Friendly, poor; Cuba’s contrasts stark to visiting yachts and crew

Sep 23, 2014 by Lucy Chabot Reed
Credit: Photo by ABC Photography Design

This month’s survey comes from the curious mind of a yacht captain wondering what his fellow yachties are planning to do about Cuba (if anything) and the possibility of U.S. regulations against travel there being lifted.

So we asked yacht captains and crew if they have been or plan to go, if they liked it and what advice they had for others planning the short voyage south.

It’s important to note that the majority of our 88 respondents were American (76 percent), which is interesting considering the results. A majority of our respondents were also captains (86 percent) in yachting more than 20 years (60 percent), which gives us some perspective.

(Read comments from respondents here.)

We started with the basic question: Have you ever been to Cuba?

Slightly more than half of our respondents — 53 percent — have not.

For the 47 percent who have gone, we offered lots of variables to dissect exactly how they went.

Most of them went with the yacht  (34 percent). Just 7 percent went without the yacht, but in their capacity as a yachtie. And 6 percent visited Cuba on their own time.

Because there is much more to glean from yachties who have been to Cuba, we begin with a series of questions directed only to those who have visited the island nation.

 How many times have you been to Cuba?

The majority of captains and crew who have been to Cuba have been just once (68 percent). Nearly a quarter said they have been a handful of times. A small group of about 6 percent said they have been more than a dozen times. And just 3 percent — one respondent — said he/she has been there a lot of time as it’s one of the yacht owner’s favorite places. (This is an American captain in yachting more than 30 years currently running a yacht 100-120 feet.)

 What did you like best about Cuba?

By far, our respondents noted how friendly and nice the people of Cuba were to them. And there was a crowd of second favorite things: the diving, the culture, the history, the art, the music and dancing, the fishing, the old cars, the simple natural beauty.

“The excitement of just being there, the culture,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “There was nothing I didn’t like.”

“The people, and the fact you enter a time machine and are in living history,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 5 years. “It’s very surreal. It’s like being on a Hollywood movie lot.”

“A very European flavor amongst the islands in the Caribbean,” said an Australian captain who has been a handful of times with the yacht. “Culture, enduring citizens, Old World charm, struggling yet surviving, clean and safe. But sad to see a beautiful Nation locked in an island jail. Appealing to see less outside influences such as McDonalds, however. Diving, fishing, pristine waters, friendly locals and loads of fun loving people. Fabulous atmosphere.”

“It’s awesome,” said an American captain in yachting more than 20 years but who has been to Cuba just once. “If DuPont donated a million gallons of paint, Havana would once again be the place to go.”

 What did you like least?

What they liked least were the poor conditions under which the people lived.

“The place is beautiful but also very sad,” said a captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 25 years.

Second to the social conditions was the limits on movement that yachts fall under.

“The diving was best,” said another captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “The least? Seeing the economic system that all the people live under. Wait, no, the real worst part of Cuba was the check-in and check-out for every boat move. And having inspectors on board on each end for check-in and check-out.”

 Which ports have you been to? Which one(s) was your favorite?

The most common marinas were Hemingway Marina and the port of Havana, with most respondents just going to one or the other or only those two.

“Hemingway Marina, port of Havana only,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “Hemingway was an easy in and out.”

“Hemingway in Havana,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 in yachting more than 30 years. “Most other locations are anchorages only as the docks are not in good condition for any large yachts.”

“We sailed the north shore from Havana to the western tip over two weeks,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “The western tip was great.”

“Havana, then cruised around the west coast and finished on the south coast, then departed for Cancun,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 10 years.

Other common ports visited were Varadero, Cienfugos and Santiago de Cuba. Other ports — and there were more than dozen others mentioned — were mentioned only once.

 How were the marinas you visited?

The majority of respondents said that most of the marinas they visited were satisfactory (58 percent) with the next largest group (32 percent) saying they were not very good.

Just 3 percent — one respondent — said the marinas were mostly great.

 Were things like shorepower up to your needs?

The largest group (42 percent) said never.

“The main marina, Hemingway Marina, only had 50 amps,” said an American captain in yachting less than 10 years. “That could not supply power to our vessel, which requires 100 amps.”

