U. S. Coast Guard Operations

During the 1980 Cuban Exodus

Mariel Boatlift ship

By:

VADM Benedict L. Stabile, USCG (Ret.)
&
Dr. Robert L. Scheina


The cause of the 1980 refugee exodus from Cuba is deeply rooted in that nation's internal affairs.  The first signs that those seeking to leave Cuba might have the opportunity for a water-borne escape to the United States occurred during the second week in April.  On the 11th a Miami radio station began broadcasting that Cuban-Americans were to gather with their boats (those over 20 feet).  The stated purpose was to sail to the limits of Cuban waters, 90 nautical miles [nm] from Florida, in order to bring pressure through media coverage on Castro's immigration policies.  Food and water were to be passed to the Cuban Border Guard- for relay to those in the Peruvian Embassy.

A photo of the Rear Admiral Stabile The United States Coast Guard's Seventh District, commanded by then-Rear Admiral Benedict L. Stabile, USCG (left), was responsible for executing the service' s responsibilities in this area. Initially, the District in addition to information gathering, which remains a continuing task, responded to public inquiries by pointing out the risk involved in crossing the Gull Stream in a small craft.  Reportedly, 60 to 80 craft were going to take part in this peaceful protest.  On 14 April, eight craft were trailered to Key West and another arrived by water.  Due to bad weather, only one craft began the voyage and it turned back.

On the morning of 21 April, Radio Havana announced that two U.S. small craft had been permitted to pick-up refugees, who were related to individuals on board the craft, from those housed at the Peruvian Embassy.  The broadcast stated that other boats would be allowed to enter Cuban waters for the same purpose.  Reportedly, 25 to 50 craft were waiting off Havana for permission to enter.  That same afternoon, one fishing vessel and three small craft returned to Florida with refugees on board.  The fishing vessel broke down two nautical miles from the Key West main channel sea buoy and had to be towed to Coast Guard Group Key West by a cutter.  Contrary to the Radio Havana's statement, family members of those on board the craft were not permitted to leave Cuba.  Cuban officials reportedly told the operators that the requested individuals had not yet been processed and that their craft would have to carry refugees ready to leave.

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.(Right: Coast Guard Group Key West)

On 22 April, refugees arriving in Florida, stated in radio interviews that the Cuban Government had opened its coast for anyone to leave, provided they had a permit to do so.  On that afternoon, a Coast Guard HC-131 from Air Station Miami began surveillance patrols of the area south of Key West; a second flight was flown that day, and the twice daily patrol flights became routine.  Also on the 22nd, the Seventh Coast Guard District informed Coast Guard Headquarters that an adequate search and rescue posture was being maintained in the transit area.

Soon thereafter a fishing vessel and two private craft docked at Key West, carrying more than 280 refugees. Another 68 refugees arrived at Miami on board another fishing vessel.  The Coast Guard air patrol sighted approximately 50 craft south of Key West and a like number between Miami and Fowey Rocks, all southbound. Radio traffic indicated their destination to be Cuba.  Three of the southbound small craft broke down and were towed to Key West by cutters.  One fishing vessel was sighted northbound, carrying approximately 60 refugees.  Additional small craft were anchored along the reef line.  Late that evening, an Urgent Marine Broadcast warned that transporting aliens to the United States was illegal and violators may be arrested and their vessels seized; this was reissued the following day.  The Public Affairs Officer of the Seventh District appeared on local TV evening news stating the Coast Guard's role and again on the 24th.

Beginning on 22 April, Coast Guard Headquarters officials met with representatives of agencies on the National Security Council, which included personnel from the Department of State, Justice and Treasury at the White House, to review U.S. policy.  The tempo of the exodus increased.  By 24 April an estimated 11 vessels had safely crossed to Cuba and had returned with over 700 refugees, disembarking at Key West or Miami.  The refugees had embarked, at Mariel, with at least one pick-up having been made at Havana.

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.Locally, the Coast Guard responded to distress calls on a case by case basis.  Within a 21 hours period, Group Key West assisted 16 craft.  Cutters Acushnet (WMEC-167), Dauntless (WMEC-624), and Dependable (WMEC-626; left), the latter with a HH-52 helicopter embarked, patrolled the general area.  Dallas (WHEC-716) and Ingham (WHEC-35) were at Guantanamo and were available on short notice.  The Coast Guard's Miami Operation Center received hundreds of inquiries from would-be refugee transporters.  These boaters were told to clear their departure with Customs; not to violate their vessel's documentation limits for carrying passengers; to provide a personal flotation device for each person to be carried; and to notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) immediately upon returning with aliens.  These boaters were also encouraged to file a float plan.  The same instructions were broadcast on marine radio.

The size of the refugee flotilla was staggering.  Trailered boats were lined-up 50 to 100 deep at Key West, waiting their turn to be launched.  This went on for 36 to 48 hours; local residence could hear the activity around the clock.  Hundreds of trailers were scattered throughout Key West.  One thousand craft were observed southbound on the afternoon of the 24th.  For the most part, these were Cuban Americans who owned their own boat, typically a 20 to 40 footer relatively well equipped for local pleasure boating.  Reportedly, the tanks in numerous craft had inadequate fuel capacity and the vessels were carrying additional fuel in portable containers.  This, the first wave, resulted in the transit of 1,000 to 1,200 boats to Mariel in relatively short order. 

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.By Friday, 25 April, Cuban Americans, who did not own boats, arrived in Key West in massive numbers, attempting to buy a boat and hire a captain.  This was the second wave.  Those successful sailed on Friday in groups of 10 and 20.  Many were totally inexperienced and had no appreciation of the risk they were taking.  At this time, Group Key West had the Cape York (WPB-95332), Cape Shoalwater (WPB-95324; above, right), Point Thatcher (WPB-82314), and two 41-footers; they were deluged with assistance calls due to routine breakdowns.  The Group had a waiting list of 10-20-30 boats, which had suffered mechanical failure and needed assistance.  The Group was conducting a 24 hour operation just towing in people.  Also on Friday some flotilla boats began to return to Florida.  The high number of departures and the significantly lower number of returnees indicated a probable bottleneck at Mariel.  Countless search-and-rescue [SAR] calls were answered on this day, 12 being serious cases requiring medical evacuation or assisting sinking craft.

