Bahama Trauma

Miami kayaker Miguel Hernandez was having the time of his life on a solo voyage to Cuba -- until a multinational team of drug cops crashed the party

He's the guy you see minding his own business down at the end of the bar at Bobby Dykes's Tigertail Lounge in Coconut Grove, or Bill and Ted's in South Miami, or the Falcon up on the river near the 27th Street bridge, or the Last Chance Saloon south of Homestead on a slow night. Axle grease on skinned knuckles. Hazel eyes that turn green offshore. Aquiline nose on a long, Modigliani face. Jesus beard. One hundred and seventy-five pounds, deep-water tan, teeth as white as a banker's shirt.

A steady, regular type, 37 years old, no wife or girlfriend at the moment. Twelve bucks an hour laying tile and framing houses in South Dade with no union coffee breaks and no overtime. A quiet, down-to-earth guy, but a guy with a dream, a wild one. On August 12 last year, Miguel Hernandez woke up in his doublewide at the L'il Abner Mobile Home Park in Sweetwater, hauled his new kayak to the boat ramp at Matheson Hammock in South Dade, and started paddling toward Cuba alone.

He believed he would make it to Key West and then survive a treacherous 101-mile open-water crossing through the Florida Straits. He planned to visit his birthplace in GĀines, 33 miles from Havana, then island-hop the Caribbean all the way to South America. Instead, two months into the odyssey and a few miles shy of the Cuban coast, Hernandez wound up getting kidnapped by armed men in a helicopter, thrown in an eight-by-eight jail cell in the Bahamas, interrogated by a multinational drug interdiction team for three days, and nearly losing his boat.

Like many knowledgeable mariners, Hernandez carefully prepared for every possible problem A except the one that arose. He carried a VHF radio and a satellite navigation unit the size of a Crackerjack box. He had a tiny electric bilge pump, running lights, and a compass light, all powered by a solar panel snugged behind the kayak's padded seat. He also took along a $1500 reverse-osmosis desalinator -- a two-foot-long tube that, with a lot of pumping, converts sea water to drinking water. "That was my most important piece of equipment," he notes. "I said if I'm going to do this, I'm going to give myself every advantage."

An expert skin diver and fisherman, Hernandez also carried four stainless steel spears, a submersible camera, a two-man tent, air mattress and sleeping bag, cook pots, candy bars, rice, beans, and a small gasoline-powered backpacker's stove. Some of the gear was left over from extended hiking trips in Mexico and Guatemala, as well as from solo sailing voyages in Florida and the Bahamas on a small sloop he once owned.

His kayak, a nineteen-foot Current Designs expedition model, had a rudder controlled by foot pedals, a small anchor, four hand-sewn canvas water tanks, and a set of sponsons A inflatable outriggers deployed from the cockpit that stabilize the kayak and allow the traveler to sleep on the open ocean. He took along a collapsible light-tackle rod that never got used, plus a pointy shark stick, which did.

The trip from Miami to Key West gave Hernandez time to shape up. He'd been so busy scraping together money to finance the adventure that he hadn't been able to get in much actual kayaking. The first night out from Miami, he stopped on Elliott Key to get eaten by mosquitoes. Next he paused in Tavernier to practice Eskimo rolls, a technique kayakers use to right themselves quickly when they capsize. On Stock Island, outside Key West, he stayed ten days at a commercial campground, running and paddling during daylight hours, waiting for a break in the weather. On September 9 he thought he saw it.

"I decided I wasn't staying any longer," Hernandez explains. "Twenty-seven dollars a night for a campsite is nothing for some people, but in my budget that was a lot. I felt ready. I knew what I was doing. The danger involved, I was at peace with that."

He paddled out to the last reef, where the Atlantic shelf drops off and the Gulf Stream edge begins -- a realm legendary for fierce summer squalls, heavy freighter traffic, and steep, choppy swells brewed from unpredictable north-moving currents and predominant south-blowing winds. He ate an avocado. A passing powerboater wished him luck, and then Hernandez jumped off into the wild blue yonder, steering 165 degrees, south by southeast. His immediate goal was to reach the Cay Sal Bank, a jumble of islands in the Bahamas just north of Cuba.

Twelve hours later the first storm hit. Bolts of lightning cut the black horizon. From the cockpit, through curtains of rain, Hernandez began to notice a loud, continuous crackling. Then, for the next 45 minutes, green sparks shot from the tips of his double-end paddle each time he brought one blade out of the sea. "It was very pretty," he says. "And I thought I was going to get electrocuted."

Around three in the morning the real storm arrived. Hernandez rode eight- to ten-foot swells pushed by gusts of 35 to 40 knots. He fought to keep from capsizing. By morning the seas calmed, but now he was badly off course, well north of his intended landfall on the southern rim of the Bahamas archipelago. Instead of cruising perpendicular to the giant Gulf Stream current and making 3.5 knots, he was forced to paddle against its powerful northerly flow at a measly 1.5 to 1.8 knots. He was still 30 miles from land, with 400 fathoms of water beneath him. "It would have been easier to turn back," he shrugs. "I decided to paddle as long as I could."

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