Cuba Bound

Key West to Havana is a grand tradition, a boater's delight, and a lively tourist adventure. Bon voyage!

A month or two ago, Shaw remembers, the sidewalks along the canal sizzled with Cuban women in search of foreign men. They would swarm the boat, rapping on the hull and forming an impromptu landing party: girls in sleek body stockings and shirred Tropicana-style conga skirts; teenagers equipped with a few English phrases and fewer inhibitions; mothers, nurses, and college students who were loathe to describe themselves as prostitutes, yet who were willing to trade affection for consumer goods and U.S. dollars.

But the women were believed to hurt the image of Marina Hemingway and they are no longer permitted to enter the guarded compound except when invited by a boater or when a sympathetic guard allows them to slip by. Even the weekend disco, renowned for its permissive attitude, is under new management and is being cleaned up in anticipation of a boom in family tourism.

The absence of the women and a relentless drizzle have dampened the effervescence that characterizes Cuban life in places where dollars abound. The marina floats in a misty bubble, lulled by the water lightly slapping against boat bottoms. Only a handful of people walk about, strolling past the sailboats in the gray afternoon.

A dozen American flags dangle from masts, and another dozen boats display the names of U.S. cities: Miami; Fort Lauderdale; Wilmington, Delaware; New Bedford, Massachusetts. J.J., the 50-year-old captain of a cargo boat from New Bedford, stands on deck chatting with two Cuban women employed by the Hemingway International Yacht Club who are conducting a survey of boat owners. J.J. is visiting Cuba for the first time and is nervous about everything, including having his full name published. "I was fearful that I would get thrown in jail here," he confides after the women leave. Instead, he remarks, Cubans working at the marina have been friendly and helpful. "They're a lot nicer here than when I get back to Miami," he says earnestly.

The grizzled New Yorker was hired to take a cargo boat down to St. Vincent, one of the Windward Islands. On the way there, J.J. persuaded the owner of the boat to stop in Cuba. "We Americans do what we want," he asserts. "That's what makes us Americans. It's a ridiculous thing to tell me I can't come here. If the governments want to fight, let them fight. But leave the people alone."

Another American boater at the marina is equally dismissive of U.S. travel restrictions. "Everyone says Cuba is off-limits, but when you go, it's no big deal," says Nick Astafan, a sailing enthusiast from Fort Myers who has come down to Havana for the weekend by way of Key West. "What are you going to do in Key West? Get drunk and do the Duval Street crawl?"

Jose Miguel Diaz Escrich, commodore of the Hemingway International Yacht Club, says at least 170 Americans have joined the 450-member club since its founding three years ago. Several dozen members, he adds, are Cuban Americans from South Florida.

A retired Cuban naval captain, Escrich started the club in 1992 when the Cuban government began to encourage the creation of private, independent organizations in order to help attract foreign investors. In the economic opening, Escrich saw an opportunity to conjoin his passion for the sea, his love for Cuba, and his admiration of the U.S. His father had studied in the United States and had served with the U.S. Marines in World War II, leaving Escrich predisposed toward Cuba's northern nemesis in spite of being a staunch supporter of Castro's government.

"The sea that separates us is also the same sea that unites us," Escrich muses as he sips a cup of Cuban coffee at an Italian restaurant at the marina. "It is through the sea that both countries can get to know each other better." He is nattily dressed in a polo shirt and slacks and is soft-spoken and courteous.

In fact, Escrich says, an American has largely been responsible for the rapid growth of the club since its founding with 28 members. Bob Winters, a former Bradenton marina owner with a fondness for the island, took it upon himself to organize a regatta from Sarasota to Havana in June 1994, the first sailboat race held between the two cities in decades. Eighty-six U.S. boats competed in the regatta, infuriating Florida's conservative Cuban-American community. The Hemingway yacht club subsidized docking and visa fees so that participants would not violate the U.S embargo.

"Mostly everyone who came on the regatta has returned and brought their friends," Winters says. "It was the start of getting a lot more people to come [to Cuba]. We used to have only two or three boats docking in the marina, and now we have the whole canal full. And they're all from America."

As unconventional as Escrich is straight-laced, Winters decided to move to Cuba after the 1994 race. He lives in a rented apartment in the seaside town of Jaimanitas, a five-minute ride from Marina Hemingway on his red Yamaha motorcycle. The 58-year-old has tried his hand at everything from teaching art in California public schools to selling sailboats in Florida. He is currently a consultant to foreign businesses interested in Cuba and acts as informal liaison between American boaters and the Marina Hemingway.

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