Balseros and their makeshift rafts have become as much a symbol of Cuban culture as lechon, arroz con frijoles, and the Havana spleef

Since meeting in Havana nearly four years ago, de Jongh, a cinematographer, and Selis, a former film and television producer and assistant director in the ministries of education and culture who'd been working odd jobs, devised and discarded dozens of raft designs. They talked about building a raft of wood and inner tubes and powering it with a motorcycle engine. They discussed floating the Fiat. Yet another pontoon project, a craft fashioned from inner tubes wrapped tightly in canvas, was cast aside after a trial pontoon exploded due to overinflation. Two and a half years ago, the pair settled on a catamaran that would employ the same type of floaters with a cast-iron frame, a mast, and a sail.

They assembled the first pontoon, which consisted of three inner tubes squeezed together inside a canvas skin, at a friend's house in the Havana district of Nuevo Vedado. Halfway through construction of the other pontoon, they realized the craft they were building would be too large for clandestine transport from the house to a launch site. So they dropped the project and traded some spearfishing gear - fins, mask, snorkel, and spear gun - for a twelve-foot Fiberglas boat with a small outboard engine. Another friend, who drove a truck for La Empresa de la Pesca, the state-run fishing industry, could shuttle the boat to the water without drawing unwanted attention. "We started to get that boat ready, and we put a sail on it because we didn't trust the motor," says Selis, "but then our friend quit the fish company, so we had the same problem. That boat is probably still sitting at our friend's house, with cobwebs on it."

By the fall of this past year, Florida seemed further away than ever. But then two friends, whom Selis had met in an Italian class at a state-run language school, got a divorce and moved out of a run-down three-bedroom house on the water in Santa Fe, a coastal town about 40 minutes west of Havana. Selis and de Jongh had managed to save a small fortune by selling clothes, lobsters, and other items on the black market, and in December they paid 14,000 Cuban pesos to rent the house for ten years. "We made it look like we were going to live there," says Selis. "Who is going to think that someone who puts that kind of money down on a house and moves all their stuff in is planning to take off? Nobody."

Selis had no full-time job, and de Jongh took a one-month vacation from his job as head of the photo lab at Publicitaria Coral, the publicity bureau for a state tourist agency, Cubanacan. They began fashioning yet another raft, out of three inner tubes with a plank underneath. The entire vessel would be wrapped in canvas and a mast and sail would be affixed to the wood. In mid-March, just as they were completing the craft, a photographer friend who came for a visit offered to exchange a blue-and-orange inflatable beach raft for de Jongh's underwater photographic flash unit.

"We'd thought of buying an inflatable raft before, but they were gone from the stores," Selis explains. "Once the government realized people could use these rafts to escape, the rafts disappeared." As his friend speaks, de Jongh takes a paper napkin and sketches detailed top and side views of the raft, which looks like a poor man's version of a Zodiac, with rounded inflatable sides and thin plastic oars. All along, Selis and de Jongh had prepared meticulously, considering every detail necessary for the potentially long stay at sea. They studied how to navigate by the stars - Selis read books, de Jongh had learned from his father - and years of sailing and boating had made them familiar with currents, tides, and prevailing winds. They pored over nautical charts de Jongh had saved, scoured a survival manual Selis had gotten from a friend in exchange for a pair of fishing gloves.

They had always considered that a sail would be vital to a successful voyage, so they'd included one in every raft design. For their new raft, the pair resized the blue canvas sail they had cut for their previous project and mounted it on a stout pole they found in the house. In place of a boom, a small stick was installed one-third of the way down the mast to spread the sail. A sheet of Styrofoam stuffed in the bottom of the raft provided extra flotation, and four wooden poles found in the basement were attached to the oar blades to replace the original, fragile plastic handles.

Into three backpacks they stuffed a radio, compass, nautical chart, twenty liters of water, ten cans of condensed milk, eight cans of baby food, three cans of sardines, two bars of chocolate, a jar of honey, plus salt, vitamins, muscle relaxants, energy pills, anti-nausea medicine, an asthma inhaler and pills for de Jongh, and a bottle of cognac. They even packed a copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, says Selis, "in case we got bored." A fourth bag held two sets of fins, masks, and snorkels.

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