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Yachting in Cuba: Navigating the Waters of Opportunity and Regulation

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In 1994, I had the good fortune to sail to Cuba from Jamaica, and spend the three most enjoyable weeks of cruising in my life. This past spring, I had the opportunity to fly to Havana from Miami to experience the changes there and learn about the future of yachting in Cuba.

Twenty one years ago Cuba was in a severe economic crisis due to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During that time, known as the ‘special period’, Cuba lost 80% of its market for exports and 80% of the imports coming into the island nation. Shortages of food, gasoline and diesel were commonplace. Russian language teachers, mostly women, were suddenly out of work. Times were very, very difficult.

Havana’s Parque Central. Photo by Capt. Jeff Werner
Havana’s Parque Central. Photo by Capt. Jeff Werner

Even so, Cubans welcomed American sailors, like me, without hesitation into their homes and into their lives. They pooled their rationed food to make us dinner, gifted us with rum and cigars and invited us to family celebrations. What stood out in my mind two decades ago was the spirit of optimism among teenagers about the future of Cuba. Having sailed professionally to just about every island in the Greater and Lesser Antilles, I was used to hearing kids of high school age talk about leaving the island and going to college in the U.S., Canada or Europe. Most added they didn’t expect to move back to their island of birth, as they didn’t see a future there.

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In Cuba it was different. All the young people I met looked forward to a future in Cuba working as architects, engineers or doctors and getting their country out of the economic doldrums. Those teenagers are now well into their careers and are well positioned for the biggest change in their lives: the normalization of relations with the United States. Today, the friendship toward Americans is still very palpable, but tinged with a degree of both excitement and hesitation toward the future. Excitement for the entrepreneurial opportunities that American tourism will offer; hesitant about the overwhelming impact that American culture might have on Cuba’s heritage.

Entrance channel to Havana Bay. Photo by Capt. Jeff Werner
Entrance channel to Havana Bay. Photo by Capt. Jeff Werner

The reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana and the rapid moves towards normalization of the two countries are making for heady times for the future of American tourism there, but what about American yachtsmen wanting to sail to Havana? What are the current rules and regulations for U.S. flagged yachts visiting Cuba?

In 2004, the USCG enacted regulations for U.S. vessels entering Cuban territorial waters, and this regulation is still in effect today:

Any U.S. vessel or vessel assimilated as one without nationality less than 328ft (100m) in length must have a Coast Guard permit to depart from the 12-mile territorial sea and thereafter enter Cuban territorial waters regardless of intervening entry into, passage through, or departure from any other territorial waters. The regulations are enforceable against the vessel, its owner, agent, master, officers, persons in charge and members of the crew.

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The application for this permit is Form CG-3300. Once the application is completed it is then faxed to the Seventh Coast Guard District in Miami for processing. The permit application must include the following information:

A Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) export license from the U.S. Department of Commerce. A license from the U.S. Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC). An applicant seeking to enter Cuban territorial waters pursuant to a general OFAC license must explain in detail why the applicant qualifies for the particular general license. The names of the vessel’s owner, master, officers, operator, persons-in-charge, or crewmembers if applicable.

Know Your Boundaries

Fruit vendor and friends. Photo by Capt. Jeff Werner
Fruit vendor and friends. Photo by Capt. Jeff Werner

While this process may seem onerous, on the average the permit is granted within 30 days.

What are the penalties for unauthorized entry into Cuban territorial waters? The regulations are quite clear:

Failure to comply with the Coast Guard, Commerce, Treasury, or other Federal government regulations regarding travel to Cuba will subject violators to federal criminal prosecution, as well as possible administrative proceedings by the Department of Commerce and Department of Treasury. Penalties for violations of these Federal statutes and regulations can result in fines, imprisonment, vessel seizure and forfeiture, and denial of future export privileges.

In addition to the vessel’s permit, visas issued by the Cuban government will need to be secured prior to departure for all persons aboard the yacht. The U.S. State Department advises all travelers to contact the new Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., “to determine the appropriate type of visa required for their purpose of travel.”

Whether sailing into Havana, Varadero, Cienfuegos or Santiago de Cuba, be prepared to absorb a culture and heritage that has been forbidden to American citizens for over 50 years. It is a cruise that you will long remember.

Street performers in Old Havana. Photo by Capt. Jeff Werner
Street performers in Old Havana. Photo by Capt. Jeff Werner

Capt. Jeff Werner is a 23 year veteran of the yachting industry. In addition to working as a captain on private and charter yachts, both sail and power, he is a certified instructor for the RYA, MCA, USCG and US Sailing.

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Capt. Jeff Werner
Capt. Jeff Wernerhttp://www.yachtmaster.com
Capt. Jeff Werner is a Senior Instructor with International Crew Training in Ft. Lauderdale, and is a 22 year veteran of the yachting industry. www.yachtmaster.com

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