The three Cubans were bound for the United States on a rickety boat, authorities said, attempting last month to replicate a treacherous sea voyage made by tens of thousands before them.
Yet instead of reaching South Florida, a mechanical failure left them stranded on an uninhabited island in the Bahamas. For more than a month, the three castaways — two men and one woman — reportedly survived off little more than coconuts, conchs and rats.
“It was incredible. I don’t know how they did it,” U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Justin Dougherty, who shuttled food and water to the trio on Monday, told WPLG. “I amazed that they were in such good shape when we saw them.”
Dougherty and a Coast Guard team undertook a dramatic, two-day mission this week to rescue them from 33 days on tiny Anguilla Cay.
Agency officials said the three Cubans, whose names have not been released, were taken to a hospital in the Florida Keys and are now detained at an immigrant detention center in Pompano Beach, Fla. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
While their story of survival on an empty island is an exceedingly rare one, the journey that brought them there is far from it. Since the 1980s, tens of thousands of Cubans have attempted the roughly 100-mile passage from their home country to Florida — first fleeing the Castro regime in crowded fishing vessels, and then in makeshift rafts in 1994 and beyond.
That second exodus prompted the institution of the policy known as “wet foot, dry foot,” which had allowed all Cubans who reached U.S. soil to stay in the country, until the Obama administration ended it in 2017.
But that change has not stopped some from attempting the journey anyway amid the shifting tides of Cuban immigration. In fiscal year 2019, The Miami Herald reported, Coast Guard officials intercepted more than 450 Cubans as they tried to reach the U.S. by boat, or right after they arrived.
The three Cubans, two of whom are married, had a similar goal to reach the Florida Keys, a spokesman for U.S. Border Patrol told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Yet their malfunctioning vessel could only transport them about halfway there.
It is unclear where their boat broke down, or how they managed to reach Anguilla Cay. In their month on the island, which lacks fresh water and suffers from harsh wind and sun, the castaways developed severe signs of dehydration and fatigue, ABC News reported.
As they lived off coconuts and took partial shelter under some foliage, they also managed to hoist flags off the cay. It was enough to draw the attention of a Coast Guard plane that had been wrapping up a routine patrol around the Caribbean on Sunday.
The Miami-based aircrew was able to provide them with water, food and a radio they used to communicate with the trio, Coast Guard Lt. Ricardo Rodriguez said in a video on Twitter.
“When we dropped the first radio [canister], you could see the relief on the woman’s face as she put her hands on her face — that they had been found and help was on the way,” the plane’s pilot, Lt. Riley Beecher, told the Sun Sentinel.
But with fuel running low, Beecher’s plane was forced to head back to Miami, according to the newspaper. It wasn’t until the following day — after another shipment of food was sent over — that a Coast Guard helicopter was able to rescue the Cuban castaways, hoisting them up on ropes.
Sean Connett, the command duty officer at Coast Guard Seventh District, praised the coordination of the crews involved in the rescue, noting that it was “a very complex operation” that could have easily worsened.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon Murray simply called it a miracle.
“I cannot recall a time that we saved people who were stranded for over a month on an island,” he told the Sun Sentinel. “That is a new one for me.”