Click on the video
Cuba is poised to become the Eco-tourist capital of the Caribbean. Will the island’s exploding tourist industry destroy the fragile environment? Or will Cuba protect her six diverse biospheres from over development?
The idea first surfaced while crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Four days and nights at sea, sighting only the odd freighter, popping up on the horizon, then sailing back into the ocean – the sheer size and emptiness spawned the plan. A plan to sail a load of pot from Jamaica to Florida.
Years before some fraternity brothers made big bucks unloading large shipments of ganja, as much as ten grand a night. I never got in on those paydays….. I also never forgot.
Glenn Frey called it “The lure of easy money.”
“We fight to keep this competition alive. The people of Cuba revere the memory of Ernest Hemingway. He is important to us. He is part of our history too.”- Commodore Jose Escrich
The Man Who will not let the Hemingway Die
They call him “Commodore.” And, like an admiral on the bridge, Jose Escrich leads Cuba’s Club Nautico with the tautness of a mainsheet on a rail-down sloop.
Starting with a dream and a handful of charter members, the Commodore built the yacht club without Cuban government aide or assistance. Today, Club Nautico – located in Marina Hemingway west of Havana – has established relations with over five-hundred yacht and sailing associations worldwide….many in the United States.
One anchor of the club is the Hemingway International Billfish Championships held annually in May. 2013 marked the 63rd year of the contest, the oldest competition of its kind in the world. Each year anglers from as far away as South Africa vie to tag and release the most Marlin, Sailfish and Broadbills and win one of the coveted hand carved sword trophies. No two polished awards are alike, each is an artist’s ménage of intricate scenes depicting leaping fish alongside likenesses of the bearded Papa.
Hemingway moored his beloved boat “Pilar” in Cojimar, just east of the capitol city. His most famous work, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Old Man and the Sea” was inspired by stories shared over rum with old fishermen of this seaside village. Hemingway established the tournament in 1950. He left the island and his boat in 1960 due mainly to poor health.
Today, the Commodore fights for the gifted author’s namesake competition against the inconsistent policies of the United States. He saw the tournament thrive in the Clinton years with more than forty American boats crossing the ninety mile straits to compete. Though the tournament never offered a large purse, the draw of the island, close proximity to the U.S. and great marlin fishing lured American anglers to this forbidden fruit of the Caribbean.
The lessening of restrictions in the1990’s also led to the revival of several U.S to Havana regattas bringing hundreds of American sailors. During this heyday feelings ran high among the nautical crowd that the door was opening for all boaters wishing to visit the island. Hemingway Marina bustled with activity. With the election of the second President Bush and his ties to the powerful Miami exiles, that door to Cuba travel slammed shut. Again the marina returned to a ghost town of empty berths.
Boat crossings virtually ceased in 2003 after President Bush’s speech in Miami, declaring an end to yachtsmen traveling to Cuba for Sex. (Many pundits speculated as to when Las Vegas would be declared off limits for similar reasons.) This barrier came in the form of a law quickly passed making it illegal for a boat or ship to sail directly from Cuba to any port in the states. Many boats first clear a foreign port to hide the fact they docked in Cuba. Canadians use this ruse annually when returning their craft to Florida for summer storage.
Although the enforcement can be inconsistent – as are our shifting policies with Cuba – it discourages most owners from taking the risk of fines or confiscation of their craft. Once again politics had loped off Club Nautico’s extended hand of friendship to the Yumas – a Cuban term for Americans used in lieu of Yankee. Caught in the middle, having to deal with his own government’s multilevel bureaucracy and the finicky U.S.’s constantly changing policies, most men would have thrown their hands in the air and cried Uncle.
But surrender is not in this Commodore’s character. “I began this organization based on the premise the boating community has a bond that crosses politics and ideologies. When one comes to the aid of a fellow sailor in peril, the question is not of politics. The question is how may I help? I believe Senor Hemingway would agree.”
Commodore Escrich is no stranger to the sea. “My father and grandfather were naval officers. My father fought in the revolution but was not a communist.”
