Escape to Freedom
On the night of October 22, 1971 a young Orestes Pena, just 22 years of age, plunged into the waters of _______________ along with his two cousins, Alberto and Angel, and a friend named Jose. They waded waist-high through the water and the mangroves towards a distant sand dune while carrying their self-made boat above their heads. Over the past two weeks, Orestes had scouted the local Coast Guard station and learned that a guard arrived each night at 8pm and searched the beach with his dog. Knowing that the sun would set about seven, the men knew their departure window was between 7-8pm, otherwise they would risk being discovered. After reaching the the sand dune, they carefully placed their boat into the water. They took one last look at the beach scounting for the guard before jumping into the boat. The four men began rowing as hard as they could towards the open sea. Orestes was strong and lead the charge having practiced his rowing skills for nearly three weeks at a small lake near his home town. As the men pushed further out to sea the waves grew in their feriousicity climbing 5-7 feet high crashing down upon the small craft.
"Maybe Pedro was right", Orestes whipsered to himself while being tossed by the waves. The night before, Pedro had warned the men that it was unsafe to leave after a major weather front started to move in. Pedro was a close friend and experienced sea man, as well as an expert navigator by virtue of reading the stars. He smuggled people escaping from Cuba to the United States while posing as a fisherman, until he was arrested by the Castro regime. Now out of prison, Pedro had volunteered to go with the men and contribute his expertise to navigate them safely to freedom. However because of the weather front, he was now cautioning the men to delay their escape until the storm passed. The ocean would be too turbulent for such a small boat. But for Orestes, this was his third escape attempt and opportunities like this were getting fewer and riskier. So when the men refused to heed Pedro’s advice, Pedro chose not to go.
It had been a decade since Castro had declared himself a communist and it wasn't long until the regime was failing economically. People had to stand in long food lines and even camped out in the streets one or two days ahead of time hoping to find a better selection of fruits, rice, and maybe even fish or chicken. No other meats were available. There was no freedom of speech and the government maintained a tight control over everyone. Even neighbors could not be trusted because they might be lookouts for the Castro regime or simply supporters of Castro. Many wanted to flee the island. Knowing this, Castro surprisenly announced anyone wanting to leave the island could do so. A mass exodus ensued centered around town of Camarioca. By the third day of the mass migration, Castro realized he had miscalculated he reversed his stance, placing restrictions on who could leave Cuba. One of those restrictions was all males between 14 and 28 years of age would to stay in the country to serve in the military. The consequences of that decision was devastating to many families who had to leave their young sons behind. In some cases, a parent might choose to stay behind with their sons while the other parent emigrated to the United States or Spain. In other cases, both parents left their sons behind taking with them only their daughters, older sons and elderly grandparents. Orestes, after much consternation and knowing his dad's health was failing convinced his parents to go to the United States. A relative already living in Florida secured visas for Orestes' mom and dad and they were able to leave Cuba. Orestes was still serving in the military and was forced to stay behind.
As Orestes continued to battle the waves crashing against his face and body, he thought back to his first two escape attempts. The first attempt was spurred by a cousin who had purchased a fishing boat from a family friend in the town of Arroyo Bermejos. Six men, including Orestes began to plan their escape from Cuba. Orestes advised the men not to start the fishing boat's engines until they were safely out of the harbor and a couple of miles out to sea. Otherwise, the Coast Guard would easily hear the rattling of the engines echoing off the high peaks that surrounded the harbor. On the day of the escape, the men agreed to meet at a restaurant near the harbor at 10pm. After leaving work, Orestes hurried to catch the 7pm bus that would take him to the harbor. But the 7pm bus was late. It had broken down earlier on the route and finally arrived a little after 9pm overcrowded with locals with many hanging from its windows. Orestes managed to squeeze into the bus and made it to the restaurant 45 minutes late. He looked for his cousin and the other men, but they were gone. Reluctantly, Orestes returned home. In the following days he would learn that the men had been caught by the Coast Guard. They had started the boat's engines while still in the harbor. The men spent the next five years in prison.
