Last summer, Pablo Mantilla Masa, 34, set out to sea on a kite surfboard, armed with a smartphone loaded with OsmAnd, a maps and navigation app. It provides free nautical charts, with which he trained for months, tracking his speed along the coast of his native Cuba’s Varadero beach. Mantilla’s ultimate aim was to combine his surfboard skills with the charts on his phone to make the risky crossing across the sea to Florida. It would be his fourth attempt to migrate by sea since 2010.

“On one occasion, I spent four days wandering out at sea until I was able to make it back,” Mantilla told Rest of World, recalling a previous failed attempt. “Spending a night at sea is terrifying. But during the day, the sun weighed on me, I suffered from dehydration, back pain, and vomiting.”

Cubans have migrated to the U.S. by sea for a very long time. Due to the scarcity of legal pathways, most take the difficult air and land routes through Mexico, while others have opted to try the shorter but perilous journey by sea. Although there is no official death toll for the island’s seaborne migrants, known as balseros or rafters, at least 100,000 are reported to have died attempting the crossing between 1959 and 1994. More recent firsthand accounts, like that of Mantilla, recount the dangers of this journey.  

Balseros face numerous challenges, starting with the difficulty of navigating the makeshift rafts on which they take to the sea. They must maneuver through shifting currents, choppy waters, and the looming threat of shark attacks. It all adds up to a heavy physical and psychological toll as they attempt to cross the roughly 145-kilometer stretch between Cuba and the southern tip of Florida.

Smartphones and mobile internet access have altered the way Cuba’s balseros prepare for and undertake their journeys. The newest generation — “balseros 3.0” — are using digital devices, free and user-friendly navigation apps, as well as newly available e-commerce services to procure their (sometimes regulated) equipment.

“If I’d ventured out only with a compass like we did before, on seeing the waves coming at me from every direction, the sun right above me in the sky, I would’ve second-guessed the compass,” said Mantilla, who arrived in Key West with the help of a navigation app in about six and a half hours. He now works as a kitesurf instructor in Key Biscayne. “I would have made it because I was traveling in the right direction but it would have been much more stressful,” he said.

A screenshot from a navigation app used to cross the ocean.

Maritime navigation apps, like OsmAnd and Navionics Boating, were initially created for those who dabble in recreational fishing and sailing. Both work on Android and iOS devices, and operate using OpenStreetMap, a collaborative database updated in real time by mappers worldwide to help other users identify diving, fishing, and snorkeling spots. The apps allow users to drop markers on the map to plan potential routes in advance, and to prevent collisions among sailors and larger vessels in busy shipping routes. 

Apps like these have been around since at least 2007, but until recently, internet restrictions had prevented Cubans from downloading them. Now, thanks to the increased availability of mobile internet, would-be migrants are not only gaining access to these apps but also using online resources to learn how to use them and train for the journey. Mantilla found out about OsmAnd by searching online for recommendations on free navigation apps that worked offline. He then watched YouTube videos to learn how to use the app’s features. 

Randy Milanés Pérez wishes he’d had navigation apps when he migrated in 2014. At the time, he told Rest of World, he had joined 21 other migrants on a U.S.-bound makeshift boat. They had all chipped in for a standalone Garmin GPS device, which they had acquired for $450 on the black market — in Cuba, owning an unauthorized GPS device is regulated. Milanés Pérez said they would turn the GPS on and off intermittently to balance the risk of their signal being detected by the U.S. Coast Guard’s radars with the danger of losing their way. They navigated for about 36 hours until they arrived on U.S. soil safely. They were allowed to stay, thanks to the former asylum policy of “wet feet, dry feet.” 

Elián López Cabrera, 49, traveled to the U.S. on a wind surfboard. Like Mantilla, he set sail from Varadero beach, but used the Navionics Boating app instead. It was the first app he’d come across, and was completely free when López Cabrera created his account. Currently, though, users have complete access to the charts for only two weeks before there is a paywall, after which point the charts no longer update. Cubans can’t make electronic payments, unless someone abroad with a credit card pays on their behalf. This means many would now likely struggle to use the app as a migratory tool.

Before he even left the island, López Cabrera used Navionics Boating to identify three potential destinations, based on the vector of his route and the force of ocean currents along his path. The app provided guidance on how to correct his route if he veered off course.

A screenshot from a navigation app used to cross the ocean.

But the weather conspired against López Cabrera: Contrary to the forecast, the wind did not propel him fast enough, and his strength was waning. He floated somewhere along his pre-planned route for a day and a half until he realized he was not going to make it to Florida. Years prior, his fate would have been sealed — he would have most likely died at sea. This time, though, he had come prepared for such an eventuality.

López Cabrera had come armed with another SIM card, registered to a U.S. number operated by AT&T. A Mexican friend visiting Cuba had furtively gifted it to him the day before he set sail. The U.S. SIM card allowed him to share his location with friends, who contacted the U.S. Coast Guard. He was rescued 15 miles south of Islamorada, an island off the south coast of Florida. He has since been paroled in the U.S. for a year, after which he can apply to the Cuban Adjustment Act to obtain permanent residency.

The benefits of the navigation apps go beyond providing essential data for individuals who embark on unauthorized sea journeys by themselves. Apart from helping migrants overcome the physical challenges of navigating the waters of the Florida Strait, the apps provide a psychological lifeline.

“You have to be mentally healthy because the journey can get very monotonous,” said López Cabrera, but the apps help, he added. “Incredibly, there are still lots of people who don’t know that this technology is available. I’m not advising anyone to undertake this voyage, though, because [even with the apps], it’s a crazy endeavor.”