Like his father, a onetime consultant to the U.S Navy in Cuba, Escrich entered the Cuban Naval Academy at 18 launching a 25 year career that would include 4 years in the Soviet Union and a return to the college as a professor of naval history.
In 1991 Escrich became a consultant to Cubacan, the government arm in charge of the islands newly emerging tourist industry. Cubacan had been directed to manage Hemingway Marina, the closest deep water harbor to Havana. It was there the idea of an international yacht club was born.
According to the Commodore, beginning with the formation of the prestigious Havana Yacht Club in 1886, more than 100 sailing and yachting organizations existed in Cuba in 1959. By the end of 1960 there were none. Escrich considerers this absurd on an island nation with more coastline than Florida.
Escrich proposed the club in May of 1992 and was granted permission to form his organization, but could expect no funds from the Castro regime. Although both Fidel and current President Raul own or have access to large yachts, the revolution branded pleasure boating a bourgeois pastime. From the initial 32 supporters (including one American), Club Nautico now includes members from 60 countries and is affiliated with yacht clubs and sailing associations around the globe.
In 1998, after an arduous campaign by Commodore Escrich, the Hemingway tournament became and an IGFA (International Game Fishing Association) sanctioned no-kill competition. Points are awarded for tagged and released fish only, and the friendlier circle hook’s use is encouraged. Current IGFA president Rob Kramer, on hand for this year’s contest believes the Cuban fishery is special.
“Cuba offers something unique to the Caribbean with its great offshore, inshore and fresh water angling opportunities.” said Kramer. “Cuban anglers and the IGFA are currently working jointly to insure this great resource’s protection. In addition to supporting the Hemingway tournament, we are working with the owners and fishing guides of Avalon (Cuba’s largest charter company) to promote proven conservation practices on the water including release techniques and proper management within Cuban’s marine reserves. In the language of conservation, the IGFA and recreational fishing organizations in Cuba are on the same page.”
The fight to keep the Hemingway Tournament alive is in a most critical phase. A mere nine boats registered for the contest in 2013, only two American citizens participated. Ironically Joe Colabella’s 63 Sea Ray “Unclaimed” captured the first place trophy topping the small fleet representing 8 countries. Colabella, a Pennsylvania furniture dealer recruited four of Havana’s best captains, including 28 year old Pedro Enrique, recently awarded “Captain of the year.” for his dream team. Five more American boats registered to compete remained in Key West, unable to obtain the necessary Coast Guard permission to cross, a requirement only when sailing to Cuba.
For 21 years, the Commodore’s attempts to bridge the political gap between the U.S. and Cuba has been hampered by such occurrences. Repeatedly he has been refused a visa by the U.S. to attend boat shows, yachting events and awards ceremonies, even when he was to be the honored recipient.
Predicting the future of the Hemingway is akin to forecasting the path of a Caribbean hurricane. Shifting attitudes in the U.S. are calling for more engagement with our island neighbor. As more Americans visit Cuba under the current people to people contact policies reinstituted by the Obama administration, the pressure to normalize relations grows.
Recently, the President received a letter from sixty prominent Cuban Americans calling for the removal of Cuba from the State Departments list of terrorist states, an important first step. Also, talks regarding mail service and immigration have resumed. These meetings are often public faces for behind the scenes discussions on more vital issues concerning both countries.
But age old barriers and some recent ones still block the path between our two nations. Hard line Cuban American members of congress – including three from Florida – remain adamant against contact with anyone with the last name Castro, and the case of American Alan Grossman – jailed in Cuba for smuggling sensitive technology to the island – is an impasse.
“We will continue until, God willing, the tournament will once again be filled with competitors from the homeland of Hemingway.” The Commodore said in a somber, steel voice. “His tournament must not be allowed to die.”
The commodore believes that within the chaotic and confrontational history between the United States and Cuba, the tournament serves as a reminder that restrictions, imposed by politicians run contradictory to history. A history our countries long shared as neighbors, friends, allies.
“Please Mr. Obama. End this insanity. Help us save this tournament.” The Commodore pleaded. One needn’t wait for the translation to understand. And from a man more adept at ordering than asking…. his words spoke volumes.
