“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.