My cruise ship intercepts a raft of Cuban refugees [WATCH]

cuban refugee boat found by royal caribbean 29 june 2012

Most of the passengers believed the Cuban refugees were cruising to Mexico. Because, ya know, the Oasis just went to Cozumel and Señor Frog’s was totally off the chain.

Yesterday, I was ending a week-long voyage on Royal Caribbean’s mighty Oasis of the Seas (travel writing, yo) with Nomadic Matt, and as our mammoth ship crossed the 90-mile distance between Havana, Cuba, and Key West, Florida, we encountered an inflatable raft packed with 18 refugees. They were in distress.

Something about travel and me places me where news is happening. Just as I did when Virgin Atlantic negligently stranded passengers without food for nearly two days at JFK, I turned to Twitter to report the story as it unfolded. Websites started picking up my coverage; generously said “Thank social media for this, and the people who actually know how to use it.”

So here is the short video I took when I wasn’t tweeting — which, given the slow upload speeds at sea, was the only way I was going to get word out quickly. (Read many of my live tweets at the link above, or in my stream.) I did not see this covered on the news later — Fox News was too busy lamenting over the word tax — and I don’t know what happened to these desperate souls.

No one except my fellow Royal Caribbean passengers seemed fooled by the rafters’ ridiculous claim that they were actually headed to Mexico. Even in the video, the rafters are making a half-hearted and impossible attempt to head west even though they were clearly making their way north, toward the Keys. America is so near Cuba at the location of this video that yesterday, a 49-year-old grandmother, Penny Palfrey, began a marathon barefoot swim between the two coasts in the same waters.

Although this sort of thing happens with surprising and sobering regularity (the Oasis rescued more  refugees just two months ago, and the Disney Fantasy saved some last month), few Americans are aware of the harsh game rafters are forced to play in order to reach American soil.

If they make it to dry land, they can stay and file paperwork, but if they’re nabbed with so much as a pinky toe in the water, they’re shipped back to suffer the consequences in Cuba. I think most of the cruise’s passengers thought the benevolent Coast Guard would take these liberty seekers into the bosom of our expansive nation and give them the fresh start they so desperately needed. After all, the only thing Americans value more than freedom is the sacrifice we make to attain it. Right, pupils?

Well, no. In reality, current American policy is more Darwin than Melting Pot. Unless they somehow make it over these shark-filled waters to dry land, we automatically deposit them back home regardless of what may happen to them, and what sort of treasonous betrayals they may be accused of, once they arrive on their own shore.

To be “rescued” would mean guaranteed deportation. So they just asked for water and food. Before it arrived, there was much yelling amongst them on their pathetic raft. I believe they were arguing about how to play this. They chose to pretend Mexico was their goal. The Coast Guard, though, won’t have believed that, and it would surely have watched them to make sure they never got to America.

That’s the dilemma they faced: If they hadn’t run into us, they risked going off course, starving or dying of thirst, or sinking and being devoured by sharks. But since they did run into us, the jig was up, their smoldering engine pointed them out like a beacon, and they would never make it to America now. They surely had no hope in reaching even their false target of Mexico, several hundred nautical miles away. Instead of guaranteed deportation, they chose deferred deportation.

The Oasis gave them food and water using a yellow rescue boat, called the Coast Guard, and left them to endure their next chapter. Royal Caribbean did the right thing. If they had asked to be rescued, we would have done that instead.

As it as, they wanted to be abandoned. It was preferable to the thought of capitulating to the United States Coast Guard. Or maybe they just don’t like ventriloquist shows and casinos.

When it was over, and we turned east again in the platter-flat sea, a pod of dolphins came over to us to find out why this floating skyscraper was motionless. It was a beautiful, sad moment marked by near silence and no wind.


cuban refugee boat found by royal caribbean 29 june 2012

What caused them to resort to this? What will become of them now?

A closer shot of the refugees courtesy of

As a self-effacing contrast, I present this rather milquetoast video segment that I made for AOL when the ship was first launched. This is the indulgent world these men were risking death to taste:


UPDATE, 2 July: The refugees did not escape. The Coast Guard in Miami told me that “The Coast Guard did rendezvous in the cruise ship’s former location” but “it is an ongoing law enforcement investigation” so it is not able to comment until “they are repatriated in their home country if they are in fact Cuban refugees.”

UPDATE, 2 August: The 18 refugees were repatriated to Cuba on 6 July, according to the Coast Guard in Miami. Its public report states:

Coast Guard Sector Key West, Fla., watchstanders received notification that the cruise ship Oasis of the Seas was on scene with a blue-foam raft with 18 people aboard south of Key West, Fla., June 29, 2012. Sector Key West watchstanders diverted the Coast Guard Cutter Nantucket whose crew on June 29 safely embarked the 18 migrants and later transferred them to the cutter Ocracokefor repatriation. … Once aboard a Coast Guard cutter, all migrants are provided with food, water, shelter and basic medical attention. The cutter Ocracoke is a 110-foot patrol boat homeported in St. Petersburg, Fla. The cutter Nantucket is a 110-foot patrol boat homeported in Key West.

The following day, it picked up six more Cubans and sent them home, too. And so it goes.

10 Responses to “My cruise ship intercepts a raft of Cuban refugees [WATCH]”

  1. Karen Rogers Oliver

    So Sad, my husband is cuban, they fled Cuba when he was 2 years old, but they were fortunate to fly out, under the geise of visiting family!

  2. kalston

    Thanks for the update. We were on the same cruise and appreciated your pictures to go with the story we are telling now that we are back home of that experience.

  3. Ronn Lucas

    Thanks also for the update. I’ll keep looking. And praying for these guys. As I wrote on your other thread (abt. Labadee food beggers) I perform on the Oasis and I often get to see my RCCL cruise line have to decide a lot concerning what is legal and appropriate. I think they did all they could. As you alluded, these refugees also might have been Hatian – but doubtless they were Cuban given their/our location at the time. …And Oh, I’m def. not offended by the remark about ‘Ventriloquists and Casinos’. I work in Las Vegas a lot. In my case BOTH shoes fit. <>
    – Ronn Lucas

  4. Ronn Lucas

    Oh yeah…
    I recall the family of dolphins that followed this sad refugee scene. The Cubans had just departed and we were still dead in the water; still stunned. This dolphin pod unexpectedly came right up to the ship to check us out, and then they moved on. Under the circumstances, it was another haunting reminder of “life goes on.”

  5. mattkarsten

    Too bad they didn’t make it! But at least they’re alive.

    I remember when I was working as a nightlife photographer in Miami, I met a man who had just arrived off a boat similar to this. Still covered in dirt/sweat.

    The super-fancy South Beach nightclub decided to let him in for the night & gave him a free bar tab. Welcome to America! 🙂

  6. a2buckeye99 (@a2buckeye99)

    my family was on this trip as well… we wondered what happened of this group of refugees and also doubted their reported destination of Mexico. what a humbling sight for us to experience after such a week of luxury.