Updated:
Original:

A Visit to Cuban Waters as Part of the Miami to Havana Race

The fleet sets out from Miami for once-forbidden Havana.

The fleet sets out from Miami for once-forbidden Havana.

“Tack! Tack!” I roared. “Those are the lights of Cuba over there. We don’t need any gunboats threatening us.”

It was 1974. We were returning from a winter in the West Indies aboard Golden Eagle, a classic 72ft wooden ketch. After leaving Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, we rounded the west end of Cuba, taking care to not venture too close. With the wind on the nose, our port tack brought us within sight of the coast, which was closer than I wanted to be. Without the luxury of electronics, I had to rely on the vagaries of dead reckoning and questionable sextant positions, skewed by a fast-flowing Gulf Stream and a not too weatherly full-keeled ketch that made lots of leeway.

Fast forward 42 years to the Inaugural Miami to Havana Race, and we had all manner of electronics, currents data, winds and weather overlays on chartplotters showing us exactly where we were and how we were being set. Plus, until we lost cellular coverage from the Keys, we could locate our competition on the race tracking site.

Oh, and following President Obama’s decision to begin normalizing relations with our neighbor just 90 miles to the south of Key West, we no longer had to worry about any pesky gunboats.

Jasmine rests at the dock after the finish

The crew works to maintain boatspeed off South Florida

Our ride, John Evans’s lovely Jasmine, a classic 26-year-old 62,000lb Little Harbor 54, was rated the same as the competing lightweight flyer Hobie 33s and a J/105. Our track plan was based upon avoiding the area of the compressed Gulf Stream where it was joined by the Gulf of Mexico loop current. East of that area, the current appeared to spread out and weaken. The wind was predicted to clock to the east, providing a good hot angle to Havana.

At start time at 1300 on February 10, there was only 4 to 6 knots of variable wind, leaving boats scattered and searching for breeze with spinnakers alternately filling and falling. Around sunset, a 12 knot WNW breeze filled in, which built and backed through the night. Just as in the Key West Race a month earlier, the Gulf Stream was offshore, providing us with either a fair countercurrent or slight head current. Half way down the Keys a tactical decision had to be made: sail the rhumb line direct to Havana and risk more adverse Gulf Stream, or continue to hug the Keys reefs, heading west out of the current. The 69ft Trebuchet, with blistering boatspeed, shot straight through on the direct course, reasoning that the powerful Gulf Stream current was only a fraction of their Speed Over Ground. For the rest of us slower boats, the percentage in loss of progress resulted in many varied tracks to Cuba.

Jasmine rests at the dock after the finish

Jasmine rests at the dock after the finish

There were a lot of different thoughts on the best track across the Gulf Stream. Aboard Jasmine, while we had it planned out on paper, we were met with as much as 4½ knots of current against us in rough confused seas. Some boats found sweet spots of little current; none of us saw the westbound coastal current that was reported in literature and firsthand accounts.
[advertisement]

Unlike 42 years earlier, we actually sought and welcomed the loom of Havana’s city lights. In the churning seaway it made an easier target to steer by than the wildly swinging compass or rapidly changing GPS numbers.

As we approached the Cuban coastline, a sudden wind shift forced us to snuff the spinnaker and close reach with the jib. The crew was perched on the weather rail, soaking up the sights and smells of the now nearby coast. The sweet smell of the tobacco harvest and the lights and music of Havana beckoned as we carefully picked out the finish line against the background lights. For us it was a challenging 36 hours. For the pace-setter, Trebuchet, the new course record to beat: 19 hours 36 minutes.

After that it was clear customs and immigration and finally secure alongside in Marina Hemingway at 0330 am. So, what do sailors do when they finish a race? Drink beer! So it was off to find a bar open at 0345 in a strange new port. The Jasmine crew made quick work of it at the still open hotel bar, with beers costing 50 cents and rum drinks for one dollar! This gave a new meaning to Cuba Libre.

The culmination of the race was the Sunday night party, complete with two 150lb roasted pigs and unlimited rum drinks. Jasmine earned a respectable 3rd in class, 12th in fleet. The noisy crowd drew silent as the race was dedicated to our dear recently departed sailor friend Buck Gillette, a long-time leader in the Florida racing scene. I could see his smile in the crescent moon overhead.

For more on the race, which was hosted by Miami’s Coral Reef Yacht Club and the Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba, visit havanarace.org.

Photos by Andrea Dowling

May 2016

Related

ed3b8ae9-b65d-2941-47ec-cd0277bfcbe8

Mirabaud Voting Open to the Public

Photos from the industry's top photographers are in, and the 12th annual Mirabaud Yacht Racing Image competition is underway. An international panel of judges has selected this year's 80 finalists, which have been published online. The panel will also select the winner of the ...read more

P1320232-copy

Annapolis’ Boat Show is Back

After a year off in 2020, the United States Boat Show in Annapolis is back. From the diminutive Areys Pond Cat 14 XFC to the massive Lagoon Sixty 5, many of the SAIL’s 2022 Best Boats Nominees are on display for the public to get a firsthand look at, and SAIL’s Best Boats panel ...read more

05-Squall-in-the-ITCZ

Close-Hauled to Hawaii

The saying “Nothing goes to windward like a 747,” is one of my favorites. I actually once took a 747 upwind, retracing my earlier downwind sailing route across the Pacific. I’ve also done a fair bit of ocean sailing to windward. The 747 was a lot more comfortable. But then ...read more

01-LEAD-IMG-2106

Refurbishing Shirley Rose: Part 3

If you missed the first installment, click here. The hull and deck of Shirley Rose had been repaired, but what kind of sailboat would she be without a sturdy rig? I was told she was ready to sail, and that the owner replaced the standing rigging a few years before. Shirley Rose ...read more

211007MINI_1208-2400x1600

Mini Transat: Bouroullec and Fink Win Leg One

The Mini Transat is a roughly 4000-mile course that comprises two legs— Les Sables D’Olonne, France to Santa Cruz de La Palma in the Canaries, and Santa Cruz de La Palma to the French Caribbean island Guadeloupe. Two fleets of Mini 6.50s compete—the Production class in ...read more

01-LEAD-7-1-Rhiannon-loaded-on-the-truck-with-Clark,-Andre,-and-Louis

Book Excerpt: Taken By The Wind

In 1975, as a senior at Harvard, the question for Chicago-area sailor Mike Jacker became what to do next. The answer, as related in his new book Taken by the Wind, was to make a small-boat voyage to Tahiti with his grade-school friend Louis Gordon and Harvard classmate Clark ...read more

Maserati _Arthur Daniel

The RORC Caribbean 600 is Back

With a start planned for February 21 in Antigua, the famed 600-mile Caribbean race is back. The course circumnavigates 11 Caribbean islands starting from English Harbour, Antigua, and heading north to St Maarten and south to Guadeloupe, passing Barbuda, Nevis, St Kitts, Saba and ...read more

01-LEAD-14_00_210613_TORE03_JRE_4266_16961-3000x3000

The Ocean Race Europe

The fully crewed, round-the-world Ocean Race has experienced tremendous change over the years. From the 1993 transition to a one-design fleet to an ever-shifting route, what began as the amateur Whitbread Round the World Yacht Regatta in 1972 is a very different race today. The ...read more