The Hemingway MaidbyAdrian Leverkuhn©
Even after the 'Cold War' ended, relations between The United States and Fidel Castro's Cuba remained - to put it mildly - strained. Well into the 1990s, when people fled Cuba - usually by boat or makeshift raft across the 90-mile wide Florida Straits - they either died trying to reach America or were taken into custody by the U.S. Coast Guard and then awaited a very uncertain fate.
My first encounter, personally, with this terrible exodus occurred in the summer of 1995. I was with my father on Sabrina, my dear old sailboat, and we were traveling from Naples, on the southwest coast of Florida, around through the Dry Tortugas and Keys to the Miami/Ft Lauderdale area on the east coast. There had been, apparently, a wave of repression in Cuba, and many hundreds of people had decided to make the illegal trip across the Straits from Cuba to Florida in some very unsuitable craft. Reports from news services and the Coast Guard were filled with unspeakable fates awaiting these refuges on the open ocean.
In the late afternoon of a rather unremarkable June day, barreling along under full main and double headsails, with the wind on our starb'rd beam and the Gulf Stream giving us a steady push, Dad and I were talking about life and women and the reasons why 12 year old Scotch is better than sex (yes, I know, but Dad was approaching 80 years old, so cut me some slack . . .). I was updating our progress on the paper chart in my lap with our speed and time, calculating distance over the ground and plotting our position on the chart (excuse me, this was before GPS). Navigating was a favorite past time with both my father and I; he had taught me how to fly when I was still in diapers, and how to get lost in a boat when I was still learning how to walk.
As I made some notes on the chart some obscure flash caught my eye, and I looked up and out over the deep blue water. The waves were perhaps five to seven feet high, and the wind was fresh enough to be blowing foam off the white-capped rollers that surrounded us. As Sabrina bounded up and over these rolling troughs I could see off into the near distance, and it was on one of these brief ascents that I caught sight, again, of something bright and very out of place. I alerted Dad and we came about, and headed in the direction I had last seen this, well, whatever it was. Soon we were approaching a raft, but please keep in mind that calling this collection of oil drums, plywood sheets, and rags a raft was a very forgiving term.
The Coast Guard had advised mariners against approaching these rafts, apparently fearing that starving, half-dead refuges would in desperation take-over or attack would-be rescuers. The problem here, as I saw it in those immediate circumstances, was that no one was moving on the raft. I could see several people laying out on the plywood surface of the derelict-craft, and people were being tossed about by the swells, but no one was up and about, no one appeared to be conscious.
As we closed on the little raft my father and I watched in absolute horror as a small body rolled from the raft and dropped into the sea.
Dad altered course to try and reach the child, but we were still well over a hundred feet away. As we entered the approximate area where the little body had hit the water, Dad set up a search pattern. It was during times like these that my now very old father, a retired naval aviator and dive-bomber pilot during WWII, would suddenly come screaming back into the full rush of life. Where minutes before he had been grousing about arthritis and how all of his old friends had passed away, here he was at the wheel shouting instructions and back in complete command of the world around him.
Or so I hoped.
I caught a momentary flash of weathered brown skin bobbing on the surface as we passed it, and pointed it out to Dad; he swung the boat wildly around, giving no thought to the sails, and we were on the body in an instant. I hopped down on the boarding ladder as the body hove into the lee of the boat and just managed to grab the young boy by the arm, and pulled him up onto Sabrina's deck.
It took but an instant to determine that the little guy was gone, that he had probably been dead for hours. His sun-scorched skin felt like hot leather in my hands, even after it's brief rest in the relatively cool waters of the Gulf Stream. I will never forget that boys face as long as I live, and will spare you the details. I looked at Dad with helplessness in my heart, and saw his face streaked with tears.
I got on the radio and called the Coast Guard, gave them our estimated position, and that of the raft, as well as our situation on board. Within a half hour an orange-striped white USCG helicopter came screaming in over our head, and an orange-suited rescue diver jumped down into the churning water next to the raft. The helicopter moved off and went into a hover.
Soon we heard the diver on the radio. All those poor souls on the raft were dead.
