Fifty seven years ago, Ernest Hemingway inaugurated a big game fishing competition in Cuba. There were plenty of takers: Havana high—society, and a few keen anglers from Florida flocked to the four—day tournament. The event has been held every year, except one, since. This year, Stephen Gibbs took part.

Like all the best fishing stories, mine began in a bar. One evening in Havana, I was introduced to a man called Stewart, an affable commercial manager in a London building firm. It turned out he was part of the English team in this year’s Hemingway fishing tournament. In fact, he was the only Englishman on his boat, and he was taking on recruits. Two days later, we were a mile off the Havana coast, hoping to strike lucky in what I was told was the oldest big—game fishing competition in the world.

The Torneo Hemingway is one of those remnants of pre—revolution Cuba that just won’t die. Maybe that is not entirely unconnected to the fact that Fidel Castro himself is a previous winner. There is a photograph of Ernest Hemingway handing him the trophy in 1960. It was the only time the two men ever met.

Since then, the event has had its ups and downs. By the mid—sixties, when almost all the Cuban bourgeoisie (as they were being described by then) had left the island, only a few locals were taking part. Then, in the late seventies, Jimmy Carter instigated a détente with Cuba, and a huge flotilla of fishermen came over from America. The 1980 tournament was cancelled, as that summer the waters were filled not with marlin, but with thousands of Cuban rafters heading for Florida.

These days, with the Bush administration threatening heavy fines on American vessels that visit Cuba, very few take the risk. And all Cuban citizens now need special government permission to set foot on a boat, which does not help matters.

But the tournament goes on. This year there were fifteen boats competing. One was full of gregarious Frenchmen. Another with distinctly organised—looking Czechs. And then there were the Russians, all with RUSSIA written in large red letters on their T shirts. I had been told that one of the crews had sneaked an American citizen on board. Was he disguised as a Russian, I wondered?

To be honest, we all looked a slightly motley bunch. Think big—game fishing and you might imagine huge, gleaming boats with names like “Wet Dream,” and immaculately turned out crews. But when the Americans don’t show up, it’s not the same. Most of the boats were hired in Cuba. They were simple, functional vessels. The only opulence was the setting.

Tantalisingly close to the coast of Havana is what Hemingway called the “great blue river.” It is where the Gulf Stream brushes past the island, and the sea floor plunges to a depth of nearly 6,000 feet (almost 2,000m). Cruising in the warm current at this time of year are hundreds of the Rolls—Royces of fish: the blue marlin. Behind our boat we tried to tempt them with squid—like lures, in garish colours.

The hours passed by. I began to wonder what was the point. Stewart tried to explain. “It’s a hunter—gatherer thing,” he said, as he sipped a beer, and eased his large frame into a more comfortable position.

These days, the idea of tournament game fishing is in fact less hunter—gathering than tag—and—releasing. No longer do the winners have their photo taken next to their towering, bleeding catch. Instead they bring the live fish alongside the boat, attach a marker to it, and let it go.

By midday we had caught nothing. Our conversation, and the boat, drifted along. Stewart was just explaining the ins and outs of London property development when we were reminded that underneath us, something even more cutthroat was going on.

One of our bright orange lures burst out of the water. Behind it, I caught a glimpse of the grey fin of a massive blue marlin. Marlin are notoriously aggressive fish. They don’t bite their prey. They attack it. The reel beside me started spinning. Stewart grabbed it and began to wind it in.

But the fish got away. That happened two more times before the day was over. Back at the marina, the Czechs were already celebrating their win—they had tagged four marlin. The consolation prize was a ticket to the gala dinner that night. There, I found myself talking to the man who was the captain of Fidel Castro’s boat in 1960. Maybe it was the sea air, or old age, but Julio had none of the timidity you so often find in Cubans when you raise the F—word in conversation.

“Fidel knew nothing about fishing,” he said. “But I was a good teacher, and he listened.”

Julio, it turned out, had coached more than a few revolutionaries in this exclusive sport. Che Guevara, for one, whom he described as “a bad fisherman.” In Cuba, where Che has been elevated to something close to a god, that sounds almost blasphemous. I asked him which country he thought produced the best anglers in the world. Without hesitation, he pointed north towards Florida.

Cuban fishermen seem to miss the competition, and the money their American visitors once provided. If ever the two countries settle their differences, the first to return will be the men in boats. The sea which divides these two unhappy neighbours might yet bring them closer together.

The 2007 Hemmingway fishing tournament
Mar / 2007