Club Natico Turns 25
If you’ve sailed, cruised or fished the waters of Cuba, chances are you’ve visited Marina Hemingway. Located nine miles west of Havana, the marina has been the primary nautical link to Cuba for the boating world. Built in 1958 by then President Batista, the marina lay unfinished until Cuba opened its doors to tourism in 1985. Since then, sailors, tournament fishermen and broken boaters have found the welcome mat out, no matter your nationality or circumstances.
Food, fuel and protected slips are not the only attractions. A port of entry to the country and convenient access to the centuries old capital of Cuba are strong draws that lure boaters from across the world to Marina Hemingway.
Mega yachts stop on the way to and from winter haunts in the Caribbean. Sport fishing boats on the way to the spring sailfish push off the Yucatan refuel, and multi-engine center consoles complete their dash across the 90 mile Florida Straits at the Marina named for the famous fisherman, writer and resident of Cuba, Ernest Hemingway.
Located just inside the marina gates sits the Hemingway International Yacht Club. On special occasions, its yardarm, bow shaped ocean blue wall and two story building is adorned with flags from too many countries to count, flapping in the tropical trades.
Inside the tidy clubhouse, hang yacht club burgees from around the globe. Photos of Fidel and Ernest, plaques, awards and mementos of past achievements adorn the walls alongside pictures of record Blue Marlin and Mahi. The Club’s bar and spacious patio is a watering hole for sailors, yachtsmen and fishermen who sip Mojitoes, spin yarns and share the latest nautical news.
On May 21st of 2017, the club celebrated its 25th birthday, a unique milestone for the the only private yacht club in Cuba. In pre-revolution Cuba, there were more than one hundred yacht clubs and sailing organizations on the island. Branded by the revolution as a bourgeois activity, yachting was discouraged along with golf, the Beatles and Hollywood movies.
But 25 years ago this past May, Jose Escrisch convinced the government that Cuba’s future must include mariners. Cuba’s geographic location as the gateway to the Caribbean made Marina Hemingway too important a resource to ignore.
From the dream of one man and with and a small injection of private funds, the Hemingway Yacht Club has steadily grown in size and stature. It currently enjoys reciprocal relations with over 6oo yacht clubs, fishing and sailing organization worldwide.
Commodore Escrish, a native of Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city came to Havana to attend the Cuban Naval academy.
After graduation he received a commission and rose swiftly through the ranks to captain. After a brief stint in the USSR, Escrich returned to the academy as an instructor until he resigned to head Marlin company, which at the time oversaw operations of all the marinas in Cuba.
Today, the Commodore maintains a daunting schedule, directing his small dedicated staff in welcoming American yachting organizations, magazines, movie makers and boating industry representatives, all clamoring for time. In addition, Eschich has traveled to the States numerous times to brief race officials, fellow Commodores and regatta organizers on how best to navigate the waters of recently opened Cuba.
From January of 2017 through the 25th anniversary, the club will have hosted a dozen visiting clubs, regattas and rallys with pig roasts, Cuban rum and salsa dancing. The season kicked off with the resumption of the historic St. Petersburg, Florida to Havana Race in February, after a 54 year hiatus. The culmination of this busy year will be the Hemingway International Billfish Championship which last year featured nearly 100 competitors from eight countries, including more than 70 American boats.
Commodore Escrich is responsible for the survival of the Hemingway tournament, now in its 67th year. (“The Man Who Would Not Let The Hemingway Die”). Through many lean years the Commodore convince the powers at be to continue the contest despite a lack of competitors. “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 supporters were pulling out. With recently relaxed regulations for American boaters, the tournament has the potential to become one of the premier billfish competitions in the world.
Although the club encourages membership, it never turns away visiting mariners. On most days, you will find Cuban captains and sailors from the neighboring pueblos of Jaimanitas and Sante Fe conversing with foreign yachtsmen and stray tourist who make the short hop from Havana to glimpse life outside the bustling capital. The gathering of diverse peoples is the mission statement of the club. The Commodore and his staff strive to create an environment where the interaction of people from all countries, all backgrounds, and all political persuasions come together as friends and neighbors, all fellow travelers on the planter Earth’s great oceans.
