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First Sanctioned Key West-To-Cuba Sailing Race In 50 Years Set For May 16

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KEY WEST (CBSMiami/FKNB) - A group of American Hobie Cat sailboat racers will race the 90-mile distance between Key West and Havana, Cuba during what is believed to be the first officially sanctioned sailing race between the two cities for at least 50 years.

Scheduled May 16-21, the Havana Challenge is to include the Saturday, May 16, Key West-to-Havana race as well as a Tuesday, May 19, regatta between the U.S. sailors and elite Cuban racers off Havana.

According to co-organizer George Bellenger, five to seven 16-foot Hobie Cat catamarans, most skippered by Florida Keys-based sailors, are to participate in the challenge. They are to travel across the Florida Straits to Cuba accompanied by dedicated support boats, with the total fleet expected to include around 20 vessels.

Bellenger, a Key West captain who has sailed to Cuba five times previously, staged an unsanctioned Havana Challenge in 2000 with two U.S. boats that raced against Cuban sailors while in Havana. He and his colleagues, including current race co-organizer Joe Weatherby, attempted to repeat the event in 2001 but were foiled by unfavorable winds.

"Those informal, impromptu trips were the genesis of something organized," said Bellenger, who made no further attempts until he and Weatherby began coordinating the first officially sanctioned race this year.

"Previously we just did it," he said of the early Florida Straits crossings. "This year we're working hand-in-hand with the regulatory agencies including the Coast Guard."

Other agencies include the U.S. Department of Commerce, which is issuing the necessary licenses for the teams to participate. In early 2015, the U.S. government began easing certain restrictions on travel, business and remittance to Cuba that had been in place since the early 1960s.

Just after sunrise Saturday, May 16, the American racers are to depart Key West's South Beach. If sailing conditions are favorable, Bellenger and Weatherby expect them to reach Havana's Marina Hemingway around sunset.

The May 19 competition between U.S. and Cuban racers is to take place just off Cuba's landmark Malecon oceanfront boulevard. Bellenger said Cuban Olympians and members of the country's national sailing team are to participate.

The Key West contingent also is to stage a youth sailing seminar Monday, May 18, at Marina Hemingway. Highlights are to include amateur sailing races for kids and team members as well as a picnic provided by American sailors.

The U.S. teams and support boats are to return to Key West with their arrival scheduled late Thursday, May 21.

"The Florida Keys News Burearu contributed to this report."

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