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.The exodus fleet had become a steady stream involving hundreds of craft.  They ranged in size from 18 to 90 feet, and at least 20 could be seen from the patrolling Coast Guard aircraft at any given moment.  The broadcast warnings of potential monetary penalties, seizures, and arrests were acknowledged by many departees, who continued on their way.  On Friday and throughout the next day, many of the inexperienced boats broke down and reacted in a panicked manner.  Group Key West was totally absorbed in towing in disabled boats.


A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.(Left: Coast Guard patrol boat squadron formed to respond to the growing Cuban refugee crisis.)

The Seventh Coast Guard District issued an operations order identifying "enemy forces" as "(I) adverse weather and strong currents (2) unworthy and overloaded boats (3) persons intent on violating U.S. law."  The mission was "to provide maximum protection for refugee vessels . . . transmitting between Florida and Cuba for an extended period of time."  This operational order was amended only twice (3 and 20 May) to adjust to changing circumstances.

On Sunday, 27 April at about one o'clock in Key West, the weather went to hell--a "mini-hurricane" passed through.  Winds shut-down the Naval Air Station--which typically occurs when they go above 60 knots.  The Group had 22 "maydays", serious cases involving danger to life, in about 5 minutes.  It was instantaneous disaster.  During the next two to three hours, people were literally backed up in the water.   Fortunately, the weather front was short-lived and the helicopters were able to join the cutters in rescue operations within an hour after the storm started.

The large cutters were also inundated with SAR calls.  The volume of cases became so heavy that accurate records could not be kept.  At one time, Ingham had five vessels in tow and an estimated 14 persons on board, taken from four or five swamped boats.  These had to be left adrift.  A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.Cutter Diligence (WMEC-616) had six craft in tow, was escorting two others, and had 23 persons on board from an awashed vessel.  By the 29th, two bodies were found in a capsized vessel, 18 miles east of Trumph Reef.  Numerous abandoned and capsized craft were observed.

(Right, USCGC Diligence)

This bad weather only temporarily reduced the number of sailings.  At this time, Coast Guard Auxiliary Division 13 took over the day to day SAR cases of Group Key West, such as assisting disabled fishing and charter boats.  By the 29th, the exodus was once again in full operation.  Following this storm, many of the Cuban Americans, who did not own boats, were paying large sums to small commercial craft, such as shrimpers, to bring back relatives.  Reportedly, up to $1,000 a head was being charged.  Over 1,700 vessels were reported to be in Mariel by the Cuban Government, 19 were sighted northbound plus 67 southbound, 400 craft were awaiting to be launched at Key West, and a like number had been launched in the previous 24 hours.  Conditions in Mariel were described as terrible.  Exorbitant prices were being charged for supplies.  Cuban authorities extended credit to some boaters, but they were not allowed to depart until the money had been wired to Cuba.  Ingham reported that vessels were returning without refugees and Diligence reported that radio traffic indicated that the Cuban Government was requesting vessels to come back in 30 to 60 days, as they would only be able to process those refugees already in progress.  These bad conditions and projected delays were causing many boats to return empty.  Of the 188 known northbound boats on 1 May, 84 were not carrying refugees.

On 29 April, Commander Seventh Coast Guard District sent a telegram to the Cuban Border Guard asking, in the name of safety, to be advised of the names of the vessels departing Cuba and the approximate number of people on board.  This information would have permitted the Coast Guard to keep a semblance of order.  No immediate response was received.  Unconfirmed reports indicated that the Border Guard would escort vessels to the midway between Cuba and Florida, a traditional exchange point.  Cutter Ingham sighted two Cuban Border Guard vessels escorting eight boats on a northerly course.  Group Key West confirmed that the escort proceeded to within 13 miles of Key West.  On 30 April a telex message was sent by the Commander of the Seventh District, inquiring if the Cubans intended to continue the escort service, and if so, offering to establish a hand-off procedure.  The Cuban Border Guard agreed to a mid-point escorting service, in the 1 May message, which accused Dallas (below) of territorial violation.  A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980. They stated that it was impossible to provide the names of vessels and numbers on board due to the volume.  The Seventh District began to work on a "hand-off" plan.  However, this arrangement did not materialize and would not have alleviated the need to have a cutter in close proximity of Cuban to provide a rescue presence for southbound vessels.

Also the 29th, the Coast Guard began providing daily forecasts of arrivals to Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS], Customs, Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], and volunteer agencies based on aerial reconnaissance to facilitate orderly processing.  Cutters were assigned "sectors", roughly 800 square nautical miles.  These were adjusted as need arose. Key West Naval Air Station, Boca Chica, was now opened on a 24 hour basis to Coast Guard helicopter operations.  Admiral Stabile requested the media to provide additional weather details to boaters; they fully complied as a public service.  On the 29th, the District cited the first vessel for "grossly unsafe" operations.  The Group Commander in Key West reported evidence of an increasingly negative reaction to law enforcement efforts the Cuban Americans.

During a surveillance flight on 30 April, a Coast Guard HC-31 aircraft was intercepted in the Havana Flight Information Region by two Cuban MIG fighters, approximately 20 miles off Cuba.  The first pass appeared to be for identification and not harassing or provocation.  The MIGs returned and circled the aircraft until it turned north, at which time they turned toward Cuba.  On Wednesday night, 30 April, Dallas observed the 502-foot Greek merchantman Euro Champion northbound in the Straits of Florida with a Cuban patrol boat in pursuit.  Radio communications indicated that the vessel had Cuban refugees on board and was possibly hijacked.  Later, it was learned that when the pursuing patrol boats had intercepted Euro Champion they had identified themselves as "U.S. Coast Guard," and directed the ship to stop for boarding. The deception did not work. The patrol craft then fired automatic weapons in the air.  When the Dallas arrived on the scene, Euro Champion headed for her. 

