By Peter Polack
GEORGE TOWN Cayman Islands (Reuters) - A group of 15 Cuban migrants waved to onlookers as they set sail from Grand Cayman aboard a 14-foot homemade boat on Friday after a brief overnight stop, hoping to make the risky 400-mile journey across the Caribbean to the north coast of Honduras.
The boat, made from metal and fiberglass with inner tubes attached to wooden outriggers, was carrying five woman and 10 men and set off last week from Manzanillo, in eastern Cuba. Three other passengers abandoned the journey and turned themselves over to Cayman authorities for repatriation to Cuba.
Cubans seeking to flee the communist-run island are heading in increasing numbers by sea to Central America and then making a long journey overland to reach the United States.
One group of 32 Cuban migrants drifted for three weeks without food or water this summer after their engine failed. Only 15 were found alive when they were rescued by Mexican fishermen.
U.S. officials say more than 16,000 Cubans arrived without visas at the border with Mexico in the past year, the highest number in a decade.
Cuban officials have not commented on the illegal boat departures, but blame the U.S. policy for encouraging migrants to risk their lives.
Under Washington's "wet foot, dry foot policy," Cuban migrants who make it onto U.S. soil are allowed to remain, while those intercepted at sea are turned back.
One man, who identified himself as Ediberto, said he worked in a hospital, but undertook the dangerous journey because of poor economic conditions in Cuba.
"There is food available, but you have to have money to pay for it," he said.
Another passenger, Manuel, a farmer from Ciego de Avila, said there is dissatisfaction in the countryside, but people are afraid of Cuba's communist government.
U.S. Coast Guard patrols have made it hard to reach the United States undetected via the Florida Strait, which separates Cuba and Florida by only 90 miles at its narrowest point.
Many Cubans now opt for the longer western route to Honduras, a trip of about 675 miles, via the Cayman Islands, which takes about 10 days.
Honduran authorities give Cuban migrants temporary visas allowing them to head north for the United States.
(Editing by David Adams. Editing by Andre Grenon)