Cuban marinas prepare for U.S. cruisers

Posted on Written by Peter Swanson

55_cuba_01Hope that the travel ban will soon be lifted fuels infrastructure expansion in Havana and other areas

Anticipating the end of the travel ban, Cuban state enterprises responsible for marine infrastructure have begun an unprecedented push to ready the island nation for U.S. boaters. With growing support across America and in Washington, the U.S. House and Senate may finally act upon legislation to allow Americans to travel freely to their island neighbor for the first time in decades – it could happen this year or next.

One estimate says 60,000 U.S. vessels will visit Cuba in the first year post-embargo. Though the number may seem high, leaders in government and business in the Bahamas and the Caribbean take this figure seriously, judging by their often-expressed fears that Cuba will siphon away American mariners and their dollars once the ban is lifted.

But Cuba has only 789 transient slips, most concentrated in the three marinas closest to Florida – Marina Hemingway in Havana, Marina Gaviota Varadero and Marina Darsena Varadero. Havana, of course, is associated with the classic cars, cigars and Cuban music scene. Varadero, about 80 miles east of the capital, is Cuba’s version of Cape Cod, the Jersey Shore and Florida Keys all rolled into one. The rest of the country has just 12 additional marinas spread across a 3,000-mile coastline and interspersed between vast areas of mangroves, pasture, wooded shores and undeveloped pocket bays.

55_cuba_02The “corporate” structure of Cuba’s marina system is twofold. All marinas in Cuba are operated by either the Marlin Group or Gaviota. Marlin’s director reports to the Ministry of Tourism, whose development of that economic sector was crucial in sustaining the Cuban nation after Soviet subsidies ended in 1989. Gaviota’s lineage suggests even greater clout: It is a subsidiary of a subsidiary of the Castro military.

Recent actions by each of these government entities underscore the seriousness with which Cuba regards “nautical tourism” from the United States. One decision was the appointment last summer of Jose Miguel Diaz Escrich as director of the Marlin Group. To the marine industry on our side of the Florida Strait, Escrich is better known as the avuncular commodore of the Hemingway International Yacht Club in Havana, which he founded with Fidel Castro’s blessing in 1992.

56_cuba_03Escrich, 62, will continue at the helm of his club, but is now responsible for 2,000 employees, 400 tourist excursion vessels and a hodgepodge of docking facilities around the country, including Marina Hemingway at Havana and seven other transient marinas. His job is to bring the facilities up to snuff as best he can with limited resources while courting foreign investors.

Cuba’s other decision is more concrete – literally. With little fanfare, Gaviota has been working on an ambitious expansion of its Varadero marina. When finished, it will accommodate more boats than Marina Puerto del Rey in Puerto Rico, currently the biggest in the Caribbean. Gaviota Varadero will have 1,200 slips, including berths for six megayachts longer than 195 feet.

Commodore Escrich

Credit Escrich with one of the great ironies of the Cuban revolution. The revolution was fought to rid Cuba of its plutocrats and elite institutions such as yacht clubs, but by 1992 times had changed. The country’s economy had ground to a near halt after the withdrawal of Soviet subsidies.

Fidel Castro was an avid fisherman and, as the story goes, Escrich pitched the yacht club as an economic engine that would host several annual game-fish tournaments and sailing regattas. Castro’s favorite writer is said to be Ernest Hemingway, another fishing enthusiast with international cachet, so why not name the club after him? Escrich, a retired Cuban naval officer, became the club’s first and (so far) only commodore.

During the last 17 years, the Hemingway International Yacht Club has formed alliances with 57 yacht clubs around the world. Escrich says the club receives no government money and has supported itself with donations and dues ($150 a year) paid by thousands of members from 45 nations, including the United States. Escrich has used the club to form relationships with numerous wealthy Americans, U.S. congressmen, Coast Guard officers and business leaders.

Cruising Cuba: stats and facts

• Land mass: 44,000 square miles

• Shoreline: 3,000 nautical miles

• Climate: tropical in trade-wind belt, modified by frontal systems from U.S. and hurricanes

• Circumnavigation: 1,650 nautical miles

Islands and keys: 4,195

• Percentage of coastal shelf navigable by boats over  25 feet: 70 percent

• Quality of Cuban marine cartography: superb

• Boating regions: seven

• Dive centers: 18

Marinas: 15, with 789 slips

• Planned marinas: 23 additional, with more than 5,000 slips

• Major colonial port cities: five (Havana, Trinidad, CienfuegosSantiago, Baracoa)

• Estimated number of yachts  that will travel to Cuba in the first year after travel ban is lifted: 60,000 to 80,000

• Number of 25-plus-foot recreational boats registered  in Florida: 92,000

Distances from:

Florida: 90 miles

Mexico: 110 miles

Cayman Islands: 170 miles

Jamaica: 80 miles

Hispaniola: 45 miles

Bahamas: 45 miles

• Turks & Caicos: 110 miles

Number of visiting yachts per year:

• Before 2004*: more than 2,000

• After 2004: more than 1,000

Percentage of visiting yachts from the U.S.