The helicopter pilot asked us to stay on station with the rescue diver as they had just received another rescue call; basically, we had to wait for a Cutter to arrive and take over operations. The chopper-jock thanked us and was gone. We motored over as close to the diver on the raft as we dared, and he grabbed the line we tossed over and made it fast, then we closed the distance a little bit more, tried to lend whatever assistance the guy needed.
The diver told us this was his sixth such rescue that week, and that almost all found so far had been dead. He seemed hollow and care-worn, too numb to cry. He tossed down the orange juice we gave him with the dull ache in his soul apparent in his every move and gesture. Soon the Cutter arrived, and we helped with the transfer of bodies to the ship and the information needed for their reports, and they bid us a safe journey.
You just got to love the Coasties. Tough job. Real heroes, those guys.
Dad and I finished our trip around to the east coast in almost total silence, and we eventually tied off on the dock in front of his house shortly after midnight. Up until the day he passed away just a few months ago, the events of that afternoon tied us together in unexpected ways. I think his heart softened a bit; the reality of those desperate people and their hopeless flight really tore him up like nothing I could remember. As unsuccessful as we'd been trying to rescue those people, the effort to do something, anything, to help those poor souls must have resounded with the usually sour-faced response he had to newscasters and all the other second-guessers he'd run into during his long life. I guess from that day forward apathy was a perverse luxury he felt humanity could no longer afford.
God, I miss him.
A little over a year later I decided to visit Cuba, see firsthand the world those boat people had tried to flee from, with, apparently, so much despair in their hearts.
And I decided to make the trip on Sabrina.
Several Canadian sailors had told me of their warm welcome to Cuba, and voiced the opinion that my reception in Cuba would be no less hospitable. U.S. policy at the time appeared to be in a state of review, or at least ambivalence, as repeated requests for information - about making such a trip by boat - to the Coast Guard and State Department went unanswered.
I left Ft Lauderdale one February morning and wound down the ICW, the famous Intra-Coastal Waterway, to Miami, then went out Government Cut and into the heaving swells of the Gulf Stream. Sabrina took me into the teeth of this stream, straining toward the southwest against both current and prevailing wind, toward the Florida Straits and those deep blue waters of hope stilled. Sabrina took me across a seascape of nightmares and broken dreams, over blood worn and tumultuous waters toward the north shore of Cuba. I arrived off the coast of Havana late on the third day out from Florida, wet and cold to the core, beaten up by the trip against the current, and ready to just breath easily now that the Straits were behind me.
I was greeted almost immediately by a Cuban naval vessel. And I say greeted, because that was exactly what happened. Very nice, very professional naval officers in a smallish gray patrol boat came alongside and, noting that I was an American, asked if it was my intent to stage an invasion or create some other problem for Fidel Castro. Reassured with my reply that I was indeed the vanguard of a Marine Expeditionary Force and that George Washington and the Continental Army was right behind me, they laughed and pointed me in the general direction of the Marina Hemingway. I did note that there was an astonishing number of machine guns and larger deck guns on the Soviet-built boat, as well as some very menacing looking missiles and whirling radar arrays. Not exactly representatives of the Peace Corp . . .
The Marina Hemingway was named for, well, not William Faulkner or F Scott Fitzgerald. It seemed that, once upon a time, Papa Ernest had called Cuba his home away from home for a while. So, the marina that bore his name (in honor of his manly exploits on the sea, one assumes) could hardly have been anything other than a haven for macho-American sailors in search of rum and cigars and a right good time. I was not surprised to learn that the Marina Hemingway was also one of the big-time secrets of Yanquis-Yachties looking ever southward for new ways of living on the cheap.
And here I have to help you understand something. Marinas are full of boats, often sailboats. And many of these boats are not "yachts"; they are, rather, homes. With names like Second Wind, Scot Free, and yes, Sabrina, the casual observer easily makes the connection between these marina-bound vessels on the one hand and the recently obtained status of divorced-white-guy on the other. As many of these divorced-white-guys are recently retired, and living expenses over time become an ever more relevant issue, these anxious older men head south of the border, so to speak, in search of cheaper climes and a place to hang out with their memories. In recent years, Cuba had suddenly popped up on these guy's radar screens as a great place to live cheaply and nicely. And maybe the chance to live outrageously one last time, the chance to make a few more memories to take with them on the big sleep.
