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RACE TO HAVANA, CUBA

BY VAL SCHOGER; PHOTOGRAPHY BY BY CHRISTINE REISS AND JULIE B. CONNERLEY

TROPHY FOR PANAMA CITY’S BENE VITA AND CREW

In less than ideal conditions on the morning of Halloween 2015, just a few days after an unexpectedly potent storm swept the western Gulf Coast, 21 of the 22 registered boats headed toward the starting line of the Pensacola A La Habana Rally & Race. Five days later, 16 boats had made it to the finish line at the entrance to Havana Harbor. Five boats had to backtrack to Pensacola in the first 36 hours of the race as a result of high winds and seas that caused equipment failures and breakage.

“This was our first long distance race,” remark Christine and George Reiss, the owners of the Panama City-based 46 ft. R&C Bene Vita. When they bought the boat in 2011, they never planned on racing, just cruising. “Cruising sailboats were encouraged to participate and we knew we would have a great crew on board for the race. We could have not asked for a better team.”

Bene Vita emerged as the winner in the multihull division of the Pensacola a La Habana race. Just a week before, it had looked as if the 46 ft. catamaran would not be able to participate. After months of preparation with upgrades and thorough checkup of rigging, electronics and machinery, and after filing stacks of paperwork with several governing authorities, Chris and George Reiss and a few crewmembers sailed the catamaran to Pensacola a week before the start of the race. Christine Reiss remembers, “By the time Bene Vita arrived at Pensacola Yacht Club’s t-dock on Saturday night, we were hearing weather reports of expected 20 to 25 knots of wind out of the southeast – remnants of Category 5 Hurricane Patricia that had battered the west coast of Mexico. We all had to be at work in Panama City the next day but could arrange for a more protected slip next to the breakwater and secured the boat with double, triple, and quadruple lines. By the time we had driven back home to Panama City, the storm had progressed rapidly. The water in Pensacola Bay had risen so high that the waves were rolling right over the breakwater and breaking broadside against our boat. Winds were holding steady above 40 knots and, at one point, a gust was clocked at 69 knots. All but one of our lines chafed through and the pilings failed. Only one piling and one line remained to hold Bene Vita. We fully appreciate that the only reason the boat was not destroyed was the quick, smart, and dedicated work of many knowledgeable Pensacola Yacht Club sailors who worked tireless through the storm to save her.” (1)

A few days later, the crew came together to sail Bene Vita to victory.

Christine Reiss recalls, “I remember thinking briefly that the storm might be an omen and perhaps we should reconsider our decision to race to Cuba. Nonetheless, 4 days later we broke the cardinal rule of all smart cruising sailors to adjust the departure time and direction of a major crossing to a good weather window and instead, at the scheduled start of the race, we pounded out into a gnarly Gulf to bash directly into strong winds for days on end.”

About The Author

Val studied communications and marketing in Germany and holds a marketing degree. She had a corporate career and has worked for nine years in media, PR and marketing internationally in Germany, England, the Caribbean and the United States. During an extended sailboat cruise n 2003, she traveled to the Gulf Coast and subsequently to Navarre, Florida and was immediately smitten with Northwest Florida. She started her first business in 2004 in Fort Walton Beach and as of July 2013, she became the sole owner and publisher of Panama City Living Magazine. She obtained her Merchant Mariner Credential (Captain’s License) right here in Panama City at SeaSchool and enjoys being on the water when she finds the time.

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