Friday, September 25, 2020

The Saltwater Cowboys Series Part One

The Sheriff, The Chief, and The Shrimp Boat Smugglers from Marco

The following is the first installment of a series of stories that can never be forgotten. This is the first of the stories from Marco’s not-so-distant past, a time that was colorful, to say the least, but also a part of our history that was running just under the surface during the development of modern Marco Island.

“I can talk about it now,” Frank explained, “My lawyer says it’s okay.”

With the water moving under the docks, and the salty scent of the tide on the rise, Bill Rose’s Marina on Marco Island could not have been a better setting for a down to Earth dialog with a former Southwest Florida smuggler and a real saltwater cowboy.

“What we did was really simple. In the days when it was just marijuana, it was all very friendly. It was like we were in this cool secret club. Everything was like the Wild West and everything was done on the trust of a handshake. It was Marco and Goodland in the early 1980s, but what happened was almost like the old rumrunners during prohibition. We didn’t haul rum from Cuba, we hauled bales of pot from a big island south of Cuba.” Frank winked.

During the dialog, Frank winked whenever he did not want specific names or places mentioned—he winked a lot.

“You have to understand,” Frank was warming up to his subject, “All of this was a long time ago, before the new radar and satellites—this was when it was just cops on the water and pot-hauling saltwater cowboys.

“When we started out,” Frank confessed, “We really didn’t know what we were doing. We knew we needed a boat, and we needed one cheap. None of us knew much about boats, but when we pulled up to the old shrimp boat marina in Fort Myers Beach, we started to learn real fast.”

After Frank and his two cohorts, Jimmy and Pete, started walking through the boatyard, they were approached by the boatyard boss.

All of the shrimp boats were gray wood and faded paint, and as the boys would soon discover, the reason they were out of the water and resting on jack stands was because they were old and just about worn out.

“Can I help you boys,” the Boatyard Boss offered after he noticed the three newcomers who were dressed like tourists on vacation.

“Yeah, we’re looking for a boat,” Frank explained.

“Plan on getting in the shrimping business?”

“Well, sort of,” Frank kicked at the boatyard gravels and looked to Jimmy and Pete. “We want a good boat, but we really don’t want to spend a lot of money. We just need it for a little while.”

“Well,” the Boatyard Boss tucked his thumbs under the straps of his suspenders, “It sounds like you boys need a ‘3’ or a maybe even a ‘4’.”

“A ‘3’ or a ‘4?’ What do you mean?” Frank was the spokesperson, mainly because he had the cash. Jimmy and Pete were along because the whole prospect of what lied ahead sounded exciting and lucrative.

“Well now, boys,” the Boatyard Boss continued, “what you have to understand is that these boats are here because their owners couldn’t pay the bills or the folks that owned them figured they aren’t worth putting any more money into. A ‘3’ means that it will take three bilge pumps running all the time to keep them floating, and a ‘4’ is as bad as they get because nobody will go out in a shrimper that takes five bilge pumps to keep her above the water.”

After Frank looked to Jimmy and Pete he nodded and announced, “We’ll take the best ‘3’ you’ve got.”

After splashing the eighty-foot shrimp boat with the black painted letters on the bow that proclaimed the old veteran as The Sheriff, Frank, Jimmy, and Pete installed five new bilge pumps—just in case—and loaded extra diesel fuel into several 55-gallon drums to be stored on deck. Then the boys cast off the lines at Fort Myers Beach and once aboard and underway, The Sheriff became a vehicle that would launch a Marco Island smuggling career.

“The first time we went,” Frank recalled, “it was blazing hot, July, and as our luck would have it, there was no wind for days and the water was like a swimming pool. We cruised that old boat all the way down through the Gulf and into the Caribbean, and all the way, the clear water was just like a big lake. The old diesel rattled and smoked, but the old ‘Sheriff’ just kept headed south.

