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 it 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. On 26 May 1950, 36 of the best fishing boats of Havana sailed through the channel of the Castillo del Morro, situated at the entrance of Havana harbour, in search of the Gulf Stream. One of them was the Pilar, owned by Ernest Hemingway, who participated in this first tournament representing the Havana Yacht Club.
A group of fishermen then proposed to name the fishing tournament with his name, in respect of Hemingway’s passion for big game fishing. Hemingway not only agreed; he won the cup for the first three tournaments. In 1959, Hemingway moved to Idaho, but returned to Cuba in 1960. There is a notable photograph of Ernest Hemingway handing Fidel Castro the trophy at this tournament. 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 the United States. The 1980 tournament was cancelled, as that summer the waters were filled not with marlin, but with thousands of Cubans heading for Florida during the Mariel boatlift. With the foundation in 1992 of the Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba (CNIH de Cuba), the Hemingway Tournament has found a new lease of life and is now into its 64th edition.
The year we competed there were fifteen boats in the competition. 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 2,000 metres). 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 the point was. 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 that divides these two unhappy neighbours might yet bring them closer together.
2014 Tournament Details
June 9 – 14, 2014 (Marina Hemingway)
Bring your own boat/equipment: 450.00 CUC per team from 1 to 3 anglers and 100.00 CUC per an additional angler. Registration fee includes free mooring if you come on your own boat, personal invitations for the Welcoming Cocktail, Closing Dinner and Awarding Ceremony for the teams.
Rent boat/equipment: Prices start at 2,500.00 CUC. Included are captain and mate, fishing tackle for every angler, baits, fuel and snack.
Medals and trophies for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places. Prizes for largest fish and largest dolphin fish (dorado/mahi-mahi).
Tag-and-Release. International Game Fishing Association (IGFA) rules
Entry visa will be available at the entrance to Marina Hemingway. Call the port captain using VHF Channel 16.