Posted on Tuesday, 05.28.13
Small fleet of Cuban boats grows in the Keys
BY KEVIN WADLOW AND DAVID GOODHUE
Boats assembled from roofing tin, scrap lumber and foam plastic form a
ramshackle fleet moored off Islamorada's Whale Harbor.
"People have to be really desperate to go to sea aboard one of these,"
said Officer Janette Fernandez Costoya of the Florida Fish and Wildlife
The collection of recovered refugee crafts from Cuba temporarily stored
at the agency's Whale Harbor station grew Friday when the seventh
homemade vessel in five weeks was recovered from the Atlantic off the
One is a welded rebar frame packed with plastic foam sheets and
spray-foam insulation. Others float on hulls of hammered sheet metal
barely hanging onto wooden frames.
"They've usually got an engine they pulled out of some vehicle, or a
makeshift sail," Costoya said, hefting a mast fashioned by popping
branches from a tree limb still covered with bark.
Some emigrants from Cuba's political repression and floundering economy
manage to arrange pickup by smugglers aboard speedboats from the U.S.
Others, unable to afford the high cost, "build these in the woods and
slip away at night."
Some of the escape boats are found with emigrants still aboard. Others
were left adrift after Cubans were taken aboard more substantial
vessels. If stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard at sea, those people are
returned to Cuba.
That happened May 10 to about a dozen Cubans stopped by the Coast Guard
about 15 miles off Islamorada. Recreational fishermen Doug Peterson and
Stu Kingma saw the makeshift sailboat cruising near the Islamorada Hump.
"The boat next to us circled them, and then called the Coast Guard,"
Peterson said. "They showed up right away."
Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer 3rd Class Mark Barney said those
migrants have been returned to Cuba.
There is no atypical increase in Cubans making the journey across the
Florida Straits, he said, but this time of year usually is busy. "The
better the weather gets, the more we get," Barney said.
Cuban emigrant arrivals are down about 25 percent compared to the same
time period in 2012, said Elee Erice, a spokeswoman with U.S. Customs
and Border Protection. From October 2011 to April 30, 2012, the agency
reported 217 maritime arrivals. This year so far, there have been 166
The number of Cubans intercepted at sea also is down so far this year by
about 35 percent, according to Coast Guard data. From October 2011 to
April 30, 2012, 816 Cubans were stopped at sea. During the same time
period this year, that number is 526.
Sometimes, the Wildlife Commission officers recover the homemade boats
with no idea what happened to those aboard.
Almost all those venturing to sea aboard the small boats are men,
Costoya said. "One group I found had a woman with a 2-year-old child,"
Costoya said. "I couldn't believe it. She said it was worth the risk to
give her child a better life."
Officer Sebastian Dri recently found a group of eight Cuban men aboard
one of the boats off Key Largo's South Sound Creek. The Cubans said the
crossing took four days.
"I asked a guy how they navigated," Dri said. "He pointed to this little
compass he had strapped on his wrist. It was like something out of a
Costoya said the homemade craft boats are towed to shore to avoid
problems. "They're a nuisance so we bring them in," she said. "We can't
leave them out there. Somebody operating their boat at night could
easily hit one, and you never know where they're going to end up."