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An interview with Chris Woolsey about the 2019 Miami to Havana Race

by David Schmidt 11 Mar 2019 08:00 PDT March 13, 2019
Steve and Heidi Benjamin's TP52 Spookie en route to setting the M2H course record in 2018 © Image courtesy of the Miami to Havana Race

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of sailing off of the Florida Keys, odds are good that you felt Cuba’s gravity tugging at your imagination. After all, the island nation is only some 210 nautical miles from Key West, on the other side of the Gulf Stream, and offers everything from forbidden cultural fruits of yore to warm, friendly and welcoming people to rich, stunning geography and natural beauty. For racing sailors, this proximity to the mainland USA coupled with its exotic flare and mandatory Gulf Stream crossing make Cuba the perfect finishing line for an international yacht race.

The Miami to Havana Race (March 13, 2019) began in 2016 when the Southern Ocean Racing Conference and the Coral Reef Yacht Club first organized this international competition, which has proved popular with sailors of all stripes. The event starts with a competitors meeting and cocktail party at the Coral Reef Yacht Club (March 12), followed by the race (March 13), and finally the awards party, which will take place on Friday (March 15) in Havana.

While awards will be given for the Miami to Havana Race, this awards party will also see the anointing of the 2019 “Champion of the SORC Islands in the Stream Series”. (N.B., this five-part series also includes the Nassau Cup Ocean Race, the Wirth Munroe Palm Beach Race, the Fort Lauderdale to Key West Race and the recent Pineapple Cup Montego Bay Race.)

Racing begins just off of Miami’s fabled South Beach on Wednesday, March 13, and racers typically point their bows towards the Florida Keys before then crossing the Stream and punching for Havana’s finishing line and their berth at Havana’s Marina Hemmingway.

The race’s current record was set in 2018 by Steve and Heidi Benjamin’s all-conquering TP52 Spookie, which delivered a time of just 17 hours, 19 minutes and 56 seconds, but this year’s entry list includes possible record-breaking challengers including a different TP52 (Victor Wild’s FOX), a Volvo Open 70 and two Class 40s.

I checked in with Chris Woolsey, the race administrator and regatta chair for the 2019 Miami to Havana Race (March 13), via email, to learn more about this intriguing offshore race.

How many boats are you expecting at the 2019 Miami to Havana (M2H) Race? Also, how does this compare to the numbers and the competition levels that you have seen in recent years?

Entries are closed and we have 16 boats in this year's race. That’s down a bit from last year. I think that there are a couple of things in play. Havana is a Bucket List destination, so for a lot of boats, once they have gone there, they treat it as "been there, done that."

We do have a few boats who have done every race, and as was the case in the glory days of the SORC, there are a couple of boats who got dinged up during the series and cannot make the trip to Havana as a result.

One of those was the Farr 395 Senara that won the PHRF Fleet in the Pineapple Cup, but suffered a crack in the hull shortly after leaving Montego Bay for the delivery home. We miss those boats.

It’s starting to look like turnout for this race will end up similar to turnout for the Nassau Cup. There will be a core group of regulars who return every year, along with a nice bunch of boats, which headed south for the winter to escape the cold.

In your mind, what are the toughest parts of the M2H’s course?

Without a doubt, the toughest part of the M2H course is the decision about when to make the turn across the Gulfstream to Havana. The Sailing Instructions require that all marks of the Florida Keys be left to starboard, leaving it up to each boat's navigator and/or tactician to pull the trigger on the cross.

It is a hero or zero call and there is no hiding place for those who get it wrong. The right spot is completely dependent on the conditions and the strength/location of the Gulf Stream, so there will likely be different "right spots" for the boats running up front than the boats who are out back.

Knowing your horse, knowing your course will be the key.

What are the best-case and worst-case scenarios in terms of weather? Also, what is it about these conditions (wind direction, wind speed, wave height, wave period, etc.) relative to the course that inspires your answers?

Best-case scenario is to ride a northeasterly to easterly blast down and around the bend of the [Florida] Keys, and set up for a wet ride across the Stream. That is pretty much what we had last year, and [Steve and Heidi Benjamin’s TP52] Spookie set the race record as a result.

