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Esperanza sails again


With only a hope and a prayer to guide them in their decrepit boat, six desperate fishermen made a harrowing escape from Communist Cuba.

The Esperanza was restored in Cortez
The Esperanza, a boat that carried six Cuban fishermen away from their island's dictatorship, was restored in Cortez by some dedicated experts.

Now, almost 20 years later, the line drawings of that 15-foot refugee boat are destined for Washington, D.C., to preserve the configurations of that historic craft.

Thanks to the craftsmen at the Florida Maritime Museum in Cortez ,the boat has been re-christened "Esperanza," which is Spanish for hope; restored to award-winning status; and selected by The Historic American Merchant Marine Survey with the National Park Service in Washington for safe preservation.

Determined to reach freedom in 1990, the fishermen stole out of Havana and navigated through shark-infested waters, evading capture by Cuban authorities patrolling the gateway to liberty in the Florida Keys.

For 16 years the boat sat in Islamorada, becoming lawn art, until her owner contacted a family friend, wondering whether he wanted to restore the boat. Faster than you can say Fidel Castro, the boat was on its way to Cortez, home to nationally recognized builders and restorers of wooden boats.

Bob Pitt, who leads an army of craftsmen dedicating hundreds of volunteer hours, received that telephone call from his cousin, offering him a priceless present of a beat-up boat.

For Pitt there is no finer gift then a chance to refurbish another boat. A native of Florida, he is acknowledged as a master craftsman of wooden boats.

"Every time I see a tree, I see a boat," Pitt said. "And I got my eye on two or three trees right now."

For five years Pitt has worked as a county employee, laboring to preserve the historical nature of the fishing village. Thanks to the expertise and dedication of Pitt and his volunteer colleagues, more than 40 wooden boats have been repaired, entirely restored or created.

To watch veteran craftsmen hone their skills while laughing and joking reveals how much enjoyment these men are having giving their time and talent to creativity. Doug Calhoun, a retired English professor from Brockport, N.Y., shares this joy of perfection and comradeship.

"We call it The Adult Day Care Center," he joked. "The rule is if the wives don't pay $50 a month, we'll send their husbands home."

"My wife always pays up," Calhoun said, sitting down to a communal lunch in the firehouse.

The artisans completely rehabilitated the refugee boat, scraping off the black tar used to disguise her night-flight to freedom. Then volunteers worked to refurbish the dilapidated vessel, which was made of cannibalized materials of dry-rotted Cuban hardwood and pine that was infested with termites, carpenter ants and held together by clenched copper nails.

A further analysis of the craft revealed that the boat lumber making up her centerboard trunk appeared to have been dock material. The boom had a guava branch crook used for its jaws. The boat was turned upside down and the rotted planks, kelson, centerboard trunk and centerboard were ripped off.

Two years later the completed boat looked like a prized specimen that lusty sailors would crave. The vessel sparkled with its bright green topside; orange guard and trim, with gray and black inside. And then one late night Cortez artist Linda Molto put on the final touches, by painting "Esperanza" on her bow.

"There's something very compelling about the Esperanza. You want to touch it," Molto said. "It pulls you in, and you can't let go."

But before the Esperanza set sail, a final boat builders' tradition of good fortune was enacted. Enrique Viera, who fled Cuba in 1961 when he was just 8 years old, smuggled aboard a Pan Am flight from Havana, had a special gift for a special craft.

Viera, a boat builder and resident of Anna Maria, donated a 1958 silver 10-centavo coin that was placed under the mast at the mast step.

The Esperanza continues to be fated for good fortune. On the day she was completed, April 19, 2008, the boat was launched at the Third Annual Great Florida Gulf Coast Small Craft Festival, and was given the Lee Hickok Award for traditional design and construction.

An avid sailor is Roger Allen, Cortez Village's historic manager, who is responsible for the huge strides made in Cortez.

"Roger has just done tremendous achievements for the village," said Allen Garner, president of the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage. "From boat building, museum operations, Cortez Village Historic Society and grant writing, all demonstrate how indispensable Roger is for Cortez. Thanks to Roger, the Esperanza is a prize-winning result of his leadership."

Allen typically deflects compliments to his staff and volunteers.

"What we have done is a way of saying thanks to all those refugees seeking liberty. These Cubans were desperate in their search for freedom," Allen said. "They wanted a new way of life. It's the same challenge pioneers felt when they settled in the Wild West. It's the quintessential American story."


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