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Two scary close calls with the ‘good guys’

We lay anchored in the evening, to the east of Gun Cay in the Bimini chain of the Bahamas. The warm, humid spring air sent mixed signals about whether the next day would be the good Gulf Stream crossing day we expected. We’d hastened across the Great Bahamas Banks to make this weather window. You don’t mess with the Gulf Stream where it powers between the Banks and the East Coast, and we were being cautious.

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We listened to the evening high seas weather on the SSB. We always do this, morning and evening, but we did it this night with concern. It just didn’t feel right. And it wasn’t. Out of nowhere, with no warning from the weather forecasters, a tropical depression was forming right over top of us. It was forecast to become a low and then possibly a storm within the next 24 hours. If you’ve anchored off Gun Cay or Cat Cay, you know it’s no place to ride out a serious storm.

The best we could do was to continue with our plans to get back to the coast but move them up. We’d planned to leave after first light the next morning, with the rising sun behind us so that we could pick our way between the reefs to get out to deep ocean. Now we feared that might be too late. So in the last of the day’s light, we very carefully found our way through the cut and anchored to the west of Gun Cay.

We don’t like to anchor there because, even in an easterly, swells wrapping in from the Atlantic can make it miserable. But we were exhausted from traveling and desperately needed a few hours sleep. From that anchorage we could leave shortly after midnight and have no trouble finding deep water in the dark. We would just head west, leaving the reefs behind us. And according to all our weather sources, that would be plenty of time to get across before things got bad. They were wrong.

We could tell that the wind was beginning to rise around midnight as we weighed anchor and headed west, still trusting the forecasters. It would only be around 45 miles, and we couldn’t stay where we were. We had suffered through plenty of sails from hell across the Stream in the past, but the winds, if and when they built, were supposed to be from the southeast. Winds from the southeast don’t anger the Stream very much, at least in the beginning, but the winds weren’t from the southeast.

No matter how many times we do it, it’s scary to head into that section of ocean on a dark night. As we left soundings and headed out, we looked back longingly, wishing there was a good anchorage, safe to ride out a storm. We saw a search light on the water back behind us and assumed another boat was pulling anchor. The light was sweeping back and forth. We thought it was strange but soon forgot about it.

The wind kept rising. Our daughters, then quite young, were asleep in their forward stateroom. Mel and I decided to stand watch together throughout the trip; it would be safer, and it was too rough for us to sleep anyway. And it got rougher and rougher as the winds developed a slight northerly slant — the last thing you want to see happening in the Stream. It was soon so rough that we had to hold on to keep from being tossed around the cockpit. The main was up and reefed for steadying, but we feared putting up more sails because of the danger of having to take them in during the dark, should the wind continue to rise. And it did continue to rise.

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The roar of wind and waves was becoming louder and louder, and the night was black — blacker than the inside of a cow, as we used to say when I was a kid. We slowly realized we were hearing something more than wind and waves. At first we tried to ignore it, but this became hard to do. About an hour or so out we realized we were hearing the roar of huge engines astern. We could see nothing. The engines got closer. I was hoping this was a large power vessel also making a run to safety. But where were the running lights? There were none burning.

We could see nothing in the violent blackness all around us, but the roar kept getting louder over the sound of the wind and sea. We called out on the VHF, giving our position and description. We got no reply other than the increasing roar of the engines. Soon we saw what appeared to be a white smudge behind us, barely distinguishable in the blackness. It grew more distinct, not that anything out there was very distinct.

Eventually we saw that the whiteness was spray flying into the night from the bow of a huge go-fast heading toward us, leaping the waves. It zoomed up on our port quarter and passed very closely, crashing through waves and throwing spray. In the lightning flashes we could see something of the occupants. They were dressed in jeans, tennis shoes, some wore scarves, some had bandannas over their heads, most had beards. They were a very rough looking bunch, like the drug smugglers you see on television and in movies. But these people were real, and we were alone in the stormy ocean with them. And there was one more thing: They were heavily armed with automatics, and they were looking at us. Then they were gone, roaring off to the southwest, in the direction of Miami.

Now we understood what that spotlight we’d seen as we pulled away from the Bimini chain was about. These must have been drug smugglers running a load into the States. They’d been picking up a drop back off the cay. We’d heard it wasn’t unusual for these people to choose the cover of storms to make their runs. Not too long before, our government had been flying “Fat Albert,” a large unmanned dirigible, over the island of Great Exuma.

It had long-range cameras to look for boats trying to make smuggling runs. Every time it went up, someone got on channel 16 and said, “Hey, hey, hey, it’s Fat Albert.” We would all know we were in for some good weather, but when bad weather was expected they had to pull it down. Smugglers could see this and would know it was time to make a run.

