It was some time past noon when the beast took the hook and the squeal of the fishing reel drafted the entire crew into action. Our small expedition had been out just a few hours, but we were more than ready for one of those epic battles with an insensate rival that has been the promise of these waters north of Cuba since Ernest Hemingway fished here. And that's what we got.
In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway straps an elderly Santiago, Ahab-like, to an 18-foot marlin and drags him around these same Florida straits for three days in a skiff. The book, which figured heavily in Hemingway's winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, romanticizes the struggle of man against nature and demonstrates the endurance and courage of a simple old man.
OK, so we hadn't roughed the same conditions as Santiago or experienced the same futility (84 days without a catch), but Cuba's waters have changed little in 45 years, except that this epic battle is much easier to experience. The entire adventure, from hatching the plan, to sautéing the trophy (a reward Santiago was, alas, denied), now only requires a little patience and lots of luck. Santiago's record of sacrifice and resolve is no longer part of the price.
Homage to the author is still very much part of the experience, however. I started my fishing junket at Marina Hemingway, 25 miles west of Havana. The marina boasts four man-made channels, filled with domestic and foreign-flagged pleasure boats. Terraced apartment complexes for tourists, which look like Palm Beach time-shares, serve as a backdrop. Between the third and fourth channels lies Papa's, a marina-side restaurant and club, that makes the questionable intimation that Hemingway may have once jiggled a swizzle stick here.
The day before we sailed, the agent who booked my trip told me that business was slow and I could charter a boat with everything, any day of the week. The Gulf Stream's current was weak, which meant the chances of bringing home a prize like the seasonal visitor from the marlin family, wahoo, were slim.
A boatful of sport fishermen had been shut out from their quarry the day before, and the crews of the four charter boats moored at Papa's provided remarkably humble reports that nothing was biting. But with the U.S. embargo restricting tourism on the island, and a conspicuous absence of Cuban fishing vessels plying the waters, it was hard to imagine that this side of the straits was anything but teeming with life. The booking agent had told me about a Spanish tourist named Fernando who also wanted to go out but didn't want to charter the boat alone. I located him at his hotel, where we agreed to split the $204 fee for the standard four-hour tour in the smallest available boat, the Coral Negro (Black Coral).
We registered with the Interior Ministry of the Cuban Government, a requirement that basically ensures that it will reap its share of our fee. We left the harbor at a quarter to ten.
The crew, otherwise known as Miguel, started hooking the bait and the lures. He had an easy smile, and an unlit cigarette sticking to his lip. First, he attached a big plastic lure to a 40-pound test line and strung it through a pulley that was held about 20 feet away from the deck by a long, fiberglass shaft. The line was attached to a heavy reel and rod, which was shoved into a holder in the side of the boat. The lure featured two large, rusty hooks that could drag a hungry lineman through the waves as easily as a marlin. He rigged another rod on the opposite side of the boat the same way.
Miguel attached a metal wire, about as thick as coaxial cable, to a steel loop bolted into the deck, and connected a weighted lure that looked as though it were welded to a strip of sablefish, an expensive bait fish that I'd previously encountered only at catered affairs. He threw the precious fillet in the water and slowly let out the heavy line. After he did the same from the other side of the boat, the captain, Raimondo, hit the gas and stretched the four lines against the oncoming current. Fifteen minutes from the pier, we were trolling the 120-foot-deep waters of the Gulf Stream.
Raimondo was strong and thin, with a hawk-like nose and a calm demeanor that suggested a keen knowledge of the sea. He zigged the Coral Negro away from shore, then zagged a little U-turn against the current, and zigged back, perpendicular to the shore. The circuitous route was designed to wave the bait under the noses of the maximum number of fish traveling in the current.
The sun was high, even in the early going, but the air was crisp. The first two hours passed uneventfully. Raimondo hauled in a plastic bag that got caught on the sable, cursed it, then threw it back in.
By noon, Fernando and I were beginning to lose faith in the skills of our crew. We exchanged looks of disillusionment, but, not wanting to invoke the wrath of the fishing gods, only wondered to ourselves if we'd get a bite.
We cruised about 25 miles west and got a good look at the smokestacks of Mariel. It's the port that gave name to the Mariel boatlift, in which, in April 1980, Fidel Castro emptied his prisons and mental institutions and let the country's most notorious criminals, as well as dissidents and other citizens, ride the current to Miami. Before reaching Mariel's fuming latitude marker, Raimondo turned the craft around. He shortened the zigs to and from the island and ran extended zags along the current, accelerating our trajectory back towards Havana.
