Sail to Cuba: Regulations Update

Varaderos Beach, Cuba. Photo: Emmanuel Huybrechts
Varaderos Beach, Cuba. Photo: Emmanuel Huybrechts
Varaderos Beach, Cuba. Photo: Emmanuel Huybrechts

Just what are the regulations regarding travel to Cuba for American boaters? It seems everyone has a different answer, and that’s no surprise: the regulations have been changing seemingly faster than the printer can put out the new documents outlining them. What you read last week or last month has changed … again.

The two big changes to American policy regarding travel to Cuba happened on January 15th and September 21st
of this year.

Previous to January 15, there were 12 license categories which one could use to travel legally to Cuba. The general classifications, such as journalism, required only a declaration by the traveler. The others, known as ‘specific’ licenses, required a formal application to, and approval from, the OFAC – Office of Foreign Asset Controls.

On January 15th, along with a raft of other changes, the 12 categories were all made general. This means that any American who fits into one of the 12 categories needs only to declare his purpose in traveling to Cuba. No formal process is required, and permission is predicated on the declaration being true.

You are required to keep records of your trip, and to keep a schedule that is appropriate to your declared activity – in other words, not a bar and beach tour.

So just how hard is it to fit into one of the twelve categories?  Not hard at all. Educational, cultural pursuits or sporting activities for example include anything from learning about how your line of work operates in Cuba, going to the Cuban ballet, or even fly fishing inland, or a fishing tournament off Cuba’s coast. Show a little imagination and presto, you’ve qualified to travel to Cuba.

A quick digression here – one category that attracts many is philanthropic. Bring in some sort of needed supplies to Cuba, and you’re going legally, at least as far as the US is concerned. But – to distribute such bounty, you need permission from Cuba, and it’s hard to get – very hard to get in fact, according to those who have gone this route, it seems that some Cuban authorities are hopeful that if you don’t get permission to land your ‘gifts’, you’ll give them up and go home. Many do, and the officials involved then keep the items, selling them on the black market. So you might want to rethink that particular angle if you had it in mind. Speak with those who have experience in this particular area in other words.

Returning to our theme, until September 21st, you couldn’t travel to Cuba in your own boat, but only by qualified carrier, which meant an airline.

Then, on September 21st, the feds changed the laws yet again. Now, as an American, you can travel in your own vessel to Cuba provided the captain, crew and guests – in other words, all persons aboard – qualify to travel to Cuba under one of the 12 categories. That’s not all that difficult to accomplish as noted above.

USCG Form 3300-1
Form 3300
USCG Form 3300-2
Form 3300

There is a caveat or two however. The boat can only remain in Cuba for a maximum of two weeks. And, you require a license from the Coast Guard, form USCG 3300, which takes approximately three weeks to process.

And that’s it. You are legally in Cuba with your vessel.

I explained all of this at a seminar at the Annapolis Sailboat Show in October, and the questions that came back are worth repeating here for All At Sea readers.

One person wanted to know how the American government could know how long you were in Cuba. In other words, could he stay longer with his boat and get away with it?

The answer to that is, probably, and particularly if you go via the Bahamas. With no way to tell when you left the Bahamas, the Customs and Border Patrol people are left having to accept your answer. Of course, you have to be sure the Cubans don’t stamp your passport on entering the country, which continues to be the practice as of my most recent visit.

You are issued a tarjeta upon entering Cuba, a small card which serves as your visa, and which you return on leaving the country. There is no record of when you arrived or departed, at least not in your passport.

Also, since the feds really have no way of knowing when you left Florida, you could probably get away with a longer stay without the need to travel through the Bahamas.

Let me be clear. I’m not advocating that you break the law, I’m only reporting what others have asked, or commented on, to me.

The bigger question that faces many now is the insurance issue. An American insurance policy will not, cannot in fact, cover your boat in Cuba. This will not change until the embargo is lifted.