I take this opportunity to renew my best wishes and extend an invitation to join us in the 65th “Ernest Hemingway” International Billfish Fishing Tournament, to be held from May 25th to 30th, 2015.
“Sharks in the Harbor”
Sharks are eating one out of every three tarpon hooked in Key West harbor.
Be it geography, demographics or a narrow gene pool, Key West Florida is known for unusual occurrences….Spring 2014 is no exception.
Around the island the migrations of many aquatic species are in full swing, and none more anxiously awaited than the million member march of tarpon moving north, up from the Caribbean.
Two distinct species – Atlantic and Gulf – stimulated by rising water temperatures and the call to procreate, cross the Straits of Florida in football field size schools. These silver sided beast, some in excess of two hundred pounds are historically greeted by large, hungry sharks.
The traveling tarpon’s first port of call are the channels, harbors and grass flats of the Florida Keys. From Key Largo to the Marquesas, world class anglers also await the fish’s arrival armed with thousand dollar fly rods alongside shrimp tinted tourist on the fishing trip of their dreams.
Tarpon have no food value –an entrepreneur tried making pet food from them in the 1940’s but the dogs and cats refused it – but are highly prized for their leaping jumps and strong battles.
As one Key West captain said, “There is more money spent catching tarpon than any other non-edible fish in the world.”
This year an inordinate number of sharks –mainly bulls and tigers – of unusually large sizes have shown up in advance of the tarpon and are feasting with an aggression that has the fisherman edgy.
Ralph Delph, an elder statesman of Key’s captains pointed out this observation while meeting up with son Rob at the Key West Yacht Club. Delph holds in excess of one hundred world records, many on sharks. “I’ve never seen bulls this big in the harbor.” He said. “Some of these beast are six and seven hundred pounds.”
“Their very aggressive.” Adds Rob, himself a renowned fishing captain. “And, there are more tigers around than I ever remember seeing in the harbor.
“We’re having tarpon eaten in spots where we’ve never had a problem with sharks before.” Peter Heydon said over a beer at Dante’s bar. Peter is a flats guide and poles in pursuit of the monster tarpon across skinny water grass flats and shallow snaking channels. “We were anchored in Calda channel the other day and the baits we had out behind the boat were only being eaten by sharks. We were jumping tarpon on plugs casts along the channel edges. The fish were creeping right next to the banks, trying to sneak past the sharks waiting in the deeper water.”
Both bull sharks and tigers are flat bellied sharks able to suck in their gullets and pursue prey into inches of water, pinning them against a bank or bar. These highly visible chases across the shallows many times end in exploding cascades of water and sand, whipped by thrashing tails as the shark devourers the tarpon leaving only blood, scales and a lifeless head staring up from the eel grass bottom.
The big bull sharks in many instances are jumping clear of the water when hook – not an unheard of event but unusual and scary due to their size. “I grabbed my son Santiago and held him close,” related Capt. Pepe Gonzalez. “The shark cleared the water and all I could think of was what if it lands in the boat.”
“It was a really big one.” Adds Capt. Paul D”Antoni, who happened to be anchored close by. ”I’m guessing six hundred pounds.”
Not only are these giant, leaping bull sharks being more aggressive, but also appear fearless, showing up before the fishing boat has anchored or put out the first chum. Attracted by the idling motors, the sharks have learned to stake out the most popular spots and wait for the action to begin.
No one is more familiar with the underwater topography of the Key West harbor than Lee Starling or “Lobster Lee.” For more than thirty years Lee has made a living harvesting lobster from the honey holes, ledges, wrecks and discarded debris from Fleming Key to Fort Zachary Taylor at the harbor’s entrance.
Lee is used to fighting strong tidal currents, poor visibility and yachts speeding overhead while gleaning the Caribbean crawfish from hidden holes along the channel’s dredged banks. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Lee offered. “On one wreck I dive where the tarpon hang out the bottom is carpeted with scales. I’ve seen scattered scales before but never anything like this.”
