Cuba: A Dry Run

North of Havana is a fantasy world of mangrove-lined cays and green water flashing with tropical fish—perfect sea-kayaking country. But the line between what's permissible and what's not in Castro's kingdom falls in a gray area, and comings and goings by water always mean trouble.

Aug 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

THE COMMODORE OF THE YACHT CLUB at the Marina Hemingway, just west of Havana, leans across his mahogany desk. Señor José Miguel Diaz Escrich is a big, affable, all-business socialist who clearly enjoys being at the helm of a conspicuously capitalist enterprise. Above him, lovingly framed, are two pictures of famously bearded men. Castro is shaking hands with a couple of Australian athletes who, in a delightful reversal of the usual direction, had swum to Cuba from somewhere else. Hemingway, in the other photo, is just being himself, which looks like such an effort it puts me in the mood for a double rum.

We've come to see Escrich because he is the man most responsible for the rising popularity of Cuba as a yachting destination. In a country with one of the most tightly regulated coastlines in the world, he's convinced the government that cruising boats are not a big threat. Even Cuban fishermen in skiffs need daily permits from the military to throw a net in the bay, but because of Escrich the red tape for foreign yachters has been made manageable. We want to paddle about 120 miles from the sugar port of Caibarién, on the central north coast, westward to a tourist resort called Varadero. We have little drift sails, and we figure that if we can convince the Cubans that our kayaks are simply very small yachts, we'll get permission.

"And what about your boats?" Escrich asks. "What happens in the waves?"

I understand his question. As poor as Cuba is, sports are a big deal, and the Cuban flatwater kayak team trains at the marina. The commodore is probably imagining us in sleek, tippy competition shells.

"These are expedition kayaks," I say. "Built by Germans. A German paddled one across the Atlantic in 1956. Completemente loco, huh?"

Escrich smiles. "Yes," he replies, executing the signature Cuban Ironic Eyebrow Raise, which can be made to speak volumes. "Loco. But to tell you the truth, what you are trying to do is even more loco."

"It's perfect for kayaking," I argue. "It's practically an inside passage."

He does the eyebrow thing again. "Nobody has ever done this. Submit a detailed written proposal. We will submit it to the Ministry of Tourism. This will take time to analyze. And let's be clear with each other." He leans forward and gives us the same I-know-boys-will-be-boys look my hardass Uncle Wilson used to give me and my cousins. "If you go out to Caibarién and construct your kayaks you will be—"

I chime in: "—detained."

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