Picture the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889: thousands of families in wagons charging across the newly opened plains to stake out homesteads. Now imagine thousands of boats racing 97 miles across the Straits of Florida to newly opened Cuba for a chance to explore virgin cruising grounds. As those early settlers said, “Whoa, Nellie!” If you’re expecting the Cuba of the 1950s, when thousands of American tourists danced the mambo and samba through casinos and cabarets, well, think again. The “old” Cuba ended the day Fidel Castro and his “bearded ones” marched into Havana.
When President Barack Obama recently asked Congress to lift 54 years of Cuban embargo of vessels, it set yachtsmen atwitter. At a recent superyacht symposium, one speaker estimated 30,000 to 40,000 boats a year crossing from Florida to explore Cuba. A University of Florida study reported that up to 60,000 vessels over 25 feet long could make the trip. Well, Nellie, it just ain’t so. Yet. It’s going to take time to negotiate the deal that allows easy access to Cuba for U.S. boaters. It could be years. Legislators need to navigate many shoals, such as sorting out the more than $6 billion worth of property that Castro is believed to have seized from American companies such as Texaco, Coke, Goodyear and Hilton. Then there are the issues of human rights and press freedom (nonexistent).
Put that all aside for a moment. Where are 3,000 boats, let alone 30,000 boats, going to go? There are few marinas, and most of these have marginal facilities. South Florida’s Sun Sentinel recently reported that there are about 15 marinas with about 800 available slips. The Cruising in Cuba website (without offering specific numbers) reports that yacht visits have been “low.” During the past four years, 115 megayachts have stopped at Cuba, says José Miguel Díaz Escrich, commodore of Marina Hemingway Yacht Club.
Anchor out in a lovely cove? Not on the north side of Cuba, the closest to Florida, because those bays and coves are all closed, according to noonsite.com and cruisingincuba.com. There are, however, designated ports you can visit.
Then there’s the paperwork. You can clear into Cuba only in certain harbors, from which there are differing reports. Some travelers say it takes hours and requires bribes. Others say it’s easy. We’ll see. Entering Cuba is also not like dropping into St. Barths and hitting the Vuitton, Bulgari and Hermès shops on the quay. Cuba has a major poverty issue. The average wage for Cubans is $20 a month, and most citizens have no phones.
Break something? As one cruising website understated, “One must be fairly independent.” There are no shipyards ready for yachts and no West Marine down the street. Cuba sounds wonderful because we haven’t been there in half a century, but yachtsmen need to temper their enthusiasm with a healthy dose of reality.
As the land rush settlers said, “Whoa, Nellie!”
UPDATE: On July 20th, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba will resume with the opening of embassies in both countries. We’ll continue to watch for updates to keep you informed.