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Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Brian & Deya met in Vancouver Canada. After a few years together we were married and made choices. One was not to have children the other was not to take life for granted. The rest is yet to come.

January 19, 2012

The long road to Cuba

(Due to slow and expensive internet, pictures and video will be added once we are off the island, Thanks)

Back in the truck with Carlos, we contacted Ludwig and he said they were delayed due to weather; we now had a full day extra to clear Customs and load onto the boat. With Carlos we felt sure that he would get us there in one piece, the biggest part being the piece of mind. The route to Medellin was fraught with destruction and delays but this time, Medellin to Cartagena, the weather was fair and the driving easy. Once we arrived at Cartagena we unloaded the bikes at the dock, had lunch with Carlos and thanked him again for making it happen for us then headed for the Customs office. I’m not sure I could overstate just how helpful his service was for us at this point in our struggle.

Arriving at Customs was old hat but it seemed they expected us and were ready to clear us right away. Turns out the other four bikers boarding the Stahlratte were already there and the agent would be taking Deya and I to the dock to inspect the bikes. This was a smooth process, thanks for the folks that crossed their fingers for us! Loading the bikes into the dingy is always exciting but doubly exciting when I’m not able to help much due to the busted up arm and shoulder.

With the bikes loaded and wrapped for the Seven day journey we boarded for the night, a few logistical details detained the boat for another day before we could head for sea so we entertained ourselves with food and new company. This boat ride would be nice for a few reasons: older more mature crowd, the infamous ‘Roli’ as first mate, and five bikers aboard. The awesome part would be the experience of sailing 750 nautical miles over depths of 5000 metres with nothing but wind and sea splashing about. The tough part would be sailing 750 nautical miles with nothing but wind and sea splashing about. I expected the worst and in my somewhat dilapidated condition I was confident I’d get it.

We set off, with the guests and crew on board we were comprised mostly of German speakers: Roli with his parents and a couple friends from Austria and an associate member, the Captain with his wife and brother-in-law (Vicente), a young German girl (Milena), our newest riding buddies Frank and Petra from Germany who we constantly competed with for who had the coolest kit (and lost), leaving just one Australian (Two bowl Max), Merlin from the USA with a KTM, Janet the other Canadian who seemed to arrive with sea legs and took care of us, Deya and I.

Our route was to sail from Cartagena towards Santa Marta (East) before changing our heading to make a B-line between the Cayman Islands and Jamaica straight into Cienfuegos, Cuba. The detour towards Santa Marta was to get a good angle against the winds so we could ride the sails all the way there. The first two days would be under power after that the rest was intended to be under sail. It was Vicente’s first voyage; he was intending to help out on the boat but was totally destroyed with sea sickness as soon as we were under way. At one point I went looking for him thinking that maybe he went overboard, fortunately he had not but he might have wanted too. At least three days he laid flat, didn’t drink or eat or move, poor kid.

The Stahlratte is by far the best boat for hauling the bikes but for the captain and crew it’s also a big boat that needs many hands to be efficient. This is tough when you have a bunch of untrained amateurs on board. I, of course, wanted to jump in on everything but simply couldn’t without risking my ability to ride in Cuba later, besides I’m one of the untrained amateurs and Deya kept yelling at me to get back inside, or else! Once we made our heading adjustment the sails went up. It comprised a lot of people gaggling around wondering what ropes to pull on during the German commands and what the heck the German commands were.

The net result was losing the forward sail (Jib?) when someone released a line. There was a lot of confusion, the crew couldn’t see the sail from their positions and when the line was released a thunderous crack occurred as the sheet snapped tearing the line out. Despite that the other five sails were up, but as Roli explained that one sail could have given us an extra knot, and that’s no joke when you are averaging 5-6 knots.

Finally under sail! The effect is fantastic, mostly because by now half of the passengers were feeling a little green, because the sails steady the boat by canting it to one side. Instead of rotating around in all kinds on directions the boat just ploughs up and down on its bearing. Despite the reprieve I got sick immediately taking very little time to start puking my guts out. Not the first one on board to hurl but certainly in competition.

Sea sickness is extremely draining and my injuries didn’t make it any better. When on board you cannot walk in a straight line and must always hold onto something. Often times you find yourself at a full run towards a wall or the side of the ship and you need to grab something or at least hit a wall with some grace. I, of course, could do neither and when attempting just created a load of pain. Always remembering that when someone goes overboard you have to shout continuously and point at them never losing sight of the person in the waves and even at that there is only a 20% chance of recovering the person. Sleeping was barely an option, eating didn’t work though the food was fantastic and the pain in my broken parts just increased. I was mostly useless.

