By Lucy Chabot Reed
Not only have U.S. regulations eased enough to allow recreational boating trips to Cuba, some of the ancillary business required to make it happen have also come online, making yacht trips by Americans to the Communist country terrific experiences.
That was the consensus across five seminars about Cuba surrounding the boat show this week.
“Before I went down, there was lots of anxiety and I was nervous,” Capt. Jason Halvorsen of the 43m M/Y Marcato (ex-Copasetic) said during the YachtInfo seminar yesterday. “Growing up in South Florida I knew that Cuba was off limits. And here I was, going to a place I had been told my whole life I couldn’t go. It was nerve-wracking for me. But the minute I arrived, I was immediately relieved. It was almost surreal. The officials were easier to work with than the ones in the Bahamas.”
He said the trip should be on everyone’s bucket list and, if done properly, will not disappoint. Though lacking in many amenities, the island is safe and beautiful in many ways.
“I never felt unsafe, nor did any of my guests, said Capt Brent Holleman of M/Y Cedar Island.
“We were beautifully treated by our guide and driver, said Ann Souder who works to handle Cuba paperwork for American clients of Paul Madden Associates. “I never felt one moment of anxiety and would have been comfortable walking around alone.”
There are some legal hurdles to clear, but they appear to be low, according to several of the seminar speakers.
For any vessel that falls under U.S. jurisdiction (U.S. flag, American owner, American beneficial owner, or even one American crew or guest), the humans onboard need to decide how their travel will fit into the legal framework of the 12 categories of the general license to travel to Cuba.
Paul Madden, Capt. Brent Holleman, Capt. Jason Halvorsen, Ann Souder and Capt. Scott Miller at the YachtInfo seminar yesterday morning. PHOTO BY LUCY REED
The people-to-people category, for example, does not mean going to dinner and bars to mingle with the locals, said Lisa Greenberg, president of Pacific Bound Yachts, yacht agents for travel to Cuba as well as around the Pacific. Musicians can arrange meetings with other musicians, artists with other artists, ballet aficionados with the ballet troupe, she said.
“The general license is self regulated and self policed,” she said. But be prepared to prove the Americans traveled under those conditions five years later in case someone from the U.S. government comes asking.
“Just keep a record of it and all your receipts for five years,” Greenberg said.
With a category and itinerary created, fill out U.S. Coast Guard form 3300, Permit to Enter Cuban Territorial Waters, for permission to go. Approval of the two-page form takes about 10 days.
The only hiccup in that process happens when someone needs to be added to the list of passengers or crew. In that case, the process starts over.
“It’s better to fly crew in on a [Cuban] tourist visa and say they are going to meet the boat,” said Paul Madden, owner of Paul Madden Associates, which has one of the six commercial licenses to operate vessels in Cuba. That crew member would have to depart Cuba by plane as well.
From the Cuban side, all that is required is a tourist visa, which is given upon arrival, whether on boat or private aircraft; a passport that must still be valid for six more months; and proof of health insurance, or the purchase of temporary Cuban health insurance for about $6 a day.
Crew fall into a slightly different category. As workers on the yacht, they are not allowed to leave the vessel. But vessels also can’t keep crew onboard for long periods of time without time off.
“We’re still not allowed to be tourists in Cuba,” Capt. Halvorsen said. “We can’t go surfing or go to the beach. But, crew can leave the boat for official boat business,” including escorting guests.
On the ground
At an afternoon seminar yesterday hosted by Pacific Bound Yachts, Greenberg mostly discussed the logistics of cruising the island nation.
Though yachts technically can anchor in the port of Havana, they can’t use their tender, and there’s only one commercial launch. Tenders are not allowed along the entire northern coast, but the restrictions are more flexible on the southern coast.
So unless it can secure dockage along the one commercial dock the cruise ships use, yachts don’t go into the port, Greenberg said. There’s no anchorage areas outside the port of Havana. Yachts can, however, anchor outside marinas in other places around Cuba, just not Havana.
Capt. Chris Walsh of the 222-foot M/Y Archimedes got dockage in the port and liked it.
“It was a great location,” he said. “You walk across the street and you’re in Old Havana.”
Clearing in took about 15 minutes of reviewing paperwork, he said, crediting Greenberg for facilitating that.
Coming back to the United States, about 30 percent of boats are being boarded, Greenberg said. USCG officials are looking for stowaways.
“I tell our boats to maintain MARSEC Level 2 for security and overdo it in the logbook with security watches and searches,” she said.
The final piece to planning a trip to Cuba — which actually was the first piece until recently — is to line up insurance coverage. The easing of U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba that started last year didn’t address insurance. Officially, U.S. companies cannot do business in Cuba, which is why U.S. insurers wouldn’t do it. It’s not that Cuba represented a higher navigation or security risk, it’s just that an incident would be more costly to deal with there, including arranging for parts, flying in technicians (if that were even possible), and towing the vessel back to the U.S., said Jerry Norman of Novamar Insurance.
Big changes came in April and October, he said, when releases from the Department of the Treasury said U.S. companies can now cover the hull and physical damage in Cuba as long as the insured is under the general license and followed regulations.
“After that, endorsements started coming in from American companies,” Norman said.
Insurance companies will require the voyage be legal, so before it offers coverage, it likely will require approved licenses and permits. There may also be an increase in the deductible.
The endorsement will cover a specific range of days for an extra charge. Some companies may not automatically add days in cases where they yacht cannot leave, such as in a claims situation. Norman suggested insureds ask that coverage beyond the time be granted if needed.
“That’s what insurance is for, to cover you when it’s really needed,” he said. “Read the endorsement to make sure you understand what it covers, and work with a reputable agent.”
After more than a year, Bluewater Books and Charts expects to receive new charts from the Cuban government the week after the boat show.
Greenberg noted that last year, three yachts she was working with had to cancel their plans to visit Cuba because they couldn’t get insurance, even after everything else was in place. Now, no boats cancel, she said.
Once all the paperwork, regulations and requirements have been met, the key to the happiness of everyone onboard is managing expectations.
“It’s sort of like the Third World down there,” Capt. Walsh said. “You can imagine the grandeur it once had, but it’s all falling apart. But the people are fantastic. They more than make up for it.”
And key to the success of a yacht trip to Cuba is planning.
“Preparation makes for a successful trip,” Capt. Halvorsen said. “Do your homework, or hire someone who has done their homework. If you do that, you will have an amazing trip.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher of Triton Today. Comment below.
A few tips from captains who have been there:
* Remember that everyone is a government employee. They all get paid by the state. They do not expect or want tips. More valuable would be a boat T-shirt or cap, or things like kids’ toys, toothpaste, hygiene products, aspirin, ink pens. But be careful handing things out.
“I’ve been going to Cuba since 1993 and you always want to help the people, give a bar or soap or some food,” said Capt. Scott Miller of the 130-foot Westport M/Y Dona Lola. “But other people see it and could say something. It’s a very fine line and you’ve got to manage it well. You’re breaking the law, but you’re also helping people.”
* American dollars are easy to convert into Cuban cucs. Most American credit cards won’t work (except one issued by Stonegate Bank), but Canadian and European cards work, but only in limited places.
“You can use a credit card in Marina Hemingway or in the big hotels,” Capt. Halvorsen said. “Don’t expect to buy your cigars with it, or your hat, or your dinner.”
* Declare all cash onboard. No one had heard of anyone having trouble for declaring too much.
One captain said a boat he knows declared $150,000 without incident.
* Two-way radios are illegal ashore, so leave them onboard.