Our last afternoon in Havana, just sitting poolside at the Melia Cohiba downtown city hotel. No beach but the view is unbelievable; a stone’s throw to the Malecon, an oceanfront promenade lining the 6 km length of the shoreline along downtown Havana. A popular hangout for the local youth, where you’ll find a spontaneous combustion of live music, dancing and general frolicking all day and all night. This was the setting for our trip: The 20th Anniversary Regatta of the Ernest Hemingway Yacht Club in Havana, which found us racing yachts, just meters from the Malecon, with an eager audience ready to take it all in. We were treated like rock stars during and after the regatta!
My old acquaintance Commodore Jose Diaz Estrich invited me, along with other fellow board members at PCYC, (Paul Benninger and Ken Bruce) to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Hemingway Yacht Club, in Havana. Amoung other festivities to commemorate the celebration, a regatta was held. A rare occurrence in Cuba due to the pressured relations with our neighbours south of Canada.
Regattas are very rare in Cuba, there is much planning and co-ordination with the authorities in order to get approval to have such an event. Local Cubans need special clearances to be on the open water, and foreigners must clear in and out of the country with customs, even for a day sail. The Cuban Coast Guard (La Guarda) and immigration was on site to make this a smooth process.
Commodore Estrich delivered a very emotional speech at the opening of the Regatta, along with a formal skippers meeting and sailing instructions. He had been planning this event for a very long time, with much hard work arranging all the necessary permits with the authorities.
The desire was to have many boats from the US join them for this historical event. With over 200 boats expressing an interest and applying for a special visa from their government, excitement was in the air. The US boats had asked the Commodore to move the date of the regatta so that they might be able to attend. With pleasure the whole event was re-scheduled, but unfortunately the US boats were not allowed to attend by their government.
Commodore Estrich announced that the regatta would still proceed, with just one boat from the US attending. The name of this boat will be withheld for obvious reasons. On this American boat was a family, who were on a ten year cruise around the world with their 12 year old daughter. Joining their crew were the female members of the Cuban Olympic sailing team and they went on to win the regatta. The other 11 boats in the regatta came from all around the world. Representation from Canada included the members from the Port Credit Yacht Club, aboard the 48 foot boat “Tenacity” owned by Dominic Savone, from Vancouver, publisher of CubaPlus Magazine. Other teams were, The Trans Ocean Sailing Club of England, The World Cruising Club of Germany, and Teams from Brazil, China and even Iceland.
We paced ourselves the first day with an orientation at the Yacht Club. On behalf of the Port Credit Yacht Club, we presented the Commodore with gifts: Our 75th Annual Commemorative Book and a Burgee. Later that evening, we took in the original Tropicana show in Havana that has been running in an outdoor natural tree canopy theater under the stars each night since 1939 – in what was the hay days of Old Havana. With what seemed like hundreds of dancers and performers, multiple stages going on at once, a live orchestra playing, traditional dance with Afro-Cuban cultural influences, historic Cuban roots infused with hints of modern dance, jazz and ballet, this display fully engulfed our senses from every direction. We took it all in, seated front row center at the foot of the stage. Cigar and bottle service was included! What better way to kick off the next 4 days.
Okay, let’s not forget the other important reason for my visit; mixing business with pleasure, as usual! Official meetings took place with the marketing department at the head office of Melia Cuba Hotels & Resorts, one of my clients in Cuba. We had a good productive meeting and it looks like I will be returning this fall to present a Social Media Strategy and Training as it pertains to marketing Melia Hotels & Resorts in the Canadian market place.
Regatta Day! Up bright and early to complete all the paper work with the Cuban Coast Guard (La Guarda) and Customs. This Regatta opportunity was a very special and rare treat for the locals and ourselves. Once we cleared with the authorities, it was a one hour sail to the start line at the mouth of the river Almendares. This was at the beginning of the Malecon Promenade. The Race Committee ran a very professional race, all the start signals and racing rules were followed and executed accordingly. I was very impressed with their execution. It was to be a 26 mile race, with an upwind leg along the Malecon Promenade (just a couple hundred meters from shore), along down town Havana, continuing on to the Morros Castillos De la Habana, rounding the weather mark which was a permanent red buoy #2 (which guides the freighters into Bahia Havana Harbour). Then back down to the a buoy, straight downwind, and a second time around buoy #2. Finally, a long downwind leg back to the river Almendares and back to the Hemingway Marina Entrance.
