In October 2015, several eager members of Point Yacht Club loaded their small sailboats. They were preparing to set out from Josephine, Alabama, by way of Pensacola Yacht Club to Havana, Cuba on an incredible, history-making expedition. In theory, getting there would be half the fun. However, the crews endured rough seas and suffered torrential rain while bracing against driving winds and serious setbacks. And that was just in Pensacola; the Gulf of Mexico was really bad.
“Our weather was terrible, even before we left, ” recalls Tom Schlinkert, captain of the 43-foot catamaran, the Odalisque. “There should have been an award for just making the trip, ” he laughs.
“You can’t pick the day to race, ” adds Christy Munsterman, a member of Tom’s crew, along with Richard Barrett and Denny Blume. “If you could choose, nobody would have picked that weather.”
The Odalisque and other vessels from local yacht clubs participated in the sail-wind-powered competition, Pensacola a la Habana Race. As the first officially sanctioned ocean yacht race from a U.S. port to Cuba since 1959, the event was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for sailors. Besides the trip itself, there would also be trophies awarded, tales to tell and memories made on the quest for the Havana harbor. But first, they had to get there.
On Halloween day, 24 boats started the 511-nautical-mile, five-day trip to Castro’s shores. Twenty completed the journey. One of the four vessels that turned back was the Midnight Sun II, which was doing fine — until the main mast broke off. As if from a Stephen King novel, at midnight, about 90 miles into the black Gulf of Mexico, the crew heard a loud snap, crackle, pop. It wasn’t Rice Krispies; the brutal wind had snapped the mast like a toothpick.
“The mast fell like timber, straight down on the boat’s side, ” the disabled vessel’s owner, Neil Davies, remembers. “We were fortunate, ” the Josephine/Elberta-area resident adds. “Something like that kills people.”
Blessed they were. But they were also immobile and without communication equipment; the radar antenna had been attached to the top of the mast. After it became one with the dolphins, calls for help went out, but no one answered the feeble radio signals. No other vessel was in sight.
“Our first concern was that [the mast] had punctured the boat, and we were going to sink, ” Neil says, explaining the aftermath of the fallen mast. “We had to cut it free as soon as possible, get it away.” And so they did.
The crew was undaunted. In a sailboat without sails, Janet and Neil Davies and their crewmembers — Tracy and Larry Cost, Rob Bray and Julie Denton — limped back to Pensacola using the boat’s backup motor. They changed vessels, relaunched with the TraSea, caught up with the others and finished in third place in their division.
“In yachting, especially a trip like this, there is no drop anchor for the night, go to bed, and let’s start again in the morning, ” Tom notes solemnly. “It is a 24/7 commitment as long as you are on board.” Crewmembers take on shiftwork, generally three hours on, three off. One shift sleeps, one keeps watch.
The watch looks out for other boats, monitors sea and weather conditions and stays in contact with others. “There is constant steering, navigating and changing sails, if necessary, ” Janet Davies says. “The key is to always look out for each other and never leave the boat unattended.”
Losing sight of other yachts is not uncommon, especially under wind power. As Janet explains, “Each vessel has its own characteristics and responds differently. Each takes its own path, interpreting the conditions and how they will specifically affect each boat.” She adds, “You may not see the others until the finish line.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 4, the two teams disembarked in Havana. “I went with no expectations [of Cuba], ” shares Odalisque crewman Richard Barrett. “Everything in Cuba was dated. Most of the cars were 1960s or ’70s models. But the people could not have been nicer. Once they discovered we were Americans, they were curious about us.”
Cuban government officials were everywhere, and they were meticulous but overall fair and courteous to the sailors. Customs police wrapped the boaters’ satellite phones in duct tape, sealing each unit in plastic bags. “They gave it back to us and asked that it look the same when we leave, ” recalls Tom. Satellite phones are illegal in Cuba.
On their last night in the city, the crews attended a combination farewell party and awards ceremony, hosted by Havana’s Hemingway International Yacht Club. The Odalisque won second place in its class, multihull division. Then it was time to return to Josephine, Alabama, U.S.A.
Mercifully, the trip home saw calmer seas, favorable winds and masts intact. All agreed they would do it again — maybe next time in better weather.
text by Emmett Burnett