MIAMI -- A Florida mayor says he's determined to return home from a visit to Cuba alone in a makeshift raft, despite warnings against the journey from the U.S. Coast Guard.
DeBary Mayor Clint Johnson said Tuesday he devised his plan to better understand what Cuban migrants experience when crossing the Florida Straits.
Johnson plans to fly into Havana next month with some pieces for the raft and assemble it there with more pieces he can acquire locally.
While he says he will heed a Coast Guard warning to carry an emergency beacon that can broadcast his location, he insists his that his raft will be powered only by currents and not a motor.
"I don't want to get too far away from the purpose of doing this," Johnson said. "I want to understand what the people have gone through when they came here on a raft."
The number of Cubans making their own way illegally across those waters has surged for over a year amid concerns that special immigration privileges for Cubans may soon end. Under the policy known as "wet foot/dry foot," Cubans who reach U.S. shore generally can stay and pursue citizenship, while those caught at sea are returned home.
Since Oct. 1, the Coast Guard estimates that over 2,200 Cubans have attempted the voyage. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, nearly 4,500 Cuban migrants were kept from reaching U.S. shores -- a sharp increase over previous years. Thousands more Cubans are attempting to reach the U.S. over land through Central America.
Officials with the Coast Guard's 7th District in Miami routinely warn would-be migrants in Cuba and Haiti, and their families in the U.S., that an undetermined number of people have died attempting to make illegal crossings to the United States. They now have issued the same warning to Johnson.
"We respectfully urge the mayor to reconsider his trip," Coast Guard officials said in a statement to The Associated Press. "Worst case, his trip may result in grave consequences."
Reports of migrants at sea in homemade or unseaworthy vessels trigger search-and-rescue operations, and Johnson's voyage would be no different, said the Coast Guard. Officials added that such operations also put air and sea crews at risk.
Once weather and current conditions are right, Johnson plans to launch his solo journey toward Key West, under the sponsorship of Hawaiian Tropic founder Ron Rice, who lives in Ormond Beach.
He said he doesn't want to endanger rescue crews, but according to his understanding, nothing bars from making the attempt because he is a U.S. citizen returning home from an approved trip to Cuba.
"I definitely would be willing to do whatever it takes to ensure their satisfaction," said Johnson, whose small city lies about 25 miles north of Orlando.