Cuba Bound

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

Deeply tanned, his hair white and his gaze steady, Winters is at ease with his renegade status. Since he moved to Cuba, he has continued to encourage other boaters to travel to the island and to join the yacht club. In return for Winters' s help promoting regattas along the Cuban coast and assisting American yacht clubs who run flotillas to Cuba, Escrich has made him an honorary member. Since the Sarasota race, there has been at least one other informal regatta between the U.S. and Cuba. This past Memorial Day weekend, half a dozen boats competing in the traditional Clearwater-Key West regatta added a third leg to the race: Key West-Marina Hemingway.

"Once Americans discovered they could come here without any problems, then everyone started coming," Winters reports. "Now we have lawyers. We have people from the State Department. People come down five or six times a year. We have letters from business people on the west coast of Florida who want to be part of our club and who volunteer to help us organize."

The membership fees range from $300 for people who don't own boats to $450 for those who do. Monthly dues are $30, and members are entitled to discounts on docking and use of the club's facilities. So many Americans have joined that this past July the State Department issued this clarification of the travel restrictions: "Any payments to the Marina Hemingway International Yacht Club would be considered a prohibited payment to a Cuban national and therefore in violation of the regulations."

Yacht club members have yet to take such pronouncements seriously. A marina owner in the Key West area proudly displays a yacht club pennant on the wall in his office and says he advises Marina Hemingway on modernizing its facilities. Other boaters in South Florida also acknowledge their trips to the marina and their affiliation with the yacht club, although they ask that they not be identified.

A recent move by President Clinton to encourage the free flow of ideas between the U.S. and Cuba may vindicate yacht club members, especially those who want to contribute their knowledge and expertise to improving the state of recreational boating on the island. The executive order signed by Clinton two weeks ago eases travel restrictions for academic researchers, students, educators, artists, and clergy members, and facilitates licenses for relief agencies who want to deliver humanitarian aid.

The order may also provide a way for ordinary boaters to legally travel to Cuba and spend money. H.T. Pontin, a 75-year-old retired captain in the merchant marine, has made nine trips to Cuba on his 53-foot sailboat since he first went down with Basta! in 1993 to deliver food and medical supplies. Pontin, who lives in Ramrod Key, says he applied for and was granted a license to bring humanitarian aid. He also says he travels to Cuba with the blessing of Alpha 66, the militant anti-Castro group, because they understand that his actions weaken the communist government. "If I give four rolls of toilet paper away over there and the guy needs only two, he's going to sell two on the black market, and that doesn't help Castro," Pontin explains.

John Young, the founder of Basta!, says other members of his organization also continue to go back and forth. Many call him to see if there is anything they can bring down, such as letters or medicine. "Right now [U.S. officials] are not fining or penalizing anyone who travels to Cuba," Young says. "They are just not doing it."

The Department of Justice claims that since 1981 five people have been convicted for violating the Trading with the Enemy Act and the Cuban Assets Control regulations, among them Dan Snow, a Texas bass fisherman who was arrested in 1989 and later sentenced to ninety days in jail and five years probation for leading charter fishing trips to Cuba.

Snow recently completed his probation, and in June he resumed his trips to Cuba. "You want to go with me?" he asks from his home in Kingwood, Texas. "I'm going back next week." Snow says he's not worried about being arrested again because he believes that he would win his case the second time around.

"I'm not a communist, never have been, never will be," he proclaims. "But the people there are wonderful, and before our government worries about what freedoms the Cubans don't have, they should worry what freedoms we don't have -- like the freedom to travel."

Snow's fishing jaunts to Cuba, originally inspired by Cuba's pristine lakes and monster-size bass, have become a personal crusade. "I'm going to fight as hard as I can to win the right to travel for the American people," he vows. "And if I don't get it, I'm going to move to Canada."

Locally only one Key West boater has been charged with a crime after returning from Cuba. Richard Sperandio, age 58, was arrested in August after he came back to Key West from Marina Hemingway packing a boatload of 2700 coveted Cuban cigars. A participant in the Basta! humanitarian-aid efforts, Sperandio was indicted for importation of contraband, conspiracy to import contraband, and falsification of a customs declaration. Significantly, he was not charged with violating the U.S. embargo. (Sperandio's trial is scheduled to begin next month.)

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