“I began this organization based on the premise the boating community has a bond that crosses politics and ideologies.” says Escrich. “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.”
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Ruskin fisherman works to preserve Cuba’s environment
Paul Guzzo, Times Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 15, 2016 6:00am
Ruskin’s Phil Thompson is helping to start a program in Cuba focused on teaching skills needed to protect nature and earn a living through eco-tourism to children living around the island’s Zapata Swamp National Park
TAMPA — Phil Thompson has cast enough fishing line in Cuba that it has become a second home for the Ruskin native and resident.
“Oh man, I love Cuba,” said Thompson, 64, who has been participating in fishing tournaments there since 1993. “I love its people. I love its culture. I love its beautiful nature.”
So Thompson feels a responsibility to help protect the island’s pristine nature reserves, some of which are being threatened by an onslaught of tourist anglers.
Thompson has spent the past year recruiting a collection of Americans — including the grandson of Ernest Hemingway — to help teach kids living around the island’s Zapata Swamp National Park how to protect the ecosystems and earn a living via ecotourism.
“Zapata is one of Cuba’s most beautiful sanctuaries,” Thompson said. “The kids there are its future stewards.”
Titled “The Guiding Youth Project,” the after-school and weekend program is still in its planning phase. But sponsors hope it eventually will include classroom facilities and will recruit Cuban citizens to teach the children about all aspects of environmental sustainability.
Under U.S. law, Americans still can’t visit Cuba for tourism reasons. A trip must fall under one of 12 categories, including education, humanitarian, scientific research and athletic competition. Fishing tournaments in Cuba fall under the last category.
But recreational fishing there is considered a tourist activity.
It now seems doubtful that the United States’ Cuba tourism ban will be lifted under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. Trump has promised to reverse President Barack Obama’s executive orders that move toward normalizing relations with the island nation.
Still, even without Americans, the Cuban tourism industry is surging and Thompson said these visitors are beginning to realize that the island’s nature reserves are as beautiful as its popular beaches.
He is concerned that overfishing and new waterside hotels to house tourists could damage the nation’s ecosystem. But Thompson also believes there can be a balance between business and environmental protection.
Rather than building giant resorts, he said, small bed-and-breakfasts and inns that cater to ecotourists can have a positive impact on the economy without hurting the environment.
Last year, he started his own “Support the Cuban People Fishing Program” that teaches Cuban anglers proper catch-and-release techniques and how to run small charter boat operations that focus on quality outings instead of the quantity of fish reeled in.
It was while holding such classes that Thompson met Felipe Alonso, a fishing guide in the Zapata Park on Cuba’s southern coast.
Alonso instructs at-risk children how to work in his field. As adults, he hopes, they will feel compelled to protect Cuban nature sanctuaries against overdevelopment, even if tourism dollars prove a big temptation.
Thompson agreed to help the Cuban fishing guide expand his program, enlisting Patrick Hemingway — grandson of the American author beloved in Cuba — and Jeffrey Boutwell, board member with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund in Washington, D.C.
“It’s not that anyone wants to keep Zapata restrictive or for the privileged,” Boutwell said, “But it has to be managed in an environmentally sound way and in a way that allows only a certain amount of traffic. That takes knowledge.”
Thompson also recruited Jay Shelton and Kris Irwin, professors from the University of Georgia who are already involved with their institution’s satellite campus in Costa Rica, where university students learn about environmental sustainability on a 155-acre campus that doubles as a nature preserve.
Shelton and Irwin are applying for grants to purchase computers, scientific equipment and classroom supplies for the Cuban program. And schools and community centers in that area have expressed interest in hosting the program until land can be acquired on which to build facilities.
“We will make this happen,” Thompson said. “I guarantee it.”