Blue-black clouds rumbled overhead as Leonardo Selis and Ricardo de Jongh sifted through the tattered sheets of canvas, torn burlap sacks, half-filled inner tubes, and rusted iron pipe strewn about the front yard of a house in a working-class West Dade neighborhood. Against the side of the small house, three inner tubes, each tightly bound in canvas, bulged inside a frame of cast-iron pipes that resembled a Tinker Toy rowboat.
The smallish, 29-year-old de Jongh poked a tennis shoe at a cracked skeleton of wooden beams. A brown canvas sail on a tent-pole mast jutted upward from the frame, and the black mass of a deflated Soviet truck inner tube was jumbled underneath. Four people crossed the Florida Straits from Cuba on this raft, one of countless homemade vessels to have made the voyage in the years since Fidel Castro took power.
"Obviously this one made it," de Jongh murmured, pulling a camera from his shoulder bag. "But you wouldn't get me into this one. Not on your life. Too fragile. Do you know what the waves are like out there? They could break this in half just like that. I never would have trusted it. Just too fragile." Human reminders of the treacherous passage - sunglasses, salt-encrusted T-shirts and shoes, cans of Danish beef sausage and baby food, torn carry-on bags and backpacks, a bottle of aspirin, a blue plastic laundry detergent bottle with a rag stuffed in its spout, used as a water jug - were scattered throughout the yard. The rumble of thunder grew nearer, louder, more insistent.
"I would feel a lot more confident in one of those," said Selis, an animated 34-year-old man of medium build with flecks of silver highlighting jet-black hair. Hopping from foot to foot, he jabbed a finger in the direction of two elaborately constructed rafts that looked like rowboats. "You could go around the world in one of those." A thin slab of wood nailed across the bow of one raft bore the scrawled name, La Milagrosa. The Miraculous.
De Jongh walked quietly over to a pile of orange-and-blue air mattresses. He stooped, fingered the worn, deflated vinyl, snapped a picture. "These people came in this? These guys were just outrageous. Our raft was pretty small, but this is incredible." The pair finally dashed for the nearby porch as the clouds opened up, releasing fat drops that pelted the black rubber of the rafts and slowly soaked the canvas and burlap.
Eastern Europe had the Iron Curtain, China has the bamboo version. Cuba's barrier is more tangible and foreboding - an expanse of open ocean, with sudden storms and scorching sun, voracious sharks and mountainous swells. Despite the dangers and the ever-present fear that challenging the elements might lead to capture and an extended stay in a Cuban prison, the balseros and their makeshift rafts have become as much a symbol of Cuban culture as lechon, arroz con frijoles, and the Havana spleef. This year alone, nearly 1200 people, from young children to grandparents, have reached Florida in a 90-mile leap of faith.
A worsening economic situation and continued political repression are the reasons most often given for fleeing. Rafts built of inner tubes reinforced with canvas, plastic, wood, and cast-iron pipe are the crafts of choice for accomplishing that goal. Some, like the air mattresses, are more unorthodox. Or like the block of Styrofoam with a seat hole carved out and oars strapped to the sides, used by 21-year-old Lazaro Colome Sandoval, who crossed the bow of Queen Elizabeth's cruising yacht Britannia near Sombrero Key in May. Or like the box springs strapped to an air mattress. Or the half of a 55-gallon oil drum with a wood-and-Styrofoam frame. Or the camper top from an Ebro mini-bus strapped to Fiberglas pontoons.
"I would say I have 125 of these rafts and boats, and every single one of them is unique," says Humberto Sanchez, a Miami mechanic who hopes to create a museum to house the rafts he has collected from the U.S. Coast Guard. For the time being he stores the relics at his house, on land provided by friends, and in a neighbor's yard. "You might see some similar designs, but every one is different. Every single one has its own details and its own ingenuity." For Cubans long accustomed to cannibalizing spare parts in order to keep everything from kitchen appliances to 1950s-era cars functioning, the process of building a raft and planning an escape is not an abstract one. The creativity involved in finding the parts and putting them together is a natural outgrowth of making do in day-to-day life.
A red booth at a South Miami chicken restaurant filled with teen-agers and tourists is an incongruous place to recount the years of step-by-step planning that culminated in a midnight float from Cuba. Aside from the periodic and insistent whack! from the knife of a Jamaican chef hacking apart chicken breasts, the setting lacks drama. The story, told by Selis in machine-gun bursts of Spanish with quiet confirmations from de Jongh, does not.
