Published – Sailing World
©2013 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert
“No one was hurt fortunately,” said George Bass of Detroit as he pointed out the bullet holes in his yacht’s mainsail. “But it was much too close for comfort. Within 30 seconds after we crossed the finish line, we were sprayed by a burst of small arms and machine gun fire.”
As part of the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit, the 284nm St. Petersburg to Havana Race was one of the world’s premier sailing events, pitting massive schooners owned by wealthy industrialists and bankers against each other with large amounts of money wagered on the outcome. 1952 marked the 19th running of the regatta and in early March, the crews could still expect the errant cold front that would wreak havoc in the Gulf of Mexico as it runs into the warm and moist air of the tropics. Well worth it, for Havana in the 1950’s was exploding as a playground for America’s rich and famous with casinos, high end clubs and an atmosphere where if one got a little too laissez faire, money and a quick flight back to the states would solve anything.
Always in turmoil, Cuba at this moment was ruled by President Carlos Prio and with an election in three months, the island’s powerful political and military forces were jockeying for control of not only the nation but of the enormous and much of it corrupt wealth that Havana was now generating. One candidate for President was Cuban Army Col. Fulgencio Batista who had previously ruled Cuba for ten troubled years. While the sailors in Florida were preparing to fight the Gulf Stream and the weather, on a military base outside of Havana, Colonel Batista was plotting a coup d’etat on the island nation. Understanding that the American and international press would be on hand for this prestigious regatta, his timing was impeccable and shrewd.
No less cutthroat, Hub Isaacks from the Fort Worth Texas Boat Club normally chartered the big ketch and scratch boat, Ticonderoga, for this regatta and had raced her to two firsts in ’50 and ’51, but only months before the start, John “The Taxi King” Hertz, Jr. of New York who would eventually add to his fortune by renting cars, had bought the Mighty Ti as she was reverently known from under him. Having to scramble, Isaacks and his Texan crew scoured the South for a fast boat to charter and avenge this affront and registered the Doris III, which was now the largest cutter in the fleet.
Adding to the scuttlebutt at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club bar before the race was Le Hederman and his all female crew aged from 21-27 for his 40′ schooner, Tropicair. At a time when women were only starting to make inroads into this male dominated sport, Hederman and his crew of seven had made a name for themselves as a salacious event in the previous year’s race. Officially denied from participating by the Race Committee, Tropicair sailed anyway and then got “lost” in the Gulf of Mexico for three days before “limping back” to Florida. The story also had a weird touch with the crew coming across a boat manned by mutes and they were bedeviled in their attempts to get directions back to Florida. The national media had made hay out of one man vanishing at sea with seven single women for three days. This year, the Tropicair’s registration was again denied by the Race Committee as they reportedly considered the all female crew to still not have enough “sailing experience,” but the skipper and crew were determined to redeem themselves and attempt the race again – as a registered participant or not.
At noon, to rousing crowds on the Municipal Pier and spectator boats, cannon fire from the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Nemesis, on station as committee boat and the fleet’s escort, started the record 29 participants on their epic journey to Cuba. Against an incoming tide, but with a 20+ knot breeze and more expected in the open waters, conventional wisdom was that history was going to be made and the race record of 35 hours and change set in 1949 by the Cuban schooner Bellatrix was certain to fall.
Doing lazy circles behind the fleet and holding the vessel a full fifteen minutes until after the last of the class starts, Hederman and his all female crew aboard Tropicair, unofficially took their start time and headed south, cheered on by the crowds on the shore and spectator boats. Nicknamed the “Rebel Yacht” by the media, Tropicair again sailed out of the bay in defiance of the Race Committee.
By midnight that first evening, all 30 yachts were positioned in a 12-mile area of building seas and had covered roughly 60 miles. The Coast Guard cutter Nemesis, now acting as a convoy escort – powered back and forth through the fleet while overhead Coast Guard planes were on station from nearby airbases in the Keys, all paying special attention to the Tropicair in light of the previous year’s events. In the easing air of that first evening the Doris III had passed the Ticonderoga and both were being shadowed by Garner Tullis of Southern YC in New Orleans who was gunning for his fourth overall win on his 60′ ketch, Windjammer II, and Carleton Mitchell of Annapolis onboard his 57′ yawl, Caribbee. By the next morning, “schooner weather” had returned with the winds clocking back up to 30 knots out of the northeast and even the Tropicair had caught up to and was in a pitched battle with the tailgunners of the fleet.
With crews understanding that they were possibly on record breaking runs in the stormy weather, full canvas was run up on many of the boats, and the leaders built separation. For Hub Isaacks this was personal and in the building wind, he had his crew pile everything on trying to hold his lead on the Mighty Ti.
