Cuban rafts washing ashore in South Florida.

Cuban rafts to cuban Yatch: cubans abound in the boating scene in South Florida

In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in the numbers of Cuban immigrants in Florida both legally and illegally. There are a lot of factors for this situation, including political prosecution, economic situation, seeking of peace and economic stability, etc.

Some of them had the funds to make the documents necessary, but many try to make it there illegally, by either crossing the Mexico-US border, or the most famous way, using makeshift rafts built in Cuba. 

Although sometimes it works and Cubans can make it to the U.S safely, in some cases injury, sickness and even death can strike those who try to make the journey for a better life. 

Current Situation in Cuba 

In recent years, the numbers of Cubans arriving in Florida has risen dramatically, primarily due to political issues involving the Communist Government trying to censor protesters. Last July, the biggest mass protest in over 3 decades erupted in the Caribbean country, leaving over a thousand people arrested and a lot trying to escape the country to not be part of that statistic. Nowadays, people can be arrested in Cuba without any real explanation from officials, and when people are not arrested, they receive an “official warning”, that can be used against protesters in the future as a proof of pattern of what they call “delinquent behavior”. 

The Government’s pandemic response was also a big part of the protest by Cubans, being one of the reasons why the country and the people in it are really miserable. 

The problem itself in Cuba started many years ago, with the decline of USSR and the embargo built over Cuba The U.S, which made international relations way harder and the country isolated itself in a military regime that had a lot of consequences for the Cubans, but in recent years, and specially during the pandemic, the country seems to be in an even worst crisis that is affecting nearly everyone.

But the crisis in Cuba is not only political, but also economical. Cuba’s Communist Government is one of the most strict economically in the world, being the 175th out of 193 on the economic freedom index. Additionally, the country has suffered a lot with covid, being ranked as the 129th country in an index about the responses to the pandemic. 

Another problem that is hitting the country right now is the shortage of essential items, like medicine and food and the inflation is at its highest, which means that just living in the country is already a really hard challenge. 

All that together makes the place not exactly the best place to live, which results in lots of Cubans trying any way to escape the country in search of better opportunities or even just peace. 

Cuban boaters at Haulover sandbar.
Cuban boaters at Haulover sandbar.

Where are Cubans going to 

Escaping Cuba is not an easy nor cheap task, as the government doesn’t have any type of immigration deal with any other country and doesn’t make it easy for citizens to seek for working or living visas abroad. With that, Cubans have a lot of different and creative routes to leave the country. 

One of the most used routes is through Mexico with the objective of going to the U.S via its territorial border. Some used to fly to Mexico after getting refugee visas in Havana, but many don’t have the opportunity or financial resources to do so, and instead do makeshift rafts in order to try to get to the U.S. by boat. 

The vast majority of them go to Florida, mostly because of its proximity to the Caribbean country. In the state, there are over 1,5 million Cuban Americans, just to show how impressive this number is, the second state with the most Cuban American is California, with “only” 100 thousand! 

These cubans all take really big risks trying to achieve their dreams. The risks go from drowning, to being arrested by either Cuba’s or U.S’s

Coastal Guard, to attacks from other Cubans trying to survive the journey (allegedly some rafts attack others in a desperate search for essential supplies). Another problem can happen even before sailing through the Carriebans, as it’s really hard to get the parts necessary to make a raft in a country where a lot of these pieces are prohibited or really hard to find. Added to that, heavy government policing in coastal areas is really hard to get through and off to Cuba’s maritimal territory, then there is an even more dangerous sea and then passing through American Coastal Guard undetected. The rafts themselves are dangerous but it’s important to look at the whole aspect and danger that these cubans go under. 

Cuban boaters at Boca Raton boat bash.
Cuban boaters at Boca Raton boat bash.

Makeshift rafts and their danger 

One of the biggest dangers of these journeys are the rafts themselves, as these ships are all makeshift and more than likely done by people with little to no expertise, most of them can’t do the whole trip and end up sinking and killing people in the process. 

One example is from September 2021, when a Miami doctor found a makeshift raft empty while sailing. He reported that the raft still had water bottles, so he hoped that the people inside were rescued and didn’t die in the process 

One even worst example happened on August, where 6 Cubans were rescued by a cruise ship near the Mexican Gulf in what appeared to be a piece of furniture used as a makeshift raft 

Another even more recent example happened during Hurricane Ian, where 4 cubans were rescued by border patrol and another 12 were reported missing during the storms that hit Florida. These 3 examples just show how serious the situation currently is and how the number of

Cubans trying to enter the U.S is increasing all the time and has no expectations to stop. 

Including the last 120 reported one week prior to Hurricane Ian, the total numbers go up to 6,000 cubans in a year that already tried to enter the U.S. From these 6,000, the Coastal Guard estimates that over 60 have died in the process. 


Some of the rafts that arrive are really interesting and show the creativity from Cubans, some of them are even in museums talking about cuban heritage in the U.S and how these rafts were important in building a cuban community in florida. 

But these days, the community that established themselves in the US has gone from rafts to large boats and they dominate the South Florida boating scene.

Most of these early rafts and even some of the recent ones are really simple, using wood as structure and styrofoam as a floating mechanism. Normally these rafts have really old motors taken from other small boats or even from old cars available. 

With the lack of materials and creativity behind every raft that arrives in the U.S, it shows how Cubans are desperate to leave their country and try to find better opportunities elsewhere, even if that means taking major risks that endanger their own lives and the lives of important ones. 

Adding the economical and political the country is, it just makes sense that so many Cubans try to escape the country in any way they can. Even though it means risking their lives, immigration from Cuba rises every year and it probably won’t stop for the next 50 years. These examples and situations show the reality the country lives and the people in Cuba suffer everyday, with doubt, hanger, danger, and with only one hope, one day moving to somewhere where they hopefully can live a better life.

How long does it take to get from Cuba to Florida by raft?

If you are wondering what these people put themselves through to escape the Cuban island, and how long it will take to get here to Miami. Know that Key West is just 90 miles from the coast of Cuba. If you are on a boat and traveling at about 20 miles per hour, it would only take about four hours to get there! But remember that their rafts may not be powered or even if they are, would those rafts reach 20 miles per hour?

How long does it take to row a boat from Cuba to Florida?

Well if you consider the 90 miles from Cuba to Key West, that is about 78 nautical miles. I have paddleboarded at a maximum of 4 miles per hour when the wind was on my back and pushing me forward. I would estimate that a makeshift cuban raft that could reach 3 miles per hour would take about 156 hours to get to Key West or about 6 days.

Max Francisco