Return of the Americans

billy-the-kid“Billy the Kidd” outdueled a fleet of 25 boats representing seven different countries to take top honors in the 65th Hemingway International Billfish Championships, held in Havana Cuba. In three and a half days, the American boat released a tournament record eleven billfish amassing 5200 points.

Consistency played a key role as the American boat owned by Bill Pullman of Sarasota, Florida released at least one billfish each day of the completion.

For the first time in forty years American boats were granted permission to compete in the Cuban tournament. Over one hundred boats applied under the category of sports competition. In the end only 11 were granted licensed by the State Department.

At the Captains meeting held at Club Natico, located in Marina Hemingway, Commodore Jose Escrich welcomed the American contingent which included Patrick Hemingway, grandson of the Pulitzer Prize winning author. Ernest Hemingway founded the tournament in 1950 while serving as vice president of the newly formed International Game Fish Association and is considered a pioneer of big game fishing.

Outdoor writer and tournament veteran Captain Phil Thompson presented Commodore Escrich with an appreciation award on behalf of the returning American competitors. Addressing the first time visitors to Cuba Thompson said, “Next week you will leave this beautiful island… but this island will never leave you.”

For more than two decades Commodore Escrich – the founder of Club Natico – has battled politics on both sides of the Florida Straits to keep Hemingway’s legacy contest alive. The tournament is the oldest billfish competition in the world.

Stiff East winds countered a strong inshore current producing eight to ten foot swells for the first three days of fishing. “I’ve never seen the Gulfstream in so close.” Said 63 year old Peter Calvo, considered one of the most knowledgeable captains in Havana. The royal blue water of the stream brought with it the marlin and sailfish. A tournament record 52 billfish releases were recorded including Unclaimed’s 5 marlin releases in one day, also a Hemingway tournament record.

Top boat, “Billy the Kidd” took the lead the first day and steadily widen its winning margin, finishing with a total of 11 marlin and sailfish releases.

Second Place finisher Triple F from Key West made a valiant charge on the last half day of fishing releasing two blue marlin and one white.

Third Place went to Unclaimed owned by American Joe Colabela. Unclaimed’s captain and crew was composed of some of Havana’s best offshore fishermen.

Key Player, out of Orange Beach Alabama won the trophy for the largest dolphin weighing a 39 pound fish.

The trophies – works of art – are broadbill swordfish bills hand etched by island artist. It takes a full year for the talented Cubans to carve the intricate designs featuring images of Hemingway and leaping billfish.

An astounding awards ceremony show featured the world renowned band, The Buena Vista Social Club. Their rocking performance of traditional Cuban music brought the crowd to its feet. “They even had the waiters dancing.” Said 20 year old Eric Bowden from New Jersey, enjoying his first visit to the island.

Next year’s Hemingway tournament is scheduled for June 13th 2016 and is expected to draw an even larger group of American anglers.

Fish Cuba Now …. Support the Cuban People!

mms_20150227_075956121Fish Cuba and support the Cuban People.
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American Boaters to Cruise Cuba?

Hemingway Marina Havana Cuba

Hemingway Marina Havana Cuba

Is Cuba on the Horizon for boaters?

According to Commodore Jose Escrich, head of Cuba’s Club Natico, U.S. regulations restricting boat travel to the island are about to change. Citing an unnamed official from the American Interest Section in Havana, the head of the only non-government supported boating organization in Cuba said restrictions on private U.S. boats crossing the straits will be relaxed or ignored beginning sometime in March. Actively enforced during the second Bush administration, tight regulations have kept all but a trickle of mariners from cruising the largest of the Antilles Island.
For U.S. boat owners desiring to cruise Cuba, hope arrived with President Obama’s announcement in December 2014 calling for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with our island neighbor.
Lying a day’s sail from Key West or less than three hours for the average power boater, Cuba’s close proximity, great fishing, diving and cruising grounds are a treasure U.S. boaters yearn to explore. According to recent estimates, eighty-thousand American boat owners are poised to cruise Cuban waters.
An easing of restrictions would be welcomed news for Club Natico which host the Hemingway Billfish Tournament, the oldest competition of its’ kind in the world. Ernest Hemingway launched the tournament bearing his name in 1950. At the time the famous writer was vice president of the newly formed International Gamefish Association. American participation in the contest would boost registrations and transform it into one of the richest blue marlin tournaments in the world.
In South Florida to receive an achievement award from the International Seakeepers Society, Commodore Escrich met with various yacht club officers and boating organization representatives from around the country.

