Sail to Cuba: Regulations Update

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: