BY J.J. HYSELL | [url=http://www.keysnews.com]http://www.keysnews.com[/url]
KEY WEST—The first of 19 boats participating in the Third Annual Conch Republic Cup Race returned from Cuba Friday, with no immediate action from federal authorities who had warned sailors they could be violating federal law.
The day before their May 22 departure, sailors racing in the regatta were told by agents from the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other agencies that they could not take their vessels into Cuban waters.
Many of the boaters were carrying humanitarian aid in the form of books, food and medicinal supplies for the Cuban people. According to Zachary Mann, spokesman for ICE, the violation did not involve the supplies, but rather the vessels and their destination.
The boats raced off despite the warnings, and now many of them are concerned about what will happen upon their return, said John Young of Conchord Cayo Hueso, a Key West-based organization that delivers humanitarian supplies to Cubans.
Young said as of 5 p.m., one boater had returned safely—although the trip was not smooth. Competitor Roger Moore arrived in Key West after his boat reportedly was struck by lightning during severe weather on the return trip. The craft suffered electrical difficulties, but no one was injured, Young said.
Young said after Moore’s boat was thoroughly checked by federal officers, he was told he was free to be on his way and was not cited for any wrongdoing.
A license issued to Conchord Cayo Hueso by the U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Export Administration “authorizes the licensee to carry out the export transaction” described on the license, which outlines guidelines for exportation of goods to Cuba. Expiration date on the license is February 2004.
Mann said that, although the group may have been licensed for export of goods and may have met Coast Guard guidelines, their vessels were not approved by the Commerce Department for travel to Cuba.
Mann initially said the Key West Sailing Club, as the race’s sponsor, would be in violation of regulations, but a sailing club spokesman said Friday that the organization was not a sponsor or a promoter of the race.
Tom Theisen, commodore of the sailing club, said his group did not organize the race and had not had a financial interest in it in the past five years—although some club members participated in the regatta.
Mann could not be reached for comment Friday, but a letter distributed to boaters by the Bureau of Export Administration, lists the promoter and organizer of the event as Geslin Sailmakers. Michele Geslin of Geslin Sailmakers is competing in the event and could not be reached for comment.
The letter, signed by Special Agent in Charge Roy A. Gilfix, states that “participants in the Regatta must have export authorization from the U.S. Dept. of Commerce for the export to Cuba or Cuban territorial waters of any item subject to the Export Administration Regulations, including any vessel and its contents.” It also states that “unauthorized exports to Cuba or Cuban territorial waters are subject to criminal prosecution and administrative proceedings that can result in fines, imprisonment, vessel forfeiture and denial of future export privileges.”
Young said he could not pinpoint exactly when or where other racers would arrive in Key West.