A group Cubans in the eastern city of Camagüey planned the secret voyage from Cuba to Key Biscayne for two or three months.
They built a makeshift boat with water pipes, galvanized steel and zinc plates and installed an old Soviet tractor engine in the back to make it go.
In the end, only nine rafters of an original group of 14 dared to make the trip. They were at sea for 10 days, sometimes hiding in small islands to avoid the U.S. Coast Guard. But all arrived safely, beaching their vessel Tuesday on the sands in front of the multi-story Mar Azul condominium in Key Biscayne.
René Morales, the 53-year-old captain of the makeshift boat, detailed the perilous voyage during an impromptu news conference Wednesday outside the offices of Church World Service, a refugee aid agency in Doral. Morales and the other Key Biscayne rafters received assistance at Church World Service after being released by the U.S. Border Patrol early Wednesday.
The Key Biscayne rafters are part of an increasing number of Cuban migrants who have arrived in the United States by sea and land since Oct. 1.
According to the Border Patrol, at least 780 Cuban migrants have arrived on South Florida beaches since the beginning of the fiscal year. In fiscal year 2013, 359 Cuban migrants arrived in South Florida beaches.
In addition, the number of Cuban migrants who arrive via the Mexican border is also increasing. More than 16,000 have arrived between Oct. 1 and Sept. 10 – some 4,300 more than in fiscal year 2013.
Of the nine rafters who arrived Tuesday in Key Biscayne, only Morales was willing to discuss the voyage at length with reporters. Three other rafters also appeared willing to talk but the driver of the van they were in seemed to be in a hurry and prevented the Cubans from talking. At most the three migrants were only able to express their happiness about being in Miami. Three other rafters also spoke briefly to reporters. All denied that their trip was a migrant-smuggling operation.
According to Morales, the voyage unfolded this way:
Two or three months ago, a group of neighbors, friends and relatives – 14 in all – in a neighborhood of Camagüey began planning the trip. They assembled the boat with galvanized steel an zinc plates, and added the engine from an old T-40 Soviet tractor and a sail.
They also secretly collected food and water for the trip. They hoarded crackers, cake slices, cans of food and water bottles – enough to last several days and sustain more than a dozen people. One day before sailing, members of the group approached Morales because he was a trained mariner. He had graduated from a maritime school in Cuba in 1980 and knew about navigation and how to operate boats.
Morales quickly agreed to travel with the group because he didn’t have a job and had been thinking about leaving the island for some time.
“I just didn’t have the money to finance the trip myself,” said Morales. “I felt I had no future in Cuba. It’s a place where you often have to decide between buying food to eat or shoes to wear.”
Using school geography textbooks, Morales plotted the route to Miami. Ten days ago at 3 a.m., the group sailed from La Gloria Bay, on the coast north of Camagüey city. By then, only nine men were aboard. Of the original 14, seven dropped out at the last minute. Two others who joined the group were added just before the boat left Cuba.
Morales did not steer the boat directly to Miami because he encountered other vessels that he suspected were U.S. Coast Guard cutters. He evaded those vessels by hiding the makeshift boat in the brush of small islands.
Except for one night when the sea became choppy, most of the time the sea was calm. It wasn’t until the group was close to Key Biscayne that the boat almost encountered disaster. A large container ship came barreling toward the makeshift boat on a collision course.
“I thought it was going to crash into us and swamp us,” recalled Morales.
While recalling this episode, it was the only time Morales broke into tears during the news conference.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “But we were close to death.”
At the time, the boat engine was off and the boat was traveling under sail.
“It was only by the grace of God that a strong wind came up and gave us enough power to get out of the way,” said Morales.
Shortly after that, the boat landed on the beach in front of the Mar Azul condominium at 600 Grapetree Drive in Key Biscayne.
The group ran from the boat to the building.
“People in the windows high up in the apartments were screaming at us saying ‘Congratulations’ and ‘Welcome to the land of liberty’.”