KEY BISCAYNE Fla. (Reuters) - Nine Cubans came ashore in a homemade boat on a south Florida beach on Tuesday afternoon saying they had been at sea for 10 days, according to eyewitnesses.
“They were very excited when they got onto the beach,” said Cristina Plihal, who watched from her beachfront condo in Key Biscayne, a wealthy island village near downtown Miami.
“When they jumped onto the sand they started screaming ‘Cuba, Cuba,’” she added, before police arrived and they were escorted away.
The nine Cubans, all men, told onlookers their journey had taken 10 days.
Under the “wet foot, dry foot policy” of the United States, Cuban migrants who make it onto U.S. soil are allowed to remain while those intercepted at sea are sent back.
Cubans seeking to flee the Communist-run island are taking to boats to reach the United States in increasing numbers this year. U.S. authorities say 22,500 Cubans arrived in the United States without visas in the past 11 months, mostly at the border with Mexico, the highest number in a decade.
A U.S. Border Patrol spokesman said the nine Cubans were being processed by immigration officials and none needed medical attention.
It was not known where in Cuba they sailed from. Miami is about 230 miles (370 km) from Cuba, separated by the treacherous currents of the Florida Straits.
The latest boat appeared to have been made from welded metal tanks, with truck tire inner tubes around the sides and a large Soviet-era diesel engine.
“That’s incredible,” marveled Federico Padovan, a retired civil engineer who was among a group of spectators on the beach.
“It’s better than the boat I came on,” joked Alfredo Rodriguez, 54, who left Cuba on a raft in 1994 and now works as head of maintenance at a beachfront condo.
“It’s amazing that people can build something out of nothing and travel that far and still survive,” said Michael Hubbard, 14, who lives near the beach.
Also on Tuesday, Mexico released a group of Cuban migrants rescued at sea by its navy this month, some of whom immediately headed for the United States by bus.
The Cubans, who were without food and survived by drinking rain water, were intercepted off the Yucatan peninsula badly sunburned and dehydrated after three weeks adrift at sea.
Only 15 survived the journey from Cuba out of 32 aboard.
Reporting by David Adams; Editing by Eric Beech