Tarpon are lined with silver dollar size heavy armored detachable scales that give way to shark bites, allowing them to escape many times, leaving a few scales as reminders of the encounter. But, when they coat the bottom in numbers Lee describes, it translates to fish being eaten.
“I’m not diving Ft. Zack right now.” Lee states. “I dove for a lost anchor the other day and the bull sharks were on me as soon as I hit the water. No chum, no spearfishing – two things that attract sharks – they were just on me.”
Lee blames the gathering on “Power Chumming” and doesn’t single out the harbor fisherman who use shrimp trash – the by-catch from shrimping to attract the tarpon. “Even the guys on the reef yellow-tailing are responsible. Their scent trail can bring fish in from the gulf stream.”
Illustrating his point, a six hundred pound Blue-fin Tuna was hooked and fought for six hours last week before escaping, an unheard of feat in Key West. The giants are known to migrate far offshore this time of year but this fish was hooked close in only a hundred fifty feet of water just outside the reef.
Tim Ott – veteran tuna harvester and star of the popular National Geographic Channel series “Wicked Tuna” owns a home on the island and spends much of the winter fishing from Dry Tortuga to Marquesa.
“The tuna are feeding the bluefish up into the Gulf of Mexico to their spawning grounds.” Ott offered, “Something has caused the bluefish to travel inshore of their normal migration route and the tuna followed.”
Around the same time a great White shark was spotted repeatedly over a four day period at the Toppino buoy, a popular dive site only seventeen feet deep, lying within sight of shore. Are these two unusual encounters a product of power chumming? Or as some suggest a reflection of climate change.
Capt. Mike Weinhofer believes the rising overall local shark population explains the increases in the harbor and on the reef. “With the elimination of long-liners, finning, and finally the closure of a loophole that allowed commercial fisherman to sell sharks as incidental catch, we have seen an increase in all sharks, but especially the inshore species.”
Capt. Tony Murphy owner of The Salt Water Angler fly shop has won the ESPN shark challenge three times. “I’ve seen large hammerheads, twelve to fourteen feet, just outside the swim buoys at Ft. Zack. Evidently the sharks aren’t after people. In many cases they are just yards apart.”
Reports from along the Keys trail indicate this problem is not Key West’s alone. Rumor has it a frustrated charter Captain killed a big bull shark – most everyone releases sharks – and hung it from the Bahia Honda Bridge in hopes the scent of their dead brethren would keep the other bull sharks at bay. It reportedly worked until after three days the fragrance faded and the sharks returned.
Tim Ott and Rob Delph rig for big tuna.
“In the spring a young man’s fancy turns to love.”
Schools of spawning permit join the procreational pursuit at a most spectacular of gatherings. In multitudes of silver and gold they mass, holding over a few picturesque spots suspended in crystal waters of the outer bar. Trinity is one such site, a name coined by divers in deference to three coral peaks rising 20-25 feet above a white marl bottom.
Located on the outer reef or “bar”, this ridge of coral disappeared beneath the waves at the end of the last Ice Age, millennia ago. Running east to west, with an average relief of 10 feet, this outside reef is a phenomenon, occurring nowhere else along the Florida Keys chain. Trinity is a deep spot, 55 feet, and sits inside the Atlantic drop-off due south. Bathed in nutrient rich currents, often by the Gulf Stream itself, the ledges, walls and sea-fan forest of Trinity draw resident fish and traveling schools, layered at times from surface to sea-floor. On clear water days the sandy bottom reflects the tropic sun, lighting an outdoor aquarium.
By the second week of April, on rare calm days, spawning permit rise above the corral pinnacles bathing their egg laden bellies in the warm sun. Often, pin prick fins spike the surface giving up the school. In sun, the mother-permit flash golden, ripe with the next generation. When flushed, they file beneath the boat matching numbers and moving with the herd mentality of buffalo. Seen from below, they flow over submerged ridges like Hollywood Indians sweeping down on circled wagons.
We’re aboard a powder blue Yellowfin 42 with four high horsepower Mercury’s strapped to the back. Eight minutes out of Key west Harbor, a new Trinity record. Only Popeye’s fried chicken boat made this run faster, and he was on the outward bound leg of the world powerboat championships.
