Nine Cuban migrants who rowed to Boca Grande Key after two days in the Florida Straits and four days on the island were rescued by a Key West boat captain and his clients Monday with some help from the Coast Guard.
Galleon Resort and Marina-based Adventurous Spirit Tours Capt. Mikey Tilson and his charter clients were at the island about 10 miles west of Key West Monday morning when three migrants walked out of the mangroves.
At the time, Tilson was the only boat on the island, he said.
One of Tilson's customers, a former police officer, helped him round up the migrants, defined in the dictionary as one that moves from one region to another by chance, instinct, or plan, and assess them medically.
"They were super excited to see us," Tilson said. "I think they were over being out there. We hooked them up with plenty of water and granola bars. They were super cool and so were my customers. No one spoke Spanish, so there was a lot of sign language and awkward stares, but they were all really nice and just really happy to see us."
Using hand gestures, Tilson deduced from the men that they rowed their way from Cuba, he said. Most of them suffered minor bruises and cuts, but none were seriously hurt.
Cell phone reception at Boca Grande Key is sparse, so Tilson began hailing the Coast Guard on VHF channel 16 and two response boats from Station Key West arrived on scene after getting the call at 10 a.m., said Lt. Max Franco.
One other boat arrived while Tilson was hailing the Coast Guard, he said.
None of the Cubans required treatment and all were turned over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in Key West as per the U.S. wet foot/dry foot policy, which allows Cubans who land on American soil to stay, but mandates those found at sea be returned.
Those rescued Monday will likely be allowed to stay in the U.S. as they made it to Boca Grande Key.
Tilson, a Melbourne Beach native, has been in Key West for 11 years and a captain for the last six.
"A guy on my charter said, 'Does this happen all the time (on your charters)?'" Tilson said, laughing. "I said, 'No, dude!' Everyone was super cool. I'm glad we were there."