• Before 2004*: 69 percent

• After 2004: 17 percent

*On Feb. 26, 2004, the Bush administration issued a proclamation outlining measures to crack down on Americans traveling by boat to Cuba in contravention of the U.S. embargo.

Loathe to discuss politics, Escrich says he admires American business for its pragmatism and U.S. citizens for their generous spirit. “We all know that American tourism is the best kind of tourism for our country,” he says.

His efforts have earned him a seat at the table where decisions are made about government policy toward foreign boaters. Escrich is part of a “working group” of Cuban officials that meets regularly to discuss nautical tourism. Not only do they talk about new marina sites and expansion of existing marinas, they discuss such general issues as recreational fishing permits and Cuba’s famously burdensome port clearance procedures.

In a recent interview with Soundings Trade Only, Escrich promised he would continue to be an advocate for foreign boaters. Asked whether it was possible that Cuba will adopt a more streamlined cruising permit system like that of the Bahamas, he said not right away but reckoned reform was inevitable.

“I know this system of ours bothers yacht people and I do not entirely agree with the system either,” Escrich says. “The minister of tourism is aware of the problem, too, so our working group looking at nautical issues will try to come up with something else that preserves Cuban security without bothering people.”

In the meantime, as part of its services to members, Escrich says the Hemingway Yacht Club will provide Cuban officials along with a vessel’s “float plan” with enough information to speed up the paperwork at each planned stop.

Marina expansion

Escrich spends his workdays shuffling between the yacht club and his Marlin office next door at the Marina Hemingway, the Marlin Group’s most important property. Marina Hemingway – just a 25-minute cab ride from the sights of downtown Havana – offers roughly 400 side-tie berths. It undoubtedly will become the epicenter of American boating in Cuba because many skippers will be satisfied to go no farther than Havana, crossing the Gulf Stream to do a little fishing and explore before heading back to Florida.

There are probably berths for fewer than 20 megayachts in all of Cuba, excluding shipyards and commercial docks. Of those, Marina Hemingway can accommodate several 200-footers, a length limitation imposed by a turn after the entrance channel.

Once docked along one of the four canals (a total of four miles of side-tie dockage), a big yacht will have to back out until it reaches the turning basin. Escrich says there is a major plan to redevelop the entire facility into a hotel-marina destination with the help of a foreign partner; part of that plan would make it easier for big yachts to enter and exit the facility, which was originally designed as a 1950s residential development, not a marina.

The expansion of Marina Gaviota Varadero, 90 miles from the Florida Keys, is intended to help augment facilities for big recreational vessels. Visiting last July, one would have witnessed a scene impossible to imagine in contemporary America. Massive breakwaters had already been built and heavy equipment was removing the mangroves inside these enveloping stone arms, then piling the dredge spoil to create artificial islands.

57_cuba_05Escrich says the Gaviota project was being done without foreign investment, though the accompanying five-star villa hotel development is the work of the same French company that has built several other luxury hotels at Varadero. Plans show a marina complex more akin to Atlantis at Nassau in the Bahamas or St. Tropez in France, only larger. By next year, Gaviota hopes to have 400 slips available for foreign vessels. By Stage 3 of the project in 2012, the complex will have more than 1,200 slips at state-of-the-art floating concrete docks, including berths for six 200-foot megayachts. Also open for business is the marina’s new waterfront restaurant, Kike-Keho, already one of Cuba’s finest.

At the other extreme of the Varadero waterfront is the Marina Darsena, operated by Escrich’s Marlin Group. Escrich and Marlin managers also have developed plans to increase Darsena’s capacity, from 104 to 500 slips in three phases. Escrich says he is seeking $11 million in foreign investment for the project. Although the resort lacks some of Havana’s cachet, Escrich argues that unlike the capital, Varadero is a staging area for cruising Cardenas and Santa Clara bays, which form a protected basin.

“I know some yachtsmen do not like the beach resort nature of Varadero, but besides restaurants and nightlife and a golf course, the area is a gateway to very unspoiled cruising among numerous nearby cays,” Escrich says.

Plans for the future

During a 10-year “thaw” in U.S.-Cuba relations prior to the administration of George W. Bush, many American vessels participated in regattas and fishing tournaments, having been granted special U.S. permission to attend. At the same time, slack U.S. enforcement encouraged many yachtsmen to visit Cuba using various   subterfuges.

57_cuba_08During this period, according to Escrich, 70 percent of more than 2,500 foreign yachts that visited Cuba annually flew the Stars and Stripes. After the Bush administration cracked down in February 2004, the number of foreign yachts dropped dramatically.

Cuba has numerous plans for new marinas large and small, including one with 55 slips at Baracoa, the easternmost city on the island’s north coast and the oldest. Baracoa used to be a port of entry, though not anymore. Foreign boats approaching from Puerto Rico are discouraged from entering the harbor and are told they must continue to Puerto Vita, about 100 nautical miles farther west.

Baracoa and other projects have been on hold due to the enduring U.S. travel ban, which denied foreign investors their market. Canadian and European boaters though, unaffected by the U.S. embargo, are small in number compared to their counterparts on the East and Gulf coasts of the United States. Now those foreign investors are starting to show renewed interest and those dusty marina plans are coming off the shelves.

This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue.


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