Havana Daydreaming

July 01, 2016

For most American yacht owners, Cuba has long been the “forbidden fruit” of the Caribbean. Now sailing there is no problemo, as Pantaenius recently become the first U.S. yacht insurance provider to offer coverage to U.S. citizens traveling in Cuban Waters.

Navigating to Cuba is all the buzz in today’s boating world. Though a mere ninety miles from the coast of Florida, this “last frontier of the Caribbean” has been off limits to most U.S. yacht owners for over fifty years. But as relations thaw between the U.S. and Cuban governments, all that is changing. Here’s what you need to know to plan a safe and secure visit to this colorful Socialist country…

Get Licensed
Until recently, Americans traveling to Cuba—by land or by sea—had to apply for a special license to do so. And while purely tourist travel to Cuba is still prohibited to U.S. citizens, you can now visit the island by qualifying for a general license within one of twelve categories of authorized travel:

  • Family visits
  • Official government Business
  • Journalistic activity
  • Professional research and professional Meetings
  • Educational activities
  • Religious activities
  • Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions
  • Support for the Cuban People
  • Humanitarian Projects
  • Activities of private foundations or research or educational Institutes
  • Exportation and importation of information and informational materials
  • Certain transactions for exports that the U.S. Department of Commerce may authorize.

For more specific requirements on each license category and FAQs related to general licenses, visit https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/cuba_faqs_new.pdf

This process works on an honor system. You determine on your own whether you meet the requirements of a general license. If you qualify, there’s no need to submit an application or obtain written authorization from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). But once in Cuba, you are obligated to engage in a full-time itinerary of activities related to your category of travel.

When qualifying for a category, keep in mind that educational and cultural pursuits or sporting activities can run the gamut from learning how your line of work operates in Cuba or going to the Cuban ballet, to entering a race to the island or participating in a fishing tournament off the coast of Cuba. In other words, very few Americans should find themselves unable to qualify.

Important: A general license applies to a person, not a boat. All Americans on board a vessel—including the yacht owner, passengers, and crew—must qualify for one of the above dozen general licenses in his/her own right. Moreover, when you return, your trip is subject to “audit” for five years, and you must maintain records showing that you were involved in full-time activities related to your license. For this reason, most Americans travel to Cuba under the auspices of an OFAC-licensed tour provider who can “certify” that your trip was in compliance with the regulations.

Do You Require A “Specific License?”
If your travel does not fall within the scope of a general license, OFAC will consider requests for specific licenses on a case-by-case basis. To apply, submit a request at https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Pages/cuba.aspx and wait for OFAC approval before planning your trip.

What Else You’ll Need

  • Yacht Insurance. Some American yacht insurance providers are not willing to insure vessels while in Cuban waters. Pantaenius was the first U.S. yacht insurance provider to offer coverage to American citizens traveling in Cuban waters. For more information and to request a quote, visit www.pantaenius.com/CUBA  
  • A valid passport. Make sure it doesn’t expire until at least six months after your trip to Cuba is completed.
  • A Visa. While the printed rules indicate that you must have your Visa upon arrival in Cuba, this is not actually the case for boaters. You will be issued your Visa—called a “tarjeta”—when you clear into the country. This is much simpler than applying for a Visa prior to your arrival. However, it’s best to follow formal regulations, so the easiest way to get what you need is through a travel agent specializing in travel to Cuba—such as Paul Madden Associates—which not only facilitates yacht travel into Cuba, but is also licensed as a Cuban Travel Agency. Expect this process to take up to four weeks.
  • A Coast Guard “Permit to Enter Cuban Territorial Seas.” To obtain this permit, fill out Form CG 3300 by visiting http://www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/cg531/CubaTravel.asp. The Coast Guard will also want to see a letter indicating what activities you plan to pursue in regard to your U.S. Visa Category. Again, this is where a reference to a licensed U.S. tour provider can be very helpful. Fax all documents to the number on the form, and allow two to three weeks to get the approved form back.
    It is required that you have this Permit aboard as you leave and re-enter the United States, so be sure to store it aboard your yacht throughout your travels. The Coast Guard also requires a 24-hour notice prior to our return to the U.S.
  • “Customs Declaration.” The Cuban Government prefers that yacht owners submit a “Customs Declaration” prior to a boat’s arrival. This will help them expedite the issuance of Cuban Visas upon arrival.
  • Yacht Documents. Your ownership and registration papers will be required.

