We were anchored in Peck Lake, which is not a lake, really, just a widening in the murky intracoastal waterway. But it provides easy access to the longest stretch of undeveloped beach in Florida.
Our first morning there, we found a large rusty object washed up on the beach, a raft made of oil barrels, welded together to form four pontoons. The rudimentary hull was also made of oil barrels, cut open, hammered flat, and welded together, not very strong, clearly—the bow was crumpled and there were jagged edges of rusty steel where parts of the hull had been torn away. There were engine mounts at the stern, but no engine. There must have been a rudder of some kind, but it was long gone.
A loosely folded piece of heavy blue canvas lay at the foot of the mast—a sail? I leaned in to get a closer look at the items scattered on the floor around it. An empty burlap sack. A large plastic bottle full of murky water.
A single grey canvas running shoe.
We were in Cuba the winter before the pandemic hit. We knew food would be scarce, but we weren’t really prepared for how hard it would be to find any food at all. Rum and cigars, yes. Food, no.
Anchoring out is discouraged by the Guarda Frontera who are known to board boats, weapons at the ready, so we checked into a marina. On Saturday morning we headed to the market in the next town, just a short walk away. We turned into a street lined with what we thought were deserted houses, missing windows, crumbling walls, great holes in the roofs. But we could see faces peering out at us from the darkened interiors, a boy playing in the dirt in one of the tiny front yards.
A three-legged dog loped by.
In the town square we found a couple of tables piled high with dirty carrots, heaps of knobby potato-like things, vaguely purple underneath the red dirt. Eyes turned to us, suspicious, resentful. Of course they didn’t like us, I thought. We were buying their food, could obviously afford whatever we wanted. We had new running shoes, backpacks, sunglasses.
A man carrying a machete passed by, wheeling a barrow with a dead pig in it. People approached him and he waved away the flies and cut off hunks of meat.
We returned to the boat empty handed.
A few days later, we left the marina and sailed to a secluded anchorage far from the nearest Guarda station. As we settled in for the night, we spotted a raft sailing towards us. Fishermen with lobster to trade. We offered them a bag of coffee, which they gladly accepted, but what they really wanted was food. I pulled out a bag of chickpeas, some pasta, a couple jars of sauce. Bambino, one man implored? I gave him a dozen juice boxes and a handful of granola bars. They gave us half a dozen lobsters.
It was February when we first heard that something was going on back in Canada. They weren’t calling it a pandemic yet, but whatever it was, it was worse than the seasonal flu. People were ending up in the hospital, even dying. And it was spreading quickly. Next thing we knew, the Prime Minister sent a message to Canadians abroad telling them it was time to come home.
Normally, we would wait for just the right wind to cross the Gulf Stream, which fills the strait between Cuba and the U.S. But we had no choice. Cuba was closing its waters to foreign vessels. We had to leave. Besides, we’d sailed across the North Atlantic. How bad could it be?
Very bad, it turned out.
The current was pushing the water relentlessly east, the wind was blowing toward the west. The result was big, steep waves, six feet at least, with the occasional nine-foot wave, and we were taking them on the bow, water foaming along the deck and pouring out through the scuppers.
But we have a sturdy steel sailboat, and you can stand anything for just one night.
I can picture the rusty raft we found ghosting away from the Cuban shore just after dark. They don’t have access to the kind of weather information we do, they may not have known what they were sailing into. I imagine a calm night for them, with light winds from the west. When they enter the Gulf Stream, the seas pick up a little, but it’s nothing the little raft can’t handle. I give them a full moon to light their way.
A little boy is asleep on his mother’s lap. He stirs, its colder out on the water than his mother had imagined. The man beside her, a stranger, pulls his sweater over his head and tucks it around the boy. She looks up at him and smiles. Gracias, she murmers.
How far can a raft made out of empty barrels travel in a night? Have they made it around the tip of Florida by morning? Perhaps they spend another long night at sea. Just before dawn, the helmsman starts the engine and begins to ease the raft out of the Gulf Stream and towards a long strip of unlit beach. Now that they’re no longer travelling with the wind and the current, the raft is taking the seas on the beam and rolling sickeningly as waves smash against the hull, drenching the passengers with salt spray. Before long, the floor of the raft is awash with salt water and vomit.
A thin strip of land appears on the horizon then suddenly the water begins to shallow. Ahead of them, they can see huge waves breaking along the shore. The people aboard cry out in terror and clutch the sides of the raft, the mast, each other as the raft surfs towards the deserted beach.
I’m not sure what happens next. Does the raft capsize in the surf? Very likely, and the people are dumped into the churning seas. How many of them make it to shore? Does the woman? The little boy? I can’t imagine her terror as she tries to hang onto him in the confused seas. The empty raft rolls towards shore, the mast snaps in two, the engine is ripped from its mounts. The hull is beaten in as the raft crashes down on the submerged rocks that line the beach.
I’ll never know what happened to the people on that rusty raft. I like to think they made it to shore and have been quietly folded into the thriving Cuban ex-pat community in southern Florida. I hope they weren’t picked up by the U.S. border patrol as soon as they landed and whisked away to a detention centre.
I know I only imagined her, but as I read about the deteriorating situation in Cuba, I often find myself thinking of the woman and her son and the courage—or desperation—it takes to set out into the Gulf Stream in a rusty raft hoping for a better life.