We thought the people in that drug boat had probably figured we’d seen them as they picked up their load and that they had come by to check us out. We were incredibly lucky they hadn’t decided to take us out. They certainly wouldn’t want witnesses. It would have been short and easy work for them, almost foolproof out there in the blackness of the stormy Gulf Stream. With all those guys and all those automatic weapons, they could take out our antennae on top of the mast about the same time they were riddling us and our boat. And “us” included our two young daughters. Even if we had been able to get off a mayday call, they would be long gone, very far away in the increasingly impenetrable storm. We breathed sighs of relief and talked about how incredibly lucky we were.

The terror of the growing storm became secondary. We knew we were totally vulnerable that night, out in that ocean, to that sort of activity and to a sudden bullet-riddled death. Our distance from the States, the blackness of the night and the storm itself made it unlikely help would arrive should we have needed it. Relieved, we relaxed and concentrated on handling our boat. And then we heard it again. It was the roar of large engines, and it was way back off our port quarter.

“They’re coming back,” I yelled. “They’ve circled out and around, and they’re coming back.”

We knew some friends had also planned to leave that night and should be somewhere behind us, hopefully awake and under way. We called them on the VHF, hoping they’d answer. When they did, we told them cryptically that we had trouble with another boat and to please listen for our call — or worse, no call at all. We were afraid to get specific, afraid that this could cement our fate if it wasn’t cemented already. We thought from their guarded response that they understood that something very bad was going on. Then, suddenly, the fast boat was right beside us.

It was the same boat, the same criminal-looking guys, the same guns. It came alongside, slowing, wallowing in the seas, most of the guys along its starboard side — the side closest to us. The boat was dangerously close to crashing into us. “We’re coming aboard,” someone yelled, barely audible over the storm.

“Who are you?” I yelled back.

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“We’re DEA and Customs and Coast Guard, and we’re coming aboard.”

Right, I thought. Even if they were they wouldn’t be stupid enough to attempt a boarding in this storm. “Show me your ID,” I lamely yelled. Some guy held up something I obviously couldn’t see. Then they were close in alongside and made a sweep toward our boat as several guys leapt to us, climbed over our lifelines and spilled onto our deck, clutching their weapons. People in the boat were pointing their guns at us. The people who’d just come aboard showed me a card again and gave me the same identification. They said they just wanted a quick check of the boat.

I still couldn’t see the ID cards, but we hadn’t been shot yet, and I began to assume they were who they said they were. At that point we were so relieved and so happy that I said, “Man, you guys are pointing your guns at me, but the only danger you have here is that we both don’t hug you. You can’t believe how scared we were. We thought you were the bad guys.” We were all hanging on for dear life still, and they said they wanted me to accompany them below. “Sure,” I said, “but we’ve got two young daughters in their beds up forward. Don’t scare them, and don’t shoot them if you see movement.”

They looked at each other, and one told me they wouldn’t go forward. They did shine their lights up there, and I could see the wide-open eyes of my daughters in their beds. Scared. They asked me some questions, like who we were, where were we going and why we were out here in this weather. I told them. I showed them identification and documentation when they requested. They started looking around, pulling open a few drawers, looking into the engine space and other areas. I believe they were quickly getting the idea that we weren’t whomever they were looking for.

Soon, at least one of them began to start feeling very seasick. He mentioned it. I couldn’t believe he would feel sick on our boat after pounding through the storm on that huge go-fast, but I knew the type of movement would have been very different. They radioed their boat to close again and take them off, and they quickly left, obviously aware that we weren’t what they were looking for. To this day, I still can’t believe this go-fast didn’t crash into our boat as the boarding crew came aboard and left, smashing through the cresting waves, into the blackness.

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* * *

That’s just one boarding we’ve experienced. We’ve had so many that I can’t remember how many. I don’t think it’s because we look suspicious. I even shave and bathe … usually. It’s just that we’ve been out there so many days and covered so many miles over so many years. Law of averages, I guess. Or maybe we do look suspicious.

This particular boarding was by far the most terrifying. It’s probably the most terrifying time we’ve had in all of our days at sea, including getting hit by tornados — twice.

On another particularly bad occasion, some years prior to this boarding, they didn’t even come aboard. It was 1979, and we’d just taken delivery of our Gulfstar 47 from Tampa, Fla. We planned to take it down the Keys, passing through at Marathon, and then head up the East Coast. I knew all about it. I’d read the sailing magazines. They had lots of cool knowledgeable authors who talked about “riding a cold front down.” This is what I wanted to do.

A convenient, strong cold front was sweeping across the Gulf of Mexico, and it was to be our glory ticket. We headed out into the Gulf to pick up our free ride. As the winds blew and the thunder rolled, I began to think the sailing magazine writers didn’t know all there was to know, after all. I didn’t count on the waterspouts. It seems that as the leading edge of the cold air swept across the Gulf, it spawned waterspout after waterspout. They were bad enough when it was still light, but, as these things are prone to do, they seemed to grow the thickest just at dusk as the last of light was fleeing to the west. Soon we were in a black maelstrom, running before the wind, but not at all happy to be there. To compound my stupidity, Mel was pregnant with our first little girl, Melanie.

