The Dying Havana Daydream
Visiting Cuba today, in a time when
few American sailors can, is a bit like going to a professional
baseball game when the team you're rooting for is dwelling in the
league's cellar. Fans at the ballpark are few, so the experience
is made less joyful by a lack of people with the same shared
enthusiasm. The hot dogs are good. The beer is just as cold. You just
wish you could enjoy it with a few more kindred spirits.
It's no mystery why American sailors are steering clear of Havana these
days. In February of last year, President George W. Bush's decree added
teeth to the existing trade embargo by authorizing the U.S. Coast Guard
to seize any vessel on the suspicion that it might be used to go to
Cuba (see "A Proclamation," May 2004). Sure, American sailors can still
obtain permits from our government to sail to Cuba, if we have a
legitimate reason and abide by certain restrictions (for the average
visitor, that includes not spending any money in Cuba, a rule that's
virtually impossible to obey). Realistically, any U.S. citizen who
sails to Cuba today is likely to need a good lawyer, or at least the
advice of one, when he or she returns.
Though I'd sailed to Cuba before, in 1999, I had no idea what to expect
when, six weeks after Bush's decree, my crewmember, John Lollar of
Houston, and I pulled into Havana's Marina Hemingway on April 23. The
night before, we'd crossed the Straits of Florida from the Dry Tortugas
in my 1973 Ericson 27. It was a rough ride. Winds were southeast at a
steady 25 knots, and seas ran 10 to 12 feet. During the lengthy
check-in procedure, a Cuban immigration official was unsure of what to
do about my request for a journalist's visa, so he issued me a standard
tourist visa. Later attempts to straighten this out proved futile. Next
came the government doctor, who conducted a brief health inspection and
then suggested a $20 "donation." After a few more formalities, we were
assigned to a seawall berth on Canal One, the canal closest to the
An electrician and a marina official met us at our slip. The latter
collected a $20 administrative fee. The charge for seawall space is
paltry, about $15 a day, including water and electricity. The marina's
bathrooms are large, but only one of the four showers worked when we
were there, and it took five minutes for the water to get hot. You
quickly learn to bring your own toilet paper to the head, since there
The half-mile-long seawall had no shortage of open spaces. According to
marina officials, the number of foreign boats visiting annually was
down more than 50 percent since 2001, when 2,184 boats checked in. A
Norwegian-flagged vessel, Angel's Victory,
a Pearson, sat in front of us on the seawall. Our canal was also home
to a couple of boats from France, a couple of boats from Canada, and
one U.S. boat that had no hailing port on its stern. Elsewhere in the
marina's three canals we saw three more boats from the United States.
One was a powerboat from Ocala, Florida. Another boat hailed from
Wilmington, Delaware. Also in our canal was an American sailboat whose
owner, Ken, fell asleep as he approached Marina Hemingway at night. His
boat fetched up on the reef that guards the marina entrance. Ken was
living on his boat, which was floating, but he had months of work to do
before he could sail again.
Marina Hemingway, for all that it can offer--clean water, easy access
to the ocean, fuel, a ship's store, and room for countless
boats--hasn't improved much since I was last there in 1999. In fact,
despite (or maybe because of) the addition of some carnival rides for
kiddies, it's probably slipped a few notches in appearance. However,
the service in the marina is courteous, friendly, and forthcoming.
Marina Hemingway was built a few years before the Cuban revolution,
while the yacht club, Club Naútico, headquartered at the eastern end of
Canal Three, was founded in May 1992. According to Commodore José
Miguel Escrich (pronounced eh-SKREECH), Club Naútico now has 1,500 members from 46 countries. Forty percent of the members are Americans.
Commodore Escrich is 57, and he cares passionately about his
responsibilities. His station gives him an air-conditioned building to
work in, a small staff of eight employees, and a car and driver. In
Cuba, Commodore Escrich is doing well.
"When our yacht club was founded in 1992, Marina Hemingway was
practically empty," he told me through Niurka, his interpreter;
although Escrich speaks English, he's more comfortable speaking in
Spanish. "In 1991, no more than 100 boats came here. When we founded
Club Naútico, we hoped to evolve into something more, something larger.
