Cuba Bound

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

As a boater, donor of humanitarian aid, embargo buster, and alleged smuggler, Sperandio represents a new breed of traveler that befuddles Cuban authorities. On the one hand Cubans reflexively encourage anti-embargo behavior; on the other, they are learning that some visitors are as apt to ignore Cuban regulations as they are to flout American law.

Cuban officials at Marina Hemingway acknowledge that during the past year and a half, sailboats from Key West have brought not only tourists and businessmen, but also a handful of profit-minded vagabonds. "The first group to arrive were adventurers in the romantic sense," recalls Escrich, the yacht club commodore. "But later there came people who were interested in making money, people who had no money in the United States or Canada but who thought that they could make a couple of thousand dollars doing some kind of business with Cuba."

The businesses ranged from transporting packages for Cuban families to illegally importing bicycles, bicycle parts, and motorcycles, and worst of all from the Cuban point of view, picking up Cubans who hoped to escape the island and carrying them to Florida for a steep fee.

Cuban gunboats attacked anyone suspected of smuggling people, but the response to merchandise smuggling has been more ambiguous. Escrich says no property has been seized, though he admits that about a half-dozen boaters have caused problems as a result of their smuggling activities. In an attempt to cut down on smuggling throughout the country, customs regulations were tightened four months ago. It is now more difficult to bring goods into Cuba, and, theoretically, to take them out.

Not surprisingly, Cubans are less concerned about tourists leaving the country than about those entering it. Check-out formalities at Marina Hemingway, however, are just as time-consuming as check-in procedures.

Before departing the marina, the Irate Parrot pulls up to the customs house to complete the final paperwork and retrieve Shaw's guns. The same parade of officials that greeted the boat appears again. They are there to fill out forms and to urge boaters to come back, though not empty-handed.

"It would be okay if you happened to be in a clothing store and you saw a nice blouse for my wife," one official says to Shaw. Another gives him permission to bring back brake pads for his bicycle. A third says he would be more than happy to accept a donation of spark plugs. None of the officials appears to be soliciting a bribe; most of the items they ask for cost only a dollar or two in the United States.

The most unexpected request comes from a young Customs officer who confesses that he is suffering from diarrhea. Shaw listens to him sympathetically and then remarks with a glint in his eye: "I have just the thing for you." He returns with a roll of tape and a cork.

"≠Como jodas!" the officer laughs.
Pleased with his joke, Shaw hands over some medication. After thanking him, the officer becomes serious. "I have to tell you something very important," he says gravely. "You're smiling now, but when I finish telling you, your face will change."

Not sure if the officer is kidding, Shaw hesitates, his expression hovering in an uncertain grin.

"They say that when you leave the marina and say you are going to Key West, you actually go down the coast and catch lobster and shrimp. I don't care," the officer shrugs uneasily. "But my boss, he cares. You can do with my information what you want."

"Thanks a lot, man," Shaw pats him on the back. "It's okay." In fact, Shaw and Peggy usually end these trips with a visit to Cayo Paraiso, and if it hadn't been raining, they would have headed in that direction this morning. They don't usually inform Cuban authorities of their plans because they would be required to return to Marina Hemingway and repeat the check-out procedures before embarking for Key West.

The sub rosa warning issued, the Irate Parrot is allowed to depart. She speeds away in a brisk wind. Shaw has a few Budweisers. The aborted fishing trip, combined with the prospect of returning to the U.S., has put him in a foul mood. He yells at Peggy to turn off the radio, and snaps at her when she fails to respond concisely to a question. "I said, 'Are you cooking dinner?' Answer the question. Yes or no!"

Hoping to lighten the atmosphere, Peggy proposes that they try some target shooting, and Jeffrey donates a handful of condoms. He blows them up like balloons and releases them from the top of the mast while Shaw and Peggy take aim with the shotgun.

When they tire of the sport, Jeffrey offers to take the helm. Late in the afternoon, Shaw falls asleep. Peggy and Jeffrey take turns steering, and by 3:00 a.m. they spot the lights of Key West.

Shaw wakes up, finds a country music station on the radio, cranks it up loud, and takes the wheel. He is only about two hours away from the Key West Bight Marina, but the Budweisers have taken their toll. The boat strays drunkenly off course, and for the next four hours the Irate Parrot zigzags her way among coral reefs and steel buoys, the passage illuminated only by a jumpy, hand-held spotlight.

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