The first recreational boat to legally cruise once-forbidden Cuban waters with U.S. citizens aboard could well be a yacht between 60 and 300 feet LOA, chartered through Paul Madden Associates of Palm Beach.
And at the upper end of the spectrum, one of your choices is the Christina O, the refurbished superyacht that the late Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis once owned.
The U.S. Treasury Department granted Madden, who also does business under the Merrill Stevens Yachts name, a license to convey qualified U.S. citizens to Cuba on crewed charter vessels. His permit essentially gives his company the same “carrier services” status as Carnival Cruise Lines and four ferry start-ups that also recently received licenses.
Madden’s license was made possible by President Barack Obama’s new policy of engagement with Cuba’s Castro regime, which essentially returns U.S. policy to the status quo before the administration of President George W. Bush, who effectively banned all recreational boat travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens.
Charter customers won’t be the first recreational boaters to travel to Cuba. Recently a Hobie Cat regatta began in Key West and ended at Havana, and 17 U.S. boats were licensed to travel to Havana to participate in the Ernest Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament.
There is a key difference, however, between Madden’s license and the two competitions. Regatta and tournament participants were forbidden under the terms of their license to cruise from one port to another within Cuba or even to leave the docks, except during the actual competitions. Madden’s yachts are free to roam the entire island nation, with its six colonial-era ports, 3,000 miles of coast and more than 4,000 islands.
Not just anyone can charter a yacht to Cuba. Under U.S. regulations, customers need to qualify under 12 criteria for legal travel. They include journalists, Cuban Americans and bona-fide researchers.
Cruising Cuba is like entering some kind of time-space anomaly; the land of “rum, rhumba and revolution” looks a lot like the Caribbean of the 1950s. Outside the 90-mile sector between Havana and the marinas at Varadero to the east, there is little marine infrastructure in a place nearly the size of Florida, a circumstance that makes the choice of a 300-footer, such as the Christina O, a tad impractical.
There are berths for fewer than 20 megayachts in all of Cuba, excluding shipyards and commercial docks. Of those, Marina Hemingway outside Havana can accommodate a few 200-footers, a length limitation imposed by a turn after the entrance channel. Meanwhile, at Varadero, the Cuban government is nearing the completion of what will be the largest marina in the Caribbean, with 1,200 slips, including berths for six megayachts as large as 200 feet.
Nevertheless, now that Madden has cracked the code, the Caribbean yacht charter industry is beginning to cast a lustful gaze upon Cuba.
“I am in talks with some of the larger yacht charter and brokerage companies,” Madden said, “and they are predicting that the majority of yachts operating in the Caribbean will migrate to Cuba at the first opportunity. Until [this month], the U.S. embargo kept them out. Some could not get insurance, and if they visited there, they were liable to not be allowed into U.S. ports after their visit.”
Pricing for Madden’s charters ranges from $3,000 a day for a 60-footer to $20,000 a day for the biggest boats, plus provisions and fuel. That represents quite a contrast to the dollar-a-day wage the average Cuban earns and a national zeitgeist that expresses itself in billboard communism.
Peter Swanson is events content manager for the Active Interest Media Marine Group. AIM owns Soundings Trade Only.
CUBA BY THE NUMBERS
Landmass: 44,000 square miles
Climate: Tropical in the trade-wind belt, modified by frontal systems from the United States and by hurricanes
Shoreline: 3,000 nautical miles
Circumnavigation: 1,650 nautical miles
Islands and keys: 4,195
Percentage of coastal shelf navigable by boats larger than 25 feet: 70 percent
Quality of Cuban marine cartography: Superb
Boating regions: 7
Dive centers: 18
Marinas: 15, with most slips in a 60-mile swath between Havana and Varadero
Planned marinas: 23 additional, with more than 5,000 slips
Major colonial port cities: 6 (Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Manzanillo, Santiago and Baracoa)
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
Before 2004*: more than 2,000 annually
After 2004: more than 1,000 annually
Percentage of visiting yachts from the United States
Before 2004*: 69 percent
After 2004: 17 percent
Number of recreational vessels greater than 25 feet LOA registered in Florida: About 92,000
Estimated number of yachts larger than 25 feet LOA that will travel to Cuba in the first year after the travel ban ends: 60,000 to 80,000
*On Feb. 26, 2004, the administration of President George W. Bush issued a proclamation outlining measures to crack down on Americans traveling by boat to Cuba in contravention of the U.S. embargo. Despite the new policy of engagement, the basic structure of the Bush policy toward recreational boats remains in place.