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 through the mangroves in the direction of a distant sand dune carrying their home-made boat above their heads.  Over the past two weeks, Orestes had scouted the local Coast Guard station to learn that a soldier arrived each night at 8pm to search the beach with his dog.  So, with the sun setting around seven in the evening, the men knew their departure window was seven to eight in the evening, 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 before jumping into the boat and 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 with 5-7 foot swells attacking the small craft.

"Maybe Pedro was right", Orestes whipsered to himself.  Pedro, a close friend and experienced sea man, understood the ocean and was an expert navigator by virtue of reading the stars. He had worked as a fisherman until he was arrested by the Castro regime for smuggling people from Cuba to the U.S.  Now out of prison, Pedro had volunteered to go with the men and contribute his expertise to navigate them safely to the United States.  However, the night before, after a major weather front started to move in, Pedro warned the men that it was unsafe to leave.  The ocean would be too turbulent for such a small boat.  When the men refused to heed Pedro’s advice to wait out the storm, Pedro chose not to go.  But this would be Orestes' third attempt at escaping the island and the opportunities were getting fewer and riskier.

It had been a decade since Castro had declared himself a communist and it wasn't long until the regime was already 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.  Politically, there was no freedom of speech and the government maintained a tight control over everyone. Strangers could not be trusted because they might be spies for Castro or just supporters of Castro.  This resulted in many people wanting to flee the island.

 

 Then, surprisedly, Castro announced that he would allow anyone who wanted to leave the country, to do so.  Thus, a mass exodus began centered around Camarioca.  By the third day of the mass migration, Castro realized he had miscalculated the number of people wanting to leave the country and he reversed his stance, placing restrictions on who could leave Cuba.  One of those restrictions was all males 14-28 years of age would have 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, knowing his dad's health was failing and  after much consternation, convinced his parents  to go to the United States.  Eventually, and aunt living in the states was able to secure Visas for Orestes' mom and dad and they finally left Cuba making their way to Florida and eventually California.  Orestes was still serving in the military at the time and stayed behind.

As Orestes continued to battle the waves crashing against his face and body, he thought back to his first escape attempt when a cousin of his had purchased a fishing boat from a  family friend in 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 that evening, 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 local folks 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.  He figured they had left him behind.  Reluctantly, Orestes returned home only to find out in the coming days that the men had been caught by the Coast Guard after starting the fishing 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 states, put him in contact with a fisherman in Cojimar who owned his own fishing boat and had the special permission from the Cuban government for night-fishing.  But unknown to the government, this fishermen made his living smuggling Cubans to the United States for $300 a head.  Orestes signed up for the next trip.  Orestes was 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 wait at the rocks with an inner tube and a line waiting for the fishing boat to make its 22 mile trek from Cojimar to Pietra Alto, as it picked-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 his wife to have the boy back home before dark.  However, he had no intention of returning the boy.  His real motive was to kipnap the boy and take him to the United States with him where he planned to remain with the others on board.  He hid the boy below deck.  Several hours into the night, the wife became suspicious.  The fisherman had threatened in the past to kidnap the boy.  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 it.  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 went arrested and eventually sent to prison.  Orestes had dove into the water upon seeing the searsch lights on the Coast Guard ship.  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, there on the beach he met a boy he knew who fed him some bread with sugar.  The boy left for help and returned with his father.  Orestes stayed with the man'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 resting on wooden pallets.  Each day Orestes would pick-up the remnants of any wood left behind after the tires had been uncrated and take the wood back to Albertico.  The security guard at the factory would question Orestes about taking the wood, but Orestes convinced him 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 maintenance facility that employed 400 workers.  Jose had many types of materials at the facility.  Orestes met with Jose to explain 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, over the next couple of weeks Orestes would go to the coastal town of Penasaltas and swim to the reef about 3/4 miles away.  There he would fish for Snapper, Grouper, Founder and other fish.  He would secure ice from a nearby cafeteria, pack the fish and take it to Jose for his family.  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.  Finally, 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, the downstairs neighbor, Elario, was a communist and would surely report any noises and strange activities to the authorities.  So, Orestes and Albertico would always wait until Elario left his apartment before manually sawing the plywood. Finally after several weeks, the boat sections were ready.  It was 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.  After some time, the men went back to work thinking duck hunters were in the area.  A couple of hours later, Orestes heard people approaching.  Three men and one boy appeared on the lagoon to cut Mangroves.  The whole time Orestes and the other men remained hidden from view while the strangers made their way across the beach.  At one point, they came very close to Orestes.  He could hear them talking.  For an instant, he thought he might be found, but after a short time the three men and the boy left the beach after the boy was bitten by insects and let out a loud cry.  In the late afternoon, the men were once again surprised by a group of people this time with a German Sheppard.  They were there to hunt for crabs.  Orestes hid again agmonst the Mangroves.  At one point, the dog began to bark crazily in Orestes' direction but luckily, the owner ignored the commotion and the group left the beach before sun set.  But by this time, Albertico had become especially nervous.  They were bound to be discovered, he thought.  He told the men that he changed his mind and didn't want to go anymore.  He  wished them all well and left the beach to return home.  The men continued work on the boat until it was completed.  Then they settled down and waited until after dark.

