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In the Havana Challenge, it's a 'straits' shot across to Cuba

Minutes after launching a 16-foot Hobie Cat catamaran from Key West's South Beach Tuesday, one of six sailing teams heads to Havana.
Minutes after launching a 16-foot Hobie Cat catamaran from Key West's South Beach Tuesday, one of six sailing teams heads to Havana.

A few crashing waves Tuesday morning didn't stop six teams of sailors from heading to Cuba with only some fiberglass, a trapeze rig and a couple sails separating them from the elements.

"It's just like last year," said Eric Youtz, 47, who with his sailing partner Tim Flanagan, 29, prepped for a nearly 100-mile amateur race to Havana's Marina Hemingway.

"We finished in 11 hours," the wet suit-clad Youtz said as his son, Jackson, 7, touched his catamaran's sail. "We kept it upright except for one time."

Six sailing teams signed up for the second annual Hobie Cat Havana Challenge, a goodwill gesture from Key West to its island neighbors nearly 100 miles away.

Last year's inaugural contest, conceived by locals George Bellenger, Carla Bellenger and Joe Weatherby, was billed as the first U.S. government-sanctioned sailing race between the two countries after more than 50 years.

Local sailors have made the trip before but never without the proper license.

The 16-foot Hobie Cat catamaran boats were launched before 8 a.m. Tuesday from Key West's modest South Beach, just off Simonton Street past Duval. Dozens of well-wishers, including family, friends and several dogs, gathered at the sandy shore about 7:30 a.m. Several kiteboarders were already tearing through the surf.

Rio O'Bryan and Andrew O'Connor, who are also veterans of the event, recalled their attempt last year.

"Our boat fell apart," O'Bryan said. "We made it about 30 miles."

The duo Tuesday rode their new boat, Tequila Sunrise, and appeared more than ready to cross the Florida Straits to arrive at Marina Hemingway by evening.

One of the cats, the Magnum Force, didn't make it far Tuesday. By about 8:30 a.m., a support boat was towing the two sailors back to Key West after it appeared the catamaran's mast snapped.

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