To hear Pete Hernandez tell it, it was a grand adventure. For two days, he and his family and friends — altogether, 30 refugees — floated around the Gulf of Mexico before being rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1970.

One of his rescuers was Key West’s Doug Helliesen, a former Coastie. 

Fifty years after the rescue, Hernandez began searching for more details about his flight from Cuba when he was just 9 years old. CONTRIBUTED

The tale has all the elements of a good story — a political prisoner whose sister was married to a fisherman, a midnight rendezvous, an antique revolver from the Spanish American War that wouldn’t fire, engines that crapped out, dolphins, seasickness and then, finally, the rescue off the Marquesas Keys and eventual landing in Key West.  

On March 11, Helliesen and Hernandez met for the first time in more than 50 years in Miami. That’s where Hernandez lives now and Helliesen was visiting for a doctor’s appointment. 

They reminisced for more than two hours. 

“I told him our back story of how we came to escape,” said Hernandez. “And then we talked about our families and made plans to visit Key West in a few weeks.” Hernandez said he’s bringing Helliesen a gift, too, but it’s a secret and not for publication.  

Helliesen served aboard the Cape York cutter in 1970.

Hernandez and Helliesen connected a few months ago, at the height of the pandemic. Instead of learning how to bake bread, Hernandez started researching more details about his trip. He joined a Facebook group page and uncovered archived news stories about the crossing in the Herald, and another Spanish-language newspaper. The story made the papers because of the size of the party and the timing — a full decade after Castro assumed power in Cuba and many were jailed for their opposition. Among them was Manolo Garcia, a friend of one of Hernandez’s uncles. 

“We would never have left Manolo behind,” another member of the Garcia family told the Herald. 

Hellisien, a lifelong woodworker after his career in the Coast Guard, made these pens recently from local hardwood to commemorate the story. CARRIE HELLIESEN/Contributed

Manolo’s sister was married to a man who worked on a big, 61-foot state-owned Cuban fishing boat. The plan was for the fisherman to take the rest of the crew hostage, disembark them, and embark the other Cubans escaping to Florida. 

“We left our house at midnight and walked for an hour or two to a bay near our city, Mantua, on the western coast of Cuba in the Pinar del Rio province,” Hernandez said. “We had to wait until daybreak and then the boat came into view.”

Hernandez said that aboard the boat, the escaping crew member threatened the rest of the crew with the antique revolver obtained from the local doctor. (The only problem: no bullets. Eventually, bullets were found but not of the right caliber. They were shoved into the chamber anyway, held in place with pieces of wadded up paper. By the way, it was a friendly hostage taking, Hernandez recalled. The rest of the crew was disappointed only that they weren’t prepared to defect too.)


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Sara Matthis thinks community journalism is important, but not serious; likes weird and wonderful children (she has two); and occasionally tortures herself with sprint-distance triathlons, but only if she has a good chance of beating her sister.