Cuba focus of plan for regatta

Yacht race proposed to sail from Havana to Baltimore harbor

Cuban-Americans opposed

January 08, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Picture the sight: spectacularly expensive American yachts glittering in the waters off Fidel Castro's Havana, the Cubans looking on as some of the major players in the exclusive U.S. sailing community put the Communist island behind them in a race to Baltimore.

The idea for a race from Cuba to the city's Inner Harbor during the waterfront festival in April has enthusiastic support from officials in Baltimore and Havana. The race, which would not feature a boat from Cuba, is under review by the U.S. government, which must rule on any exchanges because of a trade embargo between the two countries.

Cuban officials believe the competition would help highlight the country's tourism potential and improve U.S.-Cuba relations. Baltimore organizers, who proposed the event, bill it as a rare opportunity to promote good will with Cuba while elevating the city's waterfront festival to a major international attraction.

"This is unique," said Lee Tawney, director of international programs in the mayor's office, who is the lead organizer of the event. "It's just pure sailing -- we're not marketing any products or doing anything like that. It's just an effort to do a pure sailing event, a people-to-people event."

But the idea is not resting easily with the Cuban-American community. They say it's in bad taste to sponsor a competition over portions of the Atlantic traveled by Cubans fleeing the island, many of whom perish in rickety craft, like the relatives of 6-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez.

"It just doesn't look good -- not for anybody who cares about freedom and democracy and can think beyond issues like what's the main course at the yacht club tonight," said Jose Cardenas, Washington director of the Cuban-American National Foundation, which fiercely opposes U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations.

The group plans to lobby to block the race.

1,000-mile run

Politics aside, racing hotshots are intrigued. The contest over roughly 1,000 miles has attracted the interest of Roy Disney, Walt Disney's brother, and Baltimore millionaire George Collins, who ran the Chessie Racing syndicate in the Whitbread Round-the-World race two years ago.

"One of the reasons I bought the boat was to do this race," said Collins, who owns Roy Disney's old racer, a Santa Cruz 70, and plans to put much of his Whitbread crew on the boat for the Havana event.

"People really want to do this race -- it's going to be really competitive."

The race over at least four days would be the longest on the East Coast offshore circuit this spring, with about 25 boats competing, mostly from the United States. Baltimore officials do not want the event to look like a tourist junket, and would have sailors spend as little time as possible in Havana.

The Storm Trysail Club, an invitation-only offshore sailing club, is helping organize the contest, a rough race up the East Coast. The Gulf Stream in April is known to deliver winds easily reaching 40 knots, pummeling even the most sophisticated racing boats.

Youth competitions

The event would also include youth sailing competitions in Havana and Baltimore. The regatta, in which students from the two countries would compete first in Cuban and then in U.S. waters, is promoted as a cultural exchange.

"We are working hard on the organization of this race," said Maite Arteche, a spokeswoman for the Cuba's Club Nautico Internacional Hemingway de la Habana, which boasts 1,000 members from 44 countries.

"Of course, I hope we widen the relationships."

The event's epicenter would be the high-speed ocean race by the adult sailors, ending at the waterfront festival in the Inner Harbor. City officials are trying to add crowds to the waterfront festival -- also a stopover for next year's Volvo Ocean Race (formerly the Whitbread Round-the-World race).

They hope to lure back such lucrative international events in future years.

Baltimore officials, led by Tawney, dreamed up the idea for the race during negotiations for the Cuba-Orioles baseball games last spring, negotiations which were characterized at times by high diplomatic tensions and last-minute cancellation anxiety.

Tawney submitted a petition for a permit for the race to the U.S. Treasury Department after Christmas, and hopes that politics will not disrupt the outcome.

Baseball, chess, sailing

Since the ballgame, Baltimore has reached out to Cuba in a high-profile way: Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke visited Cuba three times over the past year and a half. The city participated in a health mission there and a chess tournament, and is continuing to negotiate future sports and cultural exchanges.

About 90 people from Baltimore's academic, cultural, medical and sporting communities belong to Cuba Round-Table and are working to see exchanges like the boating event take place.

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