Sailing Shout-Out: Exotic. Iconic. Cuba.

Credit Andy Schell

The following is an excerpt from a fantastic post about a recent sail to Cuba written by my friend Andy Schell of 59 North, Ltd. Please indulge yourselves in his intro to this utterly exotic island here and then continue on to his site for the full story. And be sure to check out the other stuff he’s into while you are there. In fact, if you’ve ever wanted to sail offshore, but don’t have the boat, or the experience, or the crew to do it yourself, joining Andy and his wife Mia on one of the many passages they do every year might be your ticket to adventure. There may not be a better or prettier way to get offshore miles than aboard their ultra-classic Sparkman & Stephens-designed Swan 48 Isbjörn.

Now…on to Cuba.

There's simply no better way to visit Cuba than to sail there. Credit Andy Schell
There’s may not be a better way to visit Cuba than to sail there. Credit Andy Schell

By Andy Schell

…Havana is the second-most culturally exotic city I’ve ever visited (the first being Istanbul). It would hold our full attention for the nearly five days we spent ashore there, never-ceasing to surprise us. But it was the first impressions of that first day ashore, drunk with excitement and literally drunk with rum that we’ll remember (ironically) most clearly. ‘Lada’s’ (old Russian box-shaped cars) driving down the canal roads spewing black smoke; the crumbling concrete on the bulkhead that had me worried enough about the fenders to return to the boat, some nine miles from the city proper, on three occasions to check them; the first old American car we saw, a green 1950’s convertible Buick, parked in the lot next to the boat; the photos of Papa Hemingway fishing with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro hanging up in the Yacht Club bar; the horse-drawn carts clip-clopping down the main road outside the marina complex, followed by ’57 Chevy’s and Russian side-car motorcycles; real mojitos and the distinctive aroma of cigar smoke on every street corner, plus signs and symbols of the Revolution everywhere you look. For five full days our senses were overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, smells and craziness that is Havana. The city is everything you’ve ever read about, compounded several times over by the sheer size and complexity of it all, and the fact that you’re seeing it in Technicolor, in full-motion, in person.

Cuba's cars. Credit Andy Schell
Cuba’s cars. Credit Andy Schell

…It’s impossible to overstate the chaos that are the streets in and around Havana. First of all, the city is HUGE, with something like 2 million people living in the greater area. And thanks to all the old cars – this is not a cliché by the way; every second or third car actually was a classic 1950’s American car or a Russian Lada or motorcycle – the air pollution in and around the city is suffocating. I went for a couple of runs around town and genuinely had a tough time breathing and even opening my eyes in the smog. It was hard to tell if the once-colorful architecture was simply faded by time and neglect or faded by lousy air.

Hotel National. Credit Andy Schell
Havana’s Hotel Nacional. Credit Andy Schell

In any case, after a circuitous tour through the surrounding areas we arrived at Isabelle’s house, our host for the next several days. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, before Castro’s revolution, the US Mafia built an extraordinary neighborhood just west of the old city called Vedado. Enormous houses stood along wide tree-lined boulevards, neatly organized into square grids. The architecture, despite some neglect (though not as much as the media would have you believe), was incredible. Our place was on the second floor and had a balcony that fronted the main street. There were five bedrooms, each with intricate tile work on the floors and 15-foot high ceilings. The rooms were connected not by an enclosed hallway, but rather by an open breezeway that looked down onto the alley below, which contained a local pizza joint that also, somehow, served breakfast. Out front, a large open area was sort of a living area for all of us, and beyond that the balcony that looked over the main street provided a place for us to chill and drink beers in the surprisingly cool evenings…

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