Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cruising Memories – Piracy, Drug Dealers and Violence

In more than fourteen years of cruising we have experienced a number of occasions that were violent, threatening and caused reflection on why we were pursuing the cruising lifestyle. From the beginning I must emphasise that we have never been directly targeted or become victims. The media reports seem to exaggerate all acts of violence and robbery by calling them piracy when they occur on water. Follows are some of our observations, some of them comical, that we have experienced while cruising abroad. Certainly there are many more but here are some of our favourites.


During a year in Cuba we were amazed by the very calm and safe environment that we lived in. We heard stories of robberies and muggings but never came close to any ourselves. We did see a small fist fight between two Cuban men over a woman. This is a common occurrence everywhere in the world that rarely even makes the newspapers. Drug dealing was almost nonexistent. I was really amazed when I was approached by a middle aged man in a market offering me a drug from his concealed wallet. I almost broke out laughing when he produced a small blister pack of Viagra. Of course being a proud male I declined the offer as not necessary.

We left Havana and going west, counter clockwise, around the main island we visited numerous ports without problem. No baksheesh, no bribes, no threats. Only nice people offering their generosity on every front. In the small village of Santa Fey we were escorted by a lady to the local store for cigarettes and oranges. The cigarettes are great trade items. We then went to her home where the man of the house was going over the black beans for dinner making sure there were no small stones or sticks. We were asked to stay for coffee, cooked over a small diesel flame and review the only book in the house. It was an autograph book of other cruisers that had stopped with the same hospitality. Of course we signed the book and found the record of a couple of other people we had met along the way.

We often saw fishermen along the way and occasionally were approached for trade. They invariably kept their distance until we started a conversation. Trading for used clothes, rope, fishhooks, needles, thread, fabrics and books and magazines gave us fish, lobster, fresh produce and guides within the communities that we visited. Not once were we threatened or intimidated.

The most intimidation that we felt while in Cuba was from government officials in some of the more remote ports. We never looked for officials to register in the anchorages that we happened into. Invariably within half an hour we would feel or hear a rowboat come alongside. Rowed by a local the official would appear with paperwork and sometimes a pencil and stamp but frequently without either. We would then produce the necessary pencil to fill out the paper work. While most places we were allowed ashore, there were a number that were off limits for no apparent reason. Respecting the ban on going ashore never caused a problem. I one small and very scenic anchorage east of Cayo Largo I rowed ashore to a small ranch where a worker stood watching me as I landed and approached with very poor Spanish. After the formalities the worker asked if I had a cigarette. After this transaction was completed he told me I could not be there and would have to leave now. To emphasize the point I was guided back to the tender with a gentle hand on my elbow. A sincere adios saw me off.

On Isla de Juventud in the village of Nueva Gerona the rules seemed to change as the days went on. At first staying at the wall of the commercial port was free, then a small fee was to be charged and our ships papers and passports were taken for safe keeping. The Guarda asked if I had any "Armas de Fuerza" flicking his hand as if indicating a lighter. Fortunately my Spanish had improved to the point where I felt he was not looking for a lighter but was referring to whether I had a gun aboard. I replied I was a "Man of Peace" with no need for a gun. He smiled and shook my hand. This was not the last time that I was greeted in this way. On leaving Nueva Gerona I met with a more formal Guard when retrieving papers. I was brusquely told to wait outside his office door while he processed the papers. Not friendly but very official, just like I have experienced at home in Canada or with our friendly neighbours in the USA.

Guantanamo Bay

Normally cruisers do not try to go here. In 2004 we were circumnavigating Cuba and coasting along very close to the shore. We passed the USA airport looking at the defoliated area between the USA and Cuban lands when we were contacted on the VHF radio by "Long Glass", and observation post and contact from the USA base. It was almost comical as the voice was a Hollywood version of a blown out drill sergeant who had yelled at the top of his lungs once too often. Some general polite conversation followed. We asked permission to pass through the bay to the Cuban side but were denied. Some action on shore indicated that a patrol boat was getting ready to come visit if we did not follow directions. We were asked to move four miles offshore as that was the perimeter distance that was being maintained. We were monitored throughout the night as a freighter that was coming a little close to us was advised by Long Glass of our location so they would not run us down. The lights of the base were observable all night as it really never got dark anywhere on the base. While not violent for us, this base has a reputation in Cuba and throughout the world as a location of abuse, torture and the very worst the USA military has to offer its prisoners.


Haiti has a reputation for violence, corruption and poverty. We did not land in Haiti. The night we approached happened to also be the night that a UN force led by the USA invaded the country to dispose its leader, Aristide. Sailing in the windward passage we started to pick up radio traffic between USA marine units and other cruisers in the area. Then the sky lit up as if with lightening followed by the loud roar of canons and the occasional burst of machine gun fire. This was getting serious. Over the radio we heard that Haitians trying to escape were being intercepted by marine forces, removed from their boats and then the boats sunk as a military exercise. This has been substantiated to us by reliable sources at a later date. We turned off our navigation lights and later in the night when our towed tender swamped we cut it loose to avoid getting caught up in this government sponsored madness. Governments and the military seem to have the highest levels of violence that we have come across.


Jamaica has been avoided by cruisers as a violent country. This may be founded on visiting Kingston, we didn't go there. Other areas are purely magical and such was our experience in Port Antonio. We were offered some various herbal intoxicants on numerous occasions but a friendly and simple decline was always met with a smile and sometimes a shrug but nothing further. The people of Port Antonio are among the friendliest and helpful that we have ever met. Good food, lots of reggae and markets full of food our all memories of our stay here.


I think we stopped at Guadaloupe during a low point in its existence. While all the cruising guides refer to numerous disruptions due to strikes we met with an unfortunately protracted and ultimately violent strike and civil disobedience approaching a civil war. The people of Guadaloupe were dissatisfied with the increasing cost of living and were lobbying for an increase in minimum wage and a decrease in prices to be equal with those of France. This is obviously a difficult problem to resolve in a department so far removed from the home country. When we entered the country we were able to get basic food supplies, baguettes, wine and rum. We did find it strange that the homes were shuttered with steel shutters and not many people were in the streets. Then things got nasty. Cars were set afire along with park furniture. Grocery stores were shut down. Government offices were ordered closed. Banks and bank machines ran out of cash money. The economy ground to a halt. Gasoline was only available at certain stations for a very short time. Long line ups queued and tempers flared. The ultimate outcome resulted in violence and shooting followed by murder and chaos. Time to leave. We could not obtain outward clearance and an exit visa. We stayed another day looking for a way to get these necessary documents to no avail. We pulled up the anchor and left. We still feel this is a good place to return to in more settled times but not under conditions like we experienced during our stay.


This island is the "Nature Island" and well deserves that name. We saw little evidence of the standard high rise developments that have ruined may of the other islands and a more agrarian culture. Lots of fresh food. However there is also a substantial herbalist society here growing lots of ganja. Poverty here also has begun to encourage more violence and robberies since we were there last. We had no problems anchored in front of Big Papas bar where on water security ensures an undisturbed night's sleep. Make sure that you lock everything up.

St. Kitts and Nevis

Nevis is quite peaceful but the neighbouring island of St Kitt's had a flurry of shootings and murders while we were there. It appears that the worst of North American gang culture is slowly filtering into the once idyllic islands.


While in Morocco we had no problems. Pick pockets abound and some of the cultural events and begging is rampant among the women and children. Violent crime may exist but we did not see any around the marina at Agadir. Security here is tight with lots of police. We travelled inland extensively, but always with a guide and driver. Better to be safe here than to go into an area that is known to be problematic.



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