Five teams of American Hobie Cat sailboat racers departed Key West's South Beach Saturday morning on a Key West-to-Havana race, believed to be the first U.S. government-sanctioned sailing race between the two cities in more than 50 years.
The Havana Challenge features 16-foot Hobie Cat catamarans, most skippered by Florida Keys-based sailors, navigating more than 90 miles across the Florida Straits to Cuba.
"Key West is unique in its location to Havana. We're closer to Havana than Miami, and living and growing up in Key West, you just look that direction," said race co-organizer and participating sailor George Bellenger. "It was a challenge I couldn't resist -- to put the sails up and sail down to Havana."
Bellenger and co-organizer Joe Weatherby worked with regulatory agencies including the U.S. Department of Commerce, which issued the necessary licenses for the teams to participate.
"The special part of our event today is that we have all permits that make it legal for us to go, so we're going to be setting a precedent today for others to follow," said Bellenger. "We've gotten the Treasury Department permits, the Commerce Department permits, the Coast Guard permits -- and permission from my mom."
He and Weatherby expect the Hobie Cats to begin arriving at Havana's Marina Hemingway late Saturday afternoon. They are accompanied by support boats that bring the total fleet to 19 vessels.
"We're going out here today to show everyone that Key West and Havana are a lot closer than you might expect," Bellenger said.
The racing event also aims to feature activities in Cuba, highlighted by a May 19 regatta between the U.S. sailors and elite Cuban racers off Havana. Bellenger said Cuban Olympians and members of the country's national sailing team are set to participate.
In addition, the Key West contingent is to stage a youth sailing seminar and amateur sailing races for kids while in Cuba.
The U.S. teams and support boats should arrive back in Key West late Thursday, May 21.