Guest Post: First to Cuba

Editor’s note:  Russ Hoadley, my friend and fellow sailor, graciously wrote this story about sailing to Cuba in the Pensacola a la Habana Race.  Please enjoy this very first guest post on Sailing with Steve.  You can reach Russ at

HAVANA, Cuba – This sun-drenched island has changed from 15 years ago when I first raced here aboard Mac Smith’s 44-foot Lafitte Twilight (from Daytona Beach, FL).

This time I’ve had the privilege of being on a crew of eight on XTC, Tom Glew’s 46-foot Beneteau (from St. Petersburg, FL) that made a clean sweep in May of a race to Isla Mujeres, MX (1st in class, division and overall).

The event that has brought us here is the first-ever Pensacola a la Habana

Russ Hoadley at the helm

Race, one of a growing number of yacht events to the Communist isle since the Obama State Department began to relax the embargo. 

Havana shows signs, albeit halting, of rebirth from the 50-plus years of decay which came with the Castro Revolution, Russian missile crisis and subsequent U.S. embargo. Some elegant old-world buildings have been buffed up. Many others still are moldering away.

We’ve just finished five days of hard sailing, hammered by squalls, plagued by electronic and mechanical gremlins, and still we will collect first in class and division at the awards party.

We are at the enormous but deteriorating Marina Hemingway, 15 miles west of the storied old city. Hemingway International YC is our host, with

Street musician Angel Kindelan

Comodoro Jose Escrich doing his effusive best to make us feel welcome. A roast-pig dinner and exotic entertainment by undulating dancers are to follow. 

The 500-mile slog here started in uncertain weather in Pensacola Bay at 0800 Saturday, Oct. 31. Twenty-one boats in five classes reached east across the bay, then beat out the channel in 15-20 knots from the southwest. Squalls were predicted as we eventually locked into a long starboard tack, and the forecast was not wrong. Through three days, sporadic downpours occurred with winds into the high-30s.

Day 4 brought an expected southeast shift, allowing a tack onto port past the Dry Tortugas, Havana now just 90 miles away.

XTC heads into more squalls

After pounding through the night across the Florida Straits, we finished in a squall at the hard-to-find sea buoy. Soon we were led through the reef-shouldered channel to smooth water, a lengthy but courteous Customs check-in and a berth with modern hook-ups. The nearby hotel was visibly doggy (crumbling façades, uncertain water, no toilet paper), but the marina itself was quite satisfactory.

Our five days in Havana were a kaleidoscope of colorful old Chevys, Buicks and Fords, deluxe night clubs, sensuous dancers, magnificent cigars and rum, lyrical music and historical and revolutionary stories.

Cubans we met seem pleased with their country’s progress even as they acknowledged the scarcity in their lives. “Money isn’t everything,” said Carlos, a philosophical 47-year-old father of two. He is a taxi-driver, a self-educated man who takes quiet pleasure doing triathlons with his sons and his girlfriend.

Cubans were cheerful, fit, hard-working, friendly, smart people who love their land, their culture and music, their families and friends … and their languid, long-playing way of life. It rubs off easily on us.

Visits to the Museo de la Revolucion and the Plaza de la Revolucion underscored how important the six-year uprising was to these people 50 years ago. They seem to revere the Castro brothers, along with Che Guevara and Camilo Cinfuegos, the leaders of the conflict that toppled Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

A tidal wave of change appears on its way to them now, as tourism swells, and thousands – perhaps millions – of Americans jump the barriers to visit this land of sun, rum and music.

As we cleared out of Cuba Customs and looked back at the Havana skyline, a gunboat shadowed us, reminding that normalcy has not fully arrived.

We felt the pull of the island. We were pleased to be in the vanguard of sailors who are leading the way. We will be back.

Crew celebrates victory – front: Loren Hoffman, Adam Gautier; rear: Hank Brautigam, Russ Hoadley, Ron Gagne, Tom Glew (skipper), Tony Dimattia; not shown: Charlie Marts

Cats, Wheels and Fighting Cancer: Southwest International Boat Show

“At least it’s closer than Oakland [Calif.],” my brother said.  The show is in two days and he’s trying to convince me to go.

So we drove to Kemah, Texas on Sunday morning for the Southwest International Boat Show.   I’m glad he pressed.  It turned out better than we expected.  Heck I even met Bob Bitchin, one-time bodyguard, sailing legend and founder of Latitudes & Attitudes magazine.  (That magazine is now defunct, but Bob has a new publication, Cruising Outpost.)

Here are my highlights from the show.

