Confessions of a Drunken Coastie, Part 16
Editor’s Note: From 1988 until 1991, Crash Barry — then known as “Egg” — served as a sailor in the U.S. Coast Guard aboard a 210-foot-long ship that patrolled from the Gulf of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. This is the sixteenth of his true stories about fighting the War on Drugs and the War on Haitian Refugees.
“I reckon the reason we all were selected for this mission is because, except for the Boatswain Mate, we’re young, dumb and full of cum,” Staples drawled, then laughed. “We’re friggin’ disposable. The Skipper don’t give a goddamn if this shipwreck is filled with gun-toting drug traffickers ready to blast us all the way to hell.”
The Caribbean’s sparkling turquoise was a warm puddle lapping at our ankles as the five of us stood on a remote coral atoll, craning to rubberneck at the World War II-era Liberty ship TREBISNJICA (a.k.a. Richmond P. Hobson) that ran hard aground on Hogsty Reef during a July storm in 1963. A quarter century later, the 400-foot-long rusted vessel, listing heavily to starboard, was still intact, though doomed to remain stranded in the southern Bahamas, marooned until her seams and welds gave way, collapsing into a heap of scrap, awaiting hurricanes and the surging salty sea to oxidize her into minerals.
Coast Guard Intelligence suspected that Hogsty Reef was being used as a drop zone by Columbian cocaine cartels, whose airplanes supposedly delivered parcels to cigarette boats waiting there to ferry the precious cargo to Florida’s south shore.
Didn’t take long for us to rig a ladder and climb aboard, despite our bulky bulletproof vests, guns, pyro and other safety equipment. No need for stealth, though. The Tumultuous had been on the scene for three hours, circling the banks of the outer reef again and again, before Headquarters ordered us to search the vessel. Since the radar didn’t show any other boats within 25 miles, the Skipper was relatively sure the TREBISNJICAwas empty. Still, to be positive, our five-man boarding team was sent to look for signs of recent occupancy.
“Egg, are you scairt?” Staples asked, as I shifted my grip to clench my M-16. The safety was on, but the weapon was locked, loaded and set for fully automatic.
“No,” I lied. “Are you?”
“Hell yeah.” He nodded his head vigorously. “What if the friggin’ Grim Reaper is hiding, waiting for us?” With a shotgun resting on his left shoulder and his right hand dangling near his 9mm, Staples looked tough, not afraid. “Either on the foc’sle or the fantail. Who the frig knows? Ain’t none of us are trained for this sort of shit.” He shook his head. “Just ’nother sign of how screwed up this War on Drugs is and …”
“Quit your worrying,” said Boatswain Mate Second Class Black. “Nobody is gonna shoot you. If they intended to gun us down, they had plenty of opportunities before we climbed over the gunwale.” He pointed toward the ship’s bow. “We’ll start forward and work our way aft.” He smiled and looked around the rusted wreck. “This is pretty cool,” he said. “Let’s have some fun.”
The stem-to-stern search took a little more than an hour and yielded two clues. Staples discovered a half-eaten, super-sized jar of Jiffy peanut butter and a spoon. Nearby, the BM2 found a month-old copy of the Spanish-language version of the Miami Herald.
“We’ve been ordered to remain on location for at least the next 48 hours,” the First Lieutenant announced to the deck department after evening chow. “I think you fellas are gonna like our new mission.” He paused to clear his throat. “Tomorrow morning, we’ll be forming snorkel teams.”
“Snorkel teams?” BM2 Black asked. “What the hell are snorkel teams?”
Everyone, except the First Louie, laughed.
“We’ve been tasked by Headquarters to perform a visual search of the sea bottom around Hogsty Reef using both the motor surf boat and the rigid-hull inflatable,” the First Lieutenant said. “Each small boat is to be rigged with a pair of tow-lines for two snorklers to hold onto while they keep a sharp eye for anything that looks man-made.”
“Whaddya mean, ‘man-made’?” asked the BM2.
“We’re to be looking for packages of narcotics on the sea floor and …”
“Uh, excuse me, sir,” Staples interrupted. “Are you saying ya’ll need volunteers to be towed around by the small boats looking for cocaine?” He turned to me. “Sometimes I really love my job.” He waved in the First Lieutenant’s face. “Sign me up, sir!”
“Me too,” I said. “That sounds like a blast!”
“Sounds like I’m gonna be trawling with you guys like some sort of giant human lure.” The BM2 grinned. “Bait for sharks and barracuda. You realize that just a mile off the reef the depth drops to 6,000 feet? All sorts of monsters live near here.” He shook his head. “This seems kind of crazy. We’ve always been told that smugglers stash the cocaine in Igloo coolers because they float and won’t get lost. Now they’re sinking the packages? I don’t get it.”
Being towed over and around the beautiful undersea world of Hogsty Reef took my breath away. Literally. Engrossed by the aquatic flora and fauna, I kept forgetting to suckle on the snorkel. Water so clear and blue and warm — felt like I was floating in a dreamy wet universe. Schools of brightly colored fish darted among the vibrant, multi-hued coral, lingering in the wiggling sea weeds and shrubs, hiding from the bigger predators who worked the neighborhood.
Then, on the second day of the search, against all odds, I spotted a cylindrical object sitting on the sandy bottom in about 12 feet of water. I let go of the tow-line, like we’d been instructed, to signal the rest of the team.
“What’s up, Egg?” shouted the BM2 as he took the surf boat out of gear. My snorkel partner, Petty Officer Kilton, swam to where I was treading over my potential treasure.
“Something down there,” I sputtered. “Not sure what.”
Kilton peered underwater in the general direction of my pointing and shook his head. “Where?”
After taking a deep breath, I dove and he followed. At first, I didn’t see anything other than sea life and sand. Had I imagined the object? Then I spotted the cylinder again. I surfaced, but kept my eyes focused on the prize.
“There!” I said to Kilton. “Did you see?”
“Sure did,” he said. “We should be able to get it!”
The BM2 was bringing the surf boat about and talking on the radio, so we both took another deep breath and dove again. It took a couple tries, but Kilton got the thing free of the sand and carried it to the surface.
Sure enough, we’d found a man-made object: a large shell casing, probably for a naval vessel gun similar to the 3-inch/50-caliber canon mounted on the bow of the Tumultuous.
“Hah,” the BM2 laughed as Kilton handed the spent ammo shell up into the surf boat. “Skipper ain’t gonna be happy. He was hoping we found a ton of cocaine.”
Crash Barry’s new book Marijuana Valley is available at most places books are sold. Crash will be appearing at the Jessup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor on July 24. More info and signed books available at marijuanavalley.com.