Pensacola to Havana race starts today

havana-live-sail race

The New Orleans-based crew of Lesson #1, a J/130 sailboat, head to Pensacola on Friday to the start an ocean regatta to Cuba. The race begins Oct. 31 and will cover more than 500 miles. Boats will arrive into Marina Hemingway, about seven miles west of Havana. (Photo courtesy of Troy Gilbert)

HAVANA, Oct. 31th (By Susan Langenhenning)  A fleet of sleek racing sailboats and cruisers will line up in the waters just off Pensacola, Fla., early this Halloween morning, to launch the rebirth of a Gulf Coast tradition long stifled by international politics and diplomatic relations.

Twenty-two boats are participating in the first Pensacola to Cuba regatta, with nearly a quarter of those boats coming from New Orleans. After the start just off the Florida coast, they’ll travel more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico, skip past Rebecca Shoal and the Dry Tortugas to arrive next week at Hemingway Marina, about eight miles west of Havana.

The race is billed as one of the first legal regattas from the United States to Cuba since Fidel Castro seized power of the island nation in 1959. But the lure of Havana has long been an irresistible siren song for Gulf Coast sailors — even during the U.S. embargo when some American yacht clubs and organizations risked legal wrangling and angry protesters to continue hosting regattas to Cuba.

That all changed this year, when President Barack Obama eased restrictions and resumed diplomatic relations with the island. The water is now officially open, if boats are willing to apply for permits and deal with all the legal red tape.

New Orleans sailor Tim Cerniglia signed up as soon as the Pensacola Yacht Club posted notice of the race. For him, it’s a chance to satisfy a lifelong fascination with Cuba and reconnect with his family’s history.

His mother, Elise Cerniglia, was born in New Orleans but spent her childhood, from age 5 to 16, on the island. Her father was a chemical engineer at a sugar cane plantation there. After moving back to the Crescent City, she would eventually become an advocate for immigrants, helping to resettle thousands of Cubans who fled Castro’s communism.

“I can still remember people coming over to our house, and my mother rounding up clothes and furniture and other things they needed,” Cerniglia said. “And growing up, we had family talks about her time in Cuba. It’s always had a mystique for me.”

Cerniglia, an attorney who’s participated in ocean regattas to Mexico several times, will sail his red-hulled boat, Radio Flyer, a Valiant 40, with a crew of five. When he arrives in Cuba, he hopes to hire a driver and visit the sugar plantation where his now-deceased mother once lived.

Asked if he thought she would approve of him participating in a race to communist Cuba, Cerniglia paused. “She didn’t like Castro,” he said. “But I think she would come to realize that the best way to influence the country is not to try to impose sanctions and muscle but through example — example of what it is like to live in a free society. My opinion: I don’t think the sanctions and the embargo have done anything but entrench Castro and his brother; I think this is a better way.”

Joining Cerniglia’s crew is Malvern Burnett, an experienced sailor and immigration lawyer. For him, too, the race is a chance to connect with his past. When he was about 5, two Cuban refugees moved into his family’s home on a horse farm in Marrero. The men were among a wave of immigrants who landed in Louisiana after Castro seized power of the island.

Burnett recalls playing baseball with the house guests, who lived with his family for nearly a year as they acclimated to American life. “One cracked a bat, hitting the ball so hard it disappeared from sight,” he said.

“I attribute my interest in the field (of immigration law) to my family’s early days helping those two young Cuban men,” Burnett said.

For Guy Williams, skipper of Lesson #1, a J/130 sailboat, the race will be the second time he’s visited Cuba this year. As president and chief executive officer of Gulf Coast Bank, he went to Havana last spring with a delegation of New Orleans business people.

“This is a chance to be part of something historic,” he said of the race. “It’s sort of like when the Saints won the Super Bowl. You can’t replicate that first Super Bowl.”

For more than 80 years, Cuba has enticed American sailors. One of the first races from the U.S. to the island took place on March 30, 1930, when 11 boats from around the Gulf Coast, including three from New Orleans, took off from St. Petersburg, Fla.

After more than 42 hours and 300 nautical miles, the Windjammer, a 57-foot schooner skippered by New Orleans sailor Garner Tullis, edged out its competition, winning the race — a feat heralded on the front page of the sports section of the Times-Picayune, next to a story about Gretna native Mel Ott playing with the New York Giants.

Troy Gilbert, a New Orleans journalist and one of the crew members on Lesson #1, has been chronicling the history of these Cuba regattas for boating magazines and his website, He will be live-blogging and tweeting the race from the boat thanks to a shipboard Wi-Fi and satellite phone system provided by communications company Globalstar.

“As these historic races come back online, they will be followed by many more,” Gilbert said on his blog. “The floodgates have opened, and the most exotic destination within a day’s sail from America’s shores is poised to become familiar to a new generation of sailors, and may have the side effect of revitalizing an interest in distance racing.”
For those who want to follow the race, each of the boats will be equipped with a position transponderbroadcasting its locations. To access the system, click here.