Expecting nothing less, members of the Florida Powerboat Club were treated to the adventure of a lifetime as the club embarked on a historic event to the island nation of Cuba.
Like pretty much everyone who heard that the FPC was planning a trip to Cuba in mid-May, I thought it would be pretty neat to be part of the first powerboat rally to the country, which recently restored diplomatic relations with the United States, in more than 50 years. Limited to just 20 boats—17 ended up making the 110-mile run from Key West, Fla., to Havana Harbor in Cuba—the event was practically guaranteed to be as memorable as any boating trip imaginable. Let’s just say everyone in attendance will never forget the adventure.
Mark and Eileen Fischer cruise into Havana Bay in their Deep Impact 39-foot center console. All photos courtesy Florida Powerboat Club
For those of us who couldn’t make the trip, the next best thing is to hear it firsthand from several participants who were lucky enough, brave enough and slightly crazy enough to join the club for its inaugural Florida-Havana Powerboat Rally. So, starting with some of the most enthusiastic FPC members—Mark and Eileen Fischer, who own OffLeaseOnly and BoatsDirectUSA—I figured the best way to tell this story was to let them tell it.
The Fischers, who reside in Key Largo and have taken their boats to the Bahamas plenty of times, were up for the adventure from the day FPC President Stu Jones announced the club would be organizing the run to Cuba.
“I knew the run was a long shot and I knew it would be a rough one, but all I can say is that I was happy to be in the boat I was in,” said Mark Fischer, who drove his new Deep Impact 399 Cabin model with quad Mercury Racing Verado 350 engines. “It was a rough ride but nothing we couldn’t handle. We just took our time, and it was all worth it for the reception we received when we arrived. They rolled out the red carpet for us. The boat parade was unlike anything we’ve ever seen and the yacht club was very welcoming.
“We had a good mix of boats with us—you could tell most people had never seen boats like ours, or at least that many in one place,” he continued. “It was definitely an experience we’ll never forget. In a way, it was like going back in time with all of the old classic cars everywhere. There also were some beautiful buildings and amazing architecture to see.”
The Florida-Havana Powerboat Rally attracted a good mix of performance boats.
Even though he didn’t bring his own boat, longtime FPC member Cass Shewbart had a great time in the Florida-Havana Powerboat Rally. Shewbart joined fellow Texan Bill Robbins and his crew for the run to Cuba in Robbins’ Cigarette Racing Team 39 Top Fish with quad Mercury Verado 300 engines, which he said provided a solid ride in the rough water.
“I’m a history buff so being able to see the architecture was cool, even if pretty much everything we looked at had little to no maintenance in years or decades even,” said Shewbart who owns a Cigarette 38 Top Gun. “It’s sad to see stuff in such disrepair. The biggest downside to me was the communication but that’s because I run my business via my cell phone. Other than that I had a great time. The people were wonderful and they all seemed happy that we were there.”
Greg Tolson of Tarpon Springs, Fla., isn’t sure he’d do the run again in his boat—he had the shortest one in the fleet—but he said he’d love to visit Cuba again. Tolson, who joined FPC in 2015 after purchasing his 2011 32-foot V-bottom from Sunsation Boats with twin MerCruiser 496 Mag HO engines, said that the boat got “beat up a little.”
Greg Tolson made the 110-mile trek from Key West to Cuba in his 32-foot Sunsation, as did Kelly Sills in his 388 Skater.
“Overall the boat handled the conditions pretty well—we knew the crossing would be pretty rough, but it was unexpectedly rough,” Tolson said. “Even though it was a challenge, I’m glad we went through with it. Talk about a bucket list item; to say I was part of the first group to go to Cuba was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When we first got to there, I wasn’t expecting to see high rises along the coastline. I had a different image in my head I guess. But I’m glad I went before it’s completely commercialized with a Starbucks and a McDonald’s on every corner.
“It was an incredible experience—the culture was amazing, the people were extremely friendly and the food was excellent—we had a lot of fun,” he continued. “The weather was so bad on Thursday that a group of us decided it would be better to drive back on Friday. That was the best decision we could have made because we ended up renting a couple of houses and throwing a little party. We even had a local band come join us during the party. It was a great way to end the trip and those of us who stuck around really got to know each other because of it.”
