As the skyline of Havana began to take shape, we anticipated the good times to come: blue marlin the size of Toyotas, rum drinks in the bars of Old Havana, and fat hand-rolled cigars. But as patrol vessel 535 barreled toward us, a twinge of panic shot through our boat. What the hell have we gotten ourselves into? Our captain, O.B. Pettit, pulled back on the throttles and moved to the bow where he could be seen. As the gunboat approached, he turned back to us and smiled, "We can always outrun 'em." He was right. Our Donzi 35 ZF with triple 250-hp Mercury outboards had been loafing along at 40 mph and could easily do over 70. We had made it from Key West to this point in under three hours. Then he turned back again, "But I don't think we'll be able to outrun that 50 millimeter."
Not one crewmember of the Cuban patrol boat looked over 20 years old. They stood on deck smiling, pointing at our boat - they don't see many like it in Cuba. The captain, or at least the crewmember who spoke English, asked us what we were doing in Cuban waters. "We're Team Donzi, fishing in the Hemingway International Billfish Tournament," Pettit explained. The language barrier caused some confusion, but eventually they got the point and directed us toward the Marina Hemingway. Our Cuban adventure had begun.
We came to see the tournament that Ernest Hemingway started 50 years ago. It consistently draws American anglers, despite the ongoing political tensions between the United States and Cuba. Sponsored by BOATING Magazine, Donzi was the first American boatbuilder to enter the Hemingway. Team Donzi consisted of Capt. Pettit and Artie Malesci - a fisherman by passion and movie stunt coordinator by trade. Senior Editor David Seidman and I went along for the ride and to prove that, despite severe travel restrictions, Cuba is not off-limits to American cruisers. In fact, people do it all the time.
"Over 80 percent of the boats in here are American," declared one Cuban official as we cleared customs at the marina. "Don't worry, you're not alone." Of the 44 boats in this year's tournament, 35 were from the States. These were higher-than-average numbers because of the tournament, but on any given day more than half the boats in this marina sport American registrations. The Cubans are eager hosts. After all, they need our money. It's the U.S. government that imposes restrictions. But if you follow the letter of the law, you won't have a problem. Americans are willing to chance it because, communist or not, Cuba's fun.