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A tale of two rice bowls

If you want to get a man’s attention, there are two surefire ways to go about it. You can steal his mate or break his rice bowl, as we learned to say back when our war was Vietnam. A few years ago someone went after that bowl of mine. That someone tried to convince others not to award me a modest writing contract because I was a “loose cannon.” This happened during a business meeting.

Please don’t think this blog is going to be all about me and my grudges. I will soon segue into a better story, about the life and times of a treasure hunter I know down island — a guy who has recovered quite a few cannons lying loose on the ocean floor, by the way. But given that this is the first edition of “Loose Cannon the Blog,” courtesy dictates that I introduce myself and say a little about my subject matter.

I grew up in Massachusetts on Buzzards Bay so long ago that, as kids, we did not wear shoes in summer. My father had been career Air Force, so I went to West Point as prelude to service in Vietnam. But as the war began to wind down, I dropped out and went to journalism school instead. I worked for more than 20 years as a New England newspaper reporter and editor, learning to be skeptical and intellectually nimble, all the while talking with a funny accent.

In 1999 I took off down-island in a 30-foot ketch. I came back a few years later to a job on the staff of Yachting magazine, then based in Connecticut. I’ve been on a southbound-and-downhill slide ever since, working at PassageMaker magazine in Maryland, then as a marketing guy for a Florida trawler manufacturer. In 2007, I sailed away to the islands once again, this time on 41-foot ketch. I’m back in Florida now, working as executive editor for Soundings sister publication PassageMaker magazine.

I have never belonged to a political party, and I have never been married, though I expect to be soon. I am 57.

Loose cannon is a fine nautical term from 18th century naval warfare. It refers to a wheeled gun that has slipped its lashings and threatens ship and crew, rolling wildly across the gun deck as the vessel pitches and rolls. As a metaphor, it suggests a person that is reckless and irresponsible.

However, one man’s loose cannon is another man’s independent thinker, so I ended up getting that writing contract anyway, along with the naysayer’s identity, which I will happily share with anyone who buys me a beer. We’ll toast to he who named this space.

“Loose Cannon” will endeavor to profile interesting characters such as today’s Capt. Billy Rawson and his merry men. I will write about Cuba from a boating perspective and how opening Cuba to U.S. citizens will help our marine industry, even though the industry itself is doing nothing to help make that happen. I’ll write about cruising the Bahamas and the Caribbean. My freelance work often focuses on important issues of the day and marine electronics, so I hope to share some of my views on those subjects as well.

Click play for a look at Swanson's recent adventures.

As an editor, I built a reputation as a photo advocate, so I’ll include imagery whenever possible. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, and I welcome dissent, so feel free to email me.

Now, about Billy Rawson. I’ve been hanging around with some treasure hunters down in the Dominican Republic lately. Treasure hunting stories are a little bit outside my patch, but I figure they’ll always be a market for tales about finding lost gold on the ocean floor. Thousands of wrecks litter our East Coast and the Caribbean, with the vast majority of them lying in less than 30 feet of water. Maybe after a while I’ll write a book. Every shipwreck has an interesting story, as does every successful recovery effort, and the people involved are highly intelligent and colorful.

Colorful is understatement as applied to Rawson, usually referred to as Capt. Billy. He’s a creature of the Florida Keys who has come a long way from his youthful adventures as a pot smuggler, gatherer of “square grouper” and later a commercial fishing captain. Those experts were right when they called marijuana a gateway drug — in the Keys it led to fishing!

Working for Deep Blue Marine, Rawson has proven that he can find wreck sites and recover fabulous artifacts — and do it with a serious eye toward preserving the historical record. Most of the images accompanying this blog are items recovered from what is believed to be a 1554 Spanish wreck: hundreds of silver coins, silver castings (called splashes) and jade figurines looted by conquistadors from Mayan tombs. The day I was with him, Rawson’s men pulled an 18th century pistol from a French wreck. Both wrecks were within 100 yards of shore near Playa Grande, the most prominent golf course in the Caribbean.

