By Mark Beyl
DESPITE South Africa’s close ties to Cuba, a South African team was first invited to participate in the Ernest Hemingway International Billfish Tournament (IBT) in 2020, mostly as a result of SADSAA’s tournament officer, Nick Nel’s, tireless efforts to source new international tournaments for our Protea anglers.
However, due to the travel restrictions caused by the Covid pandemic, the tournament was postponed twice and finally took place in the last week of May this year in Havana, Cuba. Fortunately for us, SADSAA thought it prudent to keep the team the same.
I was privileged to be part of the four-man Protea team selected in 2020 to compete in the 70th IBT to be held at Hemingway Marina in Havana. The rest of the team consisted of Mike Riley — captain (Griquas), Sam Botha (Mpumalanga) and Piet Nel (Natal).
The tournament is believed to be the second oldest billfish tournament in the world. Hemingway Marina started off as the Barlovento Marina, which was built in 1953 as part of Havana’s urban development plan after numerous seafaring stories had been published in the Cuban press. Cuba was home to many yachts and recreational fishing vessels at the time. Following the revolution in 1959, the marina was nationalised and renamed Hemingway Marina.
The tournament was initially started in 1950, and Ernest Hemingway (of Old Man and the Sea fame) won it himself the first three years. In 1960 it was won by Fidel Castro. There are many photos of the two, that are displayed at Hemingway Marina, with Hemingway handing the trophy to Castro.
Since no South Africans have fished this tournament before, the team had to rely on internet searches to find out about the fishing methods and fishing gear used there, and what was usually most successful.
In this tournament teams arrange their own boats and crew, and Piet Nel did extensive research on this aspect before we decided to charter a local boat, Barbanera, rather than one from the USA. Interestingly, Barbanera belongs to the Cuban government and there were two other Cuban government boats entered in the tournament.
Due to the many horror stories of other Protea teams that have fished abroad with charter boat tackle, we decided to take our own marlin tackle. In this regard, Sam Botha, a.k.a. “Mr. Tackle Perfect”, left nothing to chance and played an invaluable role.
The result, after combining the necessary — and some unnecessary — tackle and gear, including 3km of spare fishing line and 300m of leader line, ended up weighing almost 100kg!
The first big challenge was that all Team SA’s fishing rods were lost in transit, only arriving four days after we did!
Another major challenge was the language, but as South Africans are known for not being easily intimidated, we got by with a combination of broken communication, sign language and various tones of voice.
Twelve teams from 11 countries participated, including two Cuban teams. Because the US and Mexico share the same fishing waters, we expected the toughest competition to come from them and, of course, Cuba.
Our team arrived a week before the tournament and booked two training days on Barbanera, primarily to explore the Cuban fishing waters and fishing methods. We also hired a “consultant” known as “awhiry” meaning “old man” which is an expert local marlin fisherman with years of experience.
The fishing methods there are similar to what we use on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast where I’m from. Because of the predominantly calm seas, anglers swim small Kona-type lures close to the boat. A typical spread is to swim two rigged ballyhoos on the long lines, and two small Islander-type lures on the short.
Interestingly, the Cubans also use garfish as bait, and rig it by cutting it in half — the bottom half is used as a flapper bait, and the other half with a small cup-faced lure. It took the team almost three days to convince the skeptical crew to only fish one rigged ballyhoo and three bigger sized lures, and swim it much further from the boat, to raise a billfish.
The tournament is a full release team competition and continuous video footage must be submitted to the referees daily for assessment. Although blue- and white marlin are the main target species, sailfish and shortbill spearfish also count. Our team decided to target blue marlin, as it was the species that counted for the most points.
Overall the billfish were scarce, partly because the tournament was held a month earlier than usual to coincide with Hemingway Marina’s 30th birthday celebrations. The Havana marlin seasons officially starts at the end of June.
Something else we noticed while fishing Cuba is that long lines were unfortunately in abundance near the coast and I’m sure this also drastically reduced the billfish strikes during the tournament.
What was striking is that the Cuban seas do not typically have very high swells; even a one-metre swell is high for them, whereas the South Africans are used to high swells and turbulent waters. Another thing we were unused to was how close the deep fishing grounds are. Just 300m past the last buoy from the marina, the water depth plummets to 950m.
On the first day Team SA was “mombakkies”, but we weren’t alone; only the teams from Bulgaria and Spain released billfish.
On day two the sea was turbulent in Cuban terms, which suited the Proteas perfectly. We had no issue adjusting our choice of lures to better known lures. Thanks to our use of heavier lures, Sam’s first blue marlin was raised, caught and successfully released, much to the team’s delight and the Cuban crew’s surprise. Team SA was the only team that could successfully release a billfish on day two and that catapulted us to second place.
From then on, the crew did not interfere with the team’s lure choices and, apart from the rigged ballyhoo, Team SA could do as we pleased.
Our team knew that with the fish being so scarce, if we could catch just one more billfish it would be difficult for the other teams to catch up.
On day three we researched where the temperature breaks were and managed to persuade the skipper to fish deeper waters. This resulted in me catching and releasing a blue marlin which put us in first place. Not long after that, a third fish was raised and hooked with Piet Nel on the rod. Sadly, this fish came off; we suspected the hook went around the bill.
Interestingly, on all three strikes the blue marlin went for the ballyhoo first, but hooked up on the lures.
Day four was a mombakkies for all, but it was also a shorter fishing day to allow for preparations for the closing function and prizegiving.
As a matter of interest, the crew informed us that a marlin can be sold for about 20 000 Cuban Pesos, which is about five times the average minimum monthly salary.
The Cubans suffer terribly economically, so each family has a second income such as baking bread or selling cigars to supplement their mediocre incomes. Consequently, if a marlin is caught outside of a competition, it is simply sold to supplement their income. This also no doubt contributes to the minimal numbers of billfish caught during the tournament.
From our side it was great to show the Americans and Mexicans a trick or two when it came to fishing in their backyard — on our first attempt too. The Protea team walked away with a gold medal, with double the number of points of the runners-up, Bulgaria. France came third.
While we were in Cuba we also had time to admire the many old cars still driving around, and attempted smoking some famous Cuban cigars. We also developed a taste for the Cuban rum which was always stocked on the boat!
Although the Cubans’ willingness to help was striking, their food was less tasty than we are used to. The majority of the available meat is pork and a little little chicken. One thing we South Africans do share with the Cubans, though, is that it doesn’t take much to start a party — they just do it with rum!