Thursday, August 30, 2012

Key Biscayne club seeks place for salvaged refugee boat

Posted on Tuesday, 08.28.12

Key Biscayne club seeks place for salvaged refugee boat

Weeks ago, an unmanned Cuban refugee boat arrived at the Key Biscayne
Yacht Club. Now, its members are trying to find a new home for what they
feel is a perfect symbol of freedom.

Not many things happen unexpectedly at the normally tranquil Key
Biscayne Yacht Club.

But on a Thursday in late June, a dock worker suddenly spotted a boat in
the waters that he wasn't waiting for.

"At first I thought somebody was fishing," recalled dockmaster assistant
Mario Rodriguez Cabrera. "But after a while things started to feel odd."

Covered in blue vinyl and shaped like a pontoon, the 19-foot vessel was
floating unmanned towards the fancy yachts.

Turned out, it was a refugee boat, and club members think it may have
drifted up from the Keys.

How many migrants it actually transported and what happened to them, no
one could say.

Diapers left behind suggested at least one infant was on board. And the
heavy, four-cylinder Russian-made engine revealed its most likely
origin: Cuba.

Since then, the yacht club has become an ambassador for what it feels is
a special treasure.

Members have hired a publicist and reached out to city officials,
museums and private institutions to find a permanent home for the boat,
now sitting atop a trailer at the Key Biscayne club.

"We would love to find some place where people can appreciate it as a
symbol for the sacrifices many migrants make," says Harry Gottlieb, the
media consultant who is trying to find an exhibitor. "The boat is such a
great icon of freedom."

Just after its arrival, it won the "Most Patriotic Float" at Key
Biscayne's upscale Independence Day parade.

Hand-made refugee boats are not particularly unusual in this community.
Every once in a while an odd-looking vessel arrives on the South Florida
shore, just like in 2003, when a dozen Cuban migrants tried to make
their way to Florida sailing in a rebuilt Chevy truck.

But what is unusual about this one is that it survived.

Bullet holes in the sides tell that the boat must have been shot at,
possibly in an effort to sink it after the migrants were offloaded.

But in this case, the mission apparently failed. Spray foam in the vinyl
prevented the boat from going under.

"It is basically unsinkable," says Rodriguez Cabrera. "You can bomb it
and nothing will happen."

However, having it drift at sea is dangerous, he said.

"You hit that engine in the middle of the night, your
half-a-million-dollar vessel will sink – but not this amateur one," he says.

That it was him who spotted the drifting boat in Key Biscayne is an
irony not lost on Rodriguez Cabrera.

In 1994 he and 18 others, including his mother and sister, took off for
Florida on a simple raft.

They were picked up the Coast Guard near Key West and brought to Guantanamo.

Nine months later, they were allowed to enter the United States.

Comparing his raft to the boat he recently salvaged, Rodriguez Cabrera
can hardly hide his amazement.

"When I see how sophisticated this boat is I wonder how the people could
secretly build it," he says.

For now, most of the Miami institutions Gottlieb reached out to have
shied away from adopting the boat.

But he and Rodriguez Cabrera are sure that eventually, someone who
appreciates the vessel and its message will come forward.

"If we don't find a home, we have no choice but to cut it apart," he says.

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