The second escape attempt followed about a year later. Orestes' dad, now living in the Florida, put him in contact with a fisherman in the town of Cojimar who owned his own fishing boat and had the special permission from the Cuban government for conduct night-fishing. But the fishermen utilized these privilages to smuggle Cubans to the United States for $300 a head. Orestes quickly signed up for the next trip. His instructions were to wait for the boat as it made its way along the shoreline to Piedra Alto, a coastal town with no beach, high cliffs, and rocky shores. Orestes would sit at the rocks with an inner tube and a pulling line waiting for the fishing boat to make its 22 mile trek from Cojimar to Pietra Alto, picking-up people along the way. He planned to jump into his inner tube and paddle his way to the boat and use the line to pull himself to the boat when he got close enough.
As evening fell, the fisherman started his journey east towards Piedra Alto. But the fisherman was keeping a secret. Earlier that day, he had picked up his young son from his wife whom he had recently divorced, presumedly to spend the day fishing. He promised the boy's mom to have him back home before dark. But, he had no intention of returning the boy, and instead was planning his own escape to the United States taking the boy with him. He hid the boy below deck. Several hours into the night, the wife became suspicious remembering that the boy's father had made threats to take the boy from her. So, she made her way to the harbor, and not seeing the fishing boat, immediately notified the Coast Guard who then began a search. After finally spotting the boat, the Coast Guard employed the help of the army to pursue the boat by land while they followed the boat by sea. Meanwhile, at Piedra Alto, Orestes unaware of what was going on, spotted the fishing boat as it turned toward the reef and he jumped into the water with his inner tube and line and began making his way to the boat. Just as he was approaching, the Coast Guard ship's search lights beamed down on the fishing boat commanding it to stop. Shots were fired. Meanwhile, army personnel who had pursued the boat to Piedra Alto arrested many people hiding among the rocky shore. Two young men among the crowd started to flea and were promptly gunned down by the soldiers. Fourteen other people were arrested and eventually sent to prison. Orestes avoided capture. He had dove into the water upon seeing the search lights. He began to swim as hard as he could out towards the sea. He would come up from the water for only a few seconds at a time to fill his lungs with air and then disappear back under the water. After swimming out about a mile, Orestes changed course towards the west in hopes of making his way back to Rincon De Guanabo near his home, which he knew was the closest beach where he could safely get ashore. He continued his swim another 6-7 miles in water infested with Hammerheads and Bull sharks, but finally made it to shore by sunrise. He was in verge of collapse. Luckily, he met a boy he knew at the beach who fed him some bread sprinkled with sugar and then left Orestes at the beach to find help. Orestes stayed with the boy's family for several days until it was safe for him to go back home.
With these memories still fresh in his mind, Orestes was not about to give up now because of rough weather. The men had spent too many months meticously buidling their boat. It was Orestes who got the idea of constructing a boat after picking up a February 1971 copy of Popular Mechanics magazine. On the cover read “Building This 10-Foot Sailboat for $200”. Orestes' eyes lit up! He read over the article over and over again. The boat was designed in three sections. Orestes thought the boat could be taken down to the coast in several pieces and assembled at the beach right before attempting his escape. He took the magazine to a carpenter he knew that could build it, Albertico, but they would still need to find the materials. So, Orestes set out to find a source. One day he spotted a nearby factory taking a delivery of tractor tires. The tires arrived in wooden crates. Each day Orestes would pick-up the remnants of wood left behind from the uncrating of the tires and take the wood back to Albertico. The security guard at the factory began questioning Orestes about taking the wood, but Orestes convinced the guard that he was building a chicken coup at home and he needed the wood. When Albertico later requested six sheets of plywood, Orestes thought of another friend, Jose, who was in charge of a large maintenance facility stocked with wood and other materials. Orestes met with Jose and explained that he needed several sheets of plywood to complete the roof on his new chicken coup, but Jose wanted nothing to do with it. Afterall, he could get in big trouble stealing materials from the facilities. In hopes of persuading his friend, Orestes made trips