Cuban Travel Tip # 10 Safety

Old Cuban woman checks on a napping American

Casa Particular owner checks on her napping American guest

Cuban Travel Tip # 10

Travel Safety
Cuba today is not only one of the friendliest travel destinations in the hemisphere…..But one of the safest in the world. Other than pickpockets, panhandlers, petty thieves and hustlers, tourist – Including solo women – are pretty much free to roam the streets of cities like Havana worry free.
Violence on the island nation is mostly drunken bar brawls between sotted locals or domestic violence, both easily avoided. Not to say you are free to wander alone drunk into the poorest barrios at 3 A.M. and not expect trouble, but practice a little prudence and you’ll be fine.
And, unlike other poor countries in Central and South America I’ve traveled, that undercurrent of animosity toward “The Gringo” seems not to exits in Cuba, not yet anyway.
At the end of Conan O’Brien’s riotous romp through Havana last week, he made a point to emphasize the friendliness of the Cuban people. He was not overstating.
Who knows? Maybe after a couple of spring breaks and a few winter seasons of sunburned mid-western tour groups, this love affair with Americans will change. I hope not.

Cuban Travel Tip # 9

Horse cart Paladar on the beach.

Horse cart Paladar on the beach.

2013-05-05 10.11.26Paladars
Paladars are civilian owned restaurants which run a wide gamut from sidewalk coffee and pizza stands to palatial 5 star quality eateries. The evolution of the Paladar in Cuba dates back to the early nineties. In those days street hustling guides led parties of visitors up unlit, un-railed stairs to illegal, unlicensed sources of some of the best food on the island.
Today, the privately owned restaurants are legal, inspected by health inspectors and along with the Casa Paticulars are creating Cuba’s first middle class since the revolution. Popping up all over the island, these establishments offer the best value in dining with the average meal priced around ten dollars. In some of the peso restaurants catering to Cubans the cost can be as low as two or three bucks.
The menus vary offering a variety of locally grown, caught or raised entries of seafood, poultry and sides of fresh fruits and vegetables. La Giraldilla – located a couple of kilometers west of Marina Hemingway – features waterfront dining and tender seven dollar sirloin steaks– something unheard of in Cuba just a few years back at any price.
And, as with Casa Particulars and private taxis, your money is injected directly into the Cuban private sector where it does the most good. So when you ask directions for a good restaurant, use the term Paladar. You and Cuba will be the better for it.

