Published: August 1994 Mid-Gulf Sailing
© 2013 Troy Gilbert
By Don Roberts
Havana—a city whose name conjures up visions of intrigue, mystery and fast action—has remained inaccessible to sailboat racers since 1958, when the last St. Petersburg to Havana Race was held. The crew of Bullet Proof, on many occasions had discussed and even planned our strategy for a future race to Havana that we realized probably would never materialize. We all agreed that if it ever came to pass, we would be there with bells on. As Jimmy Buffet so aptly describes it, we were just, “Havana Day Dreaming.”
After getting Bullet Proof tuned up with a new bottom and some spring racing (including GORC), I had promised my wife, Beth, that the family would get in some serious cruising in south Florida and maybe the Bahamas. (After all, that’s the sort of thing that a Catalina 36 is supposed to do!). My other family (the Bullet Proof crew) still had their lips poked out because I had decided not to defend our fleet title in the Isla Mujeres race this year. I sorely missed going to Mexico, but this was a great chance to get my two young daughters, Natalie and Vanessa, some time on the boat on the Florida West Coast and the Keys.
The fateful Gulf crossing from Pensacola to St. Petersburg occurred in late April. After we got the boat tied up, we visited a West Marine store. Tim Kirkman picked up a local sailing magazine, Southwinds, and the front cover said, “The Cuba Race is On!” I almost drove my rental car off the road grabbing it away from him. Beth could see the wheels turning in my head. The race was to start from Sarasota (Sarasota Sailing Squadron). The boat was essentially there! This was our destiny! We had to go to Cuba!
As you could imagine, there was no shortage of crew prospects for this one. Even though this was an international race less than six weeks away, there was no hesitation in accepting the invitations to sail. Ben Young, Jud Williams (who served as navigator), Richard Brown, Skip McDaniel, Ed Jermyn, Tim Kirkman, Gerald Dukes and I began logistical planning immediately. It must be mentioned that Gerald, who is a veterinarian in Gulfport, confirmed his crew position as he was headed to Pensacola for the Regata al Sol. He sailed with Glen Dillard on the overall Racing Fleet winner in the Isla Mujeres race. Gerald ended up winning fleet in both the Isla Mujeres race and the Havana race within five weeks! An astonishing achievement in anybody’s book.
Most of the crew took my van with all my racing sails to Sarasota. Gerald and I flew into Tampa the night before the race. As usual, the crew was late arriving (after dawn the day of the race) and I was my typical nervous self. They had, of course, stopped for a while at the Cafe Risque for a “cup of coffee.” Well, unbelievably, we got Bullet Proof prepared for the start at 1400 that afternoon. We started off Lido Key with beautiful sunny skies and amazingly clear water. It reminded me of a Dauphin Island Race start. Eighty-seven sailboats on the starting line at one time, along with fifteen or twenty police and sheriff boats (we almost hit one) and four Coast Guard vessels. There were at least four helicopters in the air. If we didn’t know the race was controversial be-fore, we certainly did now.
It was just before the starting sequence that I was informed that Tim had forgotten his passport in Gulfport. I was so excited about this race, though, that no little technicalities were going to bum me out. Besides, Tim had gotten hit in the head pretty hard by the boom of Insight last year, and I figured that the passport remembering part of his brain had been damaged. The Cafe Risque part of his brain was apparently still functioning.
We were pretty much buried at the start and the wind was light. We started with the Light # 1 and slowly worked out to the south/southwest. The wind was going to northwest and soon we were able to put up 3/4 oz. spinnaker. We never took it down until we were finished.
Jud and I had agreed that our course would be west of the Dry Tortugas and enter the main body of the Gulf Stream upcurrent from Havana. It was more than a little troubling to see all the local guys screaming to the south closer to the Florida shoreline. Many of the lower rated boats were soon going over the horizon off our port bow. But we had our plan and we were sticking to it!
As the sun went down the wind freed up more to the northwest and increased to 15-18. Bullet Proof was at her best—broad reaching at 8 knots boat speed. If this sounds like fun, you don’t know the half of it. The boat was flat. We never even got a drop of water on the deck, and it was actually cool at night. I’ve never slept so well offshore in my life. The Milky Way was brighter than I had ever seen it. There were lots of satellites and even more bull shooting in the cockpit, and Ben Young didn’t even get seasick.
The wind averaged 10-14knots throughout the race, as it slowly and determinedly veered to the north and then to the northeast. As we tried to make our best VMC towards our entry into the Florida Staits, we jibed onto port tack at 0800 after our first glorious sunrise.
As we all know, good foredeck people love to live dangerously and do impossible maneuvers in big waves while standing on their heads. They enjoy telling the embellished stories later even more. Our unfortunate bow man, Skip McDaniel, and our mast man, Richard Brown, just don’t have much to talk about on this race. The most exciting (and actually the only) foredeck maneuver was a gentle dip pole jibe in 10 knots of wind. We carried the port jibe around the Tortugas Loggerhead Shoal Lighthouse at about 1500 and entered the Florida Straits.
There was a period of about 4 hours of almost drifting conditions in a confused chop, but the wind stabilized and built again from the northeast by midnight the second night. Again it was a perfect, comfortable broad reach in the bright starlight, punctuated by fantastic meteor flashes.
The main body of the Gulf Stream was well south (24-30 miles) of where we expected it. Probably because of the unusual northerly component of the wind pushing it down. It was then and only then that we allowed ourselves to be carried towards Havana. We had to steer 185-190 to make 160 degrees over the bottom. The excitement level rose as we could see the glow of the great city off our port bow.
Everybody was up on deck for sunrise when the most exciting landfall of our lives was approaching. We could begin to see some of the mountains west of Havana. We were like a bunch of kids on a sugar high. We could hear several of the boats rated under 100 calling Marina Hemingway as we entered Cuban waters. Zizanie was the first monohull to finish at 0806. Our finish time was 0925, good enough to win the spinnaker division and to be first overall in fleet.
The reception in Havana was incomparable and was at least as good as the race itself. The Cuban people treated us like royalty, and were genuinely interested in us as human beings. They are a good-looking, gentle people who are obviously well educated and intelligent (in contrast to many Caribbean landfalls). Although we only had a few days, we did get to see some of old Havana. The architecture is remarkable and the city oozes history. It is much like a European city, as indeed it was the last bastion of Spain in the new world. The drive down the Malecon and the view of the sea and the famous Moro Castle are indescribable.
I would like to express our heartfelt appreciation to the Sarasota Sailing Squadron for putting on this landmark event! The Squadron is made up of a bunch of real sailors, some of whom I was fortunate enough to get to know while we were in Cuba. They are a great bunch of people, who I look forward to visiting in the near future.
Well, now the let down. What do you do after you just finished the first Havana race in 36 years and have to come home? The way I handle it is this: I find a hot tub, put Gloria Estefan’s “Mi Tierra” in the CD player and lie back and close my eyes—you guessed it, I’m back to the “Havana Day Dreaming” mode again—until next time….