That was when we decided to resume the yacht race from the Tampa Bay
Before the Cuban revolution, there was a popular boat race from Tampa
Bay to Havana that dated back to 1930. Held in March, the race
originated from the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and finished in Havana.
It ended when Castro took over in 1959.
"In 1993, we were going to have a race from St. Petersburg to Havana,
with the St. Petersburg Yacht Club as a co-sponsor," said Escrich. "The
organizational meeting was held right here in my office. But then the
Cuban-Americans from Miami began to create problems for the St.
Petersburg Yacht Club, and we couldn't do the race."
The influential Cuban exile community in southern Florida protested the
event, and Florida's politicians listened. Initially viewed as a way to
build relations between Cubans and Americans, the race became a
publicity nightmare for the St. Petersburg Yacht Club officials. They
decided to cut their losses, and the club withdrew.
"In 1994, Bob Winters of the Sarasota Sailing Squadron organized the
northern end of the race, and we had 87 boats," Escrich said. "From
that moment on, there was a relationship between sailors in the United
States and in Cuba." In 1992, the club's first year, nearly
three-quarters of the 270 boats that came to the marina were from the
United States. In 1994, with the race, and with the club up and
running, the annual visits to Hemingway Marina nearly doubled to 500
In 1996, relations between the U.S. government and Cuba suddenly went
into a deep freeze. In February that year, Cuban air-force MIGs shot
down two small planes flown by pilots from Brothers to the Rescue, a
volunteer group of primarily Cuban exiles whose main mission is to
search for Cuban rafters but who have also been involved in dropping
leaflets over Cuba. According to Havana, the planes were in Cuban air
space at the time of the incident; the U.N. International Civil
Aviation Organization ruled otherwise.
Five days after the incident, President Clinton signed Presidential
Proclamation 6867, which declared a national emergency and established
a security zone around Florida. Private vessels exiting the security
zone on their way to Cuba were required to get U.S. Coast Guard
permission. That regulation remains in effect today.
As described in a Cruising World
special report, ("Higher Stakes in the Cuba Game," June 2002) the
tension between boaters who'd gone to Cuba and the United States
government escalated sharply after George W. Bush took office in 2001.
By the end of 2001, an increasing number of American sailors who'd gone
to Cuba with proper permits were getting letters from the U.S. Treasury
Department asking if they'd spent money in Cuba. And about a month and
a half after our return from Cuba, a federal grand jury in Key West
indicted two Key West residents, Peter Goldsmith and Michele Geslin, on
two charges: conspiring to violate and violating the Trading with the
Enemy Act "by providing, without a license, travel services to other
persons traveling to Cuba in connection with the Third Annual Conch
Republic Cup 2003 Race." For several years, both Goldsmith and Geslin,
a Key West sailmaker, have helped promote the Conch Republic Cup
Regatta to Cuba, a goodwill regatta hosted by Marina Hemingway that was
popular among American sailors. Now facing up to 10 years in prison and
$250,000 fines, the two contend that the event was always in full
compliance with U.S. laws. Both Goldsmith and Geslin are scheduled to
go to trial on November 8 and a website (www.defendcubasailors.com) has
been set up to raise funds for their legal defense.
Escrich, whose own daughter and granddaughter now live in Miami,
repeated a sentiment we heard often in Cuba: The political rhetoric has
little do with relations between the people of the two countries. "We,
as nations, don't agree. We have dignity as a nation, and we want the
best of relationships with the United States, " he said.
While the U.S. government is officially taking a hard-line stance
against boat trips to Cuba, so far I've escaped its wrath--no letters,
no summons, no indictments. As a journalist, I have what's termed a
"general license" to go to Cuba, and I have the official paperwork to
back it up, just in case. When we returned to the land of the free, we
motored over to Key West Bight Marina and called the 800 number for
U.S. Customs. About half an hour later, three officers cleared us in,
and we were left in peace with the only souvenirs of our visit, two
open bottles of Havana Club Añejo. A warm breeze was blowing through
the palms. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine Havana, but at that
moment, Cuba seemed a million miles away--and getting more distant
Freelance journalist Morgan Stinemetz lives in Bradenton, Florida. He is co-author, with Claiborne Young, of the guidebook Cruising the Florida Keys.