Butler, 2004