Story and photos by John Morris

Can you take your boat from Canada to Cuba? Can you charter in Cuba?  The basic answer is yes. but there are a few wrinkles, as I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn.

Cuba’s by far the biggest island in the Caribbean. Roughly 1,200 km long x 200 km wide at its widest point with something like 3,700 km of coastline it’s the ideal destination for Canadian boaters, right?

Canadians can and do go by boat to Cuba but it’s not always simple. The Cuban government, the American government and the currents in the Straits of Florida complicate passage but don’t let any of those deter you. For those who do cross to the land of sunny Latin skies and the convertible peso, there’s a quite reasonable array of marine facilities and a very warm welcome.

If you are one of the million plus Canadians who flipped down to Cuba by plane last year for a holiday week in the sun, you are well familiar with the generous people, beautiful scenery and a superb assortment of cocktails. If you go that further complex step to work your way down the US coast by boat via the ICW into the Caribbean and head for, say, the Hemingway Marina in Havana, you’ll discover all that and a whole lot more.

The US embargo complicates, but does not impede the voyage.  US citizens and their boats do have restrictions, but Canadians should be able to make the voyage no problemo. Despite anything you may have heard Canadians can retrace their path north through Florida and the Inter-Coastal, although how you are treated as you re-enter the US reportedly varies with where you arrive and the mood of the individual Homeland Security officer. Be polite, be braced for a possibly crusty reception and have those fine Canadian documents at the ready.

Hemingway Marina

Never mind those details – let’s take a look at Cuba beginning with Havana’s Hemingway Marina.  In the west end of the city, not far from the luxurious homes of Miramar where the most affluent Cubans lived prior to 1959, Hemingway Marina looks like a very plush residential canal development.  Originally created in the late 1950's, as Residencial Touristical Barlovento the plan was to develop 633 plots of land along four man-made canals, similar to developments in south Florida. Hotels and a casino were also planned, though only one hotel, Hotel El Viejo y El Mar (The Old Man and the Sea Hotel), was built. This was during the wide-open (read ‘Mafia run’) days prior to the revolution and Frank Sinatra was the vice-president of the company along with key family members. It was only partially completed before the revolution in 1959; today there are a lot of Florida Cubans who have disputed claims to the properties.

During Cuba’s Soviet era it was home to technologists from the USSR and in the 80s when they departed it passed to the Tourism Ministry who today operates it via its company Marlin Marinas Business Group, a company that operates all the marine facilities in Cuba including another half dozen marinas around the island.

Today, it’s a beautiful marina setting with some facilities that are enjoyed by visiting boats from all over. The marina itself looks like neighbouring Florida – canals with similar gracious homes and boats moored adjacent. And more or less, that’s exactly what it is.

The flags represent Canada, European and other countries an even a smattering of Americans.  Rates range from 50cents/foot/day with power to 25cents without and less on an annual plan. And there you are in paradise and a $10 cab ride from the fabulous paladares and sites of Havana, a cosmopolitan, if desperately in need of a fix-up, city of 1.5 million.

The Club Náutico

Prior to 1959 Cuba was home to a hundred yacht clubs, today the country’s only club, Club Náutico Internacional Hemingway de Cuba is within the marina. While no Cubans own private yachts CNIH exists as an internationally active entity thanks almost entirely to the efforts of its commodore José Miguel Díaz Escrich. Escrich’s personal background and credibility – he was a Cuban navy fleet commander and retired in 1991- combined with his passion for the idea of a global yacht club has convinced the Cuban authorities to allow the club to flourish.  In 1991, Esrich started to work at Marina Hemingway as advisor to the development of the emerging recreational boating in Cuba and from that sprang the concept of his now well rooted yacht club. The hope is to draw the world’s yachting community to their improving facilities and derive the income that comes from affluent boaters and their needs.

The club was founded in 1992 without much more than a vision and Esrich’s enthusiasm.  Today the club's striking premises take up what was a private residence on Canal D and is an ideal facility. The commodore helps its 2,000-plus members from 45 countries, with route and tourism information then when they are actually in Cuba, he helps with practical matters like finding mooring and fuel, which are not always in easy supply.  (Cuba has eight marinas that welcome visitors - Marina Hemingway, Marina Dársena Varadero, Marina Callo Guillermo, Marina Santiago de Cuba, Marina Cienfuegos and Marina Cayo Largo Marina Tarará and Marina Trinidad)  As well, the club has a commitment to Cuban kids who get training in Optimists, Snipes and other dinghies.

It also periodically hosts the international billfishing tournament “Ernest Hemingway”; the 63rdt edition was held last June. Boats from the U.S., Canada and South Africa took the lion’s share of the prizes that in the waters off northern Havana. Crews from Colombia, Mexico, Italy, Cuba and France also took part.

Canadian olé

Canada is the biggest single source of tourism to Cuba, so it’s not surprising that MINTUR, Cuban Ministry of Tourism, has its eye on the True North as a source of boaters too. Their survey of the Canadian market indicated that while approximately 5,000 Canadian boaters navigate south every winter, only perhaps 20 head to Cuba. Commodore Escrich visited the Toronto International Boat Show in 2003 to specifically invite Canadians to visit. A long list of Canadian yacht clubs including the National Yacht Club, the Yacht Club de Québec, the Oakville Club and, yes, the Royal Canadian Yacht Club all have reciprocal privileges with HNIC as do 30 other clubs around the world. Even some in the USA.

Certainly cruising to Cuba is in the future for Canadian boaters. Currently, insurance can be a problem on top of the navigational and political issues, but undoubtedly those issues will resolve themselves as demand increases. Bareboating is also and option; Go Sail Cuba, Alboran and others offer bareboat and crewed charters (priced in Euros) out of Cienfuegos and Inter Yacht Charters lists 25 boats available for charter.  With all the possibilities and all that coastline it’s easy to image Cuba becoming a primo boating destination for Canadians. Get there before our neighbours to the south find out that there’s a boating paradise 100 miles south of them.

Photo captions:
Photo 1: Marina Hemingway – Florida locked in the 50s
Photo 2: Club Náutico Internacional Hemingway de Cuba
Photo 3: Canadians can freely come to Cuba and stay
Photo 4: Morro Castle has guarded Havana’s Harbour since the 16th century
Photo 5: CNIH’s commodore José Miguel Díaz Escrich