As Capt. Dave Shaw can tell you, it's a straight shot from Key West to Havana. Just keep the compass pegged to 225 degrees, kick back, and pop a Budweiser. No worries.
During the past twelve months, Shaw has made more than a dozen trips to the "large island 90 miles south of here," as he coyly refers to Cuba in flyers that periodically surface around the waterfront at the Key West Bight Marina.
Shaw peddles his Cuba excursions as weeklong fishing charters and sightseeing expeditions around the western Caribbean, and he believes they are legal. Still, in an uncharacteristic display of restraint, he avoids using the C-word in print.
This is a nod toward the U.S. embargo, which prohibits people under U.S. jurisdiction from engaging in "travel-related transactions" within Cuba. Maximum penalties for violating the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act are ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
For anyone other than journalists or those on official government business, the conventional way around the law is to apply for a license from the U.S. Treasury Department. But the chances of being granted a license are slim. Luckily, Shaw lives in unconventional Key West, a refuge for oddballs and outcasts, rebels and revolutionaries, a city that has made an art out of pioneering creative ways to circumvent federal law.
Throughout the century, Key West boaters have earned a living from smuggling, bootlegging, and gunrunning. U.S. law was nothing more than a navigational inconvenience, and they just sailed around it. Recently this attitude has been applied to the embargo against Cuba. About two years ago boaters discovered that as long as they claimed to have refrained from spending any money on the island, they could travel back and forth without fear of federal prosecution. It's that simple, say the increasing numbers of sailors who are making the run.
It's also that cheap. Depending on the type of charter and the number of days, a trip to Havana will set you back $200 to $500. If the fare is too steep, you can always sign up to work as a crew member in exchange for a discount. To find a boat that's Cuba-bound, just ask the dock masters at the various marinas throughout the Keys, though your luck will increase the farther south you go.
"We're planning on leaving around 10:00 a.m. so that we'll clear Cuban Customs by noon the next day," Shaw explains, his voice crackly and hoarse over the phone line after being roused on his digital beeper. "You're going to love Cuba! The people just fall all over themselves to help you. We'll spend two nights in Marina Hemingway and then go west along the coast to Cayo Paraiso. The whole time I'll be trolling. You've never seen so many fish. It's called Cayo Paraiso because it's like paradise! Dolphin, grouper, marlin, lobster. You're going to eat the best meals in your life."
For Shaw the allure is virgin fishing grounds. For others it's the music, the pretty women, the cheap booze. Some even cite Cuban family values. Whatever their reasons, more and more boaters from all over Florida are sailing for Cuba, anchors aweigh and the embargo be damned.
"In the last nine months, travel to Havana seems to have doubled, tripled even," says Martha Campbell, assistant dock master at the Key West Bight Marina, the city's largest. "It's just that they always wanted to go and they're not afraid any more." While the less brazen boaters will sneak out of the harbor and then slink back without alerting U.S. Customs, others announce their return and invite federal inspectors and immigration officials onboard.
This is not as reckless as it might sound. True, some boats are searched for Cuban souvenirs such as rum and cigars, which are confiscated if found. But in the absence of evidence to the contrary -- a hotel receipt or a restaurant bill -- boaters recounting even the most improbable feats of frugality are taken at their word.
Customs officials who enforce the law explain that they have no choice but to rely on the honor system, though they realize it is a malleable concept for free-wheeling, party-loving boat captains who find no honor in abiding by nitpicking regulations. "It's like taxes. If somebody is going to lie to you, then they are going to lie," says a philosophical Michael Sheehan, spokesman for U.S. Customs in South Florida. "Our system of justice in the United States all goes back to a certain acceptance of honesty."
Sue Woolley, U.S. Customs port director in Key West, estimates that between one and four boats arrive in Key West from Cuba each week. According to figures kept by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, in the last fiscal year, 163 boats acknowledged having sailed from Cuba to Key West, a nearly 300 percent increase since fiscal year 1993, when only 54 boats admitted making the 90-mile voyage. About half of the 1993 boats traveled with the Basta! flotillas, a series of ventures into humanitarian aid that resulted in the first legally sanctioned Key West-Cuba crossing by American ships in decades.
Since their first trip to Cuba in 1993, many of the original members of the Basta! flotillas have continued to shuttle back and forth. It is likely that they account, at least in part, for the jump in the INS vessel tally. It is also likely that they represent only a small fraction of all the boats making the crossing.
An unknown number of boaters do not alert Customs or the INS when they return from Cuba. In all his trips, for example, Dave Shaw has checked in exactly once. He goes to extremes to avoid contact with U.S. government officials. On most voyages, he even turns off the shipboard radio until he is safely out of Key West, fearful that a friend will make an offhand reference to Havana and the Coast Guard or Customs will overhear and feel compelled to harass him.
