Cuba Bound

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

"After that trip, Cuba was always in the front of my mind," Shaw recalls. "I was enamored big time with the reef along the western coast of Cuba. It must be like the Keys were 100 years ago. Hell, it's a thousand times nicer than the Keys. It's alive. I mean, I pushed grouper away so I could find one small enough so that we didn't shoot something with a spear gun that was too big for dinner."

Last November the couple moved from St. Augustine to the rent-free anchorage off Key West Bight. Their neighbor there is Jeffrey Hamlin, the fourth passenger onboard. The 24-year-old lives on his 26-foot sailboat and works at a hotel. He is applying to graduate schools in business administration, having grown weary of the unfocused, laid-back lifestyle of waterfront regulars. Seeking adventure, he went to Cuba for the first time this past February and has been back several times since.

"Word just got around that it was a great place to go, that the people were friendly, and that it was fairly inexpensive to live there," Jeffrey says. He hitched his first three rides with friends, and agreed to pay a charter captain $150 roundtrip for the fourth.

"He was a Cajun coon-ass kind of guy from Louisiana who was running cargo back and forth for the Cubans," Jeffrey recalls. "He brought them stuff like diesel engines and generators, and they'd waive his slip fees for him. He would literally have boxed crates on the top of his boat strapped down the best he could. He was just bringing stuff in. He must have come ten or fifteen times like that. I'm real surprised that someone didn't catch on, or someone didn't squeal on him, because he made it real public. He was loading at the main dock, at Lands End Marina right in Key West. He'd get faxes saying that such and such a person is coming from Miami with three engines and he'd come across [to Havana with the cargo]."

Jeffrey had taken a motor scooter to Havana on that fourth visit and had planned to stay a week or two, visiting with his Cuban girlfriend and traveling around the countryside. But he decided not to return with the Cajun after the boat almost capsized on the passage over. He ended up spending the next two months in Havana waiting for a captain who was willing to carry his motor scooter to Key West. Finally he returned without it.

Back at the Key West Bight anchorage, Jeffrey persuaded Dave Shaw to take him down to pick it up A in exchange for $250 in "expenses" and Jeffrey's help hoisting sails and steering. Now he's grumbling about the arrangement. Expenses, he says, turned out to be $150 worth of beer and only $100 worth of food meant to feed four people during a five-day trip.

Peggy and Shaw, of course, are hoping to supplement their provisions with fish caught on the line they drag behind the boat. But by 8:00 night has fallen, and it has begun to rain. There have been no bites. Peggy goes below to prepare grilled chicken, and Shaw spells Jeffrey at the wheel. Suddenly Shaw starts to shout.

"I have five targets headed straight for me!" he exclaims to Jeffrey. "What would you do? Panic?"

Seemingly out of nowhere, the lights of five large ships have appeared on the horizon, each on a collision course with the Irate Parrot. "What's this guy trying to do, kill us?" Shaw cries. "I've never had this before. I have never had red and green before on that guy, that guy, that guy, that guy and that guy. Jesus Christ!"

Shaw grips the helm and stares into the rain at the green starboard lights and red port lights converging on the sailboat. "Stand by for fire in the hole," he calls as Peggy starts the engine. The lights of still another ship appear. "Jesus Christ, give me something else to do," Shaw mutters.

Shaw switches the radio to scan, but the airwaves are silent. "These guys should be talking on the radio right now," Shaw frets. A strobe light flashes in the east -- a surfacing submarine, Shaw decides. He checks the course -- he is 71 miles north of Havana. Although the ships are well over a mile away, they appear to be closing in a circle around the Irate Parrot.

"Fucking A, we're surrounded!" Jeffrey yells. He has grabbed his camera and is sitting cross-legged on the bow wearing a T-shirt and baseball hat. "Fuck, this is amazing!" he says. "Seven, there are seven of them."

As the ships come closer, the configuration of their lights becomes clearer. From their appearance, Shaw and Jeffrey speculate that they must be either Coast Guard or naval vessels. "If that ain't the Coast Guard, I'll kiss your ass," Shaw says. "Have you ever been this busy?"

"Not since my days in 'Nam," Jeffrey deadpans. "Hey, the U.S. is going to invade Cuba and we're right in the middle of it."

Shaw picks up the radio: "Irate Parrot to approaching vessels. Hello, are we in the middle of your naval exercise?"

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