Around 10 p.m., as we swept down the Gulf, we heard a roar. My first thought was that we were about to get nailed by a waterspout. I soon wished that were true. It grew louder and louder and sounded like large diesels. The wind behind us helped blow the noise our way. Then, in the lightning, we saw a large vessel heading straight for us, coming in off our port side. It showed no running lights and was moving very fast. It’ll veer off before it creams us, I thought, some other poor fool just as unhappy as we are to be here. But it didn’t. It kept coming straight for us.

Things happen fast at times like this. In probably less time than it takes to read this, but an eternity for us, I got him in my binoculars and saw, thankfully, that famous orange stripe on the bow. It was the Coast Guard. I was incredibly happy, but only for a moment. He was still heading on a course to come right through our midships. I grabbed the VHF mic and started calling the vessel at the correct lat/lon and course, describing myself and course and asking his intentions. To my amazement, there was no answer. I called again and again as he closed, massive bow rising and falling in the huge seas. We were wearing life jackets. This was well before the day of EPIRBs. We didn’t have time to shoot flares or get down to the SSB and hail on 2182. We just sat, dumbfounded, waiting for the impact. At the last moment he veered off and passed us, heading into the storm. I called several more times. He never answered. Perhaps he was checking us out. I was fine with that, but he could have figured out a better way.

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That encounter was far from wise. We were properly lit and not only standing by on VHF but also calling out. They were neither. The manner of approach was highly improper and illegal, in my opinion. But it happened.

* * *

I never heard anything to give me a clue about the Gulf of Mexico event but I did about the Gulf Stream event. After that terrifying night, we made the coast safely, and several days later were resting at a marina in Fort Lauderdale, enjoying that incredibly good feeling of passage completed, being home again, being safe and having a Publix supermarket nearby.

In those days, we couldn’t get much U.S. news in the Bahamas. Our only source usually was the BBC over SSB. So when we got back to the States, we’d usually pick up a newspaper in the morning. One of those mornings there were headlines about a huge drug bust. A staggering number of pounds of cocaine had been seized, as well as many of the smugglers. The bust had occurred very close to the area from which we had departed from the Bahamas that terrifying night. The rest of the story became clear.

Our boarders obviously had intel that something big was going down. They were over there in force, in disguise, undercover, waiting. If you’re ready to spring a trap, you don’t put up signs. That explained their appearance. With their success, they kept this illegal drug off our streets, away from our kids. And they put some of the players out of action. A drop in the bucket? Maybe, but drops add up.

I assumed, and still do, that they saw us move to that anchorage in the evening and then leave in the dark of night. I also assume these people weren’t what I’d call “seamen,” and didn’t get it about the dangers of the anchorage in a storm and the prudent course of seamanship that we took to avoid danger. They just saw what looked to them like a pickup. At the very least it looked suspicious. They’d probably seen that spotlight also.

I assume they didn’t answer my call on VHF because that would have been blowing their cover. And they didn’t have lights on because they didn’t want us to start dumping — and they didn’t want to get shot. For all they knew, we had a couple dozen bad guys down below, armed to the hilt with automatic weapons, ready to open up. But they did their job. They closed on our suspicious vessel, not knowing what awaited them, and came aboard. We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And for what seemed like an eternity, I thought my babies and wife were going to be killed.

I don’t like being boarded. I hate it. My boat is my home. I am a seaman, and I think I am a good one. Boardings often involve very poor seamanship by the boarding party, not to mention invasion of my home. Also, I know a lot about our Constitution. I’ve studied it at length. When I practiced trial law, I tried many cases revolving around it. I know what it says and what it doesn’t — far more than the shallow, liberal talking heads on television.

I believe in it deeply and in our way of life. I believe it’s the most perfect document ever crafted by our species to assure a civilized, fair and good society. But I also know that the courts have defined exceptions in the rights we should be able to expect under it, for reasons of necessity, both imagined and real. Many exceptions pertain to the borders and to boats. I may not like it when I fall within those exceptions, but we don’t live in a perfect world. We’re under constant threat, including terrorism, drug smuggling and human smuggling. And somebody has to stand guard. It’s a tough job, a job I wouldn’t want even if I had what it takes.

As I think back about my boardings, I realize that I can’t come up with a single boarding by U.S. personnel when the people who came aboard weren’t professional and courteous. I’ve known about boardings when U.S. personnel were unprofessional, discourteous and some, in my opinion, in which their conduct was illegal. Fortunately, I haven’t experienced this. I do know that there is no group of people, including in the field of law enforcement, without some bad apples. However, even if the boarding personnel are professional and courteous, it’s a bit difficult to have a warm and fuzzy feeling about them when they’re standing on your boat ordering you around with automatic weapons.

But I have to see it the way they must be seeing it at the time. And, looking at it dispassionately, I’m glad they’re out there trying to do their job.

Soundings blogger Peter Swanson serves up a provocative take on boarding in his “Loose Cannon” blog. Click on “Columns/Blogs” at

September 2013 issue