When you work on an offshore charter boat, you have to be prepared to go fishing 365 days a year. Luckily, no one actually fishes 365 days a year, but it can start to feel that way during certain busy times of the year. Last December was one of those times for my husband Jerry, who is the mate on the High Class Hooker. He had been working almost every day of the week since the beginning of December, which is very typical for charter boats out of Key West. The money that is to be made this time of year is great, but it can make the holidays seem even more like a blur! Days off to spend time with the family this time of year becomes extra valuable because they are so scarce.
On Christmas Eve, we found out from Captain Gene that he had booked a charter for the next day. Initially, Jerry and I were a little disappointed because we wanted to spend Christmas Day together. Thankfully, Gene had asked the charter guests if I could come along, and they had said yes, so we would get to be together.
That morning, as usual, we woke up at 4:30 and drove the 17 miles down to the dock, in the dark. It certainly did not feel like Christmas morning; it was damp and windy, with a chill in the air. As we walked down the dock, we wondered to each other “Who on earth would want to fish today?” but we laughed off what we felt was our ‘not ideal’ fortune, and tried our best to get into the Christmas spirit as we stepped onto the boat to start prepping for the trip. Right before 7 a.m. our charter guests arrived; they were a group of Dads from Sweden, and it was their first time fishing in the States, as well as offshore.
The sun started to rise as we passed Fort Zachary Taylor coming out of the Key West Harbor. It was very pretty, and I started thinking maybe this was a better Christmas morning than I had earlier contemplated. As soon the sun was up, we noticed something unusual on the horizon bobbing up and down in the waves. Since it was still a couple of miles away, it took a few moments for us to realize what it was… a Cuban raft (or chug) with about 20 people in it. Not only is seeing a chug offshore (or near shore) a very rare thing, but I personally had never seen one with Cubans still in it! We heard on the radio that someone had notified the Coast Guard and we continued heading offshore.
Twenty minutes later, we put our lines out and began trolling, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the Cubans. I thought about how they had spent their Christmas morning (and Eve, most likely) floating in a tiny vessel made out of odds and ends with 20 others, in the dark, wind, and rough seas to get a better life. I thought about how I had been bummed that my Christmas morning wouldn’t consist of sleeping in and opening presents with loved ones, and how I was disappointed that I was fishing instead; I felt pretty silly.
Soon after that, all of the ‘Dads’ started getting sick because of the rough seas. We hadn’t caught any fish yet, but they decided to head back in. When we got back to the dock one of them said to Jerry (who had warned them it would be rough), “I think your idea of rough, and my idea of rough, are two different things!!” and he smiled and laughed. I, however, thought about the Cubans and how we had heard on the dock when we got back in that they had landed safely on Fort Zach beach. It was the perfect way to illustrate our morning compared to the Cubans’, and made me very thankful I went fishing that Christmas Day.