The Lay of the Land
Given Cuba’s rising popularity, coupled with the fact that most yacht owners who visit the island are entering an area quite new to them, it’s important to plan ahead by:

  • Snagging a slip before arrival. Experts predict unprecedented yacht traffic in Cuba this season; thus, it’s advisable to reserve at all Cuban marinas in advance. Between Varadero and Marina Hemingway, the two most popular destinations for Americans, Cuba has over 1200 available slips. Approximately 1000 of these are in Varadero’s Marina Gaviota, the newest marina in Cuba.

    Marina Gaviota in Varadero can accommodate vessels of up to 220 feet but max draft is 4-meters, and special arrangements need to be made in advance for larger yachts.

    Marina Hemingway, the marina closest to Havana, is exceptionally popular, and you are well advised to ensure there is a slip available before arriving. However, do not expect a speedy reply to phone calls and/or email requests. Marina Hemingway can accommodate vessels to approximately up to 180 feet.

    Important: Arrival at Marina Hemingway in a norther can be dangerous, and sometimes impossible. The entry channel control depth is 12-14 feet. In a norther, this channel has no protection, and incoming seas can easily exceed seven feet in the channel. The danger of “touching,” or being knocked sideways by a following sea makes it inadvisable to enter. In some instances, the marina will advise arriving yachts not to enter. So, in case of weather, yacht owners should stay in contact with the Marina Hemingway Dockmaster.

    South coast marinas—particularly Marina Jagua Cienfuegos and Marina Cayo Blanco in Trinidad—are smaller and busier, so they’re more likely to have a waiting list for berths.
    Captains are advised to contact the appropriate marina well in advance for dockage and instructions. Havana Harbor is a commercial harbor and off limits to recreational traffic. However, with special permission from the Dockmaster at Hemingway Marina (and a cruise permit), a yacht may cruise just inside the entrance in front of El Morro Castle—but not enter the inner harbor.
  • Knowing your limits. Under U.S. law, your American-registered yacht can only remain in Cuba for a maximum of two weeks—unless your trip is arranged by a company that holds a U.S. Commerce permit for longer visits. Keep in mind that your Cuban Visa is only valid for 30 days and must be renewed before expiration, which can be quite a lengthy process. If you desire or require a longer stay, you must apply for—and receive—an approved SNAP-R Export License for your vessel, available by visiting https://www.bis.doc.gov/index.php/licensing/simplified-network-application-process-redesign-snap-r. This process may take up to two months and could involve several phone conversations.
  • Packing spares. Cuba has both shipyards and nautical stores, but the embargo has severely limited their capabilities. So be prepared with spare parts, fuel filters, etc. Should you run into mechanical problems, you’ll be faced with considerable challenges to get the parts you need to make repairs.
  • Purchase a towing package. Sites like http://Cruise-Cuba.US offer yacht owners visiting Cuba a Vessel Assistance Program, which includes a tow-boat service within Cuba, and even the possibility of arranging for a disabled vessel to be towed back to Florida. This service can also expedite the shipment of parts.

    Bonus: Purchase this Vessel Assistance Program, and Pantaenius America Ltd. will offer a 50 percent discount on the extra premium for the Cuba endorsement. All that’s required to qualify for this Cuba coverage discount is that you normally qualify for Pantaenius’s Florida or Caribbean requirements for underwriting.
  • Studying charts. Expect good navigational aids—like channel markers—wherever there is commercial and military shipping, but not in other areas. Approaching Cuba’s shores, it’s easy to hit shallow bottom or coral reefs, and worse, run aground. Study, and pay close attention to, the directions you find in your cruising guide if you are moving along the coast and away from the marinas. The entrances to both Marina Hemingway and Marina Gaviota are straightforward, well-marked and should present no problems.

