The 2015 Hemingway International Billfish Tournament awards ceremony has ended. Now the world renowned band “The Buena Vista Social Club” has the crowd rocking to traditional Cuban salsa music – even the waiters and waitresses are dancing.
Making his way through the melee, Captain Pedro Santos Jr.- his beautiful fiancé at his side – works the crowd like a modern day politician. The young Cuban captain’s handsome face is lit with a broad smile as he greets the first place finishing crew of Billy the Kid, then lingers at the table of Unclaimed, the boat that finished third.
His father, Pedro Calvo Santos is a member of Unclaimed’s crew which set a tournament record five marlin releases in one day, a feat in any billfish completion.
As father and son embrace, it’s impossible to miss the loving bond between them
Although young Pedro’s team failed to place in this year’s competition, he graciously greets competitors from seven different countries including the American teams, allowed to legally compete for the first time in over forty years.
It’s not that the fire of completion doesn’t burn bright in this young man, because it certainly does. Two years ago I had the chance to observe Pedro’s competitive spirit first hand when we fished together on Unclaimed. We won the coveted first place trophy and his grace and demeanor were the same in victory as in this year’s disappointing finish.
Captain Pedro represents the new Cuba – highly educated in his profession, confident in his career choice and optimistic about his future. Ready to makes friends with the world, he welcomes Cuba’s emergence from political and economic isolation and sees the establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States as good for his country and its impoverished citizens.
Like many of his peers, Pedro would love to go to the U.S.- not emigrate but visit and see for himself if the Hollywood version of life displayed on television sets across his beautiful but tragic island is accurate.
Also, like many of his fellow countrymen, Pedro has refused offers to be pirated off the island, choosing instead to patiently wait for a legal path when he believes visiting the colossuses to the north and returning will be as simple as boarding a ferry to Key West, Miami or Tampa.
“I’m Cuban.” He said one morning over breakfast at La Cova, a small sandwich shop located in the vast Marina Hemingway complex. “I love my country and could not see living elsewhere.”
He removes a small photo of an eight year old boy holding an ancient Penn rod and reel. “This is me.” He smiles. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else but fish.”
Pedro’s fishing roots reach back too many generations to count. His ancestors –much like Hemingway’s character Santiago in Old Man and the Sea – sailed their skiffs out from the sheltered cove of the Jimaitas River, waging war with giant marlin, swordfish and darado, often battling creatures larger than their boats with only hand line and lance.
“It was kill fish or don’t eat.” Pedro pronounces with a look back into a past he understands but doesn’t emulate. In 2013 he was recognized in a ceremony at the Hemingway Tournament’s captains meeting as an International Game Fish Association outstanding Captain. Presenting the award, I.G.F.A President Rob Kramer said, “Captain Pedro Santos represents the best of Cuba’s Captains.” The I.G.F.A. maintains a strict catch and release policy regarding billfish and is dedicated to the preservation of fishing resources worldwide.
“My father used to go to my teachers in high school and get permission for me to take a week off and fish the Hemingway”, says the 28 year old. “He only did this if I made up the work and kept my grades high.”
In the late nineties and up until 2003, the tournament included as many as forty American boats, most looking for experienced Cuban captains and crews. The money paid these mariners for sharing their local knowledge helped feed and clothe families suffering though some of the most difficult years of the island’s post revolution history.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 Cuba lost an estimated 9 billion dollars in subsidies, throwing the island and its populace into financial straits. Food was scarce and basic necessities disappeared. Any outside revenue such as the dollars paid for crewing on the American boats was a godsend. One week’s enumeration from a tournament job could feed a family for six months.
President Gorge Bush shut down the American competitors voyages to Cuba in 2003 and with his edict, ”We will no longer allow American yachtsmen to travel to Cuba for sex.” The dollars disappeared.
Kiki wanted to commercial fish to help feed the family but his father said no. “If you’re going to go to sea, it will be as a captain, not as a mate.”
Kiki enrolled in the Cuban Naval Academy along with 13 other hopeful candidates and began a grueling two year study which includes basic seamanship, navigation and rules of the road. Of the 14 student in Kiki’s class only he and one other graduated.
With license in hand Kiki now qualified to pilot boats for Club Natico, the major non-government maritime employer in Marina Hemingway. His vast knowledge of local waters and outgoing personality made him a favorite of charter clients and visiting yachtsmen alike. An American with a boat in Cuba plucked Kiki from the ranks of Hemmingway captains and hired him as permanent crew on his modern sportfishing yacht, a goal for any marina employee.
Ask where he sees himself in five years, Kiki smiles and ponders the question for less than a minute. “I want to captain an even larger boat.” He says, looking down the road. “A boat that can travel freely to any port in the world.” With Kiki’s education, experience and pleasant demeanor, his dreams stand a good chance of coming true. In this time of rapid change in Cuba….anything is possible.