Ferry company plans to start runs at Port Manatee as early as summer

mjohnson@bradenton.comApril 24, 2014 

PORT MANATEE -- A ferry company that wants to start taking travelers to Cuba as early as this summer has chosen Port Manatee as its port of origin.

Havana Ferry Partners would run a ferry service between the port and Havana, Cuba. It plans to ferry up to 300 passengers per trip on overnight voyages that would give travelers time to have dinner in Bradenton and breakfast in Cuba.

Havana Ferry Partners CEO Jorge Fernandez updated plans for his company to move its operations to the port during a meeting Tuesday in Bradenton with Rep. Vern Buchanan. But with a decades-old Cuba travel embargo still in force, the company isn't yet ready to start selling tickets.

Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras and port authority Commissioner Larry Bustle also attended the meeting.

Fernandez said his company will observe regulations, which do allow U.S. citizens to receive licenses to travel to Cuba for more than a dozen reasons. But, Havana Ferry Partners would still need approval to transport people by boat. Currently, U.S. citizens with Cuba travel licenses may only travel directly from the United States to the island nation via charter aircraft.

"I know the rules and regulations are very strict," Fernandez said. "We are very, very obsessed with compliance at all times."

Havana Ferry Partners was founded in 2009 in Fort Lauderdale. Nearby Port Everglades sends weekly shipments of goods to Cuba under a special waiver through the U.S. Department of Treasury. Those goods are generally food and medicines. Havana Ferry Partners has yet to send a boat to Cuba for any purpose.

A move to Port Manatee gives the ferry company better access to a seaport than could be found at Port Everglades or PortMiami, Fernandez said. The company also chose Port Manatee over Port Tampa Bay.

Fernandez said ferry passengers will save three hours of travel time to Cuba by leaving from Port Manatee versus Tampa Bay.

Cuba ferry service could start as soon as 90 days from now, he said. This is the most specific timetable the company has given since it publicly presented its plans to the Manatee County Port Authority last October.

Buqueras said he is optimistic that the port will be home to a Cuba ferry service. The port is ready to host Havana Ferry Partners as soon as they have federal regulations on their side and are ready to sail.

"We're not looking to open the embargo or put pressure on the embargo," he said. "We're looking to do it under the current legal framework."

Barring a sudden change in U.S. law, Havana Ferry Partners would likely start its service by shipping goods to Cuba.

Even that could have a slow start, as the company does not own a ferry boat. Fernandez said his company "has access" to a number of boats, as well as a relationship with a shipbuilder.

If and when the company does bring its service to Port Manatee, it could employ up to 40 people. The company would also require a terminal building, a berth and dockside space for cargo. Buqueras said the port has all three.

Havana Ferry is not the only company the port has courted to provide service to Cuba. Buqueras, who has promoted the port as an embarkation point to the Communist nation since taking the executive director's post two years ago, said he is "exploring those opportunities with Havana Ferry Partners and other companies." Port Manatee could be home to several Cuba-bound ferry services, he said.

Buchanan could not be reached for comment. His deputy chief of staff, Max Goodman, said Buchanan, a Republican who serves on the Senate's trade subcommittee, is not involved with issues concerning travel to Cuba.

-- Herald reporter Charles Schelle contributed to this report.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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