to the coastal town of Penasaltas and swim to the reef about 3/4 miles away. Orestes was a spear fishing champion and had competing in many challenges in the ocean near Isla De Pina in which 18 men participated in teams. At the reef he fished for Snapper, Grouper, Founder and other fish. Orestes would pack the fish in ice which obtained from a nearby cafeteria, and take the fish to Jose and his family. After a couple of weeks, a grateful Jose relented and agreed to leave Orestes two sheets of plywood for him at a designated location near the facility. Jose would supply an additional four sheets to Orestes over the next three nights. Orestes transported the plywood balancing one or two sheets on his bicycle by installing long screws extending out from each wheel where he could then rest the sheets of plywood. Then he would maneuver his bicycle three miles to Albertico's apartment. Albertico would cut the sheets of plywood in his apartment. Unfortunately, Albertico's downstairs neighbor, Elario, was a communist and sure to report any suspicious activity. So, Orestes and Albertico would wait each day until Elario left his apartment before getting to work on their boat. Finally after several weeks, the three boat sections were ready for assembly. The three sections were further sectioned into 16 pieces to make it easy to transport to the beach over the course of three nights and hidden amongst the Mangroves surrounding the harbor.
The following Friday, the men left their homes early in the morning to make their way to the beach to find the packages that they had hid in the Mangroves and started assembling the boat throughout the night into the next morning using a manual modified rotary drill to screw the planks together. Orestes served as the lookout while the other men assembled the boat. Early Saturday morning Orestes heard several loud gun shots. It startled everyone. The men stopped working. Orestes surveyed the beach but didn't see anything so the men went back to work thinking the shots were probably from duck hunters. A couple of hours later, three men and a boy appeared on the lagoon to cut mangroves. Orestes motioned to the men assembling the boat to hide and then hid amongst the mangroves. Orestes watched as the strangers made their way across the beach coming close enough that Orestes could hear them talking. Luckily, the boy began crying because he had been bitten mulitple times by insects and so they left the beach. In the late afternoon, the men were once again surprised by a group of people. This time a German Sheppard was with them. They began hunting for crabs. Orestes once again signaled his friends to and hid and then made his way back to his hiding place agmonst the mangroves. The dog either sensed or spotted Orestes and began to bark and pull his leash in Orestes' direction. The dog's owner peered over to see what the dog was upset about, but instead of investigating, the group eventually left the beach. Meanwhile, the anticipated interruptions had made Albertico especially nervous. They were pushing their luck and were bound to be discovered, he thought. He told the men to their dismay that he had changed his mind and didn't want to go anymore. He wished them all well and left the beach to return home. The other men continued work on the boat until it was completed. Then they settled down and waited until after dark.
Suddenly, Orestes snapped out of his thoughts and returned back to his current reality. The boat was pushing fiercely against the waves and taking on water as Orestes began to row while the others bailed water out of the boat with buckets they had brought with them. Although the boat was well put together, it had not been sealed to protect against water. As a safety measure, the men brought inner tubes and a grease gun to inflate them should it become necessary. The men continued to battle the sea. Jose was in the front section of the boat. Alberto and Angel were in the rear section and Orestes was in the center section. Orestes rowed with all his strength as the others continued to bail water. Arguments erupted between the men as fatigue set in like the time Orestes was finding it harder and harder to row, only to discover Jose had fallen asleep and his section was filling with water!
Continuing to fight the waves, the men managed to get about a mile from shore before a Coast Guard truck patrol spotted them from the beach. They immediately opened fire with automatic weapons, but the high waves and choppy water made it difficult for them to hit their target. Orestes could hear bullets whistling by him and hitting the water, but the men were able to finally distance themselves enough from the coast. Orestes could no longer see the the lighthouse at Santa Cruz and he knew that Coast Guard patrols would not be able to see them. He also knew that he was now at least 10 miles off the coast of his homeland and that much closer to freedom.