In Havana, the American press were enjoying their expense accounts and expecting the fleet to start sailing past the finish at Morro Castle lying at the entrance to Havana’s harbor in about 10 hours. With a week of festivities planned at Havana’s finest clubs including the trophy presentations by Cuba’s President Prio, early reports and dispatches were that the planning for the regatta celebrations were fully underway, yet there was a tense mood in the city.
It was the same on the water. With major storms lashing the fleet, several competitors started experiencing equipment failures and began dropping out, some in desperate straits. Radio communications were lost with Tropicair, sparking a flurry of media stories over the wires calling it a hoax, spotlight grabbing or at worst, affirming why women should not be allowed to compete in such a dangerous and rigorous sport. The leaders though were flying to the finish.
With the Coast Guard’s Nemesis busy directing spotter aircraft to check on the trailing and retiring boats in the Florida Straits, Ticonderoga was within sight of Cuban shores and on track for a record finish. The Texas crew of Doris III, effectively considering this a match race with Ticonderoga, piled on even more heavy canvas in the gale, but the load was too much and a bolt sheared away and she lost her foresails. Within sight of Cuba, and thoroughly defeated, Doris III turned and limped back to Florida.
As the sun set, Ticonderoga sailed into the finish in Havana Bay to nothing. Not even race organizers were present to greet the crew from New York, with the Mighty Ti having unexpectedly shaved nearly five hours off of the long standing record of 35 hours and 3 minutes and 47 seconds. However by 1:00am as the bulk of the fleet was set to finish, the real welcoming committee arrived.
With most of the government buildings situated around and on the historic harbor of the city of Havana including the Presidential Palace, it would behoove a military junta to make sure these symbols of power were seized first and rapidly.
Powering their way through the city streets, tanks and lorries filled with troops headed towards the waterfront and the seats of Cuban government. Skirmishes broke out throughout Havana as the US Coast Guard cutter Nemesis anchored in the harbor. Just to her stern was the 60′ staysail schooner Ben Bow with her crew from Grosse Point YC sailing in wet and weary from their ordeal, but thrilled to be finishing.
As the Nemesis dropped anchor in the bay and the Coast Guard sailors reported on deck to customarily salute the Cuban flag flying above Morro Castle, heavy .50 caliber machine gun fire swept the vessel sending the cutter to general quarters. At this moment, the Ben Bow passed the finish buoy off the cutter’s port side and the exhausted crew cheered at what they thought were celebratory fireworks greeting them. However, crewmember, Moon Baker, who had seen heavy action during World War II less than a decade before recognized the sound and hit the deck as the heavy machine gun fire passed directly over their heads and peppered the schooner’s sails. The two boats had come between an exchange of fire between combatants at the Naval Armory located at the Morro Castle and Batista’s men across the narrow bay. Within two minutes, the Ben Bow had come about in the harbor and was headed back out to sea.
The Coast Guard and the US Embassy were suddenly confronted with a serious and chaotic situation with another ten boats sailing straight into a violent regime change. Further, crews were already onshore and wives, friends and Race Committee who had flown down to Havana for the regatta festivities were now on the docks of a strategic military target that was flooding with Cuban tanks and troops. American tourists were already emptying Havana’s hotels and casinos and swarming the US Embassy and the nearby airport.
The Nemesis immediately radioed the still racing yachts and directed them to turn and head back to the United States, with most of them doing so. Unfortunately, the Tropicair had lost her radio in the wet conditions onboard – unaware the “skipperette” crew continued on to Havana.
As dawn broke at the reception area for the yachts, the Race Committee from St. Petersburg was in a reported “state of hysteria and that all organized race procedure had broken down.” Many of the boats were quickly preparing to set sail and return to the safety of the stormy Gulf of Mexico, but several crews wanted to stay and see the excitement. Even the Ben Bow had opted to take their chances in the safety of the harbor and had returned to tie up.
With every American airline cancelling flights in and out of Havana, the US Embassy ordered the Nemesis to take on as many of the crewmember’s wives and “racer chasers” from the waterfront as possible and return to the United States. With 75 Americans and their luggage packed onboard, she left that afternoon as the women of the Tropicair sailed into the bay. The Tropicair rafted up at the docks and the women changed into their matching white crew shirts, red shorts and scarves and were enthusiastically greeted by their fellow racers as well as stern faced Cuban troops and tanks. Not only had the women “unofficially” finished the regatta, but they had sailed into the teeth of a coup d’etat along with 21 other crews.
After ducking machine gun fire behind trees outside of the Cuban International Yacht Club, St. Petersburg Times fishing editor, Rube Allyn, who was sent down to cover the race wired, “Some of the yachtsmen are going to leave, and it is very likely that the reception, banquet and entertainment will all be called off. However, the prizes will be given them, possibly this afternoon.”
~ More images from the early Havana Regattas can be found HERE.
Note: This story was researched through numerous articles from newspapers in St. Petersburg, New Orleans, the archives of Southern Yacht Club & St. Petersburg Yacht Club as well as interviews with the descendants of many who raced.