Commodore Escrich Tours Key West

Marathon swimmer Diana Nyad with the Commodore at the Green Parrot

Marathon swimmer Diana Nyad with the Commodore at the Green Parrot

Meet the Commodore reception Key West Yacht Club

Meet the Commodore reception Key West Yacht Club

Cuban Commodore Jose Escrich and his wife Mariceo toured Key West last week as a guest of the southernmost city’s marine and tourist organizations. Escrich is the head of Club Natico, located in Marina Hemingway – fifteen minutes west of Havana. The club is the only non-government funded boating organization in Cuba.
“I started Club Natico as a non-political organization that welcomes sailors, cruisers and fishermen from the world over.” said Escrich. Key West Yacht Club was the first American boating organization to establish relations with the club. Today, Club Natico’s members come from sixty countries and the club is recognized by over five hundred yacht clubs and boating organizations worldwide
After manning the helm of the USCG Ingram, a decommissioned Coast Guard cutter, Escrich was honored at a reception at the Key West Yacht Club. Bob Harvey presented his fellow Commodore with a local artist’s painting of Ernest Hemingway’s famous fishing boat “Pilar.”
A replica of the boat docked in both Key West and Cuba last June. The original Pilar rest under cover at Hemingway’s house, Finca la Vigia, east of Havana proper. Hemingway left his beloved fishing boat to Gregorio Fuentes when he left Cuba in 1960. Fruentes was the famous writer’s fishing mate and friend and is believed to be the model for Santiago, the main character in the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Old Man and the Sea.” Unable to afford the maintenance on the boat, Fuentes donated it to the Castro government.
In addition to welcoming mariners from around the world, Club Natico host the Hemingway Billfish Tournament each spring. The longest running competition of its kind, Hemingway initiated the tournament in 1950, while serving as the vice president of the newly formed IGFA.
In the nineteen nineties, American boats took advantage of the Clinton administration’s relaxed Cuban travel regulations sailing freely between Key West and Marina Hemingway. Many of Key West’s sailors and fishermen made multiple trips yearly, ferrying much needed supplies to newly made friends suffering under what Fidel termed the “Special Period.”
With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost an estimated seven billion dollars a year in direct subsidies sending the Cuban economy into a tailspin, creating shortages in food, energy and basic necessities. Key West and Cuba were once again linked by a thin tread of traveling Americans bringing food and friendship.
American participation also brought new life to the Hemingway Tournament which in 2003 had over 40 American teams trolling the waters off Havana for blue marlin, one of the world’s most popular game fish.
When Bush replaced Clinton, strict enforcement shut the gate on boat travel for Americans and the tournament once again was threatened with extinction. Only Commodore Escrich’s determination and unbending desire to preserve what he considers a Cuban national treasure, kept the contest alive.
“We must not let the tournament die.” He declared in a 2013 interview. Participation in the Hemingway had dropped to nine boats and the few tournament sponsors were pulling out. With relaxed regulations for American participants, the tournament could become one of the richest in the world.
A graduate of the Cuban Naval Academy, Escrich’s twenty-five year career as a Cuban Naval officer included four years in the former Soviet Union before returning to the college as a professor of naval history.
In 1991 Escrich became a consultant to Cubacan, the government arm in charge of the island’s newly emerging tourist industry. Cubacan had been directed to manage Hemingway Marina, the closest deep water harbor to Havana. Before resigning to devote all his attention to the newly formed Club Natico, Escrich was head of all marina operations in Cuba.
Commodore Eschich and his wife, sister in law Yuri and her husband, Julio Salvadore were hosted by many of Key West’s most prominent businessmen including restaurant and tour owners.
“We became family in three days,” commented Eco-tour owner Carla Bellenger. Carla was the constant companion of Mericeo and her sister during the three days of meetings and introductions.
“They were all so sweet.” She added. “I felt for Mericeo though. She was so anxious to see her grandchildren in Port St. Lucia, Florida. It brought home to me how many family separations this embargo has caused. Hopefully meetings like these will bring about change.”
Included in the busy schedule, the Commodore toured the new marina expansions taking place on neighboring Stock Island in anticipation of normal boat traffic and ferry service to and from the island. Some estimates claim eighty- thousand U.S. boaters are eager to cruise Cuba.
A new eleven hundred slip marina built in the resort city of Veradaro – an hour and a half east of Havana – is in preparation for the flood of American boaters.
“Key West has been abuzz since the December announcement re-establishing dialogue with Cuba. Everyone is looking south.” said Hog Fish restaurant owner Bobby Mongelli, during a luncheon he hosted for the group. “We have businessmen meeting here wanting in on the ground floor of the Cuban capitalist invasion. Everything from ferry operators to regatta organizers want the Commodore’s ear.”
Before arriving in Key West, Escrich attended the Miami Boat Show as a guest of the National Marine Manufacturers Association and was honored with an achievement award presented by the International Sea Keepers Society. The Commodore had been turned down in the past when applying for a visa to attend meetings and conferences in the U.S.

Cuban Travel Tip # 8

Cuban Travel Tip # 8


7063Unfortunately in Cuba, public transportation is difficult. Buses are unbelievably crowded, make milk run stops and are best left to the young, adventurous backpackers with time and a Freudian desire for inconvenience.
Trains, are slow, crowded, subject to frequent breakdowns and delays. This mode too should only be considered by the courageous traveler. Frequently, a train is stopped because the rails have been stolen. When this occurs, passengers are often loaded into open trucks to complete their journey.
If you want to experience the island like a Cuban climb aboard. The train runs from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, the buses service every population center.
Rental cars are scarce in season and expensive by our standards. The lowest price I have found is around $70.00/day. I pay for my cars here with my travel agent and save the currency conversion charge. If you’re staying in Havana, it might be wise to delay picking up the car for a few days. Driving in Havana takes some getting used to.
English speaking drivers are readily available. Most are college educated and very reliable. Keep in mind when you hire a Cuban, he or she accepts responsibility for your safety. Sounds too good to be true…. but it is.
Another option used by visiting Cubans is to rent a private car. It’s cheap….but illegal. In case of an accident or a routine stop, it could jam you up.
I like horse taxis – or you can bring your own.

Cuban Travel Tip # 7.5 More on Casa Particulars

11 3Cuban Travel Tip # 7.5

More on Casa Paticulars:
Julia Cooke describes the Casa Particular relationship in her excellent book, “The Other Side of Paradise”
“Remember how she’d written down my passport number in that logbook for the authorities? She was accountable while I was in Cuba, she said before turning away. I wasn’t to worry: she’d keep me safe.”
This adoption process is part of what makes staying with private homeowners the safest and one of the most pleasurable experiences of your Cuba Trip.
Look for the blue anchor symbol.