    Note: Edimar, the Cuban Government chart agency, has just issued up-to-date chart books for navigation and will soon be releasing digital editions. These are available in limited quantities at Cuban marinas and online at www.Cruise-Cuba.US

    Keep in mind that Cuba has an extensive area of Marine Sanctuaries and protected areas that are off limits to yachts, and these should be respected.
  • Ditching these items. Yachties should not pack guns (these will be confiscated but returned upon your departure), drugs or pornography (the latter two will land you in jail!). Also keep in mind that the Cuban government is said to monitor phone calls and emails from near the marinas. For this reason, don’t engage in political discussions with locals. Not only is it impolite, but you could put them in jeopardy of being arrested if they are overheard by local officials. The best rule-of-thumb for visitors is to respect your hosts and their culture.

Upon Arrival
Expect your yacht to be boarded and inspected by Customs & Immigration, a doctor, and an agricultural inspector. The process is now much simpler than in years past, but expect these formalities to take about an hour—and be sure you have your boat papers.

You can only enter Cuba at a designated “Port of Entry.” From there, you will need a “Cruising Permit” in order to cruise from Port of Entry to Port of Entry, but you can designate ports that you tend to stop in. The marina Dockmaster will advise you of the local protocols. In general, it is illegal to drop anchor and swim or tender to a beach unless you first have permission from the local authorities. Fishing and diving are also activities that you should have permission to do in advance. Also, it’s illegal to leave your yacht at an anchorage without someone on it. That’s because authorities fear Cubans may jump aboard and flee the island.

Travel Tips

  • Safety first. Cuba is a very safe country, and tourists need not be overly concerned about their personal safety. Of course, whenever and wherever you travel, you should definitely take normal precautions: Lock the boat while away from it, don’t wear flashy or expensive jewelry, and be wary of pickpockets in crowds.
  • Buyer beware. Most Cubans are respectful and honest, but avoid hawkers selling cheap cigars (claiming they are the more valuable Cohibas) and always negotiate a taxi fee before being taken for a ride.
  • Brush up on your Spanish. It’s the dominant language spoken in Cuba. Listen to tapes while sailing—or bring along a small guidebook of common phrases—so you can better communicate with the locals. You’ll find that many Cubans want to practice their English with you, and all significant marina personnel will speak excellent English, as well as French, German, or Russian.
  • Shop till you drop. You can return to the U.S. with up to $400 of Cuban goods for personal use, including up to $100 of alcohol or tobacco products.
  • Bring cash. Despite U.S. authorities’ approval of the use of American credit cards in Cuba, the infrastructure for their usage is not in place outside of major tourist locations. Your American dollars will be exchanged at an official rate of $0.87 to the dollar. This is expected to change in the near future to a one-to-one rate.

    The tourist currency is the CUC (pronounced kook). The peso nacional, used by locals, is at a 24:1 exchange rate to the CUC. Be sure when receiving change that you are given the proper amount.
  • Make sure you document the purpose of your trip. OFAC requires that you keep—for five years—a copy of all documents relating to your trip, including receipts, invoices, payment records, etc. You also have to demonstrate that you were engaged in a full-time visa activity on every day of your trip (sailing days excluded). This requirement only applies to one member of a family; the accompanying family members are exempt.
  • Pack plenty of TP. You’re not likely to find toilet paper at any marina—and if you do, it will set you back $3.50 a roll!

Important: Although diplomatic negotiations have made traveling to Cuba easier, rules and regulations are constantly changing, so be sure to visit the U.S. Department of Treasury’s “Cuba Sanctions” web page at https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Pages/cuba.aspx which is regularly updated. There’s also a link where you can sign up for email updates on the sanctions. Also consult the U.S. Coast Guard’s Cuba page: https://www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/cg531/CubaTravel.asp


Information provided by Paul Madden of Paul Madden Associates LLC (PMA)
PMA arranges charters and also private yacht owner cruises to Cuba through its two main website,
http://Cuba-Yacht.com and http://Cruise-Cuba.us
The latter site is a self-service website for boat owners where they can get all their U.S. and Cuban paperwork done—plus make marina reservations throughout Cuba. The Vessel Assistance Program is also available for those owners who would like extra protection in terms of towing and emergency assistance within Cuba.


LEGAL DISCLAIMER - Although we go to great lengths to make sure our information is accurate and useful, we recommend that you consult a lawyer if you want legal advice or assistance with verifying your compliance with applicable regulations and laws. Pantaenius America Ltd. and its affiliates shall not be responsible or liable for inaccuracy with respect to the information contained herein.