Yacht race to Havana resumes after 58 years, complete with Cuban crew

HAVANA, March 1th There is a race within the race that marks the return this week of the St. Petersburg-Habana regatta.

It will determine who makes history by becoming the first Cuban-born captain in more than five decades tolead a boat from the United States to the island nation.

“We all want to be the first with a Cuban leader to finish,” said Anthony Scaglione, 32, a Tampa native who serves on the crew of the 37-foot cruising yacht LaVie. “Hopefully, it is us.”

The LaVie is captained by Martin Saavedra, 68, of Tampa, a native of Cuba who came to the United States at 12.

At least two other yachts are captained by Cuban natives — one living in Toronto and the other a Cuban citizen.

For this regatta and for the first time since the Cuban Revolution, the Cuban government is allowing a yacht from the island to participate in a U.S. sailing competition.

And a longtime Cuban law banning Cuban-born people from returning to the island by sea was recently loosened to accommodate U.S.-based commercial cruises to the island with passengers who include Cuban-born Americans.

“We are very excited,” said Mario Perez, 55, the Cuban-born captain of the 40-foot cruising yacht The Tiger, who has lived in Toronto since 1992. “We can’t believe we finally can do this.”

The crew of the boat from Cuba, the Micara, didn’t receive permission from its government to participate until Monday morning so it was not able to make it to St. Petersburg in time for the start of the race at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

They planned to join the regatta in Key West.

This means the Micara is not part of the official race, but it doesn’t stop the boat from competing for bragging rights against The Tiger and LaVie.

The St. Petersburg-Habana Yacht Race ran from 1930 through 1959. It was canceled in 1960 with the deterioration of United States-Cuban relations.

Inspired by the move by President Barack Obama to reach out to Cuba, the St. Petersburg Yacht Club revived the race after a hiatus of 58 years.

It has returned bigger than ever.

At its peak, the original regatta had more than 30 competitors. This year’s drew 81 yachts, 75 of them in the competition.

“It is amazing how much good can be accomplished when people work together,” said Albert A. Fox Jr., founder of Tampa’s Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, who for a year worked as a liaison between the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and the Cuban government.

The size of the competing boats is 30 to 120 feet, said Richard Winning, commodore of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. There will be an overall champion plus trophies presented to the first to finish in each class: spinnaker, non-spinnaker, multi-hull and cruising.

Some crews number as many as a dozen. Others are as small as three.

All but six boats have home ports in Florida, but the crews are made up of an estimated 550 sailors from all over the world — Canada, England, France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and South Africa among them.

“To be part of the revival of this race is pretty cool,” said England’s Henry Bomby, 26, who is part of the crew for the Fomo, a 40-foot spinnaker captained by St. Petersburg’s Lloyd Thornburg. “I’m excited to be a part of history.”

Seeing the island that was long difficult to visit for Americans was a primary reason others are participating in the regatta.

“This is a great opportunity to visit a nation I’ve never seen,” said Tampa’s Art Cupps, 50, captain of the 44-foot cruising yacht First Wind.

The yachts should all reach the finish at Marina Hemingway by Thursday.

Then on Saturday, most will take part in a 15-mile race to the historic Morro Castle that will include more Cuban boats.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is leading a delegation flying to Havana to watch the second race and enjoy other regatta-related festivities.

Vicente Amor of Tampa travel agency Asc International booked airline tickets for 88 locals plus 136 rooms for them and sailors.

“Cubans from outside Cuba are reuniting with Cuba,” said Commodore José Miguel Díaz Escrich of Marina Hemingway in Havana. “All the participants are part of an expression of love between the two countries.”

Follow along on an interactive map as the yachts make their way to Cuba at yb.tl/sph2017.