Clear skies and calming waters in the Florida straits got the Cuban refugee boatlift running again, while the Coast Guard called on Havana to provide safety assistance for the flotilla.
As a bright day broke over the straits, traffic resumed for the first time since a violent storm hit Sunday. Dozens of small boats guided by Cuban exiles left here in groups to pick up relatives; dozens more were headed north with refugees from the Cuban port of Mariel.
The Coast Guard announced several steps aimed at increasing protection for travelers in the rickety vessels plying the 90-mile span between here and Cuba.
Eleven cutters were stationed in a grid pattern along the route to assist disabled boaters, and the Cuban government was asked "for safety reasons" to provide names of all vessels departing Mariel and passenger lists.
The request was made by Rear Adm. Benedict Stabile, commandant of the 7th Coast Guard District in Miami, to Cuban authorities through a message system used for distress cases.
The message, relayed through the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, apparently was the first formal attempt by the United States to deal directly with the Castro government since the boatlift began early last week.
Coast Guard officials here said the decision to seek Cuban help and to station cutters in the straits was prompted by the storm that stranded dozens of boats, capsized more than a dozen craft and took at least four lives. Officials and exiles here fear the toll may run far higher.
Coast Guard Cdr. Sam Dennis, chief of the Key West Station, said his crews are preparing for "what we perceive to be a flood, a huge wave of refugee vessels returning."
Although the storm caused havoc here and kept Coast Guard patrol planes, helicopters and rescue boats working over the weekend, Dennis suggested the worst may be yet to come.
"We know 3,000 boats have departed the U.S.," Dennis said, "with a majority of them unseaworthy. We don't know how many turned back or reached Cuba, but we are anticipating a huge increase in rescue operations."
At least 29 vessels have returned here since the middle of last week, bringing an estimated 3,500 refugee passengers. With the flow expected to intensify, the first clear signs of state and federal assistance began appearing here today.
Part of the National Guard units activated Monday by Gov. Bob Graham here in Monroe County and neighboring Dade County, after he declared a disaster situation, moved onto the old naval base, where customs and immigration officials process arrivals. State health officials also arrived to study the needs.
Although a customs official here said he had no instructions to seize returning vessels for hauling illegal aliens, Cuban exile families gathered here rankled over the seizure Monday of three shrimp boats that brought 507 passengers.
A small group of protesters gathered outside the customs office in downtown Key West Monday night, but a federal official said "it wasn't clear what they wanted."
What most of them have wanted since the boatlift began over a week ago is greater federal support in getting the refugees safely to Florida and fewer threats of legal action against the impromptu navigators.
Through it all, the one federal organization that has received uniform praise is the Coast Guard operation headed by Cdr. Dennis, a 36-year-old Michigan native who is as cool about his work as the 100 or so guardsmen now here to assist in rescue work.
Since last Wednesday, 221 search and rescue missions have been conducted in the boatlift area and more than two dozen stranded boaters pulled from the straits.
The larger Coast Guard ships have ranged as close as 12 miles to Cuba, even though the United States officially recognized Cuban waters extending only three miles from shore. Their search and rescue work, unlike situations involving other countries, is complicated by the fact that there has been no communication between U.S. and Cuban government vessels.
On at least one occasion, a Coast Guard plane, responding to unconfirmed reports of a ship sinking with 200 passengers, apparently ignored Cuban warnings and went inside the 25-mile airspace limit looking for the phantom vessel.
Dennis, who now meets with reporters three times a day to provide news updates, professed to know nothing about that situation. The line here is that the Coast Guard has a humanitarian job to do, and the job is going to be done.
Coast Guardsmen who have worked overtime for a week show no signs of the strain. In fact, the 95-foot Cape Shoalwater, a sleek cutter, was making smart circles off Key West today with rock music blaring from its loudspeaker.
That easygoing approach not only reflects the civilian lifestyle of Key West. The Coast Guard station here, dotted with gracious palms and flowering oleander bushes, has to be one of the better duty assignments.
"Most would call this a nice place to be," Dennis said. "It is, but it is also the most challenging and most active post I've had in 15 years. The Florida Keys, by their nature, make this busy, between our law enforcement and refugee rescue work."
Law enforcement includes patrolling for drug smugglers as well as smugglers of refugees from Haiti, Cuba and other southern points. A big status symbol here is the number of hash marks a crew can paint under a boats's marijuana leaf symbol, each representing a "bust" at sea.
With all official attention seemingly focused on the boatlift, the natural speculation around here is that dope smugglers may be intensifying their runs.
"They're making a mistake if they think we're not watching," a Coast Guard duty officer said the other night, as he pointed to a one-ton haul of marijuana bales found on a small sailing vessel.
But this week at least, and into the foreseeable future, the main action around here is the Coast Guard's effort to see that boatlifters travel safely to Cuba and back.
There would be an easier way to do that -- providing escorts -- but the refusal of Washington to sanction establishment of some sort of vessel escort had put Dennis on a but of a hot seat.
"I see the logic of that," Dennis said. "The last thing the Coast Guard wants to do is encourage people to make the trip."
So since all of this began, Dennis has been calling most of the shots here on his own, not looking back. "Worry about what your bosses think, you're in trouble," he said. "I don't."