Summit County-led trip to Cuba sets new mark for American sailing
August 5, 2017
For at least the last two generations of Americans it's taken a pioneering spirit of immense proportions to visit Cuba, and reaching the forbidden country is only the first of many unknowns.
When longtime Summit County local Lindsay Atkins started plotting a course for a large group to the Caribbean island nation approximately 105 miles from Key West, Florida, she had grander plans than just landing on its soil. Once there, the 29-year-old Copper Mountain resident hoped to embark on an exceptional sailing voyage few U.S. citizens had experienced before her.
The Obama administration began re-establishing relations and easing travel restrictions to Cuba in December 2014, but President Trump said in June those diplomatic gains would be reversed and American tourism there is still prohibited. So the obstacle of just getting there remains wholly intact.
"We didn't know what to expect," said Atkins. "We had no clue, because everyone that was going to Cuba had never been. I was worried that half the Americans wouldn't get into the country."
This past spring, the boat owner in Dillon Reservoir posted designs of an ambitious trip to social media and rapidly confirmed a band of 27 made up mostly of Summit and Vail attendees, on top of a few friends from Texas and Louisiana. From there, Atkins issued a simple directive: Find your own way, and meet in Havana in May.
Those who made it — in fact, only a would-be third boat captain had to bow out from making the trek the day before due to a broken leg — instantly became the journey's maritime crew. And, with the element of lending a hand as a major component of Atkins' burgeoning commercial bareboat charter operation, Beach Please Adventures, that's part of the sell.
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"It's just a different type of trip," she said. "We try to pitch it as, 'It's an adventure.' Yeah, you can come and sip cocktails and stuff, but if you're interested in sailing it's a great way to get into it, because it's really hands-on. We do it all and it is an exploration — you're not a tourist, you're a traveler."
Acquiring sufficient rations, water and reliable watercraft for a multi-day seafaring pilgrimage became the focus immediately after most participants had the chance to survey Cuba's historic capital for a few days. Atkins booked three sleepover catamarans to follow a route from the southern coastal city of Cienfuegos to the resort island of Cayo Largo del Sur, but details and assurances were difficult to come by ahead of arrival.
Following prior boat junkets in Croatia and the British Virgin Islands — each with a single vessel and smaller numbers — the idea of tripling the size of the team added yet another obstacle, but one she believed could also be navigated. The sudden need for a new skipper for the third 43-foot craft posed a potential setback, too, but the travel gods smiled upon them and a willing local boat captain was soon hired on.
Their friend's absence due to severe injury was still disappointing, but coming across their latest acquaintance turned out to be one of the American company's luckiest developments. After setting sail, it wasn't long before he was helping free dive to catch an abundance of fresh lobsters, pointing them to the best areas for snorkeling and fishing barracuda and conch right off the boat, and offering a personal tour of the tiny island of Cayo Guano at the midway point for an overnight.
"I had all these preconceptions about Cuba — how the food was going to be, how the people were going to treat us — and it shattered expectations," said Ashley Hoppe, a Frisco resident who was on the trip. "The actual experience was really eye opening. Through that captain we were able to have some experiences that no other American has ever done."
Despite it being Cuba's offseason, fortune granted especially beautiful conditions, including cooler, less humid evenings, and smooth waters for the majority of the six-day trip. By the end of the on-water exploit, the three-ship crew of trailblazers — perhaps lending visions of Christopher Columbus' Niña, Pinta and the Santa Maria reaching the New World to Cubans who had never met such a contingent of Americans — indeed accomplished something none had before as the biggest recorded group from the United States to complete the roughly 200-mile round-trip excursion.
"It's not like anywhere else," Atkins said of sailing Cuba's coastline. "Everywhere else has millions of boats in the water. These waters aren't sailed very often. And there are few Americans passing through, and people at the marinas told us we were the first three-boat flotilla to come through for sure, and the largest amount of Americans to do this route in one trip, and safely return."
That achievement — with other hurdles like a stalled diesel motor, a snapped main sail hoist line and the occasional rum-inspired hangover along the way — is a feather in the cap. It pales in comparison to the lessons learned from the exclusive trip that took a leap of faith just to assemble and then successfully execute with few of the safeguards of the typical American destination vacation.
"We didn't have smartphones, we didn't have the internet, you couldn't get any more money out once you're there," said Hoppe. "We've been trained to have the safety net. To not have that safety net was a fun challenge in Cuba. We grew up on technology, so to have a lack of technology, humanity was brought out."
Atkins next plans to take her bareboat enterprise to Greece for some island hopping this October before another expedition to the British Virgin Islands the following spring or summer. But a future trip to Cuba down the road — to provide another once-in-a-lifetime experience to Western Slope residents with a unique and energetic appetite for travel — is high on the list.
"Everything you think Cuba is, it's not," said Atkins. "It's not the scary place that everyone thinks. If anything it's a step back in time, and I think if you don't go now it's going to be too tainted and tourism is going to overflow to where it's going to change. You've got to go see it for itself."
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