Late on a Monday night a text arrived asking me to join J’Sea, a Jeanneau 44’, in Fort Lauderdale. Wednesday I was on a plane to join BCA member and owner, John Cuzner and his two other crew, to take J’Sea to Panama via Jamaica.
Part One: Refugee Rescue
After provisioning and last minute updates, we left Cooley’s Marina the next afternoon to transit the New River before the bridge closures at 17ooh. They won’t lift the bridges during rush hour traffic, so we were off.
The sun shone and the temperature was in the high seventies. The plan was to head south of Miami and angle eastward as the wind allowed. Although we had 18 knot winds, much of the time we were only able to sail at 4.5 knots against the Gulf Stream.
Friday, April 1st was a beautiful, warm sunny day as we found our sea legs and adjusted to the time change and watch system. We were all in the cockpit sailing southward, parallel to the Florida Keys, marveling at flying fish and blue bottle jellyfish. We had no idea we’d soon be involved in a refugee rescue.
We spotted a curious box in the waves and went closer for a better look. As we neared, we recognized that it was a boat of sorts with what looked like a shirt draped over the edge. Without a word to each other we all hoped we wouldn’t find a body under it.
The flat bottomed boat was a rectangle about eight feet long by four feet wide, constructed of unpainted fiberglass. It had a basic rudder and tiller. On the floor was an engine, an oar and a makeshift sail, but thankfully no body. The letters OK had been spray painted in red on the outside. We continued on our course.
That evening, Glenn and I discussed that we’d like to cut in close to Cay Sal Bank, a large dangerous shoal area 30 miles north of Cuba. We thought that it was feasible to go close to the rocks and shallows, if it was daylight and the good weather held. It would cut off a few miles as we started our turn eastward.
I joined Glenn at nine the following morning at the end of his three hour watch. We went over our position and course and checked the chart plotter. We were just approaching ½ mile to the west of Cay Sal Bank and I could see waves breaking over the jagged cays and rocks.
Glenn pointed to one of the islets and asked,” Is that a bird?” “No”, I replied, “it’s too big. It’s a palm tree with its top blown off in a hurricane.”
Just then, the tree’s arms started waving and he was joined by another tree. Soon there were three men madly trying to get our attention. We called all crew on deck and it was decided to push the distress buttons on the VHF and SSB radios.
There were no replies to our PanPan. We brought J’Sea in as close as we dared and set the anchor in 35 ft. We lowered the dinghy and Glenn and Drew offered to go nearer and assess the situation. Visions of movies danced through our heads, The Castaway, or more ominously, Captain Phillips. They loaded in a gallon of water and some granola bars.
John and I anxiously watched the dinghy go back and forth as close to the snaggle-tooth rocks as they dared. They threw the water and food to the men, then returned to J’Sea.
The Cuban men were adamant that they were not going back to Cuba. They were prepared to stay where they were, unless they could get to America.
What could we do? Abandon them to heat stroke and starvation, return to Key West with three Cubans seeking asylum, or wait and see if help arrived. John used his Satellite phone to wake his daughter, asking her to call Victoria Coast Guard and have them relay a message to the US Coast Guard. Three hours later, we’d had no acknowledgement of our distress calls, but we could see a large freighter on the AIS. We raised the Chiquita Express on our VHF radio, asking if they could forward a message to the US Coast Guard.
Within minutes, our VHF came awake with a clear, English-speaking voice saying that they spotted us below. A plane circling overhead identified us and could even see what colour clothes the men on the rocks were wearing.
We marveled at the pull of the Chiquita Express, until we found later that our distress calls had been heard by the US Coast Guard, who had verified our account by phone with John’s daughter.
The Coast Guard told us that they had the situation in hand and a boat close by to pick them up. As curious as we were to see the rescue through to the end, we had places to go and schedules to keep.
We still don’t know what the procedure is when Americans rescue Cuban nationals from a Bahamian island, but we hoped our guys were on their way to their version of a better life.
Later that day, we saw a large USCG ship beside a fishing trawler loaded with people. There were a few suggestions that Trump’s wall better be impermeable to water.
With Obama’s and the Pope’s visits to Cuba and the plight of refugees in the Middle East and Europe in the news, we forget or ignored that there are conditions in Cuba that would cause three men to strand themselves on a rock with no certain rescue. We will never know whether they were traveling in the homemade box we’d seen the day before, or if that sighting was a coincidence. But Glenn doubted if three men could have reached Sal Cay in the boat they were sheltering under on the rocks.
Surprisingly, that wasn’t our only rescue of the day. A banded pigeon arrived on deck, after several failed landing attempts. Slowly he picked his way past shackles, sheets and blocks, back to the cockpit to take his place on the helmsman’s cushion. He was less than concerned as we rigged sails and caught three fish all around him. He disdained our quinoa rice mix, but drank lots of fresh filtered water. He was obviously quite used to humans. Not until he shat on the binoculars and I hastily retrieved them did he fly off into the sunset, only to return to perch on top of the Bimini. A large black, ominous-looking bird flew close and our pigeon took off like a bat out of hell.
I couldn’t believe it when I started my watch the next morning, our pigeon once again made many attempts to land on our Bimini, but was scared off by the same black raptor. We wished him well, but never saw him again.