ABOARD THE CHANDELEUR in the Florida Straits -- Day and night, the flimsy craft and their desperate crews kept popping up on the horizon, bobbing on the waves like the bedraggled remnants of some long-lost armada.
"At this moment I am a free man," declared an exhausted, drenched and exhilarated Sergio Denis Sanchez, after he and three others were pulled to safety aboard this Coast Guard cutter from their dubious conveyance of inner tubes, wood planks and metal rods.
In recent days, hundreds of Cubans anxious to beat Havana's deadline of today for illicit departures have headed for these treacherous waters in a frenzied last-ditch effort to leave their beleaguered island. They left even though most knew that they would be taken to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba's southeastern shore and would have little chance of reaching the United States.
The weekend volume did not match last month's record levels, but it did produce a sudden surge in the numbers of those rescued.
"This is one chance in a lifetime," said Jose Manuel Ramirez, 30, a truck driver from Havana. He embraced his wife, Marisol Sardinas, when the two were safely aboard the Chandeleur, one of a flotilla of Coast Guard cutters busily scooping rafters from the seas.
"I've already wasted most of my youth in a Cuba without opportunities," Mr. Ramirez noted, "and I don't want to waste any more time."
Elena Sanchez, four sons, a nephew and a dozen others shoved off from Bacuranao beach in Havana Saturday morning, after the announcement in Cuba that illicit rafters would have until today to clear out before their vessels would be confiscated.
"We knew we had to act quickly," explained Ms. Sanchez, whose group used a modified rowboat outfitted with a Chevrolet automobile engine -- one of the bewildering array of ingenious contraptions employed by the rafting masses.
The sense of urgency was conveyed over and over again by those pulled from the waters since the United States and Cuba reached an agreement Friday aimed a ending the chaotic exodus, which has seen more than 30,000 Cubans take to the seas in the past six weeks and has created a policy crisis for the White House.
The fate of the rescued Cubans remains uncertain.
The Washington-Havana accord makes no special allowance for the more than 26,000 intercepted Cuban rafters being held in makeshift camps at Guantanamo. Those detainees will have to apply for U.S. entry in Cuba, U.S. officials have said, though there is no mechanism to repatriate them.
The same "apply in Havana" policy applies to the 1,555 Cubans pulled from the Straits Saturday and Sunday, many spurred by the Cuban deadline. Rafters generally have indicated resolute resistance against returning to Cuba, where many fear that they would face reprisals. Moreover, few want to go back to a nation where bleak economic prospects and fierce political repression prompted them to take to the seas in a hazardous roll of the dice of personal fortune.
"I'd prefer to die than go back to Cuba," said Ernesto Gonzalez, 26, who was among a group of seven men and one woman aboard a raft plucked from the ocean in yesterday's pre-dawn hours. "We have no prospects there," said Mr. Gonzalez, who noted that he was trained as a medical technician in Cuba but had to scramble for work as a shoemaker.
Also rescued was Lazaro Benitez, a 42-year-old father of two from Havana who said that he was granted a much-cherished visa to go to the United States two years ago. However, Mr. Benitez added, Cuban police later arrived at his home and confiscated his passport.
Like others, Mr. Benitez expressed pessimism that many rafters -- even if they did somehow return to Cuba -- would ever be allowed to leave the island again.
"They won't let us leave but none of us have a future in Cuba," he said.
Ricardo Camilo Lopez, who said he was granted a visa to go to the United States in 1991 but was never permitted to depart, agreed.
"I'll never get out," said Mr. Lopez. He said that he was trained as a theoretical physicist in Cuba and East Germany but could find work only as a garbage man because of his opposition to the Fidel Castro regime.
The Chandeleur is one of 40 of the sturdy, 110-foot cutters that have been the workhorses of the massive search-and-rescue operation. The vessels have been brought from as far away as Maine and Washington state to bolster Coast Guard resources in Key West, the rescue nerve center. Officials are hopeful that this recent surge represents the death throes of a migrant flow that is now virtually closed down.