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Kilwell - 6

Of dreamers who went sailing and the puffin which inspired them

by Vicki Smith/Sail-World on 11 Dec 2012
Puffin and his Cuban who sailed to freedom .. .
We found this unusual cruising tale heart-warming and beautifully told by Vicki Smith who is sailing in the Bahamas with her husband Maynard on their yacht Vanish. It is of a small toy puffin on a key chain and two Cubans who had a seven-year-old dream in their hearts and set out to go sailing.

Here's the story:


There is an ancient Chinese myth about the red thread of fate. It says that the Gods have tied a red thread around every one of our ankles and have attached it to all of the people whose lives we are destined to touch.

A few months ago when Maynard and I were sitting in the back of a taxi on our way to pick up my sister from the Rockland, Maine Airport on a cold wet day, I placed my handbag on the back seat and noticed someone had left a small 2' stuffed toy puffin on a keychain in the taxi. It was cute but old and dirty and I thought I could probably find a new one in one of the shops in Rockland. As we'd just returned on Vanish from a trip out to the remote craggy Matinicus Rock to see the nesting site of the puffins, I really wanted to find a puffin souvenir. I put it in a drawer and forgot about it.

Maynard and I had never met Cubans before but our neighbours, 'A' and 'R' had been through many hurricanes in Havana and had spent 15 years working in a marina looking after all kinds of vessels. When Hurricane Sandy came along 'A' assured us that we would be fine and we both vowed to help each other if it was needed. In fact, later, he said it was the 'best hurricane he'd ever been through'.

Last week after Hurricane Sandy had passed only 50 miles from us in the Bahamas, Vanish had a small get together with our marina friends and 'A' and 'R' were there. During the get together, they began telling us an amazing story.

For seven years, these two friends had been saving their money in order to escape Cuba and all the hardships they'd endured. They'd sold everything; their cars, their computers, furniture and anything they could not take with them. They had a few clothes, some money, enormous bravery, a lot of trepidation and nothing else and they were about to embark on a plan to enter the US. This was it. They were now to become Cuban refugees. This was the culmination of seven years of planning for the hope of a richer, hopeful, happy new life. What a wild and crazy idea. We couldn't believe our ears.

They were both very emotional about leaving their wives, children, homes, and friends to embark on such a journey as they didn't know if they would make it or see their families again. If ever we've met two people who deserved a better life, then these men were it. They were intelligent, hard-working, family orientated, caring individuals and these are the great qualities on which the US is founded. Maynard and I both felt a profound connection to the men as we both admire people who have dreams and are willing to take calculated risks to improve themselves.

In 1995, President Clinton defined the immigration policy by expediting the naturalisation process. Over the years, many Cubans have made the long and dangerous ocean crossing by various methods in a desperate attempt to enter the US. Many lives have been lost over the years. We had no idea what their plan was going to be. If they were caught in the water (known as a 'wet foot'), they would be immediately deported. However, if they made it to land (known as a 'dry foot'), they would be allowed citizenship.

It turned out they were going to try to sail to the USA. The owner of the yacht Puffin on a Cuban and his wife flew into Freeport a few days after the hurricane and we observed that neither of them knew anything about sailing, and I mean nothing. What their intentions were was a mystery as we didn't speak to them but we prayed they would look after these men.

The owner was heavily intoxicated most of the time but apparently had a good heart and the intention of taking the men somewhere.

The afternoon of their departure arrived and I beckoned 'A' to come aboard to say goodbye. I wanted to give him something special, perhaps a good luck charm to carry with him. I'd looked everywhere before laying my eyes on the puffin keychain. I didn't know why I wanted to give him this puffin keychain as it was the only one I had but it wasn't really mine anyway. I quickly Googled 'puffin migration' and was astounded to see that it is still a mystery where they migrate to in winter. This was the tiny thread that linked our Cuban friends to us and the puffins. As the yacht pulled away from the dock, 'A' and 'R' both grabbed me and with tremendous emotion, said 'thank you and goodbye'.

