Cuban ‘chugs’ showcased in multimedia exhibit.

By MANDY BOLEN Key West Citizen Staff

Most Florida Keys residents are familiar with harrowing stories of survival across the oft-treacherous Florida Straits. Some know the faces behind those stories, and the turmoil of loss and risk that lies within the 90 miles that separate the Keys from Cuba.

But fewer people have glimpsed the handmade vessels built to carry Cuban migrants to democracy on American shores. Often these primitive vessels, called “chugs,” are abandoned offshore, destroyed by the U.S. Coast Guard for navigational safety reasons or left on remote beaches after landing. The Marquesa Keys, about 22 miles west of Key West, harbor such remote beaches. It was there, in December 2005, that Key West resident Dink Bruce happened upon 14 migrants and their handmade vessel.

The Coast Guard took the migrants to Key West, where this country’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy was applied and the Cubans were permitted to remain in America.

That day launched a photographic and historical journey for Bruce, who began documenting the handmade vessels that, at one point, were scattered along the pristine beaches of the Marquesas.

“All of the boats I shot were found between Ballast Key and the Marquesas,” he said.

Some were tucked into the mangroves, while others lay on their side on the sand, spilling out their left-behind contents of clothing, dehydration medicine and water bottles. They were powered by old Mercury outboards, lawn mower engines and other creative methods.

Bruce photographed the chugs, many of which are made from 1/8-inch aluminum sheeting that is pounded flat by hand and then held in shape by bolts and rivets, he said.

Other photos include the artifacts that had to be left behind during the Coast Guard trip to Key West. There are statues of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, or Our Lady of Charity. Other items were not allowed on the Coast Guard boats and thus were left behind. They include medications, handmade knives and life jackets.

“The incredible crossings of the Florida Straits in small, open vessels testify to the ingenuity and determination of current-day Cubans willing to risk everything to live in a new land,” Bruce said. “My biggest question is where all the aluminum and other materials are coming from in Cuba.”

Those crossings now are documented and will be on display at the Key West Botanical Garden & Tropical Forest starting Feb. 1. The “Chugs of Cuba” display includes a few of the actual boats used by Cubans during the crossings. Many were salvaged by local tow company owner Ricky Arnold, who has worked with Bruce and the garden to display the primitive vessels next to the garden’s nature chapel.

The exhibit also includes Bruce’s photos of the artifacts, as well as a 10-minute video featuring one of the chugs and the migrants who arrived on them.

“He has hundreds of photos and artifacts that the Coast Guard would not allow the families to bring with them,” said Vicki Grant, a board member of the botanical garden who for several months has been working with Bruce on “Chugs of Cuba.”

The exhibit is one of several Cuban-themed displays scheduled for the first week of February at the garden on College Road on Stock Island. The Cuban Cultural Exposition will include lectures about the fauna and flora of Cuba, a night of salsa dancing in the garden and other events.