St. Petersburg regatta to Havana again buffeted by politics

St. Petersburg regatta to Havana again buffeted by politics

The Tall Ship Lynx, an 80-foot interpretation of a Baltimore privateer topsail schooner used during the War of 1812, sets out at the start off the 2017 St. Petersburg-Habana Yacht Race. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

HAVANA, Feb. 20th The 2017 St. Petersburg-Habana Yacht Race was celebrated as more than a competitive regatta to Cuba’s capital city of Havana.

The relaunch of the maritime competition cancelled since 1959 was hailed as a reflection of the detente started under President Barack Obama.

The event returns for a second consecutive year on Feb. 26 and again mirrors the political climate, but on the opposite end of the spectrum.

More than 70 vessels competed in last year’s event.

This year, 20 will start the journey, beginning at 11:30 a.m. at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and ending 278 miles later at Havana’s Marina Hemingway.

“We were hoping for more but the political scene caused by our president impacts what happens,” said George Pennington, race chairman and regatta general of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club that hosts the race.

No policy has been passed forbidding Americans from participating in athletic competitions in Cuba, under which the regatta falls. But relations are more strained under President Donald Trump than his predecessor.

For instance, Trump has banned Americans from staying at hotels managed by the Cuban government, a decision limiting lodging options in a nation where the armed forces control up to 70 percent of the tourism industry.

Plus, the State Department issued a travel warning on Cuba due to the mysterious health attacks against American diplomats in Havana.

These decrees coupled with the Trump’s harsh words for the former Cold War enemy, according to leaders in the Cuba travel industry, have been enough to diminish the number of Americans visiting the island in recent months.

The “new approach of the Trump administration to U.S.-Cuba policy based on rumors and unproven accusations” has created enough confusion and fear to chase away boaters, said Vicente Amor, Cuba-born vice president of the Tampa travel company ASC International USA working with the yacht race.

Those “accusations” to which he referred are the health attacks. Amor is among those who believes the Cuban government’s assertion that they did not target the American government workers.

Tony Barrett, one of 11 captains who competed in 2017 and will do so again this year, admits politics likely played a role for some who won’t return. But not, he said, in all cases.

That the 2017 race was the first since 1959 likely drew increased interest from those who were not avid racers but rather just wanted to be part of history, said Barrett, who will helm the 33-foot Soverel yacht named Back Off.

“They could have lined up 150 last year if they allowed it,” he said.

He predicts that in time the race will average 30 to 40 yachts like other local distance races. St. Petersburg’s 50th Regata del Sol al Sol to Mexico’s Isla Mujeres held this April, for instance, currently has 30 entrants.

Regardless, chairman Pennington promised the Havana race will be back next year, though “cannot state in what format it will be.”

Due to the lighter lineup, competition classes will be limited to spinnaker and cruising. In 2017, there were also non-spinnaker and multi-hauling classes.