“IT was first thing in the morning, on a day last summer, and it was my first day at my new job. I was in the Florida Keys trying to get a fishing career started by working on a lobster boat. A friend of mine had got me a place on the boat but the captain had warned me that it wasn't going to be easy as there was a tropical storm forecast.

I was on deck and already soaking wet with twenty foot swells slamming the boat, when the captain shouted ‘CUBANS!' About 500 feet away I could see a little raft with people fighting for their lives. Cuba is 90 miles from Key West Florida and the law says if a Cuban can make it to U.S soil they can become citizens but if they are caught at sea they will be immediately sent back. Anyone helping them will be charged with smuggling and could face up to twenty years in jail. I shouted to the captain, asking what we should do, but he just looked at me, I could see the panic in his eyes. We both knew we had to help these people. We were only about nine miles off of the ‘Dry Tortugas' which is a bunch of small inhabited islands about fifty miles away from the US mainland, but they do count as U.S. territory. But the current was pushing the raft further away from the shore and towards us.

My heart was racing, and so were the wind and the sea. I grabbed a rope and threw it to the raft. The people on the raft managed to catch the end and we began to try to tow them to the land. But the storm was too much for the rope and it snapped. We tried again and again with no luck. We didn't want to put them in our boat but we didn't have any choice, so the captain yelled at the top of his voice to get them onboard. We managed to get them all and tied their raft to the side of our boat. Amongst the nineteen people there was a fifteen-year-old girl and a seventy-year-old woman. Everyone was crying; grown men were sobbing like I've never seen before. They were hugging and kissing us telling us we were their angels. They had been at sea for six days and they had lost all of their food and water overboard on the fifth day. They were freezing cold and in a lot of pain from sitting in the same position for so long. We gave them water, blankets and dry clothes. We raced to shore praying that no one would see us the Cubans thought they had made it and that they were going to have a better life.

We could see land and were only four miles out. Everyone was crying tears of joy but then we heard the worst sound: it was a helicopter flying toward us from the islands. My heart was beating frantically I thought ‘that's it, I'm going to jail' but then it turned and headed away from us. There was a dead silence among all of us as we watched the helicopter head away. It was about 7 miles away when it turned again and headed back toward us. The only thing we could do was get everybody back on their little raft, we raced to get them off our boat before the helicopter was above us; we got everybody back on and let go of their raft. The captain radioed the Coast Guard helicopter to tell them we had found them but then as I looked behind I saw sitting there on our boat the elderly lady! My heart felt like it stopped. I tried passing her to the Cubans on the raft but my grip was slipping and I dropped her into the rough sea. Two Cubans and I jumped into the water, I grabbed her and handed her to the others on the raft. My fellow deckhands helped me aboard. Then the helicopter said they had spotted the Cubans on the raft: we'd done it we weren't going to jail! But then there was a new problem: the Coast Guard radioed us saying they would be coming on speed boats from Key West but it would take an hour to reach us. That meant the Cubans had an hour to reach land. They began to paddle to shore but there was no hope, the sea was too rough. Seven of the Cuban men jumped off the raft and began to swim for shore; I couldn't believe what I was seeing! So we travelled behind them keeping a close eye, but after about thirty minutes four of the men just couldn't keep swimming. They asked us to help them, so we radioed the Coast Guard to ask what we should do. They replied ‘we are not advising you to help them; if you want to help then you must do it at your own discretion.' We did the only thing we could do: we helped them aboard our boat in plain view of the helicopter. Suddenly two Coast Guard boats showed up along with a police boat a border patrol boat, a navy helicopter and a massive navy vessel. We pointed out the other men in the water and they were pulled out of the sea. We heard over the radio that one of the men was having a heart attack. They collected the four men from us and put all of the people together onto the big navy boat. They realised that they were missing a person; it was the fifteen year-old-girl. Our boat was searched as they assumed we were hiding a stowaway, but then she was found floating unconscious in the ocean.

We were questioned by the authorities for over an hour before they let us go on our way but we didn't find out if the girl or the man who had had the heart attack were okay. They took the Cubans back to their own country. For the rest of the day we were all very quiet onboard the lobster boat, reflecting on what had happened. I decided to give fishing a rest for a while. It was the most stressful and amazing thing I had ever seen: all to try to get a better life.”


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