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Cuba travel for yachts easier, but not easy

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A room full of captains, crew, agents and managers left a seminar about travel between the U.S. and  Cuba yesterday morning just as full of questions as when they stepped in. But that’s the best anyone can expect with a relationship in flux.

“The yachting world is clearly the next phase,” said Michael Moore, a Miami-based maritime attorney who spoke on a panel in the YachtInfo seminar. “Cuba is full of contradictions. It’s a place in transition.”

The rules in question impact U.S. crew and U.S.-flagged vessels. While the trade embargo the U.S. has with Cuba is still in effect, rules changes last year enable American citizens to visit the island nation without applying for a special license, provided they fall under one of 12 categories of travelers including educational and family.

Interest was high on the topic of Cuba at yesterday's YachtInfo seminar. PHOTO/LUCY REED

Interest was high on the topic of Cuba at yesterday’s YachtInfo seminar. PHOTO/LUCY REED

For Americans leaving a U.S. port to visit Cuba, the U.S. Coast Guard requires a permit to proceed. A few hurdles are in the way for yachts attempting this move. First is that the USCG won’t consider the permit application until the departure is about two weeks away, Moore said.

Second, the permit gives the vessel 14 days to visit Cuba and return to the U.S., which raises several more issues for yachts. While the two-week window might work for charter yachts heading to Havana, it is impractical for private yachts that will want to venture far beyond. Also, private yachts will likely want to continue traveling and not return to the United States.

“It’s something we’re working on,” Moore said.

Stopping in another country such as Jamaica does not restart the two-week visit limit for U.S. boats or crew.

Another hiccup is that the U.S. Government is leery of additional stops on a trip, such as Jamaica or Bahamas.

“That may change, but for now, they are extremely nervous of yachts stopping someplace else,” said attorney Scott Wagner, who works at Moore & Co. “It’s just go to Cuba and come back.”

Panelists and attendees pointed out a few items to remember for those making the journey.

* Because U.S.-based credit cards are not accepted, cash can be hard to get. But exchanging dollars or euros into local currency is fairly simple.

* Cell phones are becoming easier to use there, with Verizon signing a deal just this week to operate there.

* Fishing and diving excursions require a permit.

* While towed tenders may be acceptable to insurance companies, they are troublesome for Cuban officials who see them as targets of theft for Cubans trying to flee the island.

“We all know the embargo is ending, and there are a lot of people in Cuba who want to get out before the wet-foot/dry-foot policy ends,” Moore said.

For now, however, the rules have simply eased, making travel from the U.S. easier but still not easy.

“Cuba is not totally open for business,” Wagner said. “There are still restrictions you have to abide by. It’s not just vessels, but the people on the vessel. The human beings on board still need to go down under one of the 12 categories listed in OFAC.”

Most of those categories don’t work for the yachting community, he said.

“You can say you’re going down to do mission work with your church, but when you layer in a $30 million yacht, it begins to raise red flags,” he said. “If you say you are ‘visiting family’ and it’s the family of the second engineer on your $50 million yacht, it becomes a lot more suspicious.”

Their suggestion was to have the yacht participate in the organized Seakeepers Discovery cruise program, which they assured attendees fits securely in one of the 12 categories and makes travel to Cuba legal for American boats and people.

“We’re lawyers,” Moore said. “We need to find the safest, most secure and zero-risk solutions.”

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor emeritus of Triton Today, lucy@the-triton.com.

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One thought on “Cuba travel for yachts easier, but not easy

  1. Jim Friedlander

    The first private yacht to visit Cuba legally was Operated by Paul Madden….The land excursions were handled by Academic Arrangements Abroad that has organized hundreds of legal people-to-people programs in Cuba for more than 15 years…. You might want to check with both before proceeding as they have actually done it.

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