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 Atlantic.
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 is none.
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 Nautico, headquartered at the eastern end of Canal Three, was founded in May 1992. According to Commodore Jose Miguel Escrich (pronounced eh-SKREECH), Club Nautico 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 Nautico, we hoped to evolve into something more, something larger. That was when we decided to resume the yacht race from the Tampa Bay area.”
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 boats.
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 every day.
Freelance journalist Morgan Stinemetz lives in Bradenton, Florida. He is co-author, with Claiborne Young, of the guidebook Cruising the Florida Keys.