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Havana yacht race brought St. Petersburg fun, money

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 15, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- In 1952, the St. Petersburg-Havana Yacht Race sailed into a revolution.

"I heard what I thought was firecrackers, maybe celebrating our arrival," said George Van, a writer then on board the yacht Ben Bow. "It wasn't firecrackers, but 50mm fire. The Ben Bow was hit twice."

Bullets sprayed other yachts as they neared Havana during Fulgencio Batista's takeover. The sailors escaped injury, but the clash foretold the end of the annual event that had matched Cuban and American yachtsmen in 19 races.

"I saw a ton of those races," said Harriett Strum, whose father managed the St. Petersburg Yacht Club in the 1940s. "The boats came from all over the U.S."

Yachtsmen missed trophies by losing course, suffering damage, or stopping to fish during the event's 26 contests. A death occurred during one chase. By 1960, the race had sailed into memory.

"Downtown St. Petersburg literally came alive for the Cuba race," the Evening Independent reminisced. "There was music, dancing, bright lights and laughter sounding from the docks."

In 1930, Commodore Rafael Pooso of the Havana Yacht Club and George S. Gandy Jr. -- son of "Dad" Gandy, who bridged St. Petersburg and Tampa -- organized the first Havana Race. There were 11 entries.

Houston Wall's yacht Haligonian set a record that held until 1935: 41 hours, 42 minutes. Cuban President Gen. Gerado Machado presented trophies.

"The well-publicized race became a city event," according to The St. Petersburg Yacht Club Story: 1909-1989. "Most were ignorant of the sport, but were thrilled by rushing boats maneuvering in a cool breeze."

Yachtsmen competing in the 284-mile run in March had to maneuver 17 miles to clear Tampa Bay. From there it was 180 miles to Rebecca Shoal Light and then another 87 miles through the Gulf Stream to Havana.

"It could be a rough race," said Jerry Hammill, 64. "Cold fronts marched down the peninsula."

Contestants were divided into Class A (yachts 50-80 feet long) and Class B (yachts under 50 feet). Handicaps were assigned; trophies were awarded to the first in fleet and to class winners.

"And there was socialization at the end of the line," said Hammill, who joined the race as a youngster. "Those daiquiris at the International Club Nautico tasted pretty good, especially to a 14-year-old."

In 1936, the Coast Guard planes Bellatrix and Procyan scoured the Gulf of Mexico for the Sea Call, which vanished three days after the race began.

"Those aboard the tiny yacht must have already exhausted both food and water," Lt. W.A. Burton, the local Coast Guard commander, said at the time.

Five days after disappearing, the 34-foot yacht skippered by William E. Everett was found absent of fuel in the Dry Tortugas. The seven-member crew survived.

In 1938, trophy-winning sailor Vernon Anderson, 22, died from cerebral congestion on board the Artemis. The tragedy wasn't discovered until the yacht reached Havana.

It wasn't until 1940 that a St. Petersburg Yacht Club member won a trophy. Ted Leonard's Admate was the first schooner across the finish line, and he duplicated the effort in 1941.

While war raged from 1942 to 1945, the yachts were still.

After a dispute over its crew list in 1951, the Tropicair and its all-woman crew was dropped from the event but sailed unofficially. Someone nailed a condom machine to the yacht's bulkhead as a prank; the women finished the race and beat some entries.

In the 1950s, George Dewar stopped racing to hook some kingfish. His yacht Stampede missed first in his class by just seconds. Dewar reportedly explained his decision as a "question of priorities."

According to Strum, the Cuban racers were fascinating. "A bunch of wealthy, robust characters," she said. "They came in here with their musical instruments and sang and danced."

Former Times sailing writer Gordon "Red" Marston, 89, said the races were "a social affair before old man whiskers (Fidel Castro) threw us out."

Castro seized American holdings, and the SPYC's race to Havana ended in 1959. A local group has tried to revive the event, earning growls from the U.S. State Department.

"Losing the race was a tragedy," Strum said. "A financial loss for St. Petersburg."

-- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzel@msn.com.

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