Little-known piece of history: A Cuba cruise from New Orleans

The Daphne when it was operated in the late 1970s by Karras Cruises.
The Daphne when it was operated in the late 1970s by Karras Cruises. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michael Grace

Though cruises between the U.S. and Cuba had been embargoed for more than half a century, there were exceptions, now all but forgotten.

In 1977 and 1978, the Greek-registered cruise ship Daphne made several departures from the port of New Orleans to Cuba, circumventing a trade embargo imposed after Fidel Castro’s 1959 rise to power in the island nation.

The Fathom Adonia last week made its historic cruise into Havana harbor, a voyage that Fathom’s parent, Carnival Corp., has promoted as the first U.S.-Cuba cruise in 50 years. And in terms of a U.S.-owned ship making a roundtrip to Cuba, it was.

But amateur cruise historian Michael Grace recalled recently how he had sailed aboard the Daphne on a 1978 Cuba cruise.

Cruise historian Michael Grace on a 1978 Daphne sailing between New Orleans and Havana.
Cruise historian Michael Grace on a 1978 Daphne sailing between New Orleans and Havana. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michael Grace

“It was right when the Super Bowl was [in New Orleans], and somebody said, ‘Do you want to go to Havana?’” said Grace, a Los Angeles-based writer and film-production manager. He jumped at the chance.

The year before, entrepreneur Fred Mayer had organized a New Orleans-Havana cruise on the Daphne through London-based Karras Cruises. It had been promoted as a jazz cruise, and among the 400 guests were several jazz legends, including saxophonist Stan Getz and pioneering bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

Anti-Castro protestors were in New Orleans to demonstrate as the Daphne left on May 16, 1977. Cruising to Havana took nearly two days, and during the ship’s stay, Gillespie led a tribute concert for Chano Pozo, a Cuban percussionist and band mate who died in 1948.

After departing Cuba, the Daphne ended its cruise in the Bahamas, either to avoid protestors on a return trip to New Orleans or possibly as a way to skirt the embargo.

Travelers had to make their own way home from the Bahamas, according to contemporary reports. Four other cruises between New York and Havana had been scheduled for the following month, but they never took place, Grace said.

A year later, things had changed. The 1978 cruise to Havana was a roundtrip from New Orleans, and Grace recalled that, “When I went, there were no protests.”

The Daphne docked in Havana Harbor at night, and the port was dark, as was the rest of the Cuban capital, Grace said.

“Here you arrive in this enormous city, and it was sort of like in a blackout,” he recalled.

The ship stayed for two days. Grace said he made the trip with an art dealer who had hoped to buy Cuban products for resale, but there was nothing to buy. “There were cigars and bath soap in the shop,” he said.

Grace said there was also a Soviet cruise ship in port. “It was the height of the Russian support,” Grace remembered, and the administration of then-president Jimmy Carter was doing what it could to counter the Soviet influence.

Before Fathom's Adonia, the SS Florida was the last ship to sail regular cruises from Miami to Cuba, in 1959. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michael Grace

“Politically, it changed or something,” Grace said. “[Karras Cruises] was able to operate to Havana.”

While in Cuba, passengers on the ship were taken to the Tropicana nightclub. Grace said the show was a classic costumed dance review. Instead of paper towels in the restrooms, guests were given sheets of toilet paper to dry their hands, he said.

In addition to Havana, the ship stopped in the Cayman Islands and Cozumel, Mexico, before returning to New Orleans, Grace said.

Roger Frizzell, the chief communications officer for Carnival Corp., said he was unaware of the Karras cruises, but he said Fathom’s voyage to Cuba was historic nonetheless.

“It appears to be a Greek line,” he said of the Daphne’s operators. “So I still believe our claim holds, since this is the first time in over 50 years that a U.S. cruise company has sailed from the U.S. to Cuba.”

According to Grace, the last ship to sail regular cruises from Miami to Cuba was the Florida, which gave up the route sometime in 1959.                       

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