Boaters Eagerly Anticipate US-Cuba Cruising
Text and photos by: Robin Smith-Martin
With economic reforms continuing in Cuba, American businesses are preparing for improved relations and future free trade and travel, and no group is more excited about engaging with the people of Cuba than the mariners and yachtsmen of the United States. From Maine to Key West to Houston, yacht and boating clubs are buzzing with hopeful plans to set course south to the pristine and friendly waters of Cuba's north coast.
Because of continuing restrictions on travel as part of the U.S. economic blockade against Cuba, U.S. citizens and residents must obtain permission, or a “license,” from the U.S. Treasury Department to travel to Cuba by air or sea.
Once the United States lifts those restrictions, Key West would be the natural last stop to Havana, and marinas and service providers in the Florida Keys are working hard to prepare for the tens of thousands of vessels that would be expected to make the 90 mile cruise across the Florida Straits annually. Safe Harbor, a deepwater marina on the Atlantic side of Stock Island, is an epicenter of preparation. Locals and visitors enjoy fish tacos and beer at the world famous Hogfish Bar & Grill, eagerly discussing their plans to cruise the Cuban coast. National and local elected officials gather at the bar, comparing notes and looking forward to creating thousands of jobs on Florida's coast as a result of free travel between the United States and Cuba.
On the west side of Safe Harbor, Stock Island Marina Village is managing a renaissance on Shrimp Road. An area that was once known for crack cocaine and prostitutes is being revolutionized, and it now boasts the county's largest organic garden, a new dog park, and an enclave of craftsmen and artists. By August, this marina village will have 128 new concrete floating slips, a fuel dock and ship's store.
Community engagement and economic activity is on the rise, creating growing anticipation for positive change in U.S.-Cuba relations. Roostica, the most recent restaurant startup, is a traditional wood-fired pizzeria offering a top wine selection and the best salads on Stock Island. At the lunch bar you'll find local artisan Brad Blask with his signature longboards, precision-crafted skateboards that he designs and manufactures out of tropical hardwoods in his workshop in Stock Island Marina Village.
In Cuban coffee shops across the Keys—like 5 Brothers in Old Town Key West—daily patrons down espresso and speak intensely about the need for greater freedom of travel to Cuba. Discussion centers on participating in the annual Hemingway Billfish Tournament, which is set for May, and resurrecting the annual St. Petersburg-to-Havana Sailboat Race, which was founded in 1930. But the ultimate marker of normalized maritime relations, say the old timers, would be a return of the twice-weekly Key West-to-Cuba car ferry, allowing Americans and Cubans to freely engage and explore their communities and cultures.
Entrepreneurs have always been catalysts for change and progress. Where there is demand, there is opportunity. As Cuba's Marina Gaviota Varadero prepares to become the premiere marina in the Caribbean, so the marinas of the Florida Keys are preparing to accommodate the south-bound yachtsmen en route.