Monday, May 13, 2024

Drifting Towards Death -- Or Freedom

Cuban Boat Washed up on Marquesas Keys

Quiet Martyrs
By Robert A. Waters

In the dead of night, on March 3, 1964, a rickety 22-foot-long fishing boat called the Delfin moved slowly off a beach near Santiago de Cuba. Equipped only with an antique outboard motor and sails made from flour sacks, eighteen men, women and children crowded its decks. They were bound for Jamaica, 140 miles away. From there, they knew they could obtain visas to freedom (i.e., the United States of America).

If caught by patrolling Cuban gunboats or Russian helicopters, they would be machine-gunned. But they decided freedom was worth the risk.

After working for many years as a salesman, Vicente Mayans saved up enough money to purchase the Delfin. When friends and neighbors learned of his plan to flee, many asked to join. Mayans later said he couldn't turn them down. Thinking the trip would take two days, they stocked up with only six cans of ham and ten gallons of water.

Almost immediately, things went wrong. First, the motor quit. A mechanic named Alberto spent 24 hours attempting to repair it, but to no avail. Next, heavy winds blew down the flimsy mast. Now the boat was at the mercy of the ocean currents. And soon their food and water ran out.

Mayans later told Ian Glass, a reporter for the Miami News, "We became hopelessly lost." The boat began drifting, first in one direction, then another. Vicente's pretty wife, Digna, had joined him in their quest for freedom but now it seemed they both might die. 

It never rained. The sun beat down all day every day. They tried fishing, using a few crumbs of bread for bait. Luis, a former hotel worker, landed a small shark. "We tore it apart with our hands like animals," Mayans said. "We ate it raw." 

The refugees tried to row, but the current was too strong. As the boat floated aimlessly through heavy seas, some began slowly losing their minds. Two men jumped into the water and were never seen again. Starving, dehydrated, sunken-eyed and so thin they looked like skeletons, one-by-one the freedom-seekers dropped dead on the deck. Many died clutching their rosaries.

Mayans said, "Death came almost quietly. They would just lie down in the boat to conserve strength and assumed when they woke up we would have been rescued. But they never woke up." A trail of vicious sharks, smelling death, followed the boat. Mayans and his fellow Cubans reluctantly pushed corpses over the edge and watched the sharks fight for the bodies.

Day after day, the sad boat drifted.

Mayans recounted, "Soon there was only Digna and me. And then she, too, died. One minute she was asleep, and the next..." Unwilling to throw his beloved wife to the sharks, he held her and vowed they would die together.

After seventeen days, the boat washed up on the shores of Grand Cayman, one of a group of British-owned islands. Beachgoers found the sole survivor, Vicente Mayans.

He was hospitalized for nearly a week, then finally made it to the United States. He spent many years working to commemorate lost freedom-seekers from Cuba.

The Straits of Florida, called the "Death Corridor," lies between Cuba and Florida. For Cubans, the 92 miles of ocean has remained a watery gauntlet to be sailed through. Refugees face hurricanes, Cuban militia patrols, man-hungry sharks, exposure to scorching weather, high seas and rogue waves, the loneliness of the open ocean, and other deadly obstacles to reach freedom.

Perhaps Vicente Mayans said it best. Cuban refugees "are quiet martyrs who are testimony to the hell that Cuba must be, if they are willing to give up their lives rather than live there."

Here are some other stories I've written on this subject.

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