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What U.S. yacht owners, crew need to know about traveling to Cuba

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According to a May report from the Associated Press, American tourism in Cuba has risen a dramatic 36 percent within the past year. Only 90 miles from Florida’s coastline, Cuba is still considered one of the last frontiers in the Caribbean, leaving many U.S. yacht owners eager to navigate and explore the country’s waters.

Although diplomatic negotiations have made traveling between the two countries easier, the rules and regulations are constantly changing, so it’s imperative that yacht owners consult with an marine insurance specialist and maritime attorney before planning a voyage.

Late last year, President Obama announced a plan to begin easing trade and travel restrictions with Cuba. The Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) made certain amendments to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR) to implement this plan on Jan. 16.

This news spurred interest among yacht owners and crews, as many expected the changes to allow Americans to travel to Cuba without any restrictions. Unfortunately, this is not entirely true. The ease in regulations’ focal point is a revision to the type of travel license required. The U.S. trade embargo remains in effect, and can only be lifted by Congress.

Prior to the policy shift, U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba had to apply for a special license on a case-by-case basis. Now, U.S. citizens can visit Cuba if they qualify for a general license within the 12 categories of authorized travel, which include these: official business of a government, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops; athletic competitions and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information; and certain authorized export transactions.

Negotiations have eased the restrictions for private boat travel, as several U.S. yachts have legally participated in sailing races and fishing tournaments over the past few months; however, these vessels and their crews were properly licensed to do so. Everyone on board the vessel, including the yacht owner, passengers and crew, must qualify for one of the 12 general licenses in their own right.

If an individual does not qualify for one of the general licenses, they must obtain a specific license from OFAC. To transport passengers to and from Cuba, the yacht owner must obtain a specific license from the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC). Also, the yacht, itself is subject to the Department of Commerce’s Export Administration Regulations (EAR), and requires a specific export license before the yacht can be temporarily brought into Cuba.

According to the commodore of Cuba’s largest marina, the Ernest Hemingway International Nautical Club, the island’s infrastructure is not prepared to handle a large influx of boats, especially yachts. Cuba is estimated to have about 15 marinas and 800 slips total, and lacks both shipyards and nautical stores. Yachts over 150 feet must anchor offshore, as no marina on the island can accommodate their needs.

As of press time, a limited number of U.S. carriers offered yacht coverage after the proper licensing had been approved. The OFAC certification process is time consuming, so yacht owners should research coverage upon approval.

Another consideration is health and travel insurance. Should an authorized U.S. traveler become ill or sustain an injury while traveling in Cuba, a limited number of U.S. insurance carriers may pay medical claims provided that the individual or group policy is a global policy. This means that the travel or health policy cannot be issued to specifically cover a trip to Cuba.

For yacht owners interested in taking their yacht to Cuba, advanced planning is required. The first step would be to ensure the trip falls within the scope of OFAC’s authorized categories. The next step would be to contact the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security division (BIS) to obtain a license required for the temporary journey of the yacht.

Once the two U.S. government agencies have approved the voyage, provide all licensing, a navigation itinerary and a crew manifest to the yacht’s insurance adviser for approval. Although not all insurance companies provide coverage for Cuba, those carriers that do can issue coverage on a per-trip basis.

The process to issue coverage can take up to four weeks to clear with the insurance company’s legal department.

Thomas Gresh is vice president of the marine division of Celedinas Insurance Group (www.celedinas.com) and based in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

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7 thoughts on “What U.S. yacht owners, crew need to know about traveling to Cuba

  1. Lisa Greenberg

    Please note that there are a couple of dockage options, (including front and center in Havana) for vessels over 150′. Also, many of the restrictions do not apply to non-U.S. registered and non-related vessels, and are free to come and go between the U.S and Cuba. Please feel free to contact me should you be interested in more information about services on island.

  2. Chris Lewis

    A couple of points regarding the article on Cuba:
    · US crew working on a FF yacht can travel to Cuba if the yacht goes there without the need for a special licence. I checked before we went first time and we did it many times and were boarded by USCG every time we came back – no problem. This does not apply to guests who would need a license (only if they are from USA of course!)

    · Health insurance for US citizens is covered by a policy that you must buy (from the Cuban Immigration Officer) on arrival for anyone who does not have proof of a valid health policy (ie valid in Cuba) – not sure if this will cover flying Medivac back to the USA though! Our international policy covered all of us.

    · Yacht size: Hemingway Marina has taken Ellix Too many times (156’ LOA and 11’ draft). The biggest boat I have seen in there is 180’, but there have been several boats there around the 160 – 180’ range. Beyond that would be a problem at Hemingway but then you can make arrangements to dock in the Port of Havana to clear in and out and to see the city – one of Abramovich’s enormous boats was there a year or two ago. The new marina at Varadero is limited to about 150’ but again we took Ellix Too in there twice and a larger boat than us was in there before us – sorry, I don’t remember who it was. You can also clear in and out by tender at this marina in Varadero.

    · As well as Hemingway and Varadero, there is a very small marina on Cayo Largo off the south coast open to tourists (think 50’ max). Apart from that, you are only allowed to go to a handful bays to anchor whatever size you are. Use of tenders, jetskis and even trips to the beach is limited to about 4 bays outside of the three areas above which are designated for tourist activities for non-Cuban yachts. Even there you have to report every tender movement to the ever watchful Cuban CG towers…

  3. Jim Friedlander

    Paul Madden Associates, a yacht broker in Fla has received a license from the US Treasury Department and the US Commerce Department to take yachts to Cuba. How do I know? Because I was on the first such voyage last week.

    Paul is working in conjunction with Academic Arrangements Abroad to provide land services to travelers to make sure that their visit comes under one of the 12 permitted categories of licensed travel. They have been legally providing land services in Cuba for thousands of Americans for about 15 years.

  4. Major Weber

    The remarks and information above is out of date and incomplete. Private recreational vessels are now permitted to make temporary sojourns to Cuba not to exceed 14 days in Cuban waters and the vessel must file and get USCG approval via form 3300. The vessel may only depart from a U.S. port and must return directly to a U.S. port without stopping at any intervening nation. The vessel and all passengers must be traveling for one of the 12 authorized reasons defined by the Dept of Treasury.
    There is much more information detailed on the Seven Seas Cruising Association website http://www.ssca.org at the bottom of the main page.

  5. Paul Madden

    In regard to last post – we operate vessels from the U.S. to Cuba under a specific U.S. Treasury License, and a Commerce Department permit (a real license, not a “self-issued” license). Our license and permits have no 14-day limitation. We have operated numerous legal charters and owner-cruises to Cuba, and have a full suite of support services in Cuba to offer our clients. Much of the information in the article is out-of-date and inaccurate. Best to check the laws (in U.S. and Cuba) before exposing yourself, and your yacht. Useful information and links to USCG at http://Cuba-yacht.com

  6. Wally Moran

    According to Petty Officer Wilson, who administers the USCG form 3300 program, a vessel does not have to go directly from the US and back. All they are concerned about is the 14 day period in Cuba. I advise speaking directly to him for specifics.
    For further information, see Cuba Bound, a cruising guide to Cuba’s north coast, available from Waterway Guide’s website, http://www.waterwayguide.com

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