So, little did I know I was motoring on into an out-of-control Leisure World for boaties.
But to be fair, I have to relate to you one other key fact about these communities; cue you in one of the most important elements of these "live aboard" communities. A huge percentage of the folks living on board their sailboats are, well, not timid sorts of people. Lots of retired CIA types, pilots, soldiers, and yes, truck drivers, oil patch workers, and cops. Not many florists and bankers make the leap to cruising distant shores. So, and this is important, these live-aboard communities in foreign waters are real tight on the loyalty thing. People look after one another. When these guys turn their back on conventional society and sail away, they do so knowing they won't ever have to be alone unless they really want to be. Because the community is so protective of it's own, it becomes an extended family. By and large, and I dislike generalizations, a lot of these guys also tend to be hard drinking, smoking, and fornicating horny bastards.
Which was why, in the 1990s, the Marina Hemingway was such a dream come true for these guys. Cuba was a last frontier kind of thing, and these guys were cowboys headed off toward the sunset . . .
When you pull into a marina almost anywhere in the world, nattily dressed dock boys typically point you a slip to dock your boat in. More often than not, again, in most places, the process of placing a boat in a marina reflects the size of your boat, and more importantly, the apparent cost of it as well. To put it more succinctly, the biggest and the best tend to get the spot next to the yacht club or the fancy restaurant, while the run down little cruisers get shuttled over to the nice smelling slips by the tuna-canning factory.
Not so at Marina Hemingway.
What might have passed for a restaurant or a yacht club in the 90s anywhere else in the yachtie world - even within the diminished standards of Central American yachting - would not adequately characterize what greeted me as Sabrina swung into the Marina Hemingway. Quaint and charming are two euphemisms that come to mind as pertinent overstatements, but, well, it was clean, after a fashion. The marina was, after all, a remnant of Yanquis Imperialism from the pre-Castro era, and not a lot of Soviet money had gone into it's upkeep and repair since. Since tourism in Cuba from 1959 through 1989 was in keeping with the Soviet style of travel - let's just call it economy class and be done with it - the Marina had become totally irrelevant. Everyone knows yachting wasn't a real big deal with the Russians unless an Olympic medal was involved, so Marina Hemingway had devolved into a real trip down memory lane. As I approached the palm-lined slips filled with all manner of live aboard vessels, it became clear that Marina Hemingway wasn't gong to give Newport a run for its money. But it looked friendly in its way.
And so it was that I met Pedro Flores, a thirteen-year-old Cuban dock-boy who waved me toward a row of slips, and took a dock line as I drifted into the slip he had chosen.
I found over the course of the next few weeks that Pedro - and others like him - worked hard to get jobs at the marina, and each was assigned his own turf to look after. They helped boats in and out of slips, arranged rides into Havana for tenants needing supplies, and would look after your boat when you were away. These kids lived on tips, made no hourly wage, and depended entirely on the goodwill of the marina tenants for their very existence. To say these kids were nice would be a grossly unjust understatement, but they were also smart as hell and worked like crazy to earn and keep their positions at the marina.
Pedro also introduced me to my new neighbor. Ron Fuller was living on a Westsail 32 in the slip next door to the one Pedro had just put me in. I had heard about Ron through the cruisers grapevine for years; his story was almost the stuff of legends. He had been some sort of contract spook in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam years, and had been loosely involved with the U.S. intelligence community ever since. He had, as rumor had it, an endless supply of cash, lived modestly, had no credit cards and no debt, and refused to return to America. He was reputed to do wet-work for any government who would meet his fee. If any Cuban official had known who he was, or what he'd done over the years, Ron probably wouldn't have hung around Cuba for too long. But he never worried about such stuff; I was pretty certain that if anyone had tried to burn him the poor snitch's body would have turned up in some dark alley with lots of new holes in the face. Like I said, a tight community.