To stay alive, the men brought a meager supply of six pounds of bread, ten pounds of sugar and a stash of candy. They also brought sea sick pills with them. The rain and waves had soaked the bread and sugar, so they had to squeeze the rain water out of the bread before spreading a sugary mush on top. Their water supply came from a five-gallon plastic container that had previously stored gasoline. Orestes had cleaned out the container using a different cleaners until it no longer reaked of gasoline. But on the following day with the hot caribbean sun beaming down on the plastic container, the gasoline residue seeped back into the water and made it undrinkable. They were now in a desparate situation.
As they continued their journey, the weather started to turn for the better. The ocean was suddenly still, which made it easier for Orestes to row the four men through the water. Orestes kept a northlerly course following the constellations as Pedro had instructed him to do. Suddenly, they saw a large ship approaching from a distance. They stopped rowing. They made no attempts to get the attention of the ship's crew because they were still to close to shore for the ship to be a friendly. So, the men waited quietly for the ship to pass. At about noon, the men spotted another ship plowing their way. Orestes, Alberto and Jose jumped up and started screaming for help and waving their hands. Angel remained unconvinced it was a friendly. As the ship passed their boat just a couple of hundred feet away, a Soviet flag rushed by rustling in the wind. The men stopped shouting and sat back down. The ship had not seen them and it continued on its way.
Just before evening fell, the men saw something glimmering in the distance. As it got closer, they realized it was a another ship and again the men got excited, except for Alberto. As the ship drew close, Orestes could see men on deck. Clearly, the crew had seen their small boat. Orestes could see that one of the men was well decorated and probably the Captain or an officer. Orestes thought it might be a U.S. Navy ship, but Alberto nervously exclaimed that the black men on deck resembled Cuban baseball players and the officer himself had orange hair - just like a Russian! When they caught glimpse of the American flag, Alberto counted the number of stars and claimed it was less than 50! Clearly, it was a fake! He convinced the other men to row away from the ship, but the ship followed. Each time the ship got close, they rowed away from it.
Then came the blast of battleship stations and more men began scrambling on deck. The crew manned their guns. Orestes stood up and pulled a small crumppled American flag from his jacket and fiercely began waving it to the crew. The Navy ship responded by throwing a line out to the men in the boat. As the men pulled alongside the Navy ship, the officer came over to the railing with a young soldier to translate. He shouted down to the men in the boat asking if they needed help. Alberto was still skeptical and slipped behind the others. Then the ship's crew tossed over canned Virginia ham, crackers, bread and water to the men in the boat. By this time some of the sailors on deck began snapping pictures of the men. The officer informed the four men that they were some 50 miles away from Cuba and that he called for a PT boat that would come from Key West 46 miles away to pick them up. But Orestes loudly objected explaining that by the time the PT boat arrived, it would be dark again and would not be seen, and with the row boat taking in more water, they would eventually sink. The officer pondered a bit before agreeing to take the men aboard. One by one the men climbed the ship's ladder. Once aboard ship they were provided showers and clean sailor uniforms and were even given a tour of the ship. They were served hot coffee. Orestes still remember that Alberto, accustomed to drinking strong espresso coffee, took a sip and immediately scoffed "Tastes like hot water"!
That night the rescued men ate dinner at the captain's table. It was somewhat intimidating recalled Orestes as every navy personnel at the table was a decorated officer. Not even the translator was invited to sit at the table. The main course was steak. Orestes couldn't believe his eyes! He dug into his steak. He spotted an A-1 bottle on the table and asked what it was. After the Captain explained, Orestes doused his steak with it.
A few hours after dinner, Orestes was called up to the deck by the captain. As they both looked out onto the horizon, the Captain asked "Do you see those lights twinkling way over there?" Orestes strained to catch a glimpse. The captain continued, "Well, that out there is the United States of America." The captains words struck Orestes' like a spear to the heart as he realized he had made it to his new home and would soon be an American. At that moment he recalls, "I broke down and cried like a baby!"