By Peter Polack
GEORGE TOWN Cayman Islands (Reuters) - Sixteen Cuban migrants who sought refuge in Grand Cayman have resumed their voyage in a small, homemade aluminum boat after local officials turned them away, citing a migration agreement with Cuba.
The 20-foot (6-meter) boat, a patchwork of fiberglass and metal with large inner tubes attached to makeshift outriggers, left on Thursday night, headed for Honduras, about 400 miles (644 km) away.
They were last seen being trailed by a police boat and helicopter about 5 miles (8 km) off Grand Cayman, drifting west in 5-foot (1.5-meter) waves with a squall approaching.
"I am praying as hard as I can," said the anxious mother of a 23-year-old passenger, who was interviewed by phone in Texas and asked to be identified only by her first name, Marlenis, because the group left Cuba illegally on a boat built in secret.
Most of the passengers, 11 men and five women aged 18 to 40, are from her barrio in the town of Manzanillo in eastern Cuba, she said. "Life is very difficult there. They have no jobs, no opportunity, no future at all," she added.
Boats smuggling Cubans who are seeking to flee the communist-run island are frequently seen off the Cayman Islands, located in the Caribbean less than 100 miles (160 km) south of Cuba.
They head for Honduras from where migrants make the long journey overland to reach the U.S. border with Mexico. Under the U.S. so-called "wet foot, dry foot policy," Cuban migrants who make it onto United States soil are allowed to remain while those intercepted at sea are turned back.
Marlenis, 42, said she left Cuba by boat six years ago taking the same route via the Cayman Islands.
"It was a very tough journey, five storms, lots of rain, drifting, almost lost. I don't like to remember it," she recalled. "It took us 11 days in total but the hardest part was the last two days on the open sea from Grand Cayman to Honduras," she added.
The U.S. Border Patrol said in late July that more than 13,500 Cubans without proper travel documents had tried to cross the southwestern U.S. border since Oct. 1, 2013, more than during all of the previous 12 months. Four years ago, the 12-month total was about 5,500.
Cayman immigration officials estimate about 244 Cuban migrants have passed through its waters so far in 2014, while 76 were repatriated.
Under a 1999 migration accord with Havana, Cuban boats are allowed to pass through Cayman waters as long as they do not seek any assistance. If the migrants come ashore, they are taken into custody and usually repatriated to Cuba.
(Editing by David Adams, Ken Wills and Lisa Shumaker)