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If They Build It Yankee Boats Might Come To Cuba

The 60th Ernest Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament happens this month at the Hemingway Marina in Havana, Cuba, but this milestone event will be sparsely attended, if at all, by the late author's own countrymen. With any luck, however, measures that prohibit U.S. boats from visiting Cuba will be gone in time for the next big party, when the Hemingway International Yacht Club celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2012.

Cuban state enterprises responsible for marine infrastructure have begun an unprecedented push to ready the island nation for American boaters. If you are a yachtsman of a nationality unaffected by the longstanding U.S. travel ban, you may be thinking, "So what?" The answer to that depends on your style of boating.

If you are the self-reliant type who likes to anchor out for weeks on end, say no more. But if you prefer to spend some time at local marinas and appreciate the services available from a well developed marine infrastructure, you should hope for the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. Numerous proposals to expand existing marinas and build new ones need Yankees in topsiders to be viable. There just aren't enough Canadian and European vessels.

According to one estimate, 60,000 U.S. vessels over 25 feet LOA will visit Cuba in the first year after the end of the travel ban. Though the number may seem high, the possibility is worrisome to business and government leaders in the Bahamas and throughout the Caribbean, who fear losing marine revenue to a revitalized Cuba.

But as of now, 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. As the epicenter of the classic cars, cigars and Cuban music, Havana needs little explanation. 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.

Just 12 additional marinas serve the remaining 3,000 nautical miles of coast – vast areas of beachfront, mangrove, pasture, wooded shores and undeveloped pocket bays. (And here's an amazing statistic: Cuba has 4,195 islands and cays.)

The "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 sector has sustained the Cuban nation since Soviet subsidies ended in 1989. Gaviota's pedigree guarantees that it, too, will be a powerful player; it is a subsidiary of a subsidiary of the Castro military.

Gaviota and Marlin share a belief in the future of "nautical tourism" from the United States as a profit center. Evidence of that came last year when Cuba's minister of tourism appointed Jose Miguel Diaz Escrich as director of the Marlin Group. Escrich, 62, enjoys excellent relations with U.S. yachtsmen and marine industry figures who know him as the avuncular commodore of the Hemingway International Yacht Club in Havana, which he founded with Fidel Castro's blessing in 1992.

While keeping his post at the club, Escrich is now responsible for Marlin's 2,000 employees, 400 tourist excursion vessels and hodge-podge 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. European moneymen, Escrich says, have been holding back, waiting for a thaw in relations between Havana and Washington.

Cuba's other decision was even weightier – as in concrete. With little fanfare, Gaviota has been working on an ambitious expansion of its Varadero marina. When finished, Gaviota Varadero 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 over 195 feet LOA.

There are probably berths for fewer than 20 megayachts in all of Cuba, excluding shipyards and commercial docks. Of those Marina Hemingway can accept 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. Once again, plans to redevelop the entire facility into a hotel-marina destination are on hold awaiting political change. Part of that project 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 at Varadero, 90 miles from the Florida Keys, is intended to help augment facilities for big recreational vessels. Escrich 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 year's end, Gaviota hopes to have 400 slips available for foreign vessels. By Stage three 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 argued that unlike the capital, Varadero is a staging area for cruising Cardenas and Santa Clara bays, which form a protected basin.

Cuba has numerous plans for 23 new marinas with about 5,000 additional berths, including a marina with 55 slips at Baracoa, the easternmost city on the North Coast of Cuba, and the oldest. Baracoa, with a small but lively music and arts scene, used to be a port of entry but no longer. Escrich says the establishment of facilities in Baracoa and nearby harbors would mean restoring Baracoa as an entry port.

They real prize, of course, is Havana Harbor itself. Today, it is closed to recreational vessels. Slowly, the Cuban government has been transferring the port infrastructure to the harbor at nearby Mariel. With anticipation of cruise ship lines and U.S. tourists, much of Havana Harbor would be rededicated to recreational uses, including yacht facilities, all just a short walk from one of the most spectacular colonial cities in the world.

Peter Swanson is a marine journalist who usually writes about the Greater Antilles. He operates a website www.cubacruising.net, anticipating that the ban that prevents U.S. citizens and their yachts from visiting Cuba will soon end.

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