‘Coasties’ vs. Cubans

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Of those attempting the crossing, roughly 25 percent drown, most in inclement weather.

“The sharks in the Florida Straits are the best-fed in the world,” says U.S. Border Patrol Agent Darrel Walraven, as he surveys a boat on the base that was intercepted on suspicion of smuggling in nearby Key Largo before its captain even had a chance to put the vessel in the water.

Sharks, inclement weather and fear of arrest didn’t prevent nearly 2,300 Cubans interdicted at sea last year from trying to reach dry soil, the only requirement for residents of the island to remain in the United States under the controversial “wet foot, dry foot” policy.

The Keys are an ideal landing site, not only for their close proximity to Cuba, but for their wooded shorelines and numerous tiny islands, some no larger than a baseball diamond.

“It’s a big game of cat-and-mouse,” Petty Officer Fleming says, expressing sympathy for those who struggle to reach the United States only to be interdicted within miles of shore.

When they aren’t scanning the seas in search of migrants, Coasties at Station Islamorada hone their skills for future interdictions. A recreation room where the men and women watch movies and play video games in their downtime doubles as a training center where they practice submission holds used on migrants who won’t comply with their orders.

Seaman Angel Sierra — a Coast Guard veteran who also spent time in other branches of the armed services — is repeatedly placed in headlocks and subjected to painful pressure-point tactics that force even the tough guy to submit. The station’s dog Rusty, a friendly black Labrador who is by far the station’s most popular resident, looks on curiously as they take turns bending Seaman Sierra’s wrists at ligament-straining angles and jabbing thumbs under his jawbone.

Outside on the water, an old boat fitted with wooden targets shaped like men and an old outboard motor is used for target practice. When towed out to sea, Coasties take turns trying to shoot the motor in an effort to disable it without hitting the targets, a crucial skill for when a smuggler is attempting to outrun them.

“Not one hole in any of them,” Machinery Technician 3rd Class Joe Tankersly points to the targets proudly.

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