Man in Mississippi paddle festival escaped Cuba on homemade raft in 1994

Published 3:07 pm Sunday, June 10, 2018


COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — A recent festival in Columbus called Island Paddle Fest drew participants from several states, but nobody paddled farther than Roberto Vazquez Ferie.

Although he lives in Memphis now, Vazquez Ferie’s journey began almost a quarter-century ago, when he, along with his father and seven other men, fashioned a raft out of the roof of an old minivan and set off in a desperate, dangerous bid to escape Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

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The group was among an estimated 30,000 Cubans who fled the country on makeshift rafts of all shapes and sizes in the summer of 1994 in what came to be known as the Cuban Raft Crisis.

For Vazquez Ferie the treacherous passage on the improvised raft was not so much an act of remarkable courage as it was a deep hunger for freedom, more of an escape from hopelessness than an escape from his home country.

“I really didn’t care if I lived or died,” he said. “All I knew is that I didn’t want to live there anymore. I was young and felt strong. I wanted to work. I wanted to have a better life. I knew this was my only way.”

After about 20 hours at sea, his group was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard about 54 miles north of Cuba and sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he spent 14 ¼ months while the U.S. government debated the fate of the thousands of would-be refugees. In 1995, President Bill Clinton approved the relocation of most of the refugees.

Vazquez Ferie, then 23, was sent to Memphis, where he gravitated to the Mississippi River to find work.

“I grew up by the sea,” said Vazquez, who began kayaking at age nine and competed for the Cuban National Team throughout his teens. “The water, that’s my thing.”

In Memphis, he found work cleaning barges, which is where he met Rick Prince.

Like Vazquez Ferie, Prince was a “water man,” operating his own company which built, repaired and serviced towboats and barges up and down the Mississippi River.

“When you work on the river, people gravitate to each other,” Prince said. “When I met Roberto, I saw somebody who was a natural leader. I was happy to have him work for me.”

Vazquez worked and saved his money. Eventually, he opened his own Cuban-Mexican restaurant in Memphis, which he sold last year.

The story of Vazquez Ferie’s escape from Cuba and new life in America is the subject of the 2017 book, “Just Another Cuban,” by Silvia C. Rodriguez.

On a Saturday in May, Prince and Vazquez, along with their families, made the trip to Columbus for the Paddle Fest.

Vazquez, 46, said he hadn’t been in a kayak in about six years.

“I’m in very bad shape and I ate too much for breakfast,” he said, soon after completing the 5.5-mile race course.

Even so, he finished second in the race, completing the course in a little less than an hour.

“I don’t even know why I came, except to hang out with this guy,” he said, throwing his arm around Prince’s shoulder. “But I loved it. I haven’t been paddling at all. It’s fun. I think I’ll do it again next year.”