Thus it is that on a recent trip to Cuba, Shaw can be found switching on the radio a few miles off the Sand Key lighthouse, the last physical marker between Key West and Havana. A Coast Guard cutter is bobbing on the horizon, and Shaw suspects they'll want to talk by radio. They do.
The conversation begins innocuously enough with a request for the name of the boat and the registration number. Although there is nothing overtly suspicious about the Irate Parrot, a 38-foot, ketch-rigged sailboat equipped with a motor in case of uncooperative winds, it doesn't take a navigational wizard to figure out her course. Shaw figures he has one chance to head off the inevitable question.
"Irate Parrot. United States Coast Guard. Roger, sir," the Coast Guard continues. "Can I have your home port? Over." The radio splutters and hisses.
"Key West, Florida, sir," Shaw responds. "Over." The shadows of scudding clouds are reflected in the dark-blue water. There is enough wind to keep the sails billowed, but not enough to make much headway against the Gulf Stream, so Shaw has turned on the motor to help the boat along; it rumbles in counterpoint to the radio static.
"Irate Parrot. United States Coast Guard. Roger, sir. How many total people onboard today? Over."
"We have four people onboard," Shaw answers, adding smoothly: "We're headed down to fish some blue water. Over."
"Irate Parrot. United States Coast Guard. Roger, sir. Can I have your last port of call and the dates departed, and your next expected port of call? And your expected date of arrival? Over."
"Roger, sir. Last port of call was Key West and that was today. We left there at, uh, 2:00. Over, sir."
"Irate Parrot. United States Coast Guard. Roger, sir. And will you be returning to Key West? Over."
Shaw smiles. He can answer truthfully. "Yes, sir," he responds brightly. "Approximately in seven days. I got a float plan filed with family and friends and barring anything, uh, weird, uh, we should be back there in seven days. Over."
The officer requests that Shaw stand by. "Okay, no worries," Shaw says. He hangs up the microphone and turns to his passengers. "So do I give good radio?" he asks as he reaches for his Budweiser. "I just omitted a few stops to keep things less complicated," he winks. "It is not required of me to tell anyone where I'm going. I am an American citizen, I do have a little bit of freedom, I hope."
In a few minutes, the Coast Guard officer calls back and wishes him a good fishing trip. The Irate Parrot is on her way.
Tall and lean, Shaw sits at the helm, drinks Bud out of the can, and tells jokes, most of them bawdy. The 40-year-old sailor is bald and has a thick blond moustache. He describes himself as a "guitar player, plumber, electrician, general carpenter and builder, fisherman, boater, and dog lover." He is also, proudly, a parrothead, a fanatical devotee of Jimmy Buffett.
"Jimmy Buffett was a mentor of mine," he announces as the boat rolls along to the stereo accompaniment of Key West's best-known slacker. A reference to Buffett, the boat's name sums up Shaw's philosophy of life in the United States. "I'm irate because of all the bullshit I have to put up with," he declares. "I have a bumper sticker on my truck that says, 'If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.' That's the truth."
Also onboard the Irate Parrot is Peggy Raphel, a 50-year-old travel agent from St. Augustine who is Shaw's partner and girlfriend. Peggy met Shaw two years ago. Taken by his free-spirited approach to life, she turned over her travel agency to a family member and went with Shaw to Belize to start a sport-fishing charter business.
While sailing from Florida to Central America, their electronic navigational equipment broke down and they aimed for Cuba, the nearest land mass, to get their bearings. Shaw says they spent one bewitching evening anchored along the Cuban coast before proceeding around the island to the Yucatan peninsula.
Although the Belize business venture flopped (within a month Shaw had been bitten by a poisonous spider and was forced to return with Peggy to St. Augustine), the couple resolved to try again. This time they decided to run charters in the Caribbean.
"After that trip, Cuba was always in the front of my mind," Shaw recalls. "I was enamored big time with the reef along the western coast of Cuba. It must be like the Keys were 100 years ago. Hell, it's a thousand times nicer than the Keys. It's alive. I mean, I pushed grouper away so I could find one small enough so that we didn't shoot something with a spear gun that was too big for dinner."
Last November the couple moved from St. Augustine to the rent-free anchorage off Key West Bight. Their neighbor there is Jeffrey Hamlin, the fourth passenger onboard. The 24-year-old lives on his 26-foot sailboat and works at a hotel. He is applying to graduate schools in business administration, having grown weary of the unfocused, laid-back lifestyle of waterfront regulars. Seeking adventure, he went to Cuba for the first time this past February and has been back several times since.
"Word just got around that it was a great place to go, that the people were friendly, and that it was fairly inexpensive to live there," Jeffrey says. He hitched his first three rides with friends, and agreed to pay a charter captain $150 roundtrip for the fourth.
