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In the annals of great escapes, the flight by 17-year-old Lester Moreno Perez from Cuba to the U.S. surely must rank as one of the most imaginative. At 8:30 on the night of Thursday, March 1, Lester crept along the beach in Varadero, a resort town on the north coast of Cuba, and launched his sailboard into the shark-haunted waters of the Straits of Florida. Guided first by the stars and then by the hazy glow from concentrations of electric lights in towns beyond the horizon, Lester sailed with 20-knot winds, heading for the Florida Keys, 90 miles away.
Two hours past daybreak on Friday, Lester was sighted by the Korean crew of the Tina D, a Bahamian-registered freighter. The boom on his craft was broken, and he was just barely making headway, 30 miles south of Key West. The astonished crew pulled Lester aboard, fed him spicy chicken and white rice, and then radioed the U.S. Coast Guard, which sent the patrol boat Fitkinak to take him into custody. After five days in the Krome Detention Center in Miami while paperwork was being processed, he was issued a visa by U.S. immigration officials and released into the welcoming arms of his relatives.
Except for his rich imagination and broad streak of courage, Lester could be any 17-year-old who decides to leave home, He was raised in the shoreside town of Varadero, the second-oldest of five children in his family. "As soon as I started thinking a little bit—when I was seven or eight years old—I wanted to come to America," he says. Independent thinking ran in the family; his grandfather, Urbino, had been imprisoned for attending a counterrevolutionary meeting early in Fidel Castro's regime and spent nearly five years in jail. Furthermore, Lester's sister Leslie, who had been on the national swim team and had traveled to several foreign countries, had told intriguing tales of life outside Cuba. Lester also did not like the idea of serving three years in the Cuban army and then facing the possibility of having his career chosen for him by the Communist Party. There was also trouble at home; he and his stepfather, Roberto, were at odds, mostly over politics. So Lester decided he wanted to go to America, not Angola.
When he was 10 years old, Lester taught himself to windsurf by hanging around the European and Canadian tourists who rented boards on the beach at Varadero. "If you made friends with them, they would sometimes let you use their equipment," he says. As he grew older and got better at the sport, he found he liked the isolation and freedom of the sea. "Sometimes I would sail for eight hours without stopping, and go very far out," he says. His windsurfing to freedom seemed destined.
Recently, Lester sat in a big easy-chair in the Hialeah, Fla., apartment of Ana and Isidro Perez, the great-aunt and great-uncle who took him in. Lester is so skinny—5'6", 130 pounds—that it seems there is room for two or three more of him in the chair. On his head he wears Walkman earphones, which he politely removes when a visitor enters the room. He has been in America only a few weeks, but he has already been interviewed several times and has been chauffeured all over Miami in a limo on a radio station-sponsored shopping spree. The tops of his feet are still covered with scabs, the result of the hours he spent in the sailboard's footstraps; but his hands show no blisters, only hard, white calluses.
As he waits for a translator to arrive, Lester rocks back and forth in the chair like a hyperactive child. He clicks the television on with the remote control, passes a Spanish-language station and stops at a morning show on which a man is explaining, in English, how to prevent snoring by placing a Ping-Pong ball between your shoulder blades, a move that forces one to sleep facedown. When a visitor demonstrates this to Lester through gestures and snores, the young man rolls his dark eyes, smiles and says in perfect English, "People are all crazy here."
A few minutes later, the translator, who owns a windsurfing shop in Miami, arrives, and Lester begins to tell his story through him.
"I had only been thinking of making the trip on a sailboard for about a month," he says. "Before that, I'd been thinking of leaving the country by marrying a Canadian girl—every couple of months a few would come that were pretty nice-looking. But I decided to sail because I was training hard and was confident I would be able to make the trip easily. I had wind-surfed in bad weather, and even surfed during Hurricane Gilbert, so I was already out in really rough conditions and wasn't worried about it.
"Right before I left, I was watching the wind patterns. A cold front had passed by and it was pretty strong, so I waited until it subsided a little. Usually after a cold front passes, the wind shifts to the east, and it's just a straight reach to the U.S., so I waited for that. Then I told two of my friends, who said they would help me. I wasn't hungry, but I ate a lot—three or four fried eggs, some rice and half a liter of milk—so I would be strong for the journey." His friends also persuaded him to take along some water, a can of condensed milk and a knife.
At 7:00 on the evening of March 1, Lester, who had said nothing to his family, slipped out of his house and went down to the Varadero beach, where he worked at a windsurfing rental booth by day, while attending high school at night. Earlier that day, he had carefully rigged the best mast and strongest boom he could find with a big 5.0-square-meter sail. Then he had lashed the sail rig in the sand with the rental boards. Under cover of darkness, he unlocked the shed where the privately-owned boards were kept and removed his sleek and durable Alpha model. It had been a gift to him from a man who sympathized with his plight—a generous East German whom Lester called Rambo for the camouflage hat he always wore. Lester fastened the sail rig to the board and carried it to the water. He waded into the ocean until he was knee-deep, glanced over his shoulder to make sure he hadn't been seen, and stepped onto the board. His ride on the wind to freedom had begun.