Cuba Bound

Key West to Havana is a grand tradition, a boater's delight, and a lively tourist adventure. Bon voyage!

Since their first trip to Cuba in 1993, many of the original members of the Basta! flotillas have continued to shuttle back and forth. It is likely that they account, at least in part, for the jump in the INS vessel tally. It is also likely that they represent only a small fraction of all the boats making the crossing.

An unknown number of boaters do not alert Customs or the INS when they return from Cuba. In all his trips, for example, Dave Shaw has checked in exactly once. He goes to extremes to avoid contact with U.S. government officials. On most voyages, he even turns off the shipboard radio until he is safely out of Key West, fearful that a friend will make an offhand reference to Havana and the Coast Guard or Customs will overhear and feel compelled to harass him.

Thus it is that on a recent trip to Cuba, Shaw can be found switching on the radio a few miles off the Sand Key lighthouse, the last physical marker between Key West and Havana. A Coast Guard cutter is bobbing on the horizon, and Shaw suspects they'll want to talk by radio. They do.

The conversation begins innocuously enough with a request for the name of the boat and the registration number. Although there is nothing overtly suspicious about the Irate Parrot, a 38-foot, ketch-rigged sailboat equipped with a motor in case of uncooperative winds, it doesn't take a navigational wizard to figure out her course. Shaw figures he has one chance to head off the inevitable question.

"Irate Parrot. United States Coast Guard. Roger, sir," the Coast Guard continues. "Can I have your home port? Over." The radio splutters and hisses.

"Key West, Florida, sir," Shaw responds. "Over." The shadows of scudding clouds are reflected in the dark-blue water. There is enough wind to keep the sails billowed, but not enough to make much headway against the Gulf Stream, so Shaw has turned on the motor to help the boat along; it rumbles in counterpoint to the radio static.

"Irate Parrot. United States Coast Guard. Roger, sir. How many total people onboard today? Over."

"We have four people onboard," Shaw answers, adding smoothly: "We're headed down to fish some blue water. Over."

"Irate Parrot. United States Coast Guard. Roger, sir. Can I have your last port of call and the dates departed, and your next expected port of call? And your expected date of arrival? Over."

"Roger, sir. Last port of call was Key West and that was today. We left there at, uh, 2:00. Over, sir."

"Irate Parrot. United States Coast Guard. Roger, sir. And will you be returning to Key West? Over."

Shaw smiles. He can answer truthfully. "Yes, sir," he responds brightly. "Approximately in seven days. I got a float plan filed with family and friends and barring anything, uh, weird, uh, we should be back there in seven days. Over."

The officer requests that Shaw stand by. "Okay, no worries," Shaw says. He hangs up the microphone and turns to his passengers. "So do I give good radio?" he asks as he reaches for his Budweiser. "I just omitted a few stops to keep things less complicated," he winks. "It is not required of me to tell anyone where I'm going. I am an American citizen, I do have a little bit of freedom, I hope."

In a few minutes, the Coast Guard officer calls back and wishes him a good fishing trip. The Irate Parrot is on her way.

Tall and lean, Shaw sits at the helm, drinks Bud out of the can, and tells jokes, most of them bawdy. The 40-year-old sailor is bald and has a thick blond moustache. He describes himself as a "guitar player, plumber, electrician, general carpenter and builder, fisherman, boater, and dog lover." He is also, proudly, a parrothead, a fanatical devotee of Jimmy Buffett.

"Jimmy Buffett was a mentor of mine," he announces as the boat rolls along to the stereo accompaniment of Key West's best-known slacker. A reference to Buffett, the boat's name sums up Shaw's philosophy of life in the United States. "I'm irate because of all the bullshit I have to put up with," he declares. "I have a bumper sticker on my truck that says, 'If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.' That's the truth."

Also onboard the Irate Parrot is Peggy Raphel, a 50-year-old travel agent from St. Augustine who is Shaw's partner and girlfriend. Peggy met Shaw two years ago. Taken by his free-spirited approach to life, she turned over her travel agency to a family member and went with Shaw to Belize to start a sport-fishing charter business.

While sailing from Florida to Central America, their electronic navigational equipment broke down and they aimed for Cuba, the nearest land mass, to get their bearings. Shaw says they spent one bewitching evening anchored along the Cuban coast before proceeding around the island to the Yucatan peninsula.

Although the Belize business venture flopped (within a month Shaw had been bitten by a poisonous spider and was forced to return with Peggy to St. Augustine), the couple resolved to try again. This time they decided to run charters in the Caribbean.

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