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To the Stream, a crude raft, desperate dreams

We were just a few miles into a 23-mile run to the Gulf Stream for a night of swordfishing when we spotted something to starboard bobbing in the sloppy 2- to 3-foot seas. A good-size piece of flotsam, we thought. A perfect fish attractor.

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The skipper slowed the boat, and we turned to investigate while someone got a rod and a live bait ready. That’s when it became clear that our piece of flotsam was actually an empty migrant raft. The makeshift inflatable had a built-up transom and what appeared to be rebar, strung around the tubes and running fore and aft to serve as handrails, perhaps.

As we got closer, we saw flashing lights approaching fast from shore. A Coast Guard boat quickly sailed between the raft and us, and several crewmembers began taking photos and notes as the helmsman slowly circled the derelict. They ignored us, but it was clear we shouldn’t get closer.

The sun was setting, and the scene was surreal. Whoever had set out on this crude craft was nowhere in sight. Had they come from Haiti? Cuba, maybe? Had they made it to shore? We were a couple of miles off Hillsboro Inlet in South Florida at the time. The raft and everyone who had huddled in it clearly had a story to tell, but it’s not one that any of us will ever know in detail. Just the big picture — more nameless, faceless illegal migrants fleeing poverty and her corrosive handmaidens.

They take to the sea in rafts or old wooden sailboats on a perilous course for a new world and a new life. They are driven by wind and currents and hope. When we intercept them, we send them back whence they came. How many thousands have perished when their little tubs broke apart and foundered? How many have been swept north in the Gulf Stream to die of thirst or other deprivations?

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I make no judgment on the politics of this complicated dynamic, only that it is hard for someone who spends time on the water not to reflect on the perils and sufferings of those sea journeys. None of us would willingly climb into one of these “vessels” and shove off. Or would we, if circumstances were reversed?

On this fine evening, five of us headed offshore in a 31-foot Contender powered by a pair of new 300-hp Yamahas. The boat is owned by a doctor named Howard, a skilled general practitioner and a passionate fisherman. Howard is Type A all the way. Smart, verbal, funny, energetic. And the boat is a good reflection of the owner.

The center console is equipped with a life raft, an EPIRB, a Spot beacon, radar, a radio, two GPS units, a fishfinder and a great sound system. We had food, music and plenty of cold soft drinks. The right fishing equipment, too. And a couple of beanbag chairs to make the run out and back more comfortable.

It was a gorgeous, warm night in February. The moon rose, the seas in the stream flattened out, and we laughed and told stories and waited for the bite that never came.

We knew precisely where we were on this blue-green planet, drifting on what Lt. Matthew F. Maury, the 19th century “father of oceanography,” called a “river in the ocean.” We watched on radar as a 500-foot cargo ship approached and then passed a quarter-mile off our stern. Later, a container ship crossed a half-mile off our bow. We studied the bottom contours 800 feet below our happy little ecosystem while Van Morrison belted out “And It Stoned Me.”

As I fish more with these men, I’m getting to know them and their life stories better. All good guys. We are the fortunate ones. We ran back in after midnight, and I couldn’t help but reflect on the empty raft and its ghost crew. And their story.

What had become of them this night?

“And I learned to my regret that the sloop was a whited and red-leaded sepulcher. She was good superficially, but the heart was false, and she could almost be guaranteed to open up when the nearest land was directly underneath me.”

— Alfred Loomis

April 2014 issue