Originally published Jan. 11, 1993, Sun-Sentinel
In a seafaring twist on recent flights of freedom, 14 Cuban refugees hijacked a 40-foot fishing boat, tied up its captain and sailed nearly three days toward South Florida before the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted them.
The Coast Guard vessel Sitkinak towed the boat — loaded with two boys, a baby girl, two women and 11 men — into Key West about 9 a.m. on Sunday.
The fishing boat left the town of Mantua, near the western tip of Cuba, at 5 a.m. on Thursday on a routine fishing trip. Once at sea, the five men on board overpowered the captain and tied him up.
The boat returned to shore and picked up the other nine refugees and struck out for South Florida, one refugee said.
“Five of us tied the captain up,” said Francisco Reyes, 25, a Cuban fisherman who said he organized the escape. “When we got into international waters, we let him go. At that point, it was useless for him to resist.”
U.S. officials from the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office met the boatload of refugees in Key West and interviewed all passengers.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office discussed the matter and decided there was no basis for prosecution,” said FBI spokesman Paul Miller.
Miller confirmed that the ship’s captain had been tied up during parts of the refugees’ voyage, but he would not discuss whether the refugees had violated any laws to get here.
“That would be something (the U.S. Attorney) would have to decide,” he said.
The escape follows the Dec. 29 hijacking of a Cuban airliner in which the plane’s captain flew to Miami with 53 people aboard. All but five stayed in the United States.
Ten days earlier, pilot Orestes Lorenzo Perez barnstormed a small plane from Miami to Cuba, swept up his family from a country road and flew back to Florida.
Authorities have so far not prosecuted anyone in those cases.
In the latest escape, the ship’s captain told U.S. officials he wanted to return to Cuba. The remaining 14 Cubans were released from U.S. custody early Sunday afternoon after interviews and processing by immigration officials.
“(The captain) still fancies himself to be a revolutionary,” said Reyes, who left behind his mother, a sister and three brothers.
The ship, stocked with enough food for only five men for five days, was low on provisions when the Coast Guard located it at noon on Saturday near the Dry Tortugas, west of Key West, Coast Guard officials said.
Miller said the baby, a 14-month-old girl, had a fever when the Coast Guard intercepted the ship, but all the passengers were healthy on Sunday, officials said.
Reyes said the ship had been lashed by a storm, with high winds and rain, during the voyage. The refugees got lost until a U.S.-based yacht found them on Friday and called the Coast Guard.
Reyes said he had planned the three-day voyage for nearly two years before events started coming together two months ago. The other crewman aboard the ship, a machinist, helped tie up the ship’s captain.
“He was crazy to come here also, so he didn’t resist,” Reyes said. The machinist had his 5-year-old son and 14-month-old daughter with him. Another 5-year-old boy also was among the passengers.
Miller said the refugees, all of whom have family in Miami, were released to the Cuban Migrant Transit Center in Key West, which supplied food, clothing and help finding family.
“The best thing is that we did it right under the nose of the Cuban government,” Reyes said. Another boat had left from the same port a few days earlier.
“You can imagine security was tight,” he said. “But the biggest thing on my mind was my desire to come here.”
Editorial Assistant Lucio Guerrero contributed to this report.
Copyright 1993, Sun-Sentinel