June 10th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

The Greatest Nautical Engineer of Our Time?

This may be the most amazing piece of engineering I have ever seen in my life. It's not even the guy's first amazing invention. And we almost didn't let him into our country. In fact, not only did we not let him enter the United States the first time, we blew up his boat. Twice.

I'm assuming that most of you saw this on the news, but a quick synopsis for those of you who didn't. This is what the US Coast Guard intercepted just 18 miles from Key West, Florida a couple of days ago, 24 hours out from Cuba. It's a 1948 Mercury taxicab that has been converted into a remarkably seaworthy vessel. And I don't see how in the heck he did it. His previous attempt was a lot more understandable. I can't find a picture of it, but what he did last time was basically take a flatbed truck, attach huge inflatable pontoons to the frame on each side, and use the drive shaft to power a homemade propeller. That one also made it almost all the way to the US before it was intercepted. And sunk. And he and his passengers sent back to try again.

But this one? For the absolute life of me, I can't see what was keeping it from tipping over. If it has a proper keel underneath it, how did he launch it, and how did he get it over the dozens of reefs between Cuba and here? It's visibly got no pontoons; with no pontoons and no keel, what the heck kept it from rolling? And for that matter, how did he steer it, and what's powering it? I can see waterproofing the body. I can see hooking the steering wheel up to a rudder and the drive shaft up to a propeller. I can't see someone doing both, especially when you see what his workshop looked like. He did that much with this little. Heck, given what he had for a workshop, I can't even figure out how he fabricated that prow, and out of what? Is that sheet metal? In that shop, it can't possibly be fiberglass? Where would a Cuban get the materials to build something this amazing? (You can see more pictures of it here and here.)

And isn't it glorious overkill that he actually got the paint to match?

Miraculously, this time we are not sending Raphael Diaz back to Cuba for the second time, nor 3 of his 12 passengers; 4 of the 13 of them had managed to get legal visas (that were about to run out, and that's why they were in a hurry to launch). But we still sank his boat for the second time. As Keith Olbermann (my idol) put it the other day, when it looked like we were going to send all 13 of them back, "Two of the home kit engineering marvels of the decade, and we sank them. And the guy who rebuilt them, we sent him back to Cuba, apparently because we don't want to offend Castro." This guy could be the poster child for why every rule needs an exception. Couldn't the Coast Guard have conveniently looked the other way, especially considering they didn't find him on their own anyway? That's right, this time his boat was low enough in the water that he snuck in under radar. The only reason the Coast Guard caught him was that one of his relatives got nervous about whether or not the taxi was seaworthy and called from Cuba to ask them to check and make sure he was OK. Having checked to make sure he was OK, couldn't they have pretended not to have seen him and quietly sailed away? I mean for crying out loud, how do you go into a sailing career and rise to the rank of ship captain without having an appreciation for a work of nautical engineering that beautiful and brilliant? Did that captain have no soul?

The rules do exist for a reason, for all that I had to go back and skim the historical documents to remind myself how we got to this point. Basically, because the mobsters and spies that Castro overthrew were (by comparison, at least) our friends, immediately after the Cuban revolution the US bent immigration law all out of shape to make every Cuban who made it here a protected political refugee. We then set up first a radio station, then a TV station, Radio Marti, broadcasting across the straits of Florida to constantly remind Cuba's people how much their lives must suck in that so-called "worker's paradise," as compared to here in America where the streets are lined with gold and everybody is so rich they wipe themselves with fine linen. So, unsurprisingly, a lot of Cuban people, who would have been called "economic immigrants" if they were from anywhere else (say, Haiti), have risked their lives to cross the Florida straits in every kind of improvised boat or raft. They still do. And thousands of them have drowned.

Because of Radio/TV Marti, not only Castro but pretty much the whole world blames our government for those drownings. So from 1994 to 1996, President Clinton ratified a series of agreements and rules clarifications governing Cuban immigration. To discourage Cubans from trying the most risky route and drowning, we created a rule where if a Cuban gets found in the water or on any kind of a boat, they get sent back. (Castro promised not to persecute the ones we send back. I have no idea if he's keeping his word on this or not.) If, however, they entered the country by land or by air, they were home free. Then the rule got loosened slightly, and an exception was made for anybody who came over by boat and made it to dry land before they were caught. Hence, the widely used nickname for the rule: "wet foot, dry foot." And, of course, by leaving open any hope that an improvised boat crossing might work, there went any of the benefits we might have gotten from the policy. What a mess.
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