EL TORNEO DEL FUEGO

My first story is probably not the most appropriate. Although the timing is correct, since it is the last and probably most exciting experience I have had in my 18 years as a Captain. My only concern is that someone reading this account may think twice about chartering with me to go fishing in the future. On the other hand, they should feel quite confident that they are traveling with a Captain who is uniquely qualified to handle almost any situation; emergency, weather related, mechanical, and even interpersonal. After all, I do have a degree in psychology and movie production development from Indiana University. Doubt my qualifications? Give me a six pack and I’ll show you!

June 7th, 2003. The Florida Straits. That great river of water known as the Gulf Stream that runs between the Florida Keys and the island of Cuba. As immense as it looks when you are in the middle of it, it is actually a very slight buffer zone between two radically different countries. The U.S. and Cuba have been feuding since the ‘50s like an international Hatfield and McCoys. Many curious boaters have been traveling back and forth since the embargo was placed and have had surprisingly little resistance for many years. My first trip was in 1994. Some friends and I got the wild hare and took a slow boat across the 100 or so miles and weren’t disappointed. It was everything we had heard it was and couldn’t wait to go back. The U.S. authorities seemed irritated each time we came and went, but never went so far as to do anything to stop us. It was always the perennial threat of, “Next time…”

This trip was different however. We were headed for Marina Hemingway to participate in the 54th Annual Hemingway Marlin Tournament. I had never been more prepared or had more reason to get to Habana. My Cuban girlfriend, Yindra, was 6 months pregnant with my first son and I hadn’t seen her for, well, at least 6 months. My boat, Mr. Z, was the longest participating Sportfish boat in the history of the Hemingway Tournament and I felt lucky this year. And, I was in good company this trip.

My first mate, Steve, had fished this tournament several times, knew the players and had all our ducks in a row. The best tackle, bait, rigs, and those secret lures that had produced so well the year before, were packed neatly in Tupperware boxes and stored down in the V-berth. My second mate, Ralph, the drug dealer’s choice for a go-fast boat builder, was along for the ride too. Not particularly fond of Marlin fishing, Ralph is a good guy to have around when you have a problem on the water. He would be there if I needed him and when I didn’t; he always found something in Cuba to occupy his time.

The balance of my crew consisted of four dear friends from New Jersey that I had taken to Cuba several times before. They are a gung-ho group of linemen that never let me take anything too seriously. I know what you are thinking. Four guys from New Jersey? No really, these guys are different. I never heard a single story about a 1,000 pound tuna, or great white shark. They don’t drink constantly, do shower, and I only once heard them refer to a woman as a “broad.” Possibly they are from South Jersey. This trip, they wouldn’t be participating in the tournament and it was entirely my fault. Years before they had fished the Hemingway Tournament with the same goal as every other gringo, to land a giant Blue Marlin in front of Morro Castle just like the Old Man and the Sea did in Hemingway’s famous novel. As each year we fished, more and more of them realized that dream and then became less eager to fish the tournament the following year. It’s human nature. However, their love for everything Cuban had not waned and they were along for this ride too. The remaining members of my crew were two gentlemen from Texas that I had just recently met. Enthusiastic fisherman and adventurers, they were anxious to get underway.

Now, if you were paying close attention, you count 9 persons total. Seems like a lot of players, but consider that we are traveling on a 46 foot Egg Harbor Sport fishing yacht. Built in 1977, back when boats were built with lots of fiberglass and fasteners, the Mr. Z was the finest example of a modern Sport fishing yacht in its day. Full tower, electronics array, fine wood interior, built for comfort in big seas. Oh, and a full complement of safety gear! Of course, we were packed to the seams with the basic staples of any long-range trip. Fuel, food, ice, bait, cigarettes, testosterone… and a few clothes too.

The trip would normally take about 6-7 hours of running time. And we had left the dock in a timely fashion and passed Sand Key lighthouse, seven miles south of Key West, around 7 am. The sun was just coming up; the wind had an easterly flow, so we expected to make the marina about 1 pm. As always, there was a lot of nervous energy that showed itself in various ways. A lot of banter between the crew over fish caught in the past and future conquests. I am always centered on the crossing. The weather forecast haunts me for the few days before hand and sleep is elusive the night before. We don’t mind a little wind, and a north or easterly flow is preferred. Since we run a heading of 210 degrees (slightly west of south) a following/quartering sea is ideal. And that’s exactly what we were experiencing as we crossed the reef and the bottom sounder began to measure in hundred foot increments.

