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 Gines, 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."

A small school of big dolphin followed him for a time. Sharks paid him visits, nibbling at the rudder. By sunset, after 29 hours of perpetual motion, he was having trouble on the compass dial. "Around two in the morning I started hallucinating," he remembers. "I saw beautiful patterns in the sky. Then I looked over to my right side and there was this huge wall coming out of the water. I wanted to tie up to it and sleep. I wanted it to be there so bad, but it wasn't."

Just before sunrise the speed indicator on his GPS nav unit told Hernandez he had finally escaped the Gulf Stream. He started scanning the horizon for the lighthouse on Cay Sal, an important Bahamas landmark for generations of yachtsmen, freighter captains, gunrunners, and coke smugglers. At 9:00 a.m. he saw a rock the size of a railroad boxcar protruding from the water. Just before noon, Hernandez tied up to it and went for a swim. His legs hurt. A lot. He ate two candy bars and drank a beer, part of his three six-pack ballast. After an uncomfortable snooze he moved camp seven miles west to a small scattering of islands, pitching his tent on a sandy beach. He speared a jumbo lobster and cooked it on a fire. "Then," he says, "I slept and I slept."

Back in Miami, a close circle of friends wondered if Hernandez was alive or dead. A VHF radio on the open sea transmits only five or six miles, so Hernandez had no way to contact them. Still, intimates of the high-mileage paddler were betting on his success.

"To kayak from Miami to Key West you have to be experienced and strong," says Dave Berman, owner of Mangrove Coast SeaKayaks in South Miami. "To cross the Gulf Stream, it's beyond that. You have to be willing to play with death. It's a world-class trip. Open-water kayaking is hard as it is, but this is open ocean that's moving. It goes. It's like driving against traffic on I-95. There have been many attempts by people from the Northwest and Northeast, cold-water kayakers who figure they can cross the Gulf Stream, no sweat. Every single one of them winds up getting picked up by the Coast Guard."

Berman sold Hernandez his first serious kayak three years ago, and the two have been fast friends and paddling partners ever since. He calls Hernandez fearless, gentle, tough, contemplative, a great and uncompromising cook, and an aficionado of the Spanish guitar. He often describes Hernandez as the missing link between man and fish. "I've seen him stay underwater so long it scared me, three to five minutes with no exaggeration," he says. "He'll go into a cave where there's a big shark and pull a lobster out. Say you're on a boat with him in a bad storm. Everyone's screaming and wondering if they're going to live or die. He'll turn on Celia Cruz and have a beer and say he can't believe how beautiful it all is.

"Miguel is unique," Berman adds. "It's hard to categorize him. Where the sea is concerned, he never forgets a detail A and it's the details that can get you killed. On land, in complete contrast, he's forgetful. He'll get out of his car and forget to turn off the engine. This is the guy you want to be with when the Titanic goes down, because he'll find something that floats. On the other hand, if you're moving your house, he may not be the one for the job. He might leave your couch somewhere."

Guillermo Lopez, a painting contractor, describes Hernandez as "probably the real-life Rambo. He has no fear about anything." Lopez met Hernandez 23 years ago at a Jehovah's Witness meeting. Both men eventually dropped out of evangelical Christianity but remained friends and spiritual seekers. Lopez helped Hernandez weather his divorce in the mid 1980s. He says his pal is a laid-back, fun-loving guy, but one who ultimately considers life a serious undertaking. "Everything he does is a path toward greater knowledge," Lopez notes.

Hernandez himself shrugs when pressed to describe why, exactly, he embarked on the trip. "Throughout my life in Miami, any excuse I've had to get out on the water, I took it," he contends. "Fishing or diving or just sitting in a sailboat looking up at the stars at night, that's the best. I thought I would get plenty of that on a six- or nine-month trip. It would also give me time to get a better feel for myself and my spirituality. It's hard to talk about a thing like that, or think about it in the first place. But since I was a boy, spiritual things have been important to me. I've gone through a few religions. I decided the best religion is no religion. You make up your own, then you keep it to yourself. I guess mine is about the ocean. So it made a lot of sense to me to take off in a kayak. I never read anything that made me think of doing it. It was just something inside me that made me think it was perfectly sensible."

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.

The Bahamian officers permitted Hernandez to drag his kayak into the woods and secure it to a gumbo-limbo tree with a bicycle lock. Hernandez then climbed into the Coast Guard chopper, the pilot lifted off, and for the next hour and a half the Bahamian police gazed at him impassively while Hernandez wondered what was going on.

"I was very much at peace with myself at the time," he notes. "I said, 'O.K., this is happening, I'm flying somewhere.' I was feeling really good and decided that nothing could spoil my day. One way or another, I would get back here again. Of course things go through your mind. You don't know what people are up to, even if they're the law. I was a little concerned they were going to try to frame me, accuse me of something I had no defense for because I wouldn't know anything about it."

When they arrived in Nassau at midmorning, the Americans vanished. Hernandez was taken by van to a municipal police station where his desalinator, paddles, and other gear were impounded. Then a jailer showed him to his new quarters A a small, stinking cell occupied by a petty drug dealer and a teenager charged with rock throwing. At one point he asked to use the telephone and was told he couldn't. After that he decided to shut up and wait. He did so for the next fourteen hours.

Unbeknownst to Hernandez, he had just encountered a unique and little-publicized organization called Op-BAT -- an acronym for Operation Bahamas and Turks-Caicos. Launched by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1982 to fight narcotics smuggling in the islands, the program is now a permanent multinational fixture whose forces include members of the Bahamian national police and army, police from the nearby Turks and Caicos Islands, the U.S. Coast Guard, Army, and Navy, and the DEA. While the DEA is nominally in charge of Op-BAT, providing intelligence, training, and its own armed agents, it is the Royal Bahamas Police who actually make all arrests.

