A Cuban chug is tied to a pole at the Islamorada Coast Guard Station. CONTRIBUTED

Putting their lives in handmade boats, Cuban migrants left their depressed country through the dangerous Florida Strait en route to the United States. Food shortages, rising inflation, power outages and many years of political repression are among the reasons for their travels to the states. .

More recently, the COVID pandemic has further tested the country already to the breaking point of many people. For Cuban migrants, it is the journey to a new beginning.

In groups, Cuban migrants jump aboard their ships and eventually end up in the waters off the Florida Keys. The ships they use are often called chugs because of the sounds of the ingenious lawn mower or car engines used to propel the ships.

“Our main concern is the safety of people on the water, and these chugs are not safe or seaworthy vessels. They basically sink as soon as they leave the shore, and the only question is whether they will come ashore before that happens,” said Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Papas, spokesman for Key West Coast Guard Sector. “The challenge is that the public only sees the limited amount of activities that he can see from land or from a pleasure boat, and there are multi-jurisdictional protocols in place, but each case is handled on a case-by-case basis, and we are dealing with a large number of cases these days.

Some chugs are intercepted by the US Coast Guard, which returns the migrants by cutter to their country of origin. But chugs that make landfall without a ban on the water draw response from US Customs and Border Protection.

More migrant arrivals mean more chugs along the Keys’ mangroves, beaches and shorelines. They tell a story of survival and a desire for something better, which is why they are featured in various museum exhibits and venues around the Keys. For those not caught, however, they add to the growing problem of derelict ships run by multiple agencies.

The Cuban Boat Exhibit is located outside the Keys History & Discovery Center and is open to the public. KEYS HISTORY & DISCOVERY CENTER/Contribution

Nearly a decade ago, the Key West Rainforest and Botanical Garden installed the first known public display of Cuban chugs in the garden, where more than a dozen handmade vessels of questionable seaworthiness detail people’s desperation. Executive director Misha McRae told the Keys Weekly the garden is currently applying for a grant to help preserve the chugs displayed outdoors.

But many of the more recently arrived floating migrant chugs become a shipping or environmental hazard and are quickly removed by the US Coast Guard. However, for vessels that do not pose an immediate threat, Coast Guard funds only allow for the removal of hazardous materials (read: oil, gas, or other hazardous fluids) from the vessel, not relocation. A chug that isn’t a hazard stays where it is until someone with an interest in exposing it picks it up. Otherwise, it ends up on the list as an abandoned ship.

The Monroe County Office of Marine Resources works with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement partners to remove abandoned vessels. Jason Rafter, public information manager at FWC, said they get three to four a week.

“We try to follow them,” he said. “Every landing of migrants leaves something behind. We try to get rid of them as fast as they come, but they come at a much faster rate.

Brittany Burtner is a senior administrator for the county Office of Marine Resources, which oversees the removal of an average of 60 to 80 derelict vessels per year. Whether it’s an abandoned sailboat or a Cuban chug, Burtner said his office will remove an abandoned vessel, with the help of prequalified marine contractors, from county waters once they receive permission from law enforcement.

“Currently, we are using our usual process to manage the removal of migrant vessels,” Burtner said. “It is the owner of the vessel who is responsible for the kidnapping. However, when all attempts by law enforcement to locate and hold the boat owner accountable fail, Monroe County uses boating improvement funds and grants Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission funding to assist in withdrawal efforts.

Removing 60 derelict ships a year costs about $230,000. About $2.6 million was spent to remove derelict ships between 2010 and 2020.

Those that are not slapped with a removable sticker can be used as a historical token, tourist attraction or decoration. At the Anacostia Museum in Washington, D.C. is a small improvised chug that carried two Cuban men who were on their way to a better life in the United States in July 1992. Constructed in secret from scrap materials, planks of Styrofoam stacks held together with tar were carved into the shape of a boat and placed on a wooden frame. The outside of the chug was then given a tar coating and tar cloth covered the hull for added protection against water and shark ingress.

A Cuban chug with gas cans and other materials is nestled in the Upper Keys mangroves. DAVID BRUT/Keys Weekly

Brothers to the Rescue, a non-profit organization founded in 1992 by Cuban exiles in the United States, rescued the rafters after searching for them by air. This took the US Coast Guard about 35 miles off Miami. The ship was eventually placed in the hands of Humberto Sanchez, who worked with the Brotherhood to rescue her. He eventually donated the raft to the Anacostia Community Museum.

Sitting outside the Keys History & Discovery Center in Islamorada is a green wooden Cuban ship. Now an exhibit for locals and tourists alike, the chug showcases one of the many modes of transportation used by immigrants from Cuba to reach the Florida Keys. The exhibition is outside the museum and open to the public.

“We were told that this boat is actually considered a ‘Cadillac’ because most arrived on rafts, chugs and balsas,” said Rich Russell, chairman of the board, after the arrival. of the exhibition this summer.

In Marathon, the Grassy Key Lagoon continues to accumulate a small armada of chugs in varying conditions, turning them into canvases for local artists to create paintings that pay homage to the origins of the boats and the struggles of those they carried.

With a seemingly endless supply of ships, many private citizens wondered if they were legally allowed to make one of the chugs their own garden ornament – ​​or even a repurposed bar. With regard to these requests, there is an official response, even with regard to vessels without any form of registration or ability to identify an owner.

“The state certainly can’t give anyone permission to take someone else’s property,” said FWC captain David Dipre.

But read between the lines. With dozens of new chug rigs popping up in front of restaurants, hotels and homes across the islands, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office arrest page has no photos of individuals picked up for removing what amounts to essentially to unclaimed debris from Florida Keys waters.

If you see a migrant blowing on the water, especially if they appear to be in distress, the Coast Guard appreciates boaters calling out to the vessel’s location. Coast Guard Sector Key West manages all of the Florida Keys and can be reached on VHF radio channel 16 or by phone at 305-292-8727.

Alex Rickert and Mandy Miles contributed to this report.