Classic Lats & Atts: Sunshine, Sailing, Sand Fleas & Smugglers

A great story of sailing the Florida Keys in a 19' West Wight Potter - Originally ran January 2008, Issue 92, Latitudes & Attitudes Magazine

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From Latitudes & Attitudes Magazine, January 2008 Issue 92

By Pamela Dooley

“If it is money, it’s mine!” Boy, that is a surefire way of starting a family dispute if I ever heard one. However, as Bill, my husband, was cutting open the suspect package we found on the beach, I insisted on ownership out of pure spite. When we started this trip he had promised me fun in the sun, sailing around the Florida Keys for about three months. What he failed to mention was the storms, sand fleas, and smugglers.

The plan when we left Montana was to trailer our boat to Florida, launch in Key Largo and just cruise as the wind takes us. We decided to park our truck and trailer at Gilbert’s Resort in Key Largo. We were returning to Gilbert’s about once a week for more food, water, etc. The interesting thing about Gilbert’s was that even though they were not sure when we would be back, they always had a party underway at their Tiki bar. Talk about nice people.

Latitudes & Attitudes Magazine, January 2008 Issue 92I was beginning to enjoy this life, even with the minimal living setup provided by the 19-foot West Wight Potter. When sailing, the boat seemed perfect for the Keys. We could go almost anywhere simply by lifting the keel slightly. With the keel fully down we drafted three feet and with the keel fully up, we drafted about 10 inches.

Life was good. I was learning the ropes, sheets, lines, and all the other items related to sailing a small boat. However, I have found in my life if things are going real well and seem perfect… look over your shoulder because change is coming. The change in our trip was a series of serious storms.

The first storm hit us about a week after we launched at Gilbert’s. The storm was projected as coming from the northeast. However, after midnight it shifted to the east and made our semi-protected anchorage into an amusement park ride. We love our boat, but riding on anchor with a 25-knot wind is a bit boisterous as Bill would say. I would say it is more like going through a washing machine cycle in a coffee can.

We sailed most of the way down the Keys and returned when the wind changed. It was an easy run ‘til the gale caught us in the open. We shortened sail by two reef points. We ordered our sails with two sets of reef points because of the stronger winds in the Florida Keys during the winter months.

The wind was causing serious waves, even in the area of Florida Bay where we were currently cruising. The boat would heel with each gust, with wind and water coming over the bow. The boat handled the weather much better than I. The thing that worried me most was the look on Bill’s face. He seemed to be enjoying it. I think a friend of his, Tom Ramsey, summed him up best when he said, “He ain’t right.” I could see Tom’s point as we bounced and fought our way to shelter behind one of the nearest Keys, me like a drowned rat and Bill grinning from ear to ear

“Well, we know it will handle more wind than we find comfortable.” I ignored Bill’s comment and dried out the best I could. I was still waiting on that fun in the sun, however… it was an adventure.

We headed north to Biscayne Bay, a truly beautiful area. This was the first time I was in the bay. The boat was anchored slightly south of Elliott Key the first night.

The weather was perfect, allowing me to photograph one of the most stunning sunsets I have ever seen. Since most of the sunsets in this area are stunning, the competition was great. Water in the bay is clear and clean. It gives a pretty turquoise blue color when the sun is right.

I really was beginning to enjoy the area and trip. According to Bill I was picking up the sailing also. He said he was really proud of the way I handled the boat. True to form, I glanced over my shoulder to see what change was coming my way. This time it was not far away.

Squalls and Islands

Over the last year, in preparation for cruising, Bill had me study weather changes, etc. I learned about clouds and such; cirrus, cumulus, and all the others. When I looked over my shoulder I saw what I learned later was a squall, headed our way. I yelled at Bill who was inside the boat doing something. I told him there were clouds headed our way. He asked what type of clouds and I drew a blank on all my lessons. I yelled back at him that they were “ominous, serious clouds.” Bill began to laugh as he climbed out onto the deck. After one look at the squall the laughter stopped. We scurried around tying down everything we could and got underway.

We were easing the boat into a slip at Elliott Key Harbor when the squall hit. The storm surge lifted the hull above the dock. We were both tugging and pulling on the dock lines so the boat would not sit down on the concrete dock when the water receded. Ten minutes later the squall passed and all was well again. After we dried out and had a cup of coffee, Bill agreed that the clouds were indeed, “ominous and serious.”