I took a break from the sun and sat inside the cabin. After about 30 minutes, I felt revived and ready to challenge the elements, in this case, boredom and disappointment.
Raimondo pointed out that the current was growing stronger, which, he said, makes members of the marlin family rise to the surface. He didn't know why. But with the current emboldened, so were our hopes.
That's when the fish hit. The reel on the right side started screaming, shaking us completely out of our collective coma. Miguel was at the wheel, and he quickly killed the engine. Raimondo started disconnecting the pulley from the fiberglass rig, so that the line ran directly off the rod. I motioned Fernando to take the first shift. Raimondo handed him the rod, and Fernando propped it inside a metal tube on the chair, between his legs. The beast had already gotten itself stuck, and there was no need to set the hook.
Fernando was a big, barrel-chested Spanish discotheque owner, with a good sun tan and the arms of, well, a discotheque owner. He was an affable character, with lightly graying hair and an aquiline nose. He was anxious to complement his nocturnal adventures with one under the sun.
He leaned heavily on the reel but couldn't keep it steady. He fought bravely against the monster, jerking half-turns of line from the sea as if he were stabbing a leather shoe with an ice pick. I fired a couple of shots with my camera, then tossed it in the cabin and helped steady the heavy reel to allow Fernando to concentrate on turning the handle. He kept it up for much of the distance that separated boat from fish, then invited me to finish the last several fathoms.
I sat down, planted my foot against the boat, and leaned forward to try my biceps against this creature of unseen proportions. Revolutions of the reel, I discovered, came at a considerable but invigorating strain. With my muscles flexed and the pole pulled close to my chest, I was able to hold the reel steady and slowly take up the line that remained between the hulk and me.
But the harder I pulled, the harder it pulled. The fish set its head in the direction opposite my force, and strained its muscles against mine with the full force of its being. It was not cunning, and made no quick turns or looping circles to try to dislodge the object implanted in its head. It only wanted to drag me over the side, and take me on, mano a mano. Might against might. A no-brain, steel-cage death match, where home-court advantage meant everything.
As the fish fought, it dawned on me that it knew the end of its tenancy in the Gulf Stream was fast approaching.
I exacted another few, strained turns of the reel handle, and yanked the rod up. The move brought the fish so close to the surface that it could no longer swim. Then I flipped it over, and it skimmed along the top of the water belly up. It was a medium-sized silver barracuda, about three feet long and 25 pounds. I kept up the tension, turning the reel against its mass. The fish spent its last few yards in the bountiful Florida straits on its back, before being finally evicted.
His welcome to our atmosphere came when Miguel gaffed him, and beat his head with a baseball bat. Still the barracuda rocked and twitched when I reached under its gills and held it fast for the cameras. Brain-dead, but not dispirited, it desperately tried to shake itself free, but I held tight and kept my fingers a safe couple of inches from its nasty set of incisors. Fernando wanted to strike a pose with our prey, too. I released it on the deck and warned him: "cuda libre."
Despite giving me the fight of my life, the barracuda was no trophy. Nor would it make a delicious meal. Certain organs of the fish, unless expertly removed, make humans ill or dizzy. This fish eventually would be sliced up and used for bait.
While hooking the barracuda was exciting, Fernando and I had still not gotten what we came for: billfish. We didn't have to wait long. Soon, one of the deck lines started twitching. Raimondo instructed Miguel to kill the engine. The captain put on a pair of gloves and started hauling in something heavy. The fish jerked the thick, metal wire, and Raimondo calmly pulled it toward the boat. This time, it was a wahoo with a dorsal fin, much smaller than that of a sailfish or marlin, and a beak that looked more like a box cutter than a sword. The fish looped back and forth in the water, trying to dislodge the line. But the hooks were set deep inside his snapping jaws, and the fish was quickly taken.
The four-foot, 40-pound wahoo had dark brown bars along the length of its blue steel body. But the bars slowly faded.
It twitched about on the deck before allowing us to raise it for a photograph. We had finally captured a real trophy, and opened beers to toast our prowess.
I split the wahoo with the crew and brought my part of the bounty to some friends in Havana who have a wide balcony overlooking the Malecón. We sliced it into 10 steaks, which we marinated in a garlicky adobe seasoning, and tossed into the oven. My friends wanted to leave it in the oven until it was hard and dry, the way Cubans are known to cook their gray frozen fish rations, but despite their protests I pulled it out early, telling them when fish is this fresh, you can even eat it raw.
I asked Fernando to join our banquet of rice, fried potatoes-and-plantains, dark red tomatoes and the once-graceful fish, but he was entertaining a guest.
