Minus allure, yachts race here from Fla.

Ban on Havana start leaves slimmed field


April 20, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In the midst of the Elian Gonzalez furor, what was planned as the inaugural Havana-Baltimore yacht race will start Sunday from Key West, Fla., home state of anti-Castro sentiment.

The U.S. Treasury decided earlier this year to veto the plan to start the race in the Cuban capital, diminishing the romance and excitement of the event and creating controversy among the sailors and organizers.

"It's a disappointment," said Gary Jobson, the professional Annapolis sailor and CNN yacht race commentator who was one of the originators of the idea to follow last year's Orioles-Cuba baseball game with a yacht race between the two ports.

"It would have been a lot of fun to have a race from Havana to Baltimore. When we changed it to Key West, several of the boats said they would still race -- but it had lost its allure."

Without the intrigue and challenge of a Cuban start, the race fleet has shrunk from 24 boats to eight, but it includes the "turbo-sled" owned by Baltimore millionaire George Collins, former chief of the T. Rowe Price investment house.

"My reaction is -- terrific," said Collins, of switching the start from Havana to Key West, two ports associated with author Ernest Hemingway, after whom the race is named. "I have no desire to go to Cuba. The State Department doesn't want people to go there.

"Why did I enter? I wanted to do the race. It's the biggest race on the East Coast this year."

The 1,000-mile race will take the yachts along the Gulf Stream, outside Cape Hatteras and into the Chesapeake Bay for a final sprint to the finish line off Baltimore's Rusty Scupper restaurant. The winner is expected to arrive next Thursday or Friday.

Although the fleet has been reduced, the race is expected to be highly competitive, with another super-sled, Zephyrus, co-skippered by Annapolis racing consultant John Bertrand, likely to set the pace for Collins.

"The reason the dropouts gave was that it wasn't Cuba, which is kind of strange," said Annapolis sailor Dick Neville, a member of the Storm Trysail Yacht Club's race organizing committee.

"In Havana, nobody knew how to do it. It was going to be a nightmare logistically. The difficulties of trying to start a race in Cuba are enormous, but we had it figured out. People were intrigued by it."

The diminished fleet is a setback for Baltimore's efforts to make the Inner Harbor finish of the the race a highlight of next week's annual Waterfront Festival.

"The interest will probably be a little less because it isn't from Havana," said Lee Tawney, director of international programs in the mayor's office. "We had hopes the Treasury Department would have given the license, but they didn't. So we have to live within the law."

Neville said: "It's primarily because of this Elian Gonzales fiasco. The Treasury admitted that was the reason."

Yesterday, a Treasury official said that the custody battle over Elian Gonzalez had "no bearing" on the decision to refuse a license to the Havana-Baltimore race.

In its February letter to Mayor Martin O'Malley, Steven I. Pinter, chief licensing officer for the Office of Foreign Assets Control, simply cited the Cuban Assets Control Regulations.

These prohibit unlicensed travel by U.S. citizens to Fidel Castro's island. They also require that Cuba pay all visa and dockage fees involved in a regatta. The letter said that after consultations with the State Department, Baltimore's license application was refused.

Said Jobson: " -- We are not dead with Havana. We can do that another year when maybe the environment is different."

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