Neighbors by Water = Los Vecinos por Agua
This March, we raced to Cuba in a fleet of 20 boats. The modern regatta revamps an old racing tradition. The St. Petersburg to Havana race is in its second year since its decades long hiatus, and exists again because of a recent thaw in international relations.
Early on the morning of arrival, armed men in green fatigues welcomed us onto the countries custom dock after the three days of ocean racing. One by one, each of our six crew members were brought into a room for questions. Given the option of taking or refusing the Cuban stamp on our passports, we all took it. Upon arrival, two dogs sniffed each of the boats that just finished the race. Eventually we made our way up the stagnant canals to Hemingway Marina.
We walked from the marina to the Hemingway International Yacht Club. We sat at long tables outside the Yacht Club for a delicious meal alongside the other sailors participating in the race. Orations by Commodore Eschrich were loud and easy to understand, even without Spanish fluency. Patriotism and sportsmanship, praise and epic symbolism we quickly relayed by the quick thinking translator. The regatta stood for friendship between the two countries.
The food was definitely fresh, but its presentation was unique to Cuba. After the regatta meal and presentations a full band took the stage. Five women dressed in white danced, sang in Spanish, and played in front of the captive regatta audience. Language barriers didn’t obscure their lively performance, and everyone hit the dance floor.
At the skipper’s meeting the night before the day race, a decorated official closed out the meetings talks, he spoke regarding the parade we would make into the port. The port of Havana was closed to recreational and competitive boating for years. He said we were lucky to be a part of this historical moment. The next morning was windy, and we waved to the crowd assembled on the Havana’s harborside. On the opposing bank the statue of Christ is positioned at an elevation above the port and the adjacent city.
The medical seminar before the regatta at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club reminded us of the infrequency of travel between the two countries was until the recent thaw in relations. Dr. John Sinnott told us to avoid street food in Havana, and to always avoid eating Barracuda. Last year was the first time the race had run since the 1950s, and the only medical issues were minor ones from consumption of street food.
We walked through a maze of streets and alley ways in Havana. Warnings forgotten, I bought a coconut from a stall with a short line. We ambled down the waterfront sidewalk and drank from the plastic straw stuck into the soggy, warm coconut. It was a fermented rum coconut. The ron coconut didn’t make me sick.
We never made it to the art market (it was closed), instead we went in search of mojitos at a rooftop bar. Later, we went on a mission for Cuban sandwiches. We never got mojitos at the rooftop because there wasn’t ice, we had cold beer and coffee instead and enjoyed the breathtaking ocean views. We ended up at a ferry terminal cafe for Cuban sandwiches. The food was minimalistic, but our negotiations with the servers were anything but.
Tourist pesos, and our general demeanor made it impossible for us to blend. With little experience in bartering we enjoyed trying to talk prices down, even without a solid grasp on Spanish. One night, we met other American’s in line outside Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a factory converted into a club and art gallery. They had come from St.Louis, saying they were “visiting to support the Cuban people”. They seemed like polite and respectful travelers. After meeting them I realized we should have payed the full tourist price, but if we hadn’t haggled we wouldn’t have made as many memorable interactions.
The streets compelled us to look at and listen to all of Havana’s art and music that was so new to us. The amazing architecture, some of it crumbling, seemed endless. There were impoverished people. A butchered animal leg thrown in the street, in another part of town a crowd of children swarmed two young backpackers handing out snacks.
Mostly everyone was kind to us. The servers could always guess where we were from, and the taxis drivers took time to tell us about their family at home and abroad. One young taxi driver joked that he wanted to sail back with us. We payed a few tacked on fees, and waited in an port office. We sailed away one evening, and arrived in Key West the next morning. Havana and its people are so close to Florida. I expect to revisit my Cuban neighbors and see more of their awesome country. Hopefully we return with SV Electra’s original six crew members.