“During the day, it was like Africa hot, but at night it would cool down and you could see every star in the heavens. We never stopped, and we never shut down the engine—I think we were all afraid it might not start again—but nobody said anything about that. We cruised over the flat water from daylight till dusk, and dusk until dawn. At times, the old ‘Sheriff’ only needed one pump running to keep up with the leaks.

“We all took turns steering, but a lot of the times we just tied the wheel and sat in the pilothouse reading novels. Jimmy and Pete brought lounge chairs and we all spent a lot of time out on deck working on our tans. We brought some beer, but nobody felt like drinking very much. I guess we were a little nervous and wanted to keep our senses.

“After three days we pulled into, let’s just call it Kingstown Bay,” Frank added with a wink. “Then we tied up at the docks and went into town to find the Chief of Police. Later that night, with the partying sounds of a steel drum band at a nearby waterside nightclub, the Chief of Police and his deputies loaded up the old ‘Sheriff’ with all the bales of pot the Chief thought she could carry.

“None of us really knew how old the motor was, but just before we started to leave the Chief suggested that we had better check the oil. The Chief was right. The old diesel had burned about five quarts.

“Just after we finished fueling and topped off the oil, we all stood on the dock and shook hands with the Chief.

“He smiled as he said, ‘Good luck. Send the money if you make it, and God help you if you get caught.’

“And that’s the way it was,” Frank explained. “When we made it, we sent the money to the Chief’s bank account on a neighboring island. We all knew that if we didn’t make it, the last thing we needed was to think about paying the Chief. The Chief always said, ‘If you get caught, don’t worry about paying me because you’ll have too many other things to worry about.’

“With the next-door nightclub pulsing to the rhythm of steel drums, we cast off the lines and started back. When we waved to the Chief and his deputies and thanked him for the oil, he smiled and shouted, ‘I’m just protecting my investment!’

“The long trek back was a lot more intense than the joyride down, after all, now we were smugglers. Below deck, the Chief and his boys had loaded more bales of pot than we wanted to know about.

“The old ‘Sheriff’ now sat lower in the water and as much as we didn’t want to think about it; it definitely took two bilge pumps running all the time to keep us afloat.

“The first scare we got was when we could see the mountains of Cuba. We knew where we were, but when a green Cuban Patrol boat came out and we saw that red star on the side, we all got worried. Everybody had heard the stories about Castro taking the boat and everybody on board ending up as slaves in the sugarcane fields—and that was just for regular boats and not a shrimp boat from Fort Myers loaded with pot. The Cubans followed us for a while, but Pete swore that we were in international waters and more than twelve miles offshore. I guess Pete was right because after about an hour the Cubans turned back.

After we were on the north side of Cuba and back in the Gulf, we saw two other shrimp boats dragging their nets. They were headed north and right on course, so we lowered our booms and trawls and suddenly became honest to God shrimpers.

“Of course, we had never lowered the nets before because we really did not know how. The other two shrimp boats called us on the marine-band radio and asked if we were having trouble. They also wanted to know if we had any beer, liquor, or cigarettes. 

“Pete did all the talking and explained that there was no trouble, but that, ‘The old Sheriff and all aboard were good church-going folk and didn’t want anything to do with drinking and smoking.’

“That was the thing about Pete,” Frank smiled, “He could always think fast.

“After that one call on the VHF radio, the other ‘Shrimpers’ stayed away and in no time Marco Island was only about ten miles away. When we were just offshore from Cape Romano, we used the radio again. It was just after sunset when we called, but before ten o’clock, we had plenty of company. Jimmy was the Marco and Goodland connection and it wasn’t long before we heard the sounds of outboard motors. Everybody came out at once and there were more boats coming and going than anyone could count. Sam counted though and kept track of all his friends and who took what.

“When the ‘Sheriff’ was unloaded, we swept out below decks and opened some beer. Then, with the lights of Marco in the distance, we lowered the booms and the nets and shrimped all the way back to Fort Myers.

“And, we sent the Chief the money.” 

Of Course, Frank’s name really wasn’t Frank, but he truly was a real Marco Smuggler and a bona fide saltwater cowboy.

Part Two Coming Next Edition…

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