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.Then the Cuban craft (left: a Cuban patrol boat), visible from Dallas , fired a flare and retired southward.  The following day, Euro Champion was found hard aground near Tennessee Reef.  Vigorous (WMEC-627) boarded and inspected papers; there had been no hijacking.  Three refugees were on board; one requested to be removed and was transferred to the INS and the others chose to remain on board until the ship reached its next port of call, New Orleans.

On 1 May, the Cuban Border Guard accused cutter Dallas of approaching within nine miles of the Cuban coast.  They protested and asked that future violation be avoided.  The Coast Guard advised the Border Guard that Dallas' navigational plot indicated that at no time had the cutter come closer than 28 miles of the Cuban coast.  The Coast Guard intended to routinely patrol up to 12 miles of the Cuban Coast, and if necessary would respond to SAR cases to within three miles of shore.

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.Also on this day, the Joint Chiefs of Staff tasked the Commander in Chief, Atlantic to augment Coast Guard units in the Straits of Florida for search and rescue operations.  USS Saipan (LHA-2; right) an amphibious assault ship carrying 17 helicopters, and USS Boulder (LST-1190), a tank landing ship, were dispatched with Rear Admiral Warren Hamm, USN, Commander Amphibious Group II, embarked.  A Coast Guard liaison officer flew out and boarded Saipan off West Palm Beach as the ships were sailing south.  Thus, all five services were represented on board Saipan.  They arrived on the scene five days after leaving Norfolk.

The weather on 1 May was more severe than forecasted.  A line of thunder storms passed between Key West and Cuba; gusts were up to 60 knots and there were 12 foot seas.  The Coast Guard advised the Cuban Border Guard of the severe weather and requested that they tell boaters not to depart until the storms passed.  The Cubans responded that they had taken appropriate measures and expressed thanks for the information.  By 3 May the volume of boat traffic fell off, probably due to the embarkation delays in Cuba reported by the media.  However, this respite lasted only one day.

On 3 May, the Cuban rescue boat Tuma, a 165-foot converted side trawler, radioed Dallas and arranged a rendezvous to transfer a tow.  Tuma was towing a Florida registered, 22-foot pleasure craft with 15 persons on board, 14 of whom were refugees.  Previously, the Cuban rescue boats had been taking disabled craft back to Mariel.  

While attempting to recover her helicopter on 3 May, Dallas was circled for 10 minutes at 80 feet by a U.S. registered civilian helicopter.  This aircraft failed to answer calls on the emergency frequency and was preventing the Coast Guard helicopter from landing.  The incident was reported to the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA].  On 7 May, the FAA issued a "Notice to Airmen" delineating an area, which aircraft should avoid so as not to interfere with patrolling Coast Guard cutters and naval ships.

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.On 5 May, Saipan and Boulder arrived on station.  Also, their surveillance patrols were augmented by naval aircraft from Jacksonville.  Five patrols were planned for each day, four Coast Guard and one Navy.  Three on-scene commands were established under operational control of the Commander Seventh Coast Guard District.  The Coast Guard's Commanding Officer, Group Key West, was responsible for the tidal area, out to 10 to 15 miles off the Keys.  He controlled the patrol boats (WPBs), Coast Guard helicopters at Key West, the Auxiliary, and other inshore assets.  Admiral Hamm (USN) controlled the middle waters with the two large amphibious ships and embarked aviation squadrons.  The waters closest to Cuba were the responsibilities of the Coast Guard squadron commander, who was the commanding officer of Dallas.  His force was two high endurance cutters (WHECs) and two to four medium endurance cutters (WMECs).

Also on the 5th, cutter Cape Gull (WPB-95304; below, left ) A photo of the Mariel boatlift, 1980. intercepted and escorted to Key West the ocean-going tug Dr. Daniels with 449 persons on board.  The vessel had been chartered for $70,000 by Cuban-Americans to transport relatives.  Apparently the vessel was ordered by a Cuban patrol boat to embark those refugees immediately available and depart.  Dr. Daniels had life saving equipment on board for only about a third of the people.  The vessel was seized by Customs in Key West.  Ingham reported that she was informed by a pleasure craft that the 150-foot America was in Mariel boarding approximately 900 refugees.  The Commander Seventh Coast Guard District sent the following two Telex messages to the Cuban Border Guard:

MESSAGE 1:

COAST GUARD HAS RECEIVED INFORMATION THAT A SMALL SHIP POSSIBLE NAME AMERICAS IS LOADING ABOUT 900 PASSENGERS IN MARIEL.  ASSUME CUBAN GOVERNMENT WOULD NOT PERMIT VESSEL THAT IS OVERLOADED WITH PASSENGERS TO DEPART IN CONTRAVENTION OF SAFETY OF LIFE AT SEA CONVENTION (SOLAS 1960) TO WHICH CUBA IS A SIGNATORY NATION. THERE IS A GREAT CONCERN FOR THE SEAWORTHINESS, LIFE SAVING EQUIPMENT AND FIRE PROTECTION OF THE VESSEL.

SHOULD SUCH A VESSEL BE ALLOWED TO DEPART, REQUEST IN THE INTEREST OF SAFETY OF LIFE THAT YOU ADVISE COAST GUARD OF NAME AND COUNTRY OF REGISTRY OF VESSEL, TIME OF DEPARTURE, NUMBER CF PASSENGERS, AND LIFE SAVING AND FIRE FIGHTING EQUIPMENT ON BOARD.

MESSAGE 2:

THE COAST GUARD APPRECIATES YOUR ACTIONS IN THE INTEREST OF SAFETY AT SEA IN ATTEMPTING TO ESCORT VESSELS FROM MARIEL PROVIDING US WITH SOME INFORMATION AND IN ONE CASE TRANSFERRING THE TOW OF A DISABLED VESSEL TO U.S. COAST GUARD CUTTER.  HOWEVER AT NOON TODAY THE TUG "DR DANIELS" ARRIVED KEY WEST FROM MARIEL WITH APPROXIMATELY 600 REFUGEES ON BOARD.   AS STATED IN MY TELEX OF 061350 GMT MAY 80 I AM DEEPLY CONCERNED ABOUT THE UNSAFE TRANSPORT OF PASSENGERS BETWEEN MARIEL AND THE U.S. THE "DR DANIELS" WAS SERIOUSLY OVERLOADED AND HAD LIFE SAVING EQUIPMENT FOR ONLY ONE THIRD THE PERSONNEL ON BOARD.  TO AVERT A TRAGIC MARITIME DISASTER, I URGE THAT THE PRINCIPLES OF SAFETY SET FORTH IN THE SOLAS CONVENTION BE OBSERVED.

