By Michael T. Moore and Maria Romeu
The 2016-17 Caribbean yachting season was the first time since 1958 that U.S. yachters could visit Cuba, and they did so in droves. Canadians have made up the majority of tourists for the past few decades, but last year U.S. citizens came in No. 2, surpassing Europeans and Asians.
Since the late 1990s, Cuba has focused on developing the 3,500 miles of nearly virgin coastline offering three major archipelagos, four harbor cities with berthing conditions for superyachts and 12 marinas, seven of which have international entry and executive airports nearby. Many of the archipelagos and beach towns offer all-inclusive resorts operated by international hotel chains and not the Cuban government.
Yachts originating from U.S. waters have participated in U.S.-approved activities, such as fishing tournaments and marine ecology programs sponsored by the International SeaKeepers Society.
The 2016 Hemingway Billfish Tournament had over 90 participating fishing boats from the U.S., more than any Hemingway Tournament since its inception 65 years earlier. Sailing regattas between the U.S. and Cuba graced the Havana oceanfront with more sails in the panorama than ever before.
The superyacht Christina O crossed from Monte Carlo to Cienfuegos and made her way around the western tip of Cuba to Havana. M/Y Atomic followed a similar route, exploring what many believe to be some of the most spectacular reefs on Earth, from Cayo Largo to Cabo San Antonio. Jamaica Bay spent 10 days in Havana Bay while 18 yachts from the Ocean Reef Yacht Club established a historically significant friendship agreement with the Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba – the first and one of the few non-governmental and nonprofit organizations in Cuba. The Key West Yacht Club and about half a dozen others did the same.
One private dive boat achieved a BIS permit from the U.S. and a two-month cruising permit in Cuba to dive more than 50 spots off the Archipelago de Los Canarreos and the Maria La Gorda International Dive Center. The yachts Jopaju, Babieca and Reflections are among those that have made multiple trips to Cuba. Others that have cruised there include Michaela Rose, Lagniappe, Top Dog, Big Eagle and Infinity. Every yacht came and went without a hitch.
So, are we going to treat the “Pearl of the Caribbean” like a one-night stand, or do we keep cruising to Cuba? There are two things to take into account: the law as defined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, aka OFAC; and insurance underwriters, who must make sure the extremely valuable property is protected.
Both of these challenges are easy to overcome and can be done with something as simple as an OFAC compliant itinerary, a compliance affidavit or letter of sponsorship from a nonprofit organization for the guests aboard the yacht, a Cuban visa for the guests and crew, and a CG 3300 permit from the U.S. Coast Guard. Nothing has changed in regard to U.S. law since last year – the same process is followed; the same laws apply.
The only difference is that five marinas run by Gaviota – the Cuban company owned by the military arm of the government – are off limits to U.S. yachts. Also, a list of hotels and a few shops have been deemed off-limits to Americans. That leaves all the rest of 3,500 miles of coastline, two major archipelagos and all marinas run by the Marlin Group, which comprises most of the marinas in Cuba.
Cuba welcomes yachts with open arms. Local navigation laws are relaxing and authorities are becoming more flexible in their attitudes and responses to private or charter recreational yachts from the U.S.
Permits for private planes and helicopters are easy to obtain, as well as cruising permits to multiple ports and fishing permits. The marinas and ports are safe and their personnel are among the most professional in the world.
With the biggest, most beautiful island in the Caribbean close by and welcoming U.S. yachts with open arms – and no new restrictions from the U.S. government – it’s only natural to set sail for Cuba sooner rather than later.
Editor’s note: For updates from the U.S. government on travel to and business with Cuba, click here.
Michael T. Moore is a maritime and aviation lawyer with Moore and Company, in Miami, and Maria Romeu is president of Concierge Cuba, LLC in Fort Lauderdale.