But now, alas the men were on their way pushing fiercely against the waves and taking on water.  As Orestes rowed, the others bailed water with buckets they had brought with them.  Although the boat was well put together, it had not been sealed to protect against the water.  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 while the others continued to bail water.  There were also inner tubes in each of the sections and Jose had brought a grease gun to inflate the inner tubes should it become necessary.  Arguments erupted between the men.  One time, when Orestes felt it getting harder and harder to row, he discovered that Jose had fallen asleep and his section was filling with water.

 

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 gasoline residues from the container using a variety of different cleaners until the container no longer smelled of gasoline.  But with the hot caribbean sun beaming down the next day on the plastic container, the gasoline residue seeped from the plastic and made the water undrinkable.  They were now in a desparate situation.

Continuing to fight the waves, the mean managed to get about a mile from shore before a Coast Guard truck patrol spotted them from the beach.  They immediately opened fire with machine guns from their truck, but the high waves and choppy water made it difficult for them to hit their target.  Orestes could hear some of the bullets whistling by him and hitting the water around him, but the men were able to distance the boat far away from the coast.  Finally, Orestes could no longer see the the lighthouse at Santa Cruz and he knew that any potential Coast Guard patrols would not be able to see him.  He also knew that he was now at least 10 miles off the coast of his homeland and that much closer to freedom.

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 other four men through the water.  Orestes stayed the course keeping north by following the constellations as Pedro had instructed him to do.  Suddenly, they saw a large ship approaching from a distance.  They stopped rowing and did'nt make any 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, the image of a Russian flag rushed by.  The men stopped shouting and sat back down.  Miraculously, 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 of course.  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 there was a good chance itt was a U.S. Navy ship, but Alberto nervously pointed out that the black men on deck resembled Cuban baseball players and the Officer himself was very light skinned with orange hair - just like a Russian!  He even counted the number of stars on the American flag and claimed it was less than 50!  Clearly, it was a fake!  He made such a fuss that he convinced the other men and they began to row away from the ship, but the ship followed.  Each time the ship got close, they rowed away from it.

Finally, they heard the blast of battleship stations and more men began scrambling on deck. The crew manned their guns.  It was at that point Orestes stood up and pulled a small American flag safely stored in his inside jacket and fiercely began waving it to the crew.  The Navy ship then 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 of hispanic descent to serve as a translator.  He shouted down to the men in the boat asking if they needed help.  Alberto was still skeptical of their intentions.  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 sternly objected explaining that by the time the PT boat arrived, it would be dark again and with the row boat taking in more water, they would surely 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.  Alberto, obviously accustomed to drinking strong espresso coffee, took a sip and immediately scoffed "It 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.  The Captain explained to Orestes that it was for the steak, so Orestes doused his steak with the A-1 sauce.  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 remarked "Do you see those lights twinkling out there?"  The Captain continued, "Well, that is the United States."  Orestes' recalls at that point "I broke down and cried like a baby.  I had made it to my new home and I would soon be an American."