"We invented whatever contraption there was to come over with, from a boat to an inflatable catamaran to making a raft with truck inner tubes and boards," says Selis. "We even tried to think of a way to put my Fiat on pontoons and attach a propeller to the motor. Finally we left in a beach raft. It was just that we had decided to leave and we were going to leave however we could."
Since meeting in Havana nearly four years ago, de Jongh, a cinematographer, and Selis, a former film and television producer and assistant director in the ministries of education and culture who'd been working odd jobs, devised and discarded dozens of raft designs. They talked about building a raft of wood and inner tubes and powering it with a motorcycle engine. They discussed floating the Fiat. Yet another pontoon project, a craft fashioned from inner tubes wrapped tightly in canvas, was cast aside after a trial pontoon exploded due to overinflation. Two and a half years ago, the pair settled on a catamaran that would employ the same type of floaters with a cast-iron frame, a mast, and a sail.
They assembled the first pontoon, which consisted of three inner tubes squeezed together inside a canvas skin, at a friend's house in the Havana district of Nuevo Vedado. Halfway through construction of the other pontoon, they realized the craft they were building would be too large for clandestine transport from the house to a launch site. So they dropped the project and traded some spearfishing gear - fins, mask, snorkel, and spear gun - for a twelve-foot Fiberglas boat with a small outboard engine. Another friend, who drove a truck for La Empresa de la Pesca, the state-run fishing industry, could shuttle the boat to the water without drawing unwanted attention. "We started to get that boat ready, and we put a sail on it because we didn't trust the motor," says Selis, "but then our friend quit the fish company, so we had the same problem. That boat is probably still sitting at our friend's house, with cobwebs on it."
By the fall of this past year, Florida seemed further away than ever. But then two friends, whom Selis had met in an Italian class at a state-run language school, got a divorce and moved out of a run-down three-bedroom house on the water in Santa Fe, a coastal town about 40 minutes west of Havana. Selis and de Jongh had managed to save a small fortune by selling clothes, lobsters, and other items on the black market, and in December they paid 14,000 Cuban pesos to rent the house for ten years. "We made it look like we were going to live there," says Selis. "Who is going to think that someone who puts that kind of money down on a house and moves all their stuff in is planning to take off? Nobody."
Selis had no full-time job, and de Jongh took a one-month vacation from his job as head of the photo lab at Publicitaria Coral, the publicity bureau for a state tourist agency, Cubanacan. They began fashioning yet another raft, out of three inner tubes with a plank underneath. The entire vessel would be wrapped in canvas and a mast and sail would be affixed to the wood. In mid-March, just as they were completing the craft, a photographer friend who came for a visit offered to exchange a blue-and-orange inflatable beach raft for de Jongh's underwater photographic flash unit.
"We'd thought of buying an inflatable raft before, but they were gone from the stores," Selis explains. "Once the government realized people could use these rafts to escape, the rafts disappeared." As his friend speaks, de Jongh takes a paper napkin and sketches detailed top and side views of the raft, which looks like a poor man's version of a Zodiac, with rounded inflatable sides and thin plastic oars. All along, Selis and de Jongh had prepared meticulously, considering every detail necessary for the potentially long stay at sea. They studied how to navigate by the stars - Selis read books, de Jongh had learned from his father - and years of sailing and boating had made them familiar with currents, tides, and prevailing winds. They pored over nautical charts de Jongh had saved, scoured a survival manual Selis had gotten from a friend in exchange for a pair of fishing gloves.
They had always considered that a sail would be vital to a successful voyage, so they'd included one in every raft design. For their new raft, the pair resized the blue canvas sail they had cut for their previous project and mounted it on a stout pole they found in the house. In place of a boom, a small stick was installed one-third of the way down the mast to spread the sail. A sheet of Styrofoam stuffed in the bottom of the raft provided extra flotation, and four wooden poles found in the basement were attached to the oar blades to replace the original, fragile plastic handles.
Into three backpacks they stuffed a radio, compass, nautical chart, twenty liters of water, ten cans of condensed milk, eight cans of baby food, three cans of sardines, two bars of chocolate, a jar of honey, plus salt, vitamins, muscle relaxants, energy pills, anti-nausea medicine, an asthma inhaler and pills for de Jongh, and a bottle of cognac. They even packed a copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, says Selis, "in case we got bored." A fourth bag held two sets of fins, masks, and snorkels.
