US, Cuba in first regatta since diplomatic thaw

Catamarans from the US and Cuba competing in a regatta at the Malecon in Havana on May 19, 2015. It is the first regatta since the two countries' decision to seek normal ties after more than five decades of Cold War strains. -- PHOTO: EPA
Catamarans from the US and Cuba competing in a regatta at the Malecon in Havana on May 19, 2015. It is the first regatta since the two countries' decision to seek normal ties after more than five decades of Cold War strains. -- PHOTO: EPA
People watching the Havana Challenge regatta in Havana on May 19, 2015. It is the first regatta since the two countries' decision to seek normal ties after more than five decades of Cold War strains. -- PHOTO: AFP 
People watching the Havana Challenge regatta in Havana on May 19, 2015. It is the first regatta since the two countries' decision to seek normal ties after more than five decades of Cold War strains. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Competitors taking part in the Havana Challenge regatta in Havana on May 19, 2015. It is the first regatta since the two countries' decision to seek normal ties after more than five decades of Cold War strains. -- PHOTO: AFP
Competitors taking part in the Havana Challenge regatta in Havana on May 19, 2015. It is the first regatta since the two countries' decision to seek normal ties after more than five decades of Cold War strains. -- PHOTO: AFP
Men watching the Havana Challenge regatta in Havana on May 19, 2015. It is the first regatta since the two countries' decision to seek normal ties after more than five decades of Cold War strains. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Men watching the Havana Challenge regatta in Havana on May 19, 2015. It is the first regatta since the two countries' decision to seek normal ties after more than five decades of Cold War strains. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Cuban and US teams preparing for a regatta in Havana, Cuba, on May 19, 2015. It is the first regatta since the two countries' decision to seek normal ties after more than five decades of Cold War strains. -- PHOTO: EPA
Cuban and US teams preparing for a regatta in Havana, Cuba, on May 19, 2015. It is the first regatta since the two countries' decision to seek normal ties after more than five decades of Cold War strains. -- PHOTO: EPA
Participants from Cuba and the US competing in a regatta in Havana on May 19, 2015. It is the first regatta since the two countries' decision to seek normal ties after more than five decades of Cold War strains.  -- PHOTO: EPA
Participants from Cuba and the US competing in a regatta in Havana on May 19, 2015. It is the first regatta since the two countries' decision to seek normal ties after more than five decades of Cold War strains.  -- PHOTO: EPA

HAVANA (AFP) - Cuban and American sailors competed on Tuesday in the first regatta since their countries' decision to seek normal ties after more than five decades of Cold War strains.

Featuring five two-person catamarans from each side, the Havana Challenge was the first regatta authorised by the US since 2004 - and the first since the December announcement of the process of normalisation of relations between Cuba and the United States.

"We are the first group of Americans with a permit from the US government with permission to participate in sporting event in the water in Cuba," sailor George Bellenger told AFP.

He was aboard one of the catamarans - flying tiny US and Cuban flags - speeding just off Havana's landmark Malecon seafront, in the Caribbean within sight of the Hotel Nacional and the US Interests Section.

When the neighbours do restore full diplomatic relations, it will be the site of the new US Embassy in Cuba's capital.

The regatta was organised by boating clubs in Cuba, and in Key West, the Florida island closest to Cuba.

At Havana's Hemingway marina before the event, the two sides got organised and chatted like old friends. They even carried some of each other's belongings in ride-along powerboats.

That included the Cuban side's cooler full of cans of Tukola, the Cuban answer to Coca Cola.

- Signs of friendliness -

"It is really a great thing for people to see the friendliness that is starting to emerge between the Key West and Havana city clubs," said Cuban coach Vicente de la Guardia.

"We are not equally matched with the boats; ours are really old. But their athletes are really good."

Dozens of Cubans gathered on the Malecon to watch. Above, tourists were doing the same at the stately Hotel Nacional.

"Today is a special day. You just don't see this every day," said Cuban skipper Alexander Rey, 17.

Amid all the excitement, goodwill and stifling midday heat, no one paid any attention to who won the regatta.

US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced in December that the two countries were ending a half-century of enmity and would seek full diplomatic relations. They currently have downgraded ties, and just Interests Sections in each other's capital.

Castro and Obama also held a historic meeting in Panama in April on the sidelines of a regional summit.

Obama has relaxed a few restrictions on travel to and from the Americas' only Communist-ruled country but the trade and financial embargo the US has imposed since 1962 still is in effect.

A fourth round of talks on restoring full ties is due to be held in Washington on Thursday between top-level US and Cuban officials, a senior State Department official said.