Coast Guard and naval units were alerted to be on the lookout for grossly overloaded craft.  Commandant Hayes held a press conference on the 7th.  "Cuba is party to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).  Yet thousands of refugees in the current "freedom flotilla" are encouraged to leave that country in overcrowded, unsafe vessels.  This is totally inconsistent with Cuba's treaty obligations under SOLAS and other international agreements."

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.The Commandant pointed out that Cuba's current attitude toward the exodus was "courting disaster" and could result in a marine tragedy involving hundreds of lives.  The Dr. Daniel case was used to illustrate the point.  Admiral Hayes appealed to Cuba to act as a responsible member of the international community.  The Commandant and Admiral Stabile hoped to make the Cuban government more accountable by publicizing its responsibilities.

Obtaining accurate information as to the number of exodus craft waiting to carry refugees from Mariel was a continuing problem.  On 7 May, the Seventh District estimated that 508 vessels remained in Cuba.  Returning refugees said that between 1,500 and 2,000 U.S. boats were in Mariel and that 75,000 to 100,000 people were waiting transportation at Mariel.  An accurate count was complicated by numerous factors.  First, Mariel was an important Cuban port, generally crowded with Cuban national boats.  Second, it was a big harbor with many indentations.  Third, many small, high speed boats were apparently being exchanged for the freedom of some refugees.  This was not learned until sometime later.  Fourth, the Coast Guard had to rely on counts by ever-changing third parties, who were generally viewing the harbor from a height of ten feet above the water.  On the following day, the Seventh District revised its estimate to 1,500 vessels remaining in Cuba.

Also on Wednesday, 7 May, Group Key West reported to Commander, Seventh District that the 72-foot vessel Dawn II was planning to sail to Mariel.  The vessel was reported to have split seams, holes at the water line and had a history of being assisted by the Coast Guard for electrical fires.  Based on the Group Commander's recommendation, Admiral Stabile authorized terminating the use of Dawn II as being manifestly unsafe for the intended voyage.  Also on Wednesday, the Admiral visited Saipan, cutter Dallas and Group Key West to review operational procedures.

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.(Left: William Burdette, a Dauntless crewman, passes a rescued refugee to a shipmate.)

On Thursday, 8 May, the 110-foot America radioed to the Coast Guard that she had been forced to depart Mariel with refugees on board.  When four miles off that port, personnel from two Cuban patrol boats boarded America and forced her to return.  Saturday evening, cutter Dauntless located a catamaran America out bound from Mariel.  Accompanying her were numerous fishing and pleasure craft. Cutters Dauntless and Vigorous removed refugees to eliminate overloading and escorted all 31 craft to Key West.  A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980. Cutter Dauntless (below) received reports that at least five grossly overloaded, large boats had sailed from Mariel between 0300 and 0600 with 500 persons on board each.  Later that day, cutter Valiant (WMEC-621) located the 68-foot fishing vessel Capt Preston with 308 refugees and a crew of 28 on board.  Late that evening, she along with Big Baby (66-foot, 185 on board) and Crazy Horse (77-foot, 318 on board), arrived in Key West.  These vessels were detained pending investigation.  No information was received on the other reported overloaded vessels.

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.During the day, cutter Dauntless picked up 131 persons from six overloaded boats, two of which were disabled.  These persons were transferred to SaipanSaipan and Boulder, using their landing craft as shuttles, removed people from overloaded and disabled boats.  These refugees were then transferred to Key West by helicopter, landing craft or Coast Guard cutters.

(Above, left: ENS Jane Hamilton on board Dallas.)

On 10 May a strategy meeting was held to recommend future actions.  Those present included the Commandant, Admiral Stabile, and top government officials representing concerned agencies.  Beginning this date, numerous vessels were either seized or detained.  These fell into two categories.  Vessels, usually pleasure craft, which had gross safety violations, were the first.  These craft were escorted into port and were not permitted to leave until the violations were corrected.  Vessels, generally large commercial types, which had returned to the United States with large numbers of non-visaed aliens on board, were the second.  These vessels were detained, pending the operators ability to produce collateral to cover the probable fine for transporting illegal aliens into the United States.  The number of vessels which had been acted against prior to 10 May had been minimal.


Beginning on 10 May, it was not unusual to have half a dozen or more vessels terminated or detained on a single day.  On 11 May, Cuba advised by Telex that the 24-foot, U.S. craft Nacy with two persons on board was reported disabled and adrift about 10 miles northeast of Mariel.  The Cubans requested that, if sighted U. S. patrol units should assist the craft.  This was the first attempted cooperation by the Cubans since the tow hand-off on 4 May.  The Cubans stated an objection to an American patrol craft approaching within 12 miles to assist Nacy.

On 12 May the cutter Courageous (WMEC-622; below, left) was diverted A photo of the Courageous from the Cuban refugee operation at the request of the American Embassy in Nassau in order to search for survivors from the Bahamian patrol boat Flamingo.   Flamingo was sunk by a Cuban MIG aircraft on Saturday, 10 May, near Santo Domingo Cay.  Also on the 12th, the Commander, Third Coast Guard District [Vice Admiral Price held the dual command position of Commander, Atlantic Area and Commander, Third Coast Guard District] terminated the voyage of the 50-foot vessel Barbara, a converted Navy liberty launch.  The 10 Cuban-Americans on board stated that they were paying the operators $100 per day to pick up relatives in Mariel, having been towed by the Coast Guard to the Shark River Station near Manasquan, New Jersey, in a disabled condition.  The vessel was unregistered, undocumented, uninspected, and the operator was unlicensed.  In addition, multiple physical discrepancies were found, leading to the manifestly unsafe determination.