The winds were 15 to 20 knots, a tropical storm was brewing, dark clouds were on the horizon, and we found ourselves beating upwind with gusts to 25 knots. Our boat speed upwind of 6 to 6.5 knots, impressive for the 44,000 lbs cruising yacht, a 48’ Maple Leaf built by Pacific Yachts out of Vancouver. Downwind with the Asymmetric Spinnaker was 8-9 knots, and we were catching many faster boats from the upwind leg. According to the race committee and the way the classes were arranged, we placed 3rd. Overall, an excellent day sailing, and an opportunity of a life time to sail a regatta in Havana that only comes around once every 10 years or so.
The reception at the Yacht Club was top notch, refreshments, food and entertainment by an amazing Cuban Jazz band – famous all over Cuba. Later that evening the owner of Tenacity, Dominic Savone and his local expatriate Canadian friends invited us to check out the local Havana nightlife scene. Dinner at Rio Mar in Mira Mar just on the outskirts of downtown Havana, it was a private restaurant in a home over-looking the water. We enjoyed excellent food and service. Later, as a couple of local night clubs proved, Havana is truly a city that never sleeps. After the scene that goes all night, until almost sunrise we returned to the hotel for some well deserved sleep.
We spent our last full day taking in a city tour of Havana. Highlights being: Chey Guverala’s larger than life-size mural in the Revolutionary Square, Old Havana’s cobblestone walkways and the famous Cathedral hundreds of years old. Then off to Havana Club’s Rum Museum, Ken Bruce’s wife Laura is responsible for marketing their rum in Canada, so we made sure to do a lot of research on the product, and bring back some first hand experience. We have concluded that the Havana Club Anjos Especial is the best taste for value!
We had the luxury of our own personal guide and driver, Julio, for the entire duration of our trip – at our beck and call. Julio took us to the Hemingway Estate in the higher elevations, (an excellent view) of what are now the suburbs of Havana. Julio lives in this same neighbourhood, and insisted we must stop by to meet his family. A wonderful enlightening opportunity. We found this cute little two room home where he lives with four generations of his family. Living here with his grand mother, mother, wife and his little eight-year-old boy along with their dog, who just had a litter of three puppies. They insisted we have a coffee and fresh mangos with them. To our surprise, the coffee beans were grown right in their yard, and roasted by his wife, along with the mangos that came from a tree in the same yard. This was the best coffee we had ever had; now we are talking fresh, no vacuum sealing here.
Our last night in Havana would not be complete without another completely unique dining experience: Dinner at La Guarida, another private home restaurant, only this time in a non-descript, eighty-year-old apartment building in downtown Havana. You can’t miss the original old beauty that this building once had from times gone by. It was interesting to be sitting in a high class gourmet restaurant setting, while in the apartment next door, a local Cuban family is watching an old TV set in their living room, and across the balconies you see a long line of laundry hanging out to dry. That evening we enjoyed a local concert by a local Cuban Pop Star, Raul Paz, at the Don Congreiglio’s oceanside private restaurant and nightclub.
I have been to Havana now about ten times, and each time I discover something new and exciting, and keep adding to my adventures and memories. This time will be the most memorable, maybe because I was able to share it with good friends, or maybe it was the yachting and the regatta. In any case mixing business with pleasure, with good friends and with sailing is never a bad idea.
In order to really get the full local effect of Havana you really need to know where you are going, which can only be discovered from multiple trips, otherwise your guide will just take you to the regular tourist traps. For a complete off the beaten path “must see list”, or how to safely cruise in Cuba contact me personally and I’ll put you in touch with the right people. www.sailboatcruise.ca
By Edward Radonic