Latitudes & Attitudes Magazine, January 2008 Issue 92

After a few days of cleaning and repairing the boat, we decided to explore the surrounding islands. These islands were populated years ago until a hurricane in the 1930s put everything under salt water. Since nothing would grow, the folks left the islands to the jungle. The jungle reclaimed the lands quickly.

We decided to explore a nearby island for a few days unless the winds changed sooner. The winds were important to us at the moment because we used most of our gasoline running upwind a few days prior in order to outrun the squall. When sailing along the Intracoastal Waterway it is very hard to beat upwind due to the limited width of the waterway in some areas. Our solution was to wait a few days until the wind was optimum for travel in the direction we wished to go. Now, we would require perfect winds to get to back to town and pick up some gas. We were not worried about it because things have a way of working out.

The next morning found us exploring the beach on the far side of the island. No one had been in this area for years. The beach was strewn with stuff; lots of homemade boats abandoned by Cuban refugees. Some of these craft were very ingenious. One was a homemade catamaran with the pontoons made of aluminum siding, filled with plastic bottles and blown with foam. Another boat was made of reinforcement bar, usually used in concrete, covered with a blue tarp. It was powered by a four cylinder diesel engine with a five speed transmission hooked to the propeller by a drive line. Amazing stuff.

Latitudes & Attitudes Magazine, January 2008 Issue 92

The beach was covered with all kinds of junk from all over the world. We spent the day knocking about on there. It was a great time.

The Island Provides…

As the sun began to set we decided we needed to get back soon. The tide had come up a bit which slowed our progress somewhat. I suggested we cut through the jungle in order to save time. “Well, you take a look while I relax here in the shade,” commented Bill. I disappeared into the jungle, reappearing in about 15 minutes somewhat excited, with news.

“There is a gasoline cache back in the jungle.” We were in a hurry to beat the sunset back to the boat, so didn’t waste too much time arguing. I lead him into the jungle about a hundred yards. There on the ground were 10 30-gallon drums covered with garbage bags. A quick inspection revealed that they were, in fact, full of gas. They each had a plastic garbage bag over them so they would be harder to see from the air. Someone had stashed 300 gallons of gas in the jungle on an abandoned key. As we hurried back along the beach to beat the sun we ignored the topic. Once we made it back, cleaned up, had supper, we then argued over the gas.

We were still debating the gas cache the next day when the local Park Ranger showed up. After the normal formalities of license checking and such, we mentioned the gas. He advised that the local drug smugglers would place barrels of gas on these islands in order to make late night runs to South America without drawing too much attention by loading their boat up with drums of gas downtown. “Fill ‘er up and I need 300 gallons of spare gas in case the fish are biting.” Might look suspicious.

Naturally, the Ranger wanted us to show him where the stash was located. We headed out that night, showed him the gas, marked it on the GPS and returned to the boat. Later that week the Ranger stopped by and was talking about the gas cache. He was thinking aloud. “I wonder how far a smuggler can go on 300 gallons of gas?”

I then corrected him with, “295 gallons.” We were able to stay in the area for another week since we no longer had to worry about gas. Things do have a way of working out.

Because of the gas cache and related activities by the local authorities, we decided to head to a different island for a bit to let it all cool down. I figured the authorities would be watching the cache in hopes the owners returned. That being the case, we decided not to refill our gas cans there again.

After a couple of weeks our Potter was anchored off “Smuggler’s Island” again. The sun was out, sea was calm, and the only complaint I had was the millions of sand fleas which bit at every chance. One hundred percent DEET spray seemed to work, but we had to be careful what we touched on the boat so we wouldn’t dissolve things.

While beach combing the Atlantic side of the island, we once again found all sorts of stuff. Bill found a scuba tank, brand new and still full of air. We left it on the beach sitting by itself. It was too far to carry it back to the boat and we had no real need for it since we left our scuba gear at home.

A small yacht must have sunk in the area because we found all sorts of teak fittings and lumber. We decided to haul out as much teak as we could in order to build some shelves, etc., for our boat.

