Feb 16, 2021

Racing to Cuba on General Patton's Boat


Chris Ray

The invitation was provocative.

“We are racing to Cuba on General Patton’s old schooner. Want in?”

I felt like Peter Fleming, author of Brazilian Adventure, who answered an ad in the Times  in 1932, for an expedition to Brazil in search of Colonel Percy Fawcett:

“Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June, to explore rivers Central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Fawcett; abundance game, big and small; exceptional fishing; Room Two more guns.”

As Fleming said about the proposed adventure, “It had the right improbable ring to it.” And here I sit, thinking the same thing, as I pack for Key West, where we will embark on a sailboat race to Havana.  

Details and information have come in bits. There are still many unknowns. Much could change. And yet, I know from experience that sometimes, these are the best kinds of adventures – when you simply let go of the need to know everything and roll with it.

Fleming did. Nothing on his adventure worked out as planned. But it was epic nonetheless.

Here’s to the True.ink crew and the maiden voyage aboard the When and If. As Edward Abbey once said, “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.”

Captain knows a place to eat.

A sushi place on a houseboat, less than a half-mile from the Hemingway Marina.

It’s a twenty-minute walk, a little longer if you take a wrong turn or two, down narrow, unpaved streets, where kids play soccer in the approaching darkness. Arriving on foot, it seems improbable that there could be a restaurant here. But down a wooden-planked walkway, there it is.

Restaurante Santy sits on a dock of sorts, overlooking a small canal very near the mouth of the river Jaimanitas. Fishing boats and houses, in various states of decay, line the narrow channel.

There is no menu, only what the family caught earlier in the day. Today’s haul must have been epic, because we are served fresh yellowtail prepared five different ways. The ceviche’s lime juice is infused with fresh onion and garlic, like I’ve never tasted. I keep using the leftover lime juice on the sashimi. The Cuban Cristal beers are cold, and the labels begin to peel off of the bottles the way they do in the islands when it’s warm outside.

The neighborhood guitarist performs a combination of Cuban folks songs and Elvis hits. As best I can translate, he says that he used to listen to the AM station out of Key West as a kid, which is where he first heard Elvis. He learned the chords, but had a harder time picking up the lyrics over the faint AM signal. “You know I can’t be found, sitting home mmnm mnmm lo.”

He may not know all of the lyrics, but he makes up for it with gusto. Which, in a way, is just like everyone else I meet down here.

Fire in the hole.

It should be enough that we are the first American-flagged big sail vessels to parade in Havana Harbor since La Revolucion. We are sailing on General Patton’s 65-foot schooner, When and If, alongside a small armada of other vessels, approaching the entrance to the harbor as hundreds of Cubans cheer from the Malecón seawall.

We are flying both the Cuban and American flags, and inexplicably, I feel a knot in my throat as the historical significance of this moment hits me. Our team is silent, but ecstatic, as we acknowledge the crowds with a tip of our hats.

Captain Seth breaks the spell and asks Joe, the mate, to fetch the cannon. He says that Commodore José Miguel Díaz Escrich from the Hemingway Yacht Club has carefully negotiated with the Cuban officials to allow us to fire cannons as we enter the harbor. But only one shot per cannon.

“How many cannons do we have?” I ask. “One,” says Seth. “But we told them we have four.”

As we make our way into the harbor, Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, the fortified castle, looms above us, with cannons of her own pointed our way. Cubans and tourists have lined the seawalls on all sides, many of whom have no idea what is going on.

Joe loads a shell into the cannon, and with the Captain’s consent, yells “fire in the hole.” The small, portable cannon puts out an impressive blast, made even more so by the ricocheting sound waves bouncing off the castle walls. The other ships in our group begin firing, too, and the crowd erupts with a cheer.

We fire our allotment of “four” cannon shells as we make our way past the castle, past the ferry terminal at Lanchita de Regla, past the single South American cruise ship, and past the Parque Luz Caballero in Old Town on our way back out of the harbor. Each ship looks magnificent in its own way, and one by one, we begin to raise the spinnakers.

When and If looks like it’s supposed to, with full sails, cannon smoke, and a crew with shit-eating grins.

Chris Ray

True Correspondent
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