Published – Sailing World
©2015 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert
Lambasted in a Miami Tribune editorial as “Dangerously naive stooges of Castro’s propaganda,” crews racing in the 1994 Sarasota to Havana Regatta were forced to navigate a gauntlet of angry protesters as they readied their boats. Coast Guard, police, and news helicopters buzzed the 85 docked sailboats while the crews stowed gear, supplies, and readied sails. Official patrol boats from the Tampa Bay area scoured the harbor, while scuba teams methodically searched the bottom of each vessel for bombs before giving the skipper’s clearance to head to the race start. Along the waterfront, rumors circulated about an opposing fleet of anti-Castro boats waiting to strike the racers in the Florida Straits.
Rarely, if ever, can one find such a controversial and colorful history for a simple sailboat race with the participants vying for pickle dishes and yacht club bragging rights. Because of the delicate and mostly adversarial relationship between the United States and Cuba, however, these historic regattas have been stifled. Last December all of that changed. In a surprise shift, the U.S. government announced a reopening of diplomatic ties with Cuba and with this thaw in relations, Havana could be swarmed with American sailors—and sooner than anyone realized.
In 1930, 11 schooners competed in the first St. Petersburg to Havana Race. Cuba had always been a natural destination for distance racers on the Gulf Coast as well as a regular home for a few OD class championships such as the Star class. The final death knell for these races came in 2001 when President Bush issued executive orders furthering the embargo of Cuba and thereby making it illegal for American citizens to visit the island. This action resulted in the Coast Guard forcibly shutting down any lingering regattas, including threats of seizing participants boats, under the guise that these sailors were attempting to prop up the Communist dictatorship ruling this Caribbean island. In 2011, and heartened by an apparent easing of tensions under a new presidential administration, the Sarasota YC officially petitioned the State Department to return to Havana and had 120 early registrations, but was met by silence from the U.S. government.
The lightning speed with which these regattas are returning in only a few short months is something no one could have predicted. In May 2015, Hobie Cat racers sailed in the Havana Challenge from Key West and landed the first American racers to finish on the island in 14 years. While underway, the Pensacola YC released a surprise preliminary Notice of Race, announcing a 500-nautical mile keelboat regatta with a start on October 31. Pensacola has a long history of running distance regattas to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, which draw in boats from throughout the Northern Gulf Coast, but the enthusiasm for this event is likely to exceed organizers expectations. Rumblings from Sarasota and St. Petersburg are already making the rounds as well.
Bob Kriegel of Pensacola YC was heavily involved in the planning from the start, “Regattas, like any sporting event, are a way for the people of two countries to interact. It’s time for new communications between our people and countries as opposed to the severe diplomacy of the past half century. We first contacted our government and then, after we were well received, the Hemingway International Yacht Club. Commodore Escrich in Havana was incredibly enthusiastic about the prospects and so far, everything is falling in place.”
Within only weeks of the Pensacola YC releasing a preliminary Notice of Race, nearly 30 boats had pre-registered.. Kriegel states, “Besides it being a very serious distance race across the Gulf of Mexico, the government oversight for this event is tremendous, but that’s life in the big city.” Regatta participants are required to receive permits from multiple American government departments that can take up to six weeks for approval, but the club has instructions and permitting forms available on their website and are working to streamline the documentation process.
The first trophy presentations have already occurred at the Hemingway YC in Havana, and as these historic races come back online, they will be followed by many more. The floodgates have opened and the most exotic destination within a day’s sail from America’s shores is poised to become familiar to a new generation of sailors, and may have the side effect of revitalizing an interest in distance racing.
~ Follow Lesson #1 Racing Team on Facebook as they prep the boat and prepare to race to Cuba.