The number of vessels remaining in Cuba had declined to an estimated 1,000 by 13 May; 117 were observed northbound on that day.  Cutter Dallas saw 11 fishing trawlers and 11 smaller craft departing Mariel together.  Some began to leak, some had medical problems, and one caught fire.  Two people were evacuated by Dallas's helicopter for medical treatment.  Later Dallas found the 24-foot Sea Hunter, which had been disabled and adrift for seven days.  The boat and two man crew were taken to Key West.  Cutter Diligence removed 28 people from a craft just before it sank. She escorted a convoy of 23 vessels with an estimated 1,500 people on board to Key West.

The Department of State issued the following broadcast notice to mariners on 13 May:

Because of Cuban government sponsored mass anti-American demonstration, instigated mob violence in front of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana on May 2, a virulent anti-American propaganda campaign and the emergency carried by the Cuban government encouragement of mass emigration under dangerous and abnormal conditions, non-essential travel to Cuba as in the water surrounding Cuba should be postponed.

On 14 May, the President implemented a five-point program to end Cuba's inhumane actions and to bring safety and order to a process, which continued to threaten lives.  The third point urged boats already in Mariel to sail without refugees and prohibited new trips from being undertaken.  The Coast Guard made the following Urgent Marine Broadcast:

All United States citizens in Cuban ports and enroute Cuba are advised to return to the United States at this time.  The U.S. government will arrange alternative transportation for Cuban citizens desiring to emigrate through an organized sea lift that will ensure safe and orderly transportation, vessels not under charter or hire by the U.S. government are subject to heavy fines and possible seizure if they transport Cuban citizens in violation of U.S. immigration laws.  All U.S. boats in Mariel and those enroute Cuba are advised to return to the United States without delay.

To implement the President's program, 15 boarding teams, created at Coast Guard suggestion, were formed to inspect each returning vessel.  A team was composed of a Coast Guard marine investigating officer (MSD) , a Coast Guard boating safety detachment member (BOSDET), a Customs person, and a INS representative.  The Customs representative and MSD officer would interview the master and crew.  The BOSDET person would conduct a safety boarding and the INS officer would remove the refugees.  The team would recommend what legal action should be taken against a returning boat to the U.S. Attorneys.

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.Reports from the Homestead Marine Operator indicated that at least two vessels in Mariel had heard President Carter's message over commercial radio.  Radio communications between cutter Dallas and a vessel in Mariel indicated that Cuban authorities were not permitting boats to depart unless they first took refugees on board.  This tended to be confirmed by two other boats via the Marine Operator, who stated they had seen several vessels being escorted back to Mariel by Cuban patrol craft, because they had departed without refugees.  Additionally, many of the boats departing Mariel on 13 May were found to be grossly overloaded and hundreds of people had to be removed enroute by cutters and helicopters.  Cutter Dallas had 260 refugees on board and six vessels in tow, carrying 57 more people.  To implement the Five Point Program established by President Carter on the 13th, additional resources were identified throughout the Coast Guard to augment forces in the Florida Keys.  In addition, Urgent Marine Broadcasts were made by the Coast Guard in both English and Spanish, advising boaters underway to return to the United States without delay. A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.

(Left: Cape Current arrives in Key West loaded with refugees.)
By the 15th an estimated 564 vessels remained in Cuba, although some reports placed the number at over 1,000.  All of the 268 vessels sighted northbound had refugees on board.  An HH52 helicopter established radio communications with vessels in Mariel.  They stated that the President's plan had been heard on the radio and some vessels wanted to comply and return to Florida immediately without refugees.  But, two Cuban boats were preventing them from departing.  Cutter Dallas received conflicting radio reports that, if agreeable to all parties, vessels could leave without refugees.  The Coast Guard was notified by the master of the fishing vessel Mr. Gardner that he wanted to leave Mariel without refugees, but that the passengers who chartered the vessel threatened the lives of the crew.  However, the fact that all northbound vessels contained refugees supported the reports that Cuban authorities were not permitting the craft in Mariel to comply with the President's directive.

Coast Guard units operating in the Straits of Florida indicated that there was heavy radio traffic on channel 16 VHF FM, making communications difficult, but no indication of intentional jamming of Urgent Marine Broadcast, as reported by the news media.  The broadcast concerning the President's program was continuing to be made.

During the following weeks, additional resources were ordered to the Straits of Florida to augment and relieve the refugee task force, now executing the President's Five Point Program.


The number of craft estimated to be in Mariel continued to decline.  By Saturday, 17 May, the estimate was 341.  The Coast Guard continued to transmit the Urgent Marine Broadcast stating the Government's position.  Of the 91 vessels sighted northbound, 87 had refugees on board.  Six units were sighted southbound on Saturday.  Two could not be intercepted due to darkness and the others escaped because all Coast Guard units in the vicinity were engaged in the Olo Yumi rescue.

On the morning of the 17th, the pleasure craft Olo Yumi with 52 persons sank when the people on board panicked, ran to the stern, and caused water to come over the transom.  The helicopter on patrol from cutter Courageous sighted the people in the water and began rescue operations.  The cutter, a few miles from the disaster, broadcasted the emergency.  Arriving, Courageous launched her boats, lowered cargo nets, and put swimmers in the water.  She along with Coast Guard helicopters rescued 38 and recovered 10 bodies.  These refugees had been among those housed in the Peruvian Embassy.  One survivor, a 15-year-old girl, lost both parents, both sisters, and a grandparent.  The boat had been grossly overloaded.  Admiral Stabile sent the following Telex message to the Cuban Border Guard:

THE 35 FOOT VESSEL "OLO YUMI" NUMBER FL4860CU DEPARTED MARIEL HARBOR AT NIGHT 16 MAY 1980 WITH 52 PERSONS ON BOARD.  THE VESSEL CAPSIZED AND SANK ABOUT 0830 17 MAY 1980 25 MILES NORTHEAST OF MARIEL.  TEN PERSONS ARE DEAD AND FOUR REMAIN UNLOCATED.  COAST GUARD CUTTERS AND HELICOPTERS HAVE RESCUED 38 PERSONS FROM THE WATER.  TEN OF THESE PERSONS ARE SERIOUSLY INJURED.  THIS MARINE TRAGEDY HAPPENED BECAUSE TOO MANY PERSONS WERE PUT ON BOARD THE SMALL BOAT.

