The shortest distance from Cuba to the United States is about 90 miles across the Florida Strait. By the standards of human-powered sea travel, it’s extremely doable, and it has been done for decades by refugees aboard the most makeshift of watercraft, driven by desperation. In the peak years, tens of thousand of Cuban balseros staked their lives on the journey, in hopes of finding something better at the end.
The very shortness of the trip testified to the artificiality of the separation between the neighboring countries. The bodies lost in the waters of the strait testified to how real it was. Last year, as the Obama administration set about restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba after more than half a century of mutual antagonism, the outdoor-gear company Cotopaxi decided to mark the new era with a kayak expedition across the strait, a gesture of international outreach.
A friend who does PR asked me if I’d be interested in documenting the trip. In addition to writing about it, I’d have the chance to paddle along if I wanted. It felt strange to consider the voyage as a form of recreation or as a stunt, after all those who had braved the crossing before. No matter how hard the kayak crossing might be, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as hard as it had been for the men and women on boards lashed to inner tubes. But what did normalization mean, if not the taming of the strait?