I had the evening watch, which was better than mulling about the boat during the day like a zombie. At night and under sail the ocean is a magical place, quite and solemn. The beauty of the sky and the stars are remarkable and under sail with the boat lurching in the swells I didn’t feel as bad as during the day. Some nights I would stay up for 2-3 four hour shifts just to take advantage of the calmer seas and cooler temperatures. It’s a time to reflect and watch for cargo ships bearing down on you. I always thought that being out in the middle of the ocean, huge waves pushing the boat around in the darkness, might stir some kind of untouched fear in my mind but there was none. It almost makes you feel like a sailor but I know the truth, I am meant for the land.

We had some fun catching fish, unfortunately no Tuna, and saw a host of other sea life like dolphins and flying fish which were remarkable. I heard whales along side the boat during the nights on watch but never saw which kind. The last few days were much calmer and all the passengers had developed a bit of sea legs, moving about the boat easier and without sickness.

Despite the improvements we ended up having to repair several of the sails due to rips and damage from the wind. At one point in the middle of the night a squall of high wind and rain suddenly hit us from the starboard side propelling us from about 5 knots to 9.5 for about two minutes. Very Exciting! The boat was like a rocket, solid and canted hard to one side; I thought the bikes would dip into the water. The ride was the smoothest and most impressive bit of the whole route, I was excited. Just afterwards though, the wind completely died and we lost course having to start the engine in dead wind. The moments before the wind was completely exhausted, it seemed to spin around the boat snapping the sails badly. The fisherman became torn. The captain would be doing a lot of sewing during this voyage.

Dinner on the Stahlratte is always a delight and we we’re able to enjoy some good ones in the beginning and towards the end of the voyage. At one point while working in the kitchen, just as we were departing Cartagena Merlin comes running into the kitchen and grabs a huge knife shouting, “COMING THROUHG, KNIFE IN HAND!” placing the knife in his teeth he disappears climbing the stairs to the top deck. A little shocked I stepped out to see what the commotion on the boat was and I was suddenly faced by Roli yelling, “GET ON THE DOCK AND GRAB THE FORWARD LINE!” Roli is a big dude (2 meters tall or 6’6”), I obeyed immediately and suddenly found myself up on the Container Port with Frank. Trouble was I could barely manage the big rope feeling the shoulder and wrist burn as I wrenched hard to get the line around the securing point. This would happen again in Cuba, me and Frank stuck on the dock looking at each other saying, “How the hell did we end up here?” Good times.
We had come along side the container port to load a 260 kilograms cylinder head as a replacement part for an old one. Two bowl Max, known for his ability to stuff his face during the whole journey and during the worst swells, came out to help and just about got crushed as he wandered in front of the heavy crate about to swing out over the boat. I yelled at him and at least three other voices screamed at the possible danger. Max disappeared into the bowels of the boat.

Max is a harmless and friendly guy to have around and made for some good entertainment, annoyance and real concern. I think Max might be cursed with a bit of clumsiness, knowing this Max avoided many of the occasions to work on the boat. When he tried to help the metal coffee filters went over board, people yelled, things broke and though he was by far the healthiest passenger from start to finish he ended with his last day badly injured. Helping out with food prep Max tripped, burning a baseball size wound into his calf from a hot pipe and splitting his elbow wide open exposing the bone and tendons. Poor Max, and on the first night in the Port of Cienfuegos, he and Milena (German girl) managed to stay up all night drinking, puking, swearing and generally not impressing the rest of the people around the port. I laughed, I thought it was funny.

The port of Cienfuegos is beautiful, some say the most beautiful port in the Caribbean and I imaging it might be. A huge bay with a tight inlet means any size vessel could weather a bad storm. Surrounded by forest and beautiful colonial homes it is picturesque, friendly waves and greetings as we entered you get a feeling that the people who live there are lucky as they sit relaxing on their porches on the waterfront. As a final note on the Stahlratte, it’s a great way to go, the best boat in this part of the sea for moving bikes and I’m grateful to Captain Ludwig for getting us from port to port safely and in good humour. Special thanks from the bikes too, they did well on board.

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