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.