Kevin at the settee of the Lagoon 450 catamaran. This boat is bigger than some of my early apartments. (photo credit: Steve Ward)

Even Keeled
The Beneteau/Lagoon dealer was on hand with their new models (The Yacht Sales Company, Kemah, TX).

The Lagoon 450 catamaran was such a hit we had to wait in line to board.  I was eager to see the 450 because I’ll be sailing the similar 400 with friends this summer in the Caribbean.  When I stepped on the bridgedeck and looked over the wheel the boat felt really huge – I mean expansive.  I sailed a Leopard 45 cat ten years ago, but I forgot how big they feel.  With 24 feet of beam the boat is nearly as wide as my boat is long.  I’m glad we’re renting the smaller 400 this June!

Me at the helm of the Lagoon 450 cruising catamaran. (photo credit: Kevin Ward)

Aboard the 450 a salesperson told me this tale:  He was on this boat in a freeze breeze.  When the wind gusted over 30 he set his coffee down and jumped up to put in a reef (note: a reef reduces the amount of a sail making the boat more manageable in high winds).  After he finished the reef he thought darn, I’ll have to clean that coffee off the galley sole.  But his mug was right there waiting for him – not a drop had spilled.  Now that is a stable boat!

Down below, this boat is a waterborne apartment.  The starboard hull is an “owner’s suite” with a queen-size berth aft,  full-size head forward and a sitting area in the middle.  Two cabins share the port hull.  The galley and saloon look big enough to entertain a crew of ten.

I can’t wait to sail the 400 in June.  Maybe we’ll upgrade to this yacht next year!  (

Torqeedo 4.0 with battery bank.  (photo credit:  Torqeedo)

Electric Conversion?
showed their line of battery-powered outboards.  Electric motors are compelling:  quiet, reliable power with no messy fuel or smelly exhaust.  For sailboats it’s more realistic than ever to replace petroleum with electricity.

I’d love to replace my cranky outboard with a Torqeedo, but like most new innovations they are still expensive.  (John Steinbeck – yes that Steinbeck – wrote a hilarious piece on the perils of outboards which you can read here.)  To replace mine with an electric outboard, I’d spend around $4,000 – much more than the $700 used Honda I have on my 25′ Hunter.  Besides, the batteries weigh around 400 lbs which is a lot of extra weight for my mid-sized boat.

I expect prices and battery weight to come down in time.  (

Steering on the Side
The Marlow-Hunter 31 has a new approach to an old steering problem.  Some background.  Most steering wheels are in the center of the cockpit, which is natural but not ideal for a few reasons.  For one, in the middle you have to crane your neck to see around the sails.  Second, the steerer’s weight belongs on the high side to offset heeling.  Finally, in my opinion, it’s more comfortable on the high side.  All of that means a wheel in the center is a pain.

Marlow-Hunter 31 with pivoting steering. (photo credit: Steve Ward)

Some larger boats — starting around 35 feet — have two wheels to address this problem.  That adds weight and complexity.  Some builders even put redundant navigation instruments on each side.  That’s even more weight, expense and  things that can break.

Hunter’s solution is a wheel that pivots to either side.  See the photo nearby.  [The photo may be confusing because the wheel is folded behind that red sign.]  Hats off to Hunter for a cool design.  I’d love to try this one out someday.  (

Icy Breeze cooler/air conditioner. (photo credit: Icy Breeze,

Cooler Squared
Taking the prize for Quirky but Ingenious was the portable “air conditioner” from IcyBreeze.  It’s built just like a regular cooler, but it’s really a combo AC/cooler.  It uses a closed radiator system to blow air cooled by the ice inside.  It runs up to six hours on a battery charge.  (

Leukemia Cup Regatta
Of the 160+ exhibitors, this booth caught my eye and tugged at my heart.  As an acquaintance said to me the other day, “there’s too much cancer.”  And he’s right of course.  But there’s hope.  From The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society:

In the 1960’s a child’s chance of surviving leukemia was 3%; today 90% can expect to survive into adulthood.

My niece Alli just went through a terrifying experience with leukemia.  Thankfully she is in remission and doing fantastic after the six month ordeal.

The nice ladies at the booth told me all about the regatta and how it helps fund research for a cure of the blood cancers.  The Texas Gulf Coast chapter has raised $2.8 million since 1998.  This year the regatta is June 26-28 at the Houston Yacht Club on Trinity Bay (near Clear Lake, TX).  I can’t make the race this year, but I’ll be sending a check to support this worthy cause.  (

See you at the show next year.


Bob Bitchin and Steve at the Cruising Outpost booth. (photo credit: Kevin Ward)