New Rules for Sailing to Cuba

Know what's in store before you set sail to Cuba.

Customs dock at Marina Hemingway
The customs dock at Marina Hemingway is a busy place, but the clearing-in process is relatively simple — a welcome relief after the red tape that was necessary to get this far.Mark Pillsbury

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Regulations for ­Americans sailing to Cuba have changed in recent months, although, contrary to the naysayers, they are not nearly as Draconian as feared. Most travel to Cuba will continue to be permitted.

The following is my personal take on the updated regulations. As always, things will change as the rules go into practice and are interpreted by the officials on the ground.

The big change is that the individual mandate as it pertains to “people-to-people” travel is gone. What that means is that you can no longer self-declare as being compliant with the regulations and then go to Cuba for a vacation.

Anyone being honest about the situation will admit this mandate was being abused anyway — American tourism is not permitted to Cuba, but that’s what was actually happening in most cases.

However, of the 12 permitted categories for travel to Cuba, nine remain unaffected. The three that have been changed are the individual people-to-people trips, nonacademic (i.e., individual) educational trips to Cuba, and the “support for the Cuban people” categories.

Among the other ­categories — for example, those for ­people with close Cuban relatives, or involved with sanctioned sports-related travel such as a regatta held under the appropriate organizational auspices — people can still travel as previously.

The big question for American cruisers is: How does all of this affect your plans to go to Cuba? There are two aspects involved: permission for yourself and your (American) crew, and authorization for your boat via the U.S. Coast Guard Form 3300.

In general, you can no longer say you’re going under the people-to-people category and then just cast off the lines for Havana. Nor can you go as an individual under the educational category. To qualify under these two categories, you now must go as a member of an authorized group, with a U.S. representative of that group accompanying.

That clearly leaves the door open for charter groups such as last year’s Cruising World rally to Havana. These tours are in compliance with the regulations, including having a representative along.

I brought a rally group of seven boats to Cuba in 2016. Everyone loved the experience, but despite many benefits, group trips don’t appeal to all. What can you do to get there on your own?

It is still possible, according to the regulations, to travel individually under the support-for-the-Cuban-people category. The category has been revised, and lodging in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eating at privately owned Cuban restaurants (paladares) and shopping at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans are examples of activities that qualify for this general license, but you need more than these activities to qualify. This is the category in which you might bring sporting or educational supplies, or participate in rebuilding a Cuban school. To qualify, you must have a full-time activity schedule that “support[s] contact with the Cuban people, support[s] civil society in Cuba or promote[s] the Cuban people’s independence.” Full time means you are busy with activities congruent with your reason for being in Cuba (not tourism).

As people use this category to justify individual travel, rules will be interpreted to determine what is or is not permissible. Rather than suggest you travel with 500 bats to give to Cuban baseball teams, as one cruiser did, I direct you to Section 740.21 of the Export Administration Regulations. Your imagination and creativity will direct you from there.

You still must have Form 3300, requiring you provide your qualifying reason for travel. This is where I see the rules being enforced. If your reason isn’t good enough, you won’t get the 3300.

The other big change is that Americans will be prohibited from dealing with Cuban businesses connected to the military. This includes several marinas on the north coast, including ports of entry Puerto de Vita in the northeast, Guillermo (central north coast) and Marina Gaviota in Varadero, as well as several marinas on the south coast. Other than for the purposes of clearing in and out of the country, cruisers may not do business with these marinas. Marina Hemingway is not owned by the military and is spared. A complete list of prohibited businesses is found at inspection.federal­ This list is subject to revisions.

According to another charter firm, these restrictions “will change the entire dynamic of visiting Cuba” for many people.

Other observers and I anticipate regulations will be more strictly enforced than previously. Itineraries will be more closely reviewed before travel is approved, and those returning will have to retain ­records of itineraries and expenses. Unlike previously, I expect to see these being reviewed for compliance.

On the bright side, if you do sail to Cuba, you may still bring back as much rum and as many cigars as you wish.

Longtime cruiser Wally Moran is the host of the annual Sail to the Sun Rally down the Intracoastal Waterway. Learn more about the rally and Wally’s sailing adventures at his website.