At mid-morning on May 29, 2018, Andy Cochrane, Wyatt Roscoe and Luke Walker landed on Stock Island, Florida, after some 27 hours at sea, making them the first documented unsupported single kayakers to successfully finish the 120-mile crossing of the Florida Straits between Havana and Key West.
The Straits span more than one hundred miles of exposed and dangerous ocean. Over the past five decades, thousands of Cuban migrants have attempted the same crossing – often in makeshift vessels – in search of political asylum and economic opportunity.
"In its broadest form, our paddling project was about using our experience as kayakers to elevate the story of Cuban refugees and advocate for open borders in the future," says Cochrane, who attempted the same paddle last year but was cut short by bad weather.
"What it turned into was much more personal: lifelong friendships, new perspectives on governmental and societal structures and a deep love for our Cuban neighbors to the south. We wanted to use something we know and love – kayaking – to generate compassion and empathy for people all over the world who leave home, often forcibly, in the hopes of finding a better life."
The following is Johnie Gall’s and Andy Cochrane’s Dispatch from the Florida Straits.
Before departing for Cuba, the crew visits the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, which hosts a newly opened exhibit on the Cuban migrant experience. The Mariana, a 21-foot makeshift vessel that carried 24 Cubans from their homeland to Key West, is on permanent display just outside the museum. The Mariana was constructed from steel drums and an 8-cylinder truck engine, and landed in Florida in 2015 after a 111-mile voyage. Its passengers were granted asylum after their arrival.
The paddlers were granted permission by the commodore of Havana's Marina Hemingway to embark on multiple training paddles while they waited for a good weather window to make their crossing.
The streets in Havana are filled with people, from vendors to youth soccer players to street cleaners. These people bring the city to life.
The three paddlers (left to right) Andy Cochrane, Luke Walker and Wyatt Roscoe, pose before hopping in their kayaks for a three-hour training paddle near Havana. The last few training paddles were used to dial in systems for communication, food breaks, rescues and bathroom stops.
The paddlers organize food in Ziploc bags the day before departure. Their diet for the actual paddle – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, gummies, buttered pasta – was almost entirely processed carbs and sugar as anything else would take too much energy to digest. At left, Andy assesses the best fit for gear while rigging his kayak. Food and water were put in dry bags and dromedaries, and split into thirds, one set for every ten hour block we expected to paddle.
Everything in Havana is colorful. It’s a city of mostly concrete structures that is slowly eroding due to limited resources. That said, the mechanics and handymen in Cuba are some of the best in the world, often using handmade tools to rebuild engines from scratch.
While in Cuba, we ran almost every day while waiting for the tropical storm Alberto to pass, both to stay in shape and explore the city. On one of these runs we were approached by Andrés González, a Cuban half-marathon champion, who explained that he was starting a running club in Havana. He was badly in need of good shoes, so we offered ours.
We held a press conference the day before departing, with both Cuban and American publications and news outlets present. It was hosted by Marina Hemingway in Havana. At right, Andy speaks to the Associated Press about his expectations for the paddle.
Early on the morning of May 28, the crew waits to be cleared at customs. In an hour, they will drop their boats in the water and begin their paddle out of Marina Hemingway and into open ocean. The mood is quiet and contemplative.
The documentary crew trails the kayakers in a dinghy for the first hour of their paddle. While the Sunluver catamaran will be nearby to assist the paddlers in case of an emergency, Andy, Luke and Wyatt will make their crossing totally unsupported.
At left, Andy paddles toward the horizon as the Havana cityscape fades into the early morning light. The crew has prepared to the best of their abilities for the dangerous and exhausting journey ahead.
Wyatt paddles into the night, some 13 hours after departure and with 14 hours left to go. The waves at this point were still large, registering six to eight feet with the occasional ten-foot set. Soon after sunset, the waves would die down for a welcomed break from choppy seas.
Andy, Wyatt and Luke (left to right) enter the coral reef area off Key West, mere miles from shore. The paddlers fight an outgoing tide for their last few hours of their journey, and after a full 24-hour day of non-stop paddling, they pause briefly for a break.
Luke exiting his kayak for the first time in 27 hours. In the background, Andy struggles to stand. It’s hard to express what that moment felt like.
Luke’s hands, weathered from salt water and gripping the paddle for an estimated 75,000 paddle strokes, finally get a break. It takes hours for the color to return to his skin.
All photos by Johnie Gall. Additional contribution by Andy Cochrane.
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