MIAMI — Leonardo Heredia, a 24-year-old Cuban baker, tried and failed to reach the shores of Florida eight times.
Last week, he and 21 friends from his Havana neighborhood gathered the combined know-how from their respective botched migrations and made a boat using a Toyota motor, scrap stainless steel and plastic foam. Guided by a pocket-size Garmin GPS, they finally made it to Florida on Heredia's ninth attempt.
"Things that were bad in Cuba are now worse," Heredia said. "If there was more money in Cuba to pay for the trips, everyone would go."
Heredia is one of about 25,000 Cubans who arrived by land and sea in the United States without travel visas in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. He, like many others, is an unexpected throwback to a time that experts thought had long passed: the era when Cubans boarded rickety vessels built from old car parts and inner tubes, hoping for calm seas and favorable winds. As the number of Cubans attempting the voyage nearly doubled in the past two years, the number of vessels unfit for the dangerous 90-mile crossing also climbed.
Not since the rafter crisis of 1994 has the United States received so many Cuban migrants. The increase highlights the consequences of U.S. immigration policy that gives preferential treatment to Cubans and recent reforms on the island that loosened travel restrictions. It also puts a harsh spotlight on the growing frustration of a post-Fidel Cuba.
More Cubans took to the sea last year than any year since 2008, when Raul Castro officially took power and the nation hummed with anticipation. Some experts fear that the recent spike in migration could be a harbinger of a mass exodus, and they caution that the unseaworthy vessels have already left a trail of deaths.
"I believe there is a silent massive exodus," said Ramon Saul Sanchez, an exile leader in Miami who has helped families of those who died at sea. "We are back to those times, like in 1994, when people built little floating devices and took to the ocean, whether they had relatives here or not."
Although the number migrating by sea hardly compares to the summer of 1994, Sanchez said the number of illegal and legal Cuban immigrants combined has now surpassed the number of those who arrived during the crisis 20 years ago.
The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that 3,722 Cubans tried to migrate illegally via the sea in the past year. (By comparison, 5,478 Haitians and 601 Dominicans made the attempt in the past year, the Coast Guard said.)
The rafter crisis in 1994 emerged after a tense summer in Cuba exploded into antigovernment demonstrations in Havana on Aug. 5. President Fidel Castro blamed the disturbances on U.S. immigration policies that he said encouraged Cubans to flee illegally, and he threatened to unleash a mass exodus. He made good on the threat a few days later when he told Cuban security forces not to stop anyone who wanted to leave the island.
Under the migration accord signed after the 1994 crisis, those captured at sea are sent back to Cuba. Those who reach land get to stay, which the Cuban government has long argued draws many people into making the dangerous voyage.
For the past 10 years, sophisticated smuggling networks that used go-fast boats were responsible for the vast majority of Cuban migration. A crackdown by the American authorities and a lack of financing available to Cubans on the island have shifted the migration method back to what it was two decades ago, when images of desperate people aboard floating wooden planks gave Cuban migrants the "rafters" moniker.
"We have seen vessels made out of Styrofoam and some made out of inner tubes," said Cmdr. Timothy Cronin, deputy chief of enforcement for the Coast Guard's Miami District. "These vessels have no navigation equipment, no lifesaving equipment. They rarely have life jackets with them. They are really unsafe."
About 20 percent of the vessels used in 2008 were homemade, but this past year, 87 percent of the migrants spotted at sea were riding rustic boats that the passengers had built themselves, Coast Guard statistics show.
Julio Sanchez, 38, a welder from Havana who traveled with Heredia, said most Cubans do not have the money to pay smugglers, and are instead forced to spend months gathering supplies for their journey.
"In our group, some people gave ideas, some gave money and some gave labor," Sanchez said. The trip from a port east of Havana to an obscure Florida key cost them a total of $5,000, a fraction of the $200,000 or more that smugglers would have charged such a large group.
Experts said the recession cut the flow of financing for such journeys, because it was Miami relatives who made the payments. Many of the people arriving now — like those in Sanchez's group — have no family in the United States to help pay.
"If I had to save $10,000 with my monthly salary of $17, I would not get here until I was 80 or 90 years old," said Yannio La O, a 31-year-old wrestling coach who arrived in Miami last week after a shipwreck landed him in Mexico.
He and 31 others departed from Manzanillo, in southern Cuba, in late August on a boat they built over the course of three months. They ran into engine trouble, and the food they brought was contaminated by a sealant they carried aboard to patch holes in the hull. They spent 24 days lost at sea.
"Every day at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m., somebody died," La O said.
Ted Henken, a Cuba scholar at Baruch College in New York, said Washington should be worried about the increase in migration, because it demonstrates that Cuba's recent economic reforms have failed to help the majority of Cubans, making the nation vulnerable to a catastrophic event.
"If some triggering event or series of events were to happen, like with the Venezuela aid or major unrest, or a hurricane, we could have another balsero crisis or Mariel," Henken said, using the Spanish word for "rafter."
"Even if half the people who leave from Cuba do not survive, that means half of them did," La O said, speaking from his grandmother's house in Miami, where he arrived last week. "I would tell anyone in Cuba to come. It's better to die on your feet than live on your knees."