Always up for an adventure, Louisiana performance Ted McIntyre of Marine Turbine Technologies brought one of the most seaworthy boats in the fleet—a 43-foot Black Thunder with twin 480-hp Cummins diesel engines and Mercury NXT1 drives. Dubbed the Turbinator, the 43-footer built in 1989 used to be powered by a pair of 1,400-hp turbine engines that pushed the surface-drive-propelled boat to a blistering 116 mph.
“I have to applaud Stu and Jackie Jones because, at the end of the day, they have a thankless task,” McIntyre said. “It was neat to go to Cuba and be part of history and see all of the sights. I probably wouldn’t have done it without their assistance. The Gulf, or Mother Nature for that matter, isn’t something you mess with. On the way there the water was rough, but we found a comfortable pace and kept on it. I told everyone, ‘We ain’t stopping until we get there.’ I’ve done endurance races and all kinds of events—heck, the week before we hit all the stops at the Tickfaw 200 Poker Run in Louisiana—so to me a run like this is what boating is all about.
“I’m glad we did it—after the soreness wears off, we might go back again,” McIntyre said with a laugh, adding that the boat, mainly everything in the cabin, got the worst of it. “In my opinion that run is a testament to the boat manufacturers and the engine builders. Everybody’s boat took a beating out there. Of course our ride home on Thursday was tougher than the ride there. We just taped everything down in the cabin and went for it. There were some 8- to 10-footers out there. It took us a good three and a half hours to get home.”
Jackie and Stu Jones were all smiles after making it to Cuba last week.
Finally, let’s hear from Jones, the head honcho who made the whole thing happen and was quite impressed with the way the club members handled everything.
“I must say, I was beyond impressed with our members and how everyone had the courage to stay with it, manage their boats and their own programs, take what mother nature dealt them and work around it to get there safely and get home safely,” said Jones, who drove his new 33-foot Ocean Hawk center console powered by twin 300-hp Mercury Verado engines in the run. “It makes me proud of these members and our club. With the exception of one bad apple, I’ve never been more impressed by our members and the way they stepped up to navigate and drive their boats.
“Cuba was everything we expected and more,” he continued. “I’m glad I went over there ahead of time and did a little ‘recon’ mission to get a lay of the land—that was helpful. I think the real eye-opener of the trip was the seas. We expected it to be rough, but it was worse than I imagined. We almost turned around at one point. The quartering-beam seas made it difficult to read the water and impossible to stay dry. Fortunately no one had any major mechanical issues and everyone got there and back safely.”
According to Jones the trip took him about three and a half hours each way (he was in the group that went home Friday). He said the sportboats and center consoles averaged around 30 mph most of the time while the bigger V-bottoms and cats were running more like 40 to 50 mph. For safety sake, he said the members stayed in small packs of three or four boats.
“I have to say, Greg Tolson manned up and ran his 32-foot Sunsation like a champ; his crew was pretty apprehensive but everyone hung in there,” Jones said. “We also had a female captain drive her 38-foot Fountain and she did a great job. Unfortunately a woman in her crew went to sit in the cabin on the way to Cuba and got slammed pretty hard when the boat fell into a hole and hurt her back.
“After the crossing, the arrival in Havana Harbor was amazing,” he added. “We came into the harbor and met two yachts that escorted us in a parade along the coast. They were thousands of people lined up for miles along the Malecón and up on the fort, and everyone was waving at us. We came back into the marina, cleared customs and went to the Hemmingway International Yacht Club where they were waiting for us with a huge spread and a big pig roast.”
“It truly was a historic day,” Jones said. “Even though other boats have come over for fishing tournaments and other regattas, this was the first powerboat rally to Cuba in 58 years. Most of our members even signed up to be members of the yacht club. After the party we went into Havana and immersed ourselves in the culture. We had a great time.”
Jones isn’t willing to commit to another run to Cuba quite yet, and he’s 100-percent sure there will be changes to the run in terms of boat restrictions, costs and more, if the club does another one in 2017.
Although the next one won’t be as historic, chances are it could be just as memorable, challenging and eye-opening.