Sarasota Yacht Club holds its breath for permission to sail to Cuba

Sarasota Yacht Club
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American sailors, in the form of the Sarasota Yacht Club, want to sail to Havana, Cuba. The fact that Cuba has been off-limits to American citizens for over 50 years only seems to make it more attractive, but their hopes will be dashed if they don't get positive word from the US government this month.

Sailing to Havana in the Sarasota to Havana Regatta used to be a fine tradition, until it was stopped in the late 50's because Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba and then the frozen relations between the USA and island.

Sailors of other nationalities who have been sailing there in the meantime tell of idyllic anchorages and welcoming people, with a relaxed lifestyle 'reminiscent of the 50's'. But this didn't mean anything for Americans until President Barack Obama loosened restrictions on US citizens travelling to the island last month.

Even though they have been lobbying - and failing - for years to make the revival of the annual regatta a reality, some in the Sarasota Yacht Club think that 2011 could be different

'This could be the year,' Donald Payzant, president of the SYC Foundation, told the http://www.heraldtribune.com/!Herald_Tribune recently. SYC organizers say politics do not play into the plan to voyage en masse to Havana in May.

'Our interest in the race is not political, but Cuba is obviously a destination of interest in the sailing community,' he added. 'Everybody and their uncle wants to go to Cuba.'

Politics, however, are inseparable from what was once an annual boating festival, with the allure helped by the fact that the island is a mere 260 miles from the United States.

Whether the Obama administration's relaxed rules have successfully percolated down from the White House will be tested as the group awaits word on approval for licenses to travel south.

Hemingway Yacht Club
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The club has applied for permission to dock at the Port of Havana, where the commodore of the Hemingway International Yacht Club has for the second year invited its members to compete in the Regatta Castillo del Morro, an international boating race.

The Sarasota to Havana Regatta is slated for May 14, with a week of pre-race parties and events in Cuba. If SYC leaders do not get approval by Feb. 15, the event will be cancelled, and that date is approaching very fast.

Last year, a similar plan was ignored by US officials, who simply didn't reply to the application until it had to be cancelled.

In 1994 a regatta was allowed, and 86 sailing boats made the voyage to a thunderous welcome from the Cubans, in the form of the Hemingway International Yacht Club.

The 1994 regatta — the only official attempt to revive the historic race born in the 1930s — was orchestrated by the Sarasota Sailing Squadron, the yacht club's non-profit counterpart, which received much criticism for its attempt to revive the traditional festival. In that year, the attempted rebirth of the annual regatta was branded a humanitarian effort, and boaters loaded food, medical supplies and toys for Cuban youth. However, they weren't allowed to shop in Cuba, and had to take all their own food and water. Even so, the criticism the organisation received left such a bad taste that the event was not tried again the next year.

In the following years, though, some sailors still ventured to the island despite the embargo, at least until 2004, when two organizers of a race from Key West to Cuba were indicted for violating the Trading With the Enemy Act. This effectively ensured that most Americans would give the island a wide berth in their Caribbean wanderings.

If the regatta is allowed to go ahead in 2011, the SYC hopes to provide about $300,000 from boater registration fees to charities, including Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory and the Sarasota Youth Sailing Program.

The organisers from both the SYC and the Hemingway International Yacht Club see their sailing exploits as the first steps in open cultural exchange between the two nations and are hopeful new directives from the White House can clear the way.

By February 15, we'll all know...