“Cuba is like everywhere else: for a 30-50m yacht, yes, marinas can supply space and power,” said WHO. “But for larger yachts, we don’t fit in Hemingway and the cruise terminal in Havana doesn’t have this ability as cruise ships don’t get shore power. Everywhere else, we’re at anchor, but this happens everywhere for this size of yachts, in the Med, the U.S., Mexico, you name it. The marinas tell you they have these services, but then you arrive and they can’t accommodate you, or they have to improvise or modify what they have.”

About a quarter said things like shorepower were adequate in most places.

“In Hemingway Marina, electricity was OK,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “In the port of Havana, we went to a large government dock, not a regular marina. There were no recreational boat hookups.”

Nearly a quarter more said not often.

“Shore power was three cables running down the sidewalk,” said a captain who visited Cuba just once. “They stripped off the insulation, wound our cord wires around and taped it up. Voltage naturally was very unstable. Better to burn the fuel and stay on generator.”

“Shore pedestals were there sometimes, but didn’t work,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “We loaned the electrician our electrical kit and spares and he fixed half of the marina.”

“Very weird wiring,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “Low voltage when the marina is full is very common. Definitely not UL rated.”

Just 10 percent said the services were sufficient everywhere they went.

“We only stayed in one marina, Hemingway Marina,” said one satisfied captain, in yachting more than 25 years and now running a yacht 100-120 feet. “For another couple weeks, we tripped around at anchor.”

 How was tipping?

Sixty-two percent said tips were graciously accepted.

“Tips are welcome everywhere, not only in Cuba,” said the captain of a yacht more than 220 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “What they do care about is being treated with dignity, especially authorities when they board the yacht. Don’t offer them money; just treat them with respect. Offer them coffee or something to eat, even a souvenir of the yacht and you will make friends. And don’t act offensive as they don’t act like that.”

“I found the officials nervous of being tipped; even a can of Coke they hid,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “To tip in a country where a doctor earns $15 a month could destroy these people.”

About 30 percent said tips were expected. Just 7 percent said they were demanded.

“Customs claimed certain items as theirs to keep,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years who has traveled to Cuba with the yacht.

“Everyone works for the regime,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “A cancer-curing (!) doctor or gas station attendant earns $19.50 equivalent per month with food stipend, so all extra money really makes a difference.”

“In the marina, the workers were not very demanding and appeared thankful for tips, but the rest of the country it seemed like tips were actually heavily expected, just short of demanded,” said an American captain in yachting more than 15 years who visited Cuba just once. “In downtown Havana, tips were demanded.”

“Doctors only make $20-25 a month so when word gets out you tip, there is no shortage of people lurking around the boat looking for gifts and money,” said an American captain of a yacht 100-120 feet. “Many just asked for it. Customs and immigration did as well as the department of agriculture straight up asked for money and gifts.”

“We didn’t tip and they didn’t ask,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet. “It’s not your usual South Florida marina with dock attendants.”

 Did the flag on the yacht make a difference in how you were treated?

Just 10 percent were confident that the flag did make a difference.

About 17 percent thought that it might have. But most, 72 percent, doubted that it did.

“All flags are OK and welcome, even U.S.,” said the captain of a yacht larger than 200 feet who has been to Cuba more than a dozen times. “The only restriction is no American banks cards. Visa, Mastercard, whatever, is OK, but not one issued by an American bank.

“We had a Dutch flag on the boat and it was all fine,” said an American captain in yachting more than 25 years. “No issues at all.”

Did the passports of the crew or guests make a difference in how you were treated?

The answers here were similar, with about 13 percent confident that their nationality impacted their visit, about 10 percent who thought it might have, and 77 percent who doubted it mattered at all.

“There were no U.S. citizens onboard,” said an Australian captain in yachting more than 30 years. “Americans can travel to Cuba via Mexico and do not seem to be treated any lesser than anyone else, from our knowledge. U.S.-flagged yachts also frequent Cuba nowadays without any issues. Times are a-changin for the Cuban nation.”

“They were happy to meet Americans as they all had relatives there,” said a captain who has been to Cuba a handful of times over 20 years in yachting.

“No hassle entering, no questions,” said an American captain who visited just once.

 How did the yacht’s insurer handle your plans to visit Cuba?

Most, about 46 percent, said the yacht’s insurer did nothing differently. But 42 percent of our respondents said they didn’t tell the insurer. Just 12 percent said they were charged an extra premium for the journey to Cuba.

“Our insurer only excludes Haiti and Colombia, not Cuba,” said the captain of a yacht larger than 220 feet.