The Coast Guard received information that refugees were being dropped off in the Naples-Sanibel area by boats less that 25 feet.  This indicated a possible at sea transfer from larger vessels.  The INS was notified; patrol vessels were ordered to watch for vessels deviating from the Mariel--Key West Corridor; and night searches, using aircraft equipped with high illumination search lights, were begun.

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.By Sunday, 18 May, only an estimated 177 vessels remained in Mariel.  Conditions for the refugees and boaters continually deteriorated at Mariel.  Returnees were now stating that a concentration camp atmosphere existed.  The Commander, Seventh Coast Guard District pointed out in news releases the overloaded condition of most boats.  The master of the fishing vessel Atlantis claimed he was forced at gunpoint to board 354 refugees, even though he had only 80 life jackets on board.  Dallas received a message from Atlantis stating she was taking on water.  Upon visual contact, Dallas could see that Atlantis was in an advanced state of disrepair.  Dallas maneuvered to provide a lee in the six foot seas.  The cutter's presence calmed the people on board; Dallas escorted Atlantis to Key West.  Sunshine, a 35-foot pleasure craft, had also been forcibly overloaded.  Cutter Point Huron (WPB-82357) investigating a mayday found three persons died and 27 others suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.  Only the operator and crew, who were above deck, were unaffected.  The Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment, Key West, indicated that 90 percent of returning vessels were either overloaded or carrying maximum loads.  To date, there were 24 known losses of life, most due to Cuban policies or indifference.  Admiral Stabile voiced the concern that with fewer vessels entering Mariel, the Cuban Government might be tempted to overload the remaining vessels to even a greater degree.  The Admiral urged the consideration of additional initiative at the National and International levels in order to restrain the Cubans from such practices.

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.(Right: Coast Guardsmen and Customs officials process incoming refugees)

On 19 May, the Seventh District revised the number of craft remaining in Mariel to 408.  This was believed to be accurate to within +/- 50, the first time an accurate projection was given.  Of the 247 vessels sighted northbound, all but six carried refugees.  Cutters Dallas reported that numerous Cuban government vessels remained south of latitude 24 N.  Some were harassing boaters while others were providing assistance; however, no serious incidents occurred.  Many of the refugee boats, heading northward, became disabled.  Dallas evacuated nine people from the 24-foot Mandy; the boat had to be left adrift, partially filled with water.  Cutter Courageous had several boats in tow and approximately 200 refugees were on board.

By Tuesday, 20 May, the movement southbound was nil.  Late in the morning three small craft were sighted heading toward Mariel, but they were too close to the buffer zone to intercepted.  Another craft was turned back by cutter Valiant.  An estimated 400 vessels remained in Mariel.

Approximately 50 boats sailed for the United States on the 21st.  The 53-foot Missy had to be taken alongside Dallas because of extensive rotting.  The vessel then crumbled against the cutter's pneumatic fender.  Dallas removed 120 people with the assistance of a naval landing craft and took Missy in tow.

The Seventh District began sending a new Marine Information Broadcast:

All vessels, Mariel Harbor, Cuba.  The Coast Guard is identifying all vessels departing Mariel Harbor, Cuba.  Vessels will be tracked by ships, aircraft, and radar to insure a safe transit and arrival Key West processing center.  Failure to arrive at Key West processing center will be considered evidence of intent to violate U.S. law.  Follow on efforts to locate such vessels will be initiated and appropriate law enforcement action taken.

Reports to cutter Courageous indicated that boats lying in Mariel were beginning to organize themselves; they began to passively resist Cuban authorities from boarding.  Cuban authorities appeared to have been instructed to stop harassing the boaters.

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.On 22 May an estimated 200 vessels remained in Mariel with 50 sailing for Florida during the day.  Two southbound vessels were intercepted by cutter Vigorous and escorted to Key West.  One, Cathy of California was seized and the operator arrested for violation of the Cuban Assets Control Regulation and 8 USC 1324A.

(Right, USCGC Vigorous)

On Friday, 23 May, cutters Valiant and Courageous intercepted the fishing vessel Star.  The operator stated that he was meeting the pleasure craft Mary 15 miles off Cuba to escort her back to Florida.  Approximately 16 miles off Cuba, Star unsuccessfully tried to evade Courageous.  She was seized and returned to Key West.  Also on Friday, the amphibian assault ship Saipan was relieved by USS Ponce (LPD-15).  Thus, the four Coast Guard helicopters stationed at the Key West Naval Air Station became the principal helicopter resource available.

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.Saturday night, 24 May, at 2113, while patrolling alone north of Mariel Bay, cutter Acushnet (left) was approached by three Cuban gunboats, which, according to Acushnet crewman SKI Bob Dyche, "were circling us, herding us in effect, maneuvering in such a way as to force us into a violation of their territorial waters.  They were. . .often within 60 feet of us, severely limiting maneuverability; we could not break free without hitting at least one of them."  The gunboats switched on their searchlights into the cutter's bridge.  This could cause the loss of night adaptation.  

SK1 Bob Dyche, USCG, a member of Acushnet's crew at this time,  noted:

"It must be understood that many of the boats leaving Mariel were completely unseaworthy; virtually all were grossly overloaded and many were already in serious trouble when they reached 'the line,' the boundary between Cuban territorial waters and the open sea.  Because of the very real danger to human life, we consistently patrolled as close to the line as possible.

When it became clear they [the Cuban gunboats] were trying to foment an international incident, the Seventh District requested assistance from [U.S. Naval] aviation; a pair of A-6s were scrambled.  The gunboats had begun to give us a bit more room but were still moving us ever closer to the line; our plot made it clear that their plan was working.  Those of us who were watching all of this from the weather decks, which was most of us, got word from the bridge that a change in the status quo was about to take place, but no word was passed as to what that meant.  We found out less than a minute later; the two A-6s had come up astern with no lights at all, skimming about 100' above the water.  When they were just astern the 'lit up'; green cockpit lights (an eerie effect in an A-6) and landing lights.  One pass and the gunboats decided they had had enough fun, and backed off; two left the area immediately.

