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Reelin' Them In

Though the Marlin Weren't Biting, a Fishing Trip Out of Cuba's Marina Hemingway Provides its Own Excitement
Matthew Reiss
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

It was some time past noon when the beast took the hook and the squeal of the fishing reel drafted the entire crew into action. Our small expedition had been out just a few hours, but we were more than ready for one of those epic battles with an insensate rival that has been the promise of these waters north of Cuba since Ernest Hemingway fished here. And that's what we got.

In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway straps an elderly Santiago, Ahab-like, to an 18-foot marlin and drags him around these same Florida straits for three days in a skiff. The book, which figured heavily in Hemingway's winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, romanticizes the struggle of man against nature and demonstrates the endurance and courage of a simple old man.

OK, so we hadn't roughed the same conditions as Santiago or experienced the same futility (84 days without a catch), but Cuba's waters have changed little in 45 years, except that this epic battle is much easier to experience. The entire adventure, from hatching the plan, to sautéing the trophy (a reward Santiago was, alas, denied), now only requires a little patience and lots of luck. Santiago's record of sacrifice and resolve is no longer part of the price.

Homage to the author is still very much part of the experience, however. I started my fishing junket at Marina Hemingway, 25 miles west of Havana. The marina boasts four man-made channels, filled with domestic and foreign-flagged pleasure boats. Terraced apartment complexes for tourists, which look like Palm Beach time-shares, serve as a backdrop. Between the third and fourth channels lies Papa's, a marina-side restaurant and club, that makes the questionable intimation that Hemingway may have once jiggled a swizzle stick here.

The day before we sailed, the agent who booked my trip told me that business was slow and I could charter a boat with everything, any day of the week. The Gulf Stream's current was weak, which meant the chances of bringing home a prize like the seasonal visitor from the marlin family, wahoo, were slim.

A boatful of sport fishermen had been shut out from their quarry the day before, and the crews of the four charter boats moored at Papa's provided remarkably humble reports that nothing was biting. But with the U.S. embargo restricting tourism on the island, and a conspicuous absence of Cuban fishing vessels plying the waters, it was hard to imagine that this side of the straits was anything but teeming with life. The booking agent had told me about a Spanish tourist named Fernando who also wanted to go out but didn't want to charter the boat alone. I located him at his hotel, where we agreed to split the $204 fee for the standard four-hour tour in the smallest available boat, the Coral Negro (Black Coral).

We registered with the Interior Ministry of the Cuban Government, a requirement that basically ensures that it will reap its share of our fee. We left the harbor at a quarter to ten.

The crew, otherwise known as Miguel, started hooking the bait and the lures. He had an easy smile, and an unlit cigarette sticking to his lip. First, he attached a big plastic lure to a 40-pound test line and strung it through a pulley that was held about 20 feet away from the deck by a long, fiberglass shaft. The line was attached to a heavy reel and rod, which was shoved into a holder in the side of the boat. The lure featured two large, rusty hooks that could drag a hungry lineman through the waves as easily as a marlin. He rigged another rod on the opposite side of the boat the same way.

Miguel attached a metal wire, about as thick as coaxial cable, to a steel loop bolted into the deck, and connected a weighted lure that looked as though it were welded to a strip of sablefish, an expensive bait fish that I'd previously encountered only at catered affairs. He threw the precious fillet in the water and slowly let out the heavy line. After he did the same from the other side of the boat, the captain, Raimondo, hit the gas and stretched the four lines against the oncoming current. Fifteen minutes from the pier, we were trolling the 120-foot-deep waters of the Gulf Stream.

Raimondo was strong and thin, with a hawk-like nose and a calm demeanor that suggested a keen knowledge of the sea. He zigged the Coral Negro away from shore, then zagged a little U-turn against the current, and zigged back, perpendicular to the shore. The circuitous route was designed to wave the bait under the noses of the maximum number of fish traveling in the current.

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Comments   1 comment(s) September 30, 2010 6:16pm ET

Beautiful story
And I doubt has been proud to Hemingway

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