Big Issue Vendor

On the 25th May Andy Cochrane, Wyatt Roscoe and Luke Walker became the first documented kayakers to paddle continuously and unassisted across a mind-boggling 113 miles of ocean that separates Havana, Cuba from Key West, Florida. The idea was to raise awareness of the Cuban refugees that have historically attempted the crossing since the 1960s. And the word ‘documented’ makes all the difference.

“It’s a heavy statement”, drawls Cochrane as he muses on his entry into the record books, “due to the amount of people that have done this before under much harder circumstances.”

He’s talking about the murky history of Cuban refugees in the US which is still very much under the radar in the public consciousness and the inspiration behind the whole project.

“It’s difficult as it’s still pretty much undocumented and it’s hard to get any official numbers. It’s really tough as it’s been going on since the early ‘60s and if a Cuban made it or didn’t make it, no one would report it. Some people estimate it as low as 10,000 while others estimate over a million have attempted it.”

The exodus began with the Cuban revolution, but thousands of Cubans still head for Miami to this date, determined on escaping poverty and a lack of opportunity for many in their own country. But what’s perhaps most surprising is that despite their hardships, lots of the Cuban refugees bear no grudge towards the US.

If it’s not safe at home we should open the door and let them in

“I think all of them have a deep love of Cuba and the Cuban people. Many see Miami as a second Cuba and take a lot of pride in being Cuban. And I can see why from my limited time in Cuba as the hospitality of the Cubans is just incredible. Yet still they remain positive as they see it as this opportunity of freedom and very much believe in the American dream.”

So in a country where Cuban history rarely goes beyond a cocaine-crazed parody of criminality in Brian De Palmas Scarface – or at best a token poster of Che Guevara on a dorm room wall – it’s admirable that Cochrane is raising awareness of the issue. But why do this in a kayak?

Image: Johnie Gall

“It’s something I’ve done my entire life. So it seemed like a good way to stage a peaceful demonstration to show how dangerous this crossing is. This idea that it doesn’t matter where someone’s from, if it’s not safe at home we should open the door and let them in.”

But, of course, there’s a big difference between a gentle paddle down a river and the monumental willpower you need to combat the relentless battering they got in the open sea. Apart from a support boat, the three kayakers were alone with the elements. And things didn’t exactly get off to a great start with the arrival Alberto, the first tropical storm of the season.

“Alberto sat in the gulf for three days with a lot of wind and huge seas. It’s not something you get stoked about when you are trying to paddle across.”

No, I can’t imagine ten foot waves had you leaping for joy.

“True, but the fortunate thing for us is that it reversed the wind due north, which was great for us. The waves were big and it was really messed up seas. But once we saw that system we decided the strategy was to wait for it to die down some and use the wind to help push us across. This whole thing was a bit of gamble.”

Image: Johnie Gall

And it’s this type of positive thinking which clearly played a big part in their success.  Cochrane describes the hardships the three kayakers faced out to sea with the calm detachment you might use when recalling dropping a pint of milk. Take the trials of eating in the sea during the 27 hours: “On a paddle like this we planned to take in 9000 calories and I think we calculated that I took in the most but I only ate like five and a half thousand. So we struggled with food. Just holding it down was tough. I puked four times. Luke puked ten times.”

The puking was tough as you have so little energy

Or sleep deprivation: “We weren’t too worried about it as our coach who’s a pretty elite 100 mile race runner said we’d be running on so much adrenaline we won’t notice it. I mean I had one small hallucination” says Cochrane as if recalling a night at a festival, “ ..where the boat turned into a funny little saxophone and I could see these two hands playing it but it was like a three second mirage basically. Nothing serious though.”

That’s not to say it was by any means easy though. This was the second attempt at a crossing and the same factors of physical and mental exhaustion brought each of them to the brink of quitting this time too.

“The puking was tough as you have so little energy and you’re struggling to eat a quarter of a peanut butter sandwich. That’s when I was closest to quitting,” said Cochrane. To deal with it: “We talked to each other. Between us we all had our rough patches at different times. But we took turns paddling next to someone.”

And that’s even before darkness fell, adding to the sense of isolation. “Night paddling is harder. We had one storm come in around 1am and blow us around a bit for a few hours. But one of the things we kept saying was “this too shall pass”. It’s like a phrase we were given and it was pretty useful.”

Image: Johnie Gall

Despite the enormity of what they overcame when they finally made it across to Florida it was quite an unceremonious reception. But in retrospect this is something Cochrane is pleased about. “It was just the crew and the captain. We could barely walk and we definitely couldn’t string a whole sentence together. We sort of sat in the boats, unrigged them, then we just passed out in the hotel room.”

And were their Cuban friends proud of them?

“They were,” says Cochrane, “but every single one of them thought we were crazy.”


 Andy’s short film which documents their crossing and links to the wider issues of asylum will be online at later this month.

Images: Johnie Gall | DirtBagDarling