An American flag waves to the Atlantic Ocean breeze at one of the more popular Florida Keys sandbars. Located at Whale Harbor in Islamorada, hundreds of boats usually line the shallow, sandy bottoms during holidays and busy weekends for a day of sunshine, drinks and lounging.
For the past week, sandbar visitors haven’t only captured breathtaking views of the ocean on a picturesque Keys day. Not far from where boats anchor, a roughly 50-foot wooden sailboat that carried almost 200 Haitian migrants from turmoil to hopes for a new life remains grounded.
While chugs hauling Cuban migrants continue to arrive at record levels, the island chain hasn’t witnessed a large vessel carrying Haitian migrants to American soil in several months. That all changed during the early morning hours of Nov. 21, when a good Samaritan alerted the Coast Guard that an overloaded boat carrying well over 100 people was crashing into 6- to 10-foot waves and being whipped by 25 mph winds not far from Rodriguez Key in Key Largo. Rescue efforts throughout the day by the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection proved challenging due to the conditions, according to Matt James, Coast Guard Station Islamorada commander.
By evening, the sailboat traveled south to Islamorada, where it grounded at a sandbar south of Whale Harbor. Rescue attempts intensified as 18 people hopped off the boat and into the treacherous waters. With help from other agencies, which included Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation and Islamorada Fire Rescue, CBP was able to rescue all the people in the water.
“These people were packed into an overloaded, unsafe vessel without safety equipment,” said Lt. C. Box, of Coast Guard District Seven. “The weather was so bad, these people are lucky we got to them when we did.”
Of the 190 on the sailboat, 89 were men, 55 were women and 46 were children. A total of 180 migrants were put on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, given food, water and medical attention and repatriated to Haiti on Nov. 26.
Ten people onboard the vessel were going through a joint interagency process. On Nov. 29, the Coast Guard said seven people were repatriated and three were transferred back to U.S. officials.
A record-breaking 2022 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, saw the Coast Guard interdicting 7,175 Haitian migrants. Since the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1, 2022, crews have intercepted vessels that contained 585 Haitians.
Not far from the famous sandbar, the grounded vessel remains a topic of conversation as boaters pass by and view it from afar. Buckets, netting, bags and other items remain onboard, and so does the story of a dangerous journey to escape a country in Haiti inflicted with violence, economic despair and major uncertainty as to its future.
The sailboat is the latest addition to the Florida Keys’ derelict vessel problem, which has grown with more Cuban chugs arriving by the day. Between 60 and 80 derelict vessels are taken out of the water each year, costing a little more than $200,000. Grant funding from Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and Monroe County Boating Improvement Funds are used to remove derelict vessels.
Removal of the wooden vessel that carried the Haitians now falls into the hands of Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“It’ll go onto our (derelict vessel) list and it’ll be treated as such,” said Jason Rafter, public information officer with FWC.