Door to Cuba for U.S. boats opens a crack

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For the first time since 2004, the U.S. government has granted permission for American recreational vessels to visit Cuba. Hobie Cat racers in the Havana Challenge will embark from Key West on May 16.

Shortly thereafter, 10 sportfishing and trawler yachts will depart the Keys in time to participate in the 65th International Hemingway Billfish Tournament, which begins on May 25.

This newspaper image shows the start of the St. Petersburg-Havana Yacht Race in the late 1950s. The United States has begun to reverse a policy of the George W. Bush administration, which put an end to American participation in regattas and fishing tournaments in Cuba. Now one of each is happening in May.

This newspaper image shows the start of the St. Petersburg-Havana Yacht Race in the late 1950s. The United States has begun to reverse a policy of the George W. Bush administration, which put an end to American participation in regattas and fishing tournaments in Cuba. Now one of each is happening in May.

This essentially returns us to the status quo before the administration of President George W. Bush, who effectively banned all recreational boat travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens. This affected sailing regattas from Key West and St. Petersburg, as well as individual travel, even though the travel ban has always had an exception for participation in internationally sanctioned competitions.

Dozens of independent-minded U.S. cruisers clear into Cuban ports every year despite the regulations, justified by their “personal foreign policy,” but they face fines and possible confiscation for doing so. And yes, some have been caught and fined. I have not heard about anyone’s boat being confiscated.

Now, as part of the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with the Castro regime, the door for recreational boat travel has opened a crack. The bureaucratic mechanism for this was to issue a Commerce Department export permit for each vessel involved in the competitions, often referred to as a temporary sojourn license.

Loose Cannon obtained one of the billfish tournament permits, mainly to share with you the limitations on the participants, as Commerce spells them out in the eight conditions below:

CONDITIONS

A. The vessel must sail directly to Cuba.

B. The licensee is responsible for ensuring that the vessel only transports items authorized by the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), U.S. Department of Commerce or another U.S. government agency with appropriate jurisdiction, if export authorization is required.

C. The licensee is responsible for ensuring that the vessel only transports travelers licensed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) U.S. Department of the Treasury, who are active participants in the Ernest Hemingway International Billfish Tournament.

D. Providing carrier services (e.g., the transportation of authorized travelers) requires a specific license from OFAC …

E. This license does not authorize the on-loading of items in Cuba, except for items that have been licensed by OFAC to be transported from Cuba or that are information and information materials, which are except from regulation under the Cuban Assets Control regulations. Separate export authorization from BIS may be required to return items to Cuba.

F. This license authorizes one temporary sojourn to Cuba for the stated end-use only. The length of the temporary sojourn is limited to the minimum number of days necessary to safely conduct the OFAC-licensed travel.

G. If the subject vessel becomes unavailable, a vessel of like size and capacity may be substituted.

H. Regarding the return trip of the vessel to the United States, the applicant is advised to contact OFAC for information on waiver of the 180-day wait mandated for vessels seeking to enter U.S. ports from Cuba.

Items C and D pose a problem for the participants because it appears that not all of them will be able to go to Havana by boat. Captains and “crew” will take the vessels; the actual “anglers” must fly over. I had a conversation with a person involved, and I failed to understand the distinction they’re making between crew and anglers.

Perhaps readers can correct my ignorance, but I always thought that sportfishing was a team endeavor, boat versus boat. Everyone on board has a tournament job, not just the person sitting in the fighting chair, whether it be piloting the boat, scanning the water for debris, tuning the radar for birds, getting other lines reeled in after “fish on” or making sandwiches.

This image, shot in 2011, shows a regatta under way outside Havana Harbor. Defying the travel ban, American boats round a mark in front of Morro Castle.

This image, shot in 2011, shows a regatta under way outside Havana Harbor. Defying the travel ban, American boats round a mark in front of Morro Castle.

Participating U.S. boats are:

  • Blue Heron, a Hatteras 50, owned by Bruce Knowles and others, from Key West
  • Four Angels, Daniel Kaufman, Boca Raton
  • Imagine, Viking 60, David Herndon, Key West
  • Key Player, Cabo 35, C.D. Norberg, Orange Beach, Alabama.
  • Ranger, Invincible 36, Jack Spottswood, Key West
  • SuzSea, Grand Banks Aleutian 65, Jack Apple, Vero Beach, Florida
  • Tall Cotton, Merritt 46, Peter B. Hill Jr.*, Balboa, California
  • The Good Life, Contender 35, G. Bradley Goodchild, Fort Lauderdale
  • Therapy, Hatteras 50, Kurt Winters, Key West
  • Tormenta Ramera, Viking 64, Timothy Gipe, Key West

(*Those in the marine industry might know Peter Hill as Sam Hill, president of Northern Lights and Lugger.)

The American contingent was organized by Bruce Kessler and an outfit called the Florida-Cuba Environmental Group. My friend Bruce is a man of many incarnations: Formula One driver in the 1950s, TV director in the 1960s (The Monkees, TheFlying Nun, Mission Impossible), skeet and trap shooting champ, sportfisherman and circumnavigator.

Kessler is also the organizer of the biannual FUBAR powerboat rally from Southern California to La Paz in Baja, Mexico. For several years he’s tried to replicate the rally concept on the East Coast as a Cuba cruise, frustrated by U.S. foreign policy as driven by the ethnic politics of South Florida.

The Florida-Cuba Environmental Group is headed by another fascinating character, Tony Zamorra. He’s a Cuban American, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and a lawyer. Despite having spent two years in a Cuban prison after the failed invasion, he broke away from his Miami Cubano brethren in the mid-’90s, urging an end to the embargo.

Now that the United States has allowed the Hobie Cat race and American boats admission to the tournament, we can expect the revival of the St. Petersburg-Havana Yacht Race. An even bigger step would be to allow those of us who are legal travelers to Cuba — that is, Cuban Americans and marine journalists — to be able to get there in our own boats.

Then, of course, there’s everyone else. With any luck, the travel ban will fall.

P.S. For anyone interested, the International Cruising Boat Expo will feature a seminar on Cuba Cruising on Thursday, June 4. The seminar, at the Brewer Essex Island Marina in Connecticut, will be conducted by Capt. Cheryl Barr, author of the Yacht Pilot Guide to Cuba, and based on 18 voyages around the island nation. Barr can take a boat to Cuba because she is a Canadian citizen. Click here for more info.