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Cuba trip reaps chart rewards

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In the coming months, Bluewater Books & Charts expects to have up-to-date nautical charts for Cuba and its surrounding reefs and islands.

A three-day research trip to the Caribbean island in early September yielded great results, said Vivien Godfrey, co-owner of the bookstore and chart service in Ft. Lauderdale, including the discovery of numerous charts more current than Bluewater now carries, connections with government cartographers, and an interest in having Bluewater provide global charts and English-language guide books on the island.

“We hit the jackpot,” Godfrey said after the trip. “The charts are excellent, as high a quality as any U.S. or UKHO [UK Hydrographic Office] charts.”

The charts are in Spanish, but the symbols and abbreviations are the same as are in use in any nautical chart. Cuban government officials greeted them at every meeting — in fact with a welcoming committee lined up — drafted an agenda for each meeting, and were “extremely well organized,” she said.

Geo-em — GeoCuba Estudios Marinos — is the hydrographic office that does all of the sea and land mapping for the Cuban government. It does not sell its printed charts outside of Cuba, and Godfrey said Bluewater may be its first importer.

“There are chart agents around the world who should go, but it’s not that important to them because they don’t sell to yachts,” said John Mann, co-owner of Bluewater.

Three charts cover the entire island in enough detail to plan voyages, Godfrey said. Additional charts are available for each section for those who want to explore in more depth.

“The charts show clearly the reefs and areas of no anchoring,” she said. “They know they have some of the most pristine reefs in the world and they’re concerned about it.”

While cartographers still make many corrections by hand, several of the eight chart kits that cover the island are corrected monthly.

“Let’s not forget that it was not that many years ago — maybe five years — that the UK Hydrographic Office was still hand correcting charts before they sent them out the door,” Godfrey said. “And the UKHO is the largest in the world, so they [Cuba] are not so far behind.”

While Bluewater hopes to eventually get the digital, print-on-demand versions of the charts, Godfrey said they will start by importing paper charts.

“We want to develop a good relationship with them first,” Mann said. “They have to trust us.”

The officials were, perhaps, a bit disappointed that Bluewater didn’t place an order then and there, he said. But it was a research trip, and their license to visit was restricted to research. They couldn’t sign any contracts or buy anything for commercial use, Godfrey said.

That’s OK, though, because they have to work out the details of paying for Cuban charts, she said. While nautical charts have always been legal to buy and import, Bluewater gave up doing so in 2009 when banks became reluctant to handle the wiring of money into Cuba.

“Seven years ago we stopped ordering them because it was too difficult to make payment,” she said. “Even Barclays in the UK said they wouldn’t do it. Eventually we just gave up.”

Godfrey said she hopes the changes that have occurred in the past year will make it possible again. In late September, she said she hoped to have it worked out in a matter of weeks.

Then it’s just a matter of ordering and shipping. She hopes to have charts on hand in time for the Ft. Lauderdale show in early November.

And sometime next year, she hoped Bluewater might be able to provide Cuba with some UKHO charts of places yachts and ships continue on to, such as the Caribbean and Central America. And Bluewater also might be able to provide English-language tourism and guide books about the island, including a book about the birds of Cuba.

“The few English books we saw were about Che,” said Godfrey, who visited about 10 bookstores around Havana.

Godfrey and Mann said they learned quite a bit more about Cuba than they expected. For example, recreational boats are not permitted in Havana Harbor. While captains can get charts from the hydrographic office there, it is in the harbor and so not approachable by water. Accessible by land, it took someone familiar with the roads to find the way.

The best and easiest way to get service for boats is to become a member of the Hemingway International Yacht Club in Havana, they said. For $150 a year, members have access to Commodore José Miguel Díaz Escrich, who can help with berthing at marinas around the country, getting fuel, and finding other services.

Godfrey and Mann were excited about the trip and were thinking up other ways to help yacht captains researching trips to Cuba, including assembling charts and even trip planning.

“That’s not normally part of our service, but Cuba is different,” Godfrey said.

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome: lucy@the-triton.com.

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