Commodore as Ambassador
by Elena Pimiento
What kind of yacht club is the only one in its country, has 1,600 members from 45 different countries (but no local dues-paying members), charges only US$150 per year dues, will train any local child to sail a dinghy, offers member discounts on services, helps with official travel paperwork and fosters international friendship among recreational boaters worldwide? What kind of man would start such a club - and in so doing become an international ambassador of goodwill, recognized promoter of marine tourism and one-man welcome committee to visiting yachtsmen?
The answer of course is the Club Náutico Internacional Hemingway de Cuba (Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba) and its founder and commodore, José Miguel Díaz Escrich. The story of this unique yacht club is intertwined with that of its founder and commodore, a man passionate about the development of recreational boating in Cuba.
Commodore Díaz Escrich, son of well-to-do Galician and Catalonian parents, was born 21 December 1946, and grew up in Santiago de Cuba on the southern coast of the Caribbean's largest island. His father, who was a successful businessman and yacht club member, served in the US Navy, helping with logistics in Jamaica during the Second World War. His love for things nautical, his business sense and his organizational skills live on in his son, José Miguel. Growing up, young Díaz Escrich enjoyed water sports in Santiago de Cuba, especially swimming and rowing. He knew he wanted to become a naval officer, but those not yet 18 years old did not get into the Cuban Naval Academy.
Instead, at age 16, Díaz Escrich joined his country's Army, hoping eventually to gain acceptance into the Naval Academy. His Army record was spotless, and after 1 1/2 years his dream came true: he entered the academy at Mariel, now closed. After graduation in 1969, he worked his way up the ranks to Commander of an anti-submarine ship. He returned to the classroom, first as a professor at the academy, then as a master's degree candidate at the highest level naval academy in the former Soviet Union. Returning to Cuba after four years, he worked in Naval Base Operations on the General Staff, focusing on international maritime and legal issues.
When he retired in 1991, he spent some time on merchant and fishing vessels. Díaz Escrich used his well-rounded education to develop Cuba's maritime industries: merchant marine, commercial fishing, and defense. After the Revolution, there was no recreational boating in Cuba, but he felt that sector could and should be developed. In the Navy, he had learned about the strength a state gains when its industry's diverse powers are coordinated strategically. During times of war, all facets of the marine trades fall under a single War Department, including recreational boating. Private pleasure craft, if available, can be called upon to assist in defending Cuban waters. As an example, he cites Ernest Hemingway's service during WWII as a submarine spotter on his fishing boat, Pilar.
Díaz Escrich had a vision, born of his father's and his own naval service, his yacht club childhood, his studies, his career experiences, his love of his country: to develop the recreational boating industry in Cuba. He became a consultant for nautical tourism and proposed founding a new yacht club at Marina Hemingway, seven miles west of Havana. At the time, all Cuban yacht clubs were closed. There had been many clubs prior to 1960, but the perception of them as elitist, exclusionary organizations of wealthy capitalists made the creation of a new and different one difficult. Nevertheless, with great effort, Díaz Escrich was able to clear the way to open the first post-revolutionary yacht club in Cuba.
A decade later, it seems such a natural thing. During the 1950s, many international fishing tournaments took place in Havana, attracting fishermen and their boats from all over the world. Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway met and fished together in a 1960 Hemingway game fishing tournament, celebrated at the Barlovento Tourist Residence, later named Marina Hemingway, and where the American author presented the Cuban president with several trophies. Three photographs of Ernest Hemingway hang in the yacht club's office today, including one of Hemingway and his boat, Pilar, dated 27 May 1950.
The area where the marina and yacht club now stand was originally developed in the late 1950's, as Residencial Touristical Barlovento (Barlovento Tourist Residence). An advanced concept for its time, the plan was to build condominiums, bungalows, villas and recreational facilities on 633 plots of land between four man-made canals, similar to developments in south Florida. Hotels and a casino were also planned, though only one hotel, Hotel El Viejo y El Mar (The Old Man and the Sea Hotel), was built. Construction was done by a US company with Cuban capital; Díaz Escrich notes, Frank Sinatra was the vice-president of the company, assisted by several of his fellow "family" members. The areas named Paraiso and Intercanal D were the only ones where building was completed. By the end of the 1960s, most of the landowners had emigrated to the US.