As one friend Jim Butters put it following a furiously fast ride in the behemoth center console, in less than calm seas. “This isn’t a boat, it’s a carnival ride.”
Captain T.J. Ott is at the wheel. T.J.’s a second generation professional tuna harvester, and star of the popular reality show, “Wicked Tuna.” Six months of the year he battles thousand pound blue fins with rod and lance. Winter months he’s at the family home in Key West, ranging his ocean rocket west to Dry Tortugas then east to Cay Sal Banks, relentlessly pursuing a tug on the line and fish in the box.
An early morning phone call from key’s captain Steve Rodgers – another Key’s fishing celebrity- was short and to the point, permit on the bar. Rodgers, a native son Conch captain is privy to inside info, always one of the first to know. We’ll have a day or two before word spreads and boats flock to the site. Secrets don’t last in the southernmost city.
Nikie and I join T.J. and Diesel, a fish hound black Rottweiler weighing in at eighty pounds. Constantly in the shadow of our captain, Diesel stakes out a spot at his master’s feet, daring any challenge. He’s veteran crew and knows where the ride is softest and dry.
The spa-size live well teems in crab. Some, half-dollar size baby blues imported from Miami, others corral colored sand crabs caught this morning by Nikie, wading a shallow bar. All are declawed.
We’ll hook these squiggling crustations thru the pointed end of the carapace on a half-ounce plain lead jig. Thirty pound leader connects the weighted offering to twenty pound braid spooled on Shimano spinners, Flora-carbon of course. Seven foot Star graphite rods, in tandem with the lead jig provides casting range with backbone enough to muscle a fish. Unlike wreck or tower fishing these permit have no close cut-off place to flee to, a common occurrence around structure. Given enough head they will scrape the hook across the sand bottom or dash under a sharp edge overhang, attempting to rid themselves of the bothersome tug.
There is reason to horse these hard fighting members of the jack family in. Sharks, most often the Great American Hammerhead lurk just out of sight. Shadowing the schools these anvil-headed monsters run large, over 10 feet, some eight hundred pounds.
While conjuring a plan for a first drift a shout and splash turns every head. Our informant Steve Rodgers, leading a charter has been fighting a fish since our arrival. Now, the tan tail of a 12 foot shark slaps the side of his Conch 27 while the other end devours his angler’s twenty pound permit. The fisherman freaks. Not used to seeing a tail the size of a grown man waving at eye level he seems convinced the shark wants him.
With engines at a quite idle, T.J. eases up to a school. We cast our crabs into a group of tiny points directly above a cloud of milling, flashing shapes. Reacting to the splashes, the fish move forward and down. Free-lined off the spools our baits sink with them. Two of the three crabs are eaten. I strike and miss, Nikie’s reel is whining her rod bent double.
The bent rod sends Diesel into frenzy. He covers the length and breadth of the Yellowfin barreling by any unfortunate bystander, barking his excitement, cheering Nikie on. Paws on gunnel Diesel watches for the fish, if he’s disappointed not seeing a giant tuna it doesn’t show.
Nikie fights this fish like the seasoned pro she is. She holds the spool and lifts the rod smooth, never jerking, then winds down even and fluid. With skills honed hoisting Halibut in Alaska, this beautiful bartender-angler is a fish in the boat kind of girl.
The action is fast with multiple hook-ups and our luck with the sharks holds thru a few close calls. We release nine hard fighting permit, missing a dozen more. Low light brings our slugfest to a halt when wispy clouds gather blocking out the lowering sun. Fueled by cooling air over warmer water these late afternoon formations are common in the spring, the fish disappear with the light.
Another eight minute ride, then a slow swing by the Mallory Square sunset extravaganza ends the day. We watch “The great Rondine” wiggle in chains. A high wire artist balances on one leg and twirls plates. Cat man directs a pride of felines thru circus routines climaxing with a leap thru a flaming hoop. Nowhere else on earth does this land and sea dichotomy exist. But what to expect when one boards T.J.’s – “Key West carnival ride?”