The owner slurred, 'There's still love in the world,' as he tried leaving the berth without turning on his engine and then turned the wrong way out of the marina before realising his mistake. A 180 deg u-turn ensued and then he finally pointed the yacht towards the channel entrance. As they turned, 'A' pulled the puffin out of his pocket, clutched it as if it was a gold bar, thumped his heart with his fist and yelled, 'I will keep this forever!' and with huge smiles and tears they were gone.

They left when the forecast was favourable with 5 - 10 knots, increasing to 10 - 15 knots from the NE and seas of 2 - 3 feet. Even though we had no idea where they were going, the weather was ideal at the time but when you put your life into the hands of people who know absolutely nothing about sailing or the sea, the experience can be an absolute nightmare.

I recently received an update in Spanish about their Gulf Stream crossing which I translated using Google Translate, a nifty little helper.

'Finally I'm here in the land of freedom. I will try to tell you everything but the story is very long. Well we left that day as you know almost dark and we anchored about three miles off the coast and near the port. The weather was terrible, so bad that everything, absolutely everything in the boat except the TV broke. We could not sleep all night and at 4 am convinced the captain to start sailing. The weather the whole time was bad and the captain and the wife were eventually seasick as well. We all had terrible moments. We intended to sail into a harbour in Florida but the Captain lost our position and we were delayed. The whole trip was terrible motoring into a headwind and we were only doing 5 or 6 knots.

The captain decided to take down the sails which ended up being worse. The wind was right on the bow and we were going nowhere and really was one of the worst crossings of my life. At about 4 am after sailing for more than 24 hours, we saw lights on the horizon and we were very happy but we were still far away. A little closer to the coast we spotted a Coast Guard cutter coming right at us. That's when I was very scared. I thought all was lost and we were going to jump into the sea. Fortunately they turned back when they came very close to us (we later found out that the Coast Guard was doing manoeuvers with a helicopter above). I think we were very lucky. Well closer to the inlet the Captain wanted to call on the radio to report that they came with two Cubans. You can imagine what happened! We tried to discuss it but he didn't change his mind.

At the last minute we finally decided to jump right into the water and had to swim about 150 meters to reach the coast leaving all belongings in the boat, money, documents. Everything was lost. After two days without eating and sailing in bad weather we had no strength for anything but the need for freedom and the survival instinct was stronger than us. We reached the coast almost dead and threw ourselves into the sand. We began to cry out of joy and the shock we had endured. We were very cold and walked for 45 minutes until we came across a street where we called 911. Three police cars came, the K- 9 unit, the regular police and border patrol who took us to the detention center in Fort Lauderdale. They gave us dry clothes, food and interviewed us and took all our data. For the first time in my life I felt that the police treated me like a human being and I felt respect for them. We had no fear and felt good and from there we were taken by transport at 3 pm to the Church World Service who is in charge of Cuban immigrants.

We filled out more forms and applied for Government assistance. Right now I have one credit card and another with food stamps and I have some cash and waiting for help. We get $USD 200 per month and the initial paperwork which will allow me to get a Social Security Number and a Driver's License later. So far so good, but I will never forget what we suffered to get here nor do I forgive the Cuban Government for forcing me to do this and leave my family. (Burn in hell, Fidel!) Sorry for the expression but I could never say that in Cuba. I plan to go to California. I have my Cuban relatives who moved there one year ago and I have a job and home to stay in. I dream about my family being in Florida or California which I like and I have more calmness now until my wife have daughter join me.

I'm glad to have met you. Thanks for your support and concern. I still have the migratory bird of luck. When jumping into the sea, I just took my ID and that little bird. It honestly gave me much strength. Thank you and I wish you well. My friend is at a friend's house in the south, so he is well.

Greetings from my new land.'

We have no doubt that these two men are now extremely happy with their new found freedom and will be supporting themselves independently and their families in no time at all.

This trip has been full of odd experiences and special encounters. It's not about the places we travel to; it's all about the people we meet. Certainly, the story of 'A', 'R' and Puffin on a Cuban was good for the soul.

If you want to read more stories of the cruising life of Vicki and Maynard on Vanish, go to their blog by http://www.sailblogs.com/member/vanish/!clicking_here.

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