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Charter Company Gains License To Cruise Cuban Waters

The U.S. Treasury Department has granted Merrill Stevens Yachts a license to convey qualified U.S. citizens to Cuba on crewed charter vessels.

The first recreational boat to legally cruise once-forbidden Cuban waters with U.S. citizens aboard could well be a yacht between 60 and 300 feet LOA, chartered through Paul Madden Associates of Palm Beach.

And at the upper end of the spectrum, one of your choices is the Christina O, the refurbished superyacht that the late Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis once owned.

The U.S. Treasury Department granted Madden, who also does business under the Merrill Stevens Yachts name, a license to convey qualified U.S. citizens to Cuba on crewed charter vessels. His permit essentially gives his company the same “carrier services” status as Carnival Cruise Lines and four ferry start-ups that also recently received licenses.

Madden’s license was made possible by President Barack Obama’s new policy of engagement with Cuba’s Castro regime, which essentially returns U.S. policy to the status quo before the administration of President George W. Bush, who effectively banned all recreational boat travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens.

Charter customers won’t be the first recreational boaters to travel to Cuba. Recently a Hobie Cat regatta began in Key West, Florida, and ended at Havana, Cuba, and 17 U.S. boats were licensed to travel to Havana to participate in the Ernest Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament.

El Morro, Havana’s iconic fortress, guards the entrance to Havana Harbor.

El Morro, Havana’s iconic fortress, guards the entrance to Havana Harbor.

There is a key difference, however, between Madden’s license and the two competitions. Regatta and tournament participants were forbidden under the terms of their license to cruise from one port to another within Cuba or even to leave the docks, except during the actual competitions. Madden’s yachts are free to roam the entire island nation, with its six colonial-era ports, 3,000 miles of coast and more than 4,000 islands.

Not just anyone can charter a yacht to Cuba. Under U.S. regulations, customers need to qualify under 12 criteria for legal travel. They include journalists, Cuban Americans, and bona-fide researchers.

Cruising Cuba is like entering some kind of time-space anomaly; the land of “rum, rhumba and revolution” looks a lot like the Caribbean of the 1950s. Outside the 90-mile sector between Havana and the marinas at Varadero to the east, there is little marine infrastructure in a place nearly the size of Florida, a circumstance that makes the choice of a 300-footer, such as the Christina O, a tad impractical.

There are berths for fewer than 20 megayachts in all of Cuba, excluding shipyards and commercial docks. Of those, Marina Hemingway outside Havana can accommodate a few 200-footers, a length limitation imposed by a turn after the entrance channel. Meanwhile, at Varadero, the Cuban government is nearing the completion of what will be the largest marina in the Caribbean, with 1,200 slips, including berths for six megayachts as large as 200 feet.

Nevertheless, now that Madden has cracked the code, the Caribbean yacht charter industry is beginning to cast a lustful gaze upon Cuba.

“I am in talks with some of the larger yacht charter and brokerage companies,” Madden said, “and they are predicting that the majority of yachts operating in the Caribbean will migrate to Cuba at the first opportunity. Until [this month], the U.S. embargo kept them out. Some could not get insurance, and if they visited there, they were liable to not be allowed into U.S. ports after their visit.”

Pricing for Madden’s charters ranges from $3,000 a day for a 60-footer to $20,000 a day for the biggest boats, plus provisions and fuel. That represents quite a contrast to the dollar-a-day wage the average Cuban earns and a national zeitgeist that expresses itself in billboard communism.

Vestiges of the Cold War dot the Cuban landscape 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Vestiges of the Cold War dot the Cuban landscape 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.


Landmass: 44,000 square miles

Climate: Tropical in the trade-wind belt, modified by frontal systems from the United States and by hurricanes

Shoreline: 3,000 nautical miles

Circumnavigation: 1,650 nautical miles

Islands and keys: 4,195

Percentage of coastal shelf navigable by boats larger than 25 feet: 70 percent

Quality of Cuban marine cartography: Superb

Boating regions: 7

Dive centers: 18

Marinas: 15, with most slips in a 60-mile swath between Havana and Varadero

Planned marinas: 23 additional, with more than 5,000 slips

Major colonial port cities: 6 (Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Manzanillo, Santiago and Baracoa)

Distances To

Florida: 90 miles

Mexico: 110 miles

Cayman Islands: 170 miles

Jamaica: 80 miles

Hispaniola: 45 miles

Bahamas: 45 miles

Turks & Caicos: 110 miles

Number of visiting yachts

Before 2004*: more than 2,000 annually

After 2004: more than 1,000 annually

Percentage of visiting yachts from the United States

Before 2004*: 69 percent

After 2004: 17 percent

Number of recreational vessels greater than 25 feet LOA registered in Florida: About 92,000

Estimated number of yachts larger than 25 feet LOA that will travel to Cuba in the first year after the travel ban ends: 60,000 to 80,000

*On Feb. 26, 2004, the administration of President George W. Bush issued a proclamation outlining measures to crack down on Americans traveling by boat to Cuba in contravention of the U.S. embargo. Despite the new policy of engagement, the basic structure of the Bush policy toward recreational boats remains in place.

Peter Swanson is the events content manager for the Active Interest Media Marine Group. AIM owns several marine publications including PassageMaker and Soundings Trade Only.

This post originally appeared here.