Scott Hammet’s Excellent Adventure

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TRIP TO CUBA AN EYE-OPENING EXPERIENCE FOR LOCAL BOAT CAPTAIN

One look at the 74-foot topsail schooner Wolf and the average sailor might be intimidated. Luckily for the Wolf’s owner, Capt. Finbar Gittelman, Hilton Head Island boat captain Scott Hammet is not your average sailor.

Over the course of his career, Hammet has captained everything from shrimp boats to oil field crew boats. He’s operatedcharter boats, ferries and sailboats. So when Gittelman, who spent his childhood in Cuba and is now a sailing legend in Key West, hired Hammet to join him aboard Wolf as his second in command for a voyage from Key West to Cuba as part of the eighth annual Conch Republic Cup races, Hammet acceptedwith no hesitation.

That trip to Cuba carried more than the weight of the 90-mile voyage to a country whose travel restrictions by U.S. citizens had recently been eased after more than 50 years. The schooner also carried filmmaker Matt Dean of Matt Dean Films of California, who was making a documentary about Gittelman’s voyage, tentatively titled “The Old Man and the Sea Return to Cuba.”

The seven-man crew, along with Dean and a few capable passengers, set sail Jan. 27 for the communist country, making the trip in just under a day’s time.

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“The winds were moderate and broad on the port quarter, making for a pleasant, 20-hour sail to our first port-of-call, Varadero, Cuba,” says Hammet, who spends the bulk of his year captaining nature and dolphin cruises with Sonny C Charters out of Broad Creek Marina, and his winters on a sailboat in the Florida Keys.

After a night in Varadero, the schooner headed to its ultimate destination, Havana, where Hammet and the rest of the crew took in the sights, sounds and smells of a city Americans haven’t been able to visit in half a century. Hammet says it was eye-opening.

“In Havan,a we found the people to be friendly and hospitable. There was no sign of crime or violence of any kind, even though the people were living in crowded, abject poverty,” he says. “Old American cars from the '40s and '50s served as taxis as they darted through narrow streets, surrounded by magnificent architecture crumbling from a half-century of neglect.”

Hammet said there was plenty of rum to be found in the city, but no toilet seats or toilet paper at the bars, restaurants or marina. There also was a high level of carbon monoxide wafting through the old city due to engine exhaust.

“There are no EPA emissions regulations. So as the sun’s going down you can see this black blanket rising up,” he says. “After three to four days of hanging around in Havana, it was nice to go up into the mountains and breathe.”

The group wasn’t meant to stay beyond Feb. 5 in the country’s capital, but weather offshore kept them grounded — for so long that Gittelman eventually needed to fly back to the United States for work, along with Dean and some of the others, leaving Hammet as captain of a skeleton crew for the return trip, which they finally made on Feb. 11.

 “(That day) a small weather window was forecast,” he says. “We wasted no time in securing what we could below deck, clearing customs and plotting a heading for Key West.”

Initially the winds were blowing at a comfortable 15 knots and were predicted to slow, but instead they picked up to about 30 knots, Hammet says, making for a long night of sailing in high seas. By far the most experienced sailor onboard, he opted to remain at the helm all night long.

No one seemed to argue with that line of reasoning. “It wasn’t a very nautical group going back. And there was a lot going on to keep me awake,” he says. “But I wasn’t concerned. There was plenty of boat under me.”

After a night of rough seas, they were greeted with a beautiful sunrise and an even more welcome sight ± the Sand Key Light Tower, a familiar reef marker about 6 miles out from Key West.

“We were all more than ready to be back in the U.S., where our credit cards work, cellphones have service and restrooms are equipped with toilet seats,” Hammet says. “But what an adventure!”