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…”
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…
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.
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
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