December 14, 2014 / 8:14 PM / 6 years ago

Cubans on homemade boat win refuge from rough seas in Cayman Islands

GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands (Reuters) - A group of 26 Cubans on a homemade wooden boat were granted temporary refuge in the Cayman Islands when bad weather interrupted their quest to seek exile in the United States.

Cuban rafters sit together on the beach after landing on the Cayman Islands, in George Town December 14, 2014. REUTERS/Peter Polack

The four women and 22 men, almost all from the coastal town of Santa Cruz Del Sur in the southeastern province of Camaguey, were four days into their journey when they took shelter from high seas on Wednesday.

In a break from normal rules, Cayman authorities said they can remain until the weather improves.

One of the passengers on the boat, Laudmir Hernandez, a carpenter, said the hand-crafted wooden vessel took just seven days to build and is powered by an antique, U.S.-made, Pierce-Arrow four-cylinder car engine.

He said the lack of economic opportunity forced him to embark on the risky 400-mile (644-km) journey across the Caribbean to Honduras.

Cubans seeking to flee communist-run Cuba have been heading in increasing numbers by sea to Central America and then making a long journey overland to reach the United States.

Under Washington’s “wet foot, dry foot policy,” Cuban migrants who make it onto U.S. soil are allowed to remain, while those intercepted at sea are turned back.

Cayman authorities allowed the latest group to come ashore and use a public beach cabana to shower, as well as sleep on the beach and receive food from local Good Samaritans. Migrants are usually only allowed ashore if they agree to be repatriated.

U.S. officials say more than 16,000 Cubans arrived without visas at the border with Mexico in the past year, the highest number in a decade.

Cuban officials blame the U.S. policy for encouraging migrants to risk their lives.

One group of 32 Cuban migrants drifted for three weeks without food or water in the Caribbean this summer after their engine failed. Only 15 were found alive when they were rescued by Mexican fishermen.

Writing by David Adams; Editing by Leslie Adler and Eric Walsh

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