By Capt. Steve Liberatore
Hard to believe it has been a decade since we lost the first Mr. Z on 6/7/2003. The story has been written before but not from my point of view. It was my 27th crossing of the Gulf Stream to Cuba. We were heading south to participate in the 53rd Hemingway Billfish Tournament, the oldest billfish tournament, and we were the longest participating boat in the history of the tournament.
All the boys were on the bridge with Captain Craig Eubank talking about all the girls and all the fish they were going to catch in Havana. I had heard it all before and decided to go down on the deck for some “me” time. I was sitting in the doorway watching the ocean go by, 60 miles south of Key West, when the starboard motor dropped RPMs and started smoking. Craig instantly shut down the engine and looked down at me. I looked up and said, “We are on fire.” Don’t ask me how I knew this but the smell was not of hot oil or fuel. I smelled burning newspaper (or old dry boat wood).
Craig and our second mate for the trip, Ralph, ran down the ladder to the engine room. I was instructed to get on the radio and call the “Kilcare”. The “Kilcare” was a brand new Hatteras owned by our friends the Dickmans. We had talked to them earlier and knew they also were on their way to the tournament and were about 10 miles behind us. “KILCARE- MR. Z COME BACK.” No response. “KILCARE-KILCARE- MR. Z MAY DAY.” Nothing, no response. I turned up the volume (duh) and there was Captain Mark Harris. I told Mark that we were on fire and asked him to come get us. Mark asked for our coordinates, and I stumbled through them but soon realized he could probably already see the towering column of black smoke. The radio was then handed to our regular passenger Joe, and he calmly finished the conversation with the “Kilcare” and continued the mayday call like a pro.
Getting To Safety
I struggled to remove the life raft case from its cradle and tied the painter line to the rail, threw the case off the bridge and poof, the life raft opened and inflated. I looked up and everybody that was on the bridge was now on the bow of the boat. I yelled, “GET IN THE LIFE RAFT!“ I tied the life raft painter to my wrist and turned around to grab the life ring. The black toxic smoke was too overwhelming, and I could not get to the bright orange ring. I looked up to the bow and everyone was still frozen, just standing there with a look of disbelief. “GET IN THE LIFE RAFT!” They all still stood there. Then, kind of out of character for me, I screamed “GET IN THE LIFE RAFT, GET IN THE F@#%ING LIFE RAFT!!!” Then off the bridge I jumped.
When I surfaced, my sunglasses were gone, but I still had my visor on my head. I saw Craig and Ralph cannonball in to the life raft and the rest of the crew running down the gunnels to the raft. Now when it says 6 person raft that is it, and that is all it will fit, so 3 of us were left to hang on to the outside of the raft. This was a survival raft so it was enclosed. “Are we all here?” Head count 7, 8, 9, all here. No Shoe Lou (I’ll explain the name later), Louie, and myself were the lucky ones to now be the life rafts propellers. We all together kicked and pulled the raft upwind about 50 yards and held it there out of the way of the toxic smoke. We watched the Mr. Z as the smoke grew thicker. Right about then the port motor started up. I thought about the movie “Christine” with the haunted killer car and just knew that if the boat put itself in gear, it would all be over for us. Looking down into the crystal clear water with infinite visibility, I found myself more scared then I have ever been, even to this day. Deciding not to do that again, I looked up and saw a white speck on the horizon and watched it grow closer.
The Ride Home
It was a warm feeling as the “Kilcare” positioned itself for the rescue. I could see friends onboard and felt safe. Vinnie and Paul helped us all aboard and for about an hour we watched, like a Viking funeral, the “Z” burn at a safe distance until it was time to leave the “Z” and move on. We headed back to Key West seeing how most of us no longer had our passports. The crew of the “Kilcare” generously returned us to Key West without even batting an eye.
After arriving at the A&B Marina, we all unloaded off the boat and went our separate ways. Lou went to buy some shoes. I found myself standing on the dock with no keys, driver’s license, money, or credit cards and feeling kind of somber. Looking down the dock I could see Joe Mac, Robbie, and Erin at the tee dock washing the sides of the “Triple Time.” Erin said, “I know what will cheer you up,” and she proudly flashed me her new set of boobs… and it worked.
Some of the people in this story have moved on in other directions, some have left us and passed on, and some of us are still here. I am sure we will all never forget that day or the day at the Captains meeting in Cuba when they rang the bell three times for the Mr. Z.