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Cuban windsurfer missing after attempting to cross Florida Straits

By Michael Haskins

KEY WEST, Florida (Reuters) - Three Cuban migrants attempted to windsurf across the Florida Straits to reach the United States on Tuesday, but only one is known to have reached dry land.

A second was rescued at sea by a fisherman Thursday morning. The U.S. Coast Guard continued late Thursday to search for the third migrant.

Henry Vergara Negrin, 24, said he left Jibacoa, Cuba, near Havana at 9 a.m. Tuesday with two companions on separate boards, according to a report by the Key West, Florida, police.

Jibacoa is a fishing village in the Mayabeque province of Cuba about 97 miles south of Key West.

Negrin came ashore at Key West's luxury Reach Resort nine and a half hours later. Hotel guests and the hotel's beach bartender helped him to a lounge chair where the staff took care of him, hotel spokeswoman Lisa Cole told Reuters.

"They made sure he was comfortable, got him some towels, water. They said he looked exhausted," Cole said.

Negrin is the first reported Cuban windsurfer to make the treacherous crossing in two decades. A couple of windsurfer cases were documented during a mass exodus of Cubans in 1994 known as the "rafter crisis."

Many Cuban have died trying to cross the Straits as they flee their communist-ruled homeland.

Negrin told police his companions' sails went down and he lost sight of them four hours into the journey. He said he knew his companions only as Amando, 28, and Dwarta, 23.

Dwarta was found disoriented and drifting Thursday morning about seven miles south of the Florida Keys, according to Coast Guard spokesman Peter Bermont.

The shark-infested Florida Straits, known for its difficult currents and sudden squalls, separates the southeast coast of Florida from Cuba.

Negrin was hospitalized briefly and then released, according to Elee Erice, spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in south Florida.

"He gets to stay," said Erice.

Under the "wet foot/dry foot" policy of the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cuban migrants who make it to U.S. soil are allowed to remain while those intercepted at sea are returned to their home or a third country.

(Writing by Barbara Liston; Additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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