As Long As it Floats

"We thought for sure a front was coming through. We spent the whole time shaking from the cold," de Jongh continues. "It was bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. The wind went up enormously and I almost took down the sail because we thought the raft was going to be destroyed. At that point things looked very bad."

But with the sun, the pair's spirits rose, as the light revealed a horizon dotted with potential rescuers. "We saw boats everywhere, and then we knew we were gone from Cuba for good," says Selis, his words lifting him clear out of his seat. "We tried to get behind several of the boats so they'd see us, but couldn't catch up. We'd head for one and it would move on and disappear. Then sail for another and it would disappear. We decided to continue sailing the way we were going. By then we figured it was just a matter of time."

As the seas grew calmer, they sensed that they were nearing landfall. "Suddenly the water was clear," says Selis. "Before the water was blue, almost black, because it was very deep. But now the water was white, as if the bottom was right there. At about eleven o'clock, we saw a little thing way off in the distance. At first we thought it was a boat, but when we got closer, we saw it was a lighthouse. We decided to sail there and tie off, thinking that we must be in United States territory, and any boat that passed would have to pick us up."

Checking their nautical chart, they determined that the wind and the current had taken them into the Rebecca Shoal, between the Dry Tortugas and Key West. When they were about a quarter-mile from the light, they waved and whistled at a passing fishing boat. It didn't spot them. They tried to signal another boat. "We calculated the route to meet them, and I took off my sweat pants - they were red - and gave them to Richard," Selis says. "He started to whistle and signal with the pants until they saw us." Soaking wet, exhausted from stress and lack of sleep, they were taken aboard the lobster boat Mickey & Rey and shuttled to Key West, where they were met by a Coast Guard dinghy.

They had been at sea 39 hours and traveled roughly 110 miles from Cuba. They both left behind parents and siblings; de Jongh's wife and six-month-old daughter are still on the other side of the straits. "Of course it's difficult, but I can do more for them from here than I could in Cuba," de Jongh says. "There the situation was impossible. At least here I might be able to make some money and send it back."

Every year for the past three decades, a trickle of Cubans has arrived by raft. But this year's figures are unprecedented. Through June 30, the U.S. Coast Guard reported 1194Cubans arriving by raft, although spokesmen add that some manage to reach U.S. shores without the agency's help. Last year, 467 made the float trip; only nineteen came in 1984, the lowest number of Cuban rafters in the nine years the Coast Guard has kept track.

"What we are hearing on Radio Marti and through the families of people who have arrived safely is that there is a better chance of arriving now than ever before," offers Nelson Garcia Rivero, a mustachioed 30-year-old who arrived with six others on an inner-tube raft June 8 and now awaits release from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's Krome North Service Processing Center in West Dade. "Radio Marti is telling people that the ocean is very dangerous and they should be aware of that, but that there hasn't been a worse crisis because the government of this country is helping. There is a flotilla out there rescuing people."

Those who survive believe that most of the people who attempt the trip are successful, but that dozens are dying along the way. Although the winds and currents in the Florida Straits are favorable for a craft heading toward the keys and South Florida, if a raft drifts too far north, the changing currents and winds will tend to pull it out to sea rather than push it to shore. A Cuban man and woman rescued February 19 from a raft off the coast at Fort Pierce after a twelve-day trip said four of their companions had died. On April 4, A Cuban man who made it all the way to the coast near Haulover Beach said one of his companions had tried to swim for a boat a few days before and drowned. Another had slipped underwater after being tossed from the inner tubes. Amado Agchavarria Agete, 45, died on June 14, in the waters off Islamorada. Hours later a Coast Guard plane spotted his inner-tube raft and rescued his brother and two teen-age nephews, who had survived the three-day journey. Last month the bodies of an unidentified man and woman found off the Keys were buried in Key West.

"The people are going to keep coming no matter the danger," predicts 28-year-old Pavel Pablo Matos Rodriguez, who arrived by inner-tube raft with two friends on May 31, "because anything is better than staying in Cuba. At one point the two guys I was with got scared and wanted to go back. And I said, `You can let me off here, because I'm not going back. I'll swim there if I have to, or drown, but the only way I'm going back is if the Cuban coast guard catches me and takes me."

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