St. Pete-to-Havana race hoists sails for first time in nearly 60 years | Crain's Tampa Bay

St. Pete-to-Havana race hoists sails for first time in nearly 60 years

When the U.S. and Cuba re-established diplomatic ties last year after more than a half-century of estrangement, it set wheels, er, sails in motion at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

The detente between the two countries signaled an opportunity to revive the famous St. Petersburg-Havana yacht race – last run in 1959, the year Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionaries swept to power, setting off a decadeslong economic and diplomatic freeze between the island and its powerful neighbor.

“It was something I always thought we should bring back,” said Richard Winning, commodore of the club. “But conditions didn’t allow us to do that. As soon as things started to open up a little bit, we took another look at it and said, ‘Let’s do it; let’s bring it back.’”

And back it is. The St. Petersburg-Habana race (the yacht club uses the Spanish spelling of Cuba’s capital) will kick off on Feb. 28 in the waters of Tampa Bay and finish a few days later at Marina Hemingway in Havana. Registration closes on Nov. 7, although Winning said the fleet has been capped at 80 boats, and that number was reached about a month after the race was first announced. Sixteen boats are on the waiting list, he added. Racers will dock at Marina Hemingway and then participate in an inshore race along the coast to Morro Castle that will also include some Cuban-flagged boats.

“We have one entry from Havana that is going to come up here and enter the race,” said race chairman George Pennington. “The paperwork isn’t finalized yet, but it looks like we are going to get at least one Cuban entry, maybe two.”

The first race, run in 1930, was the brainchild of George S. “Gidge” Gandy Jr., a relentless promoter of St. Petersburg – and avid yachtsman – who wanted to see the city grow beyond its roots as a sleepy vacation destination.

“It was kind of a promotional event for the city of St. Petersburg,” Winning said. “It started as a PR stunt, but it worked. Thousands of people would go out to the Pier to watch the race start back then. The Navy even dispatched a ship for the starting line.”

Longtime club member Bill Ballard took part in the 284-nautical-mile race in 1954 and ’55, and he said he plans to crew aboard the 41-foot Orient Express in the 2017 edition of the event. He has fond memories of his time in Havana decades ago and can’t wait to get back and help renew U.S.-Cuba relations.

“It couldn’t have been better,” Ballard said, describing his reception in Havana in the mid-1950s. “It was a very welcoming city. There were no tensions between the United States and Cuba. And there was a great history of participation by the Cubans. In the 1950s, the race was twice won by Cuban yachts.”

Times and politics changed, however, and the race came to an end as Cuba became a Communist state. Ballard said an attempt was made to revive it in the 1990s, “but the political heat was really turned up in the Cuban community, both locally and in Miami. It was a different time. I don’t mean that in a critical way. But these were people who had lost a great deal and had a lot of reasons” not to support it.

“Racing moved on when that race was lost,” he added. “We experimented with a race from Miami to St. Pete but that didn’t work out well.”

Because of the turbulent history of U.S.-Cuba relations, it’s not lost on Ballard, Pennington, nor Winning that they, and their fellow racers and club members, have a role to play that transcends sailing. Today, just like in 1930, the race represents an opportunity to promote St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay region as a tourist destination and a thriving place to do business. The city is angling to become the home of the new Cuban consulate in Florida, and Mayor Rick Kriseman and U.S. Rep David Jolly, a Republican, have been staunch supporters of efforts to revive the race.

“So much of business is built on relationships,” said Ballard, “and this is certainly one way of establishing a new relationship.”

St. Petersburg Yacht Club, or SPYC, is also looking to the future, and how the next generation of Americans and Cubans will view and treat each other: One of the racing yachts will be crewed by teens who are part of the club’s junior sailing program. “These young sailors can meet the Cuban people and their children while they’re down there,” Pennington said. “It’s going to be educational.”

Winning said that non-sailing club members and friends and family members of racers will be flying down to Havana to meet up with the sailors after they finish the race. To accomplish that legally, under the terms of the new diplomatic accord between the U.S. and Cuba, SPYC had to arrange for people-to-people cultural activities for visitors.

“We recognized when we were putting this event together that you’re going to people who are going to want to see what Cuba’s about … that a lot of people want to be a part of this event which hasn’t happened since 1959. My mother, she’s going on 92, she wants to go down to Cuba. She was part of the races prior to ’59. That’s exciting, it really is. It’s exciting to see where this is going to go.”

November 1, 2016 - 1:59pm