As it is now, if your boat is in Cuba and you make an insurance claim, your insurance company cannot cover it. That’s because they would have to pay someone in Cuba to do the work, and spending money in Cuba for them is illegal under the embargo.

Short of getting a policy from a non-American insurer, such as Lloyds of London, you travel to Cuba at your own risk.

For some, that will be a price they will choose to pay quite willingly. For others, it will be the show stopper.

Sailing to Cuba Photo: Wally Moran
Photo: Wally Moran

One person wanted to know if the two week period was per year, or could you simply leave Cuba on a short trip to nowhere, or the Caymans or Bahamas and then return, thus kick starting another two week period? I don’t know, and couldn’t find anyone who could answer that question for me. I expect it will be answered as more and more Americans travel to Cuba with their boats, and the authorities are faced with the question in real time.

If I had to give an answer, I’d say that the feds meant two weeks per year, but I also suspect that they won’t really worry about it. It’s clear that the intent of the government is to fully legalize travel between the United States and Cuba. Rigorous enforcement of niggling issues such as this won’t be seen.

Those watching this issue, myself included, are of the opinion that there won’t be more changes for quite a while, not at least until the effects of these most recent changes have been observed.

So, anyone care to join me for a mojito in Habana Viejo this winter?

Editor’s note: Anyone wishing up to date information on cruising in Cuba is encouraged to join Wally’s Facebook Group, Sailing and Cruising: Cuba, at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/SailingandCruisingCuba/

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6 comments

  1. Wally Moran here – This issue will be a dynamic one in terms of how the rules are interpreted. As people work with them, the acceptable practices will emerge. I will be happy to answer questions on the subject here.
    First update – the two week period is for a trip from America to Cuba and return. It does not include a third country as was initially thought by many.
    Next, there is talk that the 14 day period may soon be upped to 30 by the administration.
    Finally, Feliz Nuevo Año!

  2. Bart Blankenship

    What a great post! We just sailed our 26′ Pearson Ariel into Hemingway as journalists. We were there to make a film on Little League in Cuba. Our permit came easily with a bit of research on how to fill out the form. The turn around was only a week from submitting the permit to receiving it back. Then we found that one of our crew was remaining on assignment and so had to cancel the first permit and then have an updated one with him not on the return. That turnaround for the updated permit was only a few days.

    We also brought around 350 pieces of donated baseball gear to give to kids. We made contacts with teachers, coaches, and the Ministry of Education all who were anxious to get the gear and outfit kids there. But the Customs once they saw it, taped all the bags with official tape, and said it couldn’t leave the boat. They said they needed a duty to be paid, but wouldn’t say how much, just that it would be over $10 a ball and we had 150 of those!

    The Ministry of Education came to our boat and Customs stopped them, but then let them drive all that gear to the Customs facility where we’d checked in. They inventoried it and said it would be released to the teachers and Ministry we’d made contact with. They gave us a hand written inventory of what we’d left.

    But our crew who remained, has told us that it’s still in the sealed bags and will likely be sold on the black market as you’ve mentioned. That’s a bummer as we’d set up a website to donate gear and have been very successful on raising money and gear for the project. We’d love to bring more, but not have it go to line the custom people’s pockets.

    But back to the two week window. The Coast Guard called me and left a message. When I called them back, choosing “The Officer of the day” option, it rang and rang, with no option to leave a message. When I tired another number I was given the advice to send an email saying when we were leaving and to call 24 hours before we landed. I said our radio and cell phones wouldn’t carry that far, and they said to do our best.

    Our first attempt of crossing the seas were too rough and we turned back. The next weather window was in a few days and as our engine failed during this time of low winds, it took us 48 hours for the crossing.

