After nearly two weeks of living aboard Jasen and Jennifer’s breathtaking new Hylas 56, my fingers had to be pried loose from the starboard primary winch as I was pulled feet first, whining and whimpering, off the boat onto the pier to make the flight home.
A Hylas 56 is a great boat to live aboard. A Hylas 56 in Ft. Lauderdale (then Miami, then Havana, then Key West) becomes a scene of such bliss that a middle-aged man of ordinarily polite decorum begins to seriously consider overstaying his welcome.
Wednesday, as our trip came to a close, I tried to dream up creative ways to extend my stay aboard. Perhaps, on the heels of almost 500 miles of hard sailing, the gracious yacht needed one crew to stay aboard a few days longer to continue cleaning? To finish a few loads of laundry? And then there were those critical maintenance tasks that mustn’t be deferred. There were those sea strainers that must surely be clogged with Florida Straight sea grasses? And what of the fuel filter on the genset? Surely it was over the replacement interval? Only a skilled and motivated crew member could be entrusted to save the gracious new Hylas from certain decay and neglect – at the low, low bartered compensation of a few more days’ lodging aboard?
Alas, Jasen and Jennifer, being perceptive people, recognized the hallmarks of the soon-to-be-permanent boat guest and assured me that the boat would be just fine without my very generous offers of ‘free’ cleaning and maintenance. Back and forth superficially gracious ‘offers to stay and look after the boat’ and their reciprocal gestures of gratitude went, until, at last, they had to be rather firm and direct with me. Somewhere around the time a call for the sheriff’s intervention was contemplated I finally accepted my fate of a return to the Maryland winter.
But I digress. The photos will do more to illustrate our race to Havana than my words ever could, though I can add some parenthetical commentary along the way. Jasen, Brian and I served as the advance team, arriving a few days before the race to complete various race prep tasks like fitting the brand new Code 0, provisioning the boat, etc. It was all the stuff of men going unsupervised for several days, so naturally the language and manners devolved to the frat-house. Football was watched on Superbowl Sunday and many a cocktail consumed. We got some boat work and provisioning done too.
Poor Lisa arrived next and was tasked with single-handedly bringing the men back to heel.
Thence it was on from Ft. Lauderdale to Miami for the race start. The boat was brand new and had never before been raced, so it took us until 2am the morning after our mid-day start to discover some of the first keys to keeping her moving. She liked at least 13 knots of true wind on a close reach – this we already knew. But it was only through the bleary eyes of our midnight watch that we realized why: the Hylas needs to heel to keep her considerable hips from dragging too much water. Heading up in the lulls allowed us to maintain heel – and so boat speed – even down to 11 knots of true wind speed. And we learned that when the breeze freshened, those same birthin’ hips provide tremendous sail carrying capacity to head well up with the spinnaker still up, or to defer reefs on close reaches. The design proved almost binary in its performance against the competition, alternately struggling when a light breeze stood her straight up, then charging back through packs of boats when the breeze freshened and her form stability once again paid off.
On paper, the race to Havana looks to be just over 200 miles or so, but in reality the Gulf Stream makes it much longer. We spent many an hour marveling that speed over ground could not be brought within fewer than 3.5 knots or so of our speed through the water due to the opposing currents. The lights of Havana looked to be tantalizingly close for hours and hours and hours. It was a good thing we had fresh breezes. Had the wind shut down we’d surely have been stationary over the bottom at best, if not losing ground. A word to those considering this race in the future: buy the commercially-available current guides and mentally prepare for a much longer race than this one might first appear.
I’ll keep my notes on Havana itself to shorthand impressions.
A city of stark contrasts. Clean and extremely friendly people who were very happy to see Americans.
A dusty city with an absolutely crumbling infrastructure. Everywhere cracks in the concrete structures or chunks falling out. And everywhere – from the moment one steps onto the pier at Marina Hemingway – one must watch where one steps. Deep holes in the concrete are abundant, often so poorly covered as a repair that one could never trust a footfall on anything other than solid pavement.
An entire population in abject poverty except for the privileged political elite, regularly visited by comparatively wealthy South American tourists who enjoy an explicitly different strata of the city. As a tourist one is simultaneously there and not there. He or she can eat and shop and consume indulgences miles out of the reach of the locals who mingle just feet away on the same street. There’s almost a dynamic that one comes to Havana to gawk at the austerity of the Cuban lifestyle. It’s faint but it’s there and it’s a little uncomfortable.
Strong political oppression. Plain clothed police absolutely everywhere. The constant knowledge that you are welcome but that in Cuba there is no Western rule of law or due process. Your personal freedom persists only as long as the government’s good spirits do. That part is always in the back of one’s mind and it is a little erie.
The 50’s cars are there still. They are taxis, and almost always re-powered with diesels but otherwise thoroughly authentic. Apparently there are no emission controls mandated in Cuba because one can smell the city from miles away while approaching from the sea. On the streets themselves the fumes are positively dizzying. I won’t ever again complain about the 4-5 horsepower our catalytic converters cost American cars in exchange for tolerable air quality.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit but a few days proved the perfect duration.
The Gulf Stream dominated the experience of our sail home just as it had the sail down. The cruising guides warn never to try to sail the Stream in this part of the world unless the wind is from the south, and then only if it’s under 15 knots. We all had flights to catch, so we departed Havana and began a close-hauled sail northeast to Ft. Lauderdale in a 15 knot northerly that progressively built into a nor’easter in the low 20s. Predictably, mountainous seas built and while the Hylas was borne to punch through those conditions for days at a time, the humans aboard preferred to avoid prolonging the journey with a night of launching the 50,000 lb hull into clear air then dropping into the next trough with a splintering crash as we found ourselves doing with increasing frequency even with the benefit of daylight visibility. We bore away on starboard and aborted to Key West. There we found several other returning race crews who had done the same.
We put some crew on planes home from Key West and the next morning Jasen, Lisa and I sailed for Ft. Lauderdale. The contrast with the prior days’ conditions could not have been more stark. For hours we motored, listening to music, drying out sails, and enjoying the Keys’ breathtaking emerald waters.
But this is passage making after all, and the Stream wasn’t done with us yet. After dark the breeze filled back in and gradually built into a northwesterly in the low 20s. The wave heights were lower but the wave faces proved to be steeper in many cases, resulting in a 2 am reefing of the mainsail and more than one incidence of white water foaming all the way back to the dodger – a dodger base that stands some considerable height above the waterline on a boat of this size. The Hylas proved to be dream to sail upwind in a chop – once again demonstrating stout sail carrying capacity and a willingness to turn nimbly down the back side of each wave. It was terrific, exciting sailing.
Which brings us to now. I’m back in Maryland but I’m not sure I’ve given up on more time aboard the Hylas. I’m prone to surfing Southwest Airlines’ website comparing airfares. Maybe if I am very careful I could just go rogue and sneak in another visit before the Spring thaw.
But I’m not sure I could be careful enough. Home owners know the tell tail signs of a rodent infestation. The clues are subtle: droppings along floor boards or signs of gnawing through electrical wiring. I fear Jasen and Jennifer have gotten to know me too well. On their next visit they’ll check the levels of their premium bourbon bottles. They might notice the scotch glasses aren’t quite where they left them and puzzle at the curiously sterile sea strainers.
It’s probably not worth the risk. It’s safer to try to get invited back to see if I can make the next Kato stick.