When Pedro first introduced me to Ron, he was sitting in the shaded cockpit of his boat, named Blade Runner, sipping some whacked-out 200 octane rum drink in the late afternoon sun. He tipped Pedro for helping bring my boat in, which I thought a bit weird at the time, not knowing how these kids made a living. After these informalities had been seen too, Ron hopped over to Sabrina with two drinks in hand and plopped himself down in my shady cockpit. He put his feet up while I went about cleaning up the deck and stowing sails and navigation gear. He never said a word, just stared off toward some distant memory and confronted it with silence.
When I was done, which was well before the ice in Ron's drink melted, I sat down opposite Ron and got acquainted over five or six really stiff rum-based jet fueled cocktails. He filled me in on the Havana scene; mainly Brits and Canadians enjoying the Caribbean on the cheap, with a bunch of hard screwing Germans on hand just to keep things interesting. Food was cheap, rum even more so, while hot and cold running hookers were just about everywhere you cared to look after dark. G
Large grocery stores were not common anywhere in Cuba, but fresh produce, fish and meat were decent and plentiful if you could hit the various local towns on market day. Havana was to be avoided, as the costs were devilishly high and all the best stuff was found on the off-limits-to-Gringos black market. And that's where Pedro would come in handy, Ron said, because the kid could arrange for you to get just about anything, on the black market or in the town market.
There were a couple of laid-off/retired Pan Am pilots living in the marina on huge shiny Sea Rays, and together with Ron they constituted the evening variety show known as the Three Amigos. Known principally for their antics as they returned from Havana each evening, usually howling at the moon, they had become kind of like a town council. I guess Ron would have fancied himself mayor if he'd taken to caring about stuff like that.
As evening approached, Ron invited me to join the Amigos on their evening rounds, and I left Sabrina in Pedro's reputedly capable hands as we headed off for the car Pedro had arranged. I had no idea that I was headed for an evening in Havana with three of the craziest human beings on the planet.
I'll tell you about that night some other time. You might think it funny.
Maybe. But there was a really foul taste in my mouth, and . . .
. . . Pedro was standing over me, shaking me awake. I had absolutely no idea where I was. For that matter, I was fairly certain I had no idea who I was, only that there were at least three elephants sitting on my head. Slowly the scene began to resolve: Sabrina seemed, well, OK; the hands and feet I was looking at looked vaguely familiar; and there was a weird thirteen year old standing over me, shaking me awake . . . oh, yeah, the Three Amigos! Memories flooded back of rowdy street scenes, rowdy women, rowdy bars, and rowdy car rides. Maybe driving the porcelain bus came into the scene, too. That taste in my mouth . . .
Well, you get the picture.
Pedro was soon shoving a plate of just fried plantains and fresh squeezed orange juice under my nose. I was lying in Sabrina's cockpit with a small blanket over me, and my body felt like it had been trampled by stampeding cattle all night long. I felt this was reasonable because my mouth tasted like pure dry bullshit. I was raised in Texas, so I know that taste very well. Pedro was talking, and sometimes the words coming out of his mouth made sense, but I really was in the weirdest fog, like lost, only worse . . .
"Your boat is a mess, senor, so I have hired a woman to clean it for you today," he said in his thick Cuban accent. "She is also a cook, and will have your breakfast ready in a few minutes. The hot water for your shower is ready. Please come now, Mr. Jim."
Sounded like a plan to me. My middle name is "Go with the flow".
Off to the shower it was, and the water was hot. Unless you've lived on a sailboat before that statement is meaningless. Trivial. But at that moment I was pretty sure that this Pedro fella was Jesus Christ come back to earth. God it felt great. Then it hit me . . . a woman was on my boat, cooking and cleaning. I started to get a little antsy, and called out to Pedro.
"Just who is this woman on my boat, Pedro?"
"It is my sister Elise, Mr. Adrian. Please not to worry, sir, she has done this kind of work for many years." Yeah, I had heard that one before. Like the little guy in Saigon who would claim that he was selling you his pure virgin sister . . . and wouldn't you just know she'd been a virgin seven times that week . . . right before he tossed a grenade in your jeep.
So, I held my head under the water until it simply - stopped. If I'd wanted a longer shower Pedro would have had to carry more to the rooftop tank. But no dice; he was gone. But fresh clothes and some toothpaste and a razor had magically appeared on a little stool outside the shower.