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Migrant Boat Is New Exhibit At Maritime Museum Known For Treasure

Nancy Klingener
Tourists check out the exhibit that features the Mariana. The homemade boat carried 24 Cuban migrants from Cardenas to Key West.

  When Cuban migrants cross the Florida Straits and arrive on U.S. shores in homemade vessels, it's news for a day or two. Now, for a museum in Key West, it is also history.

The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum has created a permanent exhibit featuring the Mariana. The boat came ashore on Smathers Beach in Key West in August of last year.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
The engine from a Russian truck powered the Mariana, which carried 24 people from Cuba to Key West.

  "This is 13 55-gallon drums, welded together. With a Russian pickup truck engine as its motor drive, a little bit of a tiller and then there were oars," said Melissa Kendrick, president and CEO of the museum. "There were 24 people aboard, 23 men and one woman."

The exhibit explains the history of migration from Cuba to the U.S., which has spiked during periods like the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and the rafter crisis in 1994. Since the U.S. and Cuba re-established diplomatic relations, the numbers have increased again.

The exhibit also points out that some people hire smugglers to carry them across the Straits in fast powerboats, while others apply for the limited number of visas issued annually.

Homemade boats like the Mariana are commonly called "chugs."

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Homemade oars helped bring the Mariana from Cuba to Key West last year.

"This is the choice of people who have the least amount of resources, to build something like this and sail it," Kendrick said. "Between the engine and the oars, they made it from Cardenas, Cuba, which is 110 miles to Smathers Beach in Key West in a 24-hour trip."

The museum has long had a plan to focus more on its connections with Cuba, Kendrick said. It is best known for treasure and artifacts from Nuestra Señora de Atocha, the Spanish treasure galleon that sank in 1622. Mel Fisher found the mother lode of its cargo in 1985.

The Atocha was built in Havana, Kendrick said. Initially museum staff thought they would focus on exhibits about the boatbuilding practices of the Colonial era. But they also saw the importance of the continuing traffic across the Straits.

"Museums, when we do our job well, are really good storytellers," Kendrick said. "This is the maritime history of the Florida Keys that people will look at 50 years from now and wonder about."

Museum staff spent a year researching and assembling the information that accompanies the boat in the museum's courtyard, which is in one of the busiest areas of Key West. It's right near Mallory Square and a pier that gets frequent cruise ship docking.

"We could have just placed the boat up onto the courtyard and have the hundreds of people that come by take a look at it, take her in and read the small little caption. But for us, that would have just been landscaping," she said. "What we really wanted to do was put into its proper context so people could learn something, people could understand the decisions are made. Would you have risked your life and limb in something like this?"