The Cuban Open

Fifty years ago Hemingway started a fishing tournament — and the party hasn't stopped.

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.

PAPA'S DREAM

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.

Clearing customs took over an hour, but we didn't have to wait long for the party to start. Malesci offered the four officials scouring our boat a soda. One of them looked up, wiped the sweat off his brow, and said, "Beer would be better." So we sat around drinking Coronas and shooting the breeze while our boat passed inspection.

We stayed in Hotel Viejo e el Mar - The Old Man and the Sea Hotel - right in the marina. Out front is an empty fountain with a statue of Santiago, the hero of Hemingway's novel, battling an epic marlin. We hoped to do as well in the tournament.

Hemingway is a national hero in Cuba, and his hard-fishing, hard-partying spirit lives on in the marina. The tournament ran from May 16 to 20, but many arrived early - on the pretense of reconnaissance. For some, scouting was more about poolside trolling for chiquitas. Others went in search of Cristal, the Cuban national beer. Pettit and Malesci, true pescadores, used the time to fish. On the first practice day they hooked into a marlin but lost it; on the second they spotted an aggressive blue gorging on dolphin. Things looked promising.

THE SUN ALSO RISES

Team Donzi caught the first fish of the tournament, a 26-pound dolphin. Its destiny was our dinner plates - only marlin and sailfish counted for points. Trashy Lady got the tournament rolling with three blue marlin. But throughout the event, the man in the blue suit proved elusive. Tournament-wide, about six marlin were caught per day, leaving most boats flying the skunk flag. Still, Team Donzi earned its stripes by fishing hard in four-to-six-foot seas every day. Quite a few boats took at least one day off. But not a single angler took a night off.

Trashy Lady never lost its commanding lead and won the cup. The closing party at Papa's, the outdoor bar at the tip of the marina, lasted until dawn, which is when Team Donzi made its bleary-eyed exit from Cuban waters. We raced home through 8-to-10-foot seas and made it back to Key West in under four hours - the boat taking the big rollers a lot better than we did. As we idled into Key West, normally an exotic destination itself, it seemed, well, normal. We didn't even get stopped by a gunboat.

The Hemingway International Billfish Tournament is sanctioned by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) and held every May. It is sponsored by the Club Nautico International Hemingway at the Marina Hemingway, just west of Havana, Cuba.

For information on the 2001 tournament, contact Jose Miguel Diaz Escrich, commodore of Club Nautico, at 011-537/29-7270, fax: 537/24-5280, cnih@cbcan.nyt.cu. Or contact the IGFA at 954/927-2628. For charts and cruising guides to Cuba, contact Bluewater Books and Charts, 800/942-2583.