"A lot of people who throw themselves in are crazy," Selis says. "I think it's the same for them to get here as not. We wanted to get here. In the end, of course, it's all the same, because even with all the planning and all the understanding you might have, you get into one of those rafts in the middle of the ocean and you could die. But I'm not a kamikaze. I had to guarantee the best chance of succeeding. If I was leaving, it was to reach the United States."
The morning of Wednesday, March 20, they made the decision to depart. "We had been watching the weather reports on the television - they had three a day on the ICRT chain [Cuban Institute of Radio and Television] - because since a cold front was coming through we were afraid it would catch us," Selis recalls. "Well, the day they said there were going to be five days of good weather - no cold front and strong winds from the east - we decided to go.
"From the moment we decided to leave, we turned off all the lights in the house and closed the windows so no one would visit, and we waited for nighttime. It was very dark that night. There was maybe a quarter moon and just a few clouds. We couldn't see anything, but of course we knew what direction we were headed. I jumped off the porch of the house, the part that leans out over the sea, and Richard [as Ricardo and his friends pronounce his name] handed me down the raft. Right then the the tide was very low, so for about 100 feet it was just reef sticking out of the water. Richard handed down the backpacks and I tied them off. He came down, and we grabbed the sides of the raft and started running until the water reached about here," he says, motioning toward his chest.
"That was the moment of greatest nervousness, because if someone from the coast guard sees you, you're a prisoner. The thought of throwing ourselves into the sea in a raft - that was the least of what crossed our minds. Nobody thinks of that. But what we did plan was that once we started running, we wouldn't even look back. If someone was watching us and ratted on us, they'd have to go get us at sea, because turning back is turning yourself in.
"We got on the raft and I started rowing, rowing, rowing, to put as much distance between us and the coast as soon as possible," Selis continues. "When I was tired, Richard took the oars and rowed, rowed, rowed, and when we were well away from the coast and sure we were past the point where a coast guard searchlight might reach from land - I'd say about two hours after we left - we stopped, tied off the oars toward the front in a triangle, and put up the mast. We tied three ropes from the top to the bow and both sides, used one oar as a rudder, put up the sail, so whoever had the rudder held the point of the sail at the same time. We were off like a shot. We hadn't had time to test it, but it worked better than we ever expected."
Keeping the wind to their right and watching the stars, they headed north. By six o'clock in the morning only the tiny lights on Havana's highest buildings were visible. By nine, with three-foot swells spreading across the horizon, the coast was a memory. Conversation, at first excited, adrenaline-driven jesting, dwindled as the realities of setting out to sea in an eight-and-one-half-foot inflatable raft sank in. The day passed with bouts of seasickness and boredom under a glaring sun, chilling waves crashing over the tiny raft.
Despite wearing several shirts, jackets, sweaters, double layers of pants, socks, and gloves, they trembled with cold. "The only time you warmed up a little was from noon to maybe three," Selis explains. "The water soaks you and doesn't let you dry off or get warm - even though it was a dia de playa [day for the beach.]" To stay warm, the two drank their cognac. They sipped water and milk and ate one of the cans of sardines.
"In the middle of that night we saw boats all over," Selis recalls. "They were lights moving far away, like they were fishing all around us. We thought they might be Cuban boats, but after a while we saw one that looked American - we just said, `That doesn't look like any boat we've ever seen in Cuba' - and we started to whistle with a police whistle we'd brought. But nobody heard us."
Then the weather started to change. Just before dawn the wind kicked up and the swells grew. "They seemed like mountains," says de Jongh. "We went up the side of one and just fell down the other side like a big hole." Selis's arm, drumstick in hand, sways up and down like a cobra, illustrating de Jongh's words.
"We thought for sure a front was coming through. We spent the whole time shaking from the cold," de Jongh continues. "It was bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. The wind went up enormously and I almost took down the sail because we thought the raft was going to be destroyed. At that point things looked very bad."
But with the sun, the pair's spirits rose, as the light revealed a horizon dotted with potential rescuers. "We saw boats everywhere, and then we knew we were gone from Cuba for good," says Selis, his words lifting him clear out of his seat. "We tried to get behind several of the boats so they'd see us, but couldn't catch up. We'd head for one and it would move on and disappear. Then sail for another and it would disappear. We decided to continue sailing the way we were going. By then we figured it was just a matter of time."
