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.