Sailing race to Cuba gets OK

Published on April 24th, 2015

Key West, FL (April 24, 2015) – Imagine a dozen, 2-man, 16-foot Hobie catamarans sailing across 90 miles of treacherous seas to the land of the forbidden, Cuba. There the adventurous but experienced sailors from the eclectic island of Key West challenge the Cuban Olympic Sailing team, explore the Caribbean island from a local’s perspective, exchange cultural peculiarities, and return home on the final leg of the Havana Challenge.

The adventure sailing trip and Hobie Cat race between Key West and Havana has been resurrected, with a group of sailors set to make the roughly 90 mile trek on May 16.

The race, called the Havana Challenge, has been in the works for the past year. Late last week, the U.S. Department of Commerce issued the necessary permits, called temporary export licenses, for at least 10 boats to participate in the regatta. The organizers have requested permits for at least 22 boats and are hoping to receive the remaining permits by May 16, event organizers said.

In addition to racing across the Florida Straits to Marina Hemingway in Cuba, the sailing crews will be racing against the Cuban national team in front of the historic Malecon roadway and seawall in downtown Havana. Also, organizers will host youth sailing trips with Cubans.

The event is the brainchild of Key West-based Capt. George Bellenger and is organized by him, his wife Capt. Carla Bellenger and Capt. Joe Weatherby. The three captains started making the trek via Hobie catamarans in the late 1990s as part of their personal adventure sailing trips. The last trip made by any of the crew was in 2001, after which the annual event was put on hold.

The event is being sponsored by the nonprofit Key West Community Sailing Center. A portion of the proceeds from the event will go to youth sailing scholarships at the sailing center, organizers said.

The Bellengers, who run kayak, sail and ecotours in Key West, decided to resurrect the trip last year, and along with Weatherby, have been working with the U.S. State Department, Coast Guard, Department of Commerce and other federal agencies to obtain the proper licenses and permits. The commerce permit was the last major hurdle they had to clear.

Key West Community Sailing Center hosted the commodore of the Marina Hemingway while he was visiting South Florida for the annual Miami boat show earlier this year. The commodore has been very supportive of the event, organizers said.

The Bellengers and Weatherby also have been holding regular meetings with a group of captains and sailors who want to participate in the event. They met Wednesday night at the Key West Community Sailing Center to hammer out some of the details and logistics.

Weatherby and the Bellengers also have been working with Key Westers Tom and Nancy Coward, who organized a youth soccer trip that took Key West youngsters to Cuba.

The Havana Challenge falls under the sport and culture categories of the 12 allowable “people to people” exchanges, the Bellengers and Weatherby said.

“We are bridging cultures through traditional maritime heritage,” George Bellenger said. “We just want to sail and have a cool trip. We want to race the Cuban Oylmpic team in a beautiful place.”

“There are cultural and personal relationships between Key West and Havana that date back more than 100 years,” added Weatherby, an organizer of the USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg artificial reef project off Key West. “We are just trying to re-establish that relationship.”

The group’s earlier treks were much different and much more of an adventure than what is planned for the May trip. The early trips were just a small group sailing with primitive GPS equipment, which often didn’t work and required the crews to use small hand-held compasses to navigate the treacherous Florida Straits.

On one trip in 1997, the Bellengers’ Hobie Cat began sinking six miles offshore. They had to navigate around Cuba’s coral reef to beach the boat on land. Also, Carla Bellenger had to tie a bandana around one of the riggings to help them navigate to shore. Despite the perils, they have successfully made the crossing each time and have had amazing experiences, which included watching a humpback whale give birth to a calf, they said.

“We have had all kinds of adventures,” Carla Bellenger said. For the May race, there will be chase boats carrying emergency medical equipment. Other boats will be fitted with salvage equipment so in the event one of the Hobie Cats breaks down, it can be towed or lifted out of the water and repaired, organizers said. The organizers are hoping to make the Havana Challenge an annual event.

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