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Sam Moses
April 23, 1990
Lester Moreno Perez fled Cuba by boardsailing toward Florida under cover of darkness
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April 23, 1990

A New Dawn

Lester Moreno Perez fled Cuba by boardsailing toward Florida under cover of darkness

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"I wasn't nervous," he says. "I had to be very clear-minded once I decided to go, otherwise they would catch me and I would be in a lot of trouble. It would have meant three or four years in prison if I had been caught. No lie about what I was doing was possible."

About one and a half blocks away from the beach was a tower usually manned by guards with infrared binoculars. Lester, who was sailing without lights, also had to keep an eye out for freighters and pleasure boats that would be cruising in the busy Straits of Florida.

"At first I wasn't able to get my feet in the footstraps," he says, "because there wasn't enough wind for my sail. But as I got farther out and was able to get fully powered up, I began feeling more confident. The swells were very steep, maybe four or five meters, and I was going so fast I had no choice but to jump them."

As he recalls the moment, Lester rises from his chair, plants his bare feet on the tile floor and extends his thin arms, grasping an imaginary boom. He begins in English, "Wind coming, coming, coming...out, out, very strong." He's hanging in his invisible harness now, arms stretched wide, eyes lit up, flying over the waves. "Whoosh!" he cries. "Is good!"

For 10 hours he rode the wind, never once fearing failure, or drowning. He thought of his family and how worried they would be when they discovered he was missing. But he wasn't alone out there. "Ever since I left, I could see the sharks coming out and in, coming up on the board. I was hoping and thinking they were dolphins, but when the sun came up, I could see there was no way they were dolphins."

Around daybreak, the aluminum boom broke, separating the connection to the mast like pieces of a wishbone. He tried fixing the boom with his knife but couldn't, so he sailed on, clutching the pieces of the broken wishbone. This made control of the board extremely difficult, and he couldn't rest in the harness he had rigged. "My arms and hands were getting really tired, but by then I could already see the big kites of the fishermen, so I wasn't really worried. When I saw the freighter, I tried to point [into the wind] as much as I could and sail toward it."

A similar crossing was made in January 1984, by Arnaud de Rosnay, a Frenchman who boardsailed from Key West to Cuba as a personal challenge and a publicity stunt. De Rosnay, one of the best board-sailors in the world, had sailed in daylight with a chase boat. His trip included two stops for repairs and two stops to rest, and he completed the crossing in about seven hours. (In November of the same year, de Rosnay vanished while trying to cross the Straits of Formosa.) But only a month before Lester's odyssey, another young Cuban had perished attempting to reach the Keys in a raft.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood has come knocking on Lester's door. "The story is a natural," says Paul Madden, the president of Madden Movies. "It's Rocky and The Old Man and the Sea in one. If this picture is done right, by the end of it the audience will be standing up in he theater and cheering." Madden might not be one of those doing the cheering; he was outbid for the rights to Lester's story by Ron Howard's Imagine Films.

Lester has handled the movie offers—assumed to have reached six figures—and the media blitz with uncommon courtesy and self-assurance. A new acquaintance has even invited him to spend the summer at Hood River, Ore., where he will be able to jump the formidable swells of the Columbia River. This sounds good to Lester. But right now, one of his teenage friends has invited him to go sailing off Miami Beach. That sounds like the most fun of all.

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