Several captains said the yacht switched insurance companies from those in the U.S. to ones in Europe.

“We had to switch our policy to Lloyd’s of London to be covered, as our policy was with a U.S. insurance company and they won’t cover you in Cuba,” said the American captain of a yacht 200-220 feet.

“Our current insurance specifically states that Cuba, Colombia and Venezuela are areas of non coverage,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet. “They don’t care if we sail there, but we are self-insured during thetrip.”

 Would you go back?

The vast majority (78 percent) said they absolutely would, with the bulk of the rest willing to return, if only a little less enthusiastically.

“I think it’s great, and I want to go back more before it is opened up,” said a captain in yachting more than 10 years who has visited a handful of times.

A few respondents would go back if the boss wanted to go, and no one said they would never go back.

And finally, we asked our Cuban veterans if they had any advice for their yachting brethren who plan to go.

“I was in Cuba early December with the yacht. We are Marshall Island-flagged but U.S. owned and we had no trouble,” said an American captain. “We arrived in Marina Hemingway where the vessel was searched and then spent a week there before the boss arrived. We then spent the next two weeks cruising Cuban waters, departing Havana and cruising the west and south coasts before departing Cuba for Cancun to disembark the guests.

“All in all, it was a good time,” this captain said. “Bit of a headache, though, having to check in and out of every port. Even if at anchor, a Cuban official comes out and searches the vessel and wants to see all persons onboard, often disrupting my guests as a lot of our movements were at night.

“But the diving and fishing is like nowhere else I have been in the Caribbean, so untouched,” he said. “We paid for everything in cash so as not to leave a credit card paper trail, and cell phones do not work there, unless you have a European one. We are planning on going back again this year.”

“Yachts have to realize that the nation has been locked up for over 50 years,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “The communist government does not spend any of its funds on any maintenance or upgrades whatsoever. Cuba is easy to operate within, provided you go there with your eyes open and abide by the rules of the country. Mostly security related, so long as you don’t attract any attention, everything runs smoothly. They do not accept U.S. dollars or U.S. credit cards at all. Best to have euros, sterling or convert euros to the local currency when you arrive.

“Facilities are available in most places, but no shore power at all, and water should be sterilized,” this captain said. “Best to clear in and out of Hemingway in Havana first, then venture onward throughout the island. Cell phone sim cards can be purchased in the country. Internet is only available in hotel lobbies. If the yacht has Vsat, you should be OK for communication.

“The supermarkets are basic but they do exist. Best to stock up the yacht well, particularly with dry provisions, drinks, etc. There is a great fresh market in Havana. The basics of most items are available but best with a local to guide you to the best places. Taxis, car rentals and tours are available. Best to obtain a local English-speaking guide. Private guides are available at the marina in Havana.”

Even though half of our respondents have not been to Cuba, we still had more questions for them. We were curious to learn Do you think you will travel to Cuba with the yacht at some point?

Half said the yacht had no plans to visit the island nation (but at least one respondent penciled in that he would like to). The bulk of the rest (41 percent) said they planned to go as soon as U.S. restrictions are lifted. Only 9 percent said they were planning a trip, regardless of U.S. policy.

“Several years ago I was told that the moment we could legally go to Cuba from the U.S. and back and not have to hide the fact — fuel, provisions — to be ready to go,” said the American captain of a yacht 80-100 feet. “I’m still waiting.”

 What has kept you from traveling to Cuba thus far?

Two-thirds of our predominantly American respondents said they haven’t yet visited because of the U.S. restrictions, as the owner, guests, crew and/or yacht are American.

About 30 percent said the owner just isn’t interested in visiting Cuba.

Only 4 percent admitted that they themselves just weren’t interested.

Beyond the rules that impact the majority of our respondents (who were American, remember), we were curious if yacht captains and crew wanted to go, so we asked Do you want to go?

Most (89 percent) do, but their level of enthusiasm is almost evenly split between “Sure, it’s a new place for us and likely will be interesting” (46 percent) and “Yes, I can’t wait” (43 percent).

“The sooner the better,” said the American captain of a yacht 200-220 feet.

“It’s on the bucket list,” said an American captain in yachting more than 20 years.

 Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this survey are welcome at We conduct our monthly surveys online. All captains and crew members are welcome to participate. If you haven’t been invited to take our surveys and would like to be, e-mail to be added.

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About Lucy Chabot Reed

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher and founding editor of The Triton.

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