As the seas grew calmer, they sensed that they were nearing landfall. "Suddenly the water was clear," says Selis. "Before the water was blue, almost black, because it was very deep. But now the water was white, as if the bottom was right there. At about eleven o'clock, we saw a little thing way off in the distance. At first we thought it was a boat, but when we got closer, we saw it was a lighthouse. We decided to sail there and tie off, thinking that we must be in United States territory, and any boat that passed would have to pick us up."
Checking their nautical chart, they determined that the wind and the current had taken them into the Rebecca Shoal, between the Dry Tortugas and Key West. When they were about a quarter-mile from the light, they waved and whistled at a passing fishing boat. It didn't spot them. They tried to signal another boat. "We calculated the route to meet them, and I took off my sweat pants - they were red - and gave them to Richard," Selis says. "He started to whistle and signal with the pants until they saw us." Soaking wet, exhausted from stress and lack of sleep, they were taken aboard the lobster boat Mickey & Rey and shuttled to Key West, where they were met by a Coast Guard dinghy.
They had been at sea 39 hours and traveled roughly 110 miles from Cuba. They both left behind parents and siblings; de Jongh's wife and six-month-old daughter are still on the other side of the straits. "Of course it's difficult, but I can do more for them from here than I could in Cuba," de Jongh says. "There the situation was impossible. At least here I might be able to make some money and send it back."
Every year for the past three decades, a trickle of Cubans has arrived by raft. But this year's figures are unprecedented. Through June 30, the U.S. Coast Guard reported 1194Cubans arriving by raft, although spokesmen add that some manage to reach U.S. shores without the agency's help. Last year, 467 made the float trip; only nineteen came in 1984, the lowest number of Cuban rafters in the nine years the Coast Guard has kept track.
"What we are hearing on Radio Marti and through the families of people who have arrived safely is that there is a better chance of arriving now than ever before," offers Nelson Garcia Rivero, a mustachioed 30-year-old who arrived with six others on an inner-tube raft June 8 and now awaits release from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's Krome North Service Processing Center in West Dade. "Radio Marti is telling people that the ocean is very dangerous and they should be aware of that, but that there hasn't been a worse crisis because the government of this country is helping. There is a flotilla out there rescuing people."
Those who survive believe that most of the people who attempt the trip are successful, but that dozens are dying along the way. Although the winds and currents in the Florida Straits are favorable for a craft heading toward the keys and South Florida, if a raft drifts too far north, the changing currents and winds will tend to pull it out to sea rather than push it to shore. A Cuban man and woman rescued February 19 from a raft off the coast at Fort Pierce after a twelve-day trip said four of their companions had died. On April 4, A Cuban man who made it all the way to the coast near Haulover Beach said one of his companions had tried to swim for a boat a few days before and drowned. Another had slipped underwater after being tossed from the inner tubes. Amado Agchavarria Agete, 45, died on June 14, in the waters off Islamorada. Hours later a Coast Guard plane spotted his inner-tube raft and rescued his brother and two teen-age nephews, who had survived the three-day journey. Last month the bodies of an unidentified man and woman found off the Keys were buried in Key West.
"The people are going to keep coming no matter the danger," predicts 28-year-old Pavel Pablo Matos Rodriguez, who arrived by inner-tube raft with two friends on May 31, "because anything is better than staying in Cuba. At one point the two guys I was with got scared and wanted to go back. And I said, `You can let me off here, because I'm not going back. I'll swim there if I have to, or drown, but the only way I'm going back is if the Cuban coast guard catches me and takes me."
Earlier reports that the Cuban coast guard had relaxed its efforts to snare rafters fleeing the island have been replaced by stories of frequent patrols and harsh penalties for those caught. "Things have changed with the coast guard," says balsero Matos Rodriguez. "Once they realized people were aware they weren't looking, they started cracking down again."
Along with three companions, Victor Manuel Cintra Jardines, a 30-year-old Havana resident who worked as an electrician in the harbor, surveyed the coast near the Cuban capital for three months, noting the movements of coast guard patrols before selecting as a launching point an abandoned fish house in the western suburb of Miramar. "We pretended we were fishing all up and down the coast - in Cojimar, Habana del Este, Triton - and watched to see where the [truck-mounted] spotlights passed by along the coast, because those are the ones you have to worry about," Jardines says from the comparative comfort of a wood-paneled interview room at the Krome detention center.
