Since returning from a sailing trip to Cuba, Leo Lewis remains in awe of the love and warmth of the people who live in extreme poverty — and will likely never have the means to leave what’s considered a communist country.
“But they live their lives as best they can,” said Lewis, 76, of Ventura. “There’s nothing down there. They’re incredibly poor. Yet the people all smile, they get out at night, they go walk around the parks. It’s quite well-kept.”
When the people saw that Lewis was an American, they approached him in the streets with open arms.
“They cannot wait to express their love,” remembered Lewis, who was born in England during the Second World War. “They invited me into their homes, their conversations. I never feared for my life once down there.”
Those who work make the equivalent of about $20 a month in U.S. dollars, and people in governmental positions make about $40 a month.
“Twenty dollars a month to live on, of course, is impossible,” Lewis said. “They can never leave Cuba. They’re trapped the rest of their lives.”
Because there’s little money, many houses are bare with dirt floors, and those who have a toilet are considered lucky.
“They would give you anything,” Lewis said. “If you give them a smile, they want to know you. They want to share what they’ve got.”
Surprisingly, he said there was no crime to speak of.
“They wash the streets in Havana so you don’t see litter, you don’t see homeless,” Lewis said. “They’re not violent people. Even the authorities with the drug-sniffing dogs were gentle people. They’re a gentle race of people.”
The most “mind-boggling” aspect he discovered was their love for America.
“They literally said, ‘Tell America we love them.’ That was the most significant thing I found down there in Cuba: We love America,” Lewis said. “How can it even be? It’s called love and caring about your fellow man.”
Cuba sail invitation
Lewis’ trip to Cuba was prompted in the beginning of November in 2017 by an invitation from Capt. Stephen Taylor, founder of the American Tall Ship Institute and a resident of Ojai.
The American Tall Ship Institute was a nonprofit based in Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard that offers curriculum-based marine-science programs to schools and youth organizations. The program educated students from fourth grade to college age aboard a tall ship while hiking and kayaking the Channel Islands but it folded five years ago. The ships, however, still sail.
Lewis first met Taylor about 15 years ago in San Pedro when he was the captain of the Kaisai, a 150-foot square-rigger tall ship. At the time, Lewis, who ran the L.A. office of the Union Jack newspaper and wrote a column for the paper in California, was interviewing an Englishwoman who was one of the crew members.
Lewis already had an extensive sailing background, including the five years he lived in the Caribbean and sailed up and down the islands. Over the years, he has sailed half-way across the world.
Aside from sailing, Lewis loves to fly and earned his glider’s license when he was 14 and his pilot’s license when he was 17. He also loves acting and is known for his roles in Time After Time (1979), Dial M for Murder (1981) and Kidco (1984).
When Taylor found out that Lewis sailed, he invited him to join them for the Tall Ship festival in San Diego, then up to San Francisco.
“It was soon after he established the American Tall Ship Institute with the Bill of Rights tall ship in the Channel Island harbor, and the reason I moved the L.A. office of the Union Jack to Ventura, the start of a 15-year friendship,” Lewis said.
Back to the Cuba sail.
Taylor was brought in for the sail at the last minute to take command of a youth training tall ship, the 135-foot Harvey Gamage out of Portland, Maine, with crew and students already on board. They sailed down the East Coast stopping at various ports, including Washington, D.C., for a civics lesson while meeting their Congress members.
The crew was then returning around Cape Hatteras and on to Key West, Florida. Preferring his own crew, Taylor demanded that Lewis stop everything he was doing in Ventura to join them, and that he bring his camera.
“I had done all the photos and video for the American Tall Ship Institute sails, so he knew I’d get the shots he wanted,” Lewis recalled.
Thinking that they were going to leave the next morning, they arrived in Key West and came to a grinding halt.
“I flew out to join them in Key West. They had already been stuck there for two weeks with a bunch of students and all the crew,” Lewis remembered. “When I got down there we were supposed to leave the next day.”
They were stuck for a total of five weeks in Key West, including the students and crew who ranged in age from 17 to 25 from all around the U.S.