The find of the day was mine. As we were walking back to the boat along the beach I noticed a couple of handheld GPS units tied together, in the surf. Both were Garmin mapping units and fairly new. They were a step up from our units, so I figured it was my lucky day. What luck!!! What luck!!!

Latitudes & Attitudes Magazine, January 2008 Issue 92

I felt bad for the guy who dropped them, since they represented about $600 in gear. I figured I could clean them up and test them. If they worked, fine. If they didn’t, off to the factory for refurbishing and repair. After we got back to the boat, we washed them with fresh water then used alcohol to dry them. When new batteries were used, one worked and the other didn’t.

About the time we finished testing the units, Ranger Jason showed up to see what sort of mischief we were into. We told him of the find and showed him the GPS units. Since we already had a number of GPS units, I thought it would be a nice gesture to give Ranger Jason one of the units I had found. Naturally, I gave him the one that was not working.

We were discussing the methods of returning the units to Garmin for refurbishing and repair when Ranger Jason mentioned that the drug smugglers normally carried two GPS sets with them. If approached by the Coast Guard or other cops, they would throw the unit with their drug smuggling routes overboard. The other unit would merely reflect fishing trips, etc. The one tossed would have all the illegal activities listed in it.

“Well, I am sure these were merely dropped by a fisherman and had nothing to do with drug smuggling. What are the odds of such a thing happening?” Bill was making these comments to Ranger Jason as he was also bringing up the list of waypoints stored in the GPS unit. “See this guy was last fishing offshore at Fort Lauderdale, then Bimini, then, oh oh, oh oh, Havana, then, oh oh, Ghana, Africa.

I thought to myself as I was giving Ranger Jason BOTH units, “What are the odds? What luck! Or that should be, what luck?”

Time to head south again; too many people hanging around the area. After a week or so of hiding out in the Key Largo area, we returned once again to Smuggler’s Island.

“What are you two up to now?” Ranger Jason was once again happy to see us. He covered his joy of seeing us again with his official scowl. We had sailed north again to the area around Elliott Key. Elliott Key was Ranger Jason’s favorite haunt also, since we seemed to run into him there quite often. We have not decided if he was really glad to see us, or just figured we would stir up something a bit more interesting for him to investigate than lobster poaching.

 We had noticed a large number of lobsters in the area and asked Ranger Jason about lobstering. He advised us that the area was a preserve. Seems there as some sort of technicality concerning lobster trapping in a lobster sanctuary. Go figure.

After a couple of days of roaming through the jungles and beach combing again we were getting worn down with all the fun. We did find a couple more scuba tanks on the beach. Both were in good shape, so Bill hauled them back to the boat.

A couple days later, while out on the beach, we found the large plastic and rubber wrapped package. It was about the size of a book and weighed a couple of pounds. After all our interesting finds surrounding drug smuggling and such, I was sure we had found a bundle of cash. I could just envision the hundred dollar bills all taped up together…

Being quick and sure with his knife, Bill opened the package, layer after layer. Finally he was down to the inside package and carefully cut it back to reveal… a kilo of 100 percent, uncut, cocaine. A find such as this brings with it mixed emotions. One, I was certain that somewhere in the jungle was the owner of this package with a rifle pointed at us. Or even worse, we had stumbled onto a sting operation and there were a number of Feds with no sense of humor, but lots of weapons, watching us in circling helicopters and satellites.

Latitudes & Attitudes Magazine, January 2008 Issue 92

Well, what to do, what to do, what to do? Bill’s 25 years in law enforcement and a fairly decent life said turn it in, now. The value of the kilo said cash it in and go to Costa Rica for a while. We discussed it for a bit and made our decision.

Later that day we were cleaning up the boat when Ranger Jason stopped by again for a quick visit, and I suspect, to check under the boat for lobster traps. This was when the above conversation occurred. We assured him we were “up to” nothing more suspicious than mere beachcombing. In fact, we calmed his nerves somewhat by telling him there was a good chance he would be getting a post card from us, from Costa Rica.

After turning in the cocaine we decided to head home. Our three months of fun in the sun was coming to a close. Bill said I was getting better at the sailing and would be fine sailing to the Bahamas next year. I am not sure I can handle a trip to the Bahamas, but Bill assures me it will be “fun in the sun,” so I guess I will give it a try.

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