"He was a Cajun coon-ass kind of guy from Louisiana who was running cargo back and forth for the Cubans," Jeffrey recalls. "He brought them stuff like diesel engines and generators, and they'd waive his slip fees for him. He would literally have boxed crates on the top of his boat strapped down the best he could. He was just bringing stuff in. He must have come ten or fifteen times like that. I'm real surprised that someone didn't catch on, or someone didn't squeal on him, because he made it real public. He was loading at the main dock, at Lands End Marina right in Key West. He'd get faxes saying that such and such a person is coming from Miami with three engines and he'd come across [to Havana with the cargo]."
Jeffrey had taken a motor scooter to Havana on that fourth visit and had planned to stay a week or two, visiting with his Cuban girlfriend and traveling around the countryside. But he decided not to return with the Cajun after the boat almost capsized on the passage over. He ended up spending the next two months in Havana waiting for a captain who was willing to carry his motor scooter to Key West. Finally he returned without it.
Back at the Key West Bight anchorage, Jeffrey persuaded Dave Shaw to take him down to pick it up A in exchange for $250 in "expenses" and Jeffrey's help hoisting sails and steering. Now he's grumbling about the arrangement. Expenses, he says, turned out to be $150 worth of beer and only $100 worth of food meant to feed four people during a five-day trip.
Peggy and Shaw, of course, are hoping to supplement their provisions with fish caught on the line they drag behind the boat. But by 8:00 night has fallen, and it has begun to rain. There have been no bites. Peggy goes below to prepare grilled chicken, and Shaw spells Jeffrey at the wheel. Suddenly Shaw starts to shout.
"I have five targets headed straight for me!" he exclaims to Jeffrey. "What would you do? Panic?"
Seemingly out of nowhere, the lights of five large ships have appeared on the horizon, each on a collision course with the Irate Parrot. "What's this guy trying to do, kill us?" Shaw cries. "I've never had this before. I have never had red and green before on that guy, that guy, that guy, that guy and that guy. Jesus Christ!"
Shaw grips the helm and stares into the rain at the green starboard lights and red port lights converging on the sailboat. "Stand by for fire in the hole," he calls as Peggy starts the engine. The lights of still another ship appear. "Jesus Christ, give me something else to do," Shaw mutters.
Shaw switches the radio to scan, but the airwaves are silent. "These guys should be talking on the radio right now," Shaw frets. A strobe light flashes in the east -- a surfacing submarine, Shaw decides. He checks the course -- he is 71 miles north of Havana. Although the ships are well over a mile away, they appear to be closing in a circle around the Irate Parrot.
"Fucking A, we're surrounded!" Jeffrey yells. He has grabbed his camera and is sitting cross-legged on the bow wearing a T-shirt and baseball hat. "Fuck, this is amazing!" he says. "Seven, there are seven of them."
As the ships come closer, the configuration of their lights becomes clearer. From their appearance, Shaw and Jeffrey speculate that they must be either Coast Guard or naval vessels. "If that ain't the Coast Guard, I'll kiss your ass," Shaw says. "Have you ever been this busy?"
"Not since my days in 'Nam," Jeffrey deadpans. "Hey, the U.S. is going to invade Cuba and we're right in the middle of it."
Shaw picks up the radio: "Irate Parrot to approaching vessels. Hello, are we in the middle of your naval exercise?"
There is no answer, but the ships begin to disperse, shifting course almost imperceptibly. Soon, only red port lights are visible. An hour later, the ships have disappeared. Dinner is served on the Irate Parrot to a deflated crew. If there had been something exciting going on -- say, an ethereal gathering of warships in the dark of night in the middle of the Gulf Stream -- the small sailboat has missed it.
It rains steadily during the rest of the night, and morning dawns bleak and drizzly. Shaw, Peggy, and Jeffrey practice skeet shooting with a shotgun, tossing pieces of blackened chicken into the air. By noon the Irate Parrot is within radio distance of Marina Hemingway, about seven miles west of Havana.
"I can smell Havana!" Shaw announces, tilting his head back against the morning breeze. "Savor this. Just savor this, 'cause this is so cool."
Thirteen miles out, Shaw begins calling the Cuban Coast Guard at the Marina Hemingway. After a few tries, the marina answers in an incomprehensible burst of static.
"Buenos dias. Yate Irate Parrot," Shaw tries again, employing his best Al Pacino imitation. "¨Que pasa, man?"
The Cubans answer in English, requesting information about the boat's position and the number of people aboard. Shaw responds in fractured but correctly pronounced Spanish. When he doesn't know the Spanish word, he mimics the Cuban accent in English. This will be his technique for the rest of the trip. If his listeners still don't understand, he repeats lines of dialogue from Scarface: "My name is Tony Montana. First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women. Fok you. No. Fok you!"