To U.S. officials, the program is a shining example of joint law enforcement. Coast Guard and DEA spokesmen say the flying posses of Op-BAT -- some of whom sport Batman T-shirts -- have dramatically cut illegal drug importation through the islands and forced smugglers to concentrate on the lower Caribbean and Mexico, a logistical nightmare for the bad guys. But the unusual multinational task force has at times been criticized by U.S. and Bahamian civilians who perceive Bahamian police as ill-trained, trigger-happy, and possessed of lower -- or simply different -- standards of ethical and legal conduct than those of their American partners. The fact that the U.S. supplies the program with pilots, aircraft, weaponry, personnel, and logistical support puts the American imprimatur on Op-BAT. The fact that the Bahamians have final authority over who gets arrested and why raises questions of ultimate responsibility for the operation.

Four winters ago, for example, an Op-BAT unit tailed a suspected drug plane to Sampson Cay, a private island in the Exumas. Witnesses saw a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter deploy heavily armed Bahamian police, who wound up nailing a resident's pet dog with a nine-millimeter slug. The dog's transgression was to bark at the police when they advanced on his owner. The pilot of the supposed drug plane turned out to be a professional dive instructor who had been surveying the surrounding reefs. Complaints by the dead dog's owner and other island residents ensued. U.S. agencies referred complaints to the Bahamian government, pointing out that the Coast Guard had no responsibility in the matter. But the crew of the Coast Guard chopper felt so bad about the mishap that they later flew in a fresh dog to replace the dead one.

At 11:00 p.m. Hernandez's cell door swung open to admit a man who identified himself as an investigator with the Royal Bahamas Police Drug Enforcement Unit. Hernandez remembers the interrogation that followed this way:

"He says, 'Who are you working for?'
"I told him nobody.
"After a while he says, 'We just caught someone smuggling guns to Cuba. Don't tell me you're just kayaking.'"

The grilling continued for an hour and a half, then the man left abruptly, taking Hernandez's proferred logbook with him. From time to time over the next three days, the investigator returned to ask more questions. "I wasn't treated kindly, but nobody hit me," Hernandez shrugs.

The three prisoners took turns sleeping on a cement slab. There was no toilet, so once a day one of them would be let out of the cell to empty a plastic jug that served as communal urinal. Breakfast was cold coffee and toast. The other meal was cold cheeseburgers, fries, and coffee. Hernandez suspected the jailer had a part ownership in a nearby fast-food restaurant.

Finally, Hernandez was given his logbook back and taken across town to an immigration office. He says a sympathetic official there offered to intercede on his behalf with the police in hopes of reuniting him with his kayak. Meanwhile, Hernandez went straight to the docks in an effort to find a mail boat or cargo vessel that could take him south to Anguila Cays. There weren't any. Nor was the friendly immigration man having much luck. After three more days, Hernandez gave up and caught a BahamasAir flight to Miami.

Op-BAT officials are either unwilling or unable to say precisely what motivated Hernandez's arrest -- other than his being in the wrong place at the wrong time, minding his own business. "One of the crews spotted a guy on this little rock in the middle of nowhere," says Miami-based Coast Guard spokesman Dave Waldschmidt. "First they offered to fly him out of there, but he refused. Then they [Bahamian police] radioed for a background check and decided to take him in. We were basically assisting them in effecting their law. Our involvement is to provide an aircraft and crew."

Reginald Ferguson, superintendent of the Royal Bahamas Police Drug Enforcement Unit, declined to discuss the specific justification for Hernandez's arrest, or to describe legal procedures used by civilian Bahamian police during their participation in Op-BAT.

Toni Teresi, DEA supervisor for Op-BAT in Nassau, allows that she remembers Hernandez's arrest, but she refuses to comment on it because of long-standing agency policy. For his part, Miami DEA spokesman Jim Shedd defends the arrest in principle, citing the concept of Bahamian national sovereignty and the overriding benefits to American society in seeing that the maze of 3000 rocks, cays, and islands are vigorously patrolled. "Who are we to question how another country makes arrests?" Shedd huffs. "And what makes anybody think that in this day and age someone can travel through international waters and not be aware of the geopolitical implications of his actions? I would find it very strange if I was out there and saw some guy in a kayak. I don't see anything wrong with them yanking him out of there and taking a closer look. Frankly, I don't think this guy has all his oars in the water."

Miguel Hernandez sums it up a little more tersely: "This drug war has been going on for decades now. You get in the middle of it, you're screwed."

In mid-November, Hernandez returned to Anguila Cays aboard a friend's yacht and found his kayak where he had left it. Now back in Miami, he plans to circumnavigate Cuba sometime in the next year -- an idea that has drawn promises of monetary sponsorship from several Miami businessmen who privately support normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations. Last week Hernandez returned from Canada after meeting with designers at the Vancouver-based kayak company Current Designs, the manufacturer of his current model. He is hiring the firm to build a special 22-foot kayak with a small sail and lots of storage room. Hernandez says he will begin seeking approval for the trip from the Cuban government by the end of this month.

Since his untimely ejection from the Bahamas, Hernandez has been working as a full-time guide for his friend Dave Berman at Mangrove Coast SeaKayaks in South Miami. Berman's shop sells fiberglass kayaks and leads aquatic day trips around Biscayne Bay, the Keys, and the Everglades.

Despite his run-in with Op-BAT, Hernandez asserts he'll always love the Bahamas, Anguila Cays in particular. "It's like being on another planet," he sighs. "I would like to have a house there. The first. I can work something out with the Bahamian government." Just a hint of a smile.

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