    Not wanting to get in trouble upon return even though the permit was just for 14 days in Cuban seas, we left at the next opportunity and only had 5 days in Cuba. This crossing was a bit lumpy with the usual trade winds against the Gulf Stream so we reefed just to keep heel down in the 15 knot winds. It took 21 hours. We radioed the Coast Guard each hour and got no response until near Sand Key we finally said we were the sailing vessel Revival returning from Cuba. That last word got them to respond and they said they had our permit in front of them and gave me the number to call to check in. When I called that number they said to call once we were docked. No further instructions. So after we were on the dingy dock as we had anchored in the harbor, I called.
    That went smoothly and we were given instructions to go to the airport and clear customs there. Once there, they seemed excited that we were saying we’d sailed in from Cuba, as if we were going to get into trouble. And actually they seemed deflated when I gave them a copy or our permit where they quickly stamped our passports and we were in.
    We saved our receipts and have journaled our itineraries as per our permit.

    Next time hopefully, we’ll have contacts there who can make donating gear easier. They say they can. I’ll try again, and hope it will go smoothly.

    As a side note, conditions at Marina Hemingway are a bit sad. The toilets don’t flush and have no seats or paper. Each morning one toilet would be free of poop, but still wouldn’t flush. I think someone must fill a bucket to flush, but the rest were left full.
    We also employed a mechanic to fix our outboard. The problem seemed we’d run out of oil, then over filled. The plug was fouled with this oil and the mechanic said we needed a new one. But we didn’t bring a spare. So after a few cleanings of it and gapping by feel, he got it going again, and took 2 hours. We hadn’t asked his price ahead of time and were shocked at $120 he charged. Since the average monthly wage is $20 this was half a year’s wage for two hours work and no parts!
    Even at my meager wage where I work at Outward Bound this would be like me getting $10,000 for two hours work! We settled on $100. But be warned to set a price ahead.
    All said, it was a big adventure and one of the coolest things I’ve done to date. I’ll go again and hope this two week limit for not needing an export permit will be lifted or extended.

  3. Another thing to mention about the 14 day sojourn, according to BIS representative Mark Salinas on Jan 5, the traveler is supposed to read and comply with the applicable paragraph in CFR 740.15 and then place the initials “AVS” in the space provided on the CG 3300. AVS stands for aviation, vessel and spacecraft- strange but that is the applicable paragraph. Longer than 14 days and BIS requires a BIS SNAP-R registration for export license. There are boaters out there who have done that but I’m not one of them. Hopefully this will change.

  4. Hi Wally,
    We have just returned from our 18th trip to Cuba. Saw many changes, most for the good. Marina Hemmingway was very busy with lots of American cruisers & mega yachts. Clearance in to Cuba has been streamlined. Fewer inspectors, no sniffer dogs and less than 1/2 hour for the process. Fees are Visa $25.00/person, Cruising Permit & Dispacho $55.00.
    The main problems most Americans were having were financial. No American credit cards work in Cuba. Don’t blame the Cubans! US banks are forbidden by the US Treasury Dept. So bring lots of cash including enough to fly home if need be. There were two Americans at the marina who had arrived by boat – one hitch-hiking & one force mejeur. Both were trying to leave by air but unable to buy plane tickets.
    Cuba has a unique culture, rich in art, music and history. Look beyond the lack of toilet seats (take paper!) and you will find friendly, generous people and a beautiful country. Enjoy it for what it is!
    Viva la Cuba Libre

    • Hey Bradd – great to hear from you! Glad you had such a great trip, and it’s good news that the entry procedures are being streamlined – that was my impression also last summer.
      Too bad about the Americans being stranded – there was a speaker at last year’s Trawlerfest who said that credit cards were usable in Cuba. She was quite wrong, as you know.
      Actually, the US has now changed the rules and US credit cards companies are permitted to accept Cuban charges – but the banks have not set up the infrastructure to do so in Cuba, so in reality, nothing has changed. In any event, few places you’ll visit outside Havana and Varadero have credit card capabilities.
      As you said, viva la Cuba libre!

  5. Just a quick update to this article – as many of you have heard, American firms are now getting into offering yacht insurance for American boats. This of course has been the deal breaker for many, who could not countenance traveling over without insurance.
    I’ll be in Hemingway at the end of May and I’ll update following that.

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