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


"A lot of people who throw themselves in are crazy," Selis says. "I think it's the same for them to get here as not. We wanted to get here. In the end, of course, it's all the same, because even with all the planning and all the understanding you might have, you get into one of those rafts in the middle of the ocean and you could die. But I'm not a kamikaze. I had to guarantee the best chance of succeeding. If I was leaving, it was to reach the United States."

The morning of Wednesday, March 20, they made the decision to depart. "We had been watching the weather reports on the television - they had three a day on the ICRT chain [Cuban Institute of Radio and Television] - because since a cold front was coming through we were afraid it would catch us," Selis recalls. "Well, the day they said there were going to be five days of good weather - no cold front and strong winds from the east - we decided to go.

"From the moment we decided to leave, we turned off all the lights in the house and closed the windows so no one would visit, and we waited for nighttime. It was very dark that night. There was maybe a quarter moon and just a few clouds. We couldn't see anything, but of course we knew what direction we were headed. I jumped off the porch of the house, the part that leans out over the sea, and Richard [as Ricardo and his friends pronounce his name] handed me down the raft. Right then the the tide was very low, so for about 100 feet it was just reef sticking out of the water. Richard handed down the backpacks and I tied them off. He came down, and we grabbed the sides of the raft and started running until the water reached about here," he says, motioning toward his chest.

"That was the moment of greatest nervousness, because if someone from the coast guard sees you, you're a prisoner. The thought of throwing ourselves into the sea in a raft - that was the least of what crossed our minds. Nobody thinks of that. But what we did plan was that once we started running, we wouldn't even look back. If someone was watching us and ratted on us, they'd have to go get us at sea, because turning back is turning yourself in.

"We got on the raft and I started rowing, rowing, rowing, to put as much distance between us and the coast as soon as possible," Selis continues. "When I was tired, Richard took the oars and rowed, rowed, rowed, and when we were well away from the coast and sure we were past the point where a coast guard searchlight might reach from land - I'd say about two hours after we left - we stopped, tied off the oars toward the front in a triangle, and put up the mast. We tied three ropes from the top to the bow and both sides, used one oar as a rudder, put up the sail, so whoever had the rudder held the point of the sail at the same time. We were off like a shot. We hadn't had time to test it, but it worked better than we ever expected."

Keeping the wind to their right and watching the stars, they headed north. By six o'clock in the morning only the tiny lights on Havana's highest buildings were visible. By nine, with three-foot swells spreading across the horizon, the coast was a memory. Conversation, at first excited, adrenaline-driven jesting, dwindled as the realities of setting out to sea in an eight-and-one-half-foot inflatable raft sank in. The day passed with bouts of seasickness and boredom under a glaring sun, chilling waves crashing over the tiny raft.

Despite wearing several shirts, jackets, sweaters, double layers of pants, socks, and gloves, they trembled with cold. "The only time you warmed up a little was from noon to maybe three," Selis explains. "The water soaks you and doesn't let you dry off or get warm - even though it was a dia de playa [day for the beach.]" To stay warm, the two drank their cognac. They sipped water and milk and ate one of the cans of sardines.

"In the middle of that night we saw boats all over," Selis recalls. "They were lights moving far away, like they were fishing all around us. We thought they might be Cuban boats, but after a while we saw one that looked American - we just said, `That doesn't look like any boat we've ever seen in Cuba' - and we started to whistle with a police whistle we'd brought. But nobody heard us."

Then the weather started to change. Just before dawn the wind kicked up and the swells grew. "They seemed like mountains," says de Jongh. "We went up the side of one and just fell down the other side like a big hole." Selis's arm, drumstick in hand, sways up and down like a cobra, illustrating de Jongh's words.

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