Rawson, 52, is a born storyteller, his delivery every bit as funny as the scotch-swilling stand-up comedian Ron White, except Rawson’s rum-fueled shtick is about smuggling, fishing, living and working in a banana republic, and dealing with his bosses back in Utah. Laughably, given Rawson’s background, the principals at Deep Blue Marine are Mormons and, thus, are presumed to eschew the vices of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.

Success in finding treasure, as it happens, does not guarantee success in the salvage business. Unfortunately for Rawson and crew, Deep Blue’s ability to fund operations has been episodic. Rawson complained that even though his crew kept finding treasure, little or none was being sold to maintain cash flow. Presumably there is a treasure chest full of unsold artifacts sitting somewhere in Midvale, Utah.

“I tried to explain it to them in fishing terms,” Rawson says. “I bring back fish. We sell the fish. We use the money to pay the crew, buy fuel and then go out to fish again, but they didn’t seem to get it.”

Deep Blue, like many treasure-hunting endeavors, initially got under way through penny-stock sales to investors. However, that money quit flowing because of bad publicity involving a federal enforcement action, not against Deep Blue but another business that sold stock. The Securities and Exchange Commission a few months ago obtained an administrative judgment against four individuals, including Wilfred Blum, 58, of Salt Lake City, former Deep Blue CEO and president.

The court ordered that the defendants “disgorge” $3.85 million in ill-gotten gains and interest and permanently barred them from engaging in the sale of penny stocks. The court was considering whether to levy an additional fine against Blum and another defendant. Again, this did not involve Deep Blue but another company with which Blum had been involved.

As the SEC investigation was under way in 2011, Blum resigned as CEO and president of Deep Blue. Acting as a major stockholder, however, he continued to try to raise money from investors in England through much of this year, according to the Deep Blue website.

Rawson, whose diving operations are now immobile for lack of funds, has been pinning his hopes on Blum’s success. He hopes to be salvaging treasure off the north coast of the D.R. for years to come with a crew that includes the respected Venezuelan archaeologist Alejandro Selmi. In the interim, Rawson’s Dominican wife-to-be gave birth to a girl.

In a posting on the Deep Blue website in late August, Rawson laid out his situation in stark terms:

“We are all waiting and even praying we get funding. I do not receive Social Security or disability checks or even food stamps. I do not have the option to get Workman’s Comp, nor can I seek employment in this foreign country,” Rawson wrote. “The only money I rely on is from DBM. When that doesn’t happen, here’s what happens: I can’t pay my rent. I can’t pay for food. I can’t pay for gas. I can’t even go to the doctor. I can’t pay my Internet or even my phone bill.

“I have done everything asked of me, and I have gone over and beyond my call of duty. … I have discovered gold and silver and ancient Mayan artifacts. I have surrendered my boat free of charge for two and a half years for this company. …

“And I sit here completely broke. … If funding doesn’t come in September, I will have no choice but to abandon ship.”

In September, Wilf Blum posted the news that he had succeeded in securing $1.6 million from British investors despite the easily Googled blot on his reputation. I was rooting for Wilf for Rawson’s sake and my own voyeuristic enthusiasm for his work. But as this blog was readied for its roll-out onto the ether, nothing had happened.

During his fallow period, Rawson busied himself writing an autobiography. So far I’ve read the first 39 pages, which focus on the bad-old days of the Florida Keys. Rawson begins by telling how, as a 20-something, he slipped through a police dragnet in Everglades City by virtue of dumb luck. That was back in 1983 and 1984, when the feds executed two highly publicized raids that jailed 80 percent of the city’s male population — fishermen/smugglers.

The raids were the high-water mark of American marijuana smuggling, the end of a romantic era that was replaced by cocaine, bloody-minded thuggery and greed. Jimmy Buffett wrote the epitaph in his song “A Pirate Looks at 40”:

I’ve done a bit of smuggling, I’ve run my share of grass.

I made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast.

Never meant to last, never meant to last.

There you have it: “Loose Cannon” Numero Uno, a strange-but-true story about treasure hunting in the new millennium and some Florida history.

’Til next time.