Catch it early enough in the frontal passage, and the waves are passable, but if the breeze has been blowing into the Stream for too long, they stack up like condominiums. That raises the possibility of worst-case scenario as well.

Two years ago we had breeze fill in from the west as boats started coming around the big bend. That may not have been worst-case scenario, but it was less than ideal. It caused a number of boats to flop over and cross the Stream earlier than they wanted to, and end up east of the finish as a result.

The Gulf Stream gets in tight on the north shore around Havana, and making that slog to the west did not look fun, though the breeze had freed them by then.

Looking at the entry list, are there any teams that you have shortlisted for podium finishes? Also, what’s the potential for the race record to fall this year, say to Fox (Mr. Wild's TP52)?

I think that if anyone can knock down Spookie's record (17 hours, 19 minutes and 56 seconds), it will likely be the Volvo 70 I Love Poland, which is the former Mar Mostro. If record-breaking conditions materialize, the Volvo 70 will be the first to do it, though others could certainly beat Spookie’s record along the way.

Fox is loaded with talent, and is the obvious choice, but I would watch for Stuart Hebb and John Vincent's Aerodyne 38 Thin Ice to punch above their weight class in the ORC class. They are winning the season series at the moment, and have been consistently at or near the top of the pack since the beginning.

Do you have any advice for first-time M2H racers? What about for returning race veterans?

Based on past experience, the most common reason for withdrawing from the race is rudder/steering failure south of the Keys, on the Gulf Stream crossing. Check your steering gear, and know when to throttle back. Everyone wants to win, whether there are two boats on the water or 200.

Limping back to Marathon with an emergency tiller is not winning (though Marathon is much warmer and inviting than many locations this time of year). You will not have any fun in Havana if you do not get there.

When we spoke two years ago (www.sail-world.com/USA/A-QandA-with-Chris-Woolsey-regatta-chair-of-the-Miami-to-Havana-Race/-152313?source=google), you mentioned that the shifting political climate between Washington D.C. and Havana had your attention in terms of the M2H's long-term sustainability—can you give us an update as to where this stands now? Here in the States we keep just keep hearing rhetoric about the need for walls, not about our island neighbor some 90 miles south of Key West…

So far so good, in terms of race viability. The tighter restrictions imposed by President Trump in 2017 really did not tighten-up our category of travel. We are prohibited like any American travelers from doing business with anyone on the State Department's list of prohibited entities. That makes the new marina at Varadero off limits to U.S. boats, but not Marina Hemingway.

That said, there is talk about another tightening of American travel regulations for Cuba as we approach the 2020 election and Florida's 29 electoral votes go up for grab. We will organize the race as long as we can and eschew politics in favor of encouraging contacts between the Cuban people and American sailors.

From the first time we went there just three years ago, I have made some very good friends in Havana. We encourage competitors to use Air BnB for lodging, which facilitates both more face to face with people, and helps put our money in the hands of those who need it most.

I would hate to see it stop, and would be most interested to know what goals such a policy would further.

At the other end of the racecourse, competitors are welcomed with open arms. The staff at Marina Hemingway are fantastic and provide a warm welcome for the entire fleet.

Cuban hospitality is second to none, and I expect to see more of that for this year's participants.

While we understands that the M2H Race is an offshore event, can you tell us about any steps that you and the other event organizers have taken in the last couple years to help green-up the regatta or otherwise reduce its environmental footprint?

SORC is a pretty small group of volunteers, so we do not do a ton of outside work with other groups, and do not have official clean regatta status for the Havana Race.

That said, we do what we can. Our photo and video crew are always shooting from the signal boat for Havana. The race starts on a Wednesday, so we tend not to have a bunch of extra support boats on the water.

We also gave out special M2H reusable water bottles for last year's race, and—thanks to the fantastic ordering prowess of your's truly—we have plenty left to hand out this year.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

Thank you for letting me tell [readers] about the Miami to Havana yet again. It provides me with the opportunity to tell people about two causes about which I am passionate, getting people to travel to Cuba to see it with their own eyes, instead of taking anyone else's word for it, and the SORC’s mission of encouraging the sport of offshore sailboat racing in South Florida.

Cuba is an amazing place. It is the people who make it magical. I grew up in South Florida and after seeing Cuba, I realized that the misinformation we grew up with ran as deep as the Gulf Stream.

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