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

The center of the universe lies at a different place for every person. Some people never find theirs. Miguel Hernandez, latter-day Aquaman, had arrived at that special locus 46 hours after leaving Stock Island.

So began a four-week idyll during which Hernandez cooked, camped, dove, and used his kayak to explore one of the most transcendently beautiful places in the world. He paddled to the Damas Cays 35 miles east, then to an uncharted island he dubbed Shark Cay. He found a cave system with delicious fist-size mollusks clinging to wet rocks.

"Visually the place is nothing like Florida," Hernandez recalls. "There are big rocks sticking up out of the water. I would stand on top of a hill and all around me was just empty ocean. You sit there for a couple of hours or a couple of days and you start to feel things you don't have time for in the city. You pay attention, and you learn a lot about yourself."

It wasn't all solitude. The Nekton Pilot, a dive boat from Fort Lauderdale, passed by and gave him rice and sodas to supplement his daily catch of grouper and lobster. Five Key West sport fishermen on their way home from Great Exuma in the eastern Bahamas invited him to supper aboard the Big Crawl, a 43-foot customized lobster boat.

"They were super-nice guys," Hernandez says. "I hadn't seen ice in a month. I had three rum and Cokes." The vessel's owner, businessman Peter Bacle, remembers Hernandez well: "He just seemed like a real straight fellow. He spent a few hours with us, and later we were joking that maybe he was an apparition. We were all pretty excited about his adventure. It was amazing to us, and we've seen some pretty strange sights over there."

Hernandez also chatted with a Bahamian fishing crew, who at first could not believe he was there from Florida on human power only. Later in the conversation, the fishermen pointed out that the nearest customs officer was in Bimini, 173 miles to the north. While Hernandez understood the need to check in with Bahamian immigration officials, a procedure legally required of all boaters who plan to linger in the nation's territorial waters, he decided to blow it off anyway and proceed as he'd planned.

He came next to Anguila Cays -- the biggest of several islands on the Cay Sal Bank -- and made camp near a lagoon and an osprey rookery. And there, 43 miles from Cuba, Hernandez's intensely personal quest collided headlong with concerns of the larger world. Just as in Eden, the trouble began with a touch of boredom. Hernandez was once again waiting for a change in the windy weather so that he could start the next leg of his trip. One day he got up from his hammock and started rummaging through paradise. He discovered some big termite mounds and remembered seeing monkeys on TV who poked sticks in anthills to get their evening hors d'oeuvres. He gave it a try. "They tasted all right," he remembers. "A very good source of protein." Next he decided to clean up his campsite, sweeping all the leaves and litter into a big pile and igniting it. Things got out of control. An hour later Hernandez was still beating at the flames with his kayak paddle when four men with machine guns stepped out of the low woods. They wore the uniform of the Royal Bahamas Defense Force.

"They were not very friendly at all," Hernandez explains. "One of them lost his shoe coming through the brush from the lagoon. They were pissed." After very little discussion, the leader of the reconnaissance team ordered Hernandez to get in his kayak. The man then tied the kayak behind a dinghy at the water's edge. Ten minutes later Hernandez was face to face with a Bahamian military captain aboard a patrol boat. When the big cheese heard Hernandez explain himself and his renegade bonfire, he laughed and let Hernandez go -- over angry protestations by the shoeless commando.

A week later, returning to camp from a spearfishing sortie, he spotted an orange and white U.S. Coast Guard helicopter and hailed the pilot on his radio, asking for a weather report. The chopper hovered overhead and lowered two men on a cable -- one Bahamian, one American, both dressed in unmarked camouflage jump suits and toting holstered sidearms. The brief encounter was friendly. The two men listened attentively to Hernandez's kayak tale, and before disappearing in the chopper they threw him down some C-rations. "It was great stuff," Hernandez says. "Cookies and cake and chewing gum for soldiers in wartime, so they feel at home. I was a happy camper."

But not so happy when he awoke at dawn on October 8 to find the same orange and white helicopter squatting next to his sleeping bag, kicking up a roar of prop wash. Two Bahamian policemen climbed out and told him he was going to take a trip to Nassau with them for questioning. "I tried to talk my way out of it," Hernandez explains, "but they said we have our orders and that's that. What am I going to do? These guys had M-16s and pistols." The chopper's American flight crew -- a U.S. Coast Guard pilot and navigator -- sat tight in the cockpit and watched the proceedings.

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