During the period 1960-82, the area was in use but was not tourist oriented. The Cuban kayak team and an academy of fishing occupied some of the land, and a naval base for torpedo boats was established at the end of Intercanal D, where the boatyard now stands. With the Russians in retreat, the Cuban government approved new investment laws to develop tourism and started removing the warships from Intercanal D. Cubanacan, a tourism holding company, was founded in 1987 and given the land at Barlovento. Marina Hemingway was established there but the campaign to promote marine tourism had just begun.
Though it would seem a natural development to have a yacht club for local and visiting mariners in a tourist complex on the water, it took until 21 May 1992 for the club to open. That day, with 28 members from 10 countries, flags from each country were displayed, causing some concern about the Stars and Stripes, the only U.S. flag flying over Cuban soil. Unlike previous yacht clubs, it is open to any and all who love the sea. There is no discrimination - all are treated with respect.
The second year, membership climbed to 150, representing 23 countries. Currently, there are over 1,600 members from 45 countries. Additionally, children from Havana are encouraged to learn sailing on the club's Optimist dinghies and to train for the Olympics on Snipes, Lasers, 420s, 470s and a donated 25-foot sailboat. Díaz Escrich says the yacht club acts as godparents to many children, teaching them sailing and teamwork skills and guiding them in their development. Yet, due to a lack of suitable boats in which to train, Cuba is unable to send well-coached, highly-competitive sailors to international games.
The club is non-profit and completely independent, something boaters elsewhere take for granted but unusual in a socialist country. No funds come from the government; club income is from dues, donations and the members' bar on the first floor of the clubhouse. After operating expenses, funds are used for club functions and nautical events, including hosting international sailboat races, fishing tournaments, junior sailing regattas and the national kayak and water-ski teams. The club also has a donated 25-foot sportfishing boat.
The clubhouse is in a former private residence on Marina Hemingway's Intercanal D. It has been refurbished extensively with donations and materials bought at cost. It has a small, friendly bar and a lounge with comfortable seating and a television. Temporary membership is available, and highly recommended, for visiting boaters. Annual membership dues are very reasonable for those who plan to stay awhile or to return often. Members receive discounts on dockage, rental cars, and restaurant meals at Marina Hemingway, as well as knowledgeable advice on cruising Cuban waters, help with clearing in and out nationally and internationally, help in obtaining and understanding Cuban charts. Most valuable of all, the club offers boaters the security of good friendship in a foreign land. This yacht club is a safe, tranquil destination where even a novice cruiser can be confident knowing help is only a call away.
Díaz Escrich serves not only as Commodore, but also as Cuba's goodwill ambassador to recreational boaters, internationally and locally. He attended the Toronto Boat Show in January 2003, and signed 15 reciprocity agreements with Canadian yacht clubs, including RCYC. Five more are pending. He has also attended the Miami Boat Show, but US yacht clubs can offer only informal relationships to their Cuban counterpart.
"Cubans love the sea," Díaz Escrich says, "and all nautical activities." A strong recreational boating industry will benefit Cubans directly, as well as indirectly through marine-related tourism. Over 7,000 Cubans own boats, mostly for sportfishing, and 300,000 amateurs belong to the Cuban Sport Fishing Federation. In sailing, 290 boats, 2,500 amateurs and 610 athletes are registered. Additionally, there are 450 kayaks and canoes, with 3,000 amateurs and 1,050 athletes, plus 120 rowing boats registered.
Olympic class boats and equipment, especially keelboats and a 12-oar longboat, are essential for training Cuban athletes, Díaz Escrich feels, and he would like to see some donated to the club. He also needs international boating information and support in his battle for scarce government resources.
"In Cuba," he says, "only the government can develop recreational boating." He offers his professional background and experience to guide the effort for the most beneficial results because "there is no room for error!"
Why do top-level sailors race from Spain, Martinique, and Florida to Club Náutico Internacional Hemingway? And why do snowbirds flock there from Canada and even from the United States despite the embargo? Because it is there and so is Commodore José Miguel Díaz Escrich.
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