But the radio operator speaks English and has little time for chitchat. After a few rudimentary questions, the Irate Parrot is told to proceed.
"Okay, Captain Dave, welcome to Marina Hemingway."
"Okay, gracias, man," Shaw replies. "Standing by at [frequencies] 72 and 16. Irate Parrot out."
"Do you require assistance?" the Cuban operator asks.
"Negativo. Solamente perfecto. Over."
"Marina Hemingway out. Standing by 16"
"Gracias, man," Shaw says again before signing off.
Representatives from Cuba's Ministry of Public Health, as well as from Customs, Immigration, and the Coast Guard are waiting at the entrance to the marina when the Irate Parrot finally pulls in at 2:00 p.m. The trip has taken about 24 hours, an average crossing for a sailboat. The return to Key West is faster because the Gulf Stream gives boaters a boost, propelling them toward the Conch Republic with the efficiency of a moving sidewalk and shortening the run by at least eight hours. Powerboats, naturally, are faster yet, and Cigarette boats hold the record with spine-shattering three-hour trips.
Officials from the different agencies board the Irate Parrot one by one. Shaw offers them cold beers, which they drink thirstily as they fill out carbon copies of paperwork listing passenger names, passport numbers, boat registration, and so on. (The Cubans, fully aware of U.S. travel restrictions, politely refrain from stamping American passports.) He clowns with a plastic Halloween devil mask and shows them a Newsweek photograph of the former president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Shaw.
"Hey, did you know that I'm the presiden-tay of Mexico?" he remarks to one Customs officer. "Si, si," Shaw insists to the bemused official, waving the magazine picture as his punch line.
Shaw and Peggy have been back and forth so often they have made friends with the Cuban authorities. On a recent voyage, the Coast Guard gave the couple a puppy named Rata, a terrier-mutt who now lives on the Irate Parrot.
Formalities are straightforward and usually take between one and two hours. The Cuban government imposes a twenty-dollar customs charge per boat; tourist visas cost fifteen dollars. Boaters are also required to surrender any weapons they have onboard to the Coast Guard, which issues a receipt and returns all items on departure.
Docking at the marina costs 45 cents per foot per day, payable in U.S. dollars or non-U.S. travelers' checks, and includes electrical power, water, 24-hour security, and full access to marina facilities: restrooms, showers, laundry, restaurants, a disco, shopping center, tennis courts, a 24-hour fueling station, and a post office. In comparison, docking at Key West Bight Marina costs $1.50 per foot, with far fewer amenities. "It's more expensive and you're still in a dirt-filled, bug-infested marina, and every time you want to do anything, there's someone looking up your ass with a magnifying glass," Shaw huffs. "Marina Hemingway is nicer and cheaper."
Modeled on the more spacious European concept of a marina with recreational facilities, rather than on the American system of floating docks crammed with the greatest possible number of boats, the marina is centered around four canals, each a slender finger extending inland for about a kilometer. Boats dock along the sides of the canals, which border grassy areas with tennis courts and palm trees. Hookups for water and electricity are located every 40 feet.
The last agency finishes its paperwork around 4:00 p.m., and the Irate Parrot motors slowly down a canal toward her assigned slip. About 50 boats are docked at the marina, most of them along the main canal near the bathhouse and restaurants.
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.
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.)
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.
"Everybody down!" Shaw bellows, though no one is standing up. "I can't see with everybody's goddamn head in the way." He continues to grouse. "Can we get everyone to stand up at the same goddamn time?"
It is 7:00 a.m. by the time the Irate Parrot finally pulls into the marina, and the sun has just risen. Bleary-eyed and irritable, Shaw chooses not to alert Customs, Immigration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that he has just returned from a foreign port, as required by federal law. He pulls the boat up to the fueling dock and unloads Jeffrey's scooter. Low on beer, he asks his passengers for a twenty-dollar tip before dropping them off and heading out for the anchorage.
Earlier in the trip, before the Budweisers had gotten the better of him, Shaw had spoken about his dreams of running a charter from a Cuban marina. "Cuba is wonderful, man," he rhapsodized. "But I keep wondering what will happen when it quote-unquote opens up. I think the Americans will ruin it like we do everything else. So we need to go there now, before we screw it up. Everybody -- all those guys that own boats in Key West -- everyone is poised on the starting block. They're coming, and they're coming hard. They're going to be doing commercial traffic. They're going to destroy the place."
As for Shaw, he figures by February he'll have it worked out so that he can run trips out of Varadero, the famed tourist resort about two hours east of Havana.
No worries. No hassle. He and Peggy will do some fishing and live off lobster, shrimp, and avocados as big as coconuts. There'll be booze in the blender, and plenty of rum. He'll play his guitar and eat papaya. Hell, he might even learn Spanish.
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