Bright and brisk as the sun rose, I could feel that my sweatshirt wouldn’t be needed in another hour or so. No other boats were visible to the south of me and I knew we would probably see only a freighter or two or a Coast Guard cutter for the entire 100 miles. The engines were wound up smooth. Big-ass, twin-turbo, 8V71 Detroit Diesels, the dinosaurs of marine propulsion. The constant low-end drone was comforting on long trips like being in an old prop driven plane. The thing you don’t want to hear is change…

Hours passed as the feet turned into fathoms. Passengers came and went from the bridge bringing bagels, water, sodas or beers and chatted nervously about the days ahead. I mean, think about it, we’re spending the next week in Habana! Everything you’ve heard about the nightlife is true. Everything you’ve heard about the politics is probably bullshit. A week in Cuba can eat up ordinary white guys like us. This I tried to communicate to my virgin crew. The GPS marked the passing of the halfway point with little fanfare. Nothing but big, blue water everywhere. I had heard some traffic on the VHS radio and was comforted by the short conversation I had had with another sport fishing boat headed out of Key West to Marina Hemingway. The Kilcare 8 was a new 65 foot Hatteras out of Ruskin, Florida. We have been friends with the owners for years and knew that they would be making the crossing at some time during the day. Being newer and faster, the Kilcare 8 would leave an hour after us, and arrive an hour before us. We planned on getting a glimpse of them in the distance as they ate up the water at 28 knots.

On the bridge with me were a couple of the Jersey boys chatting about past visits to the island, but my mind was primarily on the entry procedures into the marina. The Cuban Aduana (Customs) can sometimes be real pricks. You never know what exactly they might be looking for each time. Of course, drugs, guns, passports, and imports are always at the top of any good agents list, but at other times they have been pre-occupied with such items as: satellite TV dishes, VCR’s, microwave ovens, computers, window fans, etc. Seems that anything that uses electricity or can store information may at any time be illegal to bring and will result in a hefty fine. We constantly have to watch our crew for anything, no matter how innocent, that may get us fined. For example, a couple of years ago we entered the marina with a cardboard box full of T-shirts with the logo of the boat stamped on them. Since the shirts were in a box, they were perceived as an import item to the Customs officer and therefore would result in a $500 fine if they were removed from the boat. However, removing the shirts from the box and placing them into a suitcase or on a shelf made them “personal items.” Quick thinking avoided an expensive lesson and this was part of my pre-occupation when I heard the engines slowly decrease in revolutions, idle and die…

As with every crossing to Cuba I feel like a tight rope walker. Of course, I feel responsibility for everything/everyone on board, but I also feel the need to maintain a sense of flow. I am not only the Captain; I am the manager, the coordinator. The emcee, if you will. The flow is maintained by planning everything that can be planned, and anticipating everything else. We plan on having all our supplies for fishing a tournament out of the country. We plan on having proper documentation for ourselves and the boat. When you plan for something, and it happens, you get a feeling of accomplishment. You never plan to use a life jacket, life raft or fire extinguisher. Anticipating has an open ended outcome.

It was one of those surreal experiences that grow out of complete disbelief. Not because of some earth shattering event (not yet anyway), but because to me it was inexplicable. No one else thought about the significance of both engines dying at the same time, but in my mind there was no explanation. I hadn’t planned on that ever happening. This was the reason boats have two engines to begin with. Each engine is a separate unit. Individual fuel tanks, separate electrical, redundant running gear; there’s no way for them both to quit at the same time… But, they had.

Key West Loses an Old FriendAs my mind spun through the few scenarios that might cause this event, my mate Steve appeared out of the salon below and answered my question. “We’ve got a fire down here!” he shouted. Ah, of course, the fire system. Halon. Yep, that would shut ‘em both down at the same time. Not that this was a comforting thought, but it did allow my thought process to move along. As my eyes shifted from focus on the gauges to Steve standing on the back deck, I could see a trail of smoke coming from both exhaust pipes. Thick black smoke. That can’t be good, I thought. At this point, the rest of crew were wandering about, but no one spoke. I suppose everyone’s head was spinning like mine and words were at a loss.

I raced down the ladder and into the salon. Smoke was wafting from the air-conditioning vent which I knew originated in the engine room. Definitely a fire down below. Instinctively, I reached over and turned off the air-conditioner, at the same time realizing what a stupid move that was. Yeah, that’ll put out the fire, dumb-ass. Up came the engine hatch and, yes, we had a fire. Although, for the amount of smoke The Rest of the Tale ...





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