In an old wooden fishing boat packed with 19 Cubans, 23-year-old Julio Gonzalez sat atop the hot engine, sweating as he bailed out the saltwater seeping through the floor of the Analuisa.
Julio's wife of four months, Miralys, sat with their puppy, Sisi, on her lap. Hours passed, and the fresh water dwindled. So did the gas. The jokes between family and friends turned into arguments, then silence.
Ahead was nothing but deep blue uncertainty. Behind was the only home they'd ever known.
Then, they saw it: First, the smokestack. Then the towering ship. A Carnival cruise ship: the Ecstasy.
As Julio ate a meal provided by the crew, he wondered, Is this a dream?
The Analuisa sailed from Mariel Harbor into the Florida Straits at 1 a.m. on Aug. 16, 1994.
A few days earlier, Miralys' parents called their daughter and son-in-law and told them to pack their bags and travel 49 miles to Mariel Harbor.
The should be ready to take to the seas, Miralys' mother said: Fidel Castro, then Cuba's president, was allowing people to leave the country.
Miralys and Julio knew it was time to go.
She was a college student studying biology, but was afraid it would not lead to a better life because jobs were scarce. He was a national champion kayaker, frustrated that the government wouldn't let him leave the country to compete internationally.
Julio left without saying goodbye to his mother. There was no time.
The couple spent 14 hours in the sea before abandoning the Analuisa.
As the Ecstasy pulled into Key West a few days later, the couple found a surprise — the Analuisa, docked on land.
How did it get there, they wondered?
Years later, they learned from an author researching a book about the exodus that four Cuban men on a broken-down boat had drifted until they spotted the Analuisa.
The men got inside and touched the engine that had been Julio's seat. It was still hot. The Analuisa carried the men safely to Key West.
On land, reality set in for Miralys and Julio.
The couple ended up at the Krome Detention Center in Miami with other refugees and were forced to leave Sisi behind, chasing the bus.
After 3 1/2 months, they were released and joined family in North Tampa.
Miralys' mother spent months tracking down Sisi in animal shelters. She found her in Key West. The poodle mix had been adopted, but the new owner gave her back to the family.
The only reunion still unresolved is between Julio and his family. It pains him that he hasn't seen his mother in 14 years and his children still haven't met their grandmother.
But he refuses to return to Cuba.
"What am I going to show my kids back there?" Julio asks. "Poverty?"
Now 37, Julio says the scary voyage was worth the life the couple has carved out in Citrus Park. Their kids, Julio Jr., 13, and Giovanna, 6, go to a Montessori school and take gymnastics classes.
They're learning to speak Spanish.
Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.