PortMiami preparing for daily ferry service to Cuba
Planning for new Miami-to-Havana route advanced enough that port
penciled in a March start date
Port paid consultant $60,000 to study temporary facilities for “early
start” to ferry service
Delays by Cuba have stalled operators’ efforts to launch new maritime route
BY DOUGLAS HANKS
Interest in Cuba-bound ferries has been high enough at PortMiami that
officials are looking for ways to create temporary terminals to
accommodate operators wanting to launch overnight runs to Havana every day.
Planning for a new passenger-and-cargo route to Cuba is detailed in
hundreds of emails and internal documents obtained by the Miami Herald
through Florida’s open-records laws. They show multiple ferry operators
with newly secured licenses from Washington eager to lock down space at
the port, which at one point was planning on the Cuba-bound vessels
launching in March.
A woman jogs on the Malecon as the Thomson Dream cruise ship arrives in
Havana bay on March 19, 2015. The Obama administration approved the
first ferry service in decades between the United States and Cuba,
potentially opening a new path for the hundreds of thousands of people
and hundreds of millions of dollars in consumer goods that travel
between Florida and Havana each year. Desmond Boylan AP
The documents show a yearlong effort by PortMiami to get ready for what
could be a significant new enterprise there. Industry leaders predict
the ferry routes will be popular with Cuban-Americans not only visiting
their homeland, but bringing large stores of goods from the U.S. for
family on the island.
Internal emails also hint at the dicey politics involved at the
county-owned port, given the Castro regime’s continued pariah status in
large swaths of Miami’s Cuban-American population.
Sensitivity was on display during an early email exchange between United
Caribbean’s Bruce Nierenberg and senior port officials just weeks after
President Obama’s Dec. 17, 2014 announcement on his pursuit of full
diplomatic relations with Cuba.
“Was good to see you all again,” Nierenberg wrote Port Director Juan
Kuryla and his top aides in an email dated Jan. 21, 2015. “Just wanted
to thank you for the enthusiastic approach to figuring out how to get
the Port of Miami into its rightful position as the first Home port for
overnight ferry service to Cuba.”
Kevin Lynskey, the port’s deputy director, complained to colleagues
about Nierenberg’s account, which became a public document once it
arrived in a county inbox.
“We went to great lengths to explain that the issues involving running
cruise, ferry and/or cargo vessels to Cuba are playing out well above
our heads,” Lynskey wrote. “He understands that the port follows the
direction of our Mayor and Board and not vice versa. Bruce is a very
bright guy, but emails like these don’t add to the goodwill bank.”
On Nov. 4, port officials scheduled a meeting to discuss what the
federal Customs and Border Protection bureau would require for
processing cargo and passengers on Cuba-bound ferries. An electronic
agenda for the meeting asks “what other government agencies does CBP
contemplate will have requirements based on travel to Cuba” and how
could the port get those agencies “engaged in the planning effort?”
The agenda also included a question suggesting some urgency:
“Considering an assumed ferry start-up date of March 2016, how can the
Port meet this goal for start-up based on current CBP facilities and
For now, that timetable seems all but impossible. There was significant
momentum in May when the Obama administration issued Cuba-ferry licenses
to United Caribbean and other operators in talks with Port Miami. But
industry executives say the Castro regime is holding back the approvals
and port construction needed to welcome ferries from the United States.
“They told us they want to wait,” Nierenberg said Monday of Cuban
officials. “They decided in the fall there were other infrastructure
projects they had to do first.”
Nierenberg now expects U.S. ferries to be sailing to Havana by late 2016
or early 2017. Kuryla said last month his staff was exploring the
creation of a new ferry terminal on the port’s southwest corner, a piece
of prime real estate where David Beckham once tried to build a soccer
Behind the scenes, the port also has been pursuing options for housing
Cuba-bound ferries as soon as possible.
CMA CGM, a shipping giant that already has Cuban facilities in Mariel,
wrote port officials in May to suggest Miami-Dade buy floating pontoon
ramps for the quick creation of a ferry terminal.
In July, the port signed a $60,000 contract with the Atkins engineering
firm to explore how temporary terminals could be created “in order to
enable an early start to ferry service.” Emails showed the port held a
two-day planning “charrette” in August to study possible terminal
options, with the consultant asking that operators be invited to attend.
Cuba-bound ferries were contemplated in the port’s 2011 master plan,
which talked of short-term opportunities once Washington dropped trade
barriers with Cuba and demand soared “to move people, vehicles and
construction supplies to the island community.”
On July 18, a representative for the Italian shipping giant Grimaldi
wrote PortMiami with specifications for the Zeus Palace, a 220-foot ferry.
The email called the Zeus Palace “the first vessel that they would
assign to the Miami/Havana operation as well as their proposed schedule
[three sailings a week]. The second vessel would come into the schedule
approximately one month after the start up phase and thus would then
increase the number of departures and arrivals to one a day.”
Baja Ferry, a Miami company that also secured a Cuba-ferry license from
Washington, last year sent port officials a one-sheet summary of its
plans: a 623-foot ferry carrying 2,500 passengers a week to Havana
through three overnight runs starting at 7 p.m. and ending on the Cuban
shore at 5 a.m., according to a Baja document circulated by port
officials on Sept. 30.
Lynskey said Monday that the March start date was used as a planning
tool with Atkins consultants, based on when operators thought they would
be asking the port for ferry berths. He said PortMiami was in talks with
about 10 cruise and ferry companies interested in Cuba operations.
“No company has yet been given permission to travel to Cuba by the Cuban
authorities, though several are selling tickets as if they are traveling
to Cuba,” Lynskey wrote in an email response to written questions. The
“Port has been told that the Cuban government is not very close to
providing permission for ferries to run from the U.S. to Cuba, but is
more inclined sometime this year to possibly allow cruise ships. Cruise
ships have been visiting Cuba for years, just not from the U.S..”
When the Herald first reported the Port’s Cuba-ferry efforts on Jan. 7,
the news caused a stir in political circles. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos
Gimenez summoned reporters the next day to emphasize that any Cuba-bound
ferries would simply mirror the already busy air service to Havana
offered at the county’s airport. And he portrayed the port as interested
in the land-based facilities, with the ferries’ destinations up to the
“We don’t do business with countries,” Gimenez said. “We just do
business with carriers.”
As the world’s leading home for cruise ships, PortMiami already is on
the leading edge of expanding commercial ties with Cuba. Carnival Corp.
plans to begin Cuba cruises in May.
While historic, Carnival’s itinerary expansion only required the company
to navigate regulatory issues with Washington. Cuba-bound ferries could
be more problematic for port officials, because it involves a county
agency creating new terminal facilities and berths that currently don’t
After the Herald story published on Jan. 7, Kuryla received an email
from Eddy Acevedo, a top staffer for Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami,
a top anti-Castro hardliner in Congress.
“Ferry service to Cuba. Really?” Acevedo wrote Kuryla. “We need to
discuss this matter.”
Source: PortMiami preparing for daily ferry service to Cuba | Miami