Anchored outside Cuba's Mariel harbor, the crews of a rag-tag fleet of American pleasure and fishing vessels roped their boats together against the coming storm. Pedro Perez, on a shrimp boat out of Key West, stayed on deck with the other men. His wife Maria, huddled with a group of women in the galley.
When it finally hit, the storm whipped the sea into a fury. Waves hammered the sides of the boat, spraying geysers of salt water across the deck. Like toys the boats rolled and turned in the swells. Some of the smaller of them plowed helplessly into each other and sank.
"The women were screaming and praying," said Maria Perez, a 58-year-old housewife from Silver Spring. "I was sure it was the end. I though I'd never see my boy again."
Maria and Pedro Perez, who asked that their real names not be used for fear of reprisals against relatives still in Cuba, survived that night at sea. But like other suburban Marylanders who rushed to Cuba hoping to recover family members, theirs was a journey rewarded only with frustration -- and a bad sunburn.
The Perezes were among the first families from Maryland to board planes at National Airport for the journey to Cuba. On April 23, they had received a brief cable from her brother, who lives near Havana with his wife and three teen-age sons.
"The cable said, 'Get a boat and come get us.'"
The next day, Maria Perez, her 66-year-old retired husband, Pedro, and their son, 36, withdrew $5,000 from the bank. Not knowing how much they would need for the trip from Key West to Havana, nor what they would find once they arrived, they took the next flight to Miami.
In Key West, the Perezes formed a group of 20, paying $500 for each relative they planned to bring back. They did not know then that their journey would last 11 days, most of them in a hot sun outside the harbor.
"I thought I was going to go to Cuba, pick up my family and leave the next day," said Maria Perez.
In Mariel, some of the group elected to go ashore, to the Triton Hotel outside Havana. Maria Perez stayed behind.
"I prefer to sleep on the floor," she said, "than give the money to Castro.
I don't spend my money for Castro."
For baths they drew water from the ocean. For drinking water they melted ice from the holds. At night they slept atop the fishing nest, with life jackets as pillows.
From those who returned from the Triton, Maria Perez heard reports of what happened to Cubans who left.
"They beat them with sticks and chains and throw things at them," she said. "They paraded them around the towns as examples."
When the group drew up its list of relatives for immigration officials, Maria Perez withheld the names of her brother and his family. The teen-agers would be forced to stay, she thought, and she wanted neither to split up the family, nor subject those who remained to what she believed was certain punishment.
"I was afraid."
Instead she sent their phone number with one of the group going ashore. "She told them I was in Mariel but couldn't do nothing. They said, 'Okay, okay,' and hung up."
In all, approximately 120 Cubans boarded the vessel, Perez said. Most of them said they were from prisons. Many were apparently mental patients. Thirty were relatives.
"There was no happiness. Even the people who got relatives, they did not get all their families. Mothers had to leave children, and husbands had to leave wives. People were asking the police, 'What happened to my mother, my father and my sister? I gave you their names.' All they would say is, 'Maybe they went on another boat.' Everybody was crying."
After debarking in Key West, the Perezes took a taxi to the airport for the flight to Miami, and then to Washington. At midnight on May 15, they boarded the last Metro for Silver Spring.
They are still waiting for a phone call from Cuba.
A few minutes away in Silver Spring, Nilda Ruiz this week awaited word of her husband, gone since April 24 trying to find his mother, brother and eight family members.
Miguel Ruiz, a self-employed accountant, was still in Mariel harbor. He had spent 10 days in Key West trying to rent a boat when he joined two other persons and chartered a yacht for $25,000, said Nilda Ruiz.
"After 20 years without seeing them, he saw them last year," she said. "In the beginning, I was kind of worried. I asked him, 'Do you think it's worth it? What if you get there and you can't get your family?' And he said, 'I know what you think. But if you had been there and seen them, then you'd know how I feel. It's my family and I have to do it. I have to try.'"
Two weeks ago Nilda Ruiz received a telephone call from her husband. "His brother's wife was afraid that all the kids wouldn't be able to leave because they are of military age. He said the immigration people would only let him take four people out."
"I hope to God he's alright," Ruiz said. "It makes me feel proud, proud of my husband. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of love for your family to do something like that."
Juana Pescana, a Takoma Park housewife, also went to Cuba to bring back two brothers and their families. She, too, flew from Washington to Miami April 24.
Pescana's journey from Key West was with 110 other Cubans on a touring boat. She payed $1,000 for herself, and $500 for each family member she returned, or $4,000. Pescana spent 16 days in Mariel harbor, passing the time in "long conversations" with other passengers.
On the 16th day, Cuban officials filled the boat with refugees.Among them were none of the relatives Pesacana had listed, nor any of the others onboard.
"Maybe they will send them," Pescana said. "Maybe not. Nothing is secure with those people. They change their minds like a running river."
Other Cubans in the Washington area were waiting to hear the results of efforts of relatives living in Miami. Carlos Farinas, an electronic technician at the University of Maryland, is waiting for words of his mother, whom he saw last 13 years ago before leaving on one of the "freedom flights." Two weeks ago his sister, who had been in the Peruvian Embassy, arrived in Miami and is living with his brother there. t
"I was glad she made it out," said Farinas. "On the other hand, I was sorry because the whole family wasn't together and I don't know how hard it's going to be to get the whole family out."
Jose Palancar, a dentist practicing in Silver Spring, helped send a boat to retrieve 15 relatives of his sister-in-law. "The boat they rented stayed there almost two weeks before it came back empty. The chaos going on here is even worse there."
Like Palancar, many Washington-area Cubans had already made plans to house relatives and help them find jobs. "There are no problems, as far as that is concerned," Palancar said. "They have a place to sleep and a place to eat."
"My husband has a sister in Wheaton and we'll try to split them between both families," said Nilda Ruiz. "His brother won't have any problems. He can speak a little English and he can work in a jewelry store."
But for others, President Carter's announcement last week of an immediate halt to the "Freedom Flotilla" brought only more confusion. Damiama Perez, a dental technician living in Adelphi, had planned to send the name of her sister with a friend. He, Roberto Mena, an auto mechanic at an Exxon station in Takoma Park, had hoped to pilot a boat from Washington to Cuba.
"I wanted to go this week," said Mena last Thursday. "But I see in the newspaper that Carter stopped that. I wanted to take my chances because those people deserve to come over here and be reunited."
Like Mena, many hope that relatives will, somehow, find a way to Miami. "Who knows, they may come in on a different boat," said Palancar. "Only God and Castro know."