A faint red glow signaled the start of an early summer day on the island rock called Key West. In the corner of the bight, the striped towers of the abandoned steam plant were only just visible, due east, signposts for the soon to rise sun.
Scurrying down the dock, a lone figure balanced boxes of hot fried chicken, his flip-flop sandals slapping at the quiet of the morning. Running late, the trim, sun dark man built up momentum and leaped onto the transom of the waiting yacht.
“Where the hell have you been?” roared Ted.
“Good morning to you too.” Pete panted.
Ted smiled, ”My brother’s blown a gasket. He’s been threatening to leave you for the last half hour!”
Pete hopped down into the cockpit sole and set the boxes on the fighting chair.
”I would rather be left behind than listen to you bitch about not having chicken.”
Ted shifted his attention to the steaming boxes. Tall, mid-forties, animated face, he was crowned with a shock of black hair that showed no signs of graying.
”This the good stuff, the real deal?” he asked, already rummaging through the greasy chicken, finding a leg.
” Enjoy my friend.” Pete said, ”This is your last taste of America for a while.”
Travis stared down from the rear of the patio-sized fly bridge.
“Can we go now?”
“Let’s get out of here.” his answer boomed overhead.
“You have your orders captain.” Pete laughed. ”That was either Jed on the radio or the almighty himself.”
With a nod, Travis removed the radio mike from the overhead control box, “The Havana express is now under way” he broadcasted and eased the throttles forward. The sixty-five foot yacht rumbled into the growing light, her massive props churning spa-sized swirls in the calm water of the bight.
Travis piloted the twin-engine vessel through the narrow opening between the granite rock jetty protecting the inner harbor and the Coast Guard base. To the north small mangrove islands sat like moored yachts on the placid waters stretching west, anchored in lush green turtle grass flats separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean. Across the Northwest Channel, a maritime highway to the Gulf, one island, Destroyer Key reflected white in the morning sun, the silhouette of her stack and sharp bow a nature sculpted likeness of its namesake ship of war.
Travis idled along the harbor's eastern edge. Multistoried resorts, each with its own pool set in palm-shaded oasis stood silent in the morning, filled with sunburned tourist sleeping off mi tie and daiquiri hangovers. They nursed blistered feet left raw by the night’s bar to bar trek known as the “Duval Street Crawl”. One early rising couple jogged across Mallory Square against the backdrop of the old customs house. Its red brick and tile roof a century old landmark, the former center of maritime law and salvage justice.
“Gather the passports.” Travis shouted down.
Pete gathered up the ravaged boxes of chicken.
“Mine and Jed’s are on the galley table.”
”Hey, check everything down below and give me a heads up when I can run.” He added.
Pete waved an acknowledgment and went thru the door into the main salon.
“Morning Jed” he said.
“You’re late. I was going to leave you,” Jed growled, radio mike still in hand.
Pete set the boxes on the galley table.
“Talk to your brother. I was on a mission for him and as the good book says, a man cannot serve two masters.”
From deep in the folds of the soft leather couch, Ted muttered. “Leave me out of this.”
“Give me your passport before you go to sleep.” Pete said.
Ted drew the hand knitted Afghan over his head and wallowed deeper into the couch. “Inside my black leather case, on the bed.”
Pete gathered the passports off the table and descended the carpeted steps to the cabins below. He woke Dave and Jimmy sleeping on single bunks in the crew’s quarters and added their documents to the others.
Pete knew arriving in Cuba without a passport is the fast track to jail. It’s a blunder that can’t be circumvented with conversation or bribed away. Under no circumstances will entry onto the island be allowed without the document. Cuban officials offer the Captain of the arriving vessel two choices.
Visitors with passports may remain and enjoy the islands warm hospitality while the offending party or parties languish in jail, their release coinciding with the boat’s departure. The second option is to cast off and return to where you came from. These rules are absolute and the absence of an American Embassy on the island eliminates any hope of assistance.
Pete opened the door to the master stateroom and switched on the incandescent light. Large and plush, the room utilized the full width of the yachts beam. He opened the rich black leather monogrammed case lying on the king sized bed set centerline in the room and retrieved the passport lying among banded stacks of 100-dollar bills.
Returning up stairs, he checked the expiration dates and placed the documents in the drawer alongside the Coast Guard security clearance, received by fax the night before. Shifting to sea mode, he searched for items that in rough water might become deadly missiles, once-overed the galley, poured two cups of coffee and turned for the door.
“Are you ready to run?”
Jed was staring out the rear window not looking at all well. An ashen gray tint colored his face; he turned in response to the question, his eyes bloodshot and watery.
“Yea, tell him to go.”
Pete climbed the ladder, took the swivel chair beside Travis and handed him a cup of coffee
“Looks like Jed had a rough night.”
“Yea, I would say so, seeing as how he fell off the dock last night.”
Pete laughed, “He fell off the dock. You’re shitting me, right.”
“No, I am not kidding. He didn’t so much fall off, he just walked off the end, like ran out of road. Scared hell out of the old dock master, the poor guy couldn’t get him out of the water. People on the next boat overheard the commotion and lent a hand. Not a great way to start. Huh?”
“Damn, I hate to hear that. Maybe it was a first night in camp thing. Everyone partied a little hard last night.”
“I don’t think so. I heard Ted say his brother’s been drinking more these days, or at least showing the effects more than he used to.”
Pete took a sip of coffee. “He’ll be ok when we start fishing. He’ll be grouchy, but he won’t drink as much.”
“Let’s hope so brother. It’s hard to get into trouble in Cuba if you’re a rich American, but not impossible.” Travis warned, throttled the yacht up onto a plane past the remnants of Fort Zachary Taylor.
A whisper of a southeast breeze rippled the murky water flowing fast, past the red and green markers at the harbor’s mouth, the current powered by the flood tide of the waxing moon. Travis spun the wheel and the boat responded to his practiced touch, her flared bow sliding across the smooth water, spotted with small clumps of thin bay grass. Settling the compass on 207 degrees, he set the autopilot and turned his attention to the control consol.
Alarms and automatic shutoffs protected the powerful diesels. Scanning the oil pressure, water temperature and fuel consumption digital readouts, he looked for small differences between the identical power plants, often an early indication of trouble. Satisfied, he glanced at the v shaped wake rising from the stern, a perfect curling wave spreading across the calm water. The engine exhaust spewed a healthy gray smoke, the carbon footprint of the rich.
Overhead the G.P.S. screen displayed course, speed over ground, the distance to Marina Hemingway and estimated arrival time. On a second screen, a full color chart of the Straits of Florida. Travis pinpointed the cursor on a spot just west of Havana, pushed the navigate button and ”aye aye captain” flashed on the screen, then a bold red line appeared connecting Key West and the sea buoy marking the entrance into the Marina.
” Ninety seven miles, a little over three and a half hours,” He announced.
Pete focused on the rapidly approaching Sand Key Lighthouse and the Florida Straits beyond. He spun his baseball cap backward and tugged it down tight over a longish full head of sun dried brown hair. One leg dangled free and the leather sandal slid off. He raised the leg and rested on the end of the white console spanning the width of the fly bridge, shook the flip-flop free of his other foot, crossed legs and leaned back in the chair.
“Here we go again amigo.” He said. “It looks like a good day to cross. Can’t for the life of me think of any place I’d rather be.”
Travis smiled, “Yea brother, me either.”