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Cuba or Bust

Cruisers and racers get underway in the El Morro Race.
It was 70 years ago that a die-hard fleet of 11 wooden sailboats raced out of Tampa Bay bound for Havana, Cuba. In that first formal race to the Caribbean's largest nation, George S. "Gidge" Gandy of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and Commodore Rafael Posso of the Havana Yacht Club launched a classic ocean race that survived one world war and, eventually, the revolution in Cuba. The original Southern Ocean Racing Conference (SORC), which offered offshore racing around the southern tip of Florida and into the Bahamas, replaced the Cuba race until the Tampa Bay to Havana format wasrestored in 1996 by three independent sailors from local sailing clubs. There are no yacht clubs involved in the current race to Cuba, but with more than 200 boats participating in each of the previous two years, the now-renamed Havana Cup Regatta has revived a piece of history.

It isn't a stretch to suggest that current Cuba-US relations are twisting in a gyroscopic tizzy. Despite the vague and ambiguous nature of US policies, some 65 American skippers said, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead and raced and cruisedto Florida's southern neighbor in late May as part of the unofficial Havana Cup Regatta. The US Treasury Department had issued a cease-and-desist order against the event organizers, Ocean Racing Ventures, Inc., and the threat that individual sailors might face government action upon their return hung in the air. Despite all of that, more than 300 US sailors joined the flotilla to Cuba, which included more than a dozen boats that raced from Tampa Bay on the morning of May 26.

The image of Elian, and demands that he be returned, abound throughout Havana.
The fleet reached Havana's Marina Hemingway Sunday, May 28, and began a week of "fully hosted" status at the marina—meaning the normal fees for dockage and visas were waived. Commodore José Miguel Diaz Escrich, who is in charge of the host ClubNautico de La Habana, as well as the marina complex, said, "We are happy that these boats have come to Cuba to continue the friendship between the nautical communities in North America and in Cuba."

Sailing out of Sarasota, Charlie Clifton's Schock 35 Morning Glory was the first and possibly only official finisher on the race from the mouth of Tampa Bay to Marina Hemingway. A lack of wind forced most of the racers to fire up their iron genoas for what became more of a powerboat ride across Florida Bay and the Straits of Florida.

The red buoy at the entrance to Havana Harbor, seen from the historic fortress El Morro, is a turning mark in the race that carries the same name.
Still, those hungry for some solid competition under sail got their wish mid-week as 35 international boats and crews lined up to participate in the annual Morro Castle Race, which runs along the shore close to Havana's Malecón—a bustling waterfront boulevard in the ancient city of Havana. Blustery winds out of the east added to the spectacle as 32 monohulls and a trio of trimarans sailed the course up to the mouth of Havana Harbor and across to El Morro twice before finishing back at Marina Hemingway.

First to finish the 18-mile course was Lyman White's Englewood, FL-based all-carbon F-25 trimaran Silverheels. Covering the distance in less than two hours, he and his crew beat the committee boat to the finish line. An entry from Argentina, Thumper, won the honors among those boats flying spinnakers, with the Tampa Bay-based Noelani II, racing double-handed, taking the top non-spinnaker award.

The entire contingent of visiting boaters at Marina Hemingway—some 150 powerboats and sailboats—was treated to a stunning floor show under the stars at the Acuario Hotel's poolside stage following the awards ceremony for the Morro Castle Race. The show included the Cuban version of carnival with more than 30 costumed performers eventually drawing the sailors into the act while dancing through the crowd. There is no doubt the Cuban people know how to party!

A typical street scene in Havana, replete with a Russian-built sidecar, frames the Island's capital building.
As the sailors spent time familiarizing themselves with the city, it was clear to Havana Cup veterans that the capitol city is in the midst some surprising changes. Modern hotels have sprouted along the route into the city and new Peugeot cars and trucks seem to be the official vehicles for taxis and tourist buses, providing a sharp contrast to the preponderance of 1950s American cars that dominate the streets. In Habana Viejo, the historic section of Havana near the cruise ship terminal, renovated buildings and trendy shops have begun to replace the dilapidated, 200-year-old structures. Signifying a modest improvement in the economy, a foreign-built department store was filled with locals and tourists alike, and street merchants have taken over complete blocks near the cathedral where the Pope spoke on his recent visit.

There were other signs that modernization has hit Havana. A new sailing center has been established just outside of Marina Hemingway where a fleet of Lasers and other small boats sit on racks waiting to be used by Cuba's top sailors. And unlike the past, when visitors to Marina Hemingway have endured four- and five-hour waits getting cleared into the country after arriving by boat, the process was much quicker this year. Most crews were headed to their berths along the quays of the Marina after about two hours—not bad considering there are five government agencies to deal with.

Of course the bureaucratic machinations don't end when you leave Cuba. Most of the US-based boats returned to ports along the east and west coasts of Florida in early June hoping not to experience too many problems with agents from U.S. immigration, agriculture, and customs services. According to scattered reports, most voyagers fared just fine in this regard. But if you consider joining the fray next year, you should know that US regulations prohibit boaters from bringing any Cuban goods back to the US, and current laws prevent Americans from spending any money in Cuba, so like most of the Havana Cup fleet, plan on being self-sufficient while in Cuba. Ocean Racing Ventures' president Jim Duncan said he is continuing to work with Treasury Department officials with hopes of resuming official race status for the Havana Cup. And given the positive experience that the unofficial Havana Cup participants had, this event could easily draw more than 100 boats next year, even without official sanctioning from the government.


Doran Cushing is offline  
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