Behind the Scenes: Coast Guard’s mission to keep Cuban migrants safe at sea

Published: July 19, 2021 6:13 PM EDT
Updated: July 19, 2021 6:58 PM EDT

The U.S. Coast Guard is prepared for the possibility of a mass exodus from Cuba after more than a week of protests against the communist regime on the island nation.

The border patrol air units are warning people on floats and boats out of Cuban waters they will be stopped before reaching the U.S. because crews want to save lives on the deadly, rough waters while also following their duty to enforce the law.

Sunday, we were able to fly with the Coast Guard and see the efforts up close. Crew members are working to keep everyone safe as they patrol the Straits of Florida.

“The Coast Guard doesn’t make the politics,” said Petty Officer Nicole Groll with U.S. Coast Guard in Miami. “We just make sure that your loved ones aren’t going to mourn you at the end of the day.”

Groll is aware of what’s happening in Cuba and what’s happening in Florida. The Coast Guard fears Cubans will take to the ocean hoping to land in the Sunshine State.

“We need to make sure we do not lose a soul in the middle of the ocean,” Groll said.

Lt. Commander Joshua Harrington is a Coast Guard pilot. We joined his crew over the weekend on a four-hour flight over a total of 650 nautical miles, from Miami, over the Bahamas, to the outskirts of Cuba, the Florida Keys and back to Miami.

“We’re looking at every boat we can from the time we take off to the time we make it back,” Harrington said.

We didn’t see anything out of the ordinary while we joined the Coast Guard patrol. If we did, the crew might have dropped potential migrants a radio to make sure they were OK, also dropping them water and food to hold them over until a ship arrived to pick them up.

“Sometimes, it can be obvious,” Harrington said. “You look down here and you see that big tanker right. If we see a smaller target that looks like it isn’t very seaworthy like it might’ve been homemade, that’s something that is going to generate some interest.”

As we head toward Cuba, everyone looks for smaller, maybe homemade boats.

We can get within 12 nautical miles of Cuba without getting into their airspace and where the nation’s territorial seas begin.

The Coast Guard plane had classified radar we could not share, but its sensors pick up all boats in range. The crew can use the plane’s cameras to zoom in to check it out.

“The whole reason I joined the service was to hopefully help people out,” Lt. Jay Kosack said. “Our whole concern is that whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it safely.”