The men fashioned a raft from three inner tubes, which they individually wrapped in canvas and tied in a row. Helping to hold the raft together were square wooden frames on top and bottom, and the lower frame was criss-crossed with wire to keep out the sharks.
They decided to leave on May 30. "One guy stayed in the house where we had the inner tubes while another guy drove over the truck from work," Jardines says in slow, thoughtful Spanish, as Omar Simon Solano, the brother of Jardines's girlfriend and one of his three companions on the voyage, leans over and strains to hear above the din of a dozen other balseros dressed in Krome-issue orange jail clothes. "They loaded up the tubes, passed by the Servicentro [gas station] and filled them up with air. The problem was that the sky was still light, it was too early. So I said to drive somewhere and park, because you can't be driving around at night - it's forbidden by the government. They had everything in back, covered up.
"When nine o'clock came, everyone was watching Roque Santeiro, a Brazilian soap opera that's very popular in Cuba, and the streets were deserted. We took advantage of it. The one guy brought the truck back to the fish house and we took everything out and put it together in maybe fifteen minutes."
They took only water, salt tablets, some chicken they ate the first day, and a bag of hamburgers from a Cuban fast-food chain popularly known as McCastro's. The burgers were soaked from the onset and were thrown away. Amid the anxiety of being discovered in the dash for the sea, they forgot most of the drinking water on shore. Unlike Selis and de Jongh, Jardines and his companions knew very little about the weather and the currents. They simply hoped that the wind, along with the oars they brought with them, would be enough to propel their craft to Florida.
"We thought it might rain, and that would be better because there wouldn't be fishermen," says Jardines. "The fishermen will turn you in if they see you. But it didn't rain. If I had to do it again, I wouldn't do it," he admits, lowering his baggy orange pants to show the blisters and scars where his lower back and buttocks were rubbed raw by the rubber tubes. They had considered the dangers, he says, but were foolish to take so many risks with so little preparation. "The weather was good - we had no storms or rain - but it was terrible. Our water was gone almost immediately. Since we weren't used to rowing, we drank it all.
"Sometimes you would see phantoms, visions, spirits on the water," he continues. "Once I saw a plant and said, `Hey, let's tie up the raft there.' And I saw an army marching across the water toward us, like across a desert. It seemed we would row and move ahead, and then the current would take us back, or we would just be moving in circles. And the sharks were everywhere." One shark bit the edge of the lower wooden frame, tearing through the canvas covering one of the inner tubes. "We were just watching the sharks circling, slapping at them with the oars," Jardines says, "and one of us said,`I can't believe this is our destiny. After all we've been through, I can't believe this is how we are going to end." Later, as they drifted lazily on calm seas, a swordfish surfaced in pursuit of prey and headed directly toward the tubes. At the last second, as the men scrambled in panic, the swordfish dove deep and disappeared.
On June 2, after nearly three days at sea, the four were spotted by a fishing boat, which radioed the Coast Guard. With all their food and water gone, they had subsisted on salt tablets. "When the Coast Guard picked us up, I cried because I was saved," Jardines says. "We thought we were dead. I would not recommend that anyone try. If they can find another way, they should find it. Seeing the Coast Guard for me was like being reborn. It was the greatest thing in my life."
Once spotted, in many cases by pleasure or commercial boats, occasionally by Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue), a group of Cuban exile pilots who fly over the straits in leased and privately owned planes, balseros usually are picked up by the Coast Guard and turned over to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. They are transported to Krome, interviewed by INS officers, and their immigration proceedings are begun. Many refugees are also interviewed by the U.S. Department of Defense, which debriefs any rafters who have knowledge about the Cuban military.
With the exception of those being held for criminal activities, the rafters are released to one of two church umbrella organizations -- the Miami-based Church World Service and United States Catholic Conference. These groups either reunite the Cubans with stateside family or release them to a sponsoring church outside of Miami. Most rafters have been relocated to Texas, New Mexico, Ohio, California, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.
Balseros say they speak of their schemes to almost no one in Cuba for fear that family members or friends taken into confidence and left behind will be blamed for helping them to escape. Many also say they know of people who smuggle refugees out by boat. Others have knowledge of people who will prepare a raft or find a small boat for a fee. Selis and de Jongh tell a story - which they say is well known in Cuba - about a man who charged 5000 Cuban pesos to take people to the Keys in his boat. When he returned to Cuba after the trip, he told authorities that he had been hijacked, but later was arrested and sent to jail.