“These were brave young people from Washington State to the Bronx, who had challenged the cold weather and stormy seas to sail down the East Coast of America on the Atlantic Ocean,” Lewis said. “And that, I believe, was the reason that by the time they sailed to Key West, the Coast Guard came up with every excuse they could to stop our visit. Good will and Cuba don’t go in the same sentence. Not only us, but every boat leaving the USA.”
Still, the group made the most of it.
“We couldn’t get out of Key West; we were stuck there so we went to Dry Tortugas,” Lewis said. “This was a fort that was [used] during the Civil War. It took them 30 years to build it. They imported all the bricks and built a moat around it. Now it’s a tourist attraction, a national park on a reef. We took the kids snorkeling and had our own beach to ourselves.”
The group then went north to Pine Keys, which was totally devastated by Hurricane Irma, and helped clean up, working with the Outward Bound School.
“We went up to Pine Keys which is where Irma hit very badly, so we volunteered our services to the Outward Bound School and about 30 of us cleaned up the damage and got eaten alive by bugs,” Lewis said. “But what we did was help clean up, and they were so grateful.”
Arrival in Cuba
Once they finally arrived in Cuba, the group had to stay at Marina Hemingway because there was no dock space available in Havana.
“We organized trips to Havana, into the interior of Cuba, and onto Cienfuegos where we finally flew out of, as it was no longer viable to sail around to the Island of Pines, which was our original intention,” Lewis said.
Nevertheless, it was the most enjoyable adventure in years, he said.
“Nothing but love and warmth from wonderful friendly poor people,” he said. “All reiterating, ‘Tell America we love them.’ ”
“They do not like Trump, but neither does Key West — 99 percent of people in Key West do not like Trump,” Lewis noted. “I only found one person in Key West, an ex-Marine, out of hundreds of people I spoke to. Other than him, everyone was against this current administration.”
One particular incident in Cuba was especially heart-warming. A man with a bicycle was standing on the dock, and saw a crew member on the boat who had a bicycle with a rack attached to the back.
“The man on the dock had a little seat on the back of his bicycle — he had children and it was the only way he could get his children on the bike,” Lewis said. “The one thing he wanted was this little rack. This guy had nothing; he would have given up food. You can’t bring things into Cuba, and he couldn’t get the parts for his bicycle that he wanted just for his children.”
The crewmember parted with his bike rack.
“And I knew this would make this man so happy because he could do something for his children,” Lewis said.
‘The world is your oyster’
Looking back on his trip to Cuba, Lewis said he has absolutely no regrets.
“I’d do it in a shock tomorrow,” he said. “I would do it again in a second. I’ve sailed halfway across the world. Why would I fear anything?”
He was particularly impressed by the young crew members who shared the journey alongside him.
“You don’t really know what you’re capable of doing until you give yourself the opportunity to explore what you’re talent is,” he said. “And nine times out of 10, what I saw was the youngsters excelling in something they never thought they could ever do; and it was awe-inspiring.”
When people explore the world, especially youngsters, “You get the feeling of other cultures and other people, and experience firsthand how they live and how they are,” he said, “and the warmth and the depth of most nations are ordinary people, just good souls on this planet. We only become divided through politics and through politicians. Seek out the good and leave the rest behind.”
For others considering such a trip, “Get out and do it,” he said. “Absolutely take the challenge. I don’t care what age you are. Seek out an organization on tall ships … you’ve gotta show an inclination and join as a dock hand and grow from there. Most people start out as scrubbers, cleaning.”
He recommends that “everybody on the planet” should travel the world.
“The world is your oyster. The more you travel, the more you realize that everything you see is all propaganda and it’s all biased,” Lewis said. “Get out there and experience life.”
With his 75th birthday coming up in April, he added: “Never let age define who you are.”
“If you can still put one foot in front of the other, do it with a bit of energy; don’t do it on a cruise ship or as a tourist; go to another country,” Lewis said. “What am I doing at my age? Climbing up the mast.”