Excitement brewing over lifting Cuba ban

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With bills awaiting action in Congress, a race from Sarasota to the island is in the works for 2011

There's a lot of buzz again about cruising Cuba. A few bills in the 111th Congress - H.R. 4645, S. 428 and H.R. 874 - would end travel restrictions on all Americans who want to visit Cuba, and two of them would clear the way for easier sale of U.S. agricultural products to the island.

Jose Miguel Diaz Escrich, commodore of Havana's Hemingway Yacht Club, says Cuba is preparing for American cruisers in anticipation of a change in U.S. policy.

The bills have been eclipsed by the fight over President Obama's health care legislation, but some observers are hopeful that U.S. policy will change soon and clear the way for boaters to make the 90-mile run from Key West to Cuba.

"If the stars align and everything works out, we may be enjoying Cuba's waters and its natural resources soon," says Miami attorney Michael Moore, who emceed a gathering during the Miami International Boat Show earlier this year to talk about cruising Cuba.

Guest speaker Jose Miguel Diaz Escrich, commodore of Havana's Hemingway Yacht Club and new director of Cuba's Marinas Y Nauticas Marlin, told the gathering, hosted by the International Superyacht and International Seakeepers societies, that Cuba is building a 1,200-slip marina as well as other marine facilities in anticipation of a change in the U.S. travel policy on Cuba. Earlier in the week, Escrich visited Sarasota to nail down details of a Sarasota-to-Havana Regatta scheduled for May 16-24. The race was subsequently postponed because the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control, which administers U.S. travel restrictions, did not issue a license for the regatta in time.

"We tried to wade into the bureaucracy," says Donald Payzant, of Sarasota, president of the Sarasota Yacht Club Charitable Foundation, which is sponsoring the regatta and raises money for the club's youth sailing programs. "We were doing everything we could to expedite [the license], but we never heard anything except, 'It's in process - it's on the director's desk.' " The director never acted on it.

Payzant says the regatta has been rescheduled for spring 2011. For it to materialize, the organizers must get a license, or the legislation must pass.

Most of the island's existing marinas are located in the central and eastern regions.

There has been no lack of interest. Some 135 boats signed up to race, most from Florida's west coast but also from as far afield as Texas, Maryland and the Great Lakes. Payzant wants the race to become a classic that will send boats from Sarasota to Cuba for many years to come. He also hopes it can become a catalyst for an exchange program between young sailors. "[Escrich] obviously is very passionate about the idea, as are we," Payzant says.

Cuba has 15 marinas and around 800 slips, not nearly enough to accommodate the flood of boats expected to wash over Cuba once Americans are allowed to visit there and spend money. Escrich describes Cuba as the "Pearl of the Antilles," with more than 1110,000 square kilometers of cruising waters, 4,000 small islands and cays, and 289 beaches. He says 70 percent of Cuba's coastal waters are navigable by vessels larger than 26 feet. Its waters boast 500 species of fish.

There are two marinas in the Cuban capital, three in the Varadero beach resort, one on the island's west end, and the rest in the central and eastern regions. All of the island's yacht clubs were closed after the revolution in the 1960s, Escrich says. A former Navy officer and expert in yachting tourism, Escrich opened the Club International Hemingway de Cuba in 1992 as a membership club for Cuban and foreign boaters. The club now has 2,000 members from 48 countries.

The club is funded 100 percent by its membership, he says. The Cubans plan to add 10 more marinas - fishing camps, diving camps and charter bases - by 2015. Moore says many are salivating to cruise there.

"Some people think Cuba's waters are the Holy Grail of cruising," he says.

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.