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Cuba jails Citrus castaways

Robert Vassallo and Angellette Smith had been battered by waves for two days when a final surge sent their boat crashing into a reef off the western coast of Cuba.

The left side of the Citrus County couple's boat was cracked and was leaking. Vassallo and Smith spotted a lighthouse and stepped onto the shell-strewn shore to seek help. But it was near midnight and everyone inside was sleeping, so they went back to the boat, made a fire, put on some warm clothing and waited.

Hours later, they were surrounded by dozens of Cuban soldiers.

Lacking the necessary paperwork to be on the island, they wound up in a Havana jail, where they spent Christmas in squalid conditions.

"I was probably in more danger there than any place I've ever been," Vassallo, 40, said. "But I didn't feel threatened at all."

The Ozello restaurant manager and his girlfriend described their ordeal recently after returning to Florida. U.S. officials in Cuba who helped them get off the island declined to identify them, but confirmed their general story.

Vassallo and Smith set sail from Key West in their 38-foot sailboat for a weeklong, pre-holiday trip around the Caribbean. The couple had plenty of food, warm clothes, even a laptop.

Everything was going according to plan until, about six days into the journey, the waves began picking up. For two days, they were unable to find a place to anchor as the waves built to 20 feet.

Exhausted, the couple finally anchored just off the Cuban shore. But the anchor broke loose, and the boat crashed ashore.

The pair spent the night they were arrested at a hotel, but the next day immigration officials arrived and took them to a jail in Havana.

Vassallo was taken to a men's cell, and Smith, 29, to one for women.

For breakfast, they were given a biscuit with a piece of meat in it. For lunch, they got beans and a soup made of yellow broth and chicken skin — but no chicken meat.

"I ate it all because I was hungry," Vassallo said. "I was starving."

The other prisoners included an Englishman who was biking around Cuba and had his passport stolen; and two others who were also waiting for money and paperwork to get out, Vassallo said.

Smith was kept with two Ecuadorean women, one of whom lost her passport at the airport. The cell had a toilet, but with no seat or toilet paper. The women braided Smith's hair to pass time.

"They kind of kept me calm," she said.

Vassallo called U.S. diplomats from the jail, and on Dec. 26, after three days in custody, authorities negotiated their release.

It took another five days to get a ticket on a flight to Miami, and they stayed with a university professor who rented out rooms to travelers for about $25 a night. The contrast to the decrepit jail was dramatic — the professor's home had 16-foot ceilings and beautiful furnishings.

On New Year's Eve, the couple finally made it home.

Cuba jails Citrus castaways 01/10/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 9:51am]
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