At some point directly after this, another cutter arrived on scene.  We moved back a bit farther north, with the third gunboat following 2500-3000 yards astern"

At 2215, the cutters stopped, at which time the Cuban patrol craft departed to the south.  Commander, Seventh District sent the following telex:

COAST GUARD MIAMI HAS RECEIVED INFORMATION THAT A CUBAN PATROL CRAFT NUMBER 308 IS CIRCLING THE USCG CUTTER ACUSHNET IN POSITION 23-25N 82-29W.  REQUEST TO KNOW VSL NUMBER 308 INTENTIONS IMMEDIATELY.

The Cuban Border Guard responded by Telex:

THE CUBAN PATROL CRAFT NO 308 WAS IN THE AREA ON A PATROL MISSION.

On Sunday, 25 May, an estimated 107 vessels remained in Mariel; 116 returning to the United States during the day.  That afternoon, a telex message was sent to the Cuban Border Guard.

SEVERE WEATHER IS FORECAST FOR WATERS BETWEEN KEY WEST AND CUBA.  FLORIDA HAS EXPERIENCED TORNADOS WITH HIGH WINDS AND HIGH SEAS.  REQUEST THAT BOATS NOT BE ALLOWED TO DEPART MARIEL UNTIL THE SEVERE WEATHER HAS PAST.

No reply was received.  Late that night, cutter Dallas reported large groups of vessels departing Mariel.  A similar weather warning was sent on the 26th.  Northbound traffic continued during the next few days and many of the craft required help.  The use of pleasure craft and small commercial vessels to transport refugees was winding down.

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.A new problem arose -- the possible use of foreign flag vessels to transport refugees on 29 May.  Red Diamond (right: escorted by Acushnet), a large ship of unknown registry, was reportedly loading refugees in Mariel.  A second ship, the 276-foot Panamanian Rio Indio was reportedly enroute to Marie! for the same purpose. Panama authorized the Coast Guard to board Rio Indio, if found on the high seas, and inspect her for safety under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention.  In addition, Panama authorized the Coast Guard to advise the master that if he took refugees from Cuba, he would be in violation of Panamanian law and his certificate would be revoked.  Rio Indio was reportedly heaved-to south of Cabo San Antonio; cutter Courageous was dispatched to locate the vessel.

Courageous found and boarded Rio Indio (below, left) on Friday evening, 31 May.  The master was told that if he transported Cuban refugees, he would be violating Panamanian law.  A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.SOLAS violations were found, putting the vessel's registration in jeopardy.  At first, the master indicated that he would go to Mobile, Alabama.  However, the captain was coerced by Cuban-Americans, who were listed on the manifest, to go to Mariel.  The commanding officer of Courageous believed that the only way to prevent Rio Indio from proceeding to Mariel would be by the use of force.  Admiral Stabile strongly recommended against this and Courageous' commanding officer withdrew the boarding party.  Courageous maintained surveillance as Rio Indio proceeded along the Cuban shoreline.  She entered Mariel at 0200 Sunday morning, 1 June.  Shortly before she entered the port, Panama authorized the United States to reboard Rio Indio to investigate possible violations of Panamanian law.  Courageous had directed Rio Indio to proceed outside 12 nm limits for boarding, but she had refused to acknowledge the message.  Delaying Rio Indio allowed time to contact the Panamanian government, which prohibited the use of Panamanian-flagged vessels for transporting refugees.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary, a volunteer force of dedicated citizens, was asked to patrol the reef line from the northern end of the keys to Key West.  Known as "Operation Keying," Auxiliary boats were stationed at 13 sites by 1 June in order to provide on-site SAR capability and to give the Service a high presence profile.  Auxiliary boats, ranging from 18 to 36 feet, came from as far away as Atlanta, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, thus, many were operating in strange and treacherous waters.  This patrol lasted until 15 June.  

On 2 June Red Diamond, since learned to be Panamanian [the Panamanian government cancelled the registry of Red Diamond and Rio Indio] sailed from Mariel with 731 refugees, including 35 infants on board.  

SK1 Bob Dyche, USCG, a member of Acushnet's crew at this time, described what happened next:

"As a prefacing note, when this action took place, PAC Lou Parris was riding Acushnet as an observer, and was forwarding stories and pictures back to the press in Key West. . .When Red Diamond came out and crossed the line, we picked her up immediately.  She was overloaded to an extent that could no one who did not [see] her could comprehend; she was riding low in the water, and reported that she had already taken some water during her transit to the line.  The decision was made that Acushnet would shepherd her all the way into Key West to ensure her safe passage.  Red Diamond's master informed us that many of his passengers were either very old or very young, and that a number of them were in need of medical attention.

Acushnet sent her corpsman [HS1 Chris Parks, USCG] over to evaluate the situation.  He reported that some of the refugees were mothers with very young children, some only days old.  It was claimed that one of the babies had been born aboard Red Diamond while she was awaiting clearance to sail; we were never able to confirm this, but we did confirm that some of the human cargo had been aboard for at least three days prior to departure from Mariel.  The corpsman also reported that many of the refugees claimed they had not had food for days; this was supported by the fact that dehydration was already a major problem  The embarked PAC captured a lot of this in pictures, and submitted several stories in 'real time'. . . unknown to us at the time, his stories captured the attention of the media and became a new focal point for a couple of days.

When Acushnet was a few miles from the Key West sea buoy our corpsman reported that one of the young mothers and her baby were suffering from dehydration beyond his ability to treat under the present conditions.  A medevac was requested and an HH-52 was dispatched to take them off the ship.  While this lift was in progress, a couple of civilian news choppers arrived; a short time later, several boats with cameramen aboard arrived on scene.  This was a direct result of the news stories being filed by PAC Parris; the Coast Guard and the Red Diamond had become a hot story in the Keys, and nationally.