He lamented that his camera had jammed, and that the pictures he had hoped to plaster on the walls of his disco were lost. "Please, Matteo, it is very, very important. Can you send me copies of the photographs with the fish?" No problem, I said. "No, really," he insisted. "It's very, very important." I reassured him that I would. "It's really, really important!" he repeated.
I remembered that in The Old Man and the Sea Santiago saves no images of his record catch (in fact, sharks devour the fish before it gets to shore), and gives the marlin's sword, his only memento, to his young friend. It made me wonder if the photos were more than a keepsake to Fernando. Perhaps they would serve as evidence or the basis of an elaborate alibi for his visit to Cuba. He finally accepted my word that he would get them, and promised me lifetime admission to his club.
Scuba CubaThe same 37 years of the trade embargo with the United States that created a charming, if crumbling, time warp above ground has preserved a spectacular wonderland below sea level. While life on the surface of Cuba blossoms, her seas have nurtured an even greater wealth and diversity of life. Countless aquatic plant and animal species not only remain, but thrive, with little interference from industry, amidst one of the best preserved reef systems in the world.
Undersea life is rich throughout the Caribbean, but the Cuban archipelago of tiny islets and one large land mass has been spared the Spring Break crowds that stomp coral in rented flippers. While this may change with an increase in touristm, parts of Cuba are too inconvenient to be overrun.
On the southern tip of Cabo Corrientes, in the southwest of Pinar del Río province, is just such a place. Called Maria la Gorda, the diving site took a 200-mile drive from Havana and several impromptu tour guides to locate, but once I arrived I was afforded an incredible undersea experience.
The captain and dive master of my excursion slid his boat across a mile of glassine waves and located a particularly lovely reef. There, a guide called "Ranger" led our group into the deep. About 20 meters down, we reached the sea floor and began our tour through a rich selection of flora and fauna. Huge red tube sponges, five and six feet high, jutted out of the seascape in shapes that seemed to parody human attributes, almost comical in their enormity. The common damselfish kept close to the living coral, while French angelfish of bright yellow and deep blue strayed from the safety of their crevasses to feel the current along their elliptical bodies. A timid trunkfish swam by after which we reached a "wall," or steep incline in the sea floor that dropped between 100 and 200 feet.
Among the life forms that crowded the coral-covered wall were plants of a deeper, richer shade of green than I had ever seen on the surface. The sea stroked its soft caress over small red plants attached to living rocks. Another side of the wall resembled the surface of the moon, and a nearby hillside was covered with 10 or 12 immense brown sponges that looked like great, robust human breasts. The giant humps of life, twice the size of my torso, gave me the distinct impression I was not from their world, and perhaps did not belong here.
Another clue that I did not belong came when I read the pressure gauge and discovered the dive master had provided me with a half-full tank. I was forced to surface after only 30 minutes underwater. While the diving here is first class, divers should be aware that support and instruction that is considered standard throughout the Caribbean may not be provided.
Back in Havana, I tried unsuccessfully to get a ticket to the fully booked Hotel Colony on Isla de la Juventud. The hotel caters to divers who want to explore the local populations of mantas, sting rays and tortoises, which are said to rival those found at the nearby Cayman Islands. My second choice was the offshore, tourist-only island of Cayo Largo, a short flight from Havana.
There I joined an excursion on a crowded boat and sped off to the reefs. Under the waves, I discovered why the Cuban Ministry of Tourism chose Cayo Largo for its big tourist push. I was greeted by a knife fish, needling his way through a crevasse on the coral. There was a midnight-and-stars fish and assorted French angels and a stingray. Scorpion fish abounded, as did tiny whiskered goatfish and yellowtail snappers. Filefish treaded water and yellow-tail damsels danced. A fairy basslet, all purple and yellow and looking like a grape-lemon popsicle, squirmed through the coral. For the first time, I found myself eye to eye with a bandtail sea robin, crawling across the sea floor on its ventral fins. There were trumpetfish, assorted jack--especially barjack--blennies with barbs, and squirrelfish, which were big-eyed and nervous. The blue-headed wrasse and parrotfish were both wearing blue this season.
Sea fans waved perpetually as we passed through an area covered with Ekhorn coral, big angular formations that made the sea floor look like the roof of an apartment complex topped with antennae. I swam closer to the sea floor, in order to look upwards at the life inhabiting the underside of the reefs. There I spied a huge crab, backed into a hole, and it shrugged a shoulder, as if it had a chip on it. The crab looked me over, just begging for me to reach in and try to pull it out, to see which one of us would end up on the other's plate. --MR