In July 1989, the Coast Guard seized a 35-foot Cuban lobster boat spotted dropping off ten people on Sand Key. The crew and their boat were released after claiming they had been hijacked by the refugees. "From time to time we have incidents like that and it's hard to determine for sure whether there is smuggling taking place," says Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Karonis, a spokesman for the Coast Guard. "But we're fairly certain there is some of that going on."
But rafters who have made it to Krome say few Cubans seek such services because of the pervasive fear that chivos - snitches - are everywhere. "In Cuba you never know who is going to turn you in," says Selis, "so you don't trust anyone."
Twenty-two-year-old Alexis Perez Herrera says he paid a man to help transport him and some friends to the coast with some inner tubes. When they reached the beach in Habana del Este, Cuban authorities were waiting. "It was the guy who drove the truck that turned us in," says Herrera, who spent nineteen months in a Cuban prison for trying to escape the island. When he was released in April, he immediately enlisted his nineteen-year-old brother Tomas, their cousin Rafael Fiallo Echevarria, and a friend to try again.
"We talked about it, and we decided to build a raft out of two tractor inner tubes with oars," says Tomas, his green eyes scanning the Krome interview room and focusing on a TV monitor at the far end of the room that shows a car leaving through the center's front gate. "Is that the way we'll leave here?" he asks. "We must have come in that way, but I don't remember because I was so tired. I can't wait until we go out that way."
A week before he left Cuba, Alexis says, he found four poles and some blocks of wood, which he took to a carpenter friend, who made some oars. "Then I found two inner tubes from a Soviet tractor - they were just full of patches - and I bought them for 50 pesos each. I had to tell the guy that I wanted to use them to fish."
He stored the goods in a hallway at his mother's house in Bauta, in southern Havana province. "My mother didn't want us to go, of course," says Alexis. "She was crying, begging us not to throw ourselves in the ocean. But imagine how things are there! We had to go. We filled one on Saturday and wrapped it in canvas to protect it from the sun and salt. On Sunday we filled the second one. That night we were in the water.
"A friend of ours who was a truck driver went to the shop where it was parked and told them the owner had sent him to pick it up," Alexis continues, speaking through a mouthful of missing front teeth. "He gave it to us, and we loaded the rafts in back and drove to the coast. But about five blocks from Mariel [the Cuban port town west of Havana made famous by the 1980 boat lift], the truck ran out of gas. We had to take everything out and drag it through a field."
By 3:00 a.m. on May 27, the foursome had launched the inner tubes, lashed loosely together, from a rocky stretch of coast known as El Elegen. "We were rushing so much the two loaves of bread we brought were soaked, so we threw them away. Then right away one of the inner tubes started leaking because we didn't check them," Alexis recalls. After twelve hours at sea, one of the tubes overturned and the four containers of water they had brought along were lost. They had no compass, no knowledge of the weather or currents, no double layer of clothes to protect them from the elements.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"I had never even sat in one of these rafts before even to fish in a ditch," says Tomas. "When we got in the raft and we were rowing and all I see is sea and sea and sea, it was as if I was drunk. I was vomiting and vomiting until I thought I was going to die. So I threw myself down and started rowing and it calmed down a bit." Like Selis and de Jongh, the rafters ran into rough seas, and after nightfall it began to rain. "All we could do was go up one side of the waves and down the other they were so big," Tomas continues. "They looked like the size of a house to us."
Despite the bad weather, they dozed fitfully. Morning brought an unexpected surprise. "When we fell asleep, we had left Cuba completely. We couldn't see anything but ocean," recalls Rafael Fiallo Echevarria. "Well, when we wake up, there's all of Havana in front of us. The storm took us right back where we started."
They rowed away from the coast once more, now minus an oar. For two days they battled delirium, teetering atop the tubes when bull sharks passed by. "It was all kinds of visions. We were completely dehydrated from drinking salt water, but we had nothing to drink, nothing to eat," says Tomas, peeling back his lower lip to reveal white scars from salt burns inside his mouth. "We were going crazy. For sure we thought this was the end."
But on May 30, about 9:30 a.m., the rafters were spotted by a pleasure craft, about 60 miles south of Miami. Severely dehydrated, they had managed to survive for nearly four days on seawater. One inner tube was almost completely deflated. "We were all dead and we came back to life," says Tomas. "No one was more surprised than us that we lived.