All of this attention had its down-side: the designated OSC aboard the Dallas decided to take over the Red Diamond, ordering Acushnet to transfer 'custody' of the Red Diamond to Dallas at the sea buoy.  This was met with, shall we say, less than enthusiasm; we had given a lot of time and attention to this particular group of refugees, supplying them with all of the food and water we could spare, as well as a lot of hygiene and toiletry items that came out of the crews' own pockets.  It would not be wrong to say that we had developed a bond with, and a liking for, these people, and we wanted to take them in ourselves, finishing what we had started.  This was not only not allowed, the OSC ordered Acushnet to immediately return to Station Purple 5 as soon as OpCon on the Red Diamond was passed; we were not even allowed to follow Dallas in to see our charges safely landed."

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.On Tuesday, 3 June, Commander, Coast Guard Southeast Squadron reported that more than half of the vessels departing Mariel needed assistance.  Over 1,000 vessels had been aided since the beginning of the exodus.  The 118-foot Panamanian vessel Return to Paradise returned to the United States without refugees on this day.  The master said the Cubans would not permit refugees to board.  Cutter Chilula (WMEC-153) learned that now stateless Rio Indio sailed from Mariel without refugees as well.  These cases were evidence that the Cuban government was honoring the request of Panama not to load refugees on board Panamanian registered vessels.  However, vessels were still being overloaded far in excess of safety standards.  The 38-foot Bahamian Veronica Express with 222 persons on board, while towing the cabin cruiser Once More with 69 on board, radioed that she was taking on water.  Cutter Acushnet removed 146 from the Veronica Express, and took over the tow.  Later, cutter Cape York removed the refugees from Once More.  During the next five days, the few boats remaining in Mariel trickled northward; no significant SAR cases took place.

Cutter Ingham, now the on scene Commander of Coast Guard forces, took a 20-foot boat with one person on board in tow on 8 June.  The tow and man were passed to USS Dominant (MSO-431) for transportation to Key West.  A half-hour later, a Cuban gunboat approached to within 50 feet of Dominant and demanded that the Cuban national be turned over to them.  The Cubans stated that the man had stolen the boat, left Cuba without permission, and was wanted for murder.  Dominant refused to return the individual, stating that the man had been picked up in international waters and would be turned over the other authorities in Key West.  The Cuban gunboat departed to the south.   On 9 June, the Seventh District authorized the release of naval resources, this occurred at 1600 the following day.  Navy P3 Orion over-flight support continued.

On Thursday evening, 12 June, the 110-foot, U.S. registered God's Mercy arrived at Key West with 422 refugees on board.  This former minesweeper had been chartered by a New Orleans church.  The ex-minesweeper had been purchased in Boston for cash and then taken to New Orleans, where she was renamed.  The vessel was seized and the operators and crew arrested for importation of illegal aliens.  They were released on their own recognizance.  All Coast Guard Marine Safety Offices in the eastern United States were alerted to watch for and report any out of the ordinary documentation changes.

On Friday the 13th, the helicopter from Active sighted the 66-foot, U.S. registered shrimper Ocean Queen  headed south, 20 miles from Mariel.  A party from Diligence boarded her.  The operator stated that she was enroute to repair the vessel's radio and that she had become lost.  The boarding party found all radio and navigation equipment to be operating.  Seventy five new lifejackets, still in their wrappers, were on board.  Ocean Queen had made a previous voyage to Marie! in April and had returned to Key West with refugees. Cutter Diligence seized the vessel and escorted it to Key West. The vessel and operator were released due to insufficient evidence.

A photo of the Mariel Boatlift, 1980.By mid-June, the flood of refugees slowed to a trickle.  Over 5,000 vessels had been involved in the exodus.  Cuba now released a few boats carrying 50 to 100 people.  This occurred three or four days in a week.   There are too many variables to predict the future of the Cuban Exodus.  Fidel Castro is a key; as long as he realizes the Cuban American community with the possibility, true or fallacious, of permitting relatives to leave, there will be a strong reaction within that group.  Secondly, judicial decisions now pending will influence the future actions of many.

Safety at sea dominated the governments responsibilities in the Cuban exodus, and therefore, this had to be a Coast Guard show.  SAR was always first and law enforcement second.  Thirteen hundred SAR cases were reported.  This is an impressive "bean count", recalling the late April storm when the Service was even too busy to count the "beans".  This operation will standout in Coast Guard annals as one of the Service's greatest achievements.  Regrettably, 25 lives were lost, however, thousand's were saved by the Coast Guard's direct and indirect actions.

An HH52 making a water landing during Mariel

CHRONOLOGY OF SIGNIFICANT EVENTS:

02 APRIL 1980: CUBAN CITIZENS SEEK POLITICAL ASYLUM IN PERUVIAN EMBASSY LOCATED IN HAVANA.

10 APRIL 1980: ORGANIZATION OF CUBAN AMERICAN PROTEST FLOTILLA.

22 APRIL 1980: CASTRO OPENS CUBAN PORT OF MARIEL AS EXODUS POINT FOR CUBANS DESIRING TO EMIGRATE.

23 APRIL 1980: ARRIVAL OF FIRST CUBAN REFUGEES IN THE UNITED STATES FROM MARIEL - COAST GUARD REACTING ON A CASE BY CASE BASIS.

27 APRIL 1980: PRELIMINARY MOBILIZATION AND ORGANIZATION OF U. S. COAST GUARD FORCES IN THE STRAITS OF FLORIDA.

02 MAY 1980: FORMAL REQUEST TO JCS FOR U. S. NAVAL FORCES TO ASSIST U. S. COAST GUARD EFFORTS.

05 MAY 1980: U. S. NAVAL FORCES ARRIVE ON SCENE VICINITY FLORIDA KEYS TO ASSIST AS REQUESTED.

14 MAY 1980: PRESIDENTIAL DECLARATION OF POLICY REGARDING CUBAN REFUGEES.

16 MAY 1980: ADDITIONAL U. S. COAST GUARD UNITS AUGMENT CCGD SEVEN EFFORTS IN THE FLORIDA KEYS.  HIGH CONCENTRATION OF U. S. COAST GUARD RESOURCES THROUGHOUT THE FLORIDA KEY AREA.

03 JUN 1980: FIRST LARGE FOREIGN FLAG MERCHANT VESSEL, M/V RED DIAMOND V(PN), ARRIVES KEY WEST.  REFUGEE TOTAL COUNT TOPS 100,000 PERSONS.


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