During the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, a young girl named Mirta Ojito escaped from Cuba on the boat of a New Orleans skipper, Capt. Mike Howell. She grew up to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who told her story and Howell’s in a book. This exclusive excerpt follows Howell’s path into history.
See that boat over there? said the man whom everyone on the docks called “Major Rafael” pointing to a sixty-four-foot wooden shrimp boat that looked like an enormous centipede: a bulging middle with hundreds of legs and arms sticking out. Mike Howell strained to read the name on the stern: Valley Chief.
Yes, what about it? he asked, turning his gaze back to the uniformed man before him.
It’s broken down, the major said.
So! Mike replied, thinking that it was a good thing the boat had malfunctioned. The flotation line was way below the water level. If it left Cuba like that, it surely would sink in the Florida Straits.
We’d like for you to tow it to Key West.
Tow it to Key West! Mike yelled, and immediately regretted it. This is Cuba, remember, he told himself trying to stay calm. All you want is to get out of here, Pronto. What’s that going to do for me? Mike asked in a softer tone.
I have your list. I promise to send your people out in the next few days if you take this boat off my hands, Major Rafael said.
Just then Mike noticed a tall, tired-looking man with a mustache, standing behind the officer. The man took a step forward and in heavily accented English addressed Mike directly.
My family is in that boat, he said, introducing himself as Oswaldo Ojito. I’ve been here for seventeen days and I want to take them home with me. Now that we’ve finally received the order to leave, the boat broke down. Can you please help us!
This was not how Mike’s unlikely 750-mile journey from New Orleans to Cuba was supposed to end. But it was clear that, for reasons he couldn’t begin to discern, the people he’d come for were not going to be released to him anytime soon.
Like the Cubans who eyed him with hope from the decks of the Valley Chief, Mike, too, itched to leave. But unlike them, who had waited for two decades to shake Fidel from their lives, Mike had very little patience. Six days in Cuba, and the storied pleasure island of his parents’ generation no longer appealed to him. After a series of unproductive and tense dealings with men in uniforms, Mike had begun to feel claustrophobic.
With or without the refugees, he was leaving Cuba today.
Finding Mañana © 2005 by Mirta Ojito Used by Permission. All rights reserved.
This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.