The ship was rocking on the first night of our Caribbean cruise, but not from the music. As we plowed through the darkness, I watched the sea roll and the waves break.
A bright light on the horizon looked like another cruise ship. For a while I could see it, and then it would disappear.
To get a better look, I leaned into the cubby hole of our cabin window. Something strange was happening, perhaps an optical illusion caused by the great expanse of undulating darkness. The light seemed to be moving closer, but it wasn’t getting bigger.
At some point I realized, the light was coming from high atop our cruise ship, not from the mystery vessel. A searchlight was aimed at something, but what?
The object kept disappearing behind great swells of the sea. But slowly it got closer. Our ship slowed down. Soon it was barely moving.
The bright light in the sea gradually came into focus. I saw a person paddling with one oar. I saw another person waving. Frantic paddling. Frantic waving. And then the object was right below our window.
I recalled standing on the dock before we boarded, gawking at the size of the ship, a floating hotel with elevators to 14 decks above sea level.
I tried to imagine what such a ship would look like from a tiny raft. How did anyone in something so small have the courage to come so close to something so immense in such turbulent waters?
Within a few minutes the raft disappeared from my narrow range of vision. The ship remained still. I assumed that crew members at the rear of the ship were hauling the people to safety. I felt relieved that they were saved, even though I was sure this was not the outcome they were hoping for.
Soon the ship started up again, and I thought the ordeal was over. But it wasn’t.
Shortly after we started moving, I spotted another light on the horizon. Another raft? Had two groups left Cuba together? The light became smaller as the distance between us increased. Were we going to abandon them and continue on our way? My stomach churned, and it had nothing to do with seasickness. The whole life-isn’t-fair question was coming up like a partially digested meal. Here I stood, dry and warm in my cruise ship cabin snapping photos of desperate people, miles from any shoreline, being tossed like toys on rickety rafts. There’s nothing fair about that. Nothing fair at all. God, save them, I pleaded. How could we enjoy this vacation knowing that people were left helplessly adrift in these unforgiving waters?
I am not so callous that I did not immediately realize the utter selfishness of such a thought. Although I was not more concerned about enjoying my vacation than I was about their safety, the thought that my own enjoyment even came to mind at such a time intensified my indigestion.
As I struggled to regain my moral equilibrium, I noticed that the light was moving. I first saw it to my right, toward the back of the ship. Now it was to my left, toward the front. The ship was turning. We were moving toward the light. We were going to attempt another rescue. I continued to watch as the ship neared the raft. This time I saw no one paddling or waving. God, please, don’t let us be too late. As the ship moved closer, I once again saw people, still alive. We slowed down, and the raft moved closer to the ship, leaving my field of vision.
I didn’t see it again until six days later.
On Saturday evening, while getting ready for our final dinner on board, we had the television on to catch the evening news. I wasn’t paying attention until I heard the words. Raft. Empty. Washed ashore. Presumed dead.
I jerked my head toward the TV screen. The vessel I had previously seen outside my cabin window being bounced around by wind and waves, I now saw sitting serenely along the sandy shore of a Miami beach.
Mystery Surrounds Raft Found Near Black Point Marina
The fragile boat had reached its destination. Its passengers had not.
A report in the Miami Herald speculated that the passengers had died at sea.
An empty Cuban raft turned up near Cutler Bay, sparking fears that the passengers died
Thankfully, our cruise director had previously reported that our ship had indeed rescued four Cuban refugees. Although I was sure I had seen two rafts, what I had really seen was two rescue attempts of the same raft. The first attempt had failed—the raft had drifted away from the ship before the people could be brought on board.
This shows the location of the ship at the time of the first rescue attempt.
So the ship made a large circle around the raft and maneuvered close enough to rescue the passengers without causing the raft to capsize—in my mind, a nearly impossible feat.
- The loop in the upper right corner shows the path of the ship when we circled the raft to make the second rescue attempt.
Total time spent on the rescue—from the time someone reported seeing the raft until the time the passengers were brought on board—was four hours.
Three men and one woman had been pulled from the raft. The crew had given them food, rooms, and medical attention. The woman was severely dehydrated and would not have survived much longer, perhaps not even until the next morning. They had been at sea for 15 days.
On Friday night during dinner, as we returned to Miami via the south side of Cuba, our captain announced that the refugees were being turned over to the U.S. Coast Guard, who would return them to Cuba.
We had saved them from death, but we could not offer them a new life.
CBS News Report: Mystery Raft Found Near Black Point Marina