Thursday, May 18, 2017
Commodore keeps Cuba, Marina Hemingway open to all

Back in 1999, my friend B.J. Martin got a hold of me and asked if I’d like to swing by El Meson de Pepe at Mallory Square to meet the Commodore from Havana’s yacht club. Coming from landlocked Ohio just three years earlier and not knowing (or caring) about any kind of boating that didn’t include a sunset and some booze, it wasn’t my love of boating that piqued my interest, it was my growing love of all things Cuba.

Fast forward to 2014 with President Barack Obama’s loosening of travel restrictions to the island and the somewhat complicated birth of the “Havana Challenge” Hobie cat race, the brainchild of Carla and George Bellenger and their tenacious co-conspirator, Joe Weatherby. The trio had made the Cuba crossing on the tiny catamarans a few times in the past and were determined to make it happen for others, and happen it did, and does to this day.

After much hoop-jumping and reams of paperwork, things started happening in 2015, and before you knew it occasional meetings were happening in Señor Escrich’s office in Havana, where plans were made for international races, boat parades and a few “barn-burning” parties at the Club Nautico complex complete with roasted hogs and a bottle or so of Havana Club rum.

Born in Santiago de Cuba into an maritime family, Escrich always dreamed of serving in the Cuban navy, joining at 18, where he enjoyed a decorated career rising to the rank of Commander of an anti-submarine ship. Following his active duty, Escrich became a professor, then a master’s degree candidate in the former Soviet Union’s finest naval academy. After working several years with Cuba’s naval base operations, he retired in 1991. One year later, he used his broad knowledge of international boating to recreate the capital city’s marina and founded the Hemingway International Yacht Club in 1992 with 28 members from 10 countries. By the club’s second year, membership had climbed to 150 members from 23 countries. As of 2009 more than 2,000 mariners from 60 countries had joined the club.

On Sunday, May 21, the Commodore, along with his incredible staff at the marina, will celebrate their 25th anniversary with an expected crowd of 1,000 visitors from 73 countries. Key West’s participation in the event began Tuesday with the arrival of the Schooners Wolf Jolly Rover II and Dream Catcher, Hobie Cat racers taking part in the third annual “Havana Challenge,” and a contingency of the Key West Sailing Club, which is bringing members of the high school’s sailing team. Several races, demonstrations and boat parades will take place just off the Malecon in Havana, which draws scores of locals each year, many of whom will be shooting photos, video and selfies of the colorful scene with their cellphones.

Over the past quarter century, Commodore Escrich has worked tirelessly to build relationships with the international sailing community and the Cuban government and continues to expand and enhance the club’s reputation worldwide with endless hospitality and professionalism. While there are several yacht clubs and marinas across the island, Marina Hemingway enjoys a rich history, a key location and, by all accounts, the right man for the job.