Off in the distance, Fred Bureau thought he saw a whale.
As the object drifted closer, however, the longtime Forsyth County resident got a better look.
“We said, ‘My God, it’s a boat full of people,” he recalled.
But this wasn’t Lake Lanier. Bureau was aboard a Princess cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico, and the boat he and his wife had seen carried 20 hungry refugees from Cuba.
“They didn’t seem to have a motor at all. The sea was rough, so they were bobbing in the waves,” Bureau said Tuesday from his home.
“Our captain cut the power, we drifted and eventually we got near them and threw a rope to them. One of the guys on the boat was waving a white T-shirt.”
Bureau was returning last week from a 10-day cruise with wife Patricia and another couple. The ship was just 150 miles from Miami when they came across the boat.
The Cuban refugees ranged in age from 3 to 80, Bureau said. The women and children were crying and the 80-year-old man was dehydrated.
“They got him water,” he said. “They fed the people, cleaned them up and … a couple of hours later, the Coast Guard cutter came out and got them.
“They had to bring them back to Cuba. It’s the law.”
As the refugees were being cared for by cruise ship staff, Bureau said the captain kept passengers updated over the loud speaker.
The captain, Bureau said, had never had anything like that happen before. “He said, ‘You’re watching history.’”
During their cruise, the Bureaus spent time in Aruba, Panama and Costa Rica, among other stops.
But the most memorable part of the trip was watching the boat encounter.
“You hear about this stuff all the time, but probably the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my life is when they had to transfer from our cruise ship to the Coast Guard cutter to go back to Cuba,” Bureau said.
“It was like sending the people back to prison. They were crying. It was just the saddest thing.”
He marveled at the refugees’ courage, adding that they had to be “the bravest people in the world to begin with — you couldn’t get me in the ocean on a boat like that for all the money in the world.”
“Freedom is the great resource of this country and we saw firsthand how people will risk their lives in unimaginable ways to attain it. That’s what we saw and I’ll never forget it.”