October 8, 2016

Two more abandoned refugee boats wash ashore on Hatteras


Two more abandoned makeshift boats -- also apparently vessels used by Cuban refugees -- washed ashore  on Hatteras Island between the villages of Avon and Salvo on Saturday morning.

That makes three apparent refuge vessels to make it to the shores of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in not quite two weeks.  All have been without passengers, but have provided good evidence about where they originated.

The first Cuban refugee vessel landed on the Avon beach off  Greenwood Place on Sept. 27.  It had been reported by charter boat captains and commercial fishermen who had seen it floating around in the Gulf Stream for a few days before it washed up.

This morning's first boat was spotted by National Park Service law enforcement staff off  Ramp 32 just north of Avon, and a second vessel washed ashore just five minutes later near ramp 27, according to Hatteras Island District Ranger Joe Darling.

Park Service surveyed the scene and called in Jarvis Williams of Jarvis' Towing, who took the vessels on a trailer to his impound lot in Buxton They will remain there until they are inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard, which was contacted this morning and plans to send personnel to investigate the boats later today.

One of the vessels was marked with orange spray paint that read “9/11/16” and “OK,” which is an indication that the boat was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard at some point during its journey, and the people onboard were rescued. This vessel was heavily damaged and looked to have been tossed around in the ocean for a long time before finally coming ashore.

“It was built like a pallet, and then on each side of it was about 2 feet. or so of Styrofoam, but not much else, so we can’t tell which way was upside down or right side up,” said Williams. “There were also four straps on each side, like the kinds of straps that you would hold on to.”

Williams estimated that the heavily damaged marked vessel was roughly 12-by 6-feet.

The second vessel, which was not marked by the Coast Guard, was in much better shape and had an engine, containers of extra diesel fuel, a rudder, and an air-cooled motor. This vessel was built with a makeshift floatation system of Styrofoam and inner tubes, with a tarp that was wrapped around the entire boat.

A number of leftover items were still onboard the vessel, including several tools, packages of hot dogs, a pair of sunglasses, ball caps, and giant bags of crackers. The food on board was made in Cuba, indicating the vessel's origin. Williams estimates that this boat was about 15-by-6 feet.

Though the boats were found together at the same time and in roughly the same spot, there’s no way to tell if they were at all connected.

“The marked one, there is nothing to it – it’s almost like they were floating behind [the intact] one,” said Williams.

“It’s hard to tell [if there’s a correlation],” said Darling. “The boat at ramp 27 had no motor and was just a skeleton – it looked like it had been washed pretty hard in the ocean for a while. The other boat was in great shape – there was a bent exhaust pipe that looked like it may have taken a wave, but it didn’t roll over.”

While abandoned boats have washed ashore on Hatteras Island before, three refugee vessels finding their way to the local beaches is unprecedented, according to both Williams and Darling. “I don’t think it’s ever happened before, as far as I know,” said Darling.

Darling also theorizes that the boats’ arrival is due to recent tropical storms, and most likely Hurricane Matthew.

“It’s very likely, especially considering that this storm is coming straight from Cuba,” said Darling.

NPS Outer Banks Group Superintendent Dave Hallac spent many years working as the lead biologist for Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks and several months as the acting park manager at Dry Tortugas.

He forwarded photos of the boats that washed up on Hatteras to a colleague who is now the park manager at Dry Tortugas. 

"Specifically," Hallac said, "I was interested in his opinion on whether or not they were likely Cuban 'chugs,'   or homemade boats that are typically used by Cubans who are coming to the Florida Keys or Dry Tortugas National Park.

He said it is very common to have Cuban refugees come to the park because, like Key West, it is only about 90 miles from Cuba.

"Additionally," Hallac added, "there was speculation that the waters between the park and Cuba were less patrolled than those between Key West and Cuba.  One year that I worked there, we had over 800 Cubans arrive at the park."

Hallac's colleague at Dry Tortugas said the boats were very likely Cuban chugs. 

And as the ocean continues to churn over the next few days, and debris of all sizes washes ashore, Darling advises visitors to use caution when exploring the beaches.

“We’re had two military flares – marine marking flares – wash up in the past two weeks,” said Darling. “So if the public is out there looking for treasure, be aware that there are other things washing ashore, and use caution.”

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