St. Petersburg regatta to Havana again buffeted by politics

The Tall Ship Lynx, an 80-foot interpretation of a Baltimore privateer topsail schooner used during the War of 1812, sets out at the start off the 2017 St. Petersburg-Habana Yacht Race.  [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
The Tall Ship Lynx, an 80-foot interpretation of a Baltimore privateer topsail schooner used during the War of 1812, sets out at the start off the 2017 St. Petersburg-Habana Yacht Race. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Feb. 20, 2018

The 2017 St. Petersburg-Habana Yacht Race was celebrated as more than a competitive regatta to Cuba's capital city of Havana.

The relaunch of the maritime competition canceled since 1959 was hailed as a reflection of the detente started under former President Barack Obama.

The event returns for a second consecutive year on Monday and again mirrors the political climate, but on the opposite end of the spectrum.

More than 70 vessels competed in last year's event.

This year, 20 will start the journey, beginning at 11:30 a.m. at the Sunshine Skyway bridge and ending 278 miles later at Havana's Marina Hemingway.

"We were hoping for more, but the political scene caused by our president impacts what happens," said George Pennington, race chairman and regatta general of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, which hosts the race.

No policy has been passed forbidding Americans from participating in athletic competitions in Cuba, under which the regatta falls. But relations are more strained under President Donald Trump than his predecessor.

For instance, Trump has banned Americans from staying at hotels managed by the Cuban government, a decision limiting lodging options in a nation where the armed forces control up to 70 percent of the tourism industry.

Plus, the State Department issued a travel warning on Cuba due to the mysterious health attacks against American diplomats in Havana.

These decrees coupled with the Trump's harsh words for the former Cold War enemy, according to leaders in the Cuba travel industry, have been enough to diminish the number of Americans visiting the island in recent months.

The "new approach of the Trump administration to U.S.-Cuba policy based on rumors and unproven accusations" has created enough confusion and fear to chase away boaters, said Vicente Amor, Cuba-born vice president of the Tampa travel company ASC International USA working with the yacht race.

Those "accusations" to which he referred are the health attacks. Amor is among those who believe the Cuban government's assertion that it did not target the American government workers.

Tony Barrett, one of 11 captains who competed in 2017 and will do so again this year, says politics likely played a role for some who won't return. But not, he said, in all cases.

That the 2017 race was the first since 1959 likely drew increased interest from those who were not avid racers but rather just wanted to be part of history, said Barrett, who will helm the 33-foot Soverel yacht named Back Off.

"They could have lined up 150 last year if they allowed it," he said.

He predicts that in time the race will average 30 to 40 yachts like other local distance races. St. Petersburg's 50th Regata del Sol al Sol to Mexico's Isla Mujeres held this April, for instance, currently has 30 entrants.

Regardless, race chairman Pennington promised the Havana race will be back next year, though he "cannot state in what format it will be."

Due to the lighter lineup, competition classes will be limited to spinnaker and cruising. In 2017, there were also nonspinnaker and multihauling classes.

Politics has a history of affecting local yacht races to Cuba.

The first St. Petersburg-Habana Yacht Race in 1930 featured 11 boats and was meant to be a promotional event to help St. Petersburg recover from the Great Depression. It grew to include more than 30 vessels a year and succeeded in bringing international acclaim to the city. But the contest was canceled after the rise of communism in Cuba.

From the late 1990s through the early 2000s, a different race known as the Havana Cup was run from St. Petersburg to Havana and drew more than 200 vessels each year. But that was canceled when — under political pressure from hard-line members of the exile community — the U.S. government issued cease and desist orders to the event's organizers.

Among the regular entrants in the Havana Cup was Barrett, who said that during those trips he made friends in Cuba. But it was not until last year when the St. Petersburg-Habana Race returned that he went back to the island.

While there, he stopped at a restaurant he once frequented and whose owner was a friend. Despite it being 16 years since Barrett last ate there, the owner recognized him and called common friends to join them for drinks.

"We were a little grayer